More art than science

Julian Kuan gets into a bit of a zugzwang with Australian Chess Champion and grandmaster Max Illingworth.

For most people who inhabit the world of chess, the game is a hobby, not a lifestyle. It doesn’t much matter whether you win or lose, especially since most people are a little bit hazy on how exactly the knight moves, let alone the subtleties and specifics of chess strategy. But for 21-year-old Max Illingworth, chess is more than just a game. It’s even more than a passion. It’s his job.

Illingworth’s love affair with chess began early. First introduced to chess as a six-year-old while on a family holiday in Vienna, Illingworth found himself immediately drawn to the game. “I was just really intrigued,” he says. It was a time when games of all kinds featured in Illingworth’s life – he used to play against his parents and would often win. But chess presented a new opportunity. “I liked the idea of playing this game, the challenge of it appealed to me,” he says.

After playing his first state junior tournament at age eight, Illingworth racked up success after success at the chessboard while still at high school. Particular highlights of his teenage career were a win in the 2007 NSW Under-18 championship and a third place finish in the 2009 Commonwealth Championship. After graduating from Manly High School in 2010, Illingworth spent a year further developing his game, scoring a spectacular victory in a Grandmaster tournament held in Budapest.

Despite the promise that a future in chess seemed to hold, Illingworth briefly flirted with a more conventional path, taking up a Bachelor of Economics at Sydney University before dropping out halfway through the first semester. He believes this short sojourn away from the game helped clarify the actual path he wished to take. “It wasn’t until I went to university that I really decided that I wanted to be a chess professional. I thought that I’d try a few other things and see if they appeal to me, and I quite quickly realised that chess was it. It was what I really loved doing.”

Though Illingworth isn’t Australia’s first chess professional – an honour that likely belongs to Grandmaster Ian Rogers – he faces many of the same risks pioneering entrepreneurs in any field do: namely, income uncertainty and the lack of a typical career path. However, Illingworth is unconcerned.

“[Dropping out of university was] a risky move in a way, but I felt that if it didn’t work out I could go back to something more conventional. In any case, I would have given what was my dream a go. It’s worked out quite well so far.”

“Worked out well so far” is something of an understatement. Despite the humble nature in which he describes his success, Illingworth is the reigning Australian Champion, winning the title tournament held in Melbourne in January of this year. In this tournament Max had an undistinguished start, but managed to catch a second wind and won the title by a mere half a point.

Interestingly enough, Max attributes this sudden increase in form to abandoning his usual workaholic ways for a more relaxed approach to the game.

“I took myself away from just being solely focussed on the tournament and tried to have a more balanced approach. That helped a lot,” he says. Illingworth’s more relaxed approach to match preparation was also complemented by romance. “I think one thing that did help was that I did meet my girlfriend at this tournament,” he says, adding that she helped him to regain his composure after his bad start.

There aren’t enough tournaments on the Australian chess circuit for even the strongest player to make a living, so Illingworth supplements his tournament winnings by teaching and writing. The eclectic range of chess related activities Max is involved in doesn’t seem to bother him – if anything, Max seems to like coaching more than playing.

“Seeing one of my students have a good result makes me very happy,” he says. “Or even if my students see something [new]; if they have a development in their game that shows in the next game that they play, it’s very rewarding.”

However, the need to juggle coaching and playing commitments can lead to hectic schedules. For example, the day that the Australian Championships had concluded in Victoria, Max had to rush back to Sydney to coach some of his students in the Australian Junior Championships starting the following day.

Despite his busy workload, Illingworth says there are plenty of perks to being a professional chess player. “The most interesting part would be the travel element,” he says, something that becomes even more apparent when I discover Illingworth is speaking to me from Tromsø, Norway, where he is representing Australia in the World Chess Olympiad. Illingworth is upbeat about his team’s chances, despite it being one of the youngest teams Australia has ever fielded. “I think Australia, especially if we have a good finish, can definitely finish high up in the standings,” he says.

Perhaps a little bit cheekily, considering that Illingworth has devoted his life to chess, I ask him why the modern university student should risk the ‘nerd’ stereotype and take it up. His simple answer encapsulates his feelings towards the game. “I think that the main reason, the best reason for picking up chess, is because you enjoy it,” he says.

Well and truly struck with chess by age eight, Illingworth mentions that his love of the game grew as his skill accumulated. “I guess also as I became stronger at chess over time I appreciated the beauty of the game more and more.”

However, Illingworth thinks chess has value beyond entertainment, attributes that set the game apart from other hobbies, something he says sets it apart from other hobbies.

 “I think that one thing that chess offers that other pursuits don’t is an intellectual stimulation,” he says. “Somehow, when you play chess, you look at things from a different sort of angle to other people, because of the nature of the struggle.”

Illustration by Madeleine Pfull.