Sunday, December 21, 2014

Johnny Manziel Shows the World the Difference Between College Ball and Pro Ball

Johnny Manziel's disastrous debut as an NFL starter (10-18 passing for 80 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns as his Cleveland Browns lost 30-0 at home to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday) provided an excellent demonstration of the huge difference between collegiate sports and professional sports. Manziel set the college football world on fire last season en route to winning the Heisman Trophy but in the complex, fast-paced hard hitting pro football world he looked small, slow, confused and noodle-armed as his ill-advised throws wobbled off-target.

The idea that Manziel offered the Browns a better chance to win than Brian Hoyer made little sense. Hoyer led the Browns to a 7-6 record as the starting quarterback this season after going 3-0 as the Browns' starter last season before succumbing to a season-ending knee injury (the Browns went 1-10 the rest of the way and finished 1-12 in the games that Hoyer did not start). Hoyer is a journeyman NFL quarterback but he is also a six year veteran who has logged 15 NFL starts in 29 NFL games. Hoyer struggled in recent games but his problems could probably be attributed at least as much to the loss of All-Pro center Alex Mack as to any of Hoyer's individual shortcomings; Hoyer is not a highly accurate passer by modern NFL standards (his career completion percentage is .571) and he is not very mobile but, surrounded by the right talent and guided by the right coaching, he is a solid NFL starter and a very good NFL backup.

In contrast, Manziel has yet to establish anything positive about himself as an NFL player. It seems as if Coach Mike Pettine and the Browns organization tapped him as the starter not so much because they know that he is better than Hoyer but rather because the fans and the media clamored for a change. The cliche states that if a coach listens to the media and the fans too often then he will soon be sitting next to them.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, perhaps the best NFL analyst in ESPN's overcrowded stable, often speaks of the "craft" of quarterbacking; he laments that Jay Cutler, who possesses more physical talent than Hoyer or Manziel, has yet to put in the time and effort to master that "craft." There is no way that Manziel, who likely has received very few repetitions in practice with the Browns' first team, understands enough about that "craft" to be an effective NFL starter at this point in his career. The Browns should have finished out the season with Hoyer as the starter and found out for sure whether or not he could have led the Browns to a 10-6 record and a possible playoff berth. Then, if the Browns were not fully satisfied with Hoyer, they could have given Manziel the benefit of a full offseason of film study plus some repetitions in practice with the first team.

Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh described the proper "care and feeding" of young quarterbacks. He considered it a mistake to just throw a young quarterback into the fire. When he mentored Joe Montana, a mobile and undersized hot shot college quarterback, Walsh made sure that at first he only used Montana in select situations that Montana had thoroughly worked on in practice. This helped to build Montana's confidence in himself as an NFL player and also helped to build his teammates' confidence in him. I doubt that Walsh would have started Manziel last week (a better question is whether Walsh would have even drafted Manziel at all but that is a story for another day).

Watching Manziel flail around nervously and helplessly reminded me of a couple other recent sports stories. Rookie Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt, who enjoyed a long and distinguished FIBA coaching career, often reminds media members that various milestones--his first game as an NBA coach, his first NBA win, etc.--are not really milestones from his perspective because he has already coached teams to championships. Blatt does not seem to understand the vast difference between even high level FIBA play and the NBA. The NBA is the most sophisticated basketball league in the world and its players are bigger, faster, quicker and smarter than the players in other leagues. Properly coached, the best NBA players can go through a quick summer training camp and then win FIBA gold medals against seasoned FIBA teams that are used to playing under FIBA rules with FIBA's inconsistent officiating. No FIBA team could just jump into the NBA and perform at a championship level. If Blatt really believes that his FIBA championships are in any way equivalent to an NBA title then he and the Cavaliers are going to experience some problems during the NBA playoffs when the best NBA coaches will be playing grandmaster chess and Blatt will be playing FIBA checkers.

Similarly, every season when there is a historically bad NBA team it does not take long for fans and media members to speculate about whether or not that team could beat the best team in college basketball. The 11-0 Kentucky Wildcats are the consensus best team in college basketball right now. The 2-23 Philadelphia 76ers may be the worst team in NBA history--and if they played the Kentucky Wildcats today the 76ers would beat the Wildcats like the Wildcats stole something. There is no conceivable way that the Wildcats would win a seven game series versus the 76ers. Yes, the Wildcats have several players who are projected to be first round NBA draft selections--but the 76ers have three first round draft selections on their active roster (including Michael Carter-Williams, the 2014 NBA Rookie of the Year) and several other veteran NBA players. NBA players are grown men physically and mentally. It is far from certain that Kentucky will even win the college championship, let alone be able to beat a team of grown men, several of whom were collegiate stars in their own right before becoming pro basketball players.

Television sports coverage does a disservice on many levels but one of the major elements that is not obvious to casual viewers is how much more complex pro sports are compared to their college counterparts. The pro game is so much faster and more sophisticated than the college game. This is evident if you watch a college game (basketball or football) in person and then watch a pro game in person. There is inevitably an adjustment period for rookie players and for rookie coaches. If you doubt that, just look at Manziel or Blatt; both men may become highly successful pros eventually but right now they are learning why Jerry Glanville used to say that NFL stands for "not for long": if you do not adjust to the speed and complexity of pro sports then you will not participate in pro sports for very long.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Magnus Carlsen Convincingly Retains World Chess Championship

In November, Magnus Carlsen--the highest rated chess player ever--defeated former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand 6.5-4.5 to retain the World Chess Champion title. Last year, Carlsen dethroned Anand in a 6.5-3.5 rout on Anand's home turf in India. After the final game of the most recent match, Carlsen told Leontxo Garcia, "I do not know if nerves were the key factor in general. But in the last game, nerves definitely had something to say. But I think nerves are a part of your strength and weaknesses as a chess player. If you have bad nerves, it is unfortunate but it is no excuse. In that game showed I have stronger nerves, probably because of the age difference."

Shortly after Carlsen defended his crown, Garry Kasparov (the 1985-2000 World Chess Champion who held the rating record that Carlsen eclipsed) offered his typically blunt (and insighftul) comments:

This year's match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand proved that time doesn't run backwards. It is extremely difficult to overcome a gap of a full generation between the players. I believe Magnus Carlsen is a special talent, and even though he didn't play his best and Anand played better than he did last year, Magnus won. The score was a little closer than last year mostly due to Carlsen's nerves in a psychologically difficult rematch after he beat Anand so easily last year.

Did the run of the match surprise me in any aspect? Before the match began I predicted [to a number of newspapers and to Frederic Friedel of ChessBase] that Carlsen would win by two points. Magnus had one important advantage on his side: he is the better player. But it was atypical for Carlsen to not make the most of his chances in several games. I blame that on tension. For him this match was psychologically not easy, after he had beat Anand so decisively in 2013.

Championship level chess requires intelligence, resourcefulness and energy but it also requires prodigious amounts of confidence/psychological strength. In "It's Just a Question of Nerves": Anand Defeats Topalov 6.5-5.5 to Retain World Chess Championship, I discussed the emotional fortitude that Anand displayed in his first title defense since becoming the 15th classical World Chess Champion:

During an an interview conducted shortly after the match with Topalov ended, Anand provided some insights about the mentality that is required to win such a competition, stating, "It's just a question of nerves." In this high tech, computer dominated era, elite chess players prepare their opening moves to a greater and deeper extent than at any time in chess history but during the games they are under great pressure to remember this preparation while also being ready for any possible surprises (known as theoretical novelties) that their opponents might unleash. Topalov won the first game of the match when Anand got confused about the correct order of his prepared moves, an error which gave Topalov a crushing attack against Anand's exposed king--but Anand showed great psychological resilience by striking back with a game two win to level the score.

While Anand demonstrated strong nerves versus Topalov--and in several other high level encounters--he has now faltered twice against Carlsen. It is obvious that Carlsen is the stronger player but it is fascinating to observe how that superiority manifests itself not only in the moves that Carlsen plays but also in the way that Carlsen's strength affects Anand. Anand demonstrably lacks confidence against Carlsen and at times Anand's play is unrecognizable as he struggles to figure out how to fight on even terms with his much younger rival. If chess games were purely decided at an intellectual level then Anand would play very well and Carlsen would just play better but what we have seen in both matches is that, at key moments, Anand either blunders outright or at the very least he lacks the confidence to pursue the best path, to play the moves that he might reflexively play against a less intimidating opponent.

It is very difficult to play against Carlsen for reasons that extend beyond his chess talent. Carlsen is a chess warrior who has great and commendable fighting spirit: "More people have to change their attitude. Too many have seen chess as a scientific process where you exchange ideas in openings and midgames and if there is no clear advantage you agree a draw. But you have to fight until the end. I’ve stopped agreeing draws--it's not a natural part of the game. I think others will do the same thing." Carlsen insists that "a modern sportsman" must "fight until the last moment every day, in every tournament. Being tired is no excuse for making mistakes."

As a young player, Anand relied on his tactical acumen and his exceptionally fast rate of play to steamroll most opponents; now Anand is not as sharp tactically nor does he calculate so quickly and thus he has evolved into a player who prepares his openings very deeply and thoroughly in order to guide the game onto terrain that Anand expects to be comfortable for him and equally uncomfortable for his opponent--but Carlsen is largely unaffected and unimpressed by Anand's computer-assisted preparation. In Magnus Carlsen, an Unlikely Chess Master, Grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen (one of Carlsen's seconds) explains, “Magnus believes in his pure chess strengths. You shouldn't be able to do that in today's world and none of us thought it was possible. Luckily, we were wrong.” A recent Financial Times article notes that Carlsen is refuting the notion that chess is played out because the silicon beasts know all and see all:

Whereas computer analysis has raised the relative importance of the opening for most players, Mr. Carlsen has relegated it. He looks instead to win a game later on via the steady and patient accumulation of sometimes almost imperceptible advantages.

"The space that chess occupies is so gigantic that in spite of all the computer work done today, you can get out of it," says Mr. [Frederic] Friedel, who occasionally chaperoned Mr. Carlsen at tournaments when he was a teenager. "Magnus goes off into sidelines . . . then he just outplays people. It is extraordinary and amazing."

After beating Anand for the second consecutive time, Carlsen commented that this is two down and five more to go, a reference to his goal to surpass Garry Kasparov's total of six successful World Chess Championship matches. Carlsen's next title defense will take place in the United States in 2016. The United States has hosted the lineal World Chess Championship six times (winner listed first, defending champion in bold): 1886 (Steinitz v. Zukertort), 1891 (Steinitz v. Gunsberg), 1894 (Lasker v. Steinitz), 1907 (Lasker v. Marshall), 1990 (Kasparov v. Karpov), 1995 (Kasparov v. Anand). In addition to those six matches, the United States also hosted FIDE's 1999 World Chess Championship event in Las Vegas but that tournament did not include the reigning, undefeated champion Kasparov--who captured the lineal title in 1985 and retained it until losing a match to Vladimir Kramnik in 2000--and thus should not be considered part of the authentic, lineal title chain.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Great Chess Performances at the Elite Level

A great athletic feat inevitably brings to mind the accomplishments of performers from previous eras; when Kobe Bryant authors a streak of games with at least 45 points, educated fans recall an even more prodigious Wilt Chamberlain scoring streak. Similarly, Fabiano Caruana's fantastic result in the Sinquefield Cup--winning his first seven games in a row en route to an undefeated first place score of 8.5/10 against the highest rated field in chess history--has inevitably drawn comparisons to some other tremendous winning streaks/first place results. Bobby Fischer won 20 consecutive games en route to capturing the World Championship in 1972. He won his last seven games in the 1970 Interzonal, swept Mark Taimanov 6-0 in the Candidates Quarterfinals, swept Bent Larsen 6-0 in the Candidates Semifinals and won the first game of his Candidates Finals match against former World Champion Tigran Petrosian (Fischer lost the second game but won the match 6.5-2.5). In a 2005 article, Jeff Sonas--who has developed his own chess rating system to compare players from different eras--declared that Fischer's sweep of Larsen is the greatest match performance in chess history. According to Sonas' 2005 calculations, Anatoly Karpov's Linares 1994 triumph is the single best tournament performance in chess history, followed by Garry Kasparov (Tilburg 1989), Emanuel Lasker (London 1899), Garry Kasparov (Linares 1999), Mikhail Tal (1959 Candidates) and Alexander Alekhine (San Remo 1930). Based on official FIDE ratings, the three best tournament results are Fabiano Caruana (3103 performance rating, Sinquefield Cup 2014), Magnus Carlsen (3002 performance rating, Pearl Spring 2009) and Anatoly Karpov (2985 performance rating, Linares 1994).

While Fischer's 20 game winning streak is an unparalleled feat considering the stakes and the caliber of his opponents, Fischer actually had an even longer streak (24 games)--albeit against relatively "weaker" players--from 1963-65, punctuated by his unprecedented 11/11 sweep of the 1963-64 U.S. Championship. Fischer scored 25.5/26 in 1963! Fischer only played one tournament game in 1964, a final round victory against Anthony Saidy to top off his perfect score in the U.S. Championship. Fischer skipped the 1964 Interzonal and the 1964 Chess Olympiad because of his disputes with the way that FIDE organized international chess. Instead, he went on tour throughout the United States giving simultaneous exhibitions. Imagine LeBron James leaving the NBA for a year to play in the Rucker League or go on tour with streetball players and you get some sense of what the chess world lost in 1964 (not to mention what was lost when Fischer abruptly left the sport in 1972).

Mikhail Tal, who stormed the chess summit in the late 1950s and early 1960s and became the youngest World Champion (23, a record since broken by Garry Kasparov), enjoyed a revival in the early 1970s after battling some serious health problems. Tal put together the two longest official elite level undefeated streaks: 95 games (46 wins and 49 draws from 1973-74) and 86 games (47 wins and 39 draws from 1972-73). Tal's streaks are even more remarkable when one considers his deserved reputation for spectacular attacks and combinations; clearly, Tal was a much more well-rounded and consistent player than many people may realize.

Any list of great chess streaks must mention Jose Raul Capablanca, who went eight years without suffering a loss (1916-1924), including his successful 1921 World Championship match against Emanuel Lasker. However, Capablanca only played 63 games during that span.

Is Caruana's recent performance a sign that he is poised to become World Champion? It will be interesting to see if Caruana is able to dethrone Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated chess player of all-time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Garry Kasparov on the Future of Chess

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov retained the title of FIDE (International Chess Federation) President by a landslide vote of 110 national delegates to 61 over former World Chess Champion (1985-2000) Garry Kasparov. Kasparov ran on a reformist platform aiming to end the corruption and waste that has characterized Ilyumzhinov's reign. Ilyumzhinov's victory is not good for chess; while Ilyumzhinov passionately loves the game, his outlandish ideas (including but not limited to his publicly expressed thought that chess was brought to Earth by aliens and that he has personally visited the aliens' spaceships) and his shameful allegiances with dictatorial/tyrannical regimes do not bode well for the sport, art and science of chess. It is not surprising that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin was among the first to heartily congratulate Ilyumzhinov.

Kasparov's fiery statement after the election, titled The Future of Chess, not FIDE, outlines why Kasparov believes that he lost the election and what he thinks should be done in the future to promote chess. Here are some excerpts:

My campaign was about expanding the horizons of the chess and securing its future, our future, in a world with ever-increasing competition for our attention. My themes were bringing sponsorship, education initiatives, and new technology into the game and empowering the national federations. I do not for one moment believe that this election result indicates a problem with this platform, or with the exemplary individuals on my ticket, or with our many successful activities. The sad conclusion is that working hard and having big ideas and investing millions of dollars for the global development of chess all has very little to do with winning a FIDE election today. It was this disastrous situation that my team and I set out to change...

I faced three main challenges in this campaign. First was the FIDE machinery, the abuse of power that made votes disappear and turned commissions into puppets. This was not a surprise, but I believed at the start that I had enough resources to overcome it and I probably did. There were two other factors I badly underestimated. I anticipated the Kremlin’s involvement but couldn’t imagine its extent or how susceptible Europe would be to it. Nor did I anticipate how resistant even many of the biggest federations are to change. They saw it as a threat and looked for excuses to maintain the status quo.

These last two factors in particular eroded the base I thought I had at the start, a base of anti-Kirsan, anti-corruption, pro-growth federations with democratic traditions and substantial numbers of chess players with interests to protect. Perhaps that base still exists, but it is very small now and nearly every federation is eager to do a little business with Ilyumzhinov’s emissaries come election year. I guaranteed money in exchange for effort and sponsorship in exchange for activity and events. It’s clear that many prefer money with no responsibilities and no activities, regardless of what this means for chess...

It is fitting that the slogan on my posters here in Tromsø was “Kasparov: the future of chess” and not “the future of FIDE.” Eventually, growth and change in the chess world will change FIDE; it is clear that FIDE cannot change itself. More numbers and more effort will be needed at the grassroots level. Lovers of chess must become administrators of chess. I spoke often of building up the base of players to raise up the entire chess world and this is just as true in chess politics. More good people coming in will eventually push more bad people out. You can go and do it! Find a way to fight for chess! People must work in their chess communities and change their federations so that our great game has the representation it deserves.

My thanks again to all my team and supporters, and to our excellent hosts of the last two weeks here in Norway. The summer sun never sets in Tromsø and the sun will never set on the game of chess.

The delegates who voted for Ilyumzhinov because they were swayed by bribes and/or cowed by fear should be ashamed. If a person as brilliant, charismatic and well-connected as Garry Kasparov cannot even come close to unseating Ilyumzhinov then it seems like Ilyumzhinov will stay in power for a long time.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chess as Art, Chess as Violent Sport, Part II

In Chess as Art, Chess as Violent Sport, I declared, "It is not accidental that top level chess is dominated by young players; chess is very strenuous and thus energy and physical conditioning often outweigh the value of accumulated experience/wisdom." The recent deaths of two players at the biennial Chess Olympiad (hosted this year by Tromso, Norway) further highlight the physically demanding nature of chess.

In Why Chess is Really an Extreme Sport, Stephen Moss details why chess tournaments are so much more demanding than the general public may realize:

At the Olympiad, participants were playing a game a day over a fortnight--11 rounds with just a couple of rest days on which to recuperate. For up to seven hours a day, they would be sitting at the board trying to kill--metaphorically speaking--their opponent, because this is the ultimate game of kill or be killed. In some positions, you can reach a point where both sides are simultaneously within a single move of checkmating the other. One false step and you will have lost. This imposes enormous pressure on players.

These days, some top players use psychologists to help them deal with this stress. They are also paying increasing attention to diet and fitness. I was staying in the same hotel as many of the world’s top players during the great annual tournament at Wijk aan Zee on the Dutch coast in January, and was struck by the regime adopted by Levon Aronian, the Armenian-born world number two, who started each day with a run followed by a healthy breakfast.

After listing the poor health habits that contributed to the early demise of some of the former Soviet Union's great chess players and the equally poor health habits typical of the average club level player, Moss concludes:

So next time someone suggests a nice, quiet game of chess, or paints it as an intellectual pursuit played by wimps, tell them they’ve got it all wrong: this is a fight to the finish played in the tensest of circumstances by two players who are physically and mentally living on the edge. We all need to get fitter to play this demanding game, and society should recognise it for what it is--a sport as challenging, dramatic and exciting as any other. Such recognition would be a tribute of sorts to the two players who sadly played their final games in Tromso.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Frank Thomas Did it the Right Way

PED users defiled MLB's record book but some statistics and records still matter; it is important to recognize and honor the select group of great players who battled temptation--and went head to head physically with players who used illegal drugs to obtain a competitive advantage--during MLB's "Steroid Era". Frank Thomas not only stayed clean during his outstanding 19 year MLB career but he never hesitated to speak out against the cheaters, even when it was unpopular to do so. After Thomas hit his 500th career home run, I explained that Thomas had rightfully earned Hall of Fame status even before that signature blast.

Thomas finished his career with a .301 batting average, a .419 on base percentage and a .555 slugging percentage. Babe Ruth is the only major leaguer with at least 10,000 plate appearances who surpassed Thomas in all three of those categories. Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx and Willie Mays are the only clean players who exceeded Thomas in both batting average and career home runs (521)*. Thomas is the only player who compiled a streak of seven straight seasons with at least a .300 average, 100 walks, 100 runs, 100 RBI and 20 home runs.

The Baseball Hall of Fame voters selected Thomas in his first year of eligibility and on Sunday "The Big Hurt" joined Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony LaRussa in the Hall of Fame Class of 2014. Thomas' Hall of Fame Induction Speech overflows with gratitude for the many relatives, friends, teammates and coaches who shaped his development as a man and as a baseball player. Thomas concluded with a simple, powerful statement: "To all you kids out there, just remember one thing from today. There are no shortcuts to success. Hard work, dedication, commitment, stay true to who you are. God bless you all, and I thank you."

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*Manny Ramirez is a PED cheater, so his statistics should be classified as "fiction."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Vladimir Kramnik Explains Why He Loves Chess

I am not a huge Vladimir Kramnik fan, primarily because I believe that he dodged a World Championship rematch with Garry Kasparov; I think that Kramnik rightfully expected to lose a potential rematch but it is cowardly and unseemly for an elite player to intentionally avoid facing another elite player. All that being said, Kramnik is a superb chess technician and in a recent interview he shared some fascinating insights about chess in general and his career in particular. Here are some excerpts:

Every top player has his own style of play--like painters. You see a painting and say, okay, this is Modigliani, or Raphael, because you cannot confuse them with anyone else. It's the same with chess, which means it is also an art. Chess players are all slightly different and have their own clear way of seeing chess, and you can see it when you play through their games...

I don't consider myself a genius--seriously, and I am sincere with you, I don't think I am a genius. Of course I am gifted at chess and have quite good analytical capabilities, and certain things where I am better than average. But you don't need to be a genius to be a top chess player. It's about many other qualities, about strength of character and, most importantly, the ability to learn. If you are learning very quickly in certain areas it means you have talent. The ability to learn is what I notice in all top players--but also top musicians and other people of art. In their area they learn in seconds, and that is what is called talent.

For me, personally, a beautiful game of chess is a game where everything was very logical, very well built and performed, from the beginning to the end. That is the highest definition of mastery in chess. When millimeter to millimeter everything is perfect. So for me it is perfection. For many other players it's more imagination, sometimes strange and even wrong decisions, something absurd or abstract. But I am more a classicist in chess, and also in art, where I like classical art of the 17th century. I like the beauty and the purity of the game.

Compared to life chess is very strict. In life you can be lucky, you can be born in a very rich family, you can do crazy things and still get away with it. But in chess you will not--you are going to lose. In chess you have to be very disciplined in your thinking. There are a lot of things in chess that are similar to life: you have to understand that sometimes you have to sacrifice a little bit of something to get other advantages, you have to see the whole board and the whole picture, otherwise you will never be a good chess player. In life it is also similar.

...I remember when I played my World Championship match in 2000 against Garry Kasparov, which took around three weeks--we played sixteen games, every second day--I think I lost ten kilos during the match, without being on a diet or anything. It was just very energy consuming. That is why getting older is not a plus for chess players, because physically you have less energy when you are forty than when you are twenty. It is an issue when you are playing young opponents. I am 38 and a kind of veteran in chess, and I know that playing young opponents I am giving them a certain handicap in a physical sense. On the other hand I have experience, which is helpful, and maybe a little stronger character...

I am not a typical chess player, not a typical sportsman--in fact I am quite surprised that I managed to achieve quite a lot in chess, because I am not a sportsman inside. I don't care about competing, about being the best. For me it is never personal, a game of chess. Most of them--Magnus, Garry, Karpov-- they are crazy about winning in anything they do, even if they play cards or whatever. I really never care that much, in tennis or football--I just enjoy playing. Of course in chess I care about winning, but it is not a goal, it's not a complete must. I was never fixated on the result. That is very unusual for chess. Most of the players are very determined to win. My main motivation is to do my best, to do something which is on the edge of my limits.

When I got a chance to play Kasparov in the World Championship match for me it was a challenge, the highest possible challenge. He was not only the best player at the time, he was also on top of his rating, really at the complete top of his career. That was for me a challenge, and that I managed to win was for me unexpected. I knew I could do it but I was not sure, but this is probably why I managed to do it, because it forced me to give everything. It was not about winning, so much, but rather a challenge. What is important for me is the inside challenge. That is my way of life, of playing chess, and it will probably be with me forever, I guess.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Howard Cosell: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Only Howard Cosell could summarize a man as complex and multifaceted as Howard Cosell: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am." Cosell was also something else: "a transcendent figure in sports journalism." That sentence sounds like something Cosell would have said about himself but it actually appears as the subheading for William Nack's 1995 Howard Cosell obituary.

When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, Cosell was the most famous and most controversial sports broadcaster in the world. He was often imitated--everyone tried to parody his distinctive delivery: "This is Howard Cosell, Speaking of Sports"--but never duplicated; nearly two decades after his passing, no national sports media figure has come close to matching Cosell's depth of knowledge or his passion for speaking truth to power about unpopular athletes and unpopular causes. Nack describes Cosell as "the gaudiest, smartest and most entertaining and unforgettable television broadcaster in the history of sports--a superb reporter who worked harder and asked better questions than anyone else who'd ever worn earphones."

Many people remember how Cosell's voice sounded but how many people remember what he stood for and what he said? Nack reminds anyone who may have forgotten just how outspoken Cosell was:

Unlike his buttoned-down peers, who ducked social issues and lied at the first whiff of controversy, Cosell waded into every major battle of his time, cutting his way against the grain. He allied himself with Curt Flood in the player's challenge to baseball's hoary reserve clause, and he championed Muhammad Ali in his fight against the draft, setting fire to the national shirt by insisting on calling Ali by his Muslim name. Many of his pen pals remained anonymous when they addressed him "You nigger-loving Jew bastard...."

Few sportswriters and sportscasters are blessed to have the national platform that Cosell did and even fewer have used that platform as a force for good instead of just a means of self-aggrandizement. The prominent TV networks, magazines and websites that cover pro basketball have elevated many commentators and so-called experts to national prominence but who among those well-paid commentators and so-called experts lobbied for the Hall of Fame candidacies of forgotten ABA players like Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown? Ted Green struggled to get funding for his heartfelt Roger Brown documentary. ESPN's 30 for 30 series is outstanding but why did the network not want to touch the Roger Brown story? Might doing so have offended the NBA? Howard Cosell never cared who he offended; he just spoke the truth.

Cosell wrote and spoke eloquently and he did not shy away from controversy; no individual or organization has stepped up to fill the void created by Cosell's absence. Even Sports Illustrated, one of the few mainstream outlets where top notch sports journalism can still occasionally be found, often features forgettable, lazily constructed articles; the magazine sometimes includes first rate writing but one has to wade through a lot of chaff to find the wheat--and SI is better than any of its competitors. I will read anything written by the outstanding Gary Smith but his work only appears in print sporadically; during Cosell's prime, he was writing and/or talking on a daily basis, offering intelligent commentary about a wide range of subjects. Rick Reilly has the necessary writing chops to be a powerful influence--and he has penned some incredibly moving articles--but now he seems too comfortable cashing ESPN's checks to focus on producing a steady stream of great writing.

Cosell was far from perfect, as he noted in the self-assessment cited above. He often spoke bluntly (though truthfully) about the shortcomings of some of his co-workers. He drank a lot and could be unpleasant when he was inebriated; Nack begins his piece by recounting one such occasion, noting that Cosell's wife Emmy settled him down by declaring, "Howard, shut up! Nobody cares."

Nack concludes:

Cosell was too much of an original to leave heirs, and the landscape of broadcast journalism that he left on Sunday looks much the way he found it 35 years ago. Once again the waves are filled with talking heads and apologists, with hometown cheerleaders and mindless drones. No one is asking the questions that he asked. And Emmy was right--nobody cares.

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Here is a 1991 ESPN special featuring Cosell being interviewed by Robert Lipsyte:

Howard Cosell: His Life and Times

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Comparing the Greatest Sports Dynasties

The December 9, 2013 issue of Autoweek contains an article by Al Pearce titled "No End in Sight" (an abridged version can be found here); Jimmie Johnson had just claimed his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in his 12th full season on the circuit, placing him one behind record holders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty considers Johnson a lock to win at least eight crowns and would not be surprised if Johnson pushes the standard to 10. Although Johnson receives most of the glory, racing is a team sport and the success of Rick Hendrick Motorsports with Johnson behind the wheel and Chad Knaus serving as crew chief raises an intriguing question: where does this accomplishment rank in the pantheon of great sports dynasties?

Hendrick has actually won 11 Sprint Cup Series titles overall--with Jeff Gordon serving as the driver for four of them and Terry Labonte capturing the other one--and a sidebar to Pearce's article (not included in the online version) notes that Hendrick is tied with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings and MLB's St. Louis Cardinals for the seventh most championships won by a professional sports organization. The leaders are the New York Yankees (27 World Series championships), the Montreal Canadiens (24 Stanley Cups), the Boston Celtics (17 NBA titles), the Los Angeles Lakers (16 NBA titles), the Toronto Maple Leafs (13 Stanley Cups) and the Green Bay Packers (13 NFL titles).

Autoweek notes that Hendrick has captured 11 championships in 30 seasons, a .367 winning percentage that is the best in American sports history, ahead of the Celtics (17/67, a .254 winning percentage), the Canadiens (24/95, a .253 winning percentage) and the Yankees (27/113, a .239 winning percentage). Hendrick has been incredibly dominant in the past two decades, winning 11 of 19 championships (.579).

Autoweek lists some of the "Best of the Best" sports dynasties without ranking them:
 
Boston Celtics of the late 1950s/early 1960s (nine NBA championships in a 10 year span), Michael Schumacher (five straight Formula I titles and a record seven titles overall), Los Angeles Lakers (five NBA championships in the 1980s), Chicago Bulls (six NBA championships in eight years during the 1990s), Pittsburgh Steelers (four Super Bowl wins in a six season span during the 1970s), John Force (16 NHRA Top Fuel championships in 24 years as a driver, 18 NHRA championships as a team owner), New York Yankees of the late 1940s/early 1950s (six World Series wins in seven years), Montreal Canadiens (five straight Stanley Cup wins in the 1950s), UCLA (10 NCAA basketball championships in a 12 year span in the 1960s/1970s), Jack Nicklaus (18 pro golf major wins), Tiger Woods (14 pro golf major wins), Dario Franchitti (four IndyCar titles in five seasons), Sebastien Vettel (four straight Formula I titles, 2010-13), Sebastien Loeb (nine consecutive World Rally Championships, 2004-12), A.J. Foyt (seven IndyCar titles, the most all-time), Richard Petty/Dale Earnhardt (seven NASCAR titles each).

Considering the source, it is not surprising that eight of the 17 dynasties involve some form of auto racing but overall that list is a good one. If individual athletes like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are going to be mentioned, though, then Bjorn Borg deserves consideration; when Borg retired he held the records for most Wimbledon wins (five), most consecutive Wimbledon wins (five), most French Open wins (six) and most consecutive years with at least one Grand Slam win (eight). Borg still holds the record for best Grand Slam winning percentage (.407, 11 wins in 27 appearances). Even though some of Borg's records have been surpassed by various players, no player in tennis history has been dominant enough to hold all of those records at the same time the way that Borg did.

Objectively ranking the aforementioned dynasties is an impossible task; it is difficult enough to rank the greatest players of all-time in one sport, let alone compare athletes and teams from various generations and vastly different sports. I agree with Pearce, though, that the best of the best have a special quality about them:

Elite competitors, like newly minted six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, have it. They always have, and they always will. No worthy champion achieves anything without it.

Michael Jordan had it during those magical years with the Chicago Bulls. Tiger Woods had it before foolishly throwing it away. The Boston Celtics and Arnold Palmer and "Mr. October" Reggie Jackson had it. "I am the greatest" Muhammad Ali had it. So did Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky. And, don't laugh, but Terry Bradshaw had it, too.

It's an indefinable gene that carries the day and elevates an athlete. It separates truly great ones from those who think they're great or merely think about being great.

"It" is a powerful combination of talent, work ethic, confidence and will power. Someone once said of Jack Nicklaus that he knew he was the best, his opponents knew that he was the best and he knew that they knew. Ranking the great sports dynasties is impossible but it is clear that they all had that type of dominance, an expectation of victory that inspired them and that inspired fear/resignation in even the staunchest opponents.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Anand Shows That He is not the Retiring Kind

After Viswanathan Anand lost his World Chess Championship title to Magnus Carlsen, some commentators speculated that Anand might retire from top level chess. The 44 year old Anand had slipped to eighth in the world chess rankings and it seemed like he did not have the necessary energy and/or motivation to seriously challenge the 23 year old Carlsen. Anand's tournament record in the past few years has been less than stellar and prior to losing to Carlsen he had only narrowly fought off past his prime World Championship challenger Boris Gelfand. Levon Aronian, the 31 year old second ranked player in the world, seemed poised to emerge from the eight player Candidates Tournament to battle against Carlsen.

However, a funny thing has happened on the road to Anand's retirement/Aronian's coronation: Anand has turned back the clock to produce three sizzling victories, a 6.5 score and a 2883 performance rating after 10 rounds in the Candidates Tournament, while Aronian is in second place with a 5.5 score. Anand scored 1.5/2 in his head to head encounters with Aronian and there are just four rounds left in the double round robin event, so--barring a total collapse--Anand will surprise the chess world and earn the right to reclaim the World Chess Championship.

Anand is not be as consistently dominant in tournaments as he used to be but he is a crafty veteran of World Championship play--winning the title in more different formats than any other player--and it is inspiring to watch an "older" player rise to the occasion against the world's elite. If Anand finishes off the Candidates Tournament in style and gets a second opportunity face Carlsen in the World Chess Championship it will be fascinating to see how Anand adjusts his approach; the first time around, it seemed like Anand failed in at least three regards: (1) his opening preparation did not yield much, (2) he lacked the confidence to go for the kill on the rare occasions when he had a potential opportunity to do so and (3) during long games he clearly suffered from mental and/or physical fatigue, resulting in disastrous blunders. During the Candidates Tournament, Anand has demonstrated that he can still get the best of top notch players like Aronian and former World Champions Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov--but can Anand defeat a much younger foe who seems to enjoy psychological and physical advantages against him?

Carlsen is not only the World Chess Champion and the highest rated chess player in the world but he is also the highest rated chess player ever. Just qualifying to challenge Carlsen will be quite a feat for Anand but if Anand dethrones the man who at least some people believe to be the greatest chess player of all time that will be the biggest achievement of his already highly decorated career. Anand would be a heavy underdog against Carlsen--and he did not manage to post even one win in their previous match--but he was not considered a serious contender in the Candidates Tournament until he raced out into the lead and never looked back.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Marv Levy: Champion Without a Ring

It is a paradoxical reality of the sports universe that if one never makes it to the big game one can still be perceived as a winner but if one makes it to the big game repeatedly without winning it then one is generally perceived as a loser. Coach Marv Levy led the Buffalo Bills to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls (1991-94) and if the Bills had won just one of those games then history would view Levy much more kindly--but the Bills lost all four, including three blowouts plus one game decided on a last second field goal missed by Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood, and thus it is unlikely that Levy will ever get the full credit that he is due.

Rick Telander, a narrative non-fiction master, realized that there is much more to Levy than those four Super Bowl losses; in an October 17, 1994 Sports Illustrated article titled No Joke, Telander explained why Levy is not only a great coach but also a well-rounded human being. Levy possesses the intelligence and determination to succeed in just about any field but the Harvard history major fell in love with football, a decision that did not meet with the immediate approval of his father. When he told Sam Levy what he planned to do, the elder Levy considered the matter in silence before saying simply, "Be a good one."

The stereotypical football coach breathes fire and instills fear but Marv Levy rejected that approach: "I hear sometimes that to be a good coach you have to be mean. I disagree, because the essential quality of a coach is to be a good teacher. Just because my personality is different from, say, Mike Ditka's doesn't mean a thing. What I always say is, 'Plan your work and work your plan.' If you have everything prepared, the rest takes care of itself.'"

After that fourth Super Bowl loss, Levy offered a defiant response when asked if the Bills could make a fifth straight trip to the Super Bowl: "Is our goal to win? No! Our goal is to develop our team, to earn what we get, to learn, to develop unselfish attitudes. If we achieve that, the result is that we'll win."

Those words may sound trite but coaches who have won multiple championships--including Phil Jackson and John Wooden--said very similar things: competing in sports at the highest level is about the process, about doing your work the right way and about having the proper mindset: those things do not guarantee championships but they guarantee that you can look in the mirror and know that you, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, filled "the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Peter Svidler on the "Mystical Quality" of Chess

Seven-time Russian chess champion Peter Svidler recently was interviewed by Rustam Kasimdzhanov, the 2004 FIDE World Chess Champion; in Part I, Svidler offers a very candid appraisal of his chess career:

I still think I'm primarily a chess player, but the question can perhaps be phrased: "Have I been as much of a chess player as I should have been over the course of my career?" And I think to that the answer is no. But once again, by now that's probably unfixable and I'm probably more of a chess player right now than I was three years ago--so I'm trying to do something about it. 

I have been somewhat...relaxed towards my chess career in general over the past decade or so. Who knows what could have happened...but the whole, "what would have happened with him if he'd worked on chess for 12 hours a day," is completely pointless, because I don't see myself working 12 hours a day whatever I do. It's a non-starter. I know of some people who do that, but I can't imagine changes in my life which would lead me to that.

It is fascinating that even someone as accomplished as Svidler believes that he does not have the work ethic or focus possessed by the very greatest chess players. Svidler both recognizes this shortcoming and accepts that it is fruitless to wonder what might have been had he taken a different approach; he knows that it is just not in his nature to have the monomaniacal devotion to the sport displayed by Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen, three World Champions who have each permanently inscribed their names very prominently in chess history. Svidler is well aware that he never came close to reaching their level: "...I will be listed as a bit-player in the era of Kramnik. Maybe not exactly a bit-player, but still--there are people out there who shaped the chess world to a certain degree. I don't see myself as one of those, but I'm a decent player."

Although Svidler failed to establish himself as an all-time chess great, in Part II he explains why chess captivates him (and millions of other people who are spellbound by the beauty, wonder, mystery and horror of chess):

I think it's an incredibly beautiful game. It can bring you a lot of joy if you study it and begin to understand it. You do need to put in some work because the "problem" with chess is that you do need to get past a certain level to begin appreciating just how beautiful it can be...

It has a somewhat mystical quality for me. In its best aspects it's like music or literature. It can create a feeling of wonder and beauty--obviously not every day, but it can. That's the reason I'm still happy I'm playing it because every now and then you create something which makes you think, yeah, that really was something which will remain. It's more than a game--at least I like to think so...

Success and recognition and all those things are important, clearly--who doesn't want those?--but this feeling that you get every now and then that you're completely in control of what you're doing over the board and the pieces listen to you and do what you say… For me that's absolutely fantastic and what I'm searching for--what I'm playing for.  

Svidler nailed it: chess provides both a means to express oneself artistically and a way to at least have the illusion of exercising control in a world that often seems very chaotic and unpredictable.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Garry Kasparov Plans Many Moves Ahead, On and Off of the Chess Board

Ron Rosenbaum's Smithsonian article What is Garry Kasparov's Next Move? discusses Kasparov's perspectives on international politics, Magnus Carlsen's victory in the World Chess Championship and the way that powerful chess engines have permanently changed tournament chess. Kasparov's take on Vladimir Putin is particularly interesting:

Kasparov’s animus toward Putin led me to ask the philosophical question "Do you believe in evil?"

"Everyone has an evil component within," he tells me. "It's matter of circumstance whether it emerges. Whether he becomes 'the right man in the right place at the right time' for evil to emerge. Stalin had it, all the components in place."

"How would you assess Putin?" I ask.

"Evil," Kasparov replies. "Pure evil."

"Evil from the beginning?" I ask.

"Yeah, it’s just the..." he pauses, trying to find a way to describe it, "evil from the very beginning, but eventually he was brought into power and eventually he discovered himself...." Again he pauses and then comes out with it. "He discovered himself in the center of this universe with unlimited powers with enormous luck!"

There's something Faustian to this characterization, this vision of Grandmaster Putin suddenly finding himself like Milton's Satan, realizing it's better to "reign in hell, than serve in heaven." He's found himself in a universe he can reign over with godlike abandon. No one in the world, not any of the leaders of the other countries, has powers so unlimited. Few in history have had it--and fewer still have been able to keep it.

But Kasparov will not grant Putin grandmaster strategist status.

"He got lucky from other factors: high price of oil, 9/11 attack, general weakness of the West, complacency, muddy waters in the global politics, apathy of Russian people--the combination [of all that]." And Kasparov also feels there are limits to the effects of Putin’s evil. "It's unimaginable to think he could cause as much damage as Hitler. It's [different], 21st century from the 20th century. I always say that Hitler used tanks, Putin's using banks. But the damage Putin has caused to the integrity of Western financial, political system has yet to be measured."

Returning to Ukraine and Putin’s Gambit, "This is an amazing moment in history, wouldn’t you say?" I ask him.

"Yes," he replies, "I think this [is] an amazing time. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the beginning of the big change. But it was a mistake to think the end of the cold war was the end of history."

Kasparov's reference is to the title of a once-fashionable geopolitical book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama, and to its thesis that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the world was on an uninterruptable path to global liberal democracy.

Kasparov believes that both Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. missed golden opportunities in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kasparov has strong opinions about the policies that the United States should have implemented at that time:

"First of all, you don’t say 'That’s the end of the game.' Because the game is endless. It's the human race. Nobody had a plan that could go for four years, six years, ten years. That was an opportunity to make plans like the Truman administration did in late-1940s."

"And now?" I ask.

"Everybody's complaining that today things are so difficult, the Obama administration is facing [so many] enemies, it's difficult to confront China and radical Islam and Putin is...someone told me that Vladimir Putin is more dangerous than Joseph Stalin in 1948. Are you serious? That insults my sense of history. It's just politicians trying to cover up a lack of ideas, inability to strategize, and unwillingness to break a status quo, desperate attempts to cling to the power by [emphasizing] the magnitude of the global challenges."

Kasparov supports making chess an integral part of the school environment:

Kasparov is already thinking several moves ahead: beyond just reforming the insular, scandal-plagued world of 64 squares to make chess a vehicle for worldwide intelligence enhancement. "Everybody talks about the shortcomings of education. And I have plenty of experience traveling around the world and talking to education authorities, from the very top to the very bottom of the social ladder."

"We have plenty of evidence that at early age chess helps kids to learn about legal frameworks, to understand logic and patterns, to see the big picture, to structure minds. We need to start reforming education, and chess is a very useful tool."

Kasparov has a very measured answer to the question of whether prime Kasparov could beat prime Carlsen: "I always resist the question of comparing people. We live at different times, so Garry Kasparov in ’85 was once the champion, but my knowledge of chess was way, way less. It was 25 years ago."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Rick Reilly's Heartfelt Tribute to Jim Murray

Rick Reilly, who has won the National Sportswriter of the Year award 11 times, could not have picked a better role model than Jim Murray, who captured that honor a record 14 times--including 12 straight from 1966-77. After Murray passed away in August 1998, Reilly penned a touching obituary that displayed Reilly's talent while also explaining the qualities that made Murray so special. I encourage you to read the entire piece; here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

I once asked Jim Murray if he kept a few extra columns in the bank for days when he had the flu or a tee time or an incurably blank computer screen. "Of course not!" he yowled. "What if I die one ahead?"

On Sunday, Jim Murray, the greatest sportswriter who ever lived, kissed his gorgeous wife, started to put on his pajamas, said, "Linda, something's wrong," and collapsed. The doctor was there in five minutes, but it was too late. Jim had died of a heart attack. He was 78.

He got his wish, though. He didn't have any columns saved up. Too bad. We could use a few laughs right now.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

More Fun With Tennis Numbers

Fun With Tennis Numbers listed some of Bjorn Borg's incredible tennis statistics; it is unfortunate that Borg's dominance is not better remembered and appreciated by a generation of fans and commentators who act as if tennis greatness begins and ends with Roger Federer. The reality is that the one contemporary player whose statistics rival Borg's is not Federer but Rafael Nadal.

Tom Perrotta's January 24, 2014 Wall Street Journal article about Nadal notes, "Of the 90 men Nadal has played at least three times in his career, he has a losing record against two of them and an even record against one, according to tennis statistics website TennisAbstract.com. That's better than any man who has ever been ranked No. 3 or higher since the computer ranking system was implemented in 1973, from Bjorn Borg on down." The two aforementioned players who have winning records against Nadal are Nikolay Davydenko (6-5) and Dominik Hrbaty (3-1).

Like Nadal, Borg dominated the other top players of his era. Borg played 39 Top 10 players during his career and he only had a losing record against John Newcombe (1-3), Wayne Ferreira (0-1) and Pancho Gonzales (0-1). The Ferreira match took place during Borg's ill-advised and brief 1992 comeback after more than a decade away from the ATP Tour. Borg had a tie score against Arthur Ashe (7-7), John McEnroe (7-7), Tony Roche (1-1) and Roger Taylor (1-1). 

Nadal is the only current Top 15 player who owns a winning record against every other current Top 15 player; overall, Nadal is 162-53 against that group, including 23-10 versus Roger Federer and 22-17 versus Novak Djokovic. Nadal's mastery of Federer is stunning and complete; Nadal owns a 9-2 record against Federer in Grand Slam events and he has not lost to Federer in a Grand Slam event since the 2007 Wimbledon Final. Anyone who insists on ranking Federer ahead of Nadal on the all-time list at this point is stubbornly denying the simple fact that Nadal has been dominating Federer for years head to head, in addition to posting a better overall Grand Slam winning percentage (.351 compared to .288).

While Nadal has no matchup problems versus tennis' other elite players, Djokovic has a losing record against both Nadal and Federer (15-16); Federer has a losing record against Nadal and Andy Murray (10-11). Nadal is 63-27 against the other current Top Five players, a significantly better mark than Djokovic's 55-33 and Federer's 68-44.

Monday, February 3, 2014

If Peyton Manning is Football's Roger Federer, Then the Postseason is Manning's Rafael Nadal

Roger Federer is often praised as the greatest tennis player of all-time; his game is aesthetically pleasing and technically precise and he has claimed a large portion of the sport's all-time record book--but Rafael Nadal, whose record-setting career is even more impressive than Federer's was at the same stage, has defeated Federer 23-10 in their head to head meetings. When Federer faces Nadal he does not look like the greatest player of his own era, much less the greatest player of all-time.

Peyton Manning is often praised as the greatest quarterback of all-time; his game is aesthetically pleasing and technically precise and he has claimed a large portion of the sport's all-time record book--but Manning has just an 11-12 record in playoff games, including 1-2 in Super Bowls after his Denver Broncos lost 43-8 to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.

A tennis player battles one on one against his opponent in singles matches, while a quarterback is just one of 11 offensive players--but quarterback is the most important position in football, if not all of team sports, and a great quarterback can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of a game. Manning has no problem making his presence felt during regular season play but his playoff record does not measure up to the postseason success enjoyed by Otto Graham (10 championship game appearances and seven championships in a 10 season career), Johnny Unitas (2-1 in NFL championship games, 1-1 in Super Bowls, 6-3 overall playoff record), Joe Montana (four Super Bowl wins in four appearances, 16-7 overall playoff record) and Tom Brady (three Super Bowl wins in five appearances, 18-8 overall playoff record). Terry Bradshaw was not as efficient statistically as Manning--though Bradshaw played in an era during which the rules heavily favored the defense, while the opposite is the case now--but Bradshaw went 4-0 in the Super Bowl and posted a 14-5 overall playoff record. Steve Young began his career in the USFL, played two seasons for a terrible Tampa Bay team and then spent several of his prime years backing up Montana in San Francisco but Young still assembled a 12-8 overall playoff record, including 1-0 in the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner has the same 1-2 Super Bowl record as Manning but Warner went 9-4 overall in the playoffs and he performed better in his three Super Bowls than Manning has.

Manning receives a lot of credit for "making his teammates better"--an ambiguous phrase at best in terms of defining an athlete's greatness--but even if we accept the very debatable premise that Manning has elevated mediocre teammates and/or teams to greatness during the regular season and thus deserves praise for doing so then don't we also have to assign some of the blame to Manning if those same teammates are nervous and/or tentative at the biggest moments? More to the point, Manning himself seemed nervous and tentative during Super Bowl XLVIII; although Manning set the Super Bowl single game record for completions (34) and threw for 280 yards, Troy Aikman commented during the telecast that it was difficult to remember when Manning accumulated all of those completions and all of that yardage: Manning's performance did not pass the eye test and anyone who watched the game analytically could see that Manning did not play at a high level, regardless of how one spins the numbers.

Furthermore, the idea that Manning has thrived despite being surrounded by lesser talent does not withstand close scrutiny. Manning's teams do not generally sneak into the playoffs only to lose to clearly superior squads; his teams race to tremendous regular season records only to stumble against lesser teams: Manning has lost his first playoff game (either in the Wild Card round or after enjoying a bye week)  a record eight times. Just as it would be wrong to deny that Manning's gaudy regular season numbers have earned him a prominent place in the all-time quarterback pantheon, it would be wrong to deny that Manning's relative lack of postseason success (compared to several other members of that pantheon) strongly argues against placing Manning at the very top of the all-time quarterback list.

The title "greatest of all-time" may be largely mythical, something that is impossible to determine by purely objective means--but it is difficult to believe that someone with a glaring hole in his resume should be ranked ahead of great players who do not have a similarly glaring hole in their resumes. Is Federer one of the greatest tennis players of all-time? Of course. Is Manning one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time? Of course. Federer never mastered his main rival Nadal--or even figured out how to play against him on close to even terms--so it makes no sense to label Federer as the greatest of all-time; Manning never dominated NFL postseason play--or even came close to matching the championship success of quarterbacks like Graham, Unitas, Montana and Brady--so it makes no sense to label Manning as the greatest of all-time. Super Bowl XLVIII did not hurt Manning's legacy, because objective observers already understood where Manning should be placed in the quarterback pantheon--but Manning's mediocre performance during Denver's loss represented a missed opportunity for Manning to add to his legacy. If Manning had been sharp while leading Denver to victory then he would have written another chapter in his story, much like Federer could have done if he had ever figured out how to deal with Nadal's relentless groundstrokes.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Josh Gordon: "I'm Just Trying to Learn From the Best"

Josh Gordon was the brightest of the few bright spots in the 4-12 Cleveland Browns' dismal 2013 season; he earned First Team All-Pro honors in just his second year in the league, he led the NFL with 1646 receiving yards--shattering the franchise record of 1289 set by Braylon Edwards in 2007-- and he became the first player in NFL history to post back to back 200-plus yard receiving games. Gordon ranked second in the league with an 18.9 yards per reception average, he tied for 11th in the league with 87 receptions and he tied for 14th in the league with nine receiving touchdowns. Gordon's 95 yard TD reception in Cleveland's 33-28 week 13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars was the longest passing play in the league in 2013. Gordon torched Jacksonville for 261 receiving yards on 10 receptions after ransacking Pittsburgh with 14 catches for 237 yards the week before in Cleveland's 27-11 loss to the Steelers; Gordon's 597 total receiving yards in back to back games are the most receiving yards an NFL player has racked up in consecutive contests in league history.

Gordon also played in his first Pro Bowl and he enjoyed the opportunity to get some one on one tutoring from Jerry Rice, who is perhaps the greatest wide receiver--and arguably the greatest player, period--in NFL history. Gordon is bigger, stronger and faster than Rice was in his prime but it is most instructive to watch the video of Rice and Gordon's interactions in order to learn about Rice's mental approach to the game; Rice set up defenders like a chess grandmaster sets up a tactic and Rice was almost always one move ahead of the opposition. After Rice told Gordon that with proper technique Gordon could become unstoppable Gordon expressed appropriate deference, telling Rice, "I'm just trying to learn from the best."

Younger fans may not realize this, but the Cleveland Browns have a long and proud tradition of great receivers/tight ends, dating all the way back to the exploits of Hall of Famer Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie during the team's dominant run in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). Lavelli and Speedie played vital roles on the Browns' four AAFC championship teams (1946-49) before helping the team win the 1950 NFL title after the leagues merged. Cleveland also advanced to the NFL title game in 1951 and 1952 before Speedie retired. Lavelli played until 1956, as the Browns won NFL crowns in 1954 and 1955 after settling for runner up honors in 1953.

Hall of Famer Paul Warfield and Gary Collins teamed up on the Browns' 1964 NFL championship team; that squad remains the last Cleveland team to win a title in the NFL, NBA or MLB. Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome played an integral part in the franchise's revival in the early to mid-1980s and he is still the Browns' career leader with 662 receptions (the all-time record for tight ends when he retired in 1990) and 7980 receiving yards.

Ray Renfro, Milt Morin, Reggie Rucker, Dave Logan, and Webster Slaughter also deserve mention as first rate Cleveland pass catchers; three-time Pro Bowler Renfro played for the Browns' 1954 and 1955 NFL championship teams, two-time Pro Bowler Morin was one of the NFL's top tight ends in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Rucker tied for the AFC lead in 1975 with 60 receptions, Logan was an excellent deep threat who averaged 16.2 yards per reception in his eight seasons with the Browns and Slaughter earned Pro Bowl honors in 1989 after setting a franchise record with 1236 receiving yards.

If Gordon keeps his mind right--he was suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season because he violated the NFL's substance abuse policy--and his body healthy he could eventually own all of the Browns' receiving records.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lubomir Kavalak Notes Similarities Between the "Baseline" Styles of Bjorn Borg and Magnus Carlsen

In Baseline Chess, Hedgehog and Magnus Carlsen (1),  Lubomir Kavalek writes that in Magnus Carlsen's crucial game nine win versus Viswanathan Anand in their World Chess Championship match Carlsen "became the ultimate baseliner. The term is borrowed from tennis and two great tennis players from Sweden come immediately to mind. Björn Borg and Mats Wilander won 18 Grand Slams between them, doing the damage mostly from the baseline. Net-rushers became victims to their precise, penetrating and counterpunching shots. In chess, it was another Swede, Ulf Andersson, who loved to shuffle his pieces in his own backyard, unwilling to cross the middle of the board, only to lash out when least expected. He sharpened his baseline skills even with the white pieces."

A power-based style--in tennis, chess or any other sport--excites the fans. Who does not like watching sizzling passing shots or stunning piece sacrifices? However, a power-based style requires more energy exertion and has a much smaller margin of error. Roscoe Tanner was a more powerful player than Bjorn Borg but Borg was a much more consistent winner in no small part because Borg's style wore down his opponents; similarly, Carlsen rarely plays one particularly stunning move--in tennis parlance, he does not wow the crowd with devastating passing shots that just clip the line but he keeps getting the ball over the net until his opponents collapse from mental, psychological and/or physical fatigue.

Kavalek's sequel article, Baseline Chess, Hedgehog and Magnus Carlsen (2), explores some of the history of the Hedgehog structure. He notes that the Hedgehog most likely first appeared in a 1922 game played by Fritz Samisch. Salo Flohr, who Kavalek calls "the all-time finest Czech player," employed the Hedgehog in the 1930s, when he earned the right to challenge Alexander Alekhine for the World Chess Championship. Unfortunately for Flohr, World War II prevented the scheduling of that match and he never again had a direct opportunity to fight for the title.

The first 10 moves of game three of the Carlsen-Anand match mirrored the first 10 moves of a 1973 U.S. Championship game between Kavalek and Arthur Bisguier; both games reached the same position--though via a different sequence of moves--and both games ended in draws. As Kavalek puts it, "Time stood still": a variation that worked for Black 40 years ago in a high level game was still good enough for Black to obtain a draw in the 2013 World Chess Championship. Kavalek frequently finds a way to interject anecdotes from his own playing career into his articles, which at times provides a whiff of self-promotion/self-congratulation, but he is justifiably proud of his accomplishments: he won two Czech and three U.S. championships, he was once ranked among the top 10 players in the world and he has been inducted in the World Chess Hall of Fame.

Kavalek concludes the second article by looking at Carlsen's game nine win against Anand. Kavalek suggests that in general Carlsen prefers to use a space advantage to fight against Hedgehog structures but in this game Carlsen took out the World Champion with the Black pieces despite never moving his Q and QB from their original squares. Kavalek raves, "A unique game, indeed! Can somebody do it with the white pieces?"

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bruce Newman's 1994 Tribute to Retiring Racing Legend Mario Andretti

Sports Illustrated used to feature a lengthy roster of top notch writers, including Ralph Wiley, Frank Deford, Gary Smith and Rick Reilly. Bruce Newman is not as well known as the members of that literary quartet but he is a very good writer as well. In Sports Illustrated's October 17, 1994 issue, Newman penned a tribute to racing legend Mario Andretti. Newman described Andretti's enduring legacy:

There are other drivers--artists like Jimmy Clark and Ayrton Senna--whose best days will linger longer in our memory than Andretti's, but no one was ever as successful as Andretti in so many different kinds of racing. From 1966 through '69 he won 29 Indy Car races (his eventual total would be 52), while also winning both the Daytona 500 stock car race and the 12 Hours of Sebring in '67. The following year he drove in Formula One for the first time and immediately took the pole at Watkins Glen (though he didn't finish the race). He was competing in only his second full season of F/1 racing, in '78, when he won the World Championship driving for Lotus.

In 1994, Andretti's final season on the Indy Car circuit, he finished outside of the top ten in the standings (14th) for the first time since 1981, when he only ran a partial schedule due to his Formula One commitments. He was competitive at times but he was no longer an elite driver, a fact that he well understood: "The cycle of life is what's happening. The old guys go home, new guys come out. There's no question that I've driven past my prime, but, realistically, I'm still capable of bringing home results." Newman noted, "If Andretti had stayed too long at the races, nobody seemed in any particular hurry for him to leave, least of all him." It is always poignant to see a great career wind down but Andretti handled the denouement with his customary class--and Newman described the ending with great insight and sensitivity, reminding younger readers just how great Andretti had been when he ruled virtually every track that he visited.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Importance of Confidence and Audacity

Extreme confidence is essential for any champion; a champion's confidence is so high that it can seem irrational to an outsider but a champion's unshakeable belief in his skill/destiny enables him to overcome any form of adversity. A selection of 10 Great Chess Quotes reinforces this point: Bobby FischerGarry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen each have distinctive personalities and playing styles but one thing that they have in common is enormous confidence. Carlsen explains, "Self-confidence is very important. If you don’t think you can win, you will take cowardly decisions in the crucial moments, out of sheer respect for your opponent. You see the opportunity but also greater limitations than you should. I have always believed in what I do on the chessboard, even when I had no objective reason to. It is better to overestimate your prospects than underestimate them." A confident player is audacious and unabashed, willing to take risks regardless of the situation.

In an article that primarily focuses on tennis player Andy Murray, Dominic Lawson explains why A true champion won't accept defeat:

Martina Navratilova has frequently said that "tennis is like chess" and so I feel justified in producing further analogies with that purely cerebral form of sporting conflict. Bobby Fischer eventually took the world championship from Boris Spassky in 1972, but for years he had found the Russian unbeatable. He gave as one of his reasons that "Spassky always has exactly the same expression on his face, whether he is winning or losing." This greatly disconcerted the American genius, who was used to seeing opponents visibly quail under the force of his attacks; but with Spassky there was nothing for Fischer to feed off, to boost his own confidence.

Some of the very greatest tennis champions have had exactly the same disconcerting inscrutability--Bjorn Borg springs to mind--and the good news for Murray is that this is something which can be developed: Borg was much more expressive as a teenager but learned to keep his emotions (and therefore vulnerability) hidden from the opponent.

It is one thing to hide psychological frailty: it is quite another to eliminate it. Perhaps Murray will always be incapable of that. If so, he can never be a true champion. That sounds tough, but it is the essential truth about sport at the supreme level. The great champions have reserves of self-belief that those not so endowed (the rest of us) find very hard even to comprehend. This is something quite different from technical ability; and there is no reason why the two should go hand in hand. It explains why some of the most naturally gifted sportsmen never fulfil the potential which everyone else sees in them.

Borg is one of the toughest and most confident performers in sports history. He declared, "My greatest point is my persistence. I never give up in a match. However down I am, I fight until the last ball. My list of matches shows that I have turned a great many so-called irretrievable defeats into victories." Although Borg could hit the ball with power, his default approach was to simply keep getting the ball back over the net; he was confident that he could do so 1000 times in a row if necessary and he was also confident that his opponents could not do so. Borg knew that just by staying in each point, each game and each set he could wear down anyone both mentally and physically. In the 1980 Wimbledon Final, Borg lost the fourth set tiebreaker 18-16 to John McEnroe; McEnroe said that he thought that he had broken Borg's spirit--but, as Borg noted, the fifth set is what counted the most and Borg played almost flawless tennis, dispatching McEnroe 8-6 to claim his record fifth straight Wimbledon title. Borg dropped his first two service points in the final set before winning 28 of his last 29 service points.

Carlsen plays chess the way that Borg played tennis; his individual moves are not always spectacular at first glance but Carlsen just keeps "getting the ball over the net" until his opponents crack under the pressure of doing likewise. It takes confidence, energy and steady nerves to play any sport in that fashion.