Thursday, January 12, 2023

Journey to the National Master Title, Part 1

The title of this series of articles is not meant to be presumptuous; although I am confident that I will obtain the National Master title, I understand that it is not 100% certain that I will obtain the National Master title, and that is the reason that "journey" is included in the title: whether or not I make it to the desired destination, I intend to chronicle my experiences during the journey.

I am inspired in part by a series of Chess Life articles Larry Remlinger wrote over 30 years ago about his quest to obtain the International Master title. Remlinger returned to chess as an adult after a long hiatus following his success as a junior player, while I have been playing tournament chess continuously for over 35 years, but the larger concept of his series of articles and my planned series of articles is the same: discussing the challenges faced by an adult player attempting to attain a specific rating goal or title status.

The Journey Begins

I learned to play chess when I was around eight years old, but my game took its first significant leap at age 13 after meeting Earle Wikle and his mentor Dr. Harold Wright when they organized a chess club at my junior high school during the 1984-85 school year. Wikle was by far the best chess player I had met up to that time; learning from him and playing unrated training games against him elevated my skills and helped me understand what it would take to become an Expert.

I joined the Dayton Chess Club (DCC) and the U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) in 1986. After playing in various unrated DCC events in 1986 and 1987, I played in the Greater Dayton High School Individual Championship in February 1987. I scored 2/4, but for some reason lost to history the event's results were never submitted to the USCF and thus the event was never rated. I played in the Greater Dayton High School Individual Championship each year from 1987-89, but never won a prize. Those were the only scholastic tournaments of my career (scholastic tournaments were much less common in the 1980s than they are now). After failing to reach the winner's circle as a junior, I take some consolation that I am two for two in senior (age 50+) tournaments, with third place finishes in the Ohio Senior Championship in 2021 and 2022.

Although the USCF's online records only go back to late 1991, my personal records (including printouts of old crosstables from my earliest tournaments) enable me to track my rating progress for all 3338 regular or dual rated games that I have played.

Officially, I played in my first USCF rated tournament in July 1987, scoring 0/5 in the Gem City Open to obtain a provisional rating of 1186. I won my first rated game on October 25, 1987, defeating Daniel Burns (1593) in round four of the Roosevelt Open.

At the end of 1987, my record in rated games was two wins, 12 losses, and one draw, and I had increased my rating to 1408. My first non-provisional rating was 1398.

By the end of 1988, my rating was 1533. Tien Chou held his first Miamisburg Tornado tournament in January 1988, and the timing was perfect for me, as there were not many local rated events at that time. Playing in the Miamisburg Tornado every month helped me to gain experience and rating points. Chou, a strong Expert who later achieved the National Master title as an "older" player (i.e., in his late 40s or early 50s), provided me with printouts of Sicilian Najdorf analysis, and he was always willing to analyze together after we played a rated game. I was very proud when I became strong enough to not only give him a good game but to even score an occasional draw or win against him. Chou won the 1988 Dayton Chess Club Championship.

I made tremendous progress in 1989, peaking at 1895 by the end of December. The monthly rating supplements issued by the USCF at that time listed the top 50 players in the country by various age categories. One of those categories was 17-18, and I narrowly missed qualifying for that list in 1989, which would have been quite a feat for someone who was almost 16 by the time he played his first rated game. 

After gaining over 800 points from June 1987 through December 1989, it seemed that I would make Expert (2000) soon--but then my rating dropped, and I spent two years in an up and down cycle before surpassing 1900 for the first time in January 1992. It took me longer to go from 1800 to 1900 than it took me to go from 1186 to 1800, and that foreshadowed the challenges I would face before surpassing the 2000 and 2100 rating levels.

Achieving the Expert Title

I finally made Expert on May 13, 1995, scoring 3/4 in the Springfield Tornado to tie for 2nd-4th while pushing my rating from 1981 to 2012. I first surpassed the 2100 level on June 10, 2000, scoring 2.5/4 in the OSU June Tornado to increase my rating from 2096 to 2114. In that tournament, I defeated Steve Wygle (2279) and drew with Chuck Diebert (2200), but I lost to Felikss Grankins (2224), who took clear 1st with 3.5/4. I did not maintain a 2100 rating for very long, and after I dropped below 2100 I did not break that barrier again for over a decade, though I did reach 2085 in December 2009, and I pushed past 2050 on multiple occasions only to then fall back below that mark.

I returned to 2100 in style, scoring 4/4 to tie for 1st place in the June 12, 2011 North Market Swiss, finishing with a rating of 2101. For the rest of 2011, my rating fluctuated right around 2100. After I dropped below 2100 on October 9, 2011, I did not cross the 2100 barrier again until August 11, 2013, when I scored 4/5 in the U2100 section of the Cleveland Open, tying for 2nd-8th, and finishing with a rating of 2112, just two points short of setting a new career-high. I fell below 2100 in my next tournament (the 2013 Indianapolis Open), and I did not surpass 2100 again until February 23, 2014, when I scored 4/4 to finish clear 1st in the North Market Swiss, increasing my rating from 2087 to 2129 (new career-high). I peaked at 2190 on May 2, 2015 after scoring 6/6 to win my record 10th Dayton Chess Club Championship. I maintained a 2100+ rating until March 13, 2016.

On August 27, 2016, I scored 3/4 in the Cincinnati Tornado and pushed my rating to 2109. I maintained a 2100+ rating for two months, peaking at 2150. My rating has been below 2100 since October 29, 2016. After 2016, the highest rating that I have reached is 2080 when I scored 4/4 to take clear 1st in the October 15, 2022 Cincinnati Tornado.

USCF Titles/Wins Against Masters/FIDE Rating

The USCF awards titles based on attaining a minimum performance level in at least five tournaments. I earned the Class C and Class D titles simultaneously in December 1991, the Class B title in May 1992, the Class A title in September 1992, and the Candidate Master title in November 1997. I have obtained three of the five norms for a Master title, but in order to earn that title I not only need two more norms but I must surpass the 2200 rating level (regardless of how many norms you obtain, you cannot receive a title without also reaching the minimum rating level for that title). 

The USCF's online records credit me with 77 wins versus players rated at least 2200, but the correct total is 79; I won two games in the early 1990s against players whose official ratings were over 2200 at the time I played them, but whose live ratings were a bit below 2200 by the time those wins were rated (in those days, official ratings often lagged a bit behind live ratings, and tournaments were often not rated quickly or in sequential order). Both of those players who I beat subsequently maintained a 2200+ rating for at least 60 games (and one of them became a Life Master), so by any reasonable standard those wins should be tallied as wins against Masters because my opponents proved to be Master level players before and after I beat them. I wonder how many players who have yet to become a Master have won 79 games against Masters?

My peak FIDE rating is 1974, and my current FIDE rating is 1793. My current journey is focused on reaching 2200 USCF, but if/when I complete that journey I intend to then focus on a FIDE rating journey.

Lessons Learned Thus Far 

The formula for becoming an Expert is straightforward--not easy (which is why fewer than 5% of all chess players reach Expert level), but straightforward: improve your tactics, reduce the frequency of your major blunders, develop a basic opening repertoire (at least one primary opening move as White, at least one Black defense against e4, and at least one Black defense against d4/c4/Nf3), and cultivate the ability to play basic endgames competently on a consistent basis. It is a great idea to annotate your games and create notebooks of those annotated games, but I must admit that I did not do that consistently until I had already become an Expert.

Some very strong players (2500+) insist that a player should always play in Open sections and never play in lower rated sections, while other very strong players (2500+) insist that a player should demonstrate dominance at each Class level before playing in Open sections. I have concluded that either method is valid, provided that the player is studying the right way, and cultivating the right in-game habits. My advice would be that if psychologically you can deal with losing a lot of games then perhaps it may be better to just play Open sections, but if the inevitable losing is going to discourage you too much then stick to Class sections while making sure that you have a plan to advance out of whatever your current Class is. 

Statistically, a player who outrates you by 100 points scores 60% against you. That means, for example, that if you are rated 1700 and you can figure out how to score 50% against 1800s then you can become an 1800 (assuming that your winning percentages against other categories of players are not below par). I have found it most helpful--for myself, and for my students during the two decades that I taught private lessons--to focus on advancing 100 points at a time, because changing the margin from 4/10 to 5/10 against slightly stronger players is attainable in the short term, but trying to jump from 2/10 to 5/10 versus significantly stronger players is a bit much for a short term goal.

At the 1987 Gem City Open, I bought two important books from National Master James Schroeder: Modern Chess Openings, 12th Edition (MCO 12) and Reuben Fine's Basic Chess Endings. After every subsequent game that I played for many years, I looked up the opening in MCO 12, and if the game reached an endgame then I looked up that endgame in Basic Chess Endings. I know that there are many excellent online opening and endgame resources available now, but I still think that those books have value for players who are trying to advance from the Class ranks to Expert and beyond.

I honed my tactics by spending many fun hours playing five minute chess at the Dayton Chess Club, battling the strongest players who were willing to play me (some would only play me with time odds, and I took pride in becoming fast enough and good enough that they eventually stopped giving me odds). After every five minute game that I lost, I asked my opponent to briefly explain what I did wrong. Of course, today players can play chess at various time controls on their own schedule on the internet, and can then use an engine to find out what they did wrong.

FIDE Master Ken Smith once declared that until a player reaches at least Expert level his first name, middle name, and last name must be tactics! I agree with Smith that tactics are critically important for advancing through the Class player ranks to become an Expert, but I would emphasize the difference between tactical sharpness and tactical awareness. Tactical sharpness means being able to solve a tactic, while tactical awareness means noticing without prompting that a tactical opportunity exists; the difference between these two skills explains why there are some players who have very high online tactics ratings but much more modest ratings for game play: during a game, no one will tap you on the shoulder and say, "There is a tactical opportunity here"--but when you are solving tactics you have already been "told" this.

I reached 1895 mainly on the strength of tactics (and a decent knowledge of opening theory for a player below Expert level), but a major reason that my progress stalled at that stage was my lack of endgame understanding specifically, and positional understanding generally. Working on those weaknesses helped me to become an Expert, and further refinement of those skills resulted in me maintaining a 2100+ rating for an extended period.

I believe that the main reason I have yet to reach the 2200 level is that I blunder more frequently than Masters do (and I also make "worse" blunders: a Master does not play flawlessly, but rarely makes one move that is bad enough to lead to immediate defeat). Identifying the problem correctly is one thing, but solving the problem is quite another matter! 

Throughout my chess career, I have tended to blunder more often than a player of whatever level I was at that time, but I have also tended to be able to play "above" my rating (which explains those 79 wins against Masters). It is well documented that as players age they tend to blunder more frequently, so my challenge is not only to correct a decades-old weakness but to do so while fighting Father Time.  

Blundering is a problem for chess players of all levels; the general recommendations to address a blundering problem are to (1) slow down, (2) to look at all possible checks/captures before moving, (3) and to practice emotional regulation during the game (avoid overconfidence, but also avoid lack of confidence that could result in hesitation to enter tactical melees).

It is possible that I have yet to objectively identify why I have not reached the 2200 level, but I am pretty sure that I have figured out the issue even if I have yet to figure out (or at least successfully implement) the solution.

The Talent Question (also known as "The elephant in the room")

The subject of natural talent can be controversial, and can lead to very heated discussions. The funny thing about natural talent in chess is that my observation is that people tend to think that natural talent is necessary to reach whatever their level is, or perhaps one level above or below their level (depending on their rating, and how big of an ego they have). For example, many Grandmasters will insist that any motivated person of reasonable intelligence can reach at least 2400 USCF, if not International Master (2400 FIDE, which is typically equivalent to at least 2500 USCF). I can't prove it, but I seriously doubt that this is true. 

Statistically, it seems implausible that any person who works hard enough can attain a level of success that is only attained by far less than 1% of all people in that field. As a society we should strive to create equal opportunities for as many people as possible, but we should not be deluded to believe that equal outcomes are possible for everyone (unless the most talented are artificially held back, while the least talented are artificially boosted). 

Based on my chess journey, and my observations of many players of various strengths over the years (including students who I trained and whose development I witnessed firsthand), I think that a reasonably intelligent person who does not have any special chess talent can reach 1800 USCF without having to devote so much time to chess that one's life is not balanced. Beyond 1800, I think that you need some combination of natural chess talent and hard work over an extended period of time. I suppose that it is theoretically possible that a very hard working person with no special chess talent could become a Master, but I don't think that I have ever met such a person. The Masters who I have met seem to me to have more innate chess talent than most non-Masters; it is possible that what I am observing in Masters is not innate talent but rather skills developed through hard work, but my experiences as a teacher influenced my thinking on this topic: I showed the same tactics to many different students over the years, and I found that some students could discern the answer before I had even set up all of the pieces (they could tell that the remaining pieces were not integral to the solution) while other students could not solve the same tactics even after receiving guidance and hints. Obviously, higher rated players can solve tactics more easily than lower rated players, but what I noticed by tracking the progress of many different players over the years was that the players who ultimately attained the highest ratings (at least three of the players who I coached eventually became Masters) consistently solved tactics more quickly than other students. 

Put more concisely, you can tell early on which students are going to be really strong (or, at least, which students have a chance to become really strong if they keep playing chess).

When Dr. Wright first met me, I was not a strong player, but after observing me for a short time he predicted that I would reach at least Expert level and possibly become a Master. Dr. Wright explained to my Mom and me that he made that prediction based on my natural inclination to coordinate my pieces in attack and how quickly I learned and retained new information. My point is not to brag--it is obvious that there are many players who have much more natural chess talent than I do--but to point out that chess talent can be recognized quickly, based on how a player processes the game. Many beginners keep moving their Queen around until they lose their Queen, but for some reason it seemed natural to me to try to get all of my pieces out. It took practice to learn how to develop my pieces without losing material, but I grasped the basic concept intuitively. Players who have more talent than I have are able to grasp more sophisticated concepts in a similarly intuitive fashion, even though they need practice to refine those concepts. 

I have spent enough time watching Grandmasters analyze to conclude that they think about the game in a fundamentally different way than most chess players. I don't think that this is just a matter of being highly trained; they are "seeing" the game differently. The analogy I often make is that most Grandmasters reached the Expert and Master levels when they were little kids; to them, playing Expert or Master level chess is as simple as the basic reading and math concepts that most of us learned when we were eight or nine years old. For most people, playing Expert or Master level chess is hard to do, but for that select group of people who become Grandmasters it is, quite literally, child's play. 

It may not be politically correct to speak about talent, but talent differences exist whether or not they are spoken about--and it is important for a student (and a coach) to understand what goals are reasonable. That being said, I never discouraged one of my students (or anyone else) from setting ambitious goals; if a student told me, "I want to be a Master," my consistent response was, "The first step to attaining that goal is reaching the next 100 point rating level. In addition to focusing on that short term goal, if you have an ambitious long term goal then you must develop the study habits and playing habits of players who reached that level. There is a difference between playing chess for fun, playing chess to reach 1800, playing chess to reach 2000, and playing chess to reach 2200, and your study habits and playing habits must align with your goal."

After reaching Expert in my early 20s and later attaining a rating just 10 points short of Master, I think that setting a goal of becoming a Master is reasonable. For other players, 1800 or 2400 may be reasonable goals. Each chess player has his or her own journey, and it is more productive to focus on your journey as opposed to comparing it to the journey of someone else whose talent, work ethic, and life experiences may be much different.

The Journey Continues

I entered 2023 with a 2012 rating.

On Saturday January 7, the Dayton Chess Club held its first rated tournament since COVID-19, and I scored 2-0 to win the top rated quad and gain eight rating points (I won my third game by forfeit because my opponent did not show up). 

On Sunday January 8, I scored 2.5/4 in the East Market Swiss, finishing out of the money and losing six rating points. My only loss happened in round two when I blundered against a much lower rated player, permitting him to play a winning Exchange sacrifice that I could have prevented had I correctly assessed the danger.

The first game after a loss--particularly a loss against a lower rated player--can be difficult psychologically. I know players who withdraw from a tournament rather than dealing with that psychological challenge. I rarely withdraw from a tournament, and I don't recall ever withdrawing after just one loss.

I finished the East Market Swiss with two very interesting games.

In round three, I blundered a piece for two pawns against Joshua Keegan (1821), but I fought back during my opponent's time pressure and managed to reach a position where I had King, Bishop, and Knight versus King. This was my 3337th regular or dual rated game, and this was just my second opportunity to execute this checkmate. The first time happened 18 years ago, and in that game I was in time pressure; I forced my opponent's King to one of the "right" corners (i.e., a corner the same color as the squares controlled by the Bishop), but then I stalemated him when I had mate in four! This time, I avenged that failure by checkmating my opponent--but not without some drama. My opponent stopped keeping score, as he only had two seconds left (plus the five second time delay), but he attempted to make a mark on his scoresheet for each move played after the last pawn was captured. When he thought that 50 moves had been played, he stopped the clock and summoned the tournament director, Lou Friscoe. By rule a player cannot make a 50 move draw claim without having a complete scoresheet including all of the game's moves. The TD made the correct ruling, and I asked, per USCF rules, to have two minutes added to my time because my opponent's incorrect claim stopped play. I could have also added two minutes earlier in the game when my opponent made an illegal move, but I deferred because neither of us knew how to reset his clock; this time, I substituted my clock for my opponent's clock, and after adding two minutes I had 8:28 left while my opponent still had two seconds (because he kept making his moves in five seconds or less). I spent about three minutes before making my next move. By that point I had trapped my opponent's King in one of the "right" corners, so I made sure that I neither stalemated him nor let him out of the corner. My opponent was understandably not pleased after I delivered checkmate, but a few minutes after the game ended he approached me and we had a brief, amicable conversation about the game.

Soon, round four began, and I faced Tom Britt (2200) in what turned out to be another very interesting game. I have known Britt for more than 30 years, and during that time he has not only taught me a lot but we have also contested some exciting games. This one was no exception. I sacrificed a Pawn as Black in an Old Indian Defense, but soon not only regained my Pawn but ended up a Pawn to the good. Britt skillfully steered the game to a drawish Rook and Pawn ending where my extra Pawn was not enough to win, and thus we split the point.

With a 2014 rating after that tournament, I need to gain 186 points to reach my goal. The first step, as noted above, is to reach the next 100 point level; after surpassing 2100, I can then focus on reaching 2200.

I don't have definite plans regarding how often I will write about my journey to the National Master title. If I do poorly in my next event, perhaps I will not write any more articles about this topic (just kidding--I think). My two goals for this chess journey journal are (1) focus my thoughts about chess development in a way that will help me attain my goal, and (2) provide some insights about chess that will hopefully be interesting and helpful to other chess players.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Four-Time Super Bowl Champion Running Back Franco Harris Has Passed Away

Franco Harris, a four-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers who was briefly the NFL's second all-time leading rusher behind only the incomparable Jim Brown (before Walter Payton surpassed both players during the 1984 season), passed away yesterday at the age of 72. Harris was the key participant in the most famous play in NFL history, the "Immaculate Reception," but his career was characterized not just by one great moment but rather by sustained greatness as he accumulated eight 1000 yard rushing seasons and earned nine Pro Bowl selections plus the Super Bowl IX MVP.

Harris made a big impact as a rookie in 1972, rushing for 1055 yards while averaging 5.6 yards per attempt and scoring 10 rushing touchdowns. He ranked second in the league in yards per attempt, third in the league in rushing touchdowns, and sixth in the league in rushing yards en route to winning the AP Rookie of the Year award and finishing eighth in MVP voting. The Steelers improved from 6-8 in 1971 to 11-3 in 1972, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 1947; the Steelers won at least 10 games in six of the next seven seasons, capturing four Super Bowl titles along the way (1974-75, 1978-79).

Although the 1972 playoff run did not culminate in a Super Bowl title, it was still quite memorable. In the Divisional Round, the Steelers faced 4th and 10 while trailing the Oakland Raiders 7-6 with 22 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Terry Bradshaw threw a deep pass to running back Frenchy Fuqua, who collided with defensive back Jack Tatum as the ball arrived. The ball flew back through the air before Harris caught it just inches above the turf and raced to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Raiders fans insist to this day that the play was illegal under the rules at the time--which would be correct if the ball hit Fuqua before Tatum touched the ball (an illegal "double touch" by the offense until that rule was changed in 1978)--but the point here is not what the officials called but rather that Harris put himself at the right place at the right time to make the game-winning play. Local sportscaster Myron Cope is credited with terming the play the "Immaculate Reception." 

The Steelers lost 21-17 in the AFC Championship Game to the soon to be 17-0 Miami Dolphins, but Harris' arrival signified the beginning of the Steelers' dynasty that dominated the NFL for the next several years. Before Harris joined the team in 1972, the Steelers had never won a playoff game. The Steelers went 14-5 in the playoffs with Harris (he missed one playoff game due to injury, a 24-7 loss to the Raiders in the 1976 AFC Championship Game). Former Steelers defensive lineman John Banaszak declared, "For me, Franco was one of the greatest money backs of all time. When the game was on the line, when the games got more important, when the championship was on the line the better Franco Harris was."

Harris' numbers back up Banaszak's statement. Harris set the Super Bowl single game rushing record (since broken) with 158 yards as Pittsburgh defeated Minnesota 16-6 in Super Bowl IX. He scored at least one touchdown in three of Pittsburgh's four Super Bowl wins, and his 354 career Super Bowl rushing yards remains the all-time record nearly 40 years after he retired. Harris retired as the NFL's career postseason rushing leader with 1556 yards, a total that has only been surpassed by Emmitt Smith (1586 yards).

Harris was a big, powerful runner who did most of his damage between the tackles, but he also had breakaway speed (he had a 75 yard run as a rookie, and he also had a 71 yard run in 1979). He never won a regular season rushing title, but he ranked in the top 10 eight times, including a second place finish in 1975 when he accumulated a career-high 1246 yards and only trailed O.J. Simpson (1817).

The 50th anniversary of the "Immaculate Reception" is this Friday, and the day after that the Pittsburgh Steelers will host the Las Vegas Raiders. Prior to Harris' passing, the Steelers had already planned to retire Harris' number 32 during that game (it is very surprising that his number had not been retired a long time ago). It is sad that Harris did not live long enough to celebrate that anniversary and see his jersey being retired.

The first football season that I remember clearly is 1978, and the first Super Bowl that I remember clearly is Super Bowl XIII, when the Pittsburgh Steelers won their third Super Bowl in five years by defeating the Dallas Cowboys, 35-31. Harris did not put up gaudy numbers in that game (20 carries for 68 yards), but his fourth quarter 22 yard touchdown run pushed the Steelers' lead to 28-17. That Super Bowl featured many dramatic plays and moments, and ranks high on the list of most memorable Super Bowls of all-time.

As a Cleveland Browns fan, I did not like Harris or the Steelers, but I respected their greatness, and I feared them as an opponent; it seemed to me as a kid that he saved some of his best performances for the Browns, and the numbers support my recollections: for example, his two top rushing performances in the 1979 regular season (153 yards and 151 yards) both came against the Browns.

As a child, sports superstars seem bigger than life, and indestructible. When I think about sports in the 1970s, many players dance across my mind, including Julius Erving, Pete Maravich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a host of my favorite Cleveland Browns (including Brian Sipe, Greg Pruitt, Mike Pruitt, and Ozzie Newsome), Bjorn BorgMario Andretti, and Pete Rose, but if I had to name one team that defined the 1970s I would probably pick the Pittsburgh Steelers--and it is impossible to think of the Pittsburgh Steelers without picturing Franco Harris. I can still see in my mind's eye his hip pads sticking up out of his yellow pants as his big thighs broke tackles and piled up yardage. 

I never rooted for Harris and the Steelers, but I have many childhood memories of watching in awe at their excellence. With Harris' sudden and unexpected passing, it feels like a part of my childhood is gone, or at least somewhere beyond reach.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Baker Mayfield Leads the L.A. Rams to Improbable Comeback Win Over the Las Vegas Raiders

The L.A. Rams' 17-16 Thursday Night Football win over the Las Vegas Raiders is one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history--and that is not hyperbole, it is demonstrable fact: according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Rams' game-winning 98 yard drive was the longest go-ahead touchdown drive that began in the final two minutes of an NFL game in the past 45 seasons.

The reigning Super Bowl champion Rams stumbled into the game with a 3-9 record en route to what will likely be the worst season ever by a Super Bowl winner; the only other Super Bowl winners to lose at least nine games in the next season are the 1987 New York Giants (6-9 in a strike-shortened season), and the 1999 Denver Broncos (6-10). On Thursday against the Raiders, the Rams were down to their third string quarterback Baker Mayfield in the first quarter, because injured second string quarterback John Wolford only played the first series. Mayfield had just joined the Rams on Tuesday after being waived by the Carolina Panthers, who had demoted him to third string. 

The Raiders are not a powerhouse, but they had just won three straight games, and after a 36 yard field goal by Daniel Carlson increased their lead over the Rams to 16-3 with 12:25 remaining in the fourth quarter no one expected Baker Mayfield to transform into Tom Brady; just four days earlier, Brady led his Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 17-16 Monday Night Football win over the New Orleans Saints after trailing 16-3 with 5:21 remaining in the fourth quarter--but Brady is a seven-time Super Bowl champion and that was his record-setting 44th comeback in the fourth quarter or overtime, while Mayfield's NFL resume is shorter and much less distinguished.

Mayfield does not fit either of the main prototypes for an NFL quarterback: he is not a big, strong, and tall quarterback who stands in the pocket until the last second, absorbing a bone-crunching hit before delivering an accurate 50 yard bomb, nor is he an elite runner who can threaten defenses with both the pass and the run. He is an undersized quarterback with good arm strength who uses his mobility to buy time to throw, but prefers not to run (he has never rushed for more than 165 yards in a season). 

Mayfield's best qualities are leadership and toughness. There is no question that his teammates rally around him, believe in him, and genuinely like him. There is also no question that he is tough, as shown by his willingness to play through injury (see below), and by his overall durability (he appeared in at least 14 games in each of his first four seasons).

When A.J. Cole's 65 yard punt rolled to the two yard line with two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Raiders leading 16-10, Mayfield faced the daunting task of leading the Rams 98 yards for a touchdown with no timeouts. The drive did not begin well: Mayfield had two incompletions, and then his third pass was intercepted, but the interception was nullified by a pass interference call (the pass would probably have not been intercepted but for the pass interference against intended receiver Van Jefferson). After the automatic first down because of the penalty, Mayfield was sacked on first down, but the sack was wiped out by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Jerry Tillery, who knocked the ball out of Mayfield's hand after the play was over and the Rams were trying to hurry up to run the next play.

Mayfield hit Ben Skowronek with a 32 yard completion, placing the Rams at the Raiders' 40 yard line. Mayfield then completed two short passes to advance the ball to the 23 yard line before spiking the ball with :16 left in regulation. On the next play, Mayfield connected with Jefferson for the game tying touchdown. The Rams took the lead with a successful extra point kick, and they guaranteed the win with an interception on the Raiders' first play from scrimmage after the ensuing kickoff.

Mayfield is 0-22 in his career as a starter when his team trails by at least 13 points, but this was the second time he has led a 13-point comeback after coming off of the bench; he overcame a 14-0 deficit in his NFL debut in 2018.

That debut took place when Mayfield played for the Cleveland Browns. Mayfield's departure from Cleveland has engendered resentment and mockery from at least some Browns fans. I am a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, but I am not a Browns fan who feels any animosity toward Mayfield. The Browns have been a dysfunctional franchise ever since returning to the NFL in 1999, and some of the team's best moments during that dreadful period have come with Mayfield at the helm. In 2018, Mayfield set an NFL single season rookie record (since broken) with 27 touchdown passes, leading the Browns to a 7-8-1 record. A seven win season may not seem impressive, but that was the Browns' best record since 2007, which says a lot not only about Mayfield but also about the decrepit state of the franchise. Mayfield threw 22 touchdown passes in 2019 and became the first Browns quarterback to start all 16 regular season games since Tim Couch in 2001, but Mayfield's interception total increased from 14 to 21, and the Browns' record slipped to 6-10.

In 2020, Mayfield tossed 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions as the Browns went 11-5, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Mayfield again started all 16 regular season games. The Browns then defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 48-37 in the Wild Card game, posting the third highest single game playoff scoring total in franchise history while notching the team's first road playoff win since 1969 and first playoff win overall since January 1995, when Bill Belichick coached the Browns. The Browns' playoff run ended with a 22-17 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.

Mayfield led the Browns to a 3-1 record to start the 2021 season, but he had partially torn the labrum in his left shoulder in the second game, and that injury limited his effectiveness for the bulk of that campaign. Mayfield showed his toughness by playing in 14 out of 16 games, but the team should have protected him from himself and given him the opportunity to fully recover. Mayfield finished with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, the Browns went 8-9 as the schedule expanded to 17 games, and the team traded Mayfield to Carolina after the season.

In sum, Mayfield had a very good rookie season, he led the Browns to their first playoff win in almost 30 years, and he fought through a painful injury to try to help the team win in 2021 (that may not have been the smartest thing to do, but no one can question his heart or his toughness). The Browns' problems--as evidenced by the team's 5-7 record this season--run much deeper than Mayfield's real or perceived shortcomings; he deserves a lot of credit for any success that the Browns had during his stint with the franchise, and not much blame for problems that existed for decades before he arrived and, sadly, persist after his departure.

I am neither a Rams fan not a Raiders fan, but I enjoyed watching Mayfield show his doubters and critics that he can still play. In terms of quarterback evaluation, I trust Super Bowl-winning coach Sean McVay a lot more than I trust any of the coaches or talent evaluators for the Cleveland Browns or Carolina Panthers (who have had four coaches but just one playoff appearance since losing the Super Bowl after the 2015 season). If McVay thinks that Mayfield can contribute to a winning program he is probably right, and on Thursday night Mayfield did his part to justify McVay's belief in him.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Hans Niemann Ties for Fifth in U.S. Championship, Files $100 Million Lawsuit Against Carlsen, Chess.com, and Nakamura

Hans Niemann tied for fifth place in the 14 player round robin 2022 U.S. Chess Championship held at the Saint Louis Chess Club located across the street from the World Chess Hall of Fame. He scored 7/13, 1.5 points behind first place finisher Fabiano Caruana, the 2016 U.S. Chess Champion who drew the 2018 World Chess Championship match against Magnus Carlsen before losing 3-0 in the Rapid Tiebreak.

Niemann's performance rating of 2699 in the 2022 U.S. Chess Championship exactly matches his pre-tournament over the board rating of 2699. Keep in mind that 2700 is often denoted as the minimum rating level for an elite chess player. There has been a lot of reckless speculation about Niemann cheating at over the board chess, but there is no evidence that Niemann has cheated at over the board chess, and there is no evidence that Niemann cheated in the U.S. Championship, which is the most prestigious tournament of the year in American chess.  

Some of Niemann's accusers/critics have suggested that Niemann play strong players under controlled conditions to "prove" that his high over the board rating is legitimate and to prove that he is not cheating. If the U.S. Championship is not a sufficiently secure event and proving ground then that means there are few if any secure events left in over the board chess. Niemann's performance in this strong 13 player event is compelling evidence that his rating is a legitimate reflection of his playing strength and not due to cheating. Does this one tournament result definitively prove that Niemann never cheated at over the board chess? No, but the burden of proof is not on Niemann to prove that he is not cheating or has not cheated; the burden of proof rests with his accusers. However, the notion that Niemann playing over the board in controlled circumstances would reveal him to be a cheater lost credibility in the wake of Niemann's U.S. Championship performance in his first appearance in that event, and anyone who asserted that Niemann would be exposed when playing against America's top players looks uninformed.

In related news, Niemann has filed a $100 million federal lawsuit against World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, Chess.com, Grandmaster Hikarua Nakamura, Danny Rensch (an officer of Chess.com), and the Play Magnus Group (one of Carlsen's companies). You can read Niemann's 44 page complaint here. Niemann asserts five causes of action: Slander, libel, violations of the Sherman Act, tortious interference with contract and business expectancies, and civil conspiracy. 

Each count refers to a specific legal term of art with a specific legal meaning and a specific burden of proof necessary in order for Niemann to prevail. In non-lawyer terms, Niemann is asserting that the named defendants conspired together to defame Niemann in both written word and spoken word, that the named defendants conspired together to prevent Niemann from earning a living as a chess player, chess streamer, and chess coach, and that they interfered with specific contracts that Niemann already had in place to participate in chess tournaments and chess matches. Niemann's allegations are serious, but they are also difficult to prove in court. Niemann filed his lawsuit in the Eastern District of Missouri, presumably because this situation began in St. Louis when Carlsen withdrew from the Sinquefield Cup after losing to Niemann. Disputes over jurisdiction are a major aspect of litigation, and it will be interesting to see if one or more of the named defendants moves for dismissal based on improper subject matter jurisdiction and/or improper personal jurisdiction. It is also possible that one or more of the named defendants moves for summary judgment, which would be the assertion that even if Niemann's allegations are viewed in the most favorable light by the court he would not be able to meet the burden of proof on one or more of the causes of action.

I decline to speculate on how the court might rule on such motions, but this will be an interesting case to follow, and a case that potentially could have a significant impact not only in terms of the outcome of the litigation, but also on the chess community's methods of detecting chess cheating and the chess community's response when a player is suspected of cheating in the absence of credible evidence or a confession.

Monday, October 17, 2022

There is No Evidence That Hans Niemann Has Cheated in Over the Board Chess

It is interesting that people who actually know the strengths and limitations of using chess engines to analyze chess games while looking for signs of cheating find no evidence that Hans Niemann has cheated in over the board chess. International Master Ken Regan--who has a doctorate in complexity theory and is widely considered the leading expert regarding how to detect chess cheating--examined every game played by Niemann over the past two years and determined that the evidence does not support cheating allegations against Niemann.

In Let's Check: the elite are better than you know, Albert Silver provides a detailed description of the Chessbase tool "Let's Check," pointing out how it can (and has) been manipulated to make Niemann look like a cheater. The reality--as noted in the "Let's Check" article--is that, of all the participants in the Sinqufield Cup, Niemann's moves had the least correlation with the best moves selected by the top chess engines. In layman's terms, when Niemann beat Magnus Carlsen--after which Carlsen whined like a crybaby sore loser and withdrew from the tournament--Niemann played at a solid Grandmaster level while Carlsen played an awful game. One can speculate about why Carlsen played so poorly, but the larger point is that Carlsen lost because he played poorly and not because Niemann played at such a high level that only a supercomputer could match his moves.

It is worth noting that Carlsen not only declined to defend his World Champion title but he is also losing to other young, rising players in addition to losing to Niemann. The evidence suggests that it is more likely that (1) Carlsen is declining in playing strength, (2) Carlsen is keenly aware that he is declining in playing strength, and (3) Carlsen is disconcerted about his declining playing strength. That is not to say that Carlsen is not the best player in the world; the evidence also shows that Carlsen is still the best player in the world. The point is that the margin by which he is ahead of everyone else seems to be shrinking, and as Carlsen ages he is becoming more prone to having concentration lapses that cause him to lose to younger (and perhaps more ambitious) players. It is clearly not Carlsen's goal to break the record for longest time holding the World Champion title, so the only new thing left for him to achieve is reaching a 2900 rating, which seems statistically unlikely (as Carlsen has freely admitted). Thus, Carlsen's motivation and concentration may no longer be at peak value, and he has a host of young, highly motivated, and intensely focused players nipping at his heels.

There are many people whose lack of knowledge and understanding does not inhibit their propensity to make bold, unfounded allegations, but it is very important to uphold the principle of innocent until proven guilty. A person is not guilty of a specific offense because of something else that he did in the past, or because you don't like him, or because his behavior seems odd to you, or because his success seems implausible to you. A person should only be found guilty if there is credible evidence indicating guilt.

There is no credible evidence indicating that Hans Niemann cheated at over the board chess. Magnus Carlsen and all of Niemann's other accusers owe Niemann an apology--and could very well owe him money if Niemann decides to file a defamation suit. It should be noted that it can be expensive and difficult to prove defamation in court, so if Niemann chooses to not file suit that does not lend any credibility to what Niemann's accusers said about him: the burden of proof rests with the accuser, not the accused, in our legal system.

It will be interesting to see if FIDE's investigation of this matter results in sanctions against Carlsen and others. I predict that Carlsen will be reprimanded for his reckless statements, for withdrawing from the Sinquefield Cup, and for throwing a game to Niemann in the Generation Cup, but I doubt that FIDE will go beyond that, because Carlsen wields so much power and influence in the chess world.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

National Chess Day at the World Chess Hall of Fame Fischer-Spassky Exhibit

In 1976, President Gerald Ford issued a Presidential proclamation establishing National Chess Day, celebrated on the second Saturday of each October. In 2022, the second Saturday fell on October 8, and I spent the entire weekend in Saint Louis, home to the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Saint Louis Chess Club. I arrived in Saint Louis late on Friday night, and I was happy to take some pictures of the exteriors of the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Saint Louis Chess Club in anticipation of touring both just a few hours later:

I had read about and seen pictures of the world's largest chess piece, but it was cool to actually stand in front of a 20 foot tall King weighing 10,860 pounds! The massive King stands guard in front of the World Chess Hall of Fame. Across the street, the Saint Louis Chess Club is undergoing a major expansion, as noted by the sign declaring "Our Next Move Coming Soon!"

The World Chess Hall of Fame opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, and I was the first customer in the door. To the right of the entrance is the Gift Shop, but I stopped in there last so I would not have to carry my new treasures throughout the museum. The lobby had a display with several free chess posters, including one featuring the world's largest chess piece and another about the Fischer-Spassky exhibit.

The Fischer-Spassky exhibit--officially titled "1972 Fischer/Spassky: The Match, Its Origin, and Influence," and on view from August 18, 2022-April 30, 2023--is the main reason that I made this trip at this time. I had always wanted to visit the World Chess Hall of Fame, but there was no way that I was going to miss seeing this particular exhibit. Bobby Fischer left behind a mixed legacy, but purely from a chess standpoint he is my favorite player of all-time; his games have a clear, simple logic that belies the depth of his ideas, and playing over his games gives me the same sense of peace that I suspect that music aficionados feel when listening to the works of the all-time great composers. Fischer was an artistic genius and a fierce competitor--the only player both willing and able to win all 11 games in a U.S. Championship after 10 wins had already clinched the title. The mental illness that caused Fischer's retreat from the chess world and his descent into seclusion and paranoia is a personal tragedy for Fischer and a human tragedy for the world that was deprived of the full flower of Fischer's genius.

The World Chess Hall of Fame has three floors. Right now, the Fischer/Spassky exhibit takes up almost all of the display space on each floor. Before entering the main room on the first floor, there is a staircase, and next to the staircase is a television playing several videos of Fischer on a loop. The videos include Mike Wallace's "60 Minutes" interview with Fischer before the 1972 World Championship Match plus Fischer's appearances on the Bob Hope Show and on the Tonight Show featuring Johnny Carson.

The main room on the first floor focuses on Fischer's youth, and his rapid development into a world class chess player. Fischer was born in Chicago on March 9, 1943, and he spent part of his early childhood in Phoenix with his mother Regina and his older sister Joan. The family moved to Manhattan in 1949 before settling in Brooklyn in 1950. New York City was the epicenter of American chess at that time, and it is interesting to speculate about how Fischer's chess career would have turned out had he not spent his formative years in that environment.

One of the items on display is a copy of My Seven Chess Prodigies, a 1975 book written by John W. Collins, who mentored the young Fischer. In the book, Collins wrote, "Geniuses like Beethoven, Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Fischer come out of the head of Zeus, seem to be genetically programmed, know before being instructed." The book's inside front cover is inscribed with this message from Collins to Fischer, dated 24 June 1978: "For Bobby, With best wishes and the hope you will enjoy these maxims--Jack."

Fischer's participation in the Hawthorne Chess Club--based in Collins' home near where Fischer went to school--played an important role in his development. The exhibit includes a picture of Fischer playing against Collins at Collins' house, plus the actual furniture from the picture:


 

The exhibit includes a large display about Spassky's development from young player to World Champion. It should be remembered that Spassky was a great player in his own right, and not just an obstacle in the path of Fischer's rise to the top. 

Here is a collection of various medals that Spassky won:

The medal in the middle with the biggest ribbon is Spassky's board one gold medal from the 1970 Chess Olympiad, and the medal in the upper right with the blue ribbon is his 1969 World Chess Championship medal, awarded after he dethroned Tigran Petrosian.

Here is the trophy that Spassky won after capturing the 1955 World Junior Chess Championship:

Various video monitors include archival footage of events leading up to the match and recaps of the action during the match. Older visitors (or students of American mainstream media) will recognize Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and other prominent broadcasters of that era leading the coverage. On the third floor, there is a video monitor that includes interviews with Fischer biographer International Master John Donaldson, Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan, and Grandmaster Maurice Ashley.

The 1972 World Championship Match between Fischer and Spassky nearly ended before it began because of Fischer's numerous demands about a host of issues, from the prize fund to the noise made by cameras in the playing area to the size of the squares on the chessboard. Fischer showed up late in Iceland, lost the first game after a risky sacrifice that is still being analyzed/debated 50 years later, and then forfeited the second game after refusing to play in the main playing hall because he felt it was too noisy. Game three took place in a back room, and Fischer beat Spassky not just for the first time in the match but for the first time ever. Spassky only won one more game the rest of the way, as Fischer cruised to a 12.5-8.5 triumph. 

The whole exhibit is fascinating, and I spent most of the day methodically working my way through each item on display. There were three items that I was most looking forward to seeing, and they remain my three favorites: the replica of the table used in the match, the board and pieces used in Fischer's famous game three win, and the famous "red book" of Spassky's games that Fischer took with him everywhere while he prepared for the match (you can see the "red book" during Mike Wallace's interview of Fischer).

The chess table used in the match was handcrafted, and by contract only three tables were ever made: the original one is in Iceland, and one of the two identical replicas is on display in this exhibit. The board in the chess table can be popped out and swapped with a different board. Which board was used for a given game was determined by Fischer's mood that day! The board on display in the exhibit was signed by both Fischer and Spassky. Naturally, I went as close as possible to take a picture of the board, and I asked one of the workers to take a picture of me in front of the table:


Here are the board (signed by both players) and pieces used in Fischer's game three win, which will be forever remembered for Fischer's unorthodox 11th move (...Nh5). The pieces are set up as they were positioned after move 11:

The red book is in the center of a display case featuring various books and note cards that Fischer used to prepare for not only the World Championship match but also for the Candidates Matches:


Here is a close up of the "red book." Note that you can see some of Fischer's handwritten notes in the margin!

I also enjoyed looking at LeRoy Neiman's artwork about the match. His first encounter with Fischer involved almost bumping into him in the cafeteria in Iceland. Fischer was holding a chess book in one hand and his food tray in the other hand! Neiman captured that moment in his inimitable style:

Neiman described Fischer as a "rare bird," and he displayed great respect and compassion for Fischer's combination of genius and eccentricity; when the sound of Neiman making artwork annoyed Fischer during the match, Neiman kept changing his drawing implements until he found one that did not bother Fischer. That might be my favorite non-chess moment of the entire match; while others described Fischer as difficult or worse, Neiman understood what it means to be a genius at work striving for ideal conditions.

One wall on the top floor is a permanent touch screen display that includes a digital version of each inductee's plaque from the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame and from the World Chess Hall of Fame (the only physical plaques on display are for the inductees from the past two years, and those plaques are perched above the staircase after you reach the top floor). Part of the top floor has items from after the 1972 World Chess Championship Match. Spassky continued to compete in the World Chess Championship cycle, though he never again challenged for the title, while Fischer went into seclusion before reemerging in 1992 to play a 30 game match versus Spassky. 

The sad story of Fischer's final years is recounted, and there is a poignant video of Garry Kasparov visiting Fischer's grave in Iceland. Kasparov lamented the unfulfilled dreams to promote chess that died with Fischer's disappearance from mainstream chess, and Kasparov also expressed regret that he never met Fischer. One wall includes photos and items depicting how Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield have transformed St. Louis into not just the capital of U.S. chess but a world chess center.

My last stop at the World Chess Hall of Fame was the Gift Shop, where I bought a variety of items not only for myself but also for my daughter Rachel. 

After taking a break to eat, I made my first visit to the Saint Louis Chess Club. The U.S. Championship and the U.S. Women's Championship are being held there now, but the playing rooms are not open to the public. However, the main area on the first floor is open, and several of the top players came into the main area to analyze their games. I sat next to Grandmaster Awonder Liang and Grandmaster Sam Sevian as they went over their third round draw, and then I watched Grandmaster Levon Aronian and Grandmaster Ray Robson analyze their third round draw.

The "Saturday Night Main Event" is a Quick Rated tournament (G/10, two second increment) held each Saturday night at the Saint Louis Chess Club. I was the fifth seeded player, and I finished with 2.5/4. I won pretty easily in the first round and in the fourth round, but I was held to a draw by a 1300 in the second round and I lost to a 1787 in the third round. Four-time U.S. Blind Chess Champion (2018-2021) Jessica Lauser, who participated in the tournament, told me afterward that a Saint Louis 1300 is not a regular 1300. Based on my limited four game experience, I have to agree; it is known that a pool of local players who do not play much outside of their community can produce players who are either underrated or overrated compared to the national rating pool. I could have played better, but I am happy that I can say that I played in a rated event at the Saint Louis Chess Club. I previously played at the Marshall Chess Club, so I suppose that the Mechanics Institute is the most famous active U.S. chess club where I have not played.

I FaceTimed with Rachel right after the tournament ended, and she was impressed when I showed her the world's largest chess piece. "It is practically as tall as the building next to it!" Rachel exclaimed.

On Sunday, I went back to the Saint Louis Chess Club. The Club was not open yet, but I watched Nick Polson and FIDE Master Gabriela Antova playing speed chess on one of the chess tables outside of the club. The only other spectator was none other than Rex Sinquefield himself. I thanked him for what he has done and is doing for chess. Later, I took a picture of myself alongside him and Joy Bray, who is the general manager of both the World Chess Hall of Fame and the Saint Louis Chess Club:

Polson is one of the co-authors of a paper analyzing the statistical likelihood that Magnus Carlsen will achieve a 2900 rating. Polson told me that he presented his findings directly to Carlsen. I wondered how Carlsen reacted to the conclusion that he has less than a 5% chance of achieving this goal. Polson said that Carlsen is very realistic and objective about his rating, and that Carlsen was mainly interested in understanding what he needs to do to improve his odds. Polson told me that the K factor for players with 2700-plus ratings is not correct, and I had an interesting conversation with him about ELO ratings in general.

Polson also played some blitz games against Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian. I told Akobian that I owe him a thank you because studying his games on the black side of the Czech Pirc helped me achieve some nice wins in rated tournament games. Akobian played the Czech Pirc in one of his blitz games versus Polson, and I joked that he was playing it in my honor since I had just mentioned the opening. 

After Akobian finished playing blitz, I took a picture with him:

I went back to the World Chess Hall of Fame to get a few more items at the Gift Shop and look at the Fischer/Spassky exhibit one more time, and then I went inside the Saint Louis Chess Club to follow round five action in the U.S. Chess Championship. I also played several blitz games. The afternoon went by very quickly, and soon it was time to make the drive home.

A lot has been said and written about Rex Sinquefield, the Saint Louis Chess Club, and the World Chess Hall of Fame--and everything wonderful that you have heard is true! I encourage anyone who loves chess to go to Saint Louis and experience this chess wonderland for yourself. Both facilities are first class operations, with employees who are friendly and helpful. Sinquefield is very down to earth and accessible. Most of the time that I was at the Saint Louis Chess Club on Saturday and Sunday he was seated in the main club area watching the U.S. Chess Championship games on the TV monitors. At first I was surprised that he did not have a chess version of the "luxury suites" that you see wealthy people sitting in at basketball games and football games, but after spending the weekend in Saint Louis I am not surprised: Sinquefield is not a very wealthy man who dabbles in chess; he is a chess lover who happens to be very wealthy, so he does not isolate himself from the chess community that he has built but instead he immerses himself in it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Grandmaster Maxim Dlugy Fires Back at Magnus Carlsen and Chess.com

Grandmaster Maxim Dlugy has provided a detailed and strong refutation of recent allegations and inferences about his character and about his connection with Grandmaster Hans Niemann. In case you somehow missed it, World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen has accused Niemann of cheating against him without providing any corroborating evidence to support the accusation. Dlugy's name got dragged into the mud when Carlsen made a calculated offhand comment about Dlugy being Niemann's mentor, implying that Dlugy somehow helped Niemann to cheat. Many large mainstream media outlets publicized Carlsen's reckless claims and innuendos without doing much research to assess the credibility of what Carlsen said.

It will be interesting to see if the same media outlets who ran with anti-Dlugy stories will give equal time to Dlugy's response. 

I encourage everyone to read Dlugy's entire statement, but for those who do not have the time or inclination to do so here are some key points (all quotations are from Dlugy's statement; unquoted material is my commentary):

1) "A grandmaster and a chess professional for more than 40 years, I have found myself dragged into the cheating controversy rocking the chess world, following the release of confidential emails by chess.com – a company with a huge financial stake in supporting the version of events pushed by chess world champion Magnus Carlsen.

The first bolt from the sky came when Magnus said that I was a mentor to Hans Niemann, a former student of mine with whom I've kept in occasional touch over the years, insinuating that I helped him cheat.

Then came calls from reporters seeking comment on two-year-old emails between chess.com and me that the website had agreed in written form to keep confidential and released without my consent. In a roundabout way, the exchanges could be purported to prop up claims made by Magnus….with whom chess.com just happens to be negotiating a huge financial deal.

So even though I had absolutely nothing to do with the now infamous match between Magnus and Hans, I am now compelled to defend myself against completely absurd and slanderous accusations made against me."

Those who are too young to know or those who have not researched chess history may not realize how strong GM Dlugy was at his peak, particularly as a blitz player. Dlugy won many in person blitz games and rated games against strong players in the pre-chess computer era when there was no way for him to receive electronic assistance. Dlugy won the 1985 World Junior Chess Championship, and he was the World Blitz Chess Association's highest rated player from 1988-92.

2) "I didn't have anything to do with Hans' success in his game against Magnus, contrary to what Magnus has insinuated, as I don't prepare Hans for his games. That is his own job and potentially the job of his current coach. Since 2014, I have also not given Hans advice on actual game preparation for any other tournaments, whether online or OTB, as in my opinion, only a full-time coach would have enough knowledge to be able to do this in a professional manner."

3) "It looks like Magnus has been told by advisors to avoid direct accusations and work with insinuations. He insinuated that Hans cheated in their game, without saying as much, and when it came time to say something of note, he insinuated that Hans has a mentor, myself, who is doing a great job helping him to play well, which to Magnus now is equivalent to cheating. He then came out openly and claimed Hans has cheated and he will not be playing in tournaments with him anymore. Magnus' plan is to try to prove 'Guilt by association'. If Hans has a mentor who is a cheat, by definition Hans must be a cheat and therefore he did cheat in their game, as he looked relaxed or rather 'not tense' when playing him. The public was then directed to check out my alleged cheating incidents in 2017 and 2020 on chess.com, which would firmly establish that since I admitted to violating Fair Play policies of chess.com, I clearly helped or advised Hans that the only way for him to make progress in chess is by cheating.

Since Hans has by then already admitted that he has cheated when he was 12 and 16, it would get social media firmly behind the World Champion's plan of further implicating Hans by connecting one 'cheat' with another.

There are a number of problems with this concept:

Although to cheat with an actual device you do need an accomplice who has access to the device with a chess engine running on it, you also need a connection to the device which given the precautions taken at many of the modern tournaments, especially the Sinquefield Cup, is not even remotely a possibility.

None of the specialists tasked to find anything wrong with the actual Carlsen-Niemann game in question, came up with anything substantive pointing to any outside influence in generating moves. In fact, Hans has on at least two occasions during that game relinquished much of his advantage gained in the early opening phase, but Magnus failed to capitalize on it. Kenneth Regan, the accepted foremost authority on the subject presented a detailed report where he found no evidence of Hans using an engine neither in that particular game nor in any other Over the Board game. This hardly gives merit to the idea of a 'device' passing moves to Hans during the game.

There is no plausible method known to me or anyone I know, including thousands of social media posts, where I could be acting as an accomplice to Hans' insinuated cheating in his game with Magnus. There is no device, there is no actual cheating and I was in New York City when the game was played."

Dlugy is correct to be appalled by Carlsen's "guilt by association" tactics. I would like to see FIDE and chess organizers take action against Carlsen for his reckless words and irresponsible conduct, but Carlsen wields so much power in the chess world that he seems to be protected against any punishment.

4) "The emails submitted by chess.com showed that I indeed violated their Fair Play Guidelines twice in 2017 in two tournaments where one of my students in a class was shouting out moves together with other students while consulting with the engine.

I realized that the accusations in 2017 had some truth to them a few months later only after I caught the student in question cheating. As soon as this happened I immediately reached out to Danny Rensch and admitted to the breach of fair play guidelines that I didn't know I had committed until that moment. I admitted this was a violation, though the recent videos of Magnus Carlsen receiving advice from one of the top British players David Howell (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNMcnrmb97g) to beat a major competitor in a money tournament on lichess.org seems to be a larger violation, as he willingly played the move which won the game on the spot. It can be seen clearly in the video that Magnus didn't take this too seriously, admitting that he was cheating on the spot.

In my case, I truly had no reason to believe that I had actually cheated and was adamant I did not cheat until I realized what was happening months later, as the thought that kids rated over 1000 points lower than me could be helping me play better never occurred to me. I think I was negligent in not imagining that such a thing could occur, but having apologized for it and having offered to return the prize money for the event, an offer Danny Rensch did not comment on, I think I did as much as anyone would under the circumstances....

In the Spring 2020 tournament which I played in after my account was fully reinstated 3 years after the 2017 events, I was kicked out by chess.com during the 9th round of the tournament where I had a score of 6.5/8, while NOT USING ANY OUTSIDE ASSISTANCE!

I was shocked by this, as I was playing the tournament from my apartment and could not understand what occurred. I was informed that I was kicked out for Fair Play Guidelines violations and that given the past history, I would have 72 hours to confess to anything regarding Fair Play Guideline violations or my account would be closed permanently.

This created quite a dilemma. On the one hand, from my previous discussions with Danny Rensch on the subject, it became quite obvious that he believes in chess.com methodology more than in anything else, although having recently studied the materials on the chess.com website, I found out that it turns out that 5 or 6 appeals per month are actually satisfied and those accounts are reinstated. I simply didn't have the time to deal with this situation, and since I took chess.com at their word that the email exchange would continue to be confidential and private as stated in all of their correspondence, I made the mistake of agreeing to admitting that I used some help in some of the games in the event. The flip side would be potentially worse.

When you are kicked from chess.com, rumors start circulating immediately that you cheated and therefore were kicked out. Remembering the messages I got back in 2017, I decided that it's best to admit to wrongdoing, and if they ever made this public, I would always be able to prove that I didn't cheat by simply analyzing the games in question. Sadly, it has come down to this. Since chess.com can now not be trusted with keeping their promises, I will have to do what I do best: Analyze chess games. My analysis of the games in question will be at the bottom of this statement. I would also like to mention that since I 'confessed' to violating Fair Play Guidelines, my account was reinstated by chess.com and until recently, I regularly played using this account, which I agreed with chess.com would remain anonymous. This account is known by a handful of my friends as well as my students. It is a titled GM Diamond account."

It is fascinating that video evidence of Carlsen cheating in an online event is ignored by media outlets that keep pounding away at Niemann and Dlugy. I have seen comments that what Carlsen did was "innocuous," but I don't get it--if you receive outside assistance during a game, then you cheated. There is a difference in severity between stealing $1,000,000 and stealing $1, but stealing is stealing; there is a difference between cheating in a World Championship Match and cheating in an online event, but cheating is cheating. Carlsen presents himself as someone who is concerned that cheating threatens the integrity of the sport, so he should apply his standard to himself.

5) "When my name was first brought up in this scandal, a number of articles made a point of mentioning that I was 'imprisoned for embezzlement in Russia' as further 'proof' that my character is that of a cheater.

This is in reference to my waiting for trial in a Russian holding cell 17 years ago, a deeply painful and damaging time in my and my family's life. At the time some business rivals with close ties to Putin's government used my friendship with Garry Kasparov (who besides his role in the chess world was one of Putin's most vocal critics) to have me arrested and force a sham trial.

Even with the full force of the Russian judicial system working with the prosecution to keep me detained, they eventually had to acquit me when none of the false evidence could stand up to scrutiny. After I was acquitted, Garry sent his own head of security to make sure I made it back to Moscow safely. That evening I had dinner with Garry and his mother before flying back to New York the following day."

Dlugy's statement concludes with detailed analysis of his Titled Tuesday games from Chess.com in 2020. Dlugy's point with this detailed analysis is to show that the way that he played is consistent with his prior demonstrated performance level, and inconsistent with the notion that he received outside assistance during those games. 

I am a strong amateur chess player, but I am not a chess Grandmaster or professional chess player, so I will defer to Grandmasters and chess professionals to definitively assess the details of Dlugy's chess analysis, but I understand enough to say that it is much more plausible that Dlugy played these games without outside assistance than that he received outside assistance.

The larger issue here is that Carlsen and Chess.com enjoy a mutually beneficial economic arrangement with each other, and they appear to be colluding--either in a coordinated fashion or merely because their interests coincide--to defame Niemann and others to convince the public that (1) Niemann could not possibly have beaten Carlsen without cheating, (2) Niemann should be ostracized, and (3) chess players should have full faith in anything said by Carlsen and in the anti-cheating policies utilized by Chess.com.

There are good reasons to question the validity of all three points. Niemann, who has admitted to online chess cheating in the past, is far from a hero, but Carlsen and Chess.com both have behaved far worse than Niemann has regarding a "scandal" that is based entirely on unfounded accusations and sweeping innuendos. If Carlsen and Chess.com stay on their current path, it would not be surprising to see them as named defendants in a civil lawsuit for defamation. Chess.com would also appear to have potential liability for breaching confidentiality regarding Dlugy's emails and regarding Chess.com's "confidential" information about Grandmasters who allegedly cheated (I put "confidential" in quotation marks because Chess.com's 72 page report about Niemann provides more than enough information for anyone to figure out who the accused Grandmasters are, rendering the purported confidentiality a flimsy sham).

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Carlsen Defames Niemann Without Providing Corroborating Evidence

If you believe something negative about a person but have no evidence to prove it, and you say that something in a public forum, you open yourself up to the potential of being sued for slander. 

After American Grandmaster Hans Niemann defeated World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the third round of the Sinquefield Cup, Carlsen withdrew from the event while strongly implying--but not explicitly stating--that Niemann cheated to beat him. Other people, most notably Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, then made more direct accusations against Niemann, and I reacted in an article titled Put Up or Shut Up: Hans Niemann's Accusers Need to Provide Evidence or Apologize: "If your opponent cheated and you can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, then say so and provide the evidence. If you can't prove it, then shut up and take your loss like a responsible and mature adult."

Then, in round six of the online Generation Cup Tournament, Carlsen played one move against Hans Niemann before resigning and turning off his camera, prompting me to write an article titled Magnus Carlsen's Resignation After One Move Embarrases Himself and Harms Professional Chess in which I declared, "Carlsen is disrespecting the sport and profession of chess. He should not be invited to another tournament until he explains himself and commits to behaving better. Of course, a big problem here is that Carlsen and his companies control, organize, and run many of the biggest chess tournaments. It is unlikely that Carlsen will not invite himself to his own events, but it is not an exaggeration to say that Carlsen is creating a crisis in chess, starting with his decision to not defend his World Chess Championship title--which lessens that title's value and damages chess--and now with his petulant and unsportsmanlike behavior."

International Master Ken Regan, who is considered to be an authority on uncovering chess cheating, examined every online and over the board game played by Niemann in the past two years and concluded that there is no evidence that Niemann cheated during that time period.

On September 23, FIDE issued the following statement

Last week, World Champion Magnus Carlsen resigned in a game played in an online competition against GM Hans Niemann before making his move two. The week before, he left an over-the-board tournament after losing the game to the same Mr. Niemann. 

These were not FIDE events; however, as the world’s chess governing body, it is our duty to protect the integrity of the game and its image, and in view that the incident keeps escalating, we find it necessary to take a step forward. 

First of all, we strongly believe that the World Champion has a moral responsibility attached to his status, since he is viewed as a global ambassador of the game. His actions impact the reputation of his colleagues, sportive results, and eventually can be damaging to our game. We strongly believe that there were better ways to handle this situation.

At the same time, we share his deep concerns about the damage that cheating brings to chess. FIDE has led the fight against cheating for many years, and we reiterate our zero-tolerance policy toward cheating in any form. Whether it is online or “over the board”, cheating remains cheating. We are strongly committed to this fight, and we have invested in forming a group of specialists to devise sophisticated preventive measures that already apply at top FIDE events. 

As we have already done before, FIDE calls for reinforcing the cooperation between major online platforms, private events and top players - most of whom have already expressed their will to join efforts with FIDE.

FIDE is prepared to task its Fair Play commission with a thorough investigation of the incident, when the adequate initial proof is provided, and all parties involved disclose the information at their disposal. We are fully aware that, in some cases, uncertainty can harm players' performance. It also can be damaging to a player's reputation - that's why we insist on the anti-cheating protocols to be followed.

It is our hope that this whole situation could have a long-term positive effect, if tackled properly. We propose to launch a dedicated Panel, that would include representatives of the leading chess platforms, Grandmasters, anti-cheating experts and FIDE officers, in order to fight this risk and prevent it becomes a real plague.

Arkady Dvorkovich

FIDE President

The FIDE statement correctly criticized Carlsen's actions, but did not go far enough: there should be a zero tolerance policy not only for false accusations of cheating but also for unsubstantiated allegations of cheating. It should be obvious that falsely accusing someone--that is to say, accusing someone when you know the accusation is not true--is a serious offense, but it is also a serious offense to accuse someone without any evidence. That is to say, even if Carlsen sincerely believes that Niemann cheated, it is irresponsible and damaging for Carlsen to publicly accuse Niemann without presenting credible evidence. 

Unfortunately, Carlsen's behavior deteriorated even after FIDE's slap on the wrist rebuke.

During the Generation Cup Tournament, Carlsen gave an interview that did not shed much more light on his actions, but he mentioned that he intended to issue a statement after the event concluded. After Carlsen won the Generation Cup, he released the following statement:

Dear Chess World,

At the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I made the unprecedented professional decision to withdraw from the tournament after my round three game against Hans Niemann. A week later during the Champions Chess Tour, I resigned against Hans Niemann after playing only one move.

I know that my actions have frustrated many in the chess community. I’m frustrated. I want to play chess. I want to continue to play chess at the highest level in the best events.

I believe that cheating in chess is a big deal and an existential threat to the game. I also believe that chess organizers and all those who care about the sanctity of the game we love should seriously consider increasing security measures and methods of cheat detection for over the board chess. When Niemann was invited last minute to the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I strongly considered withdrawing prior to the event. I ultimately chose to play.

I believe that Niemann has cheated more — and more recently — than he has publicly admitted. His over the board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I think only a handful of players can do. This game contributed to changing my perspective.

We must do something about cheating, and for my part going forward, I don’t want to play against people that have cheated repeatedly in the past, because I don’t know what they are capable of doing in the future.

There is more that I would like to say. Unfortunately, at this time I am limited in what I can say without explicit permission from Niemann to speak openly. So far I have only been able to speak with my actions, and those actions have stated clearly that I am not willing to play chess with Niemann. I hope that the truth on this matter comes out, whatever it may be.

Sincerely,
Magnus Carlsen – World Chess Champion

Carlsen's statement talks about what he believes and how he feels, but provides no evidence to support his serious allegations. The notion that Niemann must be cheating because in Carlsen's not so humble opinion no one could beat him that easily without appearing to be "tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions" is ridiculous. Anyone who has played tournament chess knows that players display (or attempt to conceal) a wide range of emotions during games, and that some players may seem to not be concentrating when they are in fact very much focused--chess players often close their eyes or look away from the board without losing concentration on the task at hand.

Carlsen is coming across as a slanderous crybaby who cannot accept losing to a much younger player who he believes to be inferior to him. In the context of this series of events, Niemann's previous cheating is not relevant; Niemann has acknowledged that cheating and been punished for it. What is most relevant is that Carlsen is treating high level chess tournaments as if they are his personal property to do with as he pleases, regardless of the impact that his words and actions may have not only on Niemann but also on other participants who are affected by Carlsen withdrawing and/or throwing games. Even if it were proven that Niemann cheated versus Carlsen, Carlsen should still be disciplined for his unsportsmanlike conduct, lest these tournaments lose any semblance of organization and structure.

I must emphasize that I take a hard-line stance against proven chess cheating. In my 2015 paper  Preventing, Detecting and Punishing Chess Cheating in the Digital Age I proposed strong penalties for documented chess cheating:

Someone who is caught in the act of cheating with physical evidence proving the cheating should be banned from tournament play for at least five years and should be forced to return any prizes won while cheating. Someone who is disqualified for cheating based on a preponderance of circumstantial evidence should be banned from tournament play for at least two years and should be forced to return any prizes won while cheating. Repeat offenders in either category should be banned for life. These rules should be incorporated into the bylaws of national chess federations and FIDE and bans issued by one such body should be enforced by all other such bodies. 

Chess cheating is a serious problem that threatens the very future of the sport and strong measures are necessary to prevent, detect, and punish chess cheating so that the sport does not lose all credibility in the eyes of participants, fans and the general public.

If someone argued that Niemann should have received harsher penalties based on his prior cheating, I would likely agree with that--but the reality is that Niemann has paid the price under the rules that are in place, and Carlsen never publicly complained about Niemann until Niemann beat him. It would not be fair to retroactively punish Niemann again in the absence of proof that Niemann either cheated again or cheated more often than he has admitted or been proven to have cheated.

This situation is very damaging for chess no matter what the reality proves to be. If Carlsen is just a crybaby/sore loser who is defaming a promising young player who is clean then that is awful--but if whiny Carlsen is speaking the truth and Niemann is an active cheater then that is also awful. I hope that FIDE follows through on the pledge to get to the bottom of all this, and then acts accordingly based on whatever the evidence shows.