Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Football is Chess"

Rich Cohen's new book Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football provides a behind the scenes account of one of the most dominating teams in NFL history. In a Wall Street Journal excerpt, Cohen explains that the 15-1, Super Bowl champion Bears faced their greatest challenge not on game days but rather in practice when their offense battled the innovative "46 Defense" invented by defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Coach Mike Ditka constantly feuded with Ryan but Ditka could not fire Ryan because Ryan had cut a special deal with Bears' owner George Halas.

Cohen, using insight gathered from an interview with Chicago safety Doug Plank, describes how Ryan's defense wreaked so much havoc:

"Buddy operated by numbers," Plank said. "There were no names. You were either an adjective, and not a very complimentary one, or you were the number on your jersey. I was 46. Being a number was an honor. It meant you weren't an adjective. Here comes this master sergeant from the Korean War and he started to develop and encourage pride in being part of a special unit, a defensive squad."

In his first years in Chicago, Ryan was coaching mostly mediocre players. On many days, the Bears were outclassed. To compete, he had to improvise. "He was experimenting with defenses," Plank said. "He was going wild, looking for some way to generate a pass rush. You'd go into a meeting and see a bunch of crazy formations on the board. He'd go through each and say, 'OK, here's what we're going to try.' And someone would say, 'What do you call it?' Buddy didn't use X's and O's.

"When he put things on the board, it was numbers. He named formations after the number in the center of the formation. So one morning we go in and sure enough there's a new defense with my number in the middle: the 46."

In the standard 4-3 defensive alignment, the offense's center usually wasn't "covered," meaning no one lined up directly in front of him. This usually allowed the center to double-team a pass-rusher. But Ryan moved a linebacker to the line of scrimmage, then shifted Plank into the gap left by that linebacker. This meant none of Ryan's rushers could be double-teamed.

On a blitz in Ryan's defense, another linebacker or safety might creep up to the line and hide behind a big defensive end. As a result, there were often more rushers than blockers, which is why, in 1985, it often looked as if the Bears had too many players on the field. Buddy called the hidden blitzers free runners. "Confuse the offense until they have no idea where you're coming from--that is what creates a free runner," Plank said. "A free runner is an unblocked defensive player, and he gets to the quarterback so much faster...When a free runner hits the quarterback, the quarterback flies through the air."

In fulfilling an age-old playground fantasy, Ryan had decided to hell with it, and seemingly sent all his guys after the quarterback with a simple mission: Nail him. Rather than try to cover everyone, Ryan decided to short-circuit the offense by taking out the quarterback. As boxers used to say: Kill the brain, and the body will follow.

"Football is chess," Plank said. "You can capture all my pawns, but if I tip over that king, I win."

Plank's analogy is apropos on more than one level: football and chess are both very strategically complex games and football and chess are both very violent games. The latter assertion may seem dubious to anyone who has only played chess casually with friends/relatives but tournament chess is violent, as noted by Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek:

It doesn't hurt your body, but your brain, your ego. Instead of concussions chess players suffer humiliation after a terrible loss. They start to question their confidence, doubting the worthiness of what they do.  

Opposing quarterbacks had to stay strong in the face of the way that Ryan's defense sought to "kill the brain" and tournament chess players face a similarly daunting challenge: they must stay mentally and emotionally strong to avoid having their brains killed by the stresses and strains imposed by hours of relentless competition.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Dick Vermeil's Changed Perspective Helped Him Author a Second Act to his Coaching Career

In 1976, Dick Vermeil became the head coach of a 4-10 Philadelphia Eagles team that had not posted a winning record since 1966. Just two years later, Vermeil molded the Eagles into a playoff team and two seasons after that they made their first Super Bowl appearance, losing 27-10 to the Oakland Raiders. On the field Vermeil was a smashing success but off the field he became the living embodiment of burnout before resigning after the strike-shortened 1982 season. He spent the next 15 years as a TV commentator analyzing college football games--and analyzing himself, trying to figure out how to balance his tremendous competitive fire with a mindset that could prevent him from breaking down mentally, physically and emotionally.

In 1995, Vermeil declined an opportunity to coach the Eagles again but two years later he returned to the NFL as the coach of the St. Louis Rams. Vermeil hired Phil Towle to be the Rams' part-time team psychotherapist. Towle supplied Vermeil with some aphorisms, including "Burnout is not caused by stress. Burnout is caused by resisting opportunities that stress provides" and "I embrace my fears because they contain my greatness within."

Vermeil's perspective changed a lot during his time away from the sidelines. He spent years in therapy, struggling to manage his anger and perfectionism. "I learned to accept praise as a truth, not to just blow it off," Vermeil explained in the December 29, 1997-January 5, 1998 double issue of Sports Illustrated. "I continued the sessions even when I felt better about those things, because I just liked it. There's such a stigma in this country about seeking help like that, but I can tell you it's one of the best things I've ever done. It has really helped me in this job. Instead of trying to make this place into Vermeil's perfect world, I've learned to accept some things as they are."

In Vermeil's third year in St. Louis, he led the Rams to a 13-3 record, largely due to a tremendous offense nicknamed "The Greatest Show on Turf." Those 1999 Rams won the Super Bowl, filling in the last blank space on Vermeil's pro football coaching resume. He retired after that triumph but only spent one year away from the sidelines before jumping back into the fray as the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. For the third time in three tries, Vermeil turned a losing program into a winning one as the Chiefs improved from 6-10 in 2001 to 13-3 in 2003. Vermeil transformed the Chiefs into a Super Bowl contender--just like he transformed the Eagles and Rams into elite teams--but he was not able to lead them to the Super Bowl and he retired in 2005 after the Chiefs did not qualify for the playoffs despite posting a 10-6 record.

Did becoming a more balanced person make Vermeil a more effective coach and leader? Maybe not--he was a tremendous coach in Philadelphia even when he worked himself to the brink of an emotional and physical breakdown--but by changing his mindset Vermeil became better able to both enjoy success and to withstand adversity.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mario Matous, Chess Composer Extraoridnaire just posted a poignant article about the life, chess compositions and death of Mario Matous. Matous (1947-2013) held a series of mundane jobs during his life, devoting most of his time and energy to his passionate love affair with chess. He reached the master level as a player but his imagination took full flower with his magnificent chess compositions; Matous published nearly 300 studies, more than half of which won awards. Examples of his remarkable conceptions can be found by clicking on the above link to the article and also at Vladimir Grabinsky's chess website.

Here is an excerpt from Emil Vlasak's tribute to Matous:

Matouš published his first endgame study in 1968, and quickly gained an international reputation. He always needed a lot of beer to get an inspiration. But after getting it, he suddenly changed into an austere and hard-working man. He didn’t sleep, drink or eat, and spent many days and nights feverishly working out the idea. Where a normal composer would test one or two versions, Matouš sifted dozens. There were attempts to improve his studies, but usually Mario just laughed. He had almost everything on his “playground” and knew exactly why he went his way.

...his highest compositional level was maintained until about 2009. Then he became completely overwhelmed by creative depression and Mario stopped publishing altogether.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bobby Fischer's Opinion About Why Paul Morphy Stopped Playing Chess has recently published two articles containing decades-old videos of Bobby Fischer analyzing chess games and talking about great chess players like Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz and Jose Raul Capablanca:

Rare video – Bobby Fischer analyses

Rare video of Bobby Fischer analyzing – (2)

At around the eight minute mark of the second video in the second post, FM Dimitrije Bjelica asks Fischer why Paul Morphy stopped playing competitive chess; this is a fascinating exchange, because Fischer--like Morphy before him--quit playing serious chess at the height of his powers and it seems likely that both great geniuses suffered from serious mental illness (Dr. Joseph Ponterotto's take on Fischer's brilliant yet tortured mind can be found here). This is Fischer's reply to Bjelica's question:

I don't know. He got fed up with the whole chess scene, you know. He could not get this match [to prove that he was the world's best player]. He thought that they were petty people. He thought that these people were not honorable...Just the people in chess, he felt that they were not honorable people. He did not like the type of people he met, I think. For example, Staunton refused to play him and Staunton did some dishonest things in their negotiations for a match: he did everything to avoid playing him, because he would have lost easily. He [Staunton] refused to admit this and he tried to make it appear that Morphy didn't want to play or something. 

Only a few years after that interview, Fischer cut short his own chess career for similar reasons, forfeiting his World Champion title because FIDE would not agree to all of Fischer's terms regarding his scheduled title defense against Anatoly Karpov. Fischer had very rigid--but well thought out--ideas about exactly how such a match should be conducted and he refused to compromise or change anything in his proposal. Being a perfectionist and wanting everything to be just right seems like a noble ideal but tightly clinging to such hopes/dreams in this most imperfect world can lead to a lot of self-inflicted suffering. Neither Morphy nor Fischer possessed the ability to accept the world the way it is and to function within the confines of how society is organized. In contrast, Garry Kasparov--who, like Morphy and Fischer--is a genius of the highest magnitude, has the most enviable capacity to recognize his own weaknesses and to focus on the art of the possible as opposed to obsessing over creating perfection. Kasparov feuded with FIDE much like Fischer did but Kasparov did not let the fools, the criminals and the dishonorable people chase him away from the sport that he loves. It is very tragic that Morphy and Fischer did not possess such rare inner resolve, strength and tenacity; it is very difficult to be a sensitive genius in an insensitive world--and it is eerie to listen to Fischer calmly speak about Morphy's plight just a few years before Fischer descended into his notorious period of self-imposed exile from the chess world.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Sampras, Agassi Endorse Nadal as Potentially the Greatest Tennis Player of All-Time

Andre Agassi believes that Rafael Nadal has earned serious consideration as the greatest tennis player of all-time. During a recent interview with HuffPost Live, Agassi said, "Nadal has an argument to make for the best of all time. If Nadal is sitting at a table with Federer and Federer says, 'I'm the best ever,' my first question would be, 'Well, then how come you didn’t beat me, because I beat you twice as many times? And, hey, by the way, you know I won everything, including a gold medal [in singles at the Olympics] and Davis Cup [with Spain].' But at the same token, Federer has separated himself during a few years like nobody else. And he's done it more consistently. To be able to make the argument for both guys playing in the same generation is pretty remarkable."

Agassi's main rival Pete Sampras still picks Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time but Sampras concedes that Nadal is gaining ground and could surpass Federer: "It's always been so clear to me that Roger is the greatest. But I would say that, with Rafa doing what he's been doing, he has an argument to be in the conversation. Rafa isn't done yet. He could win more majors. He's got a winning record against everyone that he has played in his generation. He's won the Davis Cup [with Spain], he's won the Olympics [singles]."

Federer is a great champion and he has been remarkably durable and consistent but Agassi's comment goes right to the heart of the issue: Nadal has won everything--just like Federer--and Nadal has dominated Federer in their head to head encounters. The greatest tennis player of all-time discussion should not be limited to Federer and Nadal--Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg also deserve to be mentioned--but at this point it is not logical to rank Federer ahead of Nadal in tennis' pantheon. As I noted after Nadal won the 2013 U.S. Open to claim his 13th Grand Slam singles title, "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."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Jim Brown Explains Why He Retired in his Prime

Certain sports legends maintain a mystique forever because we never saw them decline: Sandy Koufax's fastball will always be untouchable in our mind's eye and Bjorn Borg simultaneously dominated Wimbledon and the French Open in a way that is unlikely to ever be matched--but the definitive example of someone who retired at the top of his game is Jim Brown.

Brown won eight rushing titles in nine seasons while earning three MVPs and leading the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL title. His 12,312 career rushing yards lapped the field (and stood as the all-time standard for two decades), his 106 rushing touchdowns and 126 total touchdowns remained NFL records for three decades after he retired and he is almost universally considered to be the greatest running back--if not the greatest player, period--in NFL history. In 1965, Brown led the league in rushing yards (1544, the second best total of his career), rushing attempts (289), rushing touchdowns (17), long rushing gain (67 yards), yards from scrimmage (1872) and total touchdowns (21, three more than his previous career-high). Brown carried Cleveland to the East Division title with an 11-3 record--best in the league--before Cleveland lost 23-12 to the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game.

At that point, Brown planned to play at least one more season. He went to Europe in the offseason to star in the now-classic film The Dirty Dozen but because of delays in the shooting schedule he was not able to make it back to the United States in time for training camp. Cleveland owner Art Modell publicly threatened to fine Brown, prompting Brown to write a letter to Modell stating his intention to retire. Brown recently read that letter, in its entirety, to Branson Wright of The Plain Dealer. Here are some excerpts:

I'm very sorry to see you make the statements that you did, because it was not a victory for you or I but for the newspapermen. Fortunately, I seem to have a little more faith in you than you have in me. I honestly like you and will be willing to help you in any way I can but I feel you must realize that both of us are men and that my manhood is just as important to me as yours is to you...

You must realize that your organization will make money and will remain successful whether I am there or not. The Cleveland Browns are an institution that will stand for a long, long time. I am taking on a few projects that are very important to me. I have many problems to solve at this time and I am sure you know a lot of them. So if we weigh this situation properly, the Browns have really nothing to lose but Jim Brown has a lot to lose. I am taking it for granted that I have your understanding and best wishes, for in my public approach to this matter this will be the attitude that I will prevail...

I will give you any assistance I can and hope your operation will be a success.

Brown told Wright: "I like the letter and it was a very important statement for me to make. It represented everything about me. I think it's fair. I think it's clear. I think it's considerate. I think it shows that I'm interested in my family and my career and I knew that when I wrote it that it could be 50 years later and it would still be me. I've always taken pride in the fact that my statements over the years, they always lasted, because I think that being truthful and representing yourself as a man will always stand up. So, I'm surprised that you had (a copy of) this but I am proud that as a young man I had the ability to articulate in this way and show the kind of fairness that's in this letter."

Regarding the general subject of when an athlete should retire, Brown added these thoughts: "Athletes usually stay too long. They stay past their peak. They hold on and they become, in some cases, not pathetic but you just can't outdo yourself. Old Jim Brown can't outdo a young Jim Brown and whenever you are compared to yourself you are always going to lose. So, in order to give the fans their money's worth I think that you should always leave on time so they can remember the best of you and you can remember the best of you and you will have that forever. They can never say that I was going downhill or they can never attach a negative to my career. So, it's not even complicated. It's the right thing to do to move out on time."