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Kerry Stead

Kerry Stead interviewed by FM Grant Szuveges:

I’m interviewing my Chess Victoria colleague and MCC’s “best in the business” arbiter, Kerry Stead – about chess, life and everything in between!

Hi Kerry,

You are originally from Sydney. When did you move down to Melbourne and why?

I moved down to Melbourne towards the end of 2005. I felt like I needed a change of scenery, as things were becoming a bit stale for me in Sydney. I had actually been looking at moving, but staying in Sydney, but found out that there was a room available in a house in Melbourne with a few guys I knew through chess. I looked into it & liked the idea & some other things fell into place like a job (Crown were hiring & I had experience as a dealer at Star City) & education (I applied & was later accepted to Melbourne Uni for a teaching diploma – I’d started one in Sydney, but the course was at a place that was overly focussed on religion & didn’t suit me at all), so I decided to move to Melbourne!

What do you miss most about Sydney?

Mostly friends & family. I normally get up to Sydney at least a few times a year, mostly around school holidays and/or chess tournaments, so I still see people reasonably often, but perhaps not as often as I would like sometimes.

Can you tell the readers about the main differences between the Melbourne and Sydney chess scenes – what are some of the pros and cons of the scenes in each city?

There’s a lot of differences between Sydney & Melbourne chess ... be prepared for a long answer to this one!

Let’s start with the NSW Chess Association compared to Chess Victoria – NSW has individual membership, so everyone who plays in NSWCA events needs to be a member of the NSWCA. With CV, membership is club-based, so the clubs are members & individuals are members of clubs. The associations also run things differently – CV tends to outsource its events (such as the Victorian Open, Victorian Juniors, etc), whereas the NSWCA runs events (NSW Open, Sydney International, etc) itself. This is further exacerbated by the fact that there is a separate junior league in NSW, the NSWJCL, whereas CV is responsible for both adult & junior chess. The outsourcing of events by CV also applies to junior events, such as school zonals & finals, whereas in NSW, that is all taken care of by the NSWJCL.

Another big difference between chess in Sydney & Melbourne is the chess clubs themselves. In Melbourne, they are basically self-funded, whether they are a stand-alone premises like MCC, a shared hall like BHCC, part of a community building like NPCC or some other setup. In Sydney, almost all chess clubs are run within an umbrella club like a leagues club or RSL club, who derive a significant proportion of their profits from ‘pokies’ & gambling machines in the clubs. There is a law in NSW that says that these clubs must reinvest a percentage of that profit back into the community & this is where chess clubs in Sydney come into the picture. They are run at these clubs & receive some level of funding from the club (as part of the club’s ‘community contribution’) to run things. This leads to a number of differences between chess in Sydney & Melbourne. The first is the cost of membership to a club. In Sydney, because of the funding that the chess clubs get from their ‘host’ club, membership is generally some token amount (standard when I was in Sydney was $10/year), whereas membership in Melbourne, being self-funded, is much higher (anywhere from about $80-160/year depending on the club). However there is also an additional cost in Sydney to be a member of the NSWCA, which is around $50/year & this is required for NSWCA-run events, like most weekenders & the ‘Grade matches’ (Sydney’s main interclub event).

Related to this, events at clubs tend to be much different. In Melbourne, club events tend to have an entry fee & cash prizes, whereas club events in Sydney are often free or have a minimal cost & often have trophies as prizes. Because of this, there is a flow-on effect on who tends to play these events. In Melbourne, its not uncommon to see a few 2200+ players in club events, and in bigger events like the MCC Championships, someone rated around 2000 would probably not be in the top 10 seeds for the event. In Sydney, there’s hardly any 2000+ players who play chess, as it tends to be played only by those who really want to play chess & are not concerned about incentives (so there are a few 2000+ players, but they are rare) & prize money. This also translates to weekend events, with Sydney weekend events being where the top players can play for prize money, so you will often find lots of 2000+ players playing, whereas in Melbourne playing for prize money does not have the same novelty factor, so it’s more about people having time to play, so the number of high-rated players participating in events varies a lot more from event to event.

There are also other differences between Sydney & Melbourne, such as coaching in schools, which is much more prevalent & competitive in Melbourne. Another difference would be ‘public’ chess, with Sydney having a giant chess set in Hyde Park (right next to the CBD), which often gets 50+ people during lunch hour, with people playing or watching the game on the big board, or playing on their own sets on the benches nearby. There’s nothing like this in Melbourne (at least on such a regular basis), although Melbourne does have the Anderson collection at the State Library & you can often find people playing games & looking at books there.

As for the pros & cons of each system, they again vary a lot based on the different setup of the clubs. Access to chess in clubs is easier in Melbourne, with clubs like MCC & Box Hill being open multiple times per week, whereas Sydney clubs tend to fall into the ‘one night per week’ category. From a financial perspective, chess is much cheaper in Sydney, as the costs of playing at a club are much lower (because of the host club funding). Related to this, club chess is much more competitive & serious in Melbourne, although there are also avenues for social chess at clubs as well. Weekenders tend to be better in Sydney, because that’s when the strong players tend to play, whereas weekenders in Melbourne vary depending on the venue, organisation, timing & the like. Junior chess has pros & cons with both systems, but if the quality of young players being produced is the way to differentiate, then Melbourne seems to be leading the way at present, although that may just be the typical cycle that junior chess often goes through, with it just being fortunate that Melbourne has a number of strong juniors improving at the same time.

You are someone who gives a lot back to chess, through your work with CV and as an arbiter at MCC – you obviously enjoy it! What are some of the more rewarding things about running a tournament rather than playing in one? Its quite a different experience!

I suppose it becomes more of a big picture thing. It’s not about how you do individually, as it might be if you were playing in a tournament. Rather, the reward comes from having people comment that things were well run, or that you solved some sort of issue without much hassle. In many ways you still get the same social experience of a chess tournament, but without the stress of having to play chess!

What is your advice to anyone wanting to be an arbiter in the future? What sort of person makes a good arbiter?

I’m still looking for more advice myself! I’ve only just applied for the FA title, so I’ve still got a long way to go! As for what sort of person makes a good arbiter, someone who is able to deal with people & resolve issues in a calm, reasoned manner. Another quality that is useful is being able to spot issues or potential problems and try to fix them before they become serious.

What has been your favourite event as an arbiter so far?

In that regard, my answer as an arbiter would be the same as if I was playing in the event – the Doeberl Cup – without doubt the best tournament in the country!

Besides chess, what else do you do? I know you work part time as a school teacher – but what else do you do away from work?

At the moment, most of my time is taken up with chess. Apart from arbiting, I’ve recently got back into chess coaching, which is something I enjoy doing. I also play poker from time to time & have had some success with it in the past (and hopefully more in the future!). I like to watch motorsport (particularly V8 supercars & Formula 1), UFC, tennis & other sports. I’ve also got a pretty big DVD collection, which I’m trying to work my way through ...

I also know that you are right into your fantasy sport (AFL dreamteam, supercoach etc). I think that chess players have a bit of an advantage in those sorts of games? What are your thoughts?

These types of games all involve some sort of strategy, so you’d expect chess players (who typically think strategically during games) would have some sort of advantage in that regard. Of course being someone who has only been in Melbourne for 6 or so years, any gains I might have with my strategical knowledge is counter balanced by my lack of AFL knowledge, though I am trying to get used to it ...

The same can be said for other games, with the most popular at the moment being poker, where a number of chess players have made successful transitions (James Obst being the big Australian example, while people such as Ylon Schwartz & Dan Harrington are amongst the most well known chess-to-poker converts in the USA).

And finally, what are your plans for the future? Lets hope that you are still involved at MCC!

Chess-wise I’d like to find a way to get my FIDE rating back over 2100 – it seems to be getting tougher all the time though! I’d also like to continue with arbiting & perhaps achieve the IA title one day. I’d also consider something in terms of tournament organisation, but I know that’s generally slightly below the level of arbiter in terms of player appreciation.

Outside of chess, I’d like to travel more – I have loved my trips to America & England in the past & would like to return there in the future. I’d also like to find a teaching job that I really enjoyed, although it’s not something that is easy to find!

Ultimately though, I suppose it’s about the journey of life & the quest for happiness ... and wherever that takes you.