Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tactics, Tactics, Tactics

Ken Smith, a FIDE Master/USCF Senior Master who also finished fourth in the 1981 World Series of Poker, declared that until a chess player at least becomes a strong "A" player (one level below Expert) his first name should be tactics, his middle name should be tactics and his last name should be tactics: Smith felt that a player must improve his tactical acuity to a certain base level in order to most efficiently beat lower rated players and at least be able to compete with Experts and Masters; if a player's tactics are weak then even if he knows a lot of opening theory and can build a good position it will be difficult for him to convert that position into a win.

I enjoy solving chess tactics; recently, I looked at some tactical puzzles at Chessbase.com and thought that I had solved the first position but then saw that my proposed move order was not listed as the correct solution. I sent an email to the Chessbase.com editor about this and he amended the listed solution to include my move order as well. Here is a link to the tactic:

Master Moves

I have not made USCF Master yet but I guess now I can say that I made a "Master Move"!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thoughts About Patriots-Jets

1) New York Coach Rex Ryan said a lot of things prior to New England's 45-3 demolition of his Jets but only two of them made any sense: New England does indeed have both the better coach and the better quarterback.

2) While the "experts" focused their preseason talk on Brett Favre/Minnesota, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets, Bill Belichick quietly continued the process of overturning New England's roster and molding the Patriots into a Super Bowl contender.

3) Attention sports editors: the next time a writer pitches you a story about how the New England Patriots will not be the same football team because of the departure of a "key" assistant coach--don't listen! Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels and Eric "Mangenius" Mangini all left New England and found much less success elsewhere than they did while working for Bill Belichick; meanwhile, the Patriots are still top contenders, posting their eighth straight 10-plus win season. Belichick is now serving as the team's defensive coordinator and the Monday Night Football commentators noted that this extra responsibility had limited the time he spent watching film with Tom Brady this season--but the Patriots had an extra few days to prepare for the Jets game and Belichick used some of that time to break down film with Brady. The results of that film study were very evident on the scoreboard and should leave little doubt about who really is the schematic mastermind of New England's offense.

4) I have a great story pitch for any sports editor who is really interested in publishing a story about a prominent head coach whose success is indeed linked to the greatness of a particular assistant: the story describes the career of a two-time Super Bowl champion who posted an 11-5 postseason record (including 2-1 in Super Bowls) with a certain assistant coach but an 0-3 postseason record without that assistant coach, including a head to head loss to that assistant coach when he served as another team's head coach. Of course, I am talking about Bill Parcells, who never won a single playoff game without Bill Belichick on his staff and whose Patriots lost 20-13 to Belichick's Cleveland Browns in the 1994 playoffs (the last time the Browns won a playoff game). Many members of the media used to love to derisively call Belichick "Little Bill," as if he were some inadequate baby brother trying to fill his big brother's shoes. Looking at things in historical perspective, who looks "little" now?

5) After the Patriots finished routing the Jets, Brady said that the Patriots all heed the motto of their coach: "When you win say little and when you lose say less."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nadal Cruises Through U.S. Open to Complete Career Grand Slam

Rafael Nadal dropped just one set in the entire tournament en route to claiming his first U.S. Open title with a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 win over Novak Djokovic in the championship match. Pundits had eagerly anticipated a showdown between Nadal and Roger Federer but Djokovic wore down an error-prone Federer in a five set semifinal match. Federer has been so frequently referred to as the greatest player of all-time that it seems like that is part of his name--"Greatest Player of All-Time Roger Federer"--but that designation was always premature and now it simply looks fraudulent: Nadal has dominated Federer head to head right from the start of their rivalry and the scope of that dominance has markedly increased in the past few years as Nadal added grass and hard court mastery to his peerless clay court play.

Tennis has changed so much over the years that it is very difficult to fairly compare players from different eras; "Greatest Tennis Player of All-Time" is a mythical title but even if we confine the discussion to the Open Era it is not easy to choose from among Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Borg is the prodigy, setting numerous records (some of which have been broken but many of which still stand) for being the youngest player to accomplish various impressive feats, and he established an incredible simultaneous dominance at the French Open and Wimbledon: Borg won a record six French Open titles plus five straight Wimbledon titles and for an unprecedented three straight years (1978-80) he conquered both events. When he retired he held the modern record for titles won at both events; Federer and Sampras subsequently surpasssed Borg's Wimbledon mark but Sampras never even reached the French Open Final while Federer has managed to win that event just once (and only by avoiding a showdown with Nadal, who has bested Federer in three French Open Finals). Even after Nadal's most recent triumph, Borg is still the youngest player to win nine Grand Slam singles titles and he also did so in the fewest number of events (22). Borg won at least one Grand Slam for a record eight straight years (1974-81), a mark later tied by Sampras. He retired at just 25 years of age, after a year in which he won the French Open and made it to the Finals at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Borg finished with 11 Grand Slam singles titles but he played in an era when the Australian Open was hardly treated like a major by most of the top non-Australian players: Borg competed in that event just once. If Borg had played more frequently in the Australian Open and/or not retired in his prime he likely would have added several Grand Slam titles to his resume. The only significant accomplishment that he failed to attain is winning the U.S. Open crown; he reached the Finals there four times without success. Borg won 11 of the 27 Grand Slams that he entered (41%) and he won 141 of his 157 Grand Slam singles matches (89.8%); both of those percentages are all-time records. Borg made the Finals 16 times in those 27 Grand Slams, he never lost in the first round of a Grand Slam and he only lost in the second round once. Borg was renowned for his phenomenal conditioning and his emotional steadiness; he did not get rattled if his opponent hit a great shot because he figured that his opponent would have to hit many such shots to beat him, a task that most players were not mentally and/or physically equipped to do.

Sampras broke Borg's Wimbledon record by capturing seven titles there and he set records for most weeks holding the number one ranking (286) and most years finishing as the number one ranked player (six, 1993-98). Sampras broke Roy Emerson's career record by winning 14 Grand Slam singles titles but he played in 51 Grand Slam events so he was much less dominant than Borg; comparing Sampras' Grand Slam career to Borg's is like comparing Emmitt Smith's rushing statistics with Jim Brown's: Smith set the all-time NFL career rushing record but he played for many more seasons and had many more rushing attempts than Brown, so few if any football experts consider Smith to be the greatest running back of all-time. Also, while Sampras' powerful serve proved to be very effective at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open the slow clay at Roland Garros made Sampras look very ordinary: in 13 French Open appearances Sampras made it to the semifinals just once while suffering three first round losses and five second round defeats.

Federer is the artist; even casual fans marvel at the way that he seems to effortlessly glide around the court. He started out his Grand Slam career slowly--amassing six first round losses before winning his first title (2003 Wimbledon)--but he made up for lost time by reaching the semifinals in a record 23 straight Grand Slam events and tallying a record 16 Grand Slam wins, including the career Grand Slam that eluded both Borg and Sampras. Federer dominated Wimbledon and the U.S. Open while padding his Grand Slam totals with four Australian Open titles in 11 tries; Federer has played in the Australian Open each year of his career but, as noted above, Borg--like most of the best players in his era--generally bypassed this tournament, while Sampras won there twice in 11 attempts but also skipped the event three times. Federer won each of the other Grand Slams at least once before he even reached the French Open Finals--and then he lost three straight times to Nadal in those Finals before winning there in 2009 after an injury-plagued Nadal lost in the fourth round. Federer's Grand Slam percentages are 16 titles in 46 appearances (34.8%) and a 208-30 match record (87.4%). Federer held the number one ranking for a record 237 straight weeks and he has been number one for a total of 285 weeks, just one week short of Sampras' record.

Nadal is the grinder; his physical conditioning and mental toughness are very reminiscent of Borg. Like Borg, Nadal started out as a clay court specialist but eventually developed his game to the point that he could win on any surface--and, like Borg, Nadal was a prodigy, tying Borg's record by winning 16 professional singles titles as a teenager. Nadal is the second youngest player to win nine Grand Slam titles, trailing Borg by three months and requiring four more appearances than Borg did. Nadal owns a sparkling 9-2 record in Grand Slam Finals, he has won nine of the 26 Grand Slams that he has entered (34.6%) and he has a 120-17 career record in Grand Slam matches (87.6%).

Borg never faced Sampras or Federer, while Federer played Sampras just once, beating him at Wimbledon in 2001 to end Sampras' streak of four straight titles (and seven wins in eight years)--but Nadal enjoys a 14-7 head to head advantage over Federer and he has beaten Federer five times out of seven in Grand Slam Finals with victories at three different events (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon). At first, "experts" dismissed Nadal's head to head dominance over Federer because many of those matches took place on clay--a distinction which never made sense, because if Federer is truly the greatest player then that should not matter--but now Nadal has proven that he can beat Federer on any surface at any time. If Federer had beaten Djokovic there is every reason to believe that Nadal would have added yet another win to his Federer ledger, so it is ironic that the criticism lobbed at Nadal early in his career--that his record versus Federer was padded because he usually lost at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open before running into Federer--could be directed at Federer regarding this year's U.S. Open.

Maybe Federer will finish his career with a flourish, winning a few more Grand Slams and narrowing the head to head gap with Nadal--but that seems doubtful. It is more likely that in the next three to five years Nadal will break Federer's career Grand Slam record--but let's forget about speculation for the moment and look at the facts as they stand now. Sampras had a great career but his ineptitude at the French Open means that he simply cannot be ranked ahead of Borg, Nadal or Federer. Borg had the shortest career of this quartet but he was the most dominant (in terms of his winning percentages) and he had to battle two of the 10 greatest players ever (Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe) while Federer won many of his Grand Slams before Nadal really hit his stride and without having to deal with another all-time great player at or near his prime. If Borg had captured just one U.S. Open title then his resume would have no gaps but the absence of that jewel from his collection stands in contrast to the career Grand Slams owned by Federer and Nadal.

Federer's artistry is very appealing to the eye and he broke Sampras' Grand Slam singles titles record just seven years after Sampras had set it, a surprising development considering that Sampras' predecessor Roy Emerson held the mark for 35 years, but Federer's overall Grand Slam record is not as dominant as Borg's nor has Federer simultaneously mastered Wimbledon and the French Open the way that Borg did.

After his victory over Djokovic, Nadal modestly deflected comparisons with Federer but the reality is that at this point there is no compelling reason to rank Federer ahead of Nadal on the all-time list: Nadal has accomplished more than Federer did at a comparable age, he has demonstrated that he can win a Grand Slam on any surface and there is that "little" matter of Nadal owning a decisive head to head advantage versus Federer, a statistic that simply cannot be diminished or ignored in light of how well Nadal has now filled out the rest of his resume.

Anyone who felt justified in calling Federer the greatest player of all-time circa 2006--when he was 25, had won eight Grand Slam singles titles and had yet to complete the career Grand Slam--must now accord the same deference to a 24 year old Nadal who owns nine Grand Slam singles titles and a career Grand Slam. Failing that, the "experts" could follow the path that I have recommended all along and refrain from crowning a mythical greatest player until the Federer-Nadal rivalry has completely run its course and we can examine each player's complete body of work.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Three-time Interzonal Winner Bent Larsen Passes Away

Bent Larsen, the six-time Danish chess champion (1954-56, 1959, 1963-64) who is the only person other than Mikhail Tal to win three Interzonal tournaments (1964, 1967, 1976), passed away on September 9 at the age of 75. Larsen earned the Grandmaster title in 1956 after scoring 11 wins, six draws and just one loss while representing Denmark on board one at the Chess Olympiad. Larsen was a serious World Championship contender from the early 1960s through the mid-1970s but he never quite reached the summit; however, Larsen won a total of 26 games against the seven players who reigned as World Champion from 1948-85: Mikhail Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov (you can find all of those games at the bottom of this page; be sure to scroll all the way through, as only the first 20 games are initially visible).

Larsen won numerous strong tournaments--particularly during his prime years in the 1960s--and in 1967 he was awarded the inaugural Chess Oscar, a prestigious honor bestowed on the chess player of the year (as voted on by Grandmasters and chess journalists); Larsen and Viktor Korchnoi (1978) are the only Chess Oscar winners who never became World Champion. For many years, Fischer and Larsen were the two strongest non-Soviet players in the world. Although Fischer infamously quit playing chess in public from 1972-92, many people forget (or don't realize) that even during his prime he had several extended absences from serious competition, including 1968-70 when he only played in two relatively minor events plus one game in the New York Metropolitan Chess League. When Bobby Fischer returned to serious competition in the 1970 USSR versus the World match he showed great respect for Larsen by playing on board two even though he had a higher rating than Larsen; Larsen scored 2.5/4 versus World Champion Boris Spassky and Grandmaster Leonid Stein and Fischer tallied 3/4 versus former World Champion Tigran Petrosian but the USSR won the match 20.5-19.5.

Larsen finished tied for second behind Fischer in the 1970 Interzonal, though Larsen did win their head to head encounter in that event despite having the black pieces; this was Fischer's only defeat in 23 rounds. Here is a lightly annotated version of that game:

Fischer-Larsen, 1970 Palma de Mallorca Interzonal

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Bb3 Be7 8.Be3 O-O 9. Qe2 a6 10. O-O-O Qc7 11. g4 Nd7 12. h4!? In his book Bobby Fischer GM Karsten Muller criticizes this move and says that the main line starts with 12. g5. In Modern Chess Openings (15th Edition), this opening is classified as Sicilian Defense/Velimirovic Attack (pp. 330-331) and 11...Nd7 is critiqued for giving White the flexibility to choose among h4, Rhg1 and even the speculative Nf5 (played by current World Champion Viswanathan Anand in a 1997 game). MCO 15 suggests that Black should have traded Ns on d4. The chess engine Fritz assesses the position to be equal after ...Nd7 or ...Nxd4 but gives Black a slight edge after ...Na5. As for Fischer's 12th move in the actual game, Fritz prefers a3 (presumably to preserve the KB), though I doubt that any top level human player would play that move in this kind of position for fear of weakening his K. 12... Nc5 13. g5 b5 14. f3 Bd7 15. Qg2 b4 16. Nce2 Nxb3+ 17. axb3 a5 18. g6 fxg6 19. h5 Nxd4 20. Nxd4 g5 21. Bxg5 Bxg5+ 22. Qxg5 h6 23. Qg4 Rf7 Black has deftly rebuffed Fischer's K-side attack and now can operate with impunity in the center and on the Q-side. 24. Rhg1 a4 25. bxa4 e5 26. Ne6 Qc4 27. b3 Qxe6 28. Qxe6 Bxe6 29. Rxd6 Re8 The smoke has cleared. Fischer halted Black's looming attack by trading off Qs but at the price of sacrificing a piece for two pawns, which should not be quite sufficient compensation here because White's pawns are not yet very dangerous. 30. Rb6 Rxf3 31. Rxb4 Rc8 32. Kb2 Although GM Muller does not say anything about this move, it appears to be a serious mistake because now Black can seize the seventh rank with great effect. Instead of the text, Fritz recommends 32. c4 Bf7 33. Rb7 Rh3 34. a5. 32... Rf2 33. Rc1 Bf7 34. a5 Ra8 35. Rb5 Bxh5 36. Rxe5 Be2 37. Rc5 h5 38. e5?? GM Muller says that this is the fatal error. Fischer had to try to slow down the h pawn by playing 38. Rh1. 38... Bf3 Larsen seizes control of the promotion squares of his h pawn and Fischer's a pawn. 39. Kc3 h4 40. Kd3 Re2 41. Rf1 Rd8+ 42. Kc3 Be4 43. Kb4 Rb8+ 44. Ka3 h3 45. e6 Bxc2 46. b4 Re3+ 47. Kb2 Bd3 48. Ra1 Ba6 49. Rc6 Rxb4+ 50. Kc2 Bb7 51.Rc3 Re2+ 52. Kd1 Rg2 0-1

Larsen later faced Fischer in the 1971 Candidates semifinals but Fischer blanked him 6-0 (Fischer was in the midst of an amazing streak of 20 straight wins versus elite Grandmasters en route to taking the title from Spassky). It has been suggested that Larsen never quite recovered from that setback--at least in terms of contending for the World Championship--but that is perhaps an unfair and unfounded contention: by the time the next World Championship cycle began Larsen was already pushing 40--i.e., he was at or near the end of what are typically the prime years for a world class chess player--and a young generation of Grandmasters was emerging, led by Karpov, who became World Champion after Fischer forfeited the crown. Karpov reigned from 1975 until Garry Kasparov defeated him in 1985; regardless of what happened in Larsen's 1971 match with Fischer it is unlikely that Larsen could have dethroned Karpov even if he had battled his way to a World Championship match in the 1970s or early 1980s.

Larsen so often played b3 as his first move with White that this opening is most commonly referred to by his name. Although superficially that is not a very aggressive way to begin a game Larsen was in fact a courageous attacking player who fearlessly would take risks to win and who was notorious for declining draw offers (a trait he shared with Fischer).

Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Love This Game and the Game will Love you Back": Andre Dawson's Powerful Hall of Fame Induction Speech

Last weekend, Andre Dawson--the great five tool player known as the "Hawk"--received his long overdue induction into Baseball's Hall of Fame and he delivered a heartfelt, passionate and eloquent speech that not only detailed his path to baseball immortality but also offered a succinct yet powerful indictment of the performance-enhancing drug (PED) users whose disgraceful conduct has made a mockery of baseball's record book: "Individuals have chosen the wrong road," Dawson declared. "They've chosen (cheating) as their legacy. For those who still have a chance to choose theirs, don't be lured to the dark side. It's a stain on the game, a stain that is gradually being removed."

I wish that Dawson were right that the "stain is gradually being removed" but I fear that the "stain" is in many ways permanent and that the "stain" may someday become even bigger if some of the PED cheaters are inducted in the Hall of Fame.

The recurring theme in Dawson's speech was "Love this game and it will love you back." Much like his former teammate Ryne Sandburg, who was inducted in the Hall of Fame five years ago, Dawson was not very talkative as a player but they both proved that they had a lot to say once they ascended to the Hall of Fame podium.

Dawson is a man of character who never took the easy way and it is criminal that his path to the Hall of Fame was blocked for many years because the numbers that he shed blood, sweat and tears to post were blasted to smithereens by the totals stacked up by PED cheaters. During his speech, Dawson thanked his mother--who passed away four years ago but never lost faith that Dawson would be recognized as a Hall of Famer--and other family members who molded his character and work ethic. Listening to Dawson speak should be more than enough to convince anyone beyond the shadow of any doubt that the Hall's doors simply cannot be opened up to any of the players who tainted themselves and the sport by using PEDs. Who would Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Alex Rodriguez or Roger Clemens--and the list goes on, as you can see for yourself--thank if the dark day ever comes that they are selected as Hall of Famers? Their drug dealers?

I don't want to hear any analysis about how good some of those guys were before they started cheating and I don't want to see any projections about how many home runs they might have hit or strikeouts they might have thrown without using PEDs. They cheated, point blank. They turned baseball's record book into something that belongs in the fiction section. They cost other players money, awards and championships. They forced good men like Andre Dawson and Jim Rice to wait years to be inducted in the Hall of Fame (and other good men, like Dale Murphy, are still waiting).

Real baseball lovers know that Henry Aaron is still the all-time career home run king and that Roger Maris--a two-time MVP, seven-time All-Star, three-time World Series champion and one-time Gold Glove winner--is the all-time single season home run king.

I sincerely hope that all of the PED cheaters never come close to being inducted in the Hall of Fame and that in the next few years the Hall of Fame reexamines the careers of some of the stars from the past few decades whose accomplishments were temporarily forgotten as cartoon-sized sluggers pounded baseballs for Herculean distances.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Nadal Clearly Establishes Himself as the Best Player in the World

In most sports it is difficult to single out who is the best player of all-time but it is generally somewhat easier to determine who is the best player at any given time--and right now Rafael Nadal is clearly the best tennis player in the world.

Nadal's convincing Wimbledon victory is a landmark event in Open Era history. Nadal now owns a Secretariat-like 3840 point lead over number two ranked Novak Djokovic, while Roger Federer has dropped to number three, his lowest ranking since November 2003. Nadal's Wimbledon triumph is his eighth career Grand Slam singles title, making him the second youngest player in the Open Era to win that many majors; the prodigious Bjorn Borg was just 23 years, 31 days old when he reached that milestone, exactly one year younger than Nadal was on Sunday when he blew away Tomas Berdych in straight sets in the Wimbledon Finals. Nadal has dominated the ATP Tour this year with a 47-5 match record while winning five events; he was similarly dominant in 2008 and the early portion of 2009--winning three out of four Grand Slams at one point, including the tough French Open/Wimbledon double--before injuries slowed him down and enabled Federer to also pull off a French Open/Wimbledon double to reclaim the number one ranking. Borg remains the only player in tennis history to accomplish the French Open/Wimbledon double three times and he did it consecutively (1978-80), arguably the most difficult feat in the history of the sport.

Nadal is now tied for seventh on the all-time Grand Slam singles title list, matching Fred Perry, Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi; two more wins will enable Nadal to tie Bill Tilden for sixth on the list and one more win after that would match the 11 Grand Slam wins tallied by Rod Laver and Borg. If Nadal wins the U.S. Open he will become just the fourth player to complete a career Grand Slam in the Open Era, joining Laver, Agassi and Federer.

When Federer was Nadal's age he had won six Grand Slam singles titles, so Nadal is significantly ahead of the pace established by the player who many people have proclaimed to be the greatest tennis player of the Open Era. I have repeatedly said that these pundits prematurely crowned Federer; in a 2008 post titled Fantastic Four: Nadal Matches Borg's French Open Streak I wrote:

For quite some time, people have been trying to anoint Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time but despite his impressive accomplishments it makes no sense to confer that title on him when it is not even certain that he will be considered the best player of the current era: his main rival Nadal owns an 11-6 head to head record against him and has come much closer to beating him on the grass at Wimbledon than Federer has come to defeating him on the clay at the French Open. Considering that Nadal is almost five years younger than Federer it is entirely possible that he will eclipse what Federer has done; after all, five years ago Federer had just won his first Grand Slam, while Nadal already owns four Grand Slam titles, beating Federer along the way each time.

Then, in a 2009 post titled Debunking Myths about Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Roger Federer, I declared:

Wilt Chamberlain once said that if he had thought that anyone was going to break his all-time NBA career scoring record then he would have put it "way out of sight." If Borg had been interested in setting the career Grand Slam record, then he would have annually journeyed down to Australia and most likely dominated that event the way that he dominated Wimbledon and the French Open--and he certainly would not have skipped the 1982 French Open when a victory there would have tied Roy Emerson's then record total of 12 Grand Slams (six of which were Australian Open titles won by the amateur Australian player between 1961 and 1967; professional players were banned from playing in any of the Slams until the start of the Open Era in 1968).

Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head, owning a 14-7 advantage, and after Nadal's 2008 Wimbledon win it was clear that Nadal had surpassed Federer as an all-around player; if injuries had not hobbled Nadal during 2009 then Federer would likely only enjoy a 14-10 lead over Nadal in career Grand Slam singles titles instead of his current 16-8 margin--but even as things stand now Nadal has a very realistic chance of approaching Federer's record.

I will not make the mistake of prematurely crowning Nadal the way that some people foolishly prematurely elevated Federer; all that can reasonably and objectively be said right now with both Federer and Nadal still actively playing is that the short list of greatest Open Era tennis players must include Borg, Pete Sampras, Federer and Nadal.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"It's Just a Question of Nerves": Anand Defeats Topalov 6.5-5.5 to Retain World Chess Championship

Viswanathan Anand overcame Veselin Topalov's "homecourt advantage," retaining the World Chess Champion title by defeating the Bulgarian challenger 6.5-5.5 in a match held in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 2008, Anand completed the reunification of the World Chess Championship title that had been split up since 1993's boxing-style rupture in chess' organizational structure. I stand by my contention from two years ago that Anand has not joined Fischer or Kasparov at the very top level in chess' all-time pantheon but Anand has certainly traversed a unique and daunting path en route to becoming World Champion and holding on to that prestigious title; borrowing tennis terminology, he has "won on more surfaces" than any of the preceding champions:

1) Anand won a knockout style World Championship event sponsored by FIDE in 2000, holding that crown for two years.

2) Anand won a double round robin World Championship event sponsored by FIDE in 2007.

3) Anand defeated "Classical World Chess Champion" Vladimir Kramnik--who won his title by defeating Garry Kasparov in a match in 2000--6.5-4.5 in a 2008 match.

4) Anand successfully defended the unified title with his victory over Topalov, who won the double round robin 2005 FIDE World Championship tournament (ahead of Anand, among others) and was the highest ranked player in the world as recently as November, 2009. Topalov is currently second on the FIDE rating list--one point behind Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen--while Kramnik is third on the list and Anand is fourth on the list (those ratings do not include the results of the Anand-Topalov match).

Each of those formats and all of his opponents presented unique challenges.

During an an interview conducted shortly after the match with Topalov ended, Anand provided some insights about the mentality that is required to win such a competition, stating, "It's just a question of nerves." In this high tech, computer dominated era, elite chess players prepare their opening moves to a greater and deeper extent than at any time in chess history but during the games they are under great pressure to remember this preparation while also being ready for any possible surprises (known as theoretical novelties) that their opponents might unleash. Topalov won the first game of the match when Anand got confused about the correct order of his prepared moves, an error which gave Topalov a crushing attack against Anand's exposed king--but Anand showed great psychological resilience by striking back with a game two win to level the score. Anand faced another potential crisis after his blunder in game eight transformed a drawn position into a loss but he steadied himself with three straight draws, setting up a climactic game 12 showdown; if the players drew then they would decide the title by contesting a playoff match consisting of rapid games but Topalov declined a possible draw and tried to finish Anand off at once, a decision that Topalov later admitted was influenced by the fact that Anand performs much better at rapid time controls than Topalov does. Topalov's attack backfired and Anand soon had a decisive advantage.

Monday, March 29, 2010

World Champion, Endgame Virtuoso Vasily Smyslov Passes Away

One of the most significant intellectual, cultural and sporting figures of the 20th century passed away over the weekend but unless you regularly peruse chess websites you likely did not hear or read anything about the death of Vasily Smyslov (1921-2010), the seventh official World Chess Champion (1957-58). During his long professional career, Smyslov won several very strong events, including the famous Zurich 1953 Candidates Tournament. That triumph earned him the right to face World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik in a 24 game match. Smyslov battled Botvinnik to a 12-12 tie, but by rule Botvinnik retained the title. Smyslov then won the Amsterdam 1956 Candidates Tournament and this time he defeated Botvinnik 12.5-9.5. Smyslov had to outduel the world's top players in grueling competition prior to facing Botvinnik but the rules of the time allowed Botvinnik the right to ask for an automatic rematch within a year of losing the crown. Botvinnik exercised that option and beat Smyslov 12.5-10.5. Thus, in three head to head matches Smyslov outscored Botvinnik 35-34 but because of the rematch clause Botvinnik reigned for a total of 13 years between 1948 and 1963 while Smyslov only enjoyed one year as the World Champion (in the next championship cycle after his third match versus Smyslov, Botvinnik lost to Mikhail Tal only to immediately regain the title in a rematch but Botvinnik retired from World Championship play after he lost to Tigran Petrosian in 1963 when the rematch clause was no longer in effect).

Smyslov never again contested a World Championship match but he qualified for the Candidates round three more times. In 1982, Smyslov became the oldest player to ever advance that far but his championship drive was halted by young phenom Garry Kasparov, who went on to become the youngest World Chess Champion ever.

Smyslov earned a record total of 17 medals (including team and individual honors) in Chess Olympiad play, winning 69 games, drawing 42 and losing only twice. Smyslov was a stalwart member of the Soviet team in the European Team Championships, winning individual and team gold medals in each of his five appearances in that prestigious event, tallying 19 wins, 15 draws and just one loss. In 1991, Smyslov won the first ever World Senior Chess Championship (open to players who are at least 60 years old). He retired from tournament play 10 years later due to failing eyesight. Smyslov made extensive contributions to chess theory; his innovations are seen in the English, Grunfeld, Ruy Lopez and Sicilian openings and his book Rook Endings (co-authored with Grigory Levenfish) is considered by many to be the definitive work on that subject. Smyslov was an endgame maestro and his virtuosity in that highly technical aspect of the game reflects his overall chess philosophy, admiringly described by Vladimir Kramnik, the World Chess Champion from 2000-07:

He is truth in chess! Smyslov plays correctly, truthfully and has a natural style. By the way, why do you think he lacks that aura of mystique like Tal or Capablanca? Because Smyslov is not an actor in chess, his play is neither artistic nor fascinating. But I am fond of his style. I would recommend a study of Smyslov’s games to children who want to know how to play chess because he plays the game how it should be played: his style is the closest to some sort of ‘virtual truth’ in chess. He always tried to make the strongest move in each position. He has surpassed many other of the World Champions in the number of strongest moves made. As a professional, this skill impresses me. I know that spectators are more interested in flaws...ups and downs. But from the professional standpoint, Smyslov has been underestimated.

I disagree with Kramnik's contention that Smyslov's play was not "artistic"--it would be more precise to say that Smyslov's play was not as "flamboyant" or "risky" as Tal's--but Jeff Sonas' rating calculations confirm Kramnik's impression that Smyslov "has been underestimated." According to Sonas, despite the fact that Smyslov only enjoyed a brief official reign at the top Smyslov was actually the strongest player in the world for the vast majority of the period extending from November 1953 through September 1958 and Smyslov achieved the sixth best 20 year peak rating ever. Boris Spassky, the ninth World Chess Champion, called Smyslov "one of the great chess geniuses of the 20th century."

Smyslov was also an accomplished baritone singer who once wrote (in Smyslov's 125 Selected Games), "My study of chess was accompanied by a strong attraction to music, and it was probably thanks to this that from childhood I became accustomed to thinking of chess as an art, and have never regarded it as anything else, for all the science and sport involved in it. And, moreover, an art which in some ways is closer to music than it is customary to think. Perhaps chess and music are drawn together by laws of harmony and beauty which are difficult to formulate and difficult to grasp, or perhaps by something else." In that same book, Smyslov declared:

In music I am an admirer of the classics, especially vocal. I love classical opera and classical romance. In such music I see and feel the striving of the composer to express his idea in a single, unique form. Strict beauty and harmony, spontaneity and elegance, the faultless intuition of the artist, the absolute mastery of technique and therefore complete independence from it--this is my ideal. In chess I am also a staunch supporter of classical clarity of thought. The content of a game should be a search for truth and a victory should be a demonstration of its rightness. No fantasy, however rich, no technique, however masterly, no penetration into the psychology of the opponent, however deep, can make a chess game a work of art, if these qualities do not lead to the main goal--the search for truth. Taken on their own, they merely point to the striking talent of their possessor, and nothing more.
Despite Smyslov's immense talents and his quite significant contributions to art and sport, his passing has largely been ignored by the mainstream media; an internet search of his name reveals that most of the coverage of his death has been limited to websites specifically devoted to chess (the New York Times and The Guardian also published nice tributes).

You can read more about Smyslov here, while this page provides an audio clip that is purportedly a recording of a 60 year old Smyslov singing an old Russian folk song. Here is some archival footage of Smyslov playing the piano, singing and competing against Botvinnik:

World Chess Champion Smyslov 1957

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Woods Speaks, World Sits in Judgment

At 11 a.m. on Friday morning, Tiger Woods emerged from his self-imposed seclusion and delivered a prepared statement lasting a little more than 13 minutes. Woods admitted that he cheated on his wife by having several extramarital affairs and he apologized for letting down his family, friends, fans and business partners. Then he hugged his mother, greeted several friends/business associates and went back into seclusion without answering any questions from media members. The widely varying responses to what Woods said and how he said it constitute a veritable Rohrshach test of one's attitudes about a host of issues, including celebrity, morality, the role of the media in modern society and race; depending on your life experiences and your perspectives about those matters, you may think that Woods was contrite and humbled or you may think that he was robotic and fake--but the reality is that no one other than Woods truly knows what is going on in his head and even he may not know to what extent he can/will modify his behavior.

Several things struck me about Woods' remarks. First and foremost, he completely eschewed any form of the typical garbage apology that follows the template "If I offended anyone then I am sorry"; instead, Woods boldly declared:

Good morning, and thank you for joining me. Many of you in this room are my friends. Many of you in this room know me. Many of you have cheered for me or you've worked with me or you've supported me.

Now every one of you has good reason to be critical of me. I want to say to each of you, simply and directly, I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in.

After apologizing directly to his wife, his friends and his fans, Woods said:

The issue involved here was my repeated irresponsible behavior. I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame.

I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them.

I was wrong. I was foolish.

Regardless of your opinion of Woods, try to objectively consider what he did with those words: he accepted complete responsibility for his actions, stating unequivocally that he was wrong and that no one else is to blame. It is hard to think of another celebrity who has spoken with such clarity in a similar situation; contrast Woods' words with Mark McGwire's whiny excuses ("I wish I had never played during the steroid era") and the similarly disingenuous remarks made by Alex Rodriguez and the rest of MLB's PED cheaters. I am not a connoisseur of celebrity apologies but the only one that I can think of off the top of my head that was as brutally frank as Woods' was Kobe Bryant's statement that he was "furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery."

Woods has been criticized for reading a prepared statement instead of speaking from the heart but that is not fair; Woods knew that whatever he said would be seen and heard around the world and literally might be replayed for decades, so it is understandable that he did not want to speak off the cuff. It is obvious that Woods put a lot of thought into what he said and how he said it, so in that sense his words came from an even deeper place in his soul than they might have if he had simply decided to wing it.

There is every indication that Woods wrote the remarks that he delivered and he was quite frank even if he did not satisfy the salacious appetites of those people who lust to know exactly which rumors about Woods are true and which ones are false. When Woods said, "I thought that I could get away with whatever I wanted to" he delivered a very honest explanation of his actions without excusing his conduct.

The second thing that struck me is that Woods neither looks nor sounds like someone who will be playing world class golf any time soon. I had assumed that when Woods reappeared it would be to announce his return to competition and I seriously doubted that he would miss even one of golf's major events--but during his statement golf seemed to be an afterthought at best.

Along the same lines, the third thing that struck me is that we may be witnessing a watershed moment in golf and/or sports history; so far, the Woods story has created a tabloid feeding frenzy that lacked lasting significance--but if Woods misses one or more majors then this story becomes a permanent part of the history of the sport and could loom very large if Woods fails to break Jack Nicklaus' career record of 18 Grand Slam wins.

The fourth thing that struck me is how so many people are trying to make names for themselves at Woods' expense, the most recent example being the so-called body language expert interviewed by ESPN. I will not give her more publicity by mentioning her name but she took the all-time prize for shameless self promotion after an ESPN host asked her what she thought of Woods' statement: she delivered so many plugs for herself and her book that I had almost forgotten the question by the time she got around to trying to answer it. If this had been the Gong Show then someone would have yanked her off the stage.

It is irrelevant whether or not Woods furrowed his brow, cried, tapped his heart or spoke extemporaneously. The bottom line is that he humbled himself literally in front of the whole world by admitting that he violated his marriage vows--and he apologized repeatedly and without any hesitation or excuses. Woods has committed no crime and he certainly does not owe the public a play by play account of his extramarital affairs; just because other people have bared their soul to Oprah Winfrey does not mean that Woods is required to do so. He is quite correct that moving forward this is a private matter between he and his wife. Business partners, fans and others are free to respect his refusal to supply more details or to choose to not deal with him/not root for him--but they are not "owed" more than an apology and a sincere effort by Woods to conduct himself better in the future. It is possible to live a long, healthy and productive life without knowing exactly who Woods slept with and when he slept with them.

Woods spoke the truth early in his statement when he acknowledged that ultimately he will not be judged by his words but rather by "my behavior over time." In this reality TV age, everyone wants to instantly decide if Woods' statement was a "par," a "birdie" or a "bogey" but that kind of thinking is facile, juvenile and ignorant. All that can be honestly said is that Woods made a good step by issuing an unequivocal apology combined with a pledge to be a better man and that only time will tell if his future actions live up to his lofty words.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Manning's Late Interception Clinches Saints' First Super Bowl Win

Indianapolis Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning just won his record fourth regular season AP MVP award but in the most important game of the year he took a back seat to New Orleans' Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who tied a Super Bowl record with 32 completions en route to leading the Saints to a 31-17 victory. Brees posted an astounding 82.1 completion percentage, compiling 288 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions on 39 attempts, which adds up to a 114.5 passer rating; in contrast, although Manning had more yards than Brees (333 yards on 31 completions in 45 attempts for an 88.5 passer rating) he only had one touchdown pass and he threw the "pick six" that will be remembered as the game's defining moment: the Saints were clinging to a 24-17 lead when Tracy Porter nabbed Manning's pass to Reggie Wayne and raced 74 yards to put the Saints up by two touchdowns with 3:12 remaining. Porter also picked off Minnesota's Brett Favre near the end of regulation in the NFC Championship Game, enabling the Saints to eventually triumph in overtime.

The final score does not accurately convey the reality that this was one of the most competitive and closely contested Super Bowls ever; if not for Manning's costly error, the game likely would have been decided in the final seconds or perhaps even required the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Super Bowl MVP Brees and his Saints deserve credit for their poise, efficiency and courage. Coach Sean Payton made several bold play calls, most notably eschewing a short field goal attempt to try to score a touchdown on fourth and goal late in the first half (the Saints did not score but they stopped the Colts and managed to kick a field goal just before halftime) and then successfully employing an onside kick on the opening kickoff of the second half, the first such "surprise" onside kick (i.e., one done prior to the fourth quarter) in Super Bowl history. New England Coach Bill Belichick was widely criticized about his failed fourth down gamble versus the Colts in a regular season game but in retrospect it seems that Belichick was simply ahead of the curve (as usual): great coaches like Belichick and Payton understand that against Manning's Colts it is important to (1) score touchdowns and (2) keep the ball out of Manning's hands as much as possible, even if this involves "risky" ploys such as going for it on fourth down and/or utilizing an onside kick.

Manning's record-setting regular season career statistics and his MVP performance in Indianapolis' 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI establish him as one of the top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history--but, much as I don't understand the rush to crown Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player ever (a subject that I am still debating with several people in the comments section of this 2009 BEST post), I don't understand the apparent rush to crown Manning as the greatest NFL quarterback ever; even if the Colts had won this Super Bowl I don't think that Manning would have merited that title and the Colts' loss--with Manning's interception playing a pivotal role in the final outcome--simply highlights the fact that despite all of Manning's regular season glory he has not been an exceptional postseason quarterback: Manning owns a mediocre 9-9 career playoff record with 28 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. Manning is 2-1 in the AFC Championship Game (five touchdowns, five interceptions) and 1-1 in the Super Bowl (two touchdowns, two interceptions). On six different occasions, Manning's Colts have lost their first playoff game, including years in which the Colts were 13-3 (1999), 14-2 (2005), 13-3 (2007) and 12-4 (2008).

In 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009 Manning made only token appearances in the final regular season game because the Colts were locked into their playoff seed. I have always found it offensive that the Colts used those final regular season games to set regular season milestones for certain players and preserve Manning's consecutive games played streak before essentially throwing those games (yes, I know that the Colts went 2-3 in those games but their attitude was that the result didn't matter at all, which is philosophically equivalent to throwing the games) even though the outcomes could potentially affect playoff seeding for other teams; their actions made a mockery of the league's competitive balance and the full prices charged for tickets to such games. If the most important thing is to win the Super Bowl then why risk having Manning play even one down or why force feed the ball to certain receivers so that they can attain personal single season goals? Manning and/or his receivers could certainly be injured during such plays.

The Colts started this season 14-0 before clinching home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs and deciding to curtail the playing time of several starters in the final two regular season games. I find it very interesting that their own fans lustily booed in response to this and that one fan displayed a sign that said "16-0 Matters to Us," a response to the Colts' statement that a perfect regular season record is meaningless; like that fan, I think that it is disgraceful to treat the regular season with such disdain and I much prefer the way that the 2007 New England Patriots marched to an unprecedented 16-0 record and the way that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls raced to an NBA record 72 wins in 82 games (yes, the rigors of the NFL season differ from those of an NBA season but the principle is the same: greatness is something meaningful and worth pursuing).

Furthermore, it is bizarre that the Colts act as if throwing these games is part of some supposedly tried and true method to improve their chances to achieve their ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl, because the reality is that Manning's only Super Bowl victory came after a season in which the Colts had to play every regular season game full tilt due to their position in the standings. The Colts not only have never won a Super Bowl after resting Manning in the final regular season game but three of the five times that they did this they lost their very first playoff game! I can't prove that resting Manning caused the Colts to lose those playoff games or that it had anything to do with their Super Bowl loss this year but it is certainly fair to say that resting Manning has not helped the Colts because they have yet to win a single Super Bowl after doing so.

One of the most interesting spectacles about this postseason was watching various media members who seemingly could not decide whether they should anoint Favre or Manning as the greatest quarterback ever. Both quarterbacks would likely be on the consensus list of the top 10 quarterbacks ever but if I had to select one of those 10 quarterbacks to win a playoff game or a Super Bowl with my life on the line I would not choose Favre or Manning. Favre went 1-1 in the Super Bowl (five touchdowns, one interception) and 13-11 in postseason play overall (44 touchdowns, 30 interceptions). He is just 4-8 in his last 12 playoff games and the last two times he reached the NFC Championship Game he threw an interception on his team's final offensive possession. If the executioner's sword is dangling over my head then I don't want my life depending on the result of Favre rolling out, chucking the ball as hard as he can and hoping for the best; that may be exciting to watch, it may result in setting a lot of regular season records but it does not produce many championships.

In contrast, Joe Montana went 4-0 in the Super Bowl (11 touchdowns, 0 interceptions) and 16-7 in postseason play overall (45 touchdowns, 21 interceptions); Tom Brady is 3-1 in the Super Bowl (seven touchdowns, one interception) and 14-4 in postseason play overall (28 touchdowns, 15 interceptions). Objectively speaking, it is not possible to realistically compare the statistics of pre-1979 quarterbacks with those of post-1979 quarterbacks due to the drastic rules changes that transformed the NFL into a pass-oriented league but any discussion about the greatest quarterback ever must include Johnny Unitas and Otto Graham. Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to two NFL championships in the 1950s followed by a third NFL title in 1968 (the Colts then famously lost to the AFL Champion New York Jets in Super Bowl III); he also threw the Colts' only touchdown in their Super Bowl IV win over Dallas. Graham led the Browns to the league championship game in each of his 10 pro seasons, winning four AAFC titles and three NFL championships.

Whatever reasonable standard one uses, I simply don't see how anyone can state with confidence that Favre or Manning is a greater quarterback than Graham, Unitas, Montana or Brady. For that matter, Roger Staubach led the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl wins and had the highest regular season career passer rating in NFL history before 1979, while strong-armed Terry Bradshaw may not have been the most efficient regular season passer but he went 4-0 in the Super Bowl while posting a 112.8 passer rating (the third best career Super Bowl passer rating behind Montana's eye-popping 127.8 and Jim Plunkett's 122.8, which Plunkett earned while leading the Raiders to a pair of Super Bowl wins). Furthermore, if you want to talk about "pure" passing ability then Sonny Jurgenson and Dan Marino have to be included in the discussion even though Jurgenson never won an NFL title as a starter and Marino lost to Montana in his only Super Bowl appearance.

Instead of even attempting to communicate some of the information listed above as historical context for a discussion about who might be the greatest quarterback ever we are subjected to pregame shows that insist that one more Super Bowl win would cement Favre or Manning's place as the greatest quarterback ever followed by postgame shows that try to absolve Favre or Manning of responsibility for their team's respective losses even though both players literally threw away their team's chances to win. Favre is still lauded for being a courageous gunslinger--but when a 40 year old quarterback is that talented and that durable but has only won one championship despite having several golden opportunities it is worth wondering if it is noble or foolish that he has gone from being a dark haired gunslinger to being a gray haired gunslinger without ever changing his ways. Similarly, Manning is rightfully praised for his intelligence and his ability to outsmart opposing defenses yet he has been much less successful demonstrating those traits in the postseason than he has in the regular season.

Apparently, Favre and Manning are so well-liked that many people cannot be objective about how to rank them historically in the quarterback pantheon. This is very similar to the glaring flaws that I have observed about how NBA players and teams are compared. Two of my greatest passions about sports are analyzing how/why games are won and lost and critiquing the poor research techniques, idiotic questions, ludicrous biases and substandard writing skills displayed by far too many members of the media. For instance, ESPN's NFL Countdown show is entertaining and often informative but the panel's biases can be jarringly distracting: why does NFL Countdown treat Marvin Harrison--who quite possibly shot a man to death in broad daylight--and Ray Lewis--who was charged with obstruction of justice in an unsolved double murder for which he was initially the prime suspect--as model citizens with impeccable character while simultaneously demonizing Terrell Owens, whose only "crime" is flamboyance, a trait that is considered harmless or even entertaining when displayed by other players? Why is Favre portrayed as some kind of folk hero even though he repeatedly feuds with coaches/management, makes reckless plays in crucial moments and flouts the importance of practice? Allen Iverson is forever dogged by one out of context quote pertaining to practice--Iverson was not questioning the importance of practice but rather asking why a whole press conference was being devoted to the subject--but Favre gets a free pass for annually acting as if he should be above having to attend training camp.

One thing that we can all be grateful about is that no matter how much the media spins things the media is powerless to change the actual results: despite all of the overblown hype, Manning is still a .500 postseason quarterback with one Super Bowl win and Favre apparently has ended two separate retirements with interceptions in the NFC Championship Game. Manning and Favre are two of the greatest quarterbacks ever and they both deserve praise for their remarkable combination of durability and productivity--but that does not mean that the media should portray them as flawless demigods.

Monday, January 11, 2010

McGwire's Admission Reaffirms How Fraudulent MLB's Record Book is

Mark McGwire has now admitted what just about everyone else already figured out several years ago: he used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Initial reactions to McGwire's statement have run the gamut: PTI's Tony Kornheiser absurdly suggested that MLB should grant "amnesty" to PED users who issue apologies; ESPN.com's Rob Neyer attempted to justify McGwire's actions by saying that if he (Neyer) would have needed to take illegal drugs to save his writing career then he would have done it; Vincent Thomas--previously best known for asking what another media room denizen called a "crackhead question" during last year's NBA playoffs--repeatedly declared on Rome is Burning that McGwire should have saved his revelation for a book in order to "get paid." In other words, while McGwire used drugs to enhance his physical performance a lot of writers and commentators act like they have taken drugs that are impairing their mental performance. One voice of reason is Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, who correctly concludes that McGwire "was not a victim of the steroid era, as his statement implies. He was the most obvious creation of it."

I have extensively covered the PED issue (check out the Steroids/Performance-Enhancing Drugs section in the right hand sidebar of BEST's main page for a complete archive of my articles about this subject), debunking the ludicrous assertion that steroids don't work and repeatedly stating that PED users should be banned and should have their records vacated. A few months ago in a post titled Revelations About Sosa Show That MLB Must Fumigate the Record Book I wrote:

All of the players who have been caught by the drug testers, outed in the Mitchell Report or otherwise reliably linked to illegal PED use should either be removed from the record book completely--much like the NCAA "vacates" results by programs that cheated--or, at the very least, listed separately under a heading that indicates that their numbers are fraudulent to some degree. If the Players Association or individual players complain, then MLB should invite the aggrieved parties to file a lawsuit and then testify under oath that they are clean; that way, those players will open themselves up to criminal charges of perjury. Somehow I doubt that Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and crew will be interested in placing themselves in that kind of jeopardy.

There are two reasons why MLB must act so forcefully:

1) It is important to be fair to the players--past and present--who did not cheat.
2) The two main reasons that the cheaters cheated were to get paid and to establish a place for themselves in history (Sosa just smugly spoke about being elected to the Hall of Fame because of his great numbers); the best message that MLB can send to young baseball players is that cheaters do not prosper and that when they are caught all of their numbers are nullified.

Six of the top 15 players on MLB's career home run list have been linked to PEDs, including leader Barry Bonds and the sixth ranked Sammy Sosa, plus Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez, who are currently tied for eighth-ninth. Those cheaters--plus the 11th ranked Rafael Palmeiro--pushed clean, Hall of Fame sluggers Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt out of the top 10 in the sport's most glamorous statistical category, while cheater Manny Ramirez currently sits just two home runs behind Schmidt and only trails Jackson by 17 home runs. During Monday night's SportsCenter, John Kruk--a three-time All-Star who candidly conceded that he was not an "elite" player--said that the more that comes out about the "Steroid Era" the angrier he becomes. Kruk noted that he and other clean players were essentially playing "naked" while apparently a substantial number of "elite" players benefited from using illegal drugs. Kruk added that he cannot help but wonder what kind of numbers he and other clean players might have put up had the playing field been level. It is worth noting that PED usage not only warped statistics but also had a huge economic impact, because the cheaters reaped tremendous financial gains and the trickle down effect of their profits is that the clean stars earned less than they otherwise would have, the clean above average players who potentially could have been stars lost those opportunities and, clearly, some clean fringe players who might have been just good enough to play in the majors had their dreams completely shattered.

It cannot be emphasized enough that MLB's record book has been completely fraudulent for quite some time. The Olympics and the track and field authorities have responded to their steroid/PED scandals by wiping out the records/honors won by cheaters like Marion Jones and at some point MLB Commissioner Bud Selig--or his successor--must take a similar action.

McGwire's statement is carefully crafted but it is as fraudulent as MLB's record book. McGwire likely composed his remarks with the cooperation and help of MLB authorities in order to cast himself and the sport's decision makers in the best possible light (such as McGwire's assertion, "Baseball is really different now--it's been cleaned up. The commissioner and the players' association implemented testing and they cracked down, and I'm glad they did"). McGwire declares, "I did this for health purposes. There's no way I did this for any type of strength use" and adds "I wish I had never played during the steroid era." The first statement is a lie and the second statement is a cop out. Steroids and HGH--the substances that McGwire has belatedly admitted that he ingested for the better part of a decade during the height of his career, including the 1998 season when he shattered Roger Maris' single-season home run record--help to build strength and thus enhance performance; that is why they are called performance-enhancing drugs--and to assert anything else is about as scientifically valid as saying that the Earth is flat. We all know that superior hand-eye coordination is required to hit major league pitching and that PEDs do not improve those skills--but the point is that if you already possess those skills and then augment that natural talent with unnatural strength your performance (and thus your statistics, particularly in the power categories) will be greatly enhanced.

It is transparently clear why McGwire made his admission now:

1) Next season he will be a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and if he had not said something prior to the season then he would surely have been bombarded by questions about steroids/PEDs every day. McGwire issued his statement during the height of the NFL playoffs, hoping to minimize the amount of coverage that it gets and hoping that by the time Spring Training rolls around he can declare that this is old news and, reprising his infamous line, that he "does not want to talk about the past." McGwire says that now he is willing to answer questions about his PED use--but let's see just how long this willingness lasts and how forthcoming he really is; look for McGwire to do a handful of teary-eyed interviews with carefully selected media sycophants before he quickly clams up, says that he has nothing to add to his prepared statement and gruffly requests that all he wants to talk about is his future as a hitting coach.

2) Forgiveness is deeply entrenched in American culture, so McGwire has reason to believe that his chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame are better now that he has belatedly admitted the truth; clearly, his vote totals during his first several years of eligibility suggest that without such an admission he had little chance of being inducted, so in this regard he has everything to gain and nothing to lose, as can be seen by the early reactions of Kornheiser and Neyer referenced above.

It appears that Commissioner Selig is eager to welcome McGwire back into an active role in MLB but Selig's warm embrace of the man who cheated his fans and his employers out of tens of millions of dollars, who cheated Maris out of the single season home run record that Maris worked so hard to obtain and whose successful cheating clearly inspired the subsequent cheating by Bonds and others raises several important questions: for starters, when is Selig going to accept Pete Rose's similarly belated apology for betting on baseball? There is no evidence or indication that Rose's gambling had anything to do with his playing career, a stark contrast to how McGwire built his legacy squarely on PED use (while some can argue that Bonds was a Hall of Fame caliber player prior to his PED use, McGwire--by his own admission--used PEDs throughout his career). Furthermore, the only reason that Rose is not in the Hall of Fame now is that the HoF--under great pressure from MLB--made a grossly unfair postfacto decision after MLB suspended Rose that players on the suspended list may not be put on the HoF ballot. How can Selig possibly justify praising McGwire while leaving Rose in limbo? Another question that must be asked is why is MLB in such a rush to canonize McGwire but is making no such apparent efforts regarding Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and the other black and Latino PED users? Again, let me emphasize that in my opinion every single PED user--white, black, Latino or any other color/ethnicity--should be banned and should have his statistics "vacated." However, if MLB is going to absolve McGwire while ignoring all of the black/Latino PED-using record breakers then MLB certainly seems to be applying a racist double standard (not that this would be the first time MLB would be guilty of doing that).

Jose Canseco--an admitted steroid cheater whose tell-all books revealed just how rampant PED use has been in MLB, despite vigorous denials by Bonds, McGwire, Palmeiro and others--is one of the few honest men in Major League Baseball concerning the justly named "Steroid Era." That tells you all you need to know about the state of the sport and about the disastrous reign of Bud Selig, the man who has presided over the destruction of MLB's most cherished legacy, its record book.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Hawk Finally Swoops Into Cooperstown

Andre Dawson was the ultimate five-tool player and his combination of power, speed, hitting ability, fielding prowess and a strong arm earned him the nickname "The Hawk." Dawson is the only player who received enough votes to be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame this year but just a glance at his resume shows that he should have glided into Cooperstown a long time ago: 1977 NL Rookie of the Year, eight time All-Star, eight time Gold Glove winner, NL MVP runner-up in 1982 when he led the Montreal Expos to their first and only playoff appearance, 1987 NL MVP in his first season with the Chicago Cubs (the first player from a last place team to win that award), 438 career home runs (36th all-time, ahead of old school Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Duke Snider and Al Kaline) and 1591 career RBI (34th all-time, just four RBI behind Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and George Brett and seven RBI ahead of Hall of Famers Rogers Hornsby and Harmon Killebrew). Dawson's knees absorbed a terrible pounding during his early years patrolling the AstroTurf outfield for the Expos but despite injuries that robbed him of some of his mobility and caused him great pain he still totaled 314 career stolen bases, joining Willie Mays and Barry Bonds as the only players in MLB history with at least 400 career home runs plus at least 300 career stolen bases.

It is fitting to mention Bonds' name in connection with Dawson's, because it is partially Bonds' fault that Dawson had to wait so long to join the Hall of Fame; when Bonds and the other performance-enhancing drug (PED) using cheaters made a travesty of MLB's record book in the 1990s and 2000s it became easy to overlook the accomplishments of stars from the 1970s and 1980s like Dawson and Dale Murphy (a two-time NL MVP, seven time All-Star and five time Gold Glove winner who still has not been inducted in the Hall of Fame). How could players who "only" totaled 350-450 home runs be elected to the Hall of Fame when players began routinely cranking out 50-plus home run seasons en route to astronomical career totals exceeding 500 home runs? I am not interested in parsing out how many home runs Bonds, Alex Rodriguez or any other cheaters hit when they were clean--all of those guys cheated the game, cheated themselves, cheated the fans and cheated the legitimate Hall of Famers who came before them and I hope that the Hall of Fame voters reject all of them the way that Mark "I'm not here to talk about the past" McGwire has been rejected so far. The Hall should spend the next decade or so inducting every omitted player from the 1970s and 1980s and the few spotless guys from the 1990s like Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas but I hope that I never see Bonds, Rodriguez or Roger Clemens in Cooperstown. How can the Hall exclude Pete Rose as a player for conduct that he did as a manager and then induct players whose actions tainted the sport's history and records?

The sad postscript to Dawson's election to the Hall of Fame is that the honor came three years after his mother passed away--but at least Dawson can be somewhat comforted by the fact that Mattie Brown, like any good mother, never doubted her son's talent or his place in history, telling him "Baby, it's gonna happen. Don't worry about it. Just be patient. You did what you did for a long time. The Hall of Fame, they can prolong your entry but they won't take it away from you."

Keeping Eric Mangini is a Smart Move by Mike Holmgren--Even if it Doesn't Work

When Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner briefly emerged from seclusion to hire Mike Holmgren to reverse the franchise's decade-long sagging fortunes, no one could have imagined that the initial step in that process would be to retain first year coach Eric Mangini; the Browns started the season 1-11 and could easily have been 0-12 if the Buffalo Bills had not gift-wrapped a win for the Browns by fumbling in field goal range late in Cleveland's 6-3 week five victory (Cleveland's game-winning "drive" traversed 15 yards in seven plays, culminating in a chip shot 18 yard field goal). Lerner clearly brought Holmgren aboard to do yet another "reboot" of the Browns' malfunctioning operating system after previous attempts to create "49ers East" (with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark), "Miami Hurricanes North" (with Butch Davis) and "New England Patriots West" (first with Romeo Crennel, then with Mangini) all failed dismally, resulting in just two winning seasons and one playoff berth since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. Then, Mangini's Browns--who spent the first three fourths of the 2009 season redefining offensive ineptitude--suddenly discovered a winning formula that involved heavy doses of running back Jerome Harrison, kick returner/wide receiver/"wild cat" formation quarterback Joshua Cribbs and an improving defense: the Browns closed the season with four straight wins, the team's first such streak since Bill Belichick coached the franchise's original incarnation back in 1994 (which is also the last season that the Browns won a playoff game). The Browns' strong finish raised the possibility that Holmgren would not clean house but instead give Mangini the opportunity to continue to coach the team.

Although respected Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto asserts that "the easiest move would have been to fire coach Eric Mangini," a more in depth analysis of the situation proves that the opposite is true: while firing Mangini would have been "the easiest move" to make a month ago, Holmgren would have had little to gain and much to lose by firing Mangini right now. If Holmgren canned Mangini and the Browns started out slowly next season then the heat would be on Holmgren for not giving Mangini a fair chance. Mangini has made an improbable transformation from the coach who fans wanted to run out of town to the coach that many fans feel has earned the right the right to keep his job. The only reasons for Holmgren to get rid of Mangini now are (1) if his long range plans are completely incompatible with Mangini's coaching philosophy and/or (2) if Holmgren has a top notch, proven winner lined up to succeed Mangini.

Regarding the first reason, by keeping Mangini around so soon after Mangini had been a dead man walking, Holmgren has all but assured Mangini's loyalty: if Holmgren offers input--say, about how to handle the quarterback position--and Mangini balks then Holmgren can justify getting rid of Mangini by referring back to what Holmgren said in his introductory press conference, namely that a team can only be successful if the owner, executives, coaches and players are all on the same page. So, Mangini has little choice now but to do things Holmgren's way; the four game winning streak saved Mangini's job but it did not give him carte blanche to do whatever he wants to do. With noted quarterback guru Holmgren running the franchise the Browns will hopefully enjoy some stability at the quarterback position by either firmly establishing one of the two incumbent signal callers as the definite starter or by acquiring a better player to fill that spot.

As for the second reason to dismiss Mangini, there is no way of knowing whether or not whoever Holmgren may have wanted to bring in to coach the team is even available but coaching the Browns is hardly a dream job at this point for any coach who has established himself as a winner and therefore can pick and choose where he lands.

Then consider that even with that final four game push the Browns still finished dead last in the NFL in net yards gained (4163) and 31st (next to last) in net yards allowed (6229); the Browns gained nearly 2300 fewer yards than the top ranked offensive team did (New Orleans Saints, 6461) and they allowed nearly 2000 yards more than the top ranked defensive team did (New York Jets, 4037). In other words, the Browns must not only find a way to maintain their late season performances in the running game, defense and special teams but they must also upgrade themselves in other areas (most notably the passing game) in order to contend for a playoff spot. If Harrison is not cranking out 100 yard rushing games and/or if the Browns do not placate Cribbs' demands to renegotiate his contract then the team could get off to a miserable start next season. In that case, Holmgren can fire Mangini with no negative repercussions from the media or fan base and Holmgren will have a bit of a grace period to find a new coach and turn the team around.

Of course, if the Browns race out of the gates next season and become the latest team to vault from last place to playoff contention then Holmgren will receive a lot of praise for being flexible and patient and resisting the urge to fire Mangini. I don't know what kind of season the Browns will have in 2010 but whatever they do Holmgren has ensured that he will not face serious scrutiny until at least 2011.