Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Australia’s newest International Master, James Morris, who was doing a week’s work experience at Chess Kids.

James is a pale, young-looking 15 year-old with a keen mind hidden beneath a mop of unruly brown hair. David Cordover and I took James out to lunch and used that opportunity to interview him to find out the story behind his sudden success.

RJ: Tell us a bit about yourself.
JM: I’m 15 years-old, from Melbourne, the suburb of Glenhuntly. I got into chess around age 6 when Chess World and Chess Kids helped me improve and get my chess going.

RJ: What schools did you go to?
JM: I originally went to Caulfield South Primary School then changed to Essex Heights Primary in grade 3 and I’m now going to University High School.

RJ: What year are you doing?
JM: I’m in year 10 in an accelerated programme.

RJ: What does that mean? Does that mean that you’re bright and they have pushed you forward a year.
JM: Pretty-much, yeah.

RJ: Tell us how you got from a 6 year-old who had just learnt the game of chess to being an IM at the age of 15. What sort of process did you go through as I’m sure that there are many young players who would like to emulate what you have done.
JM: Well there were a few periods where my rating sky-rocketed but there was also times where it stagnated. I read a lot of books …

RJ: So how many chess books do you have?
JM: Hundreds? I’ve a whole bookshelf full of them.

RJ: All bought from Chess World no doubt!
JM: Most of them, yeah.

RJ: The Primary School that you went to, Essex Heights, they’ve really got a strong chess club haven’t they?
JM: Yeah, that was probably another reason why I improved. Essex Heights were very big on chess when I arrived. In fact chess was a compulsory part of the year 3 curriculum so when I started there I was straight into chess.

RJ: Did you become the best at the school there?
JM: I did, eventually. They had 8 teams and I started off in the 3rd team. Eventually we developed a really strong team and when I was in grade 6 we didn’t lose a single game through to the national finals which we won with 28 out of 28!

RJ: So you had some other good players at the school?
JM: Eugene Schon was there, Nicholas Liu, Thomas Feng and Jerome Lugo as well.

RJ: So it’s important to have a group of similar players who can compete and be rivals and push each other on.
JM: Definitely.

RJ: When did you first start playing senior chess?
JM: Probably when I was about 11 years old, I think, the first time I played senior chess was the Victorian Open Championship at Dandenong Chess Club.

RJ: What made you decide to play in that event? You were a young junior playing at Primary School – it’s a big step to go and play against seniors.
JM: Well, probably at that point my chess was improving so I decided instead of confiding myself to junior tournaments to go up one more and see how I would do against the adults.

RJ: Did some of your schoolmates play as well or did you have a coach suggesting that this was what you should do?
JM: There were two other schoolmates playing at that time but it wasn’t a school thing, it was just incidental.

RJ: I understand that David Hacche has had a big role in coaching you over the years.
JM: He’s been a mentor, not only in chess activities but in extra-curricular activities as well. He’s always been there and he’s helped improve my chess quite a bit. He was a very good coach to the point where I became roughly the same strength as him.

RJ: What form did that coaching generally take? Was it private lessons or did he go through your games or did he take you to tournaments?
JM: Pretty-much all of the above. He privately coached me and he thoroughly examined my games. He went home, put them on Fritz, then next day came back with all the analysis and he took me to many chess tournaments. I can’t remember how many times I drove up to Canberra with him.

RJ: So you played in heaps of Doeberl Cups?
JM: ABout 4 I think.

DC: What’s your favourite chess tournament to play in?
JM: Ballarat … easily.

RJ: Because….
JM: It’s such a friendly atmosphere up there. It’s a nice place…. and I also do well there.

RJ: Think back to that first senior event that you played in, the Vic. Open, what was your impression of that tournament as a young kid playing against adults and what made you decide to keep playing in those sort of events.
JM: Well, for a start the hall was massive and it made a big impression on me when I walked in and I thought “this must be quite important.

RJ: Did you do well?
JM: I got 3 out of 7 which was pretty good and it probably helped me a lot as playing against adults as it broadened the spectrum a bit. Considering my relative success I decided to continue to play against adults.

RJ: Did you join any senior chess clubs like Box Hill?
JM: I think I joined Box Hill for about a year, but I changed chess clubs quite a bit.

RJ: So they keep kicking you out or….
JM: No, I just keep changing.

RJ: Let’s move forwards to the Zonal. You are quite a strong junior rated 2100ish, so you are in the top few junior in the country. What were your expectations of playing in the Zonal?
JM: My expectations were probably less than what I achieved which was quite a pleasant surprise. My expectations were probably to get 5.5 points.

RJ: You played in the Sydney International a few weeks before and did quite well.
JM: Yes, I did very well in that and Chris Depasquale said it was my best tournament result to date but of course he didn’t know that the Oceania Zonal was coming up!

RJ: So you start doing really well in the Zonal and after 6 rounds you are sitting up there on top board and leading the tournament and you have to play Grandmaster Smerdon. How were you feeling?
JM: Scared bloody shit-less!

RJ: I can relate to that.
JM: I wasn’t sure what to do to start off with. Luckily there was a rest day before-hand so I spent heaps of time relaxing and preparing.

RJ: Did you prepare for that particular opening?
JM: Yes, definitely. He went straight into it so I was very pleased.

RJ: So did you have an improvement on the game Jamieson v J.Purdy 1979 which you were following?
JM: Yes, I did.

RJ: Don’t show it to John Purdy in case I have to play him again. So Smerdon got out of your preparation by playing Re1?
JM: It wasn’t a good move. I quickly got a better position.

RJ: So you have the better position; you are a pawn or two ahead; a big crowd has gathered around; young boy is beating Smerdon; what’s going on? How do you feel?
JM: It probably started getting to me then actually. I started trying to find a clear-cut way to win … to swap all the pieces off with nice tricks on the back rank. Unfortunately they didn’t work and it backfired and suddenly I found myself in a lost position.

RJ: Were you in time trouble?
JM: Yes, but so was he.

RJ: So it was very exciting but you lost. Your thoughts after the game?
JM: Well, I started feeling pretty depressed because I was thinking that my IM title chances were going because everyone was going ahead of me.

RJ: So you were focusing on the IM title, not winning the tournament?
JM: I was pretty sure i wasn’t going to win the tournament after that. I was a point behind, but I didn’t think that my chances of an IM were very strong. It was also a big test to see if I could recuperate in time for the next game which was against another IM.

RJ: So you played Feldman the next round and toweled him up?
JM: I beat him quite convincingly actually.

RJ: Yes, it was a good game. You were positionally crushed in the opening for a pawn and it was difficult to think of something to do.
JM: Yes, but I somehow found something.

RJ: Yes, I was very impressed with that, and in the last round you had to play the evil Australian Champion, IM Stephen Solomon. Your thoughts before that game?
JM: Well, he was probably not going to be very happy with what happened in Sydney where I beat him in an ending.

RJ: Oh, he wouldn’t have liked that.
JM: Yeah, he would probably be out to try and get me again … not exactly what I wanted.

RJ: He got you in a bit of a strangle-hold?
JM: Yeah, he did. I completely mucked up the opening. I got the move order horribly wrong but I managed to wriggle out of it and became the exchange up.

RJ: You played b4 at the critical stage.
JM: Yes, I had quite a bit of counter-play then.

RJ: Did he have to take that pawn or could he have gone for the attack on the kingside?
JM: No he didn’t, but I was starting to get a little bit better then.

RJ: It got to a drawish sort of position then.
JM: Yes, I had to give the exchange back because he had too much pressure.

RJ: And he kept trying to grind you down?
JM: Yes, but I knew it was a draw because he had nowhere to breakthrough.

RJ: So you get the draw, you got the IM title …. your feelings about that.
JM: I was over the moon. First thing I did was I ran outside, rang my parents, went and got lunch and just sat there. I didn’t say much …. it was just unreal.

RJ: It’ll be one of the highlights of your life that you can look back on in years to some.
JM: Definitely.

James Morris

RJ: Prize-money? You got a fair wack of prize-money out of it?
JM: I did actually. I got $510 for coming equal second.

RJ: Naturally getting the IM title with one result at a zonal, some people may say it’s one good tournament … he still has to prove himself. You, however, went on to play in Adelaide last week and repeated the performance again finishing second to Smerdon.
JM: I got outright second this time and won $750.

RJ: How did you play in that tournament?
JM: I was undefeated. I drew with 3 people but also beat 4. I beat IM Mark Chapman who is a very strong player , drew with Victoria’s new IM Igor Goldenberg and drew with David Smerdon in the last round.

RJ: What are your goals now?
JM: To keep going and to start getting more tournament successes to prove my status.

RJ: Is your goal to become a grandmaster or Australian Champion?
JM: In the long run, yeah. I’d definitely like to be a GM.

RJ: What do you think you need to do to achieve that goal?
JM: Keep working at the same rate I have been.

RJ: Have you thought about playing overseas or perhaps getting Ian Rogers to mentor you at some overseas events?
JM: Yeah, I’ve given it a thought but at the moment I’m just thinking about playing in Australia.

RJ: Have Ian or Darryl had a big chat to you about your future?
JM: Not as such.

DC: We’ve talked about your chess tournaments, of all the chess tournaments that you have played in, what do you think that chess organisers do really well and what should be changed or improved or added to tournaments?
JM: I’m not really sure.

DC: In the best tournament you ever played in, what did you really like?
RJ: The fact that he came second and got the Im title!

DC: Apart from the Zonal…
JM: Probably the atmosphere, so long as there is a friendly atmosphere…

DC: What makes a friendly atmosphere?
JM: The people and the attitude of the organisers and the arbiters, so long as they are happy and smiling.

DC: So what can an arbiter do to keep players happy?
JM: If there is a dispute, instead of saying “Sorry, you are wrong and you are right” they should negotiate to ensure that everyone is happy with the result.

DC: And what about people who don’t have disputes, what should an arbiter do to make them happy?
JM: Just do your job in a positive way and keep it nice and friendly.

DC: What’s more important – the venue or the other players in the tournament? Would you rather play in a dingy, horrible venue against friendly players, or in an awesome venue against grumpy opponents.
JM: Probably wouldn’t play in either.

DC: What then attracts you to play in a tournament?
JM: Just when there is a good measure of everything. Probably stronger players in a dingy environment … I’d handle that.

RJ: I have a different question. Do you have any rivals and who are they?
JM: I’ve got plenty of them. There’s Eugene Schon, Max Illingworth, Bobby Cheng and others.

RJ: Has that been a factor in your improvement – having rivals to fight against and compete with.
JM: Yeah, probably. If they move up you have to keep pace with them or you just fall behind.

RJ: Do you talk to each other and stir each other, etc.
JM: Yeah, it’s friendly.

RJ: What advice would you give to a young primary school student starting our playing chess. What should he do if he wants to become a good player?
JM: Well, if he enjoys it, just keep working at it and eventually results will show. That’s pretty much what happened to me. I kept reading books and analysing basic tactics.

RJ: Did you do much on the internet? Do you use many internet resources?
JM: Occasionally I use the internet.

RJ: You don’t play lots of games against a computer or on the internet?
JM: I used to play on the internet chess club but I stopped that after a while.

RJ: How do you see your life panning out? You want to be a journalist, playing chess, trying to get a GM title, becoming a professional journalist or even a chess journalist.
JM: Yes, something like that … along those lines.

DC: What are your thoughts about chess on TV? What can be done to get the public more aware of chess?
JM: Well you very rarely if ever see chess on TV. I don’t think I’ve ever seem a chess match on TV in my entire life. That’s a pity because it should be on TV and gets the public more aware of chess because it’s a pretty good game.

DC: What can chess players or organisers do to make it more appealing to watch?
RJ: Move faster?
JM: Not long games. Long time controls are not suitable but perhaps 15 minute chess is OK.

DC: What about a time control of zero seconds plus 30 seconds per move (non cumulative)?
JM: That should be hyper! I wouldn’t mind playing in that.

DC: Last question. What is chess? Is it a sport, recreation, art, or educational tool or hobby?
RJ: Or a waste of time?

JM: It’s all of them except a waste of time!
It’s everything. It’s a sport. It’s a hobby. It’s a recreation.

RJ: Well thanks, James, and good luck with your chess career.

3 Responses to “The James Morris Interview!”

  1. July 21, 2009 at 10:59 am, Junior Chess Players - Page 6 - OzChess - Australia's Chess Forum said:

    […] Closet Grandmaster brings attention to this valuable interview with IM James […]


  2. July 22, 2009 at 11:59 pm, David Hacche said:

    I found the interview informative and interesting. Why refer to Stephen Solomon as “evil”? James comments about my influence in his life are pretty accurate. I first met James when he was about 7 and half years old. After about three weeks of coaching I realised he was something special in terms of chess ability, when he started solving the mates in three in the thick Polgar book faster than I could.


  3. March 17, 2011 at 12:28 pm, India Morris said:

    I am very proud of my brother,James is a very committed chess player, and he studys a lot,James is a very good chess player( as you all know) and he does deserve this title, if you think he dosn’t, think about this, he is fairly good for his age right? if you disagree just keep it to yourself.