Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Beauty, Wonder, Mystery and Horror of Chess, Part II

In The Beauty, Wonder, Mystery and Horror of Chess, I cited several examples of top level players making ghastly blunders, underscoring just how challenging and heartbreaking this sport can be. One more game can be added to that list; in round one of the ongoing Dortmund Sparkassen tournament, a world-class player overlooked a simple tactic.

Wang Hao, whose 2752 rating places him 15th in the world, had Black in this position against former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik (2784, fourth in the world):

Kramnik's extra pawn is not that meaningful because Hao's major pieces are so active. However, Hao played ...Ra2??, enabling Kramnik to pick off the wayward Rook with Qb8+ followed by Qb1+. This is a classic example of what Grandmaster John Nunn meant when he coined the phrase "Loose Pieces Drop Off." Strong players typically "overprotect" their pieces to prevent such "accidents" from happening.

This is not the first time that Hao lost a game because he overlooked a two move tactic; in the 2012 London Grand Prix he calmly defended a pawn down position, won back the lost pawn and was about to force a draw when he moved his King straight into a helpmate. After that loss, a stunned Hao said, "I can say nothing. It was a simple blunder. Something should have happened with my brain."

Chess can be brutal sometimes, requiring tremendous concentration during a game and often also requiring great resiliency after a game to overcome the psychological devastation resulting from one brief lapse that ruined several hours' worth of hard fought work.

Kramnik, who blundered into mate in one against Deep Fritz nearly seven years ago, can certainly empathize with Hao--as can anyone who has played serious tournament chess.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Baseball Vision and Chess Vision Function in Very Similar Ways

Superficially it may seem that hitting a baseball and finding the best chess move are completely different activities mentally, psychologically and physically but in fact baseball vision and chess vision are structured the same way--and to a large extent they are both learned skills, not natural talents. A fascinating Sports Illustrated article by David Epstein titled WHY PUJOLS CAN'T (AND A-ROD WOULDN'T) TOUCH THIS PITCH explains that elite performers--whether they are baseball hitters or chess Grandmasters--do not have better vision or quicker reaction times than regular people; in fact, Albert Pujols--one of the greatest hitters of all-time--ranked on the 66th percentile for reaction time when he was tested by researchers from Washington University in St. Louis. So why can Pujols hit Major League fastballs so effectively and why is he not able to hit the pitch mentioned in the article's title, a softball thrown by Jennie Finch?

The answers to those two questions have nothing to do with reaction time and everything to do with how the brain "chunks" data. Epstein explains:

For four decades, scientists have been constructing a picture of how elite athletes intercept speeding objects. The intuitive explanation is that the Albert Pujolses and Roger Federers of the world simply have the genetic gift of quicker reflexes, which give them more time to react to the ball. Except that isn't true.

When people are tested for their simple reaction time--how fast they can press a button in response to a light--most of them, whether they are teachers, lawyers or pro athletes, take around 200 milliseconds, or one fifth of a second. That is about the minimum time it takes for the retina at the back of the human eye to receive information, for that information to be conveyed across synapses--the gaps between neurons, each of which takes a few milliseconds to cross--to the primary visual cortex in the back of the brain, and for the brain to send a message to the spinal cord that puts the muscles in motion. All this happens in the blink of an eye. (It takes 150 milliseconds just to execute a blink when a light is shone in your face.) But as quick as 200 milliseconds is, in the realm of 100-mph baseball pitches and 140-mph tennis serves, it is far too slow.

A typical major league fastball travels about 10 feet in just the 75 milliseconds that it takes for sensory cells in the retina to confirm that a baseball is in view and for information about the flight path and velocity of the ball to be relayed to the brain. The entire flight of the baseball from the pitcher's hand to the plate takes just 400 milliseconds. And because it takes half that time merely to initiate muscular action, a major league batter has to know where he is swinging shortly after the ball leaves the pitcher's hand--well before it's even halfway to the plate.

The window for actually making contact with the ball, when it is in reach of the bat, is five milliseconds, and because the angle of the ball relative to the hitter's eye changes so rapidly as the ball gets closer to the plate, the advice to "keep your eye on the ball" is impossible to follow. Humans don't have a visual system fast enough to track the ball all the way in. A batter could just as well close his eyes once the ball is halfway to home plate. Given the speed of the pitch and the limitations of our physiology, it seems to be a miracle that anybody hits the ball at all.

When Janet Starkes tested the visual perception abilities of elite Canadian volleyball players and novice Canadian volleyball players by showing them still photos for a fraction of a second and asking them if a ball was visible, she made a fascinating discovery: the elite players could tell at a glance whether or not a ball was in a picture, while the novice players could not. She later tested field hockey players and got the same result. Epstein writes:

Not only could elite field hockey players tell in less time than the blink of an eye whether or not a ball was in the frame, but they could also accurately reconstruct the playing field. This held true among basketball and soccer players too. It was as if every elite athlete miraculously had a photographic memory when it came to her sport.

The question, then, is how important these perceptual abilities are to top athletes--and whether they are the result of genetic gifts. And there's no better place to look for an answer than in a type of competition in which the action is slow, deliberate and devoid of the constraints of muscle and sinew.

That brings us straight to chess and the famous study conducted by Adriaan de Groot in the 1940s. De Groot, a Dutch psychologist and chess Master, showed various chess positions from actual games to players ranging in strength from amateur to elite Grandmaster. Grandmasters had instant, almost total recall of the chess positions, while the weaker players had correspondingly less accurate recall--but when William G. Chase and Herbert A. Simon repeated de Groot's experiment in 1973 they also showed the players random positions of pieces that could not occur in a real game and they made an important discovery: the Grandmasters could not remember the random positions any better than the amateurs could. The critical difference between a Grandmaster's recall and an amateur's recall is that the Grandmaster "chunks" information: for instance, instead of seeing a Bishop and three pawns, a Grandmaster sees the formation known as a "fianchettoed Bishop." Similarly, a great hitter is not actually watching a pitched ball--as mentioned above, the human visual system is not capable of tracking the ball in real time--but rather he is picking up subtle cues from the pitcher's body such as shoulder position and hand location. Starkes' elite volleyball players could quickly find the ball based on viewing the picture as an organic whole instead of many disparate parts--and that is exactly how a Grandmaster views a chessboard.

Epstein writes, "Studies that track the eye movements of experienced performers, whether chess players, pianists, surgeons or athletes, have found that as they gain experience, they are quicker to sift through visual information and separate the wheat from the chaff. Experts swiftly discard irrelevant input and cut to the data that are most important in determining their next move. While novices dwell on individual pieces or players, experts focus more attention on spaces between pieces or players that are relevant to the unifying relationship of parts in the whole."

This ability to see "the unifying relationship of parts in the whole" is crucial to the success of a great tennis player like Roger Federer, a great boxer like Muhammad Ali and a great basketball rebounder like Dennis Rodman; a novice waits to see the tennis ball, the incoming punch or the basketball hitting the rim but an expert takes in the whole picture at once by deciphering visual cues learned from hours and hours of practice. I know from my personal experience playing pickup basketball that some players just have an inexplicable knack to go get the ball, a knack that is often not the product of being the quickest player, the strongest player or the best jumper. Similarly, my experience as an Expert level chess player is that I can "see" patterns and tactics quicker than the vast majority of chess players but that Masters and Grandmasters "see" patterns and tactics even quicker; I have a particularly vivid memory of watching a young Hikaru Nakamura--who became the youngest master in U.S. history, a record that has since been broken--glance at an endgame position that had puzzled two strong Masters for the better part of a half hour and almost instantly "see" the best sequence of moves for both sides. There is talent involved in such wizardry but I think that many people underestimate just how much hard work is involved as well.

So, if Pujols is a Grandmaster of seeing baseball pitches then why can't he hit Finch's softball pitches? Epstein notes, "Since Pujols had no mental database of Finch's body movements, her pitch tendencies or even the spin of a softball, he could not predict what was coming, and he was left reacting at the last moment...It is only by recognizing body cues and patterns unconsciously that Pujols can determine whether or not he should swing at a ball when it has barely left the pitcher's hand." Pujols' advantage on a baseball diamond is not physical or genetic as much as it is the product of years of training his mind and his body to perform one specific task; facing Finch is as perplexing to him as it was for a Grandmaster to try to memorize a nonsensical chess position that cannot be "chunked" into logical constituent parts.

Epstein concludes, "...the perceptual sports skills that separate experts from dilettantes are learned, or downloaded (like software), through practice. They don't come standard as part of the human machine. That fact helped spawn the best-known theory in modern sports expertise, and one that has no place for genes."

The theory in question is referred to variously as the "10,000 hour rule" or "deliberate practice" and it suggests that mastery of a sport, a musical instrument or almost any other endeavor is closely linked to putting in 10,000 hours of practice to hone one's perception and technique.

In Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II, I quoted Philip E. Ross, who wrote in Scientific American about the importance of this kind of deliberate practice: "To accumulate this body of structured knowledge, Grandmasters typically engage in years of effortful study, continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond their competence. The top performers in music, mathematics and sports appear to gain their expertise in the same way, motivated by competition and the joy of victory."

Does this mean that anyone can become a Major League baseball player or a Grandmaster? Of course not. Many skills and attributes are necessary to reach the highest level in any field. However, it does mean that the seemingly supernatural way that a baseball player quickly "sees" a pitch and that a Grandmaster instantly "sees" a winning move is not in fact supernatural at all but rather the product of hard work. We cannot all become pro baseball players or Grandmasters but we all can become better at what we most love to do if we are willing to work very hard at it; that should provide motivation to keep trying to reach whatever your potential is, as opposed to lamenting that you may not be able to become the absolute best at something: Albert Pujols and Hikaru Nakamura worked very hard to fulfill their respective potentials and they set great examples for all of us to follow: focus on the learning process and the work instead of being preoccupied with possible outcomes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

MLB Should Ban Disgraced Braun for Life

Liar. Cheater. Thief. That is who Ryan Braun is and that is how he should always be remembered.

Ryan Braun looked into the cameras and lied--boldly, repeatedly and defiantly. He swore up and down that he had never taken performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). On February 24, 2012 he declared, "I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point." Everyone Braun lied to, cheated and stole from would like to cash in that bet. Ryan also self-righteously said, "I tried to handle the entire situation with honor, with integrity, with class, with dignity and with professionalism because that's who I am and that's how I've always lived my life. If I had done this intentionally or unintentionally I'd be the first one to step up and say I did it." What a sad, twisted, narcissistic, ego-maniacal joke--only no one who has any sense or decency is laughing.

Ryan Braun cheated the game, himself, his teammates, the fans and opposing players. He participated in an extensive, illegal performance-enhancing drug program with the express purpose of outdoing honest competitors and being paid more money than his natural talents are worth.

Ryan Braun stole millions of dollars. He is no different from a bank robber who wears a ski mask and waves a gun. If Braun had not artificially enhanced his performance then he almost certainly would have made much less money, money that would have been paid to players who acquired their skills honestly and who posted legitimate statistics.

For some inexplicable reason, it suits the ideological perspective of certain economists and/or "stat gurus" to assert that steroids do not work but even if one disregards the scientific evidence that steroids and other PEDs work just apply Occam's Razor: why would so many elite athletes go to such lengths to take illegal drugs if these drugs did not significantly improve their performance and thus their earning power? That should be an argument that an economist can understand.

It should not be necessary to mention this but--for the benefit of anyone who may not know--since 1991 it has been against federal law to use steroids without a valid prescription. This is most assuredly NOT just an internal matter to be handled privately by various sports leagues; the PED cheaters are criminals.

Major League Baseball and Braun agreed upon a 65 game suspension that will cost Braun $3.85 million of his $9.61 million 2013 salary--but Braun gets to keep his tainted 2011 National League MVP and the tens of millions of dollars he has already stolen and he will still receive more than $100 million in salary from 2014 to 2021. MLB's settlement agreement with Braun is a sell out; it neither adequately punishes Braun for his egregious offense nor does it provide much of a deterrent for possible future offenders. PED cheaters now know that even if they get caught red-handed they can still make more than $100 million.

Rob Manfred, Executive Vice President, Economics & League Affairs for Major League Baseball, issued this ludicrous statement: "We commend Ryan Braun for taking responsibility for his past actions. We all agree that it is in the best interests of the game to resolve this matter. When Ryan returns, we look forward to him making positive contributions to Major League Baseball, both on and off the field."

What Manfred should have said is something like this: "Major League Baseball will not tolerate it when players cheat the game and cheat the fans. We will act aggressively to prevent such conduct, to punish it severely when it is discovered and to strip any PED offenders of the money and awards that they received under false pretenses. There is no place in our game for cheaters."

The only surprising thing about this is that MLB did not ask Braun what day/time he would like for his suspension to begin. Perhaps there is a certain road trip he would like to make and some cities he would like to visit before he sits out the rest of the season? Actually, since so much of what MLB does is shrouded in secrecy, we cannot be sure that MLB did not in fact let Braun choose when his suspension would start.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has repeatedly fumbled the PED ball and now that ball has become a massive avalanche that has destroyed the sport's record book and its credibility. The current so-called crackdown is a farce. MLB should have stripped Braun of all of his honors, awards and records, banned him for life and taken every possible measure to force him to repay his ill-gotten salary.

Until MLB completely disassociates itself from Ryan Braun and all of the other PED liars, cheaters and thieves, the sport is a joke and a sham that cannot be taken seriously by anyone who values honest and fair competition.
Further Reading

Biogenesis Scandal Demonstrates that Bud Selig and Major League Baseball Still Have not Contained the PED Problem

Cabrera's Website is as Fake as His Artificially Enhanced Body 

Cabrera Suspension Yet Another Sign that MLB's "Steroid Era" is not Over

Two Sports Ilustrated Cover Stories Detail the Sordid Legacy of Baseball's "Steroid Era" 

The Baseball Hall of Fame Should Not Honor the Tainted Career of Ivan Rodriguez

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

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Best Thing About Sports: The Ever Changing, Unpredictable Narratives

We thought that we knew the story. Mike Tyson was an unstoppable force, a knockout machine so fearsome that he seemed to win many of his fights before they even began as his terrified opponents stared at him through saucer-sized, fearful eyes. Then Buster Douglas came along and Tyson looked less like an all-time great and more like the neighborhood bully who finally met someone who was not afraid of him.

We thought that we knew the story. John Elway and the Denver Broncos could never win the big one. Elway had a rocket arm and nimble feet but he was destined to come up short in the Super Bowl. Then Terrell Davis arrived, Coach Mike Shanahan tinkered with the offense and Elway won back to back Super Bowls as a stirring coda to a Hall of Fame career. 

We thought that we knew the story. The 2007 New England Patriots seemed to be the ultimate team of destiny, a squad that had recently won three Super Bowls in four years, had just completed the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history and was now poised to finish 19-0 by winning a fourth Super Bowl. Then Eli Manning and the New York Giants pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.

We thought that we knew the story. Tiger Woods was destined to shatter Jack Nicklaus' record for major championships, while Phil Mickelson was a talented but flawed player whose reckless approach would inevitably lead to thrilling moments followed by baffling choke jobs. The same thing was true of Woods that used to be said of Nicklaus: He knew that he was the best, his opponents knew that he was the best and he knew that his opponents knew. Woods never came from behind to win a major championship but he never needed to come from behind because he usually had lapped the field by Sunday. Chess Grandmasters once spoke of "Fischer Fear," referring to the way that Bobby Fischer intimidated other great players to such an extent that those players performed far below their normal standard against him; for many years it seemed like golf's best players suffered from "Woods Fear," collapsing down the stretch of tournaments at the mere sight of Woods prowling the back nine. Then Woods' personal life crashed--literally and figuratively--and he struggled to regain his former dominance; Woods may still believe that he is the best (or he may doubt that at some level, which could be part of his problem) but it is clear that his competitors no longer suffer from "Woods Fear."

Meanwhile, Mickelson--whose personal life seems to be the steady and grounded opposite of his free-swinging playing style--has figured out how to seize the big moments on Sunday at major championships as opposed to shrinking from those moments. Mickelson has won more majors since 2004 (five) than any golfer except for Woods (six) and he seems to be getting better with age, while Woods' game does not seem to be aging well; Woods used to be the ultimate finisher but in his past several majors he has started strongly only to falter down the stretch and it is unclear if the problem is physical, mental or some combination of both factors. It is a tribute to Woods' former greatness that despite his recent drought he still has won more majors in the past nine years than anyone else (and more than Mickelson has won in his entire career) but unless Woods undergoes some kind of revival the narrative of his career--and of his rivalry with Mickelson--will be much different than anyone could have imagined as recently as that fateful Thanksgiving weekend in 2009 when Woods' private life became a source of public mockery and derision.

The great thing about sports is that competition is the ultimate unscripted drama. We may think that we know the characters and we may think that we know the stories but people can change their lives and write new, previously unimaginable tales.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Chess and Religion

Although the chess world includes a broad cross section of races, nationalities and creeds, my subjective impression is that a large number--if not the majority--of chess players are not religious; the tournament schedule does not make it easy for one to regularly attend religious services, though it is of course possible for dedicated people to do so by taking byes or, at the professional level, making suitable arrangements with the organizer.

It is well known that people of Jewish ancestry have been disproportionately represented at the highest levels of chess but very few of those great Jewish chess players actively practiced Judaism. Sammy Reshevsky is the most famous and accomplished Orthodox Jewish chess player, while in more recent times Boris Gulko and Leonid Yudasin reached Grandmaster status while also maintaining traditional Jewish observances.

In the 1940s, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the son-in-law of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn), conducted monthly public talks in Crown Heights during which he would explain traditional Jewish concepts in a way that would make these ideas relevant and comprehensible to a lay audience. Sometimes he would connect an audience member's name to that person's job and to certain spiritual/mystical ideas. Reshevsky attended one of these gatherings and Rabbi Menachem Mendel offered this fascinating perspective about the meaning of chess:
The king is the most valuable piece on the chessboard. Protecting the king and attacking the pieces which threaten the king's "dominion" is the objective of the game, and the goal of all the pieces at the king's disposal.
The same thing is true with all of created reality. The king represents the King of the Universe. When G‑d created the world, He had an end-goal in mind--that this G‑d-denying reality be made into a place where His dominion is known. Just as all of the pieces in the chess game exist only to protect the king and further his goal, all components of creation only exists in order to fulfill this deepest desire of the King of kings.
While the king represents the transcendent quality of G‑d, the queen represents malchut d'Atzilut, G‑d's immanent quality. This quality of G‑d generates the rest of the spiritual hierarchy, including all the angels and souls.
The officers--rooks, bishops and knights--represent the angels. They inhabit the spiritual worlds and channel Divine energy to the worlds below and are imbued with great powers.
And on the lowest rung are the pawns, which represent the souls of Jews as they are embodied in physical bodies in this world.
Every level of this hierarchy has a unique position and method of moving, in accordance with its mission.
On the lowest rung, but on the front lines, are the pawns. Like the pawn that can only go forward one step at a time, we make the world into a place where G‑d can feel at home by moving slowly, step-by-step. We do our work with simple actions that are often not very glamorous. Although we can achieve a lot, we must work within the limits of the natural universe.
However, when a pawn finally completes its step-by-step progression and reaches the other side, it can be swapped and promoted to a higher level. It is even possible for a pawn to attain the level of queen.
This is also true spiritually: It is possible for a simple human soul to be united with its source in malchut d'Atzilut, to be charged with the level of G‑dliness that is higher than all the angels and souls. We are the only ones in all the realms of created reality that are capable of this kind of drastic transformation.
This is in contrast to the officers: the rook, bishop, or horse. They can hop and skip, several steps at a time. Yet they can each only move in the way they have been assigned. The rooks only move in straight lines, the bishops only move diagonally, and the knights only go two-squares-vertically, one-square-horizontally, or vice versa.
In the spiritual worlds, each angel has its own unique character and method of transmitting the Divine flow to the lower worlds. But while angels are supernatural spiritual forces, they can "hop and skip," they are limited by their own job-descriptions. Unlike humans, angels cannot act out of character, upgrade or improve themselves.
The queen has more power and freedom than any of the officers; she can move infinitely in any direction. But freedom implies risk, and the queen is often thrown into harm's way for the sake of the game. Paralleling this, G‑d allows an aspect of Himself to go into exile, to become embedded in a world that will not necessarily recognize His presence. G‑dliness can be found everywhere and at any time, even in situations that appear foreign to G‑d.
Interestingly, the king, the most important piece, seems to have the least power. While it can move in any direction, it can only move one step at a time, like a lowly pawn. It does not engage in the fighting, and it moves only when it is most necessary, to win the whole game or in a time of danger.
This is because the king represents the innermost essence of G‑d which is completely removed from the mundane world. This aspect of G‑d does not ordinarily become engaged in the happenings of the world. But in a stunning move of extravagance, when the battle becomes a battle of life-and-death, when the whole purpose of creation is at stake, the King of kings, "G‑d" in the most infinite sense, steps in and joins us. We are never far removed even from that most transcendent aspect of G‑d.
And what does it mean to win a game of chess? What is the future that even G‑d Himself will drop everything to save? It means to win the war of all wars: when the world will be a place of good and harmony, peace and tranquility; when no part of G‑d will be in exile; and when the essence of G‑d will no longer be "removed" from creation.
Regardless of one's religious beliefs--or even if one does not believe in any form of organized religion--the allegorical concept of how a lowly pawn can, step by step, transform itself (and the world) is very beautiful.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

How Garry Kasparov Used Simple Counting to Find a Brilliant Combination

National Master Jim Jordan, a two-time Dayton Chess Club Champion, insists that anyone who can count can become a chess master, because he believes that even the most complicated chess position can be reduced to counting how many times each player is attacking a key square. While this is a bit of an oversimplification, there is some truth to Jordan's blunt observation: he may be too casually dismissing how much skill it takes to know what to count and when to count it but counting is certainly an important aspect of chess mastery.

Garry Kasparov played a beautiful Queen sacrifice against Anatoly Karpov in game 20 of the 1990 World Chess Championship in no small part because Kasparov sought to exploit a basic numerical advantage--he could deploy seven attackers against Karpov's King, while Karpov could only mobilize five defenders:

Be sure to check out the end of the video, when the narrator notes that Kasparov is "very excited" but must "restrain himself" in order to accurately calculate the winning line; that is great advice for all chess players: even if you are sure that you are winning, restrain your excitement, refrain from moving too quickly and make sure that you play the best moves all the way until the end.