Sunday, December 23, 2012

Chess Year in Review: Anand is the Champion but Carlsen is the Story

It has been a very eventful year in the chess world. Viswanathan Anand successfully defended his World Chess Championship title for the third consecutive time and he is the only player to win the World Chess Championship in four different formats. Anand has consistently been a top player for many years--he ranked no lower than third on the rating list from 1996 to 2008--and the 43 year old is trying to prove that he can still keep pace with the new generation of rising stars.

Although Anand is the official champion, he is not the strongest player in the world (and he has not been for quite some time); that title belongs to Magnus Carlsen, the "Mozart of Chess," who recently broke Garry Kasparov's record for highest chess rating of all-time. Carlsen's 2861 rating is 10 points higher than Kasparov's standard, which had stood for 13 years; prior to that, Bobby Fischer held the record (2785) from 1972 until 1990, when Kasparov eclipsed Fischer and became the first player to achieve a 2800 rating. While Carlsen's accomplishment is impressive, it is important to remember that the significance of a chess rating is not determined by the raw number but rather by the rating difference between players. When Fischer ranked first on the July 1972 FIDE Rating List, the number two player in the world (former World Champion Boris Spassky, who Fischer defeated 12.5-8.5 in the 1972 World Chess Championship despite losing one game by forfeit) had a 2660 rating; rating classes in chess are separated by 200 point intervals, so Fischer was more than half a rating class ahead of the rest of the world at that time! Only 18 players in the world were within 200 points of Fischer's rating in 1972; that kind of dominance is unparalleled in modern chess history and perhaps only equaled by Paul Morphy's brief run at the top in the 1850s, long before chess ratings existed.

When Kasparov broke the 2800 barrier, he led Anatoly Karpov by 70 points and there were 32 players rated at least 2600; Carlsen is currently joined by two other players in the 2800 rating club plus there are an additional three players rated at least 2780 and there are more than 70 players who are within 200 points of Carlsen. Kasparov was a dominant champion but--at least based on ELO rating differential--he was not as dominant as Fischer, while Carlsen is clearly the best player in the world right now but he has yet to dominate his contemporaries in anything approaching the manner that Fischer and Kasparov stood above their contemporaries. Rating inflation has lifted all boats, so to speak, and Carlsen would have to separate himself from the rest of the fleet by another 70 points or so to match Fischer's Usain Bolt-like lead.

Carlsen won three major events in 2012: the Tal Memorial, the Grand Slam Chess Final and the London Chess Classic (the December tournament during which Carlsen broke Kasparov's rating record). He scored 11 wins, 15 draws and just one loss (18.5/27, an outstanding .685 winning percentage) in those tournaments. Carlsen has won three straight chess Oscars (a prestigious award given to the chess player of the year) and has a good chance to pick up his fourth such honor; only Kasparov (11), Karpov (nine) and Anand (six) have won more chess Oscars than the 22 year old Carlsen, who will likely set the all-time record in this category as well.

In many ways this is a golden age for chess: there are many great players who are playing excellent and exciting games, developments in computer technology have improved preparation/study techniques and elevated the level of play and Carlsen may have the right balance of genius and charisma to attract more sponsorship for chess in countries where the sport is not as popular as it is throughout Europe and Asia. It is unfortunate, though, that chess resembles boxing in the sense that someone who is widely recognized as the best is not officially the champion due to flaws in the bureaucratic structure of the sport; this is a problem that dates back to Fischer's era and continued during Kasparov's reign when several "official" champions were crowned even though Kasparov was clearly the best player in the world. Hopefully, Carlsen will participate in the next World Championship cycle and have the opportunity to join Fischer and Kasparov as official World Champions.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Cleveland Browns Must Use Bill Walsh's Three Year Plan

In an October 5, 1998 Sporting News article, Bill Walsh insisted that it should only take three years to build a championship caliber team--provided that ownership, management and the coaching staff are all on the same page. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been one of the NFL's model franchises since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger and it is not a coincidence that they have been rock solid in all three areas identified by Walsh; they have been owned by the Rooney family since 1933, the team's management has done a great job of finding (and keeping) talented players and the franchise has a proven track record of hiring the right coach: since 1970, the Steelers have employed just three head coaches--Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin--while winning six Super Bowls in eight Super Bowl appearances. Each of those three coaches led the Steelers to at least two Super Bowls and at least one Super Bowl title.

Since the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have been the opposite of a model franchise; their owners have thrown around money but not spent those funds wisely, management has consistently failed to bring in quality players despite having numerous high draft picks and the team's six head coaches are distinguished only by the fact that none of them had notable head coaching success before, during or after taking the helm in Cleveland. Based on Walsh's formula, the Browns should have been able to build a contender by the early 2000s and even rebuild a second contender a few years later if some of the players from the first contender declined due to age. Instead, the inept Browns have posted just two winning records and made just one playoff appearance since 1999; they won five games or less in nine of the last 13 seasons. In year 14, the Browns are currently 5-8 but the current three game winning streak has raised some hope that perhaps the franchise is finally, belatedly heading in the right direction (though it must be noted that two of the wins were against sorry Oakland and Kansas City squads while the third win came against a Pittsburgh team starting a third string quarterback).

New Cleveland Browns majority owner Jimmy Haslam used to be a Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner, so he is very familiar with the inner workings of that organization. He must not allow himself to be swayed by a small winning streak; he must look at a larger body of evidence in order to decide whether or not General Manager Tom Heckert can build a championship roster and then Heckert (or the new General Manager) must decide if Pat Shurmur is a championship caliber head coach. Even with the three game winning streak, Shurmur's career record with the Browns is just 9-20--and Shurmur's game plans/game management skills do not indicate that he is an elite head coach. Once the Browns have the right General Manager and head coach in place, they must determine if 29 year old rookie Brandon Weeden can lead a team to a Super Bowl; if it takes three years for the new Browns brain trust to put together a championship caliber roster then Weeden will already be 32 and might be within five seasons of retiring. If it is not reasonable to expect Weeden to develop into an excellent quarterback then the Browns need to draft or sign such a quarterback during the offseason. I think that the Browns should keep Heckert and Weeden but replace Shurmur with a top shelf coach--either a proven NFL winner or else a young, promising assistant (much like Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin were before they became Super Bowl-winning head coaches).

If Haslam makes wise choices then the Cleveland Browns should be a contender--not just a playoff team but a legitimate Super Bowl contender--in three years; if he does not put the right General Manager and head coach in place (and if those two guys do not groom Weeden or someone else into an excellent quarterback) then the Browns will continue to frustrate their loyal fans by missing the playoffs.