Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Great Chess Movie: A Wonderful Time Capsule of World Class Chess in the Late 1970s/Early 1980s

The Great Chess Movie is a 1982 feature-length documentary about the world of chess. Director Gilles Carle and researcher Camille Coudari--a Canadian International Master who also appeared in the film--wanted to interview Bobby Fischer but the reclusive former World Champion (1972-75)/eight-time U.S. Champion declined to participate in the project. Carle and Coudari instead depict Fischer's rise and fall through a combination of archival footage and interviews with various Grandmasters who competed against Fischer. They also create interesting profiles of Anatoly Karpov (World Champion from 1975-85) and Viktor Korchnoi (who twice challenged Karpov for the World Championship).

International Master Michael Valvo and Professor Monty Newborn describe the efforts to build a strong chess playing computer. Belle, the strongest chess computer in the world in the early 1980s, evaluated over 100,000 positions a second--quite impressive for that era but laughably primitive compared to the current silicon beasts that evaluate millions of positions per second. The ability of computers to play chess very well--and yet not totally "solve" the game (unlike checkers, which was "solved" many years ago)--raises the question of exactly what kind of skill it takes to become a strong chess player. Coudari speculates that great chess players have a very specific kind of intellectual ability centered on the application of visual memory and he notes that Sammy Reshevsky--the prodigy who later became U.S. Champion--displayed uncanny visual memory when a psychologist tested him as a young boy but he did not score as exceptionally well in other categories.

The second Karpov-Korchnoi World Championship Match, held in Italy in 1981, receives extensive coverage in the film and the depredations of the Soviet Union are well worth remembering: Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union in 1976 but his wife and son were forbidden to leave the country, so Korchnoi suffered enormous psychological pressure and torment while competing against Karpov, the darling of the Soviet system. That was just the culmination of decades of maneuvering that the Soviets did to make sure that the world championship title stayed in their hands as "proof" of the superiority of communism over capitalism. While there is no denying that Fischer suffered from psychological problems--and thus it is possible that he was in some way incapable of defending his title--the Soviets certainly took advantage of Fischer's fragile mindset during the tense negotiations for the eventually aborted 1975 Fischer-Karpov match; one clip--poignant viewing for any true chess fan--depicts a confident Fischer stating that once he captured the title he would make sure that future matches would be decided by who wins the most games (with draws not counting) but of course Fischer's insistence on this condition ultimately led to him losing the title to Karpov without a fight. Ironically, after Karpov became champion the Soviets eventually agreed to this change and Karpov's 1984 match versus Garry Kasparov was supposed to be won by the first player to amass six victories with draws not counting (Karpov took a 5-0 lead but Kasparov fought back to 5-3 and then after 48 total games the match was suspended without decision when it seemed that Karpov was on the verge of mental and physical collapse; they started a new match under the old format in 1985 and Kasparov ended Karpov's reign with a 13-11 victory, five wins to three with 16 draws).

The movie lasts 79 minutes and I have posted it below in three separate video clips; the footage near the end of the first video clip and extending into the early portion of the second video clip is a particularly fascinating examination of the difference between Fischer's approach to chess and Karpov's approach to chess: Grandmaster Ljubomir Ljubojević, who eventually ascended to third in the world rankings behind only Kasparov and Karpov, says that Fischer played chess dynamically--seemingly creating chances for both sides but really only creating chances for himself because he saw so much more than his opponent--while Karpov played chess in a more controlled manner, seeking to eliminate his opponent's chances. Ljubojević confidently declares that Fischer's method is superior, a prescient statement considering that within a few years Kasparov employed a very dynamic playing style to dethrone Karpov.

Karpov was Kasparov's great rival--they battled for world chess supremacy for the better part of a decade--so it is understandable why Kasparov has expressed the belief that Karpov would have had good chances against Fischer in 1975 (i.e., Kasparov elevates himself by elevating Karpov) but it is interesting to observe that in the context of that time, even as Karpov dominated the chess scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the various Grandmasters interviewed in the film consider it obvious that Fischer was superior to Karpov, though Jan Timman concedes that Karpov had "proved more" (by winning tournaments as World Champion, while Fischer never played in a sanctioned event after capturing the title).





Monday, February 20, 2012

"Chess is its Own Universe"

"Chess is a brutal game. You can't take your moves back. Once you play your move you could be stepping into some horrible trap."--Grandmaster Daniel King

"Chess is its own universe. It is not a board game."--Grandmaster Daniel King

Bob Simon does not understand much about chess--or anything else--but chess is such an endlessly fascinating subject that this interview with Grandmaster Daniel King is worth watching anyway (just ignore the questions and concentrate on the answers):

Monday, February 6, 2012

Eli Manning Takes His Place Among NFL Immortals

Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Tom Brady: until yesterday, that was the complete list of quarterbacks who had won at least two Super Bowl MVPs--three Pro Football Hall of Famers and one mortal lock to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after he retires. You can now add Eli Manning to that list and you can rest assured that, like Brady, Manning is a lock to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Manning played with surgical precision--30-40, 296 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a blistering 103.8 passer rating--and he was again a cold blooded fourth quarter killer as he led the New York Giants to a come from behind 21-17 victory over Brady's New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Manning has defined himself as one of the great clutch players in NFL history: he set an NFL record this season with 15 fourth quarter TD passes, he has now won a record seven playoff games at road or neutral sites and in both of his Super Bowl victories he has delivered late fourth quarter touchdown drives when his team trailed.

It's not Brady like played poorly, either; a few late incompletions on the last, desperate drive lowered Brady's completion percentage and passer rating but Brady still finished with very good numbers: 27-41, 276 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 91.1 passer rating. During the process of lifting the Patriots from a 9-0 deficit to a 17-9 lead, Brady broke Joe Montana's record by completing 16 straight passes (Montana's 1990 record was 13 passes). The one area where Brady did not excel in this game was the deep pass: he was 0-5 on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, five whiffs that included a crucial fourth quarter drop by Wes Welker that could have all but clinched a New England victory, his sole interception and his first pass of the game, a long bomb over the middle that was ruled to be an intentional grounding safety (a somewhat questionable call that a few commentators disputed after the game). In contrast, shortly after Welker's drop led to a New England punt, Manning made the play of the game by delivering a perfect strike to Mario Manningham for a 38 yard fourth quarter completion that dramatically shifted field position and set the stage for New York's game-winning drive. As ESPN's Trent Dilfer--a Super Bowl-winning quarterback in his own right--often says, there is no defense for a perfect throw; Manningham made a nice catch and did a good job of getting both feet down inbounds but Manning's pinpoint accuracy made that play possible.

Victories are often won and legacies defined by the ability to execute--or the failure to execute--the most basic fundamentals in the most pressure packed moments. Bill Parcells often talks about the importance of not being "that guy"--the guy who makes the play that potentially costs his team the game. The reality is that games are rarely truly decided by the last, most obvious gaffe--it would be just as accurate to say that the Patriots lost because of that first play safety--but the drop by the sure-handed Welker definitely gave the Giants an opportunity that they otherwise likely would not have gotten; if Welker holds on to the ball then the Patriots probably would have, at the very least, drained most of the time off of the clock before kicking a short field goal to obtain a 20-15 lead. Instead, the Giants got the ball back and Manning had the chance to once again display his steely nerves and cool execution under fourth quarter duress.

New York's win neither ended a Patriots' dynasty nor did it create a Giants' dynasty; New England's dynasty lasted from 2001-04 when the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four seasons, then the uptempo Patriots went 16-0 in 2007 before falling to the Giants in the Super Bowl and now the Patriots used a two tight end offense to once again reach the Super Bowl: Coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have been the constants but the Patriots have essentially experienced three different eras since 2001. Two Super Bowl wins sandwiched around a three year span in which the Giants twice failed to even qualify for the playoffs hardly establishes the Giants as a dynasty at this point, though a third title within the next couple years would perhaps be cause to reevaluate that assessment. New York's win also did not diminish the legacy that Belichick and Brady built in 2001-04 but it did accentuate the point that the Patriots have had some difficulties finishing their playoff runs from 2005-11 and it did distinguish Coach Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning as exceptional clutch performers; Coughlin does an excellent job preparing his team and Manning does an excellent job not only executing Coughlin's game plan but also at times creating something out of nothing when a play breaks down.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI Analysis and Prediction

As he usually does, ESPN's Steve Young provided excellent and concise analysis when he gave his take on the upcoming Super Bowl XLVI showdown between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. Young said that he is surprised that the Patriots are favored because if you break down the individual matchups objectively the Giants have the edge on paper--but Young added that the Patriots do enjoy two important advantages: Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Young meant no disrespect to Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning, who both played important roles when the Giants upset the Patriots four years ago in the Super Bowl to ruin New England's attempt to complete an unprecedented 19-0 season, but Young stated that he believed that somehow the Patriots will find a way to beat the Giants this time.

I agree with Young on both counts: the Giants look better on paper but Belichick and Brady will find a way to get it done. Coughlin is an excellent coach and Manning may very well be a future Hall of Famer but Belichick and Brady will be remembered as the avatars of early 21st century NFL football much like Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw owned the 1970s by winning four Super Bowls in a six year period. The key matchups tomorrow will involve Brady versus New York's pass rush and New York's wide receivers versus New England's suspect secondary. I think that Belichick's offensive adjustment will involve using a heavy dose of no huddle and/or hurry up offense to prevent New York from making situational substitutions and to wear New York's defense down mentally and physically. Look for Wes Welker to have a big game in the slot--10 or more receptions--and while most of his plays will likely be for less than 15 yards he may have one long play that could prove to be the gamebreaker in a close contest. Defensively, the Patriots will have to rely on formation shifts, gimmicks and stout run stopping at the point of attack to keep New York off balance. Turnover differential is always an important statistic and it will be critical in the Super Bowl; Brady has been unusually interception prone in his last few playoff games and he must be "clean" on Sunday if the Patriots are going to win.

I predict that the Patriots will survive a tough battle that is not decided until the final possession, emerging with a 27-24 victory.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Ryan Braun MVP Fiasco Delivers Yet Another Black Eye to MLB

The so-called "Steroids Era" in Major League Baseball is supposedly over--but someone forgot to tell the players; last year, Manny Ramirez--a two-time World Series champion and one of the most prolific sluggers of his era--retired rather than serve a 100 game ban after failing a performance-enhancing drug test for the second time in his career. It is bad enough that MLB spent more than a decade turning a blind eye while Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and many other cheaters won home run titles, picked up numerous MVP awards and turned the MLB record book into a fraudulent, meaningless document--but it is becoming increasingly apparent that PED usage is such a deeply ingrained part of MLB culture that even the belated adoption of a drug testing program has not discouraged big name players from continuing to cheat. The MLB's blind eye has been blackened so many times that I don't think integrity and honesty can ever be fully restored to the sport's record book and history; too many players successfully cheated the game to win MVPs and World Series rings.

Before Ryan Braun had the chance to pick up the 2011 NL MVP trophy, MLB revealed that he failed a PED test during the season. Neither MLB nor the baseball writers who vote on the award have expressed any interest in taking away MVPs from the previous generation of cheaters and the same low standard is being applied in Braun's case; even if Braun's appeal is denied and he is suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 season he will still get to keep his trophy and his name will still be listed for all time as one of the sport's MVPs.

Maybe Braun is truly innocent--but if his best defense is that he unknowingly ingested a banned substance that is not much of a defense at all; all players have access to the banned substances list and they have the opportunity to easily check with MLB to make sure that they are complying with the rules. It strains credulity to believe the pathetic excuses offered by the long list of top notch players who claim to have "accidentally" taken a PED; an athlete's body is his primary source of his income and it is hard to believe that elite athletes "accidentally" put harmful (but temporarily performance-enhancing) substances in their bodies.