Monday, October 6, 2014

Great Chess Performances at the Elite Level

A great athletic feat inevitably brings to mind the accomplishments of performers from previous eras; when Kobe Bryant authors a streak of games with at least 45 points, educated fans recall an even more prodigious Wilt Chamberlain scoring streak. Similarly, Fabiano Caruana's fantastic result in the Sinquefield Cup--winning his first seven games in a row en route to an undefeated first place score of 8.5/10 against the highest rated field in chess history--has inevitably drawn comparisons to some other tremendous winning streaks/first place results. Bobby Fischer won 20 consecutive games en route to capturing the World Championship in 1972. He won his last seven games in the 1970 Interzonal, swept Mark Taimanov 6-0 in the Candidates Quarterfinals, swept Bent Larsen 6-0 in the Candidates Semifinals and won the first game of his Candidates Finals match against former World Champion Tigran Petrosian (Fischer lost the second game but won the match 6.5-2.5). In a 2005 article, Jeff Sonas--who has developed his own chess rating system to compare players from different eras--declared that Fischer's sweep of Larsen is the greatest match performance in chess history. According to Sonas' 2005 calculations, Anatoly Karpov's Linares 1994 triumph is the single best tournament performance in chess history, followed by Garry Kasparov (Tilburg 1989), Emanuel Lasker (London 1899), Garry Kasparov (Linares 1999), Mikhail Tal (1959 Candidates) and Alexander Alekhine (San Remo 1930). Based on official FIDE ratings, the three best tournament results are Fabiano Caruana (3103 performance rating, Sinquefield Cup 2014), Magnus Carlsen (3002 performance rating, Pearl Spring 2009) and Anatoly Karpov (2985 performance rating, Linares 1994).

While Fischer's 20 game winning streak is an unparalleled feat considering the stakes and the caliber of his opponents, Fischer actually had an even longer streak (24 games)--albeit against relatively "weaker" players--from 1963-65, punctuated by his unprecedented 11/11 sweep of the 1963-64 U.S. Championship. Fischer scored 25.5/26 in 1963! Fischer only played one tournament game in 1964, a final round victory against Anthony Saidy to top off his perfect score in the U.S. Championship. Fischer skipped the 1964 Interzonal and the 1964 Chess Olympiad because of his disputes with the way that FIDE organized international chess. Instead, he went on tour throughout the United States giving simultaneous exhibitions. Imagine LeBron James leaving the NBA for a year to play in the Rucker League or go on tour with streetball players and you get some sense of what the chess world lost in 1964 (not to mention what was lost when Fischer abruptly left the sport in 1972).

Mikhail Tal, who stormed the chess summit in the late 1950s and early 1960s and became the youngest World Champion (23, a record since broken by Garry Kasparov), enjoyed a revival in the early 1970s after battling some serious health problems. Tal put together the two longest official elite level undefeated streaks: 95 games (46 wins and 49 draws from 1973-74) and 86 games (47 wins and 39 draws from 1972-73). Tal's streaks are even more remarkable when one considers his deserved reputation for spectacular attacks and combinations; clearly, Tal was a much more well-rounded and consistent player than many people may realize.

Any list of great chess streaks must mention Jose Raul Capablanca, who went eight years without suffering a loss (1916-1924), including his successful 1921 World Championship match against Emanuel Lasker. However, Capablanca only played 63 games during that span.

Is Caruana's recent performance a sign that he is poised to become World Champion? It will be interesting to see if Caruana is able to dethrone Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated chess player of all-time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Garry Kasparov on the Future of Chess

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov retained the title of FIDE (International Chess Federation) President by a landslide vote of 110 national delegates to 61 over former World Chess Champion (1985-2000) Garry Kasparov. Kasparov ran on a reformist platform aiming to end the corruption and waste that has characterized Ilyumzhinov's reign. Ilyumzhinov's victory is not good for chess; while Ilyumzhinov passionately loves the game, his outlandish ideas (including but not limited to his publicly expressed thought that chess was brought to Earth by aliens and that he has personally visited the aliens' spaceships) and his shameful allegiances with dictatorial/tyrannical regimes do not bode well for the sport, art and science of chess. It is not surprising that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin was among the first to heartily congratulate Ilyumzhinov.

Kasparov's fiery statement after the election, titled The Future of Chess, not FIDE, outlines why Kasparov believes that he lost the election and what he thinks should be done in the future to promote chess. Here are some excerpts:

My campaign was about expanding the horizons of the chess and securing its future, our future, in a world with ever-increasing competition for our attention. My themes were bringing sponsorship, education initiatives, and new technology into the game and empowering the national federations. I do not for one moment believe that this election result indicates a problem with this platform, or with the exemplary individuals on my ticket, or with our many successful activities. The sad conclusion is that working hard and having big ideas and investing millions of dollars for the global development of chess all has very little to do with winning a FIDE election today. It was this disastrous situation that my team and I set out to change...

I faced three main challenges in this campaign. First was the FIDE machinery, the abuse of power that made votes disappear and turned commissions into puppets. This was not a surprise, but I believed at the start that I had enough resources to overcome it and I probably did. There were two other factors I badly underestimated. I anticipated the Kremlin’s involvement but couldn’t imagine its extent or how susceptible Europe would be to it. Nor did I anticipate how resistant even many of the biggest federations are to change. They saw it as a threat and looked for excuses to maintain the status quo.

These last two factors in particular eroded the base I thought I had at the start, a base of anti-Kirsan, anti-corruption, pro-growth federations with democratic traditions and substantial numbers of chess players with interests to protect. Perhaps that base still exists, but it is very small now and nearly every federation is eager to do a little business with Ilyumzhinov’s emissaries come election year. I guaranteed money in exchange for effort and sponsorship in exchange for activity and events. It’s clear that many prefer money with no responsibilities and no activities, regardless of what this means for chess...

It is fitting that the slogan on my posters here in Tromsø was “Kasparov: the future of chess” and not “the future of FIDE.” Eventually, growth and change in the chess world will change FIDE; it is clear that FIDE cannot change itself. More numbers and more effort will be needed at the grassroots level. Lovers of chess must become administrators of chess. I spoke often of building up the base of players to raise up the entire chess world and this is just as true in chess politics. More good people coming in will eventually push more bad people out. You can go and do it! Find a way to fight for chess! People must work in their chess communities and change their federations so that our great game has the representation it deserves.

My thanks again to all my team and supporters, and to our excellent hosts of the last two weeks here in Norway. The summer sun never sets in Tromsø and the sun will never set on the game of chess.

The delegates who voted for Ilyumzhinov because they were swayed by bribes and/or cowed by fear should be ashamed. If a person as brilliant, charismatic and well-connected as Garry Kasparov cannot even come close to unseating Ilyumzhinov then it seems like Ilyumzhinov will stay in power for a long time.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chess as Art, Chess as Violent Sport, Part II

In Chess as Art, Chess as Violent Sport, I declared, "It is not accidental that top level chess is dominated by young players; chess is very strenuous and thus energy and physical conditioning often outweigh the value of accumulated experience/wisdom." The recent deaths of two players at the biennial Chess Olympiad (hosted this year by Tromso, Norway) further highlight the physically demanding nature of chess.

In Why Chess is Really an Extreme Sport, Stephen Moss details why chess tournaments are so much more demanding than the general public may realize:

At the Olympiad, participants were playing a game a day over a fortnight--11 rounds with just a couple of rest days on which to recuperate. For up to seven hours a day, they would be sitting at the board trying to kill--metaphorically speaking--their opponent, because this is the ultimate game of kill or be killed. In some positions, you can reach a point where both sides are simultaneously within a single move of checkmating the other. One false step and you will have lost. This imposes enormous pressure on players.

These days, some top players use psychologists to help them deal with this stress. They are also paying increasing attention to diet and fitness. I was staying in the same hotel as many of the world’s top players during the great annual tournament at Wijk aan Zee on the Dutch coast in January, and was struck by the regime adopted by Levon Aronian, the Armenian-born world number two, who started each day with a run followed by a healthy breakfast.

After listing the poor health habits that contributed to the early demise of some of the former Soviet Union's great chess players and the equally poor health habits typical of the average club level player, Moss concludes:

So next time someone suggests a nice, quiet game of chess, or paints it as an intellectual pursuit played by wimps, tell them they’ve got it all wrong: this is a fight to the finish played in the tensest of circumstances by two players who are physically and mentally living on the edge. We all need to get fitter to play this demanding game, and society should recognise it for what it is--a sport as challenging, dramatic and exciting as any other. Such recognition would be a tribute of sorts to the two players who sadly played their final games in Tromso.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Frank Thomas Did it the Right Way

PED users defiled MLB's record book but some statistics and records still matter; it is important to recognize and honor the select group of great players who battled temptation--and went head to head physically with players who used illegal drugs to obtain a competitive advantage--during MLB's "Steroid Era". Frank Thomas not only stayed clean during his outstanding 19 year MLB career but he never hesitated to speak out against the cheaters, even when it was unpopular to do so. After Thomas hit his 500th career home run, I explained that Thomas had rightfully earned Hall of Fame status even before that signature blast.

Thomas finished his career with a .301 batting average, a .419 on base percentage and a .555 slugging percentage. Babe Ruth is the only major leaguer with at least 10,000 plate appearances who surpassed Thomas in all three of those categories. Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx and Willie Mays are the only clean players who exceeded Thomas in both batting average and career home runs (521)*. Thomas is the only player who compiled a streak of seven straight seasons with at least a .300 average, 100 walks, 100 runs, 100 RBI and 20 home runs.

The Baseball Hall of Fame voters selected Thomas in his first year of eligibility and on Sunday "The Big Hurt" joined Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa in the Hall of Fame Class of 2014. Thomas' Hall of Fame Induction Speech overflows with gratitude for the many relatives, friends, teammates and coaches who shaped his development as a man and as a baseball player. Thomas concluded with a simple, powerful statement: "To all you kids out there, just remember one thing from today. There are no shortcuts to success. Hard work, dedication, commitment, stay true to who you are. God bless you all, and I thank you."

*Manny Ramirez is a PED cheater, so his statistics should be classified as "fiction."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Vladimir Kramnik Explains Why He Loves Chess

I am not a huge Vladimir Kramnik fan, primarily because I believe that he dodged a World Championship rematch with Garry Kasparov; I think that Kramnik rightfully expected to lose a potential rematch but it is cowardly and unseemly for an elite player to intentionally avoid facing another elite player. All that being said, Kramnik is a superb chess technician and in a recent interview he shared some fascinating insights about chess in general and his career in particular. Here are some excerpts:

Every top player has his own style of play--like painters. You see a painting and say, okay, this is Modigliani, or Raphael, because you cannot confuse them with anyone else. It's the same with chess, which means it is also an art. Chess players are all slightly different and have their own clear way of seeing chess, and you can see it when you play through their games...

I don't consider myself a genius--seriously, and I am sincere with you, I don't think I am a genius. Of course I am gifted at chess and have quite good analytical capabilities, and certain things where I am better than average. But you don't need to be a genius to be a top chess player. It's about many other qualities, about strength of character and, most importantly, the ability to learn. If you are learning very quickly in certain areas it means you have talent. The ability to learn is what I notice in all top players--but also top musicians and other people of art. In their area they learn in seconds, and that is what is called talent.

For me, personally, a beautiful game of chess is a game where everything was very logical, very well built and performed, from the beginning to the end. That is the highest definition of mastery in chess. When millimeter to millimeter everything is perfect. So for me it is perfection. For many other players it's more imagination, sometimes strange and even wrong decisions, something absurd or abstract. But I am more a classicist in chess, and also in art, where I like classical art of the 17th century. I like the beauty and the purity of the game.

Compared to life chess is very strict. In life you can be lucky, you can be born in a very rich family, you can do crazy things and still get away with it. But in chess you will not--you are going to lose. In chess you have to be very disciplined in your thinking. There are a lot of things in chess that are similar to life: you have to understand that sometimes you have to sacrifice a little bit of something to get other advantages, you have to see the whole board and the whole picture, otherwise you will never be a good chess player. In life it is also similar.

...I remember when I played my World Championship match in 2000 against Garry Kasparov, which took around three weeks--we played sixteen games, every second day--I think I lost ten kilos during the match, without being on a diet or anything. It was just very energy consuming. That is why getting older is not a plus for chess players, because physically you have less energy when you are forty than when you are twenty. It is an issue when you are playing young opponents. I am 38 and a kind of veteran in chess, and I know that playing young opponents I am giving them a certain handicap in a physical sense. On the other hand I have experience, which is helpful, and maybe a little stronger character...

I am not a typical chess player, not a typical sportsman--in fact I am quite surprised that I managed to achieve quite a lot in chess, because I am not a sportsman inside. I don't care about competing, about being the best. For me it is never personal, a game of chess. Most of them--Magnus, Garry, Karpov-- they are crazy about winning in anything they do, even if they play cards or whatever. I really never care that much, in tennis or football--I just enjoy playing. Of course in chess I care about winning, but it is not a goal, it's not a complete must. I was never fixated on the result. That is very unusual for chess. Most of the players are very determined to win. My main motivation is to do my best, to do something which is on the edge of my limits.

When I got a chance to play Kasparov in the World Championship match for me it was a challenge, the highest possible challenge. He was not only the best player at the time, he was also on top of his rating, really at the complete top of his career. That was for me a challenge, and that I managed to win was for me unexpected. I knew I could do it but I was not sure, but this is probably why I managed to do it, because it forced me to give everything. It was not about winning, so much, but rather a challenge. What is important for me is the inside challenge. That is my way of life, of playing chess, and it will probably be with me forever, I guess.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Howard Cosell: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Only Howard Cosell could summarize a man as complex and multifaceted as Howard Cosell: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am." Cosell was also something else: "a transcendent figure in sports journalism." That sentence sounds like something Cosell would have said about himself but it actually appears as the subheading for William Nack's 1995 Howard Cosell obituary.

When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, Cosell was the most famous and most controversial sports broadcaster in the world. He was often imitated--everyone tried to parody his distinctive delivery: "This is Howard Cosell, Speaking of Sports"--but never duplicated; nearly two decades after his passing, no national sports media figure has come close to matching Cosell's depth of knowledge or his passion for speaking truth to power about unpopular athletes and unpopular causes. Nack describes Cosell as "the gaudiest, smartest and most entertaining and unforgettable television broadcaster in the history of sports--a superb reporter who worked harder and asked better questions than anyone else who'd ever worn earphones."

Many people remember how Cosell's voice sounded but how many people remember what he stood for and what he said? Nack reminds anyone who may have forgotten just how outspoken Cosell was:

Unlike his buttoned-down peers, who ducked social issues and lied at the first whiff of controversy, Cosell waded into every major battle of his time, cutting his way against the grain. He allied himself with Curt Flood in the player's challenge to baseball's hoary reserve clause, and he championed Muhammad Ali in his fight against the draft, setting fire to the national shirt by insisting on calling Ali by his Muslim name. Many of his pen pals remained anonymous when they addressed him "You nigger-loving Jew bastard...."

Few sportswriters and sportscasters are blessed to have the national platform that Cosell did and even fewer have used that platform as a force for good instead of just a means of self-aggrandizement. The prominent TV networks, magazines and websites that cover pro basketball have elevated many commentators and so-called experts to national prominence but who among those well-paid commentators and so-called experts lobbied for the Hall of Fame candidacies of forgotten ABA players like Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown? Ted Green struggled to get funding for his heartfelt Roger Brown documentary. ESPN's 30 for 30 series is outstanding but why did the network not want to touch the Roger Brown story? Might doing so have offended the NBA? Howard Cosell never cared who he offended; he just spoke the truth.

Cosell wrote and spoke eloquently and he did not shy away from controversy; no individual or organization has stepped up to fill the void created by Cosell's absence. Even Sports Illustrated, one of the few mainstream outlets where top notch sports journalism can still occasionally be found, often features forgettable, lazily constructed articles; the magazine sometimes includes first rate writing but one has to wade through a lot of chaff to find the wheat--and SI is better than any of its competitors. I will read anything written by the outstanding Gary Smith but his work only appears in print sporadically; during Cosell's prime, he was writing and/or talking on a daily basis, offering intelligent commentary about a wide range of subjects. Rick Reilly has the necessary writing chops to be a powerful influence--and he has penned some incredibly moving articles--but now he seems too comfortable cashing ESPN's checks to focus on producing a steady stream of great writing.

Cosell was far from perfect, as he noted in the self-assessment cited above. He often spoke bluntly (though truthfully) about the shortcomings of some of his co-workers. He drank a lot and could be unpleasant when he was inebriated; Nack begins his piece by recounting one such occasion, noting that Cosell's wife Emmy settled him down by declaring, "Howard, shut up! Nobody cares."

Nack concludes:

Cosell was too much of an original to leave heirs, and the landscape of broadcast journalism that he left on Sunday looks much the way he found it 35 years ago. Once again the waves are filled with talking heads and apologists, with hometown cheerleaders and mindless drones. No one is asking the questions that he asked. And Emmy was right--nobody cares.


Here is a 1991 ESPN special featuring Cosell being interviewed by Robert Lipsyte:

Howard Cosell: His Life and Times

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Comparing the Greatest Sports Dynasties

The December 9, 2013 issue of Autoweek contains an article by Al Pearce titled "No End in Sight" (an abridged version can be found here); Jimmie Johnson had just claimed his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in his 12th full season on the circuit, placing him one behind record holders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty considers Johnson a lock to win at least eight crowns and would not be surprised if Johnson pushes the standard to 10. Although Johnson receives most of the glory, racing is a team sport and the success of Rick Hendrick Motorsports with Johnson behind the wheel and Chad Knaus serving as crew chief raises an intriguing question: where does this accomplishment rank in the pantheon of great sports dynasties?

Hendrick has actually won 11 Sprint Cup Series titles overall--with Jeff Gordon serving as the driver for four of them and Terry Labonte capturing the other one--and a sidebar to Pearce's article (not included in the online version) notes that Hendrick is tied with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings and MLB's St. Louis Cardinals for the seventh most championships won by a professional sports organization. The leaders are the New York Yankees (27 World Series championships), the Montreal Canadiens (24 Stanley Cups), the Boston Celtics (17 NBA titles), the Los Angeles Lakers (16 NBA titles), the Toronto Maple Leafs (13 Stanley Cups) and the Green Bay Packers (13 NFL titles).

Autoweek notes that Hendrick has captured 11 championships in 30 seasons, a .367 winning percentage that is the best in American sports history, ahead of the Celtics (17/67, a .254 winning percentage), the Canadiens (24/95, a .253 winning percentage) and the Yankees (27/113, a .239 winning percentage). Hendrick has been incredibly dominant in the past two decades, winning 11 of 19 championships (.579).

Autoweek lists some of the "Best of the Best" sports dynasties without ranking them:
Boston Celtics of the late 1950s/early 1960s (nine NBA championships in a 10 year span), Michael Schumacher (five straight Formula I titles and a record seven titles overall), Los Angeles Lakers (five NBA championships in the 1980s), Chicago Bulls (six NBA championships in eight years during the 1990s), Pittsburgh Steelers (four Super Bowl wins in a six season span during the 1970s), John Force (16 NHRA Top Fuel championships in 24 years as a driver, 18 NHRA championships as a team owner), New York Yankees of the late 1940s/early 1950s (six World Series wins in seven years), Montreal Canadiens (five straight Stanley Cup wins in the 1950s), UCLA (10 NCAA basketball championships in a 12 year span in the 1960s/1970s), Jack Nicklaus (18 pro golf major wins), Tiger Woods (14 pro golf major wins), Dario Franchitti (four IndyCar titles in five seasons), Sebastien Vettel (four straight Formula I titles, 2010-13), Sebastien Loeb (nine consecutive World Rally Championships, 2004-12), A.J. Foyt (seven IndyCar titles, the most all-time), Richard Petty/Dale Earnhardt (seven NASCAR titles each).

Considering the source, it is not surprising that eight of the 17 dynasties involve some form of auto racing but overall that list is a good one. If individual athletes like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are going to be mentioned, though, then Bjorn Borg deserves consideration; when Borg retired he held the records for most Wimbledon wins (five), most consecutive Wimbledon wins (five), most French Open wins (six) and most consecutive years with at least one Grand Slam win (eight). Borg still holds the record for best Grand Slam winning percentage (.407, 11 wins in 27 appearances). Even though some of Borg's records have been surpassed by various players, no player in tennis history has been dominant enough to hold all of those records at the same time the way that Borg did.

Objectively ranking the aforementioned dynasties is an impossible task; it is difficult enough to rank the greatest players of all-time in one sport, let alone compare athletes and teams from various generations and vastly different sports. I agree with Pearce, though, that the best of the best have a special quality about them:

Elite competitors, like newly minted six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, have it. They always have, and they always will. No worthy champion achieves anything without it.

Michael Jordan had it during those magical years with the Chicago Bulls. Tiger Woods had it before foolishly throwing it away. The Boston Celtics and Arnold Palmer and "Mr. October" Reggie Jackson had it. "I am the greatest" Muhammad Ali had it. So did Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky. And, don't laugh, but Terry Bradshaw had it, too.

It's an indefinable gene that carries the day and elevates an athlete. It separates truly great ones from those who think they're great or merely think about being great.

"It" is a powerful combination of talent, work ethic, confidence and will power. Someone once said of Jack Nicklaus that he knew he was the best, his opponents knew that he was the best and he knew that they knew. Ranking the great sports dynasties is impossible but it is clear that they all had that type of dominance, an expectation of victory that inspired them and that inspired fear/resignation in even the staunchest opponents.