Talking to GM Yuan, Australia’s new #1

December 2, 2008 at 11:49 pm Leave a comment

Early this year Zhao became part of the history of chess when he won two GM tournaments in a row – the first ones he had played in. Nobody, not Fischer, not Kasparov, not the new Norwegian wonderboy had done that. This is how it started….

If we were going to be technical, I guess we’d call him Zhao Zang-Yuan, but we aren’t. I’ve always thought of him as Yuan because that’s he wanted to be called the first day I met him.

That was in 1999. I was making my yearly pilgrimage to the Australian Masters, which used to be held at The Treasury on Collins St – a wonderful venue for a great tournament. One of the competitors was Yuan, then, I believe 12 years old. He was on the road, coming to Melbourne from another tournament and he was well, if not out of his depth, certainly out of his comfort zone.

It is one thing playing a Swiss – however tough it may be at the top, if you lose for long enough you end up at your level, amongst other demoralised souls and you can put the boot in. But the Masters is a strong, invitational round robin. Designed to give top Australians a chance to get norms, and always with some strong o/s guests, there are no easy games.

On top of this he was staying a long way from town and he wasn’t exactly being cared for where he was billeted. As I watched Yuan lose game after game (with a draw or two thrown in) I decided it was time to take on new role for me – mother. My brother was organising the event and I told him that I’d look after Yuan for the rest of it. I was living close to the city, I was going to come in every day to watch, I would cook him Chinese food and, I hoped, he’d start winning some games. My partner kindly agreed to play the father role if need be. Mostly he expected to get good Chinese food too.

So Yuan came around to stay and well, I’d thought the first thing he’d want to do was tuck into some noodles. But there was something even more important than that. First I had to play him chess. I guess I lost maybe 20 games of blitz in a row – ‘…enough Yuan?’ I asked, hoping for the best. ‘No. We start again’ he ordered. Eventually he had won enough. I could stop. This may have been good for Yuan’s career…but I have to say it was the last chess I’ve played!!

What a diligent young man he was. Iin the morning there’d be a phone call to Manuel Weeks who was helping him from Sydney. He’d play his game, come home, analyse and prepare for the next day. With my famous (well, it is now…) soya sauce chicken under his belt and clean socks to wear he did pick up a few wins after that. But although he was definitely a little boy and loved fun, you could see how important the chess was.

I could drive that point home by telling the story of what happened at the Victory dinner which ended the event. Naturally we adults we looking forward to a night of letting our hair down, having a bit of fun and staying up late. But Yuan had other ideas. He had to be in bed, he told us, by 9pm as he had to get up the next morning to go to his third tournie in a row, this time in Sydney. Fortunately Yuan didn’t wear a watch. And here is a confession which I hope Yuan will forgive – certainly it doesn’t appear to have done long term damage to his chess career – we figured we’d tell him it was 8.30 when we thought it was time to go home. ‘No, not yet Yuan, not quite’. I don’t think it even bothered him that if he left at 8.30 he would have missed the Chinese banquet. You see he was at that age where airplane food is actually exciting. Sleeping through b/fast on the plane the next day, now that WOULD have been tragic.

I suspect any number of kids have the talent at that age – but the hard work, the discipline, the ability to take the knocks when they came – those are rare traits and are 99% of what make a top player of any sport, let alone something as painful as chess can be. And Yuan had that in spades, so to speak.

So, I’ve been expecting something special from him ever since and, although he’s been getting better all the time, this year he has finally produced what I’d always thought he was capable of. I guess the question now is what next? Can he keep improving? And at what cost?

I asked Yuan some questions about his chess and his future. Here are his answers.

Am I right in thinking that chess is not going to be your main pursuit in life, that you are going to make a sensible living doing other things and playing chess as it fits in?
To be honest, I am not too sure yet what I mainly want to pursue as a career. I just graduated in pharmacy and I have found a graduate pharmacist position for 2009 so I will be definitely working next year. I have been offered a place at USYD graduate medicine in 2010 but I have yet to decide for sure to take this up as four more years of further study seems a bit daunting at the moment although I would like to pratice medicine rather than pharmacy. It may yet be that chess will be a significant part of my professional life i.e. one possibility being working part time in a pharmacy and part time chess. I think I will know better at the end of next year.

What do you think the best you can do is, at least while you are studying, working and so on. Do you feel like you are at the best point already, or that we can expect even greater things?
If I pursue work and study I think I will peak at around 2600 (so yeah, pretty much at my peak already). If I take up chess part time, I think a 2650 peak is conceivable. If I give up everything for chess (rather unlikely) perhaps I can reach around 2700 but I don’t know exactly. I think chess is very fair, what you give up you gain, if you don’t give anything then you can’t get anything. To be very honest, I am astounded at my own progress in the last year, something just “clicked” for me in chess.

To your fans, of course, your performance in Dresden looks great, but what did you think of it. I very much enjoyed watching your last game. But what happened in round 2, if you will forgive me asking. I suppose this is a game you would have ‘expected’ to win.
Halfway through the tournament, despite my win against Korchnoi I was quite unhappy with my performance. I think it’s fair to say that Korchnoi clearly played below par and I took no great pleasure in beating a man whom I hold in such high esteem. The loss against Topalov was pretty devastating for me since I played awfully (I believe someone commented that it was like watching an Australian weekender rd 1 game, where the 1800 is geting butchered by an IM except that in this case I was clearly the weakling). Of course deep down I found it hard to believe I could hold Topalov with black but the game really wakened me. Also Topalov has a magic aura around him, an air of confidence and invincibility, this rubbed off on me even though I lost against him. I think in round 2 I was far too optimistic, I followed with interest the play of Hector Leyva later on and I think he is quite a bit stronger than his humble 2400 rating. I remember 2 other quite good GM’s also lost to him later on in the tournament. I think I came in with the wrong attitude, I should have simply played solidly and looked for chances but I was too optimistic and was duly punished. I think all credit goes to my opponent. Nevertheless, towards the end I managed to steady the boat and reeled in some catches, finishing with 3.5/4 is always reassuring!

What’s next on the chess front for you?
I’m actually in China playing some club matches in the Chinese League. My team is from Jiangsu and the games should start in 2 days time. However, I believe the games are not transmitted and that the website is only in chinese. In general terms, I always aims to bring a higher level of harmony to my chess play, somehow in chess I see many similarities with say yoga or Tai Chi, whether in attack or defence everything should be done in harmony. I know it sounds a bit abstract but anyway…

Postscript:
A note from Ian: Yuan won his first game in China yesterday too, beating GM Li Shilong, so his great run is continuing.

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Entry filed under: chess 2008 Olympiad. Tags: , , , .

Dresden Chess Olympiad 2008…I ask Ian Rogers some questions. Drug testing in chess and bridge

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