Friday, April 12, 2024

O.J. Simpson's Self-Tarnished Legacy

O.J. Simpson died yesterday after a brief battle with prostate cancer. He was 76 years old, and despite his numerous athletic accomplishments he will be most remembered for being found liable for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman after being found not guilty of double murder in an infamous criminal trial. As a result of the civil liability finding, Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million to the victims' families, but because his NFL pension and his expensive home were legally exempt from that court decision he managed to live the high life while avoiding paying most of that damage award.

Simpson's double murder trial--the so-called "Trial of the Century"--provided fame and wealth to a cast of characters who lacked discernible talent but who became famous for being famous--a phenomenon that has now become all too common in our social media saturated era. 

The divergent reactions--largely along racial lines--to Simpson's acquittal in the criminal case foreshadowed the mixed up thinking that has now become prevalent in our society; such thinking stipulates that a member of a favored minority group can never be a criminal or oppressor, while a member of a non-favored group can never be a victim. Once a society abandons the notions of objective truth and equal protection under the law, that society is heading toward oblivion, because persecution in the past--no matter how abhorrent--does not justify the application of double standards in the present; the only sane way forward is to strive for equality, not some perverse "equity," because pursuing the latter is a path whose tragic consequences have been seen in the former Soviet Union and other countries whose revolutionaries claimed to be eliminating tyranny but instead implemented tyranny.

More than a decade after evading conviction and incarceration for a double murder for which there is no other suspect and for which he did not have a credible alibi, Simpson spent nine years in prison as a result of his conviction for armed robbery and kidnapping. Simpson and several accomplices held people at gunpoint in a Las Vegas hotel room while purportedly attempting to recover stolen sports memorabilia. Simpson was fortunate to only spend nine years in prison, because his 33 year sentence stipulated that he serve at least nine years before being eligible for parole. Had he not been granted the earliest possible parole, he could have died behind bars, a possibility that I mentioned 16 years ago when I summarized Simpson's legacy:

O.J. Simpson's athletic gifts provided him a golden opportunity to better his life, the lives of his family members and, if he had chosen, to make a positive contribution to society by using his name and influence to support a greater cause, like Jim Brown has done with his Amer-I-Can foundation. Instead, Simpson left a trail of misery and destruction culminating in the possibility of spending his final days on Earth locked behind bars. What a pitiful, tragic waste of human potential.

Simpson was the NFL's premier running back during my early childhood, and he still ranks as one of the greatest running backs in both college and NFL history--but, because of his poor life choices and lack of self-control, he determined that his legacy will be forever tarnished. 

Simpson never demonstrated the slightest bit of contrition or remorse, and in fact he ghoulishly tried to profit from the double murder by writing a book titled "If I Did It" wherein he denied his guilt and yet explained in detail how he would have committed the crime if he had done it. After a protracted legal battle, Ron Goldman's father Fred obtained the publication and royalty rights for the book to satisfy part of the $33.5 million judgment against Simpson.

I hope that the Brown and Goldman families find some closure and peace now that Simpson is no longer around to flaunt his wealth and freedom three decades after they buried their loved ones whose lives had been brutally cut short.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

UConn Routs Purdue, Becomes First Back to Back NCAA Champions Since Florida in 2007

The University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies defeated Purdue 75-60 to claim their second consecutive NCAA title after beating San Diego State 76-59 in last year's NCAA Championship Game. Tristen Newton led UConn with 20 points while also dishing for seven assists and snaring five rebounds, becoming the first player to have a 20-5-5 NCAA Championship Game performance since Carmelo Anthony in 2003. Newton won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. Consensus National Player of the Year Zach Edey scored a game-high 37 points on 15-25 field goal shooting for Purdue while also grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds in 39 minutes. UConn's strategy was simple: shut down the rest of Purdue's team under the assumption that Edey could not win the game by himself. Edey's teammates scored 23 points on 9-29 field goal shooting. 

UConn has won six national titles--all since 1999--and the Huskies are the first back to back champions since the 2006-07 Florida Gators. Duke (1991-92) is the only other school to win consecutive NCAA championships since John Wooden led UCLA to 10 NCAA championships in a 12 year span (1964-65, 1967-73, 1975). UConn has won 12 consecutive Final Four games, with each victory by at least 13 points, and the Huskies became just the sixth team to win all six tournament games by double digits.

It is easy to see how UConn won 37 games this season but--to paraphrase an old line about dominant pitcher Sandy Koufax--it is not easy to see how UConn lost three games this season. UConn coach Dan Hurley declared that UConn has been running college basketball since 1999, a brash statement that is also true. Hurley has transformed himself from being Bobby Hurley's little known brother into being a future Hall of Famer; Bill Self and Rick Pitino are the only active coaches other than Dan Hurley who have won two NCAA titles (but one of Pitino's titles was vacated by the NCAA).

However, it is demonstrably false to suggest that the 2024 Huskies are a better basketball team than the legendary teams from the past, regardless of how many records the Huskies set. Just consider the strategy that worked so well against Purdue: let Edey run wild because his teammates--on a team that was clearly the second best college team this season--could be shut down. That strategy worked brilliantly because Edey may be Purdue's only NBA caliber player. Imagine trying a similar strategy against the 2007 Florida Gators, who had six future NBA players on their roster (including future All-Stars Al Horford and Joakim Noah); no intelligent coach would do that, because Florida had way too much talent and depth. Similarly, the 1992 Duke Blue Devils also had six future NBA players on their roster, including future Hall of Famer Grant Hill, and Christian Laettner, one of the greatest college players of all-time. The 1973 UCLA Bruins featured future Hall of Famer Bill Walton at center, and his teammates included future Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes, plus future pros Swen Nater (a two-time All-Star), Dave Meyers, Greg Lee, and Ralph Drollinger. 

Teams playing in the NCAA Championship Game used to routinely feature multiple future NBA players because the best college players used to stay in school for four years or at least three. There was no transfer portal, so teams developed chemistry, cohesion, and experience. In contrast, UConn is dominating an era during which the best players go to the NBA as soon as possible; the overall talent level in college basketball is not nearly as good as it used to be, and few teams stay together long enough to develop much chemistry, cohesion, and experience.

I love basketball, and I particularly love championship level basketball. UConn is a great college team in this era, but UConn is not better than the great college teams from the past precisely because the college game in this era is not better than the college game was in the past. It is not UConn's fault that the overall talent level in this era is watered down--but commentators who breathlessly hype up everything that happens now while ignoring the sport's historical realities should consider their words more carefully.

Further Reading:

UConn Defeats San Diego State 76-59 to Claim Fifth NCAA Title Since 1999 (April 2023)

The NCAA Tournament Provides Drama, but Does it Provide Great Basketball? (April 2022)

Baylor Dominates Gonzaga to Win the 2021 NCAA Title (April 2021)

Separating the Grownups From the Kids in Basketball (November 2018) 

Heels Stomp Spartans (2009 NCAA Championship)

C(h)alm in the Clutch: Kansas Defeats Memphis in OT, 75-68 (2008 NCAA Championship) 

Early Entry Players Have Diluted Both College and Pro Basketball (March 2008)


Saturday, April 6, 2024

Journey to the National Master Title, Part 9

I scored 2/3 in the January 6, 2024 Columbus G/60 tournament, gaining 16 rating points to lift my rating to 1984. I defeated the top ranked player--Nicholas Bize (2064)--in the first round, and after drawing my next two games I shared first place with three other players. The next day, I scored 3/4 in the January 7, 2024 East Market Swiss, gaining two rating points to improve my rating to 1986. I lost to the top rated player, Brett Passen (2173), who tied for first place with Matt Wang. I tied for third-fifth place.

The Cardinal Open is one of my favorite tournaments, and one of the major annual open events in Ohio. There is a lot of tradition associated with the Cardinal Open, which according to my research was first held in 1975 (as mentioned in the March-April 1985 Ohio Chess Bulletin); I have to rely on my research because the Ohio Chess Association website has little historical data of any kind and no historical information about the Cardinal Open: their list of Ohio Champions only goes back to 2018, while my list dates back to the Ohio Chess Association's founding in 1945. Per the March-April 1988 Ohio Chess Bulletin, in 1987 only six U.S. open tournaments offered larger top place prizes than the Cardinal Open. In the 1980s and 1990s many top Grandmasters and International Masters traveled to Columbus for this midwinter event, including GM Anatoly Lein, six-time U.S. champion GM Walter Browne, two-time U.S. champion GM Roman Dzinzichasvili, three-time U.S. Champion GM Nick DeFirmian, GM Maxim Dlugy, GM Dmitry Gurevich, GM Sergey Kudrin, two-time U.S. champion GM Alex Yermolinsky, four-time U.S. champion GM Alexander Shabalov, GM Gregory Kaidanov, GM Ben Finegold, GM Enrico Sevillano 15-time Ohio Champion IM Calvin Blocker, IM Igor Ivanov, IM Boris Kogan, IM John Donaldson, IM Ed Formanek, IM Angelo Young, and IM Emory Tate (Dlugy, Ivanov, Finegold, and Sevillano were not GMs when they played in the Cardinal Open, but they were strong IMs who already displayed GM-level playing strength).

In the 1999 Cardinal Open, I tied for second-third among players rated under 2200 in a strong Open section. Then-IM Sevillano won the tournament with a perfect 5-0 score, ahead of (among others) Finegold, Lein, and Blocker; after losing my first two games, I reeled off three straight wins, taking down two Experts plus National Master A.J. Steigman (who earned that title at age 13 just three months before I beat him). 

My win versus NM Steigman was played with a 30/90, G/60 time control. 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. g3 c5 3.Bg2 e6 4. O-O Be7 5. d3 d6 6. Nbd2 O-O 7. e4 Nc6 8. Re1 Qc7 9. Qe2 e5 10. c3 b6 11. Nf1 Ba6 12. Nh4 b5 13. Nf5 Nd7??

I will always remember how happy I felt after Steigman played this move. I knew that I was about to not only take down a National Master but also win a prize in a big Open tournament. 14. Bh6! gxh6 15. Qg4+ Bg5 16.Nxh6+ Kh8 Steigman offered a draw here but of course I declined because White has a decisive advantage. 17. Qxg5 f6 18. Qh5 Nb6 19. Ne3 c4 20. dxc4 Nxc4 21. Nxc4 bxc4 22. Rad1 Rad8 23. Rd2 Bc8 24. Red1 Na5 25. Bh3 Bxh3 26. Qxh3 Nb7 27.Nf5 Rf7 28. Qf1 Rfd7 29. Ne3 Rc8 30. Nd5 Qa5 31. Nxf6 Rf7 32. Nd5 Qc5 33. Ne3 a5 34. Rd5 Qc7 35. Nf5 Rd8 36. R1d2 Rf6 37. Qd1 Qc6 38. Rxe5 Nc5 39. Re7 Nxe440. Qh5 h6 41. Nxh6 Qc5 42. Nf5+ Kg8 43. Qh7+ 1-0

In the 2023 Cardinal Open, I scored 2.5/5 in the U2100 section, losing 16 rating points to drop below 2000. I hoped and planned to have a better performance this year, and I started with a round one win, but I did not win another game, scoring three draws and one loss the rest of the way. Draws are better than losses, but draws versus lower rated players cost up to 12 rating points each, and that can add up quickly. I lost 32 rating points, dropping my rating to 1954, more than wiping out the progress I made in my last three tournaments. After the third round, I played in the Cardinal Open Saturday Night Blitz, scoring 3.5/8. I scored 3/4 versus non-Master opponents and .5/4 versus Masters, including 0-2 versus Ralph Tan, who tied for first place with three other players. 

My first round win in the 2024 Cardinal Open was sloppy--I had a lost position on move 11 but resourcefully fought back--and unfortunately foreshadowed my careless play in the next four rounds. 

Contrast my smooth conversion versus Steigman--who is far stronger than anyone who I faced in the 2024 Cardinal Open--with my fumbling of three winning positions and one equal position in the Cardinal Open, and it is evident that the most significant issue preventing me from returning to 2100 and then reaching 2200 is my lack of sharp focus at crucial moments during games. 

I scored 2.5/4 in the January 21, 2024 East Market Swiss, losing 15 rating points to drop my rating to 1939. I did not win a prize. I drew with Keya Jha, the third ranked nine year old female in the country. I lost to Stanley Qiu after beating this talented junior each of the first four times that we played. He is the first player rated below 1800 who beat me in 2024--although it should be noted that he gained 99 points in this event and is now barely rated below 1800 (1798).

I scored 2.5/4 in the February 3, 2004 Columbus Plus Score tournament, gaining two rating points to increase my rating to 1941. This event featured an unusual prize format; instead of the prizes being based on ranking (first, second, third, etc.) the prizes were based on score, and every player who achieved a plus score (at least 2.5/4) received the designated prize for that score (in other words, tied players did not split prizes). 

The next day, I scored 3.5/4 in the East Market Swiss, gaining 15 rating points to increase my rating to 1956. I tied for first-second place. In the last round, I played Joel Thompson, who had the only 3-0 score. I was one of four players who had 2.5/3, so I needed to win to at least tie for first place. Thompson had a provisional rating (after 25 games) of 1732. I had Black for the third time in four games. Thompson played well for the first 15 moves, but I gained the upper hand after he erred on move 16, and then I won the Exchange after he blundered on move 18. I was expecting to have to grind out a winning endgame, but Thompson misplaced his K after a check and suddenly I had mate in three after ...R1e3+:

My opponent resigned here, because after Kh4 Black wins with 26...Bf2+ 27. g3 Bxg3+ 28. Kg5 h6++, while after Kf4 Black creates a similar mating net with 26...Bh2+ 27. g3 Bxg3+ 28. Kg5 h6++. Winning games, winning tournaments, and gaining rating points are all important, but chess is also about artistic beauty. I don't recall ever seeing a mating pattern like this, and I am happy that I recognized the opportunity to play this mate.

I played in two tournaments during the February 17-18 weekend. I scored 2/3 in the February 17, 2024 Columbus G/60 tournament, gaining eight rating points to push my rating up to 1964. I lost to the second ranked player--Nicholas Bize (2035)--in the second round, and he went on to finish clear first with 2.5/3, while I tied for second-third with the top ranked player, NM Charles Diebert. I scored 2.5/4 in the February 18, 2024 East Market Swiss, losing 17 rating points to drop my rating back to 1947. I had a very challenging day, due partially to my lack of focus early in the event and then later due to some health challenges during the final round. In the first round I had to defend well to draw with Ryan Wang (1258) after I blundered a piece for a pawn in the opening; young Wang had an excellent tournament, gaining 125 rating points! I beat Khalil Babiker (1251) in round two, but only after recovering from carelessly dropping a pawn. In round three, I drew with Keya Jha, a talented junior who I also drew with in the January 21, 2024 East Market Swiss. I drew my fourth round game with Expert Matt Wang; prior to the start of that game, I experienced abdominal discomfort and pain in my left flank, and both conditions worsened during the game, forcing me to make at least a half dozen trips to the restroom. After I finished my game, I drove straight to Miami Valley South Hospital and was diagnosed with a kidney stone in my left kidney; I knew this particular type of pain quite well, as I suffered a kidney stone in my right kidney in January 2023.

I bounced back from the kidney stone and the rating points loss to score 3/3 in the Dayton Chess Club's G/45 tournament, finishing clear first and gaining eight rating points to bring my rating back up to 1955.

On March 2, 2004, I played in my second Columbus Plus Score tournament, and I scored 2.5/4, fading in the second half of the event after winning my first two games. I lost 16 rating points, dropping to 1939. In my last round game, I won a pawn and had a commanding position versus Stanley Qiu (1815 official March 2024 rating, 1776 live rating), but I squandered my advantage, regained my advantage, and then lost after blundering in a drawn position. That was my second loss this year to a player whose live rating is below 1800 (both losses are to Qiu), and it ended my streak of 11 straight games without a loss (seven wins, four draws)--my longest such streak since I had 12 straight games without a loss (10 wins, two draws) in April/May 2023.

Grandmaster Jan Markos has a list of "anti-blunder tricks," and I need to consistently implement his recommendations:

1. Make sure you are aware of all unprotected pieces.
2. Make a list of all forcing moves and don't forget to check every one of them, at least briefly.
3. Don't forget to check all exchanges as well.
4. Don't play natural moves instantly.
5. Always ask yourself: What has changed on the board with the last move(s)?
6. Try to calculate lines until the very end.
7. Don't relax in simple positions.
8. Make sure you calm down after you have blundered or experienced an unpleasant surprise.

During the March 9-10, 2024 weekend, I played in two chess tournaments. I scored 2.5/4 in the March 9, 2024 Columbus G/45 tournament, losing three rating points to drop to 1936. I tied for third-eighth place. On March 10, 2024, I scored 3.5/4 in the East Market Swiss to secure clear second place and gain 18 rating points to push my rating back up to 1954.

My daughter Rachel and I played in the Dayton Chess Club's March 23, 2024 G/45 Swiss. This was Rachel's first rated tournament in Dayton, and her first rated tournament in 2024. She won her first game by forfeit, and lost her last two games. I scored 3/3, gaining 23 rating points to lift my rating to 1977 and finish clear first. 

          Rachel and I had fun at the 3/23/24 DCC G/45 Swiss
                  A smiling Rachel is ready to play her third round game

The next Saturday, Rachel and I played in the Cincinnati Tornado. Rachel lost three games, and she had a one point bye in round three. 

 Rachel and I took a selfie before the first round of the 3/30/24 Cincinnati Tornado 

I scored 2.5/4, losing six rating points to drop to 1971. In the fourth round, I played Gajanan Jayade (2128) on board one. Jayade only needed a draw to at least tie for first place, while I needed a win to at least tie for first place. Jayade outplayed me early in the game and built up a significant advantage, but I fought back and then took command after he missed a tactical shot. The critical position happened on my 38th move with both of us in time pressure (G/45 time control with five second time delay), although he was in worse time pressure than I was. Stockfish 16 gives Black +41 (!) here:

It should be noted that computer evaluations can be a little misleading, because this position is +41 only if I play the best move; Black is only +1.4 after the second best move, and less than +1 after any other move. The killer shot is 38...Nf3, with Black crashing through after 39. Kh1 Nxh2 40. Ra8+ Kh7 41. Rf8 Qxf8 42. Kxh2 Bf4+ 43. Kh1 Qxd6. Black has a significant advantage after 38...Rb1, but White can prolong the struggle by sacrificing the Exchange on d2. Instead, I played 38...Rf3, giving my opponent two different paths to equality: the Exchange sac on d2, and Nf5, which is what he played. I could have maintained the balance with 39...Rb3 but instead I played 39...Nxf1??, after which White would be +5 after Ra8+ followed by Qxf3--but with less than 30 seconds on his clock, my opponent immediately took on f3, enabling me to stay in the game by taking on h2 and then taking on a2. Unfortunately, after taking on a2 I did not successfully blockade my opponent's passed d pawn, and he checkmated me after promoting that pawn to a Queen. If I had won the game then I would have tied for first and pushed my rating very close to 2000; instead, I finished out of the money and ended up 29 points short of 2000. There are two valid ways of looking at this. One way is that I am demonstrating the ability to play at a high level, which suggests that it is realistic to believe that I can get my rating back over 2100 and complete the journey to National Master, a title that I fell just 10 points short of reaching in 2015; another way is that the nature of chess is that one bad move can swing the outcome of a game and a tournament--this is not a basketball game during which a team can build a 20 point lead, allow a 19-0 run, and still win by one point--and I have to significantly reduce how frequently I play game-altering bad moves or else I will be talking about how close I am to turning things around as opposed to describing how I turned things around. Sports competition is unscripted drama, so no one knows for sure how this quest will proceed. I remain confident, while also understanding that gaining over 200 rating points and establishing a career-high rating past the age of 50 is objectively a quite daunting task. I've never run from a challenge in my life, and I won't run from this one (which does not guarantee success, but guarantees that I will give my all until there is nothing left to give, which is the only way that I can be at peace with the outcome).

In Journey to the National Master Title, Part 8, I listed four chess goals for 2024. Here are those goals, with notes about my progress toward each one through the first quarter of the year:

1) Gain 60 rating points per quarter. I gained three rating points in the first quarter of 2024, improving my rating from 1968 to 1971.

2) Do not lose any games to players rated below 1800. I lost two games to players rated below 1800.

3) Accumulate more draws than losses. I had 15 draws and eight losses in the first quarter of 2024.

4) Maintain a winning percentage of at least .750, to break my personal record of .740 set in 2014. My first quarter 2024 winning percentage was .708.

In 2024, I have scored 30 wins, 15 draws, and eight losses in regular rated tournament games with four first place finishes in 14 events. I have lost two games to players rated below 1800. My net rating gain for 2024 is three points so I need to gain 229 points to reach my goal.