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. Bj√∂rn 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.