Bisik-bisik with GM Daniel Fernandez

by Edwin Lam
5/15/2019 – In Malay "Bisik-bisik" means whispering privately but candidly about a certain topic, and this is what Edwin Lam did with GM Daniel Fernandez. Fernandez, who regularly annotates games for ChessBase, was born in England, lived in Singapore as a junior, has a mathematics degree from Cambridge, England, speaks several languages and currently studies in Australia. | Photo: Daniel Fernandez at the Sydney International Open 2019 | Photo: Helen Milligan

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An Interview with Daniel Fernandez

GM Daniel Fernandez is an ex-child chess prodigy with whom I got acquainted about ten years ago when I first moved from Malaysia to Singapore for work. I was at that time working full-time at Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) regional headquarters and on Sundays I would occasionally join Mr. Watson Tay’s chess gatherings at the Serangoon North Community Club where the then teenagers Daniel Fernandez, Andre Eng and Benjamin Foo would gather to play and train.  

Fast-forwarding to ten years later, I’ve now left Singapore after close to eight years there. And, then FM Daniel Fernandez has become a GM. He has also moved back to England, given up his residency status in Singapore, changed chess federations and graduated from Cambridge University. He has become a columnist at ChessBase.com, where we’ve had the pleasure of reading his annotations of top GM games from all around the world.

I bumped into Daniel recently at the Macquarie University’s Chess Festival in Sydney, incorporating the 2019 Sydney International Open. And, to my delight, this young man has now relocated back to Asia-Pacific. He was based in Bangalore briefly before moving to Sydney at the beginning of this year. What is he up to now? What brought this global citizen back to this part of the world? Let us hear him out in this first-ever exclusive and extensive interview as he fills us in on his chess journey from the age of seven till now.

Edwin Lam: GM, great seeing you here in Sydney. And, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I am sure there are many chess fans out there who are keen to get to know the man behind the annotations of top GM games at ChessBase.com. First-up, let me ask you as to what age did you pick up the game of chess? Who taught you the rules of the game?

Daniel Fernandez: Thank you for having me on the Bisik-Bisik interview series on Chessbase.com. I started playing chess at age seven. My father taught me the rules and would sometimes play with me after he finished work. When my interest became more than casual, he drove me to a junior club called Little Heath, just north of the London orbital motorway, to help me nurture it further. 

You were living in England at that time, then? Were there formal coaching lessons given at the Little Heath club?

Yes, I was, from ages seven through nine. The Little Heath program was good in that it was structured, but not really commercialized. I stayed with them for most of my time in England- until I moved back to Singapore. One of the club players who often coached there, Mark Uniacke (who worked extensively on the early chess engine HIARCS) also gave me private lessons. 

A key highlight of your junior career was your victory at the British Under-9 Championships. Tell us a bit more about other achievements in those years.

To be really honest (chuckle), I think that junior chess championships have more to do with chance than anything else – at least, for any competitions below the age of 16. There were undoubtedly players more talented than myself among the British Under-9's in the year of 2004, but I happened to make the fewest stupid mistakes on one particular weekend and that was how it happened... A curious historical note is that I became the Singapore Under-9 champion in the same year of 2004 in the month of June, just before winning the tournament of the same age-group in Britain. In the Singapore event I scored 9/9, although I was completely lost against my future good friend, Andre Eng. Besides myself and him, there were obviously other strong players in the same age-group as well as in the two immediately above, so clearly I’d have to 'up my game' in the new country. In September 2004 I moved to Singapore for good, and with the close geographical proximity of, well, everything there I would meet those other players multiple times each month, either in training or in tournaments.

Impressive stuff! 9/9 and 1st place in the Singapore Under-9 championships followed by another 1st place in the same year at the British junior championships. This was followed in 2005, by your triumph at the ASEAN Boys Under-10 championships, which netted you the FM title. Seemed like there was no stopping you at all!

This win was big for me at the time, as it would have been for any ten-year old. But in retrospect, I absolutely did not deserve the FM title at that point. I lost to the only other rated player in that event, Jordan Yap – also from Singapore and who would later become a classmate in the Anglo-Chinese School – and so my performance was around 1300. My rating would not cross 2300 until a full five years later. The award of the FM title for the younger categories as well as the IM title in the Under-20 section of the ASEAN tournaments was a recognition of the region's ability at political games, rather than its prowess over-the-board!

Daniel with IM Jovan Petronic during the 2010 world juniors in Chotowa, Poland | Photo: Diana Mihajlova

IM Jovan Petronic mentioned that he has coached you before. Was he your only coach throughout the time you were based in Singapore?

I worked with numerous coaches during my time in Singapore. The first of any significant duration was the exceptionally creative Armenian IM Ashot Nadanian, with whom I worked for just over a year following the above-mentioned tournament. However, after the following year's ASEAN tournament, I was introduced to a new coach by local Singapore chess personality, Mr. Watson Tay. This was Boris Alterman, a Ukrainian-Israeli GM who left me with a deep respect for European, single-round-day opens, often in little-known towns. A good example was the Lasker Memorial in Barlinek in 2007, where all my games ended in Black wins.

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I worked with Boris online from 2006 to 2009. We, then, parted on good terms when it became clear to me that face-to-face coaching was necessary. It was then that Jovan and I began working together, and it was due to him that I was able to become an IM relatively quickly. We are still in touch. He lives in Belgrade, which is absolutely one of my favourite cities in the world.

Obviously, there are other figures that I could mention. This is mostly because almost all junior chess training in Singapore in those days were handled by a quasi-official academy called the ASEAN Chess Academy and they had many coaches on their books including Nadanian and later Petronic, of which some might teach in my school and others might teach weekend classes that I would occasionally attend. 

On the outer orbit of this structure was the extremely strong Georgian Grandmaster and current ECU president, Zurab Azmaiparashvili, who was heavily involved in Singapore chess in those years due to family ties to the country. He made frequent visits to Singapore, giving private and group lessons each time, and we developed a good relationship. He wasn't my main coach at any time- though he was the main coach of some Singapore players, like IM R. Shanmugam for instance. I did work with him, though, and he allowed me to proofread an edition of his book. When we met again in Batumi in 2018, he helped me take a good photograph for the cover of my book.

You moved back to England at the start of this decade. Can you share with us a bit more on the reason or reasons for the move and what triggered you to also change your chess federation from Singapore to England? 

One of the reasons for the move was that I wanted to attend a British university. With the quota systems that are in place, it is substantially easier to do this as a local student than one from Singapore. I could do this since my mother is British and I am a citizen there. I was also a Singapore permanent resident for most of my childhood. Actually, this status remained even some time after my move back to England, and the original intention when I left in June 2011 was to come back to perform military service in Singapore after completing my studies in Britain…

At some stage early on in my A-levels, it became clear to me that I wanted to apply to study Mathematics at Cambridge. The A-level course was proving enjoyable and I wanted to attend the same university as my parents. Additionally, I thought a career in academia was appealing and best unbroken once begun.

With that goal in mind, I surrendered my legal status in Singapore and applied myself to the A-level programmes in the Manchester Grammar School, eventually getting admitted to Cambridge to study the university degree which I wanted. As with almost everything which we idolise in our minds, once I was firmly settled in Cambridge and doing difficult mathematics every day, it was perhaps not as enjoyable as I had hoped!

I changed my federation to England soon after commencing the degree in Cambridge… sometime in September 2014, as the final step in clarifying my allegiance. Of course, I currently study in Australia, and wouldn't rule out working here either, but I can't easily see myself ceasing to be a British citizen.

You seemed to have a love for languages having mastered Croatian, English, Mandarin and Spanish. Which one came first? And, how did you end up picking up the other languages? 

English is my native language. However, I was also exposed to Mandarin from an early age, since I lived in Singapore from ages 0 to 7 as well as from 9 to 16. Saying I have mastery of it would be misleading, since I have largely forgotten how to write in the intervening 8 years, but the language continues to inform my identity and the way I think.

There are three main ethnic groups in Singapore: Chinese, Malay and Indian. My father is a Singapore citizen of Indian extraction, but his ancestral language, Malayalam, is not one of the scheduled ones that can be taken as a second language subject in Singapore schools. Furthermore, the situation is complicated by the fact that if you look three generations back from him, the Indian part of my ancestry is traceable to Portugal, which once had significant colonial possessions along the west coast of India. So, the best option was for me to forget all that and take Mandarin as my second language!

When I moved to England, it was less easy to forget my family history: everyone thought I must be of Spanish origin due to my surname. In fact, the Portuguese invariably spell the related name with an “-s” instead of “-z”, so even explaining the full story above wouldn't get me off the hook! A clerical error, lost in the mists of time, but with ramifications even today. The frequency with which this occurred meant that I felt obliged to learn Spanish, which I did. Spanish is easily my favourite language to speak, and is the foreign language in which I'm most fluent today.

From around 2014 onwards, I began enjoying playing chess in Eastern Europe: mostly Hungary and Serbia; but, also the Czech Republic, Croatia and others. I quickly got a basic grip on the politics of the region and figured that learning Croatian was my best bet for communication, since using the language is usually not resented in other Slavic nations. There is some irony in the fact that since 2014, Croatia has joined the EU and Britain has voted to leave it.

Daniel with his team OSK Paracin at the Serbian Team Championships 2017, where he became a GM.  Seen in front (left-to-right) are Stefan Mladenovic, Dejan Brankovic, Daniel and Suat Atalik. In the back row (left-to-right) are Milan Desselin, Nenad Dimitrijevic, Sasa Jevtic, Matija Ivic and Uros Cvetanovic | Photo Sasa Jevtic)

After completing your degree at Cambridge in the year 2017, I heard that you went into time series analysis. But, your Linkedin profile indicated your attachment with Mu Sigma Inc, a 3500-strong Indian management consulting firm. And, you know programming languages (R and python) too, right? Perhaps, you can share with us what have you been up to and where have you been during your "gap year" post university? 

Straight after I graduated from Cambridge, my top priority was getting the GM title sorted. At that stage I was rated 2481 with all three norms. This took about three months, even though at the time it seemed like forever and like every obstacle was insurmountable. I had it easy compared to some other players. Consider England's James Adair, who made his third norm in 2016 but still needs rating points. Or Australia's George Xie, who scored his third norm in the 2010 Doeberl Cup, and might have been close on rating as well, but then suffered a protracted poor run of form and lost many points. He played in the SIO 2019, though, so maybe he's trying to get back.

After doing that, I did an internship at Mu Sigma, where my role was in statistical analysis of time series using R. I was hoping that in early 2018, I would either get a job with their American office, or else be accepted into Stanford to do a Masters. By March 2018 it seemed that both plans had fallen through. At that point I decided to wrap up the chess book I was writing (Editor’s Note: The Modernized Caro-Kann, for Thinkers Publishing) and begin a broader round of Masters applications, while trying to play some tournaments, knowing that this would likely be my best chance to play intensively.

Daniel Fernandez finishing third at an open tournament in Paracin | Photo: Sasa Jevtic

And, this year, you are back at school, studying at the University of Sydney. What are you currently working on? Would you mind sharing with us?

The Master of Complex Systems degree in Sydney was one of those applications I made in early 2018 and I was very happy to be accepted in June that year; the next step was clear. Complex Systems is a field within computer science that deals with the interaction of large collections of items which are individually quite simple in structure and behaviour, but which do interesting things at scale. For instance, a power distribution network, or a swarm of fireflies. The course is new for Sydney, having run for only 2 years, and even internationally it is only recently that we've had the mathematics and the computing resources to study systems such as these in meaningful ways. 

Right now, the main project I am working on which occupies half of my workload is the simulation of a society featuring social credit scores, such as the one that just started operations in China, or the one carried to its logical, dystopian extreme in Nosedive (Black Mirror, season 3, episode 1!) I think the societal consequences of these scores such as segregation, mathematically inescapable poverty cycles and shrinking social circles are not very well understood, and the challenges posed rival those of global warming or social media in terms of defining the first half of the 21st century.

Your gained two of your IM norms from the Sydney International Open (SIO) towards the end of the last decade. How was it like to be back in Sydney this time around for the Macquarie Chess Festival, incorporating the revived Sydney International Open (SIO) 2019?

As mentioned in my own report, there was a distinct sense of déjà vu about it for me. I liked the new venue better than the old one, but also do think they could have done more to attract a better calibre of players. For instance, the multiple GMs who played at the Doeberl Cup but almost all of whom were absent from this tournament. From my knowledge, the organisers were not offering good conditions. A much stronger tournament could have been ensured by reducing the prize fund by 25% and using that money on conditions for more players.

Were you happy with your overall results at the SIO 2019? I mean fourth place behind Kunte (3rd place, top seed), Padmini Rout (2nd place) and of course the man of the moment, FM Raymond Song (1st place), with just 0.5 points separating you from the winner, is a good result. Raymond was clearly on song, bar that blip he had against Kunte.

The games always tell a more interesting story than the results. I think it is undeniable that Raymond played the best chess in the event. He beat his co-winner and I was lucky to escape with a draw. Saying that, however, I think both Junta Ikeda and myself have good reasons to be slightly annoyed at finishing with the numbers of points that we did. 

It bears mentioning that the organisers were willing to order a second, third place trophy, for me since I only missed it on a tiebreak that, in turn, only ended up that way because of a mistake they made relating to my win by default in the first round. But I'm one of those people who simply doesn't like taking a trophy that doesn't say '1st' on it; I have been known to simply hand them back to the organiser and ask them to change the year and use it next time! In my opinion, trophies aren’t necessary in adult events which aren't official unlike the Olympiads!

Thank you, GM for your time in doing this interview. I hope to see you competing more often in the Australian as well as Asian chess circuits in the coming months. And, all the best to you in your studies here in Sydney.

Most welcome and thank you for your best wishes.




Edwin Lam Choong Wai is a Malaysian chess player and author. He was previously attached to Procter & Gamble doing local, regional and global marketing roles, before joining Pfizer and Essilor. He was recently attached to The Purpose Group, a creative and digital marketing agency in Ho Chi Minh City. He is now based in Malaysia to jointly start an education venture with his parents.
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