Sunday, September 29, 2013

Justin Sarkar Overcomes Obstacles, Obtains GM Norm

International Master Justin Sarkar finished =2nd-5th at the 2013 U.S. Masters Championship with a score of 6.5/9. He gained 44 USCF rating points, putting him at 2531--just 18 points short of his career-high. In addition to that, he obtained his second Grandmaster norm. He now needs one more norm (plus 45 FIDE rating points) for his Grandmaster title to be confirmed. Grandmaster is the most prestigious title in chess other than World Champion. It is quite an accomplishment for anyone to achieve this goal but this is particularly true for Sarkar, who has battled both Asperger's syndrome and depression to reach the elite level in a highly demanding sport/art/science.

Sarkar recently wrote an article for Chess Life Online about his ongoing life and chess transformation. Here is an excerpt:

I attribute my success to working on myself as a person outside of the game more than chess work itself...

Let me next touch upon dealing with depression, not because it's the most stimulating topic but rather to fill a gap. Although I'm undoubtedly far from alone in this world in my struggles with it, I can tell from vast personal experience that it's one of the worst feelings ever and a problem with chemical (not character), thus a true handicap and even unfortunate source of misunderstanding at times with people...

When you really think about it, surprisingly often change is easy whereas it's the resistance to change that gets in one's way. Depressed or not, it’s important to do what we love. And this is the key point: my depression eases when I play chess. Naturally, I am one of the most active players in the country.

In August 2009, I described Sarkar's "perfect game." It is wonderful and inspirational that he continues to overcome obstacles to achieve success not just in the chess world but also in terms of his personal growth and happiness. His character is defined not by the challenges he is facing but by the way that he has confronted those challenges with courage and strength.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Losing Is Painful but it is not Necessarily Bad

"Sometimes the pain is extremely intense, because the fiasco is like a small death."--Almira Skripchenko-Lautier, Europe Women's Champion, answering a question about defeats.

"I was completely winning. If I don't kill myself tonight I'm gonna to live a thousand years."--Ivan Sokolov, after his draw with Hikaru Nakamura at the 2013 Tata Steel tournament.

There is no better proof that chess is a violent game than GM Sokolov's curt comment after a draw--a draw, mind you, not a loss; if squandering even half a win can prompt thoughts of suicide, it is clear that throwing away a full point is very devastating both psychologically and physically. Chess players will understandably go to great lengths to avoid such devastation and suffering. It is tempting and seductive to think that if you are smart enough or tough enough or work hard enough then you can control all possible outcomes in sport and/or life but the reality is that even at the height of your powers you can only control, at most, one side of the equation: your thoughts/actions. You cannot control the outcome, though of course proper thinking and disciplined action provide the greatest likelihood of obtaining the desired result.

Even the most dominant players and teams do not win every single game or match. Losing is inevitable but even though losing is painful it is not necessarily bad. It is very important to develop a mindset that enables you to turn failure into success and that views a loss as a challenging stepping stone, not a permanent stumbling block.

However, that does not mean that one should receive an award just for showing up. Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson decry the "Trophy-Industrial Complex" that provides awards merely for participating. Merryman declares

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?

If I were a baseball coach, I would announce at the first meeting that there would be only three awards: Best Overall, Most Improved and Best Sportsmanship. Then I’d hand the kids a list of things they’d have to do to earn one of those trophies. They would know from the get-go that excellence, improvement, character and persistence were valued.
Losing hurts, but in the moments following a defeat a true competitor does not want a trophy but rather an opportunity to learn from past mistakes in order to do better in future games; an introspective person learns much more from his losses than he learns from his wins and he studies his losses very thoroughly instead of being satisfied to relive his wins: one image that comes to mind in this regard is Jerry Rice saying that if he caught 10 passes and dropped one then after the game he would focus much more on the lone drop than on the many successful plays. Paraphrasing Vince Lombardi, the idea is to chase perfection because, even though it can never be captured, during that pursuit we can obtain excellence.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Habit, Attitude and Promises to Yourself

John W. Scott's book Step-by-Step Basketball Fundamentals (Prentice Hall, 1989) contains wisdom that can be applied beyond the basketball court--and even outside of sports in general. The author of this first passage, quoted on page 142, is unknown:

I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper--or your heaviest burden. I will push you onward or drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command. Half the tasks you do you might just as well turn over to me and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly. 

I am easily managed. You must merely be firm with me. Show me exactly how you want something done, and after a few lessons, I will do it automatically.

I am the servant of all great men--and, alas, of all failures as well. Those who are great, I have made great. Those who are failures, I have made failures.

I am not a machine, but I work with all the precision of a machine, plus the intelligence of a man. You may run me for profit or run me for ruin. It makes no difference to me.

Take me, train me, be firm with me, and I will put the world at your feet. Be easy with me and I will destroy you.

Who am I? I am HABIT.

I have always been a fan of wisdom presented in aphoristic form. On pp. 144-145, Scott lists a series of inspirational quotations; here is a sampling:

"To every man comes in his lifetime a special moment when he is tapped on the shoulder and offered a very special job, fitting and unique only to his talents. What a shame and a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for the work."--Winston Churchill

"Blessed are those who dream dreams and are willing to pay the price to make them come true."

"Desire is the conception of talent."--J.W. Scott

"There are three kinds of people: Those who want to make things happen, those who don't know what happened and those who make things happen."

"It's better to shoot for the stars and miss, than aim for the gutter and hit."

"There is no chance, no fate, no destiny that can circumvent, hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul."

"If you perceive a goal, and reach it, you live a dream."--Lou Brock

"Make no small plans, for they have no magic to stir people's souls."--Daniel Burnham

"Each day is like a stitch in your own little pattern. The more time and effort you put into your goals, the stronger your design will be."--J.W. Scott

"The only way to coast is by going downhill!"--Zig Zigglar

"The weak let their thoughts control their actions; the strong make their actions control their thoughts."--Og Mandino

"My life is my message."--Mahatma Gandhi

"Adversity, temptation, depression, and trials come to you when you are doing something right or are about to receive a blessing, calling or victory. Your failure to persist will turn them away."--J.W. Scott

"With ordinary thought and extraordinary persistence, all things are attainable."--Thomas Buxton

"The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement!"

"Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles he has overcome while trying to succeed."--Booker T. Washington

"It's okay to have butterflies; just make sure they fly in formation!"

"Work is the only fuel the vehicle of success will run on."--J.W. Scott

"A champion doesn't give up; he gets up!"

"The smallest action is better than the greatest intention."

"The most valuable gift you give to another is a good example."

"Growth is the only evidence of life."

"Winners contemplate their desires, not their limitations."

"Desire can rewrite all of your scouting reports."

On p. 146, the chapter titled "Attitude" begins with an epigraph titled "Promise Yourself," written by an anonymous author:
  • To be strong so nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
  • To make all your friends feel that there is something great within them.
  • To look for good in everything and make your optimism come true.
  • To think only of the best, to work only for the best, to expect only the best, and never to settle for anything short of the best within yourself.
  • To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
  • To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
  • To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
  • To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
  • To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.
The "Attitude" chapter concludes with a lengthy passage by Sydney J. Harris:

How to Tell a Winner

A loser believes in "fate"; a winner believes that we make our fate by what we do or fail to do.

A loser looks for the easy way to do it; a winner knows that "the easy way" and "the hard way" are both meaningless terms--there are only innumerable wrong ways, and one right way, to achieve a goal.

A loser blames "politics" or "favoritism" for his failure; a winner would rather blame himself than others--but he doesn't waste much time with any kind of blame.

A loser feels cheated if he gives more than he gets; a winner feels that he is simply building up credit for the future.

A loser becomes bitter when he's behind, and careless when he's ahead; a winner keeps his equilibrium no matter which position he happens to find himself in.

A loser smolders with unexpressed resentment at bad treatment, and revenges himself by doing worse; a winner freely expresses resentment at bad treatment, discharges his feelings and then forgets it.

A loser sometimes tries to imitate a winner, but he takes only temporary winners as his models; a winner knows who is worth learning from and who is only a sham success.

A loser is afraid to acknowledge his defects; a winner is aware that his defects are part of the same central system as his assets, and while he tries to minimize their effect, he never denies their influence. 

A loser prides himself on his "independence" when he is merely being contrary and prides himself on his "teamwork" when he is merely being conformist; a winner knows which decisions are worth an independent stand, and which should be gone along with.

A loser is envious of winners and contemptuous of other losers; a winner judges others only by how well they live up to their own capacities, by some external scale of worldly success, and can have more respect for a capable shoeshine boy than for a crash opportunist.

A loser leans on those stronger than himself, and takes out his frustrations on those weaker than himself; a winner leans on himself, and does not feel imposed upon when he is leaned on.

A loser thinks there are rules for winning and losing: a winner knows that every rule in the book can be broken, except one--be who you are, and become what you were meant to be, which is the only winning game in the world.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why is Rafael Nadal Not Praised Now the Way that Roger Federer Was Praised in 2006?

Rafael Nadal earned his 13th Grand Slam singles title by defeating number one ranked Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the U.S. Open final. Nadal is authoring one of the greatest calendar year performances in the Open Era: he has a 60-3 match record in 2013 and he has won 10 titles, including two Grand Slams (French Open, U.S. Open). Nadal is 22-0 on hard courts this year, further refuting the notion that he is just a clay court specialist. Injuries forced Nadal to miss the 2013 Australian Open during a seven month break from competition but, even though his durability is a constant concern, he has won at least one Grand Slam in nine straight years--a remarkable record, surpassing the standard of eight set by Bjorn Borg and later matched by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

The second ranked Nadal did not officially take over the number one spot but it is obvious that Nadal is the best player in the world. Nadal now needs just one more Grand Slam win to tie Sampras for second place on the all-time list and Roger Federer's record of 17 does not look quite as safe as it did at the start of 2013. The 27 year old Nadal owns a .361 Grand Slam winning percentage, capturing 13 titles in 36 appearances. Borg ranks first all-time in this category (11/27, .407), while Federer (17/58, .293) and Sampras (14/52, .269) are far behind Nadal and Borg. Federer's peak Grand Slam winning percentage--achieved after he won Wimbledon in 2009--was .366 (15/41).

When David Foster Wallace gushed over Roger Federer in an August 2006 essay, the 25 year old Federer had won eight Grand Slam singles titles in 29 appearances (.276 winning percentage) and had amassed six first round losses--yet Wallace and others openly and enthusiastically touted the notion that Federer had already established himself as the greatest tennis player of all-time. The first dubious aspect of such a wide-ranging declaration is that it is unfair--if not impossible--to compare Open Era players with players from earlier eras; the rules, conditions and overall context were just too different. If Rod Laver had been permitted to play in the Grand Slam events during his prime years then he likely would have set unbreakable records--but we cannot know for sure what he would have accomplished, so all that can be intelligently said is that Laver deserves to be prominently placed in any discussion of the greatest tennis players ever: he should not be punished for "only" winning 11 Grand Slams, nor can he be credited with all of the Grand Slams that he almost certainly would have won.

The second dubious aspect about declaring Federer to be the greatest player of all-time is that he has never established the simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance displayed by Bjorn Borg. When Borg made his final Grand Slam appearance in 1981--at just 25 years old--he held the modern male record for both Wimbledon titles (five) and French Open titles (six) and he had won the "Channel Slam" (capturing Wimbledon and the French Open in the same calendar year) a still-unmatched three times in a row. Sampras and then Federer dominated Wimbledon during their primes and Nadal has dominated the French Open but no one has ever mastered grass and clay at the same time the way that Borg did.

By the time that Sampras broke Roy Emerson's record for most career Grand Slam titles, many commentators touted Sampras as the greatest player of all-time but Sampras' relative ineptitude at the French Open--he only made it to the semifinals once in 13 trips to Roland Garros--disqualifies him from being favorably compared to Borg, Federer and Nadal. Federer won one Channel Slam (2009)--albeit without facing Nadal that year in the French Open--and Nadal has captured two (2008, 2010). Nadal owns a 21-10 head to head advantage over Federer and Nadal built that lead from the beginning of his career, when Federer was at the height of his powers. Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other more often than any other Open Era rivals, with Nadal winning 22 of their 37 matches. Nadal leads Federer 8-2 in head to head Grand Slam matches and Nadal has beaten Djokovic eight times in 11 Grand Slam matches.

The Borg-Nadal comparison is intriguing; Nadal owns more total Grand Slam wins, more French Open wins and a pair of U.S. Open titles (Borg reached four U.S. Open finals but never captured the crown) but Borg has a better career Grand Slam winning percentage and he established himself as his era's best grass court player and best clay court player. It is reasonable to assume that if Borg had kept playing then he would have won at least a couple more French Opens and perhaps even finally bagged the elusive U.S. Open title. Borg and Nadal are very similar in terms of athletic ability and fighting spirit.

While Borg-Nadal is difficult to call, it is very hard to understand how anyone who supported Federer's greatest player of all-time candidacy circa 2006 would not be even more strongly in favor of Nadal now: Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than Federer did, Nadal has a much better Grand Slam winning percentage, Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head and Nadal does not have a problematic individual matchup or surface. The only advantage that Federer has ever held over Nadal is that Federer has been healthier/more durable, which will make it even more remarkable if Nadal wins four more Grand Slams to tie Federer's mark.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Garry Kasparov on "Achieving Your Potential"

Garry Kasparov's presentation "Achieving Your Potential" is filled with insightful advice about how to maximize one's chances to be successful:

Kasparov achieved the highest rating in chess history--a record since broken by Magnus Carlsen--and he held the Classical World Champion title from 1985 until 2000, withstanding challenges from Anatoly Karpov, Nigel Short and Viswanathan Anand (who became the World Champion in 2007 and has held the title since that time). Kasparov seemed to be at the peak of his powers on the eve of his 2000 World Championship match against Vladimir Kramnik, who he had taught at the famous Botvinnik Chess School. However, Kasparov had become overconfident and Kramnik had detected some weaknesses in Kasparov's game. Kramnik surprised the chess world by defeating Kasparov and ending Kasparov's reign.

Starting around the 21:25 mark of the video, Kasparov explains what went wrong: even though he was still working hard on his game, at some level he had internalized the idea that he was unbeatable--but Kramnik came up with new ideas and repeatedly steered the games onto uncomfortable terrain for Kasparov. Kasparov viewed this failure as a learning experience, he went back to the drawing board and he maintained his status as the highest rated player in the world until he retired from professional chess five years later. Along the way, Kasparov played 11 serious games against Kramnik, scoring one win and 10 draws. Kasparov says, "That's good enough. That's a big change" compared to the result of the 2000 match.

Kasparov declares, "We should not be too proud to learn from the young generation. Otherwise, we'll not able to come back."

"Life is Bigger Than any Scoreboard"

The October 2013 issue of The Red Bulletin includes Stefan Wagner's interview with retired tennis champions Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. Agassi declares, "It is an illusion to think that setting goals and achieving them makes you happy." That may seem like a strange statement coming from someone who was once the top ranked tennis player in the world but Agassi insists that a person should not define himself by external measures: "True excellence is the person who understands that success won't come sometime in the future, but rather here, now. As soon as I understood that, a few important things became clear: It's not what I do that's important, it's how I do it. I won't accept not giving my best. I won't accept not wanting to be better."

Agassi asserts, "Success isn't what comes out, but what you put in. Doing things completely or not at all. Caring about what you do...When it comes to tennis: Find out what you're responsible for and concentrate on that. Work on your fitness, on your stroke. Don't lie to yourself and look for shortcuts. Success isn't a result. Success is a way of living that you choose for yourself. When you see success as a goal, you'll never be successful. Because it becomes like an addiction. You can never have enough. Never."

Graf agrees with her husband, adding that she defines success "by how you feel when you go to bed at night."

This is what Agassi tells young tennis players who ask him for advice: "There are a few things that are important to me, simple things. For example, that there is only one important point you play in life; that is the next one. And that you should concentrate on the things you can influence--you can control your attitude, your work ethic, your concentration. If it's windy or hot or something aches or you're tired from the match yesterday, then you have to accept it." It can be difficult to understand and accept that outcomes cannot be controlled but a person who can internalize this wisdom will have a more peaceful mindset than a person who is constantly at war with himself and the world around him, trying to change things that cannot be changed.

It is natural to dream about having a great triumph and to relish such a triumph after it happens but Agassi cautions, "The moment of victory can't be better than the moment of preparation. Learning that is pretty much a question of survival for a tennis player."

Graf adds, "Life is a good teacher, whether you're a tennis player or not. You just have to ask yourself one question and answer it honestly: Is the life I live the life that I want to live?"

Agassi concludes, "Children have to push themselves every day. For themselves, not for anyone else; certainly not for a scoreboard. When you see the result on a scoreboard, that's a bonus. But what's on the scoreboard shouldn't be the meaning of life. Life is bigger than any scoreboard."

Monday, September 2, 2013

Enjoying the Process

"Focus, while I display flows ferocious."--Busta Rhymes, "Everything Remains Raw"

Consistently converting winning positions is one of the greatest challenges that a chess player faces. Perhaps the biggest difference between Masters and non-Masters is that Masters are much more proficient at winning the games that they "should" win. I have worked very hard to improve at this phase of the game and I have made enough progress to maintain an Expert rating but not quite enough progress to earn the Master title. Throughout my chess career I have sought the advice of Masters on this subject, trying to gain insight about how their minds function when victory is in sight but not yet secured.

When I was a Class A player trying to reach Expert level in the early 1990s, Senior Master Boris Men explained to me that when you have the advantage the most important thing is to "play against your opponent's play." I had never heard this expression before, though I later realized that it is a standard Master level technique. The idea is that by squelching any possible counterplay you will force your opponent to either trade pieces or else place his pieces passively; this is much more prudent than chasing after stray pawns or prematurely launching an attack that could weaken your position. SM Men's advice has helped me a lot, though following through on his prescription is easier said than done.

More recently, Hans Multhopp, a USCF Master who is also a FIDE Master, told me to enjoy the winning process. At first I thought that he meant savor the prospect of victory--by cultivating the Relentless mindset of champions like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, players who are not satisfied until they dominate and destroy their opponents--but Multhopp clarified that a chess player should enjoy looking for the best moves and solving problems over the board. Chess should be fun! When you are winning a chess game it is easy to become bored, stressed out and/or distracted but ideally one should remain focused and joyful.

This is one of the many ways that chess is a metaphor for life. In The Spiritual Practices of the Ninja: Mastering the Four Gates to Freedom, Ross Heaven writes, "Life is meant to be played with, not stressed over." Having a winning position can be more nerve-wracking than having a losing position, because the losing player may have already resigned himself to his fate while the winning player, paradoxically, has everything to lose if he makes one false move. Chess can be a masochistic endeavor: we suffer when we are losing because we hate to lose but we also suffer when we are winning because we are afraid that we might lose! I overheard an International Master exclaim, "I hate this game!"--and this was after he had just won from a losing position. Something is very wrong if someone who has reached the 99th percentile in his chosen endeavor feels miserable after winning a game instead of being happy not just for the victory but also for becoming so proficient and accomplished in such a challenging sport/art. Caissa is a mistress who both tempts and torments her lovers.

I am more convinced than ever that Multhopp is right: enjoying the process is the key not just to attaining chess mastery but also the key to getting the most out of chess--and life. Making Master is a worthy goal but achieving mastery of one's emotions--"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same," as Kipling put it--is the ultimate goal. Win or lose, in chess or in life, I am fighting to not say/feel, "I hate this game!"