Thursday, March 8, 2018

Chess Life Online Disrespects GM Anatoly Lein

Grandmaster Anatoly Lein often stated that he was underrated and unappreciated. Sadly, proof of this disrespect can be seen after his passing.

Chess Life Online, the official website of the U.S. Chess Federation, posted a brief obituary for GM Lein on March 2, 2018. The headline of the obituary refers to GM Lein as "Anthony Lein." The incorrect first name is also listed under a photo caption and in the article itself. Given this tragicomedy of errors, I can understand why the byline for the obituary is US Chess, instead of a person's name.

On March 5, a reader pointed out these errors, but CLO did not correct them. Today, I posted a comment about the errors. CLO deleted my comment but still has not corrected the errors--so it is abundantly clear that CLO knows about the mistakes at this point.

For those of you who may have missed it, here is the obituary that I posted about GM Lein:

Anatoly Lein, 1931-2018: Grandmaster, Coach, Author 

It would be very nice if CLO posted an obituary worthy of GM Lein, instead of a truncated item with his name spelled incorrectly three times.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Anatoly Lein, 1931-2018: Grandmaster, Coach, Author

Grandmaster Anatoly Lein--one of the top chess players in the world in the 1960s and 1970s and an accomplished chess coach/author--passed away yesterday. Lein's beloved wife Barbara passed away on February 16. Lein was born in the former Soviet Union in 1931 and achieved prominence there--earning the International Master title in 1964 and the Grandmaster title in 1968--before emigrating to the United States in 1976. Although Lein was perhaps past his prime by the time he arrived in this country, he nevertheless made an immediate and huge splash on the chess scene, sharing first place that year in both the World Open and the U.S. Open. Lein lived in New Jersey for many years, working as a chemical engineer, before relocating to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1990s. Cleveland remained his home for the rest of his life.

Lein won the U.S.S.R. Armed Forces Championship in 1962. He followed that up with a first place finish in the 1963 Russian championship and he was a member of the Soviet Union's team that won the 1965 European Championship. He also coached the Russian junior team to a gold medal and he won two gold medals as a member of the Russian adult team. Lein was a seven-time participant in the prestigious Soviet Championship Final, a field which was dotted with World Champions past, present and future. Lein scored wins in tournament games against World Champions Mikhail Tal and Vassily Smyslov. Some of Lein's many big tournament first place finishes include the 1971 Moscow Championship, Cienfuegos 1972, Novi Sad (1972 and 1973) and the 1973 Capablanca Memorial.

After emigrating to the United States, Lein participated in four U.S. Championships (1977, 1978, 1980, 1981). He also represented the United States in the 1978 Chess Olympiad, helping the team win a Bronze medal. Lein won the New Jersey State Championship in 1993 and 1995. In 1999, Lein added the Ohio Championship to his list of titles, scoring 5/6 in the Ohio Chess Congress to tie for first place with International Master Calvin Blocker.

Lein was inducted in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2004.

FIDE (the International Chess Federation) has published chess ratings since the late 1960s (the ratings became "official" in 1971) and according to their calculations Lein peaked in 1969 as the 24th highest ranked player in the world. Lein was ranked in the official top 50 in the world as late as 1979 (when he was 48 years old, an advanced age for top level chess) and after dropping as low as 194th in the early 1980s he had a revival in late 1985/early 1986 during which he surged back to 53rd in the world. Lein was still among the top 300 players in the world when he was in his early 60s.

According to Jeff Sonas' historical chess ratings, Lein peaked in the late 1960s as the 26th highest rated player in the world and he maintained top 100 status until past the age of 50, ranking among the 60 highest rated players of all-time in the 50 and over age group.

In addition to his accomplishments as a player and as a coach, Lein wrote or co-wrote several chess books, including Sharpen Your Tactics, In the World of Tactics, The Latvian Gambit: A Grandmaster View and Kasparov v. Karpov 1990 (a book that he was particularly--and justifiably--proud to have co-written with Garry Kasparov, Efim Geller and Viktor Chepishny).

I first met Lein in the early 2000s, when he was still playing in large events such as the Chicago Open. I took some chess lessons from him in the mid-2000s and some of the concepts/methods/approaches that I learned from him played a role in helping me get within 10 points of attaining the U.S. National Master title. My understanding and appreciation for top level chess increased immensely as a result of the time that I spent with him and I will forever feel privileged that I had that opportunity.

Lein could be both proud and self-deprecating, often in the same sentence: he would say, "I used to be a Grandmaster, but now I am a Grandpatzer." He had keen insight about the current chess scene. For instance, Lein told me that Anish Giri was a player to watch prior to Giri receiving much media attention. "This boy has real talent," Lein commented, after looking at some of Giri's early games--and that statement meant something coming from Lein, who often thought that even some of the most famous chess players were overrated.

Lein was an avid reader who could converse intelligently on many subjects. I enjoyed not only learning chess from him but also hearing his stories about his various experiences in the world of elite Grandmasters, as well as his observations about life.

I know that Lein felt underrated as both a player and a teacher but I always told him how much I appreciated his accomplishments and the time that he spent with me. This article can only provide a mere glimpse into what made Lein special but I hope that it serves as a worthy tribute and as a source of information for those who do not fully know chess history and Lein's rightful, prominent place in that history.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pondering the Dynasty that Belichick and Saban Could Have Built in Cleveland

Winning Super Bowl LII would have been a crowning achievement for Bill Belichick, who already owns more Super Bowl rings than any head coach (five: 2001, 2003-04, 2014, 2016) in addition to the two rings that he won as an assistant coach with the New York Giants. However, Philadelphia's thrilling 41-33 victory over Belichick's defending champion New England Patriots does not tarnish the impressive legacy that Belichick has already built.

Jenny Vrentas' recent Sports Illustrated piece titled Belichick and Saban: The Stories Behind Football’s Most Powerful Friendship details the deep and long-lasting bond that exists between Belichick--arguably the greatest pro football coach of all-time--and Nick Saban--arguably the best college football coach of all-time, winner of six national championships (2003, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017).

One of the most overlooked football stories of the past 30 years is the tremendous quality of the coaching staff that Belichick assembled when he was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Not only was Saban on that staff, but Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome--who went on to build the two-time Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens--was also hired by Belichick. Numerous other members of that staff have made a significant impact throughout pro and/or college football as executives, head coaches or assistant coaches.

Vrentas describes how the Belichick-Saban connection formed in Cleveland, after the two had previously become acquainted a few years earlier as they each worked their way up the coaching ranks:
Belichick got his first head coaching job in 1991--at age 39, with the Browns--and interviewed 85 potential assistant coaches. But his first hire was the easiest: Saban, as his defensive coordinator. He assembled an all-star staff, including nine future NFL head coaches or GMs and three coaches who would go on to lead major college programs. "But I'm going to tell you," says (Chuck) Bresnahan, the Navy linebacker who joined Belichick's Browns staff as linebackers coach, "when Bill and Nick walked in the room, there was a different response from players, coaches, everyone. Things got quiet. You knew it was time for business.'"
Before Belichick and Saban worked together in Cleveland, they had spent hours together--in secret, without their respective teams at the time knowing about this--talking football strategy and breaking down plays together. They were two like-minded, single-minded football savants who were trying to figure out how to implement the ideal method of building a team. Vrentas writes:
Belichick was trying to install a system of coaching players, evaluating players, assembling a roster. Those conversations he and Saban had at West Point about defense? In Cleveland, it was "like, 500 times more of that," Belichick says.
Vrentas notes that Belichick and Saban have different tendencies, particularly on defense: by nature, Belichick favors a more conservative bend but don't break run-stopping scheme, while Saban prefers an attacking front supported by man to man coverage. Belichick and Saban shared the same cornerstone, though, as Vrentas puts it: "Be rigid in fundamentals and techniques, but flexible in scheme." Both coaches proved over time that they could adapt their preferred schemes to both their personnel and also the opposing team's personnel.

Belichick took over a Cleveland team that went 3-13 in 1990 and doubled that win total to 6-10 in 1991. By 1994, the Browns had the best scoring defense in pro football--allowing just 12.8 ppg--and, at 11-5, were a playoff team. They beat New England in the Wild Card round before falling to Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round.

Then, in the middle of the next season Browns owner Art Modell announced his plan to move the franchise to Baltimore, where the team was renamed the Ravens (the NFL returned the Browns franchise/logo to Cleveland in 1999); that decision turned the fans against Modell and wrecked the team that Belichick had built. Modell fired Belichick, who resurfaced as a head coach a few years later in New England--and the rest is history, as Belichick finally had an owner (Bob Kraft) who enabled Belichick to fully implement his vision of how to build a team. While Belichick built a dynasty in New England, the Browns have yet to win a playoff game since the 1994 season.

Vrentas references a talk that Saban once gave to 1500 high school coaches at Mississippi's annual coaching clinic. Saban repeatedly mentioned not just how much he had learned during his time with Belichick--including, most importantly, "He defines what everybody in the organization is supposed to do"--but he also referred more than once to his time with the Browns. Saban explained that one of his key defensive concepts at Alabama--"pattern matching," a zone coverage that morphs into man to man as a pass pattern develops--"started at the Browns."

Another thing that started with the Browns is what Belichick called three "critical factors" for each position: essential criteria for a player to perform in a given role. For example, cornerbacks must be able to (1) tackle, (2) play the ball in the deep part of the field and (3) play man to man effectively. Belichick also had specific height/weight/speed preferences for each position. Saban told Vrentas that Belichick's systematic personnel evaluation techniques had "the greatest impact for me" of anything that he experienced while working with Belichick in Cleveland.

Newsome borrowed the three "critical factors," renamed them "Triangles of Success" and used the concept while building the Ravens into perennial contenders and two-time champions.

Thinking about all of this history and all of these championship wons--none of them in Cleveland, where the foundation for all of this success was built--I recall how relentlessly the Cleveland media (and, often, the national media as well) belittled and attacked Belichick both during his time with the Browns and for many years afterward. These self-styled experts made declarations about how Belichick was not suited to be a head coach--and then, after it became clear to even the stupidest sportswriters that Belichick is in fact a great coach, Belichick's critics had the nerve to still assert that Belichick had "failed" in Cleveland before learning how to win in New England.

No, the truth is that Belichick built the foundation for his success in Cleveland, but Modell and many media members were not smart enough to understand this. Smart football people, though, are still applying lessons from what Belichick was doing back when he was mocked for mumbling at press conferences, as if engaging in snappy repartee with people who don't know the game has anything to do with actually coaching well.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Terrell Owens' Belated and Deserved Selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame

The Pro Football's Hall of Fame 2018 Class includes Bobby Beathard, Robert Brazile, Brian Dawkins, Jerry Kramer, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Brian Urlacher.

Each inductee has a life story worth telling but this article will focus on Terrell Owens. Owens overcame a troubled childhood--he was raised by his grandmother and did not know for several years that a man who lived across the street from him was in fact his father--to become a great, all-around football player. Owens was not only a tremendous wide receiver from the standpoint of catching the ball but he was a strong runner after the catch, a powerful blocker and a prolific touchdown maker. He finished his NFL career with 1,078 catches for 15,934 yards, a 14.8 yards per catch average and 153 receiving TDs. He ranks second in career receiving yards behind only Jerry Rice and third in receiving touchdowns behind Rice and Randy Moss. Owens is fifth in NFL history in total touchdowns (156) behind Rice, Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson and Moss. Owens ranked fifth in career receptions when he retired in 2010 and he still ranks eighth now.

Owens was inducted after his third appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot. Some would say that first ballot selection ultimately does not matter because all that really matters is getting in but Owens clearly deserved to be inducted the first time around; making him wait two years as "punishment" for some imaginary, perceived sin is ridiculous and spiteful.

Instead of praising Owens for his work ethic, his willingness to play hurt (he had an MVP-caliber performance on a broken leg during Super Bowl XXXIX) and his exceptionally consistent production over a long career, the media repeatedly and unfairly targeted Owens for criticism. Brett Favre came from a humble country background but was hailed as a hero despite his alcohol/drug addiction, a sexting scandal and a reckless playing style that proved very costly in many key situations. Owens never got in trouble with the law or the league the way that Favre did and Owens was a clutch performer but the media always found excuses to portray Owens in a negative light.

That is not to say that Owens always said or did the right thing but the overall reality is that the media often took Owens' comments out of context and manufactured/exaggerated so-called controversies at Owens' expense, roasting Owens for figurative crimes while giving free passes to players who had literally committed crimes (including fellow 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Ray Lewis).

In 2009, when Owens had already more than put up enough numbers to deserve first ballot Hall of Fame induction, Michael Smith--then one of ESPN's supposed football experts, before becoming a SportsCenter host--was not sure that Owens is a Hall of Famer. Two years before Smith hesitated to give Owens his due, I declared that Owens should be considered a future Hall of Famer, refuting the commentators who tried to belittle Owens' strong resume. 

Owens' journey from deprivation and hardship to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is inspirational. I would rather have a guy who says "Who can make a play? I can!" and then does it, as opposed to a "gunslinger" who is going to sling interceptions with everything on the line. Favre was a great player and a deserving Hall of Famer in his own right but the media's hagiographic treatment of Favre while constantly belittling Owens shines a disconcerting light on how much personal bias influences the stories that are fed to us on air, in print and online.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Keith Jackson: Voice of College Football--and Many Other Sports

Keith Jackson, for decades the voice of college football (and many other sports), passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Jackson is well known for his colorful expressions such as "Whoa, Nellie" and "Fum-bullll!" but he was more that just someone who mouthed catchphrases: he was a versatile broadcaster whose career spanned more than 50 years and who covered events ranging from college football to the NFL to the NBA to Major League Baseball to various Olympic sports and more. Jackson did the first live sports broadcast from the former Soviet Union and he was part of the original three man Monday Night Football broadcasting team along with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.

Jackson won countless awards, including an Emmy, and he was inducted into two sports broadcasting halls of fame but he will probably always be most remembered as the familiar, comforting and informed voice of college football. If you turned on the TV and saw that Jackson was doing a college football game then you knew two things: (1) It was an important game and (2) this was would be a mistake-free, professional and entertaining broadcast.

Perhaps the best thing that you can say about any sportscaster is that he did not make the broadcast about himself; the game's the thing and the best sportscasters know that. Jackson once described his broadcasting philosophy as "Amplify, clarify and don't intrude." He lived up to those words every time he spoke into a microphone.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

International Master Justin Sarkar's Eloquent Explanation of the Benefits of Chess

There is a pernicious stereotype that obsession with chess causes mental illness and/or that great chess players are almost inevitably either crazy or at least extremely eccentric. For many people, World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer is the most famous example of the supposedly inextricable link between chess and insanity.

I am much more inclined to believe that Fischer's intense focus on chess during the first portion of his life kept him healthy/balanced (or at least as healthy/balanced as he was capable of being) and that after Fischer abandoned chess his life spiraled downhill. Dr. Joseph Ponterotto's Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer discusses how Fischer's mental health problems were much more likely caused/exacerbated by his family background (both genetic and environmental) than by his involvement with chess.

In the January 2018 edition of Chess Life magazine, International Master Justin Sarkar provides a concise and eloquent explanation of the powerful and positive impact chess has had on his life. Here is an excerpt:
I have a social condition--something on the autistic spectrum. I also battle with depression, which has been affecting me for some time. Among other things, it affects my memory, speed in doing things, and especially decision making, even with seemingly trivial things like choosing what to drink. Depression is a tough illness to face, especially when combined with my interpersonal communication struggles. People often seem to not quite "get it." Words can hardly even describe the impact of chess on me or where I would be without chess...

The inherent beauty of the game and personal benefits in fighting my illness speak louder than the implicit demands and stresses of chess tournament play, to the point of it being more like a stress reliever and positive distraction than other things.

Previous Articles About IM Justin Sarkar:

International Master Justin Sarkar's "Perfect Game"

Justin Sarkar Overcomes Obstacles, Obtains GM Norm

IM Justin Sarkar Obtains Third GM Norm

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Browns Need a New Coach and a New Quarterback

On the cusp of making (or, to be precise, matching) NFL history by going 0-16, the Cleveland Browns fired top football executive Sashi Brown and replaced him with John Dorsey, who did not hesitate to offer a very honest public statement about Sashi Brown's performance: "I'll come straight out with it. The guys who were here before, that system, they didn't get real players."

"That system" is a not so veiled dig at the analytics-driven decisions made by Brown and his cohorts. Dorsey has a valid point about the overall player evaluation process conducted by the previous regime but--to the extent that Dorsey is providing cover for Coach Hue Jackson, who currently sports a 1-30 record with the Browns--it is important to make it very clear that while the Browns do not have a playoff caliber roster they also most emphatically do not have an 0-15 caliber roster, either.

Sports llustrated's Andy Benoit makes a detailed and compelling argument that with proper coaching the Browns would be a lot better than 0-15:
The Browns have one of the NFL’s better offensive lines. They have a quality thunder and lightning backfield with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. They have an athletic first-round rookie tight end, David Njoku. Their receiving corps needs help, but with second-year man Corey Coleman healthy and Josh Gordon back, it's no longer in dire straits. Defensively, the linebacking trio of Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert and (when healthy) Jamie Collins is one of football's fastest. The defensive line is adequate and getting better, given the flashes from 2017 No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett. The secondary, a sieve in 2016 because of poor safety play, has improved after the arrivals of first-round rookie Jabrill Peppers and veteran corner Jason McCourty, as well as the progress made by 27-year-old CB Jamar Taylor. This is a roster that, frankly, should be somewhere between 4-12 and 6-10, not on the cusp of joining the winless 2008 Lions in infamy.

Cleveland's biggest problem is the players have not been put in position to succeed--most notably on offense, and specifically at quarterback. Second-round rookie DeShone Kizer has the tools to become a quality starter. He's physically capable of making 500-level throws at the deep-intermediate levels. He's tough in the pocket. He's athletic and mobile. Yes, he's raw, and his inconsistent precision accuracy is troubling (that issue rarely corrects itself). But quarterbacks with greater flaws have had successful NFL careers.
I made a similar point about Jackson's ineptitude last season:
A well coached team is disciplined and the players are always in the right position, even if the players lack the size, strength and/or speed to complete the play; the 2016 Browns are not just a bad team but they are a team that demonstrably lacks discipline and does not execute properly. CBS color commentator Solomon Wilcots repeatedly pointed out that the Browns should be double-teaming (San Diego tight end Antonio) Gates. The coach is responsible for the product on the field; if Jackson is giving the right instructions but the players are not executing then he needs to put different players on the field: the bottom line is that whatever happens on the field has either been taught by the coach or is being permitted to happen by the coach.
Hall of Fame Coach Bill Walsh, who built the San Francisco 49ers from also-rans into three-time Super Bowl champions, once explained how long it should take to build a good NFL team and how that process should work: "I am often asked how long it should take to turn an NFL franchise around. My short answer is: three years. Not every team will win the Super Bowl in its third season under a new coach (as we did in San Francisco in 1981) but it is reasonable to expect at least some signs of improvement by that time...There are reasons why some teams are able to remain competitive year after year while others never seem to get over the hump...My point is that it takes a concerted commitment from ownership, the front office, the coaching staff and the players for a team to succeed. It's the old 'a-chain-is-only-as-strong-as-its-weakest-link-theory' theory. If one of the four areas is weak, it's extremely difficult to overcome that flaw."

The Browns have been an awful team for the better part of two decades because the front office has been clueless, most of the coaches have been mediocre at best/incompetent at worst and the franchise has never prioritized the acquisition--and nurturing--of a top notch quarterback.

The Browns will likely go 0-16 this season but, with the right decision making process, they could be a playoff team in three years, provided that Dorsey (1) fires Coach Jackson and replaces him with a real NFL head coach, (2) acquires a very good/great quarterback and puts the proper structure/playmakers around that quarterback and (3) transforms the culture of the franchise from a culture that expects/accepts losing to one that demands winning results. Jackson may be a nice guy and a decent assistant coach but he has proven that he is not a championship-level coach--and the Browns should replace him with a coach who can ultimately win a championship. Likewise, as Benoit noted it is possible that Kizer could be molded into an adequate quarterback but it is unlikely that Kizer will ever be an elite quarterback. The coach-quarterback duo is essential to long-term NFL success, as proven by perennial contenders such as New England and Pittsburgh.

When Mike Ditka was hired to be the Chicago Bears' head coach, he met with the players and told them that he had some good news and some bad news: the good news was that the Bears would win a Super Bowl but the bad news was that most of the people in the room would not be with the team when they won. That is the attitude that Dorsey, his next head coach and their next starting quarterback must personify in order for the Browns to become a competitive NFL team instead of being a laughingstock.