Friday, April 7, 2017

Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier: A Personal Reminiscence

Grandmaster Arthur Bisguier passed away on Wednesday at the age of 87. Bisguier was a two-time U.S. Chess Junior Champion (1948, 1949), the 1954 U.S. Chess Champion, a three-time winner of the U.S. Chess Open (1950, 1956, 1959) and a three-time U.S. Chess Senior Champion (1989, 1997, 1998).

He earned the Grandmaster title during an era when only the elite players achieved that distinction, as there were only a few dozen Grandmasters in the world in the late 1950s. The young Bisguier was a swashbuckling exemplar of attacking chess; in his later years he adopted a more conservative style and he was still a dangerous tournament player well into his 80s.

I first met Bisguier in the 1990s at the Kings Island Open near Cincinnati, Ohio. He showed up at that tournament every year for many years--not to play, but to hold court in his own skittles room, where he analyzed players' games for free. For me, having my games analyzed by a legend was one of the most enjoyable aspects of playing in this event (and I had a fair amount of success there, one year beating three 2300s when I was not even rated 2100 and other years winning various class prizes).

Bisguier never put on airs and he never talked down to anyone. He would patiently analyze a game played by a 1200 with the same seriousness and attention to detail that he would apply to a game played by a 2100 and he would subtly adjust his explanations so that they would be intelligible to each player without making that player feel self-conscious.

The only thing that would exasperate Bisguier was if a player had an inaccurate scoresheet. Bisguier would say something to the effect of, "If you don't know what happened then I can't help you."

You could tell that he loved the game and that he enjoyed helping us to improve. Some players preferred to show their wins to Bisguier but I tended to show him my losses first (and then my wins, if there was enough time to do so), because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to gain as much knowledge as possible about my weaknesses.

Bisguier would state with self-deprecation that our tactics were better than his at that point but that he could show us the correct plan for a given situation; in reality, his tactics were still quite sharp, particularly in an analysis session with no clock running.

Some of Bisguier's comments will always stick with me, especially "I want my pieces to do something!" and "Where is your sense of danger?" The former remark--which he said to many players--was an exhortation to not only develop our pieces but to develop them actively. I have often said something similar to my students, reminding them of the supreme importance of active and coordinated piece play. The latter remark, directed specifically to me on more than one occasion, reflected his astonishment at the recklessness of my play as I paid the price after disregarding some rather serious threats being made by my opponents. The ironic thing is that Bisguier, as a young man, was a very brash and bold player, though of course his play was far more accurate than mine. My sense of danger still fails me at times but I have avoided the wrong path on many occasions by remembering Bisguier's warning and thus playing a necessary prophylactic move instead of just ignoring my opponent's threats.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day of providing analysis and when everyone had shown all of the games that they wanted to show, Bisguier would regale us with one of his games from the 1950s--or the 1990s! He had an incredible memory and he was an engaging raconteur as he entertained us with slashing victories from his youth or his somewhat more subdued wins as he captured one of his three U.S. Senior titles.

One of my favorite Bisguier stories about his career (which I both read about and then heard about from him as well) is how he came to win the inaugural Church's Grand Prix; as I recall, he was between jobs in 1979, so he decided that he might as well travel the country and try to make some money playing chess. Bisguier said this so casually, as if anyone in his early 50s could just suddenly ramp up his chess tournament schedule to play almost every weekend in a different city while enjoying sustained success against younger players, many of whom were full-time chess professionals. According to an article in the March 1980 issue of Chess Life, Bisguier finished with 80.62 Grand Prix points to narrowly beat International Master Vitaly Zaltsman. In addition to the various tournament prizes that Bisguier won along the way, he received $3000 plus automatic entry into the next U.S. Chess Championship (Zaltsman won $1500 and the next 10 players on the list received between $100 and $1000 each). In that article, Bisguier noted with pride that during the year he had increased his rating to a new career-high.

I was always puzzled that players above a certain rating felt that it was beneath them to show their games to Bisguier and I thought that it was crass and foolish that some players mentioned his name while debating who was the "weakest" active Grandmaster, as if mere mortal chess players have any business trying to make such a distinction; Bisguier's rating slowly but surely dropped from 2500+ to his 2200 floor but his wisdom and understanding of the game remained undimmed--and he had forgotten more about chess than most of those who mocked him would ever know, regardless of whether or not their current ratings were 50 or 100 points higher than his. A player who peaks at 2300 has not accomplished a fraction of what Bisguier did and should speak of Bisguier with nothing but humility and respect. To paraphrase what Yoda said to Luke Skywalker, "When 80 years old you reach, play chess as well you will not."

It has been a few years since I last had the opportunity to play at Kings Island and more than a few years since Bisguier stopped coming to the event; I miss seeing him every year as fall turned to winter in Ohio but I cherish the memories of my many interactions with him and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to spend so much time with one of the legends of 20th century American chess.

Rest in peace, Grandmaster Bisguier, and may your family be comforted at this time.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Belichick, Brady and the New England Patriots Embody the Difference Between Winners and Champions

By now, you have seen it, heard about it and/or been subjected to endless "takes" about it: the New England Patriots came back from a 25 point third quarter deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl LI. Bill Belichick now stands alone above NFL coaches with five Super Bowl wins and Tom Brady stands alone above NFL quarterbacks with five Super Bowl wins (Charles Haley won five Super Bowls as a linebacker for the 49ers and Cowboys).

I try to avoid engaging in hyperbole but considering the quality of the teams, the magnitude of the historical legacies at stake, the many great individual plays and the dramatic overtime conclusion, Super Bowl LI is the greatest Super Bowl ever.

Here are some of my thoughts and observations to place Super Bowl LI in a larger context:

1) Has any major sports figure more thoroughly forced the media to completely reevaluate his legacy than Bill Belichick? Cleveland media members mocked Belichick during his tenure with the Browns (fun fact: Belichick presided over the Browns' most recent playoff win, after the 1994 season) and after Belichick resigned following just one day as the New York Jets' coach the national media ganged up on him as well (Belichick believed that the Jets lacked the organizational stability necessary to build a championship team and history has certainly vindicated him about that).

When New England owner Robert Kraft was considering hiring Belichick, Art Modell--who backstabbed Cleveland's fans by moving the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, a decision that also sabotaged Belichick's final year with the team--told Kraft that hiring Belichick would be the biggest mistake he ever made. Modell thought like a media member (he was a Madison Avenue ad man before buying the Browns) and, like most members of the media, he would not have known a bubble screen from bubble wrap, but instead of accepting responsibility for his actions in Cleveland he preferred to make Belichick the scapegoat.

Kraft wisely ignored Modell and the media know-it-alls. Kraft not only hired Belichick but he had enough sense to stay out of his way (something that Modell never figured out how to do as an owner) and enable Belchick to rebuild the Patriots from the ground up. Go back and look at the headlines from early in Belichick's tenure in New England; the stupidity of the media is breathtaking. It is also pathetic that Modell, who had pledged that Belichick would be the last coach that he hired only to betray him, was not satisfied with firing Belichick but that he also tried to ruin his reputation among other NFL owners.

2) The Patriots proved the power of positive thinking. Shaquille O'Neal often says that if the general panics then the troops will panic but if the general is calm then the troops will be calm. The Patriots did not play well in the first half but you did not see Belichick or Brady losing their cool. They exuded a quiet confidence that there was a lot of time left in the game and that they could still win. Many media members love to talk about "halftime adjustments" or "in game adjustments" but the reality is that game-planning is done before the game, not during it.

If you have to come up with a new game plan at halftime then you are dead. If you listen to Belichick or Gregg Popovich or any other great coach you will notice that they almost sneer when a media member asks them about halftime adjustments. Belichick had a game plan that took into account the Falcons' tendencies and, as Belichick noted after the game, by the middle of the first quarter it was obvious that the Falcons were going to almost exclusively stick with man to man defense. The only "adjustment" the Patriots had to make was to stay focused, not panic after making some mistakes and execute the game plan that had been drawn up to counter man to man defense. There were no great halftime speeches and no "adjustments" drawn on a chalkboard.

The Patriots stayed calm, they stayed focused and they followed Belichick's mantra: "Do your job." This approach is a marked contrast to what we often see in the sports world. When challenges arrive, it is very easy to think negatively or blame your teammates or to abandon the game plan as opposed to focusing on executing it. When the Cleveland Cavaliers hit a rough patch recently, LeBron James blamed everyone but himself and he is reportedly actively involved in trying to arrange for the Cavaliers to trade Kevin Love to New York for Carmelo Anthony. Belichick and Brady did not whine that they needed "another playmaker" after Rob Gronkowski suffered a season-ending injury; instead, they won a Super Bowl with a bunch of wide receivers who no one would have ever heard of if those receivers had not had the good fortune to be coached by Belichick and thrown to by Brady. The 39 year old Brady did not complain about having to throw the ball over 60 times because the Patriots' running game could not get going. World Chess Champion Vasily Smyslov once said that in chess you must do things as they have to be done and then see what happens (Larry Brown might call this "playing the right way") and that is what Brady did: the Patriots had to throw the ball a lot to win, so he threw the ball a lot and did not complain or whine or make excuses.

It is also worth noting that when all was said and done, neither Belichick nor Brady announced that they were the best of all-time; they deflect praise and they speak about the contributions of the other members of the team. I can't help but think back to when James quit versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and then announced at his press conference that he had "spoiled" the fans by being so great for so long--or to when James declared that he never lacked confidence because he is "the best player in the world." Muhammad Ali could get away with saying such things because he went in the ring by himself and proved in one on one combat that he was the greatest but it is a little different in a team sport--and when a team sport athlete makes such a statement it then becomes quite legitimate to ask why he has a losing record in the Finals: if you keep tooting your own horn then you can't complain when the critics point out your discordant notes. Brady and Belichick don't have to say anything because their resumes speak loud and clear: the Patriots are contenders every year and they have posted an unprecedented 5-2 Super Bowl record in a league that is designed to promote parity.

3) "Do your job." Julian Edelman's job is to catch footballs. Before Super Bowl LI, he warmed up by catching passes one-handed, first with his right hand and then with his left hand. A few hours later with the championship on the line, Edelman outfought three Falcons for the ball and cradled it in his hands just inches above the turf. How does one little 5-9 receiver beat out three players to make such a play? Edelman did his job. Losing teams get in trouble because some players try to do too much or because other players become so discouraged that they stop trying at all. The Patriots do their job until the clock strikes triple zeroes. As Belichick said after the game, it takes 60 minutes of effort and sometimes even a few minutes more than that (because of overtime).

4) The difference between winners and champions. In the first half, Brady did not look like the greatest quarterback of all-time. He made uncharacteristic mistakes and he even seemed rattled mentally and/or physically by the Falcons' pass rush. However, Brady kept battling and his confidence permeated throughout the team. There are two recurring themes in the Patriots' post-game quotes: (1) Coach Belichick prepared us for anything that could happen and (2) We never doubted that we could come back because we had Tom Brady running the offense. That kind of leadership cannot be quantified; indeed, other than height, Brady lacks just about any measurable you would look for in a franchise quarterback but you cannot measure mental toughness and work ethic and leadership.

In an interview aired on Fox before the Super Bowl, Kraft told Erin Andrews that the toughest part of any task is completing the last 5% of the job. I would add that the final 5% is what separates champions from everyone else: it is the difference between winners and champions.

The Atlanta Falcons are winners. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise; they had a great season and they played brilliantly in the NFC playoffs to advance to the Super Bowl. What the Falcons are not is champions: they were not able to complete the last 5% of the job. Perhaps they will find a way individually and collectively to develop that championship mentality; there have been other teams that fell just short only to eventually take the last step--but there have also been plenty of teams that fell just short and then collapsed, because the way that they fell short revealed something essential about their competitive spirit that just could not be fixed.

I love the unscripted drama of sports. No statistical model could have predicted what transpired down the stretch in the Super Bowl. I read a stat somewhere that at one point the Falcons were 99.8% favorites to win the game. Such statistical modeling fails to take into account the human spirit. I think back to the famous "Battle of 1816," when John McEnroe defeated Bjorn Borg by that score in the fourth set tiebreaker of the 1980 Wimbledon Finals. Borg had won four straight Wimbledons but it seemed like McEnroe was about to dethrone him. It would have been understandable for Borg to quit against his younger rival but, instead, Borg played an almost flawless fifth set to win a then-unprecedented fifth straight Wimbledon crown. That tiebreaker is often replayed but one time when Borg was asked about it he almost whispered with a knowing smile that it was the fifth set that mattered.

I have never had the opportunity to compete at the highest level of any sport but in my local and regional competitions I have attempted to apply what I have learned from a lifetime of studying the greatest champions. It took me nearly a decade to win my first Dayton Chess Club Championship. Perhaps my most frustrating failure came after I raced to a 3-0 lead by beating my main rivals, only to fall short by losing to two lower rated competitors. Such a setback is a cause for serious introspection; I had already won many tournaments and attained an Expert level rating but I had never won a chess championship, falling short both in the city high school championship and in the DCC Championship.

The next time that I played in the Dayton Chess Club championship after blowing that 3-0 lead, I was not deterred when adversity arose in certain games and I was not distracted by what anyone else in the tournament did, because I had finally figured out that what mattered was not accumulating rating points or being satisfied by beating the players who were the biggest threats on paper: what mattered was completing that last 5% of the job, winning that fifth set, beating out three players to catch a pass.

Being a champion is like being addicted to a drug; it took Michael Jordan several years to win his first NBA title and then he won six in the next eight years. After I won my first DCC title, I won three in a four year stretch en route to capturing a record 10 overall in a 20 year period despite rarely if ever being the highest rated participant. No "metric" would have projected that I would win 10 DCC titles--and that is what is great about competition.

Please forgive the personal interlude but trying to understand champions has been a lifelong fascination of mine and I have attempted to apply what I have learned both in my writings about champions and also in my modest endeavors to be a champion on a local/regional level. I also should make it clear that I consider my rivals for the DCC title over the past two decades--including but not limited to Earle Wikle, John Dowling, Chris Atkins, Ross Sprague, Les Whorton and Will Sedlar--to be champions as well and any time I describe my journey to become a champion I certainly mean no disrespect to the journeys that each of them took to become champions: when two champions square off someone has to lose but a true champion shows his mettle by bouncing back. McEnroe beat Borg in the 1981 Wimbledon Final to secure his legacy as a great champion; Belichick and Brady have responded to their two Super Bowl losses by adding two more Super Bowl wins to their resumes. It will be interesting to see what these Atlanta Falcons are made of and if they can complete the final 5% of the job or if they have already peaked. After the Super Bowl, Jimmy Johnson said that the Falcons will be back but as an NCAA and NFL champion he should know better: championships are not promised to anyone, no matter how talented or young or hungry.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Federer Outlasts Nadal to Claim First Grand Slam Title Since 2012

If you live in the eastern portion of the United States, you had to get up at 3 a.m. in order to watch Roger Federer face Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open Final. The lost sleep was worth it to see two of the greatest tennis players of all-time throw haymakers at each other for five sets. Federer, trailing 2-1 and down a break in the fifth set, rallied to win 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3. Federer extended his record to 18 career Grand Slam singles titles, while Nadal remains tied with Pete Sampras in second place on that list with 14.

Federer and Nadal did not play perfect tennis but they played at a breathtakingly high level for sustained periods. The fifth set was captivating theater. Initially, the match looked like a rerun of most of the earlier matches in the head to head rivalry (which Nadal still leads, 23-12, including 9-3 in Grand Slams and 6-3 in Grand Slam Finals). Federer led two sets to one but Nadal stormed back to take the fourth set and after he seized an early break in the fifth set it looked like Nadal, as usual, would wear Federer down mentally and physically. Nadal is the only player who not only beats Federer but seems to break Federer down, resulting in mental mistakes and physical fatigue--but this time Federer found another gear: although Nadal may have slowed a bit down the stretch, it did not look like Nadal lost so much as Federer just beat him with splendid shotmaking.

The Federer fans--and they are legion, including many media members--will say that this victory clinched greatest player of all-time status for Federer; they have been singing that refrain for a decade and, as Federer aged, they became increasingly strident, pointing to every Federer accomplishment as proof of his greatness while saying that every Federer loss did not mean much because he was already past his prime.

The reality is that this match was marvelous to watch but it did not change much about the facts, even if some people will change their perceptions. As mentioned above, Nadal still owns a decisive lead in the head to head rivalry. Nadal beat Federer early (taking 12 of the first 18 matches that they played against each other, culminating in an epic 2008 triumph in the Wimbledon Final on what could be called Federer's "home court") and he has beaten Federer late (winning six of their nine matches since 2011).

Nadal still owns a better Grand Slam winning percentage (14/47, 29.8%; Federer's Grand Slam winning percentage is 18/69, 26.1%) and he has taken Federer's measure at Federer's best Grand Slam (Wimbledon) while Federer has not reciprocated at Roland Garros, where Nadal has won a record nine French Open titles (Federer's lone French Open win came without facing Nadal). Nadal owns the head to head advantage over Federer at the French Open (5-0) and the Australian Open (3-2), while Federer leads 2-1 at Wimbledon. They have never met at the U.S. Open. Nadal leads in ATP Masters/ATP World Tour Masters 1000 matches (12-4), best of five matches (11-4), clay court matches (13-2) and hard court matches (9-8).

Why would one match, as great as this one was, between a 35 year old Federer and a 30 year old Nadal weigh heavily enough to overcome that mountain of evidence pointing to Nadal's superiority? That just makes no sense. If anything, this match was an anomalous result between two players who are both past their primes, neither of whom had won a Grand Slam in years (2012 for Federer, 2014 for Nadal); the norm is for Nadal to beat Federer and to beat him in heartbreaking fashion by overpowering him. In the fifth set while trailing, Federer called the trainer over several times but if anything Nadal looked like the player who was a step slower than he had been earlier in the match. Federer may very well have aged better than Nadal and Nadal may not even be playing at 35, let alone winning Grand Slams--but when comparing two great players peak value matters more than durability, particularly when considering the fact that both players have had long careers by tennis standards.

Also, although Nadal's hard-charging style does not seem to be made for longevity--and he has always been less durable than Federer--who can dare say that Nadal cannot possibly win four Grand Slams in the next five years to tie Federer's record by the time that Nadal is the age that Federer is now? That seems unlikely--but no more unlikely than Federer emerging from a five year Grand Slam drought to outlast his greatest rival in five sets. Why have Federer's fans spent the past decade trying to close the greatest player of all-time discussion when Federer's greatest rival is still active? Reread that sentence carefully and the answer is not too hard to figure out.

Congratulations to Roger Federer for winning the Australian Open in dramatic fashion and kudos to both players for providing fantastic, high level tennis; hopefully, this is a rekindling of the rivalry and not the last, great spark.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Federer Versus Nadal: Once More, for the Ages

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest tennis players of all-time, are just hours away from facing each other once again--perhaps for the last time--in a Grand Slam Final. Many commentators are touting this as the most important head to head match of their rivalry.

I disagree with the notion that this one match--out of nearly three dozen head to head matches and hundreds of other matches in their respective careers--is the most important match for either player. Both Federer and Nadal are well past their primes and the Australian Open is indisputably the least significant of the four Grand Slams (the top non-Australian players routinely skipped this event in the 1970s and 1980s).

I am not convinced that any one match can or should be singled out as the most important but if we are going to pick one Federer-Nadal showdown to elevate above all of the others then the choice has to be Nadal's five set victory over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final. That Nadal triumph ended Federer's Open Era record 65 match winning streak on grass courts, it obliterated once and for all the notion that Nadal was only a clay court specialist and it paved the way for Nadal to supplant Federer as the number one ranked player in the world. That match is also arguably the greatest match in tennis history. There is no way that a match in Australia between two past their prime greats can come even close to matching the historical significance of the Wimbledon match that they contested when they were both at the peak of their powers.

Federer is such a media darling that it is easy to forget how thoroughly Nadal has dominated their head to head rivalry. Nadal leads Federer 23-11, including 9-2 in Grand Slams and 6-2 in Grand Slam Finals. Nadal beat Federer early in the rivalry (taking 11 of 17 matches prior to their 2008 Wimbledon showdown) and he has also dominated as both players moved past their primes (winning six of their eight matches since 2011). If Nadal beats Federer in the 2017 Australian Open Final then Nadal will join Roy Emerson and Rod Laver as the only players to win each Grand Slam at least twice (Federer claimed his sole French Open title by not having to face Nadal).

Federer holds the male record with 17 Grand Slam singles titles, but it is important to keep in mind that tennis professionals were not permitted to play in the Grand Slams until the Open Era began in 1968; otherwise, Rod Laver could very well have won 17 or more Grand Slams. Also, Federer has won 25% of his Grand Slam appearances (17/68), a lower percentage than Nadal's 30.4% (14/46); Federer is tennis' Emmitt Smith, a great player who set records based more on durability than dominance.

It must be mentioned in this context that Bjorn Borg, the Sandy Koufax of tennis, holds the record for percentage of Grand Slams won (11/27, 40.7%) and his simultaneous dominance of the French Open's slow clay plus Wimbledon's fast grass is unparalleled; Borg won both tournaments from 1978-80 and when he stopped playing Grand Slams at just 26 he held the modern record for most titles at both events, six and five respectively. Put Borg, Federer and Nadal in the same era with the same equipment and Borg would likely emerge as the best player based on conditioning, mental toughness and ability to dominate multiple surfaces.

Mary Carillo recently offered great insight about the Federer-Nadal rivalry: 
I have said and argued with John McEnroe and Ted Robinson during our French Open telecasts for many years that you cannot anoint Roger Federer the greatest of all time if he isn't the greatest of his own time. And it's not just on red clay. Nadal has the edge on hard courts as well. Like in boxing, it's all about the matchup. When Roger is playing at his luminous best he has no need to worry about the other side of the net. But if he is playing Nadal, even his best is often not enough.

People conflate [Federer's] beauty with supremacy and blur the line between high art and [Nadal's] impossible-to-ignore domination. I think Roger Federer is the most stylish, elegant and gifted tennis player I've ever seen. Roger is all that is right in this tennis world. Rafa Nadal is his perfect rival--powerful, explosive, gritty and gutsy.
Nadal has proven to be more dominant on more surfaces than Federer. Nadal owns a decisive advantage in their head to head rivalry. Nadal beat Federer in Federer's prime on Federer's best surface. I cannot imagine how this Australian Open Final would materially alter my opinion about Nadal and Federer; if Nadal wins, this is just a continuation of a well-established pattern of Nadal's superiority, while if Federer wins that would not change the fact that Nadal still owns a huge head to head advantage that he obtained when both players were at or near their primes.

Any Federer fan who hypes up this match as Federer's great opportunity to prove that he is a greater player than Nadal should be prepared to make the opposite declaration if Nadal wins; it makes no sense to act like this match matters if Federer wins but to give Federer a pass if he loses. Such thinking reminds me of a writer who years ago claimed that a Lakers-Rockets game seven would be the biggest game of Kobe Bryant's career (the writer hoped/expected that a loss would somehow define Bryant's legacy)--but after Bryant's Lakers won, this writer did not make any comment about this victory defining Bryant's legacy in a positive way.

Federer and Nadal have both defined their legacies already. This match will be one more chapter--and perhaps a poignant/nostalgic one if it turns out to be their last Grand Slam Final battle--but no one should make bold declarations about all-time rankings based on the outcome.

My prediction? Nadal wins in four sets. Either during the match or shortly thereafter, Federer will indicate that he was not at full strength physically. Nadal will be humble in victory and declare that Federer is still the greatest player; Federer's media fans will agree with Nadal and will state that Nadal's victory over an aging Federer is not really that significant (but if Federer somehow wins this match, brace yourself for a barrage of articles declaring that Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time).