A golden GM-norm opportunity in Melbourne
It's this time of the year in Amsterdam - when the temperature hovers around zero during both day and night, when the wind slices your face as you cycle through the horizontal, unforgiving rain - that I start my annual pine for Australia. Fortunately, I've only got two weeks to wait until I head back for the Australian Open, but I have to say I'd really prefer to be in Melbourne today.
This is not only because it's my favourite city in the world, and not only because this is my favourite time of the year to be there - and, even, not only because Melbourne has recently been voted the world's most liveable city for the fourth time. No, this time it's because I'm very interested in checking out the Australian Masters GM Norm tournament, which begins tomorrow.
Grandmaster norm opportunities are few and far between for Australians. We only have three active grandmasters in the country (two, if you consider me an expatriate), but a huge range of talent at the International Master level. So what gives? Well, there are simply very few tournaments in Australia that fulfil the requirements for a Grandmaster norm, and those that do are realistically implausible on account of being large open events. Generally, Aussies have no choice but to try their luck overseas, typically in Europe, and that isn't cheap. I basically lived on a shoestring while norm-hunting in Europe in 2007; believe me, a regular diet of canned tuna and rice gets a bit tiresome after a while.
That's why I'm very happy to see that a targeted GM norm event is happening in Melbourne. The ten-player round-robin format is ideal for norm-hunters, and the three invited, foreign GMs are also the 'right' sort for such events: not unbeatable for IMs, but having high enough ratings to keep the required norm scores reasonable. Of course, 'theoretically beatable' is quite another matter to beating a GM in practice...
My three compatriots from the Olympiad are at the top of the race of the norm-chasers. Max's rating has exploded so far that he's actually the third seed, ahead of Kazakhstan GM Rustam Khusnutdinov. Joining them are IM Bobby Cheng, Kiwi FM Luke Li and the not-for-long-untitled Karl Zelesco. In short, it's a very impressive talent pool, and I don't envy the poor grandmasters' task of preserving ELO on their trip down under. The candidates all need 6.5 points from the nine games, with the exception of 'poor' Max - his high rating means he'll need an extra half point to grab a norm. On the plus side for him, he's the only player who will manage to avoid playing against the dreaded Max, I suppose.
It's hard to guess how likely a norm is to emerge - there's a poll at Australia's 'Chess Chat' forum, but it only answers who is most likely to win the event, which is not so informative. Max is surely favourite to be the best-placed Aussie, but the requirement for him to score seven points means that probably one of the others is slightly more likely to score a norm. This morning it occurred to me that five candidates could theoretically score GM norms, while my far-cleverer-than-I girlfriend pointed out that even six norms are possible, if we exclude Max. I think most of the Australian chess community would be happy even with one, but we'll see.
The tournament's being run by Aussie IM Leonid Sandler, who has managed to pull off what so many organisers have tried before. He's also running an IM-norm event alongside the champagne tournament; all games are apparently going to be streamed on the Box Hill chess club website. That means anyone can watch it from anywhere in the world, be it Auckland, Angola or chilly Amsterdam. Convenient, but I'd still rather be watching with a flat white in my hand from a cafe in Melbourne. Soon.