Monthly Archives: June 2008

If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving isn’t for you.

There’s an interesting academic paper that analyzes the entry and exit decisions in individual games, specifically with regards to chess. (H/t to Dima for pointing this out to me).

The Working Paper, titled “The Stairways to Heaven: A Model of Career Choice in Sports and Games, with an Application to Chess”, is available for download at:

The paper starts off with a quote from GM Alexander Moiseenko: “‘The economy is a key factor in the Ukrainian chess boom. Playing chess is a prestigious occupation and you can earn money with it. Additionally, you travel around the world. So, a professional chess player has respect, unlike in Europe or the USA. By our standards, chess is a good career.’ (Grandmaster Alexander Moiseenko in a interview).”

This rings true with what I have experienced. If I remember correctly, GM Lev Psakhis told me a story of his from waiting to check in at an airport in the US. The ticket agent asked him what he did for a living and he replied, “I’m a chess player.” He got a smile in return and “That’s nice, but what do you do for a living?”

The paper models entry and exit based on three general factors: relative income attractiveness and two measures of training costs. The relative income is gauged by taking the ratio of the average professional chessplayer’s yearly income to the average annual income in the country of study.

Although I find the average chessplayer’s income assumed here ($90,000 per year, in constant 2005 dollars) to be a bit overly optimistic, the compiled metrics still paint a clear picture of the usual distribution of top players in the world. The following table is taken directly from the paper (Table 3): R/Y is the relative income ratio (R = $90,000 for chessplayers, Y = avg annual income); WEB is the number of internet users per 1000 people (higher the WEB metric, the lower the training cost); TR is the number of FIDE-recognized tournaments (higher the TR, the lower the training cost).

Table 3

The following passage from the paper describes some of the results: “Maximum likelihood estimates provide the following answer: players from Russia and its neighbors included in our data set are not particularly more talented, at least compared to European and American players, but face substantially lower training costs, mainly because of their lower opportunity value of time. The underlying differences in the alternative value of time can also explain the different patterns of selection occurring in our data: since players from richer countries have more and better alternative opportunities to chess – and higher training costs relative to earnings – the observed proportion of talented players in our censored data set is likely to be higher in these countries than among low income countries and the countries of the ex-Warsaw Pact.”

Looking at the list of previous Samford winners (Joel Benjamin, Maxim Dlugy, Patrick Wolff, Alex Fishbein, Ilya Gurevich, Alex Sherzer, Ben Finegold, Gata Kamsky, Josh Waitzkin, Tal Shaked, Boris Kreiman, Dean Ippolito, Gregory Shahade, Michael Mulyar, Eugene Perelshteyn, Varuzhan Akobian, Dmitry Schneider, Rusudan Goletiani, Hikaru Nakamura, David Pruess, and Josh Friedel), there are definitely many strong players and former US Champions, but not so many people who kept playing professionally (and those who remained in chess often did so as teachers).


Chess Lecture and Exhibition in Los Gatos

Yesterday afternoon, I made a trip down to Los Gatos to give a short lecture and simultaneous exhibition at Fisher Middle School in Los Gatos. An old acquaintance from the Kolty Chess Club, Jon Frankle, had emailed me asking if I could make it down one Tuesday for the after-school chess class he leads. The ages of the kids in his class generally range from those in 2nd to 9th grade.

The game I presented was Bhat – Ramoneda, from Balaguer 2007. It was a nice attacking effort, and the game was over after only 17 moves when Black resigned. It started a 5-game winning streak that carried me through to my last GM norm. The game can be replayed here, via Chess Publisher.

After the lecture, I answered a few questions from the audience and then played all comers in a simultaneous exhibition. I do simuls a little differently than most chess players, allowing them to pick which color they prefer to have (normally, the person giving the simul takes white on every board). As it was, there were about 20 people playing (mostly the kids, but one adult) and the games were about evenly split between me having the white pieces or the black pieces.

My highest rated opponent in the simul was Steven Zierk, a high-rated expert in the 9th grade who has won big money at the World Open in Philadelphia on two occasions. I had the white pieces and the opening resolved itself in my favor, but in the late middlegame, I struggled to find a plan while thinking for 5 seconds and I let my entire advantage (and then some) slip away in the transition to the Bishop vs. Knight endgame. However, I hoodwinked Steven in that endgame, sacrificing my bishop for his far-advanced pawn, while getting two passed pawns of my own on the other side of the board. This game can be replayed here.

I won all the games but one, losing to Sudarshan Seshadri. I had the black pieces in this one and played extremely speculatively in the opening, sacrificing a pawn for nebulous compensation. I then decided to throw a second pawn into the fire, and after a couple big mistakes, I managed to escape into a fair endgame. However, I then blundered the King and Pawn endgame away. Kudos to Sudarshan for the good endgame technique and putting a point on the board. That game can be relayed here.

Funnily enough, both games were essentially decided by a single tempo at the end! Switch the move to the other player, and both games would have ended in a draw.

Afterwards, I was treated to a dinner at Dio Deka, a fine dining Hellenic cuisine restaurant in Los Gatos. It was somewhat surprising to find such a hotel and restaurant in Los Gatos (I can’t remember such a nice hotel and restaurant in the West San Jose/Cupertino area where I grew up), but the food was excellent.

Here are a few photos from the event:

Start of the Simul Middlegame against Zierk

Making the Rounds Making the Rounds, again

NBA Finals – It’s Like Déjà Vu All Over Again

The NBA finals start tonight, with the Lakers playing in Boston. I’d love to see the Celtics win it all (especially for Pierce and KG), but I have a feeling that as the best player around right now, Kobe is going to go nuts and carry the Lakers forward. And despite statistical evidence to the contrary, I’ll say Lakers in 6.

The stats are from me playing around with R again, which I used to use a lot at UC Berkeley. Essentially I took the teams’ won/loss records at home and on the road this season and ran a bunch of finals simulations. The records incorporate the playoffs up to this point, so Boston has a home record of 45-7 so far this year. LA has a home record of 38-11. Meanwhile, on the road, Boston has a record of 33-17 (that’s after a stellar 31-10 during the regular season) while LA has a record of 31-16. Using those home/road splits, the simulation plays out a 10,000 7-game series and has the most likely result being a Boston win in 6 games. The most likely win for the Lakers, though, also occurs in 6 games.

Of course, the Lakers team improved dramatically after they traded for Pau Gasol at the start of February 2008, so maybe their record in the Post-Gasol era should be considered. That brings them to 21-4 at home and 18-7 on the road. Now the simulation predicts a slightly tighter series, with Boston expected to win in 7 games. In terms of an LA victory, the Lakers seem to win in 5 games just as often as they win in 6 now.

Essentially, home-court advantage is the difference maker there. Despite the Celtics playoff road woes (which they partially shook against Detroit), the 4 home games gives them a nice cushion.

My thoughts were that the Lakers would take on game in Boston, then take 2 of 3 at home, and Kobe would finish things off in game 6 in Boston.

Funnily enough, the simulation picked the Lakers in 5 over the Spurs by a hair (Lakers in 7 followed, and then Spurs in 6 were the next most likely hypothetical results), which was precisely how the series ended.

Anyways, enough talk – I normally root for Batman, but here’s to hoping that Joker’s are wild:

Update: Celtics won game 1 quite nicely! Kobe never really seemed to get into the flow of things, especially in the 4th quarter where he was somehow held silent. I’ll stick with the Lakers in 6, but now I’m hoping my gut was right and that the Celtics win it all.