Friday, July 9, 2021

Former U.S. Chess Champion Sam Shankland on Why it is Important to Set Lofty Goals

I love this quote from Sam Shankland, the 2018 U.S. Chess Champion who has been ranked as high as 24th in the world and is currently ranked 31st in the world:

I've always believed in lofty goals: my goal is to be the World Champion. Now--I think this is very unlikely to happen, and my odds for this are significantly lower than one percent. But I can guarantee you it will not happen if I don't try my best, if I don't throw myself at it with full force. Ultimately, I think that you should be setting lofty goals for yourself...what's that expression? "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." If my goal was to make the top ten in the world, I would peak at number ten. But if my goal is to be world champion, and I peak at number five? Even though I technically fail the second goal, I think I will be much happier with myself and my career.

The full interview at Chess Life Online provides some chess-specific insights from Shankland, but the above quote has universal applicability. Life is too short and too precious to set "realistic" goals. Shoot for the moon, and do so with every mental, physical, and emotional fiber you can muster. You may not reach the moon, but you will soar past many people who lack your daring, courage, and vision!

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Baylor Dominates Gonzaga to Win the 2021 NCAA Title

Baylor took a 9-0 lead over Gonzaga in the NCAA Championship Game en route to a wire to wire victory over the previously undefeated Bulldogs. Jared Butler led Baylor with 22 points and seven assists to become the first player to post at least 20 points and at least seven assists in the NCAA Championship Game since Carmelo Anthony did this for Syracuse in 2003. Butler, like Anthony, won the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. 

Gonzaga is the fifth team since 1976 to enter the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record, and the fifth such team to not win the title. The last NCAA Division I basketball team to cap off an undefeated regular season with an NCAA title is Bobby Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Just seven Division I teams have had an undefeated championship season, starting with the 1956 University of San Francisco team (coached by Phil Woolpert and led by Hall of Fame center Bill Russell ), followed by the 1957 North Carolina team coached by Frank McGuire, and then four UCLA teams coached by John Wooden (1964, 1967, 1972, 1973). Coach Knight, who often publicly expressed his disdain for the improper benefits UCLA provided to its players (which, if uncovered at the time, could have resulted in the disqualification of those championship teams), must have taken great joy in eliminating UCLA from the 1976 tournament as part of Indiana's perfect season, even though Wooden had retired by that time and passed the baton to Gene Bartow.

In his Foreword to Runnin' Rebel (Jerry Tarkanian's autobiography, co-authored with Dan Wetzel), Coach Knight identified two ingredients for success "over the long haul of a season": "getting players to play as hard as they can play each possession of the game at both ends of the floor and doing it as intelligently as possible." Coach Knight declared that he has never seen another coach consistently do a better job of this than Coach Tarkanian did. Coach Knight further stated that three key elements for success are getting players to run back on defense, getting players to attack the boards aggressively, and getting players to commit to playing defense. 

While dominating Gonzaga, Baylor put on a 40 minute clinic exemplifying all of the ingredients and elements mentioned above by Coach Knight. Anyone who focuses on Baylor's 10-23 three point shooting does not understand why Butler beat Gonzaga, as simple math demonstrates: take away the three point shot--subtract one point for each three pointer that Baylor made--and Baylor still wins the game. Baylor would have won that game without the three point shot rule because the crucial elements for Baylor's success are defense and rebounding. Defense and rebounding shut down Gonzaga's high-powered offensive attack while also creating numerous scoring opportunities for Baylor.

Baylor set the tone on the very first possession of the game, as they pounded Gonzaga on the glass until they finally scored. Mark Vital finished with a game-high 11 rebounds, including a game-high eight offensive rebounds, and the 6-5, 250 senior had half as many rebounds as Gonzaga's entire squad as Baylor dominated the boards, 38-22. 

Baylor's pressure defense not only forced turnovers, but it destroyed Gonzaga's rhythm, turning normally confident players into hesitant players. Soon the Bulldogs were bobbling and fumbling the ball even before Baylor applied pressure. 

It became evident that Baylor is the superior team athletically, but that should not overshadow the fact that Baylor also was the more physical team and the more mentally poised team; the Bears showed no fear from the outset, they played a very disciplined game at both ends of the court, and they made an undefeated, confident team look very beatable and not very confident.

Rules may change, and styles may evolve, but championship basketball has always been about fundamentals. No matter how good a team is offensively, a team can go on a cold streak and miss shots. Defense and rebounding are all about effort, toughness, and focus; well-coached teams comprised of mentally-focused, tough players play with effort, toughness, and focus every game, which means that they force other teams to shoot poorly while also being able to, if necessary, survive when they shoot poorly. Although Baylor shot well from three point range, the Bears did not shoot a great field goal percentage overall (.448), and they attempted fewer free throws than Gonzaga, but Baylor's defensive pressure and rebounding prowess generated 67 field goal attempts while limiting Gonzaga to 49 field goal attempts. 


Further Reading:

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

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

Heels Stomp Spartans (2009 NCAA Championship)

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

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Reflections on the Passing of Marvelous Marvin Hagler

You just never know how long life will last, or when/how it will end.

Boxers do not tend to have long, healthy, and productive post-retirement lives, but if any boxer could have been expected to achieve all three of those goals that boxer would have been Marvelous Marvin Hagler, a boxer so prideful that he changed his legal name from Marvin Nathaniel Hagler to Marvelous Marvin Hagler because TV networks did not always refer to him by his preferred designation. A boxer's pride is often his downfall, as many boxers fight long past their primes for big prizes (and, sometimes, small prizes) for which they pay a supreme price as they get older--but Marvelous Marvin Hagler left the fight game on top, the people's champion if not the official champion, and he rebuffed all efforts to bring him back in the ring. When his rival Sugar Ray Leonard tried to entice him back, Hagler retorted to an intermediary, "Tell Ray to get a life."

Hagler had a wonderful post-boxing life, enjoying being an actor in Italy while also spending time with his family. He never looked back with regret, he never returned to the ring, and whenever he was interviewed he spoke with a clear mind and a strong voice that are rare for retired boxers as they get older. Every time I heard him speak I thought that he might be the rare boxer who reached the top, stayed there for a long time, and left the ring with a chance to live to an old age with his faculties intact.

Perhaps I should not be shocked by his death, or by any death, considering how tenuous life can be, and how many tragic deaths and events have happened in the past year or so.

Hagler will always be remembered as one of the greatest boxers of all-time. Hagler achieved a 62-3-2 career record with 52 knockouts against fighters who had an aggregate record of 444-25-6 at the time he faced them; he battled against nearly unbeatable fighters and, in most cases, he beat them. Boxing Illustrated named Hagler the Fighter of the Decade for the 1980s, while The Ring twice honored him as Fighter of the Year and ranked him as the fourth greatest middleweight of all-time. Hagler's rivalries with Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, and Thomas "The Hitman" Hearns helped to make the 1980s a golden age for boxing. 

Hagler's most celebrated victory featured perhaps the greatest round of all-time. In a April 16, 1985 match versus Hearns that is forever known as "The War," the two legendary champions threw a flurry of punches in a three round battle royale that culminated in Hagler knocking out Hearns, adding a crown jewel to Hagler's nine year winning streak. After the bout, Hagler said, "You have to take something to get something." Hearns, who lost for just the second time, commented, "I hope the people got their money's worth."

Hagler successfully defended his middleweight championship belt 12 times, and Hagler was the consensus middleweight champion from 1980 until he lost a controversial split decision to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987. Hagler initially wanted a rematch with Leonard, but after Leonard refused Hagler moved on and Hagler never looked back, enjoying his post-boxing life to the fullest.

You just never know. Rest in peace, Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

Monday, March 1, 2021

"Bobby Fischer and His World" Paints a Detailed Picture of the Life of a Mercurial Genius


International Master John Donaldson, author of several chess books and long-time captain of Team USA's squad in various international chess competitions, has written Bobby Fischer and His World, a 644 page biography spanning Fischer's entire life, from young American chess champion to retired chess champion living (and, eventually, dying) in self-imposed exile in Iceland. The book contains 99 annotated games, including some games that had not been previously published; not all of the games were played by Fischer, and there are some interesting games played by his mentors, contemporaries, and rivals.

Bobby Fischer set numerous records, including youngest U.S. Chess champion (14), youngest Grandmaster (15), most U.S. Chess Championships won (eight, including a record-setting 11-0 performance in the 1963-64 event), and highest chess rating ever. Although Fischer's records for being the youngest Grandmaster and the highest rated chess player ever were both broken--decades after he set those marks--the dominance that he achieved over his contemporaries is perhaps unmatched in recorded chess history; when Fischer was a 15 year old Grandmaster it was rare for anyone to achieve that title as a teenager (now, a teenager becoming a Grandmaster is not even a newsworthy event), and when he set the FIDE rating record (2785) that stood for nearly 20 years the next highest rated player was rated 125 points--more than half of a rating class!--lower than he was. It is not an exaggeration to say that Fischer--both as a teenage prodigy, and as an adult champion--was in a class by himself.

This review does not have the same organizational structure as the book (the book takes some interesting non-chronological digressions), but examines Fischer's life--as depicted in the book but also as depicted in other sources--in chronological order. It should be noted that Donaldson has stated that his goal was to focus on questions that he always had about Fischer that he had not seen answered in other sources; therefore, Donaldson's book does not provide as much coverage of some of Fischer's greatest triumphs as the reader might expect, for the simple reason that those triumphs have already been thoroughly covered.

Bobby Fischer's Early Years

Ratings are a ubiquitous part of the chess scene for tournament players, many of whom may not know much about the history and evolution of the rating system. The U.S. Chess Federation first published a ratings list in 1950. At that time, any player who achieved a rating of 2300 was classified as a Master, a player rated between 2500-2699 was designated as a Senior Master, and a player rated above 2700 was classified as a Grandmaster (this U.S. title had no connection with the Grandmaster title awarded by the International Chess Federation, an organization usually referred to by the French acronym FIDE). Those rating classes remained the same until 1956, when Master status was redefined as 2200-2399, Senior Master status was redefined as 2400-2599, and Grandmaster status was redefined as any rating above 2600. At some point--perhaps around the time that FIDE started publishing its own rating list in addition to awarding the Grandmaster title to select players--the U.S. Chess Federation dropped the Grandmaster rating class, and subsequently the Grandmaster title referred exclusively to the FIDE honor.

The U.S. Chess Federation only had a few thousand members when Fischer began competing in rated events (the USCF now has over 90,000 members), and less than 50 of those players were rated at Master level or above. Fischer's first official rating in 1955 at the age of 12 was a little over 1700, which means that he was a strong club player but not yet a prodigy. Fischer tied for 11th-21st place in the 1955 U.S. Junior Championship with a score of 5/10. The winner, 15 year old Charles Kalme, scored 9/10, while the second place finisher--13 year old Larry Remlinger--scored 7.5/10. Just two years later, Fischer had emerged from the middle of the elite junior pack to the top of the heap in the entire country, scoring 10.5/13 to claim his first U.S. Championship. Along the way, he also captured the 1957 U.S. Junior Championship by scoring 8.5/9 (one point ahead of the field), and he improved his U.S. rating from 1726 (in the summer of 1956) to 2626 (January 1958)--a staggering rating increase that may never be seen again: in less than two years Fischer leaped from being a very strong club player to being the strongest player in the United States!

Only a genius of the rarest type can develop in the manner that Fischer did, and then reach the unprecedented heights he reached--but it must be noted that Fischer was obsessed with chess, practicing for several hours a day, and learning foreign languages at least to the extent that he could read chess literature from other countries. Saying that Fischer was "obsessed with chess" is not a value judgment--the reader can decide if such an obsession is good, bad, or neutral--but rather a statement of fact. Fischer focused on chess to the exclusion of almost everything else, and that extreme focus combined with his extraordinary talent produced a nearly unbeatable chess champion. To deny either the talent part of this equation or the obsessive work part of this equation is to deny reality. 

By the time that the 14 year old Fischer was twice U.S. Junior champion and just a few months away from becoming the youngest U.S. chess champion ever, his mother Regina was already publicly expressing reservations about his obsession with chess: "It's chess, chess, chess from the minute he opens his eyes in the morning," she declared in a nationally syndicated article published on October 27, 1957, and reprinted on pages 130-131 of Donaldson's book. She stated that he gets along well with his peers, but that she was nevertheless concerned about his future: "Maybe when he gets older he'll change. I want my Bobby to develop like other boys." 

Despite her misgivings, Regina Fischer made sure that her son had opportunities to play in tournaments, and as he became older she was very zealous in trying to obtain funding for him to travel to bigger events. Fischer's relationship with his mother was complex, but it is apparent that Fischer's devotion to chess increasingly isolated him from anyone who he felt was not helping him to maximize his talent and reach his goals. His mother's concerns about Fischer focusing too much on chess are similar to how Owen Lars, Luke Skywalker's uncle in "Star Wars," tried to keep young Skywalker from attending the Academy to become a pilot. Aunt Beru chides Uncle Owen that Luke is just not cut out to be a moisture farmer because he has too much of his father in him, and Uncle Owen replies that this is what he fears. The point is that parents, relatives, and concerned friends can try to guide a youngster, but ultimately the youngster is going to follow his own path, and he should be encouraged to do so in the most productive possible way. No one is going to convince Bobby Fischer to not play chess, or Luke Skywalker to not learn the ways of the Force, and trying to do so just creates frustration and conflict.

Fischer earned the International Master title and qualified to participate in the Interzonal Tournament by winning the 1957-58 U.S. Championship. The top six finishers in the Interzonal would advance to the Candidates Tournament, and the winner of the Candidates Tournament would play a title match versus World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik.

Fischer made his first and only trip to the Soviet Union in 1958, just prior to his participation in the Interzonal Tournament in Yugoslavia. Fischer's travel plans were not finalized until after he was a successful contestant on the game show "I've Got a Secret": he won airfare for two (his sister Joan accompanied him) for the European adventure. Donaldson asserts that Fischer's "short stay in Moscow had a major impact on his life. Prior to his trip, Bobby thought of Soviet Chess in a positive way--his attitude completely changed within a week of setting foot in the USSR" (p. 147).

Donaldson notes the lack of reliable accounts of Fischer's experiences in the Soviet Union; the exact itinerary is not even available, although Donaldson was able to piece together enough information from multiple sources to conclude that Fischer and his sister likely "left New York around June 19, spent a long weekend in Brussels (June 20-22), flew to Moscow (June 23), and then onward to Belgrade (July 9)" (p. 157). Donaldson does his typical thorough and methodical job of organizing and presenting the material that is available. It has been reported that Fischer expected/demanded to play against Botvinnik, and that when Soviet authorities informed Fischer that the World Champion would not play him but that the Soviet Union has hundreds of strong players who can play decently Fischer retorted, "There are only about a dozen players in the Soviet Union that can play decently" (p. 156). Donaldson finds that story credible, and it certainly aligns with how Fischer thought about himself and how he expressed himself. Donaldson also states that Fischer had little interest in exploring the city, and would have been most happy to just camp out all day playing chess at the Moscow Chess Club.

Fischer had a much more enjoyable experience in Yugoslavia, where he was welcomed warmly and where he played several training games before the Interzonal; Fischer had not played any serious tournaments or matches for the previous several months after winning the U.S. Championship, so he needed to scrape off some rust before making his first attempt to become World Champion. 

Fischer scored 12/20 (six wins, 12 draws, two losses) and finished =5th-6th in the Portoroz Interzonal, and thus he qualified for the 1959 Candidates Tournament. At just 15 years old, Fischer became the youngest Grandmaster ever, a record that stood until 1991. Fischer also became the youngest Candidate ever, a distinction he retained until 2005 when a slightly younger Magnus Carlsen qualified as a Candidate under a different system. 

Fischer scored 12.5/28 in the eight player quadruple round robin Candidates Tournament (also held in Yugoslavia), finishing =5th-6th. He lost all four of his games to tournament winner Mikhail Tal, who scored 20/28. Tal subsequently defeated Botvinnik to become the youngest World Champion ever, a record he held until Garry Kasparov broke it in 1985.

U.S. Champion but not World Champion

In late 1960, Regina Fischer moved from New York to San Francisco. Fischer's sister Joan had already gotten married and moved out of the family apartment, so the 17 year old Fischer was now living by himself. His maternal grandfather Jacob Wender had made a bequest of $14,000 (which Donaldson states is equivalent to $122,000 in 2020), and Regina placed those funds in a trust that provided $175 per month to Fischer. This enabled him to pay the rent and basic expenses without having to rely on prize money (or get a job). Fischer had dropped out of high school prior to his mother's departure, and now he could spend all of his time studying chess without anyone or anything to distract him.

Donaldson devotes an entire chapter to the controversial 1961 match between Fischer and Sammy Reshevsky. Reshevsky began his chess career as a child prodigy who--as a child--supported his family by giving simultaneous chess exhibitions. Donaldson writes that Reshevsky's parents had to go to court after being charged with not being proper guardians because they failed to provide adequate schooling for their son. The case was dismissed, and soon after that Julius Rosenwald, part-owner of Sears-Roebuck, became Reshevsky's benefactor, enabling Reshevsky to complete his education. 

Reshevsky took several years off from competitive chess to go to college and establish himself as an accountant so that he could support his wife and three children. It is remarkable that after such a long absence he was able to return to the sport and dominate U.S. chess from the 1930s until Fischer's emergence in the late 1950s. Reshevsky's job and family obligations meant that he could never devote himself fully to chess. He received some funding from various benefactors and organizations, but nothing approaching the support given to the top Soviet players during that era.

The Fischer-Reshevsky match was a battle of the generations, and a battle of geniuses who had different life perspectives/viewpoints. Reshevsky was an Orthodox Jew who did not play chess on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Donaldson mentions that other prominent observant Jewish Grandmasters such as Leonid Yudasin and Boris Gulko later played on Saturdays provided that they had an assistant to write down their moves and punch their clock (the Jewish Sabbath rules do not apply to playing chess but rather to tasks such as keeping score and utilizing the clock that ensures that tournament games finish on schedule). Fischer was Jewish by heritage but he was never an observant Jew, and of course he eventually became a quite outspoken antisemite. Ironically, after Fischer joined the Worldwide Church of God he refused to play on Saturdays so that he could observe that church's Sabbath, and at the Sousse Interzonal in 1967 both Fischer and Reshevsky refused to play before sundown on Saturdays!

The match was scheduled to last 16 games, with eight to be played in New York City and eight to be played in Los Angeles. All games were supposed to be played even if one player clinched victory by scoring 8.5 points prior to the 16th game. Reshevsky was a formidable match player, and even though Fischer had won four straight U.S. titles by the time he faced Reshevsky most commentators who made public predictions expected Reshevsky to prevail.

The match was tied 5.5-5.5 after Fischer missed an opportunity to win game 11 and had to settle for a draw. Game 12 was scheduled to be played at 7:30 p.m. on August 12, but match sponsor Jacqueline Piatigorsky rescheduled the game for the following morning so that she could watch her husband, renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, perform for the first time with legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz. Fischer objected to changing the terms of the match contract, so he was deemed the forfeit loser of game 12. After Fischer did not appear for game 13 he lost that game by forfeit. Subsequently, Reshevsky was declared the winner of the match, and Reshevsky received the winner's 60% share of the purse. An outraged Fischer filed suit not against Piatigorsky but against Reshevsky, seeking a court order preventing Reshevsky from participating in any other chess events until he returned the prize money and agreed to play the final five games of the match. The two parties reached an undisclosed out of court settlement. Fischer apparently did not harbor lasting bad feelings toward the Piatigorskys, as he accepted their invitation to play in the Second Piatigorsky Cup tournament in 1966.

Despite the acrimony associated with the match, Fischer respected Reshevsky as a chess player, and a few years later Fischer wrote an article about the greatest chess masters in which he asserted that Reshevsky was probably the strongest player in the world in the 1950s, even though Reshevsky never earned the right to challenge the World Champion in a title match.

The next chapter in Donaldson's book, spanning just three pages, is about Fischer's antisemitism. It is not clear that 30 pages would be enough to try to plumb the depths of Fischer's depraved hatred but it is clear that three pages are not enough. Donaldson focuses on speculation that the sour ending to the Reshevsky match is what triggered Fischer's antisemitism, but it is evident that is not the case, and Donaldson even quotes Pal Benko stating that Fischer's "mental problems already showed when he was very young" (p. 248). Benko recalled that the 16 year old Fischer showed him a picture of Adolf Hitler while stating that Hitler was a great man. Benko offered this blunt assessment of Fischer: "He could not escape from the stuff he had in his head. I have no idea where it came from. I am not a psychiatrist. I told him, you are paranoid, and he said, yes, but sometimes paranoids are right" (p. 249, quoting an article from New in Chess #2, 2016).

It is odd to seek explanations for Fischer's pathological Jew-hatred in the behavior of individual Jews such as Reshevsky and the Piatigorskys. No one would deem it acceptable to be a rabidly racist person who hates an entire ethnic group other than Jews based on the alleged misbehavior of individual members of that ethnic group, so it is wrong to in any way suggest that Reshevsky, the Piatigorskys or any other individual Jews are responsible for anything other than their own personal conduct. They did not speak or act on behalf of an entire ethnic group, and it is absurd to even suggest that Fischer's virulent hatred of the Jewish people and, later, the United States--including saying that all Jews should be rounded up and sent to concentration camps, and that the 9/11 attacks were wonderful--has some kind of rational explanation.

Donaldson does not limit his discussion of Fischer's antisemitism to that three page chapter, but the placement of that chapter and the chapter's brevity are perhaps the only discordant notes in an otherwise first rate biography. Since there is no credible evidence that the Reshevsky match shaped Fischer's twisted viewpoints, and since Fischer openly expressed antisemitic views from his early teenage years until his final days it would have made more sense from an organizational standpoint for Donaldson to either not place a brief antisemitism chapter right after the chapter about the match, or else devote a more lengthy chapter to this subject in a completely separate section of the book.

To be clear, Donaldson neither minimizes nor justifies Fischer's antisemitism; he just does not do a great job of explaining why Fischer became antisemitic, because the only real answer is that we do not know and we will never know, unless or until we crack the code of what causes mental illness. The etiology of any one person's mental illness is a mystery in many, if not most, instances.

Regarding the root causes of antisemitism in general, it is fair to state that fear and shame play a significant role. Fischer, a person of Jewish ancestry, repeatedly expressed antisemitic views in public, so it is reasonable to suggest that he felt shame about his own background, and it is evident that--despite his frequent (and, to a great extent, justified) boasts about his abilities--he also had many fears that impacted his life in a negative way.

Shortly after the Reshevsky match, Ralph Ginzburg wrote an article about Fischer for Harper's Magazine. Fischer's biographer Frank Brady referred to the article as "a cruel piece of journalism, a penned mugging, in that it made a vulnerable teenager appear uneducated, homophobic, and misogynistic, none of which was a true portrait" (p. 259, quoting from page 139 of Brady's book Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall--from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness). If you only have a casual awareness of Fischer's career and life but you have heard strange stories about how he thought and behaved as a young man, this article was probably the source of many of those stories. Fischer was outraged by the article, and he denied many of the assertions that Ginzburg made about him. Donaldson says that this traumatic experience profoundly affected Fischer in general, and specifically impacted his future interactions with media members. Donaldson's book includes excerpts from the article, along with his assessment of the article's validity: "Ginzburg's final conclusions were sure to have offended Fischer, and cruel to write about someone so young, but in retrospect, over a half century later, some of them ring true" (p. 258). Fischer was egotistical, he was immature in many ways, and his overall development as a person lagged well behind his development as a great chess player. Donaldson is correct that those are valid points, and he is correct that it was cruel for Ginzburg to write those things about someone who had just turned 18 and was living on his own because his mother had left and his father and his stepfather had long been out of the picture. 

Donaldson notes that even though Ginzburg had not written about chess previously and did not write about chess subsequently he displayed a basic understanding of the game and did not make the technical errors that are so often committed by journalists who know nothing about chess. Donaldson adds that Ginzburg is perhaps best known for serving eight months of a five year prison sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a decision that found Ginzburg guilty of obscenity for his actions in promoting and advertising Eros, a quarterly magazine that he published.

Fischer won the 1962 Stockholm Interzonal by 2.5 points, becoming the first non-Soviet player to win an Interzonal. However, he once again fell short in the Candidates Tournament, finishing a distant 4th place with 14/28, 3.5 points behind Tigran Petrosian, who would subsequently dethrone World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik. Soviet players Paul Keres and Efim Geller tied for =2nd-3rd with 17 points each. The Curacao Candidates Tournament is best remembered for Fischer's accusation--published in Sports Illustrated--that the Soviet players had colluded against him in several ways, most notably by agreeing to short draws with each other (to conserve energy to battle against him), and by discussing moves his opponents could play while his games were still in progress. Fischer asserted that under the current rules it would be impossible for any non-Soviet player to win the World Chess Championship. It is a fact that the top three finishers drew all 12 of their head to head encounters in the Candidates Tournament; after the fall of the Soviet Union, evidence emerged that largely substantiated Fischer's claims--but, at the time, Fischer was often portrayed as a sore loser who was unwilling to accept that he was not the best player in the world. Donaldson correctly points out that--from a mathematical standpoint--a Soviet strategy to draw all head to head games would not have stopped Fischer from winning the tournament had Fischer performed better. However, Donaldson neglects to consider that Fischer's performance was obviously affected by the harsh reality that the eight Candidates were not really eight individual players fighting for top honors but rather a team of five Soviets pitted against the rest of the field with marching orders that they ensure that a Soviet player emerged victorious. Perhaps a chess computer could win the event under those circumstances, but most human beings--particularly an emotionally fragile, if not already paranoid, human being--would find that task difficult, if not impossible. Fischer vowed to never again compete in the World Championship cycle until the rules were changed. During the next cycle (and subsequent cycles), the round robin Candidates Tournament was replaced by a series of one on one matches among the Candidates, which eliminated the collusion problem. 

Despite the rules change, Fischer did not participate in the 1966 World Championship cycle, foreshadowing his future and much longer lasting withdrawal from top level chess. Although people who did not follow chess closely may have been surprised or even stunned by Fischer's refusal to defend his World Championship title in 1975, the reality is that Fischer took extended absences from competition throughout his career; what made his 1975 decision different was that he gave up the World Championship without a fight and he did not compete again for 20 years.

It should be noted that during Fischer's absences from tournament and match play he was still involved in chess in terms of giving simultaneous exhibitions (Donaldson's 1994 book A Legend on the Road is about Fischer's 1964 simul tour), and also by working on various writing projects, including his book My 60 Memorable Games. Donaldson repeats the oft-told story about Fischer at first being reluctant to have that book published because it might reveal too many of his chess secrets, only to relent because he had become convinced that the world was coming to an end soon so he might as well have some spending money for the final days before Armageddon!

After winning the U.S. Championship in each of his first four appearances, Fischer did not play in the 1961 event, but he returned the next year and won four more U.S. Championships in a row. In 1961, Fischer only played in one tournament and one match (versus Reshevsky). He played in four events in 1962. He played in three events in 1963, scoring 25 wins, one draw and no losses with 1st place finishes in the Western Open, the New York State Open, and the U.S. Championship (11-0!).

Fischer did not play in any events in 1964. As noted above, FIDE changed the Candidates round from a tournament to a series of matches as Fischer had requested, but Fischer declined his invitation to play in the 1964 Amsterdam Interzonal.

In 1965, he played in the Capablanca Memorial via teletype (as a U.S. citizen he was not permitted to travel to Havana to play in person). Fischer went to the Marshall Chess Club to play these games. On  January 31, 2019, I visited the Marshall Chess Club, and before I played in that night's tournament I took some pictures of the table used by Fischer when he participated in the Capablanca Memorial:

Fischer won the U.S. Championship in 1965. In 1966, Fischer finished 2nd in the Piatigorsky Cup, he scored 15/17 on Board 1 for Team USA in the Olympiad, and he won the U.S. Championship.

Fischer won two tournaments in 1967. He was in 1st place at the 1967 Sousse Interzonal with an undefeated 8.5/10 score when he withdrew after a dispute about scheduling, giving up the opportunity to compete for the 1969 World Championship. In 1968, he won two relatively small tournaments, and he won one game in the Metropolitan League. In 1969, Fischer did not play in any events, and it was not clear when/if he would play again. 

The Ascent to the Top

In 1970, Fischer surprised observers by not only participating in the U.S.S.R. versus the World match but also by not demanding to play on Board 1 (he won his Board 2 match against former World Champion Tigran Petrosian by scoring two wins and two draws). Fischer won two big tournaments, and he scored 10/13 on Board 1 for Team USA in the Olympiad. He also won perhaps the strongest blitz tournament ever (Herceg Novi), scoring 19/22 to finish 4.5 points ahead of a field that included three former World Champions, former challenger David Bronstein, and future challenger Viktor Korchnoi.

The 1972 World Championship cycle was underway, but Fischer had stopped playing in the U.S. Championship because the organizers did not accept his demand that the event be changed from an 11 round tournament to a 22 round tournament. Fischer argued that lengthening the event made it more likely that the best player would prevail by giving that player an opportunity to overcome a slow start. However, doubling the length of the U.S. Championship would not have been practical at that time because the tournament would have lasted too long--most of the competitors supported themselves with regular jobs--and would have been too expensive to organize. Fischer did not focus on practicality, or what would be convenient for others; he decided that a 22 round robin format is the best way to crown a champion, and he refused to play in a U.S. Championship with any other format. 

Fischer may have had a valid point about how a national championship should be run in an ideal world, but by stubbornly refusing to play he harmed himself without creating the change that he sought. There is no doubt that throughout his career Fischer took some principled stances about playing conditions and prize funds that ultimately improved the status of chess professionals, but there is also no doubt that Fischer's refusal to compromise did not serve his best interests.

The U.S. Championship was a Zonal event, so by not participating Fischer gave up the opportunity to qualify for the 1972 World Championship match. However, after Fischer decided that he wanted to participate in the 1970 Interzonal, Pal Benko graciously gave his spot to Fischer. Thus, Fischer's final ascent to the chess mountaintop began at a time when he was not even the official U.S. Champion. Fischer scored 18.5/23 in the Palma de Mallorca Interzonal, finishing 3.5 points ahead of Bent Larsen, Efim Geller, and Robert Hubner. Not counting the Sousse Interzonal, Fischer had won eight tournaments in a row dating back to 1966.

Fischer's 1970 Interzonal performance was spectacular, but it was just the start of an unprecedented streak. After winning his final seven games in the Interzonal, Fischer defeated Mark Taimanov 6-0 in the first Candidates match and he vanquished Larsen 6-0 in the second Candidates match. Fischer won the first game versus Petrosian in the final Candidates match before Petrosian ended Fischer's winning streak at 20 with a game two victory, but that was just a temporary setback as Fischer won the match 6.5-2.5 to earn the right to challenge Boris Spassky for the World Championship.

The bizarre circumstances of the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match are well documented. Fischer issued many demands pertaining primarily to playing conditions and the prize fund, and at several points it seemed possible that he might not play; remember that he did not participate in the 1966 World Championship cycle, he withdrew from the 1969 World Championship cycle after taking a commanding lead in the Sousse Interzonal, and he was only able to participate in the 1972 World Championship cycle after Benko gave up his spot.

Fischer eventually showed up in Reykjavik to play Spassky. Fischer lost the first game when he could have obtained a draw, and he forfeited the second game when the organizers would not remove television cameras that Fischer claimed were making distracting noises. Spassky agreed to play game three in a small room at the back of the venue, with no cameras and no spectators. Fischer won that game brilliantly, and the remaining games were played in the main playing area. Despite spotting Spassky a 2-0 lead, Fischer won the match 12.5-8.5. One American genius ended 24 years of Soviet dominance of the World Championship.

The Wilderness Years, 1972-92

Fischer's life from 1972-1992 is not enjoyable to contemplate or write about; it is the story of a genius overwhelmed by mental illness to the extent that he was unable to do the one thing that he does at least as well as anyone who has ever lived. I am not a clinician, and even a clinician cannot responsibly diagnose a person without directly examining that person, but in the colloquial, non-clinical sense that reasonably intelligent and compassionate people understand mental illness it is evident that Fischer was mentally ill. 

It is not necessary or helpful to pretend that Fischer was not mentally ill, or that he did not display symptoms prior to winning the World Championship; for example, here are International Master Nikolay Minev's impressions of the 19 year old Fischer (quoted on p. 351 of Donaldson's book; the full interview can be found here)

As a doctor, I will tell you that even at the Olympiad in Varna, in '62, I started to see that something was wrong with him. In the first round, there was a power failure for twenty minutes. Everyone was talking, milling around, going here and there. Bobby took his chair, went to the corner, and with his back to the wall, stayed there for twenty minutes without moving. Clearly scared. This is the first symptom of schizophrenia.

There is no reason to believe that chess in any way caused Fischer's mental illness, and there is good reason to believe that Fischer experienced his greatest moments of clarity when he was most actively engaged with chess. His objectivity about chess positions and chess players is justifiably praised--and that objectivity markedly contrasts with the way that he perceived life outside of the chess board. Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of mental illness is the lack of self-awareness regarding the disease; typically, a person who has a broken leg or some other physical malady does not actively deny the problem, but part of being mentally ill is thinking that the rest of the world is crazy. 

Donaldson cites the aftermath of the publication of Brad Darrach's infamous book Bobby Fischer vs. the Rest of the World as the genesis of Fischer's downfall. Donaldson provides the text of a telegram from Darrach to Fischer in which Darrach promises Fischer that in exchange for Fischer providing Darrach with insider access for several months "I affirm my agreement that I will not use this material for a book or for any magazine article without first obtaining your written approval. Of course, my present series of articles for Life magazine is exempted from the need for this approval" (p. 492). Fischer was outraged when he found out months before the book's publication that Darrach had broken his word and violated Fischer's trust. 

The book's depiction of Fischer is not favorable, to say the least. Is the book accurate? Donaldson concludes, "Opinion varies" (p. 493) and hypothesizes that if the book had not portrayed Fischer so negatively then Fischer may have been willing to overlook the broken promise--a hypothesis that is not consistent with a theme that Donaldson notes throughout his book: Fischer vigorously opposed anyone who tried to make money off of his name and his fame.

Donaldson provides the complete text of a letter that Fischer's then-attorney Paul J. Marshall wrote to Fischer (pp. 493-496). Fischer not only wanted to sue Darrach and a host of other individuals and organizations regarding Darrach's book, but Fischer also wanted to take legal action against Bill Lombardy, his long-time friend who served as his second for at least part of the World Championship match. Lombardy wrote an article about the match for Sports Illustrated, after which Fischer--adhering rigidly to his policy that no one should make money off of him--cut himself off from Lombardy for over 30 years. Several years after the article's publication, when Fischer ran into Lombardy by chance, Donaldson reports an account by eyewitness Lubomir Kavalek that Fischer's only words to his former friend were, "Hi. Do you still write for Sports Illustrated?" followed--after the stunned Lombardy left--by negative comments regarding Lombardy that Kavalek did not consider fit for publication (p. 514). Donaldson writes that at some point after Fischer was released from jail in Japan in 2005 he appreciated Lombardy's support of his plight and resumed his connection with Lombardy.

Marshall's letter painstakingly and compassionately explained to Fischer that there was no legal or ethical basis to sue Lombardy for an article that depicted Fischer positively and that, further, he (Marshall) would not participate in such a course of action after observing how loyal and devoted Lombardy had been to Fischer. Regarding Darrach, Marshall advised Fischer that a lawsuit was not only unlikely to be successful but could also be damaging to Fischer by providing more publicity to the book. Marshall advised that instead of filing a lawsuit he would be willing to work with the publisher's attorney to reach an agreement whereby Fischer would consent to the book's publication in exchange for receiving financial compensation and the removal of certain passages. 

Donaldson's first sentence after Marshall's letter is heartbreaking to anyone who sympathize with Fischer's feelings about Darrach's book but wishes that Fischer had been willing to heed sound counsel: "Per his usual modus operandi Fischer followed none of Marshall's advice" (p. 496). Instead, Fischer represented himself, his lawsuit was dismissed, and he convinced himself that this was yet one more example of the vast, worldwide conspiracy against him that had been percolating in his mind for quite some time.

Donaldson believes that another source of Fischer's post-World Championship suffering is that Fischer had great difficulty dealing with the pressures and burdens of being famous, and he cites examples of how Fischer behaved normally in public situations (such as chess tournaments that he visited as a non-participant) prior to winning the World Championship in contrast to Fischer's apparent discomfort at the heightened attention he received when he made public appearances after winning the World Championship.

There is no question that Fischer was justifiably outraged by Darrach's portrayal of him, and there seems to be evidence that Fischer did not react well to being so famous that he could not visit a chess tournament without being swarmed by well-wishers. However, the symptoms of mental illness that Fischer displayed years before he become World Champion, and the worsening of those symptoms after he became World Champion, cannot be explained away so easily. There may be some truth to Donaldson's opinion about the traumatic effect that the Darrach book and Fischer's fame had on Fischer's state of mind, but there is a simpler explanation for Fischer's deterioration: mental illness is progressive but not necessarily in a linear or predictable fashion; thus, accounts of Fischer behaving "normally" at different places or times do not refute accounts of Fischer's erratic behavior at other places and times. In the book, Donaldson acknowledges this by pointing out that Fischer reacted calmly to a miscommunication about his opponent's transmitted move during the 1965 Capablanca Memorial Tournament but then the next day he had a fit when he was not provided with the orange juice that he had requested for breakfast. 

People who deny or minimize Fischer's mental illness and his bigotry focus on the "good" stories while ignoring or minimizing the "bad" stories, but the full picture is that Fischer, like many mentally ill people, struggled to regulate his thoughts and his actions; he had "good" moments and he had "bad" moments. The documented arc of Fischer's life demonstrates that his illness became worse as he got older. The Ginzburg article, the Darrach book, and the pressure of dealing with fame all may very well have had a negative effect on Fischer--but the underlying mental illness was evident from an early age, prior to any of those situations. 

It is also important to note that at least some of the people who minimize Fischer's mental illness may share his antisemitic beliefs, and thus they believe that he is being persecuted for speaking the truth! It should be emphasized that Donaldson is not in that camp; he recognizes and documents Fischer's paranoid thinking and troubling behavior, though I do not always agree with Donaldson's perspective on when, why, or how those problems began.

Would Fischer Have Beaten Karpov in 1975?

There is a topic of great interest that Donaldson does not address, in keeping with his goal of focusing his book on questions about Fischer that have not already been extensively discussed: What would have happened if Fischer had played against challenger Anatoly Karpov in a World Championship match in 1975?

Karpov received the title by default after Fischer rejected the proposed match terms and refused to play. Garry Kasparov, who won the title after beating Karpov in a 1985 World Championship match and then held off several subsequent match challenges by Karpov, has publicly stated that Karpov would have beaten Fischer, but Kasparov's objectivity cannot be trusted on this issue for at least two reasons: (1) Fischer repeatedly accused Kasparov of cheating and it is fair to say that Kasparov justifiably resents that baseless charge; (2) much of Kasparov's legacy is based on his performance versus Karpov, so elevating Karpov's status inevitably elevates Kasparov's status.

Although it could perhaps be argued that non-Grandmasters do not possess sufficient chess skill to compare world-class players to each other, it is possible to do a fair and objective analysis based on historical information and chess ratings data that require no chess skill to interpret. I would also add that, with a peak USCF rating of 2190 (just 10 points below National Master status), I ranked at or above the 97th percentile of tournament players, so I have at least some capacity to understand and evaluate annotated chess games in addition to my familiarity with chess history and the chess rating system as detailed below; also, because Fischer and Karpov never played each other it is pure speculation regarding what openings the players would choose, whose energy level would be better, whose nerves would be steadier, and what course the middlegames and endgames might have taken. Fischer played openings against Spassky that he had not used before, and he may have prepared novelties for Karpov as well--and Karpov may have prepared novelties for Fischer. So, the ability to do an in depth analysis of Fischer's games and Karpov's games is not sufficient to answer the question of who would have prevailed in a head to head match--and, even if they had played head to head games those games would not provide definitive proof because, like the stock market, past performance does not guarantee future results: Fischer's record versus Spassky prior to their World Championship match was no wins, two draws, and three losses.

Perhaps the best place to start when comparing Fischer and Karpov is to look at the progression of their chess ratings in comparison to the ratings of other elite players. In 1972, Fischer's rating was not only the highest of all-time but it was 125 points higher than the second ranked player. A rating class is 200 points, so he was more than half a class level above the rest of the world! Paul Morphy, who played before the rating system was developed, is probably the only player in recorded history who could legitimately claim to be that much better than everyone else in the world during his era.

Karpov's peak rating never exceeded Fischer's peak rating of 2785 and, more significantly, Karpov never approached the lead that Fischer enjoyed over his contemporaries. Karpov's rating in January 1975 was 2705, significantly lower than Fischer's rating (2780; Fischer's peak rating was so high that he actually lost five points after he won the match versus Spassky). In fact, by the time Karpov reached 2750 (January 1989) he was neither the World Champion nor the world's highest rated player, and it is fair to say that in general the ratings were inflated then compared to the ratings when Fischer played. Karpov achieved the number one ranking with a career-high 2780 rating in July 1994 only after Garry Kasparov (2815) had been removed from the official ratings list because he played a World Championship match versus Nigel Short in defiance of FIDE's regulations. By that time, four other players in addition to Kasparov and Karpov had ratings of at least 2710.

Fischer finished first in the previous eight tournaments that he completed prior to winning the World Championship--and he was leading the 1967 Sousse Interzonal before he withdrew. He won the 1970 Interzonal by 3.5 points. He scored 18.5/21 in the 1971 Candidates matches. He beat Spassky by four points after essentially spotting Spassky the first two games of the World Championship match.

Karpov's record prior to 1975 was much less impressive than Fischer's. Karpov tied with Viktor Korchnoi for first place in the 1973 Leningrad Interzonal, one point ahead of Robert Byrne. Karpov beat Lev Polugaevsky, Boris Spassky, and Viktor Korchnoi by a total score of 25/43 in the 1974 Candidates matches. Of course, the 1974 Candidates Final versus Korchnoi became the de facto World Championship after Fischer refused to play against Karpov. Karpov beat Korchnoi 12.5/24 in 1974, and then Karpov defeated Korchnoi in World Championship matches in 1978 (16.5/32) and 1981 (11/18). 

Perhaps determined to prove that he was a legitimate successor to Fischer, Karpov won many big tournaments during his reign as World Champion. Karpov may be one of the top 10 players of all-time, but he never displayed the dominance that Fischer displayed. Karpov's main rival until the emergence of Kasparov was Korchnoi, a player 20 years older than Karpov. During Korchnoi's prime, he never qualified to play in a World Championship match; it is less likely that he became a stronger player in the 1970s as he entered his 40s than it is that he declined less than the players of his generation declined while at the same time the younger generation did not produce players of quite the same caliber. 

In other words, the evidence suggests that Karpov faced weaker competition than Fischer did; Fischer emerged as the best player in the world battling against Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Korchnoi, and others during their prime years, while Karpov faced those players when they were past their prime but still better than the younger players. For example, consider the January 1979 FIDE rating list: Karpov ranked first (2705), followed by Korchnoi (2695), Lajos Portisch (2640), Spassky (2640), Jan Timman (2625), Polugaevsky (2625), Larsen (2620), Henrique Mecking (2615), Tal (2615), and Petrosian (2610). At that time, Korchnoi was almost 48 years old, Portisch was almost 42, Spassky was 42, Timman was 27, Polugaevsky was 44, Larsen was 43, Mecking was 27, Tal was 42, and Petrosian was almost 50. Eight years earlier, Fischer decisively beat Spassky in the World Championship match after sweeping Larsen 6-0 and eliminating Petrosian 6.5-2.5. Prior to losing to Fischer, Petrosian had won a close match versus Korchnoi, with one victory and nine draws. Are we supposed to believe that if Fischer had kept playing he would not have been dominating those same players throughout the 1970s the way that he dominated them in 1971-72? Note that the rating difference between number one Karpov and number 10 Petrosian in 1979 was less than the rating difference between number one Fischer and number two Spassky in 1972! Spassky's rating was 2660 in July 1972 and 2640 in January 1979, so even though his reputation is that he became lazy after losing the title his rating was stable for several years after that match.

In January 1980, the teenage Kasparov was already ranked in the top 20, and the top 10 was still filled mostly with the generation that Fischer had dominated: Tal ranked second, Korchnoi ranked third, and Spassky and Petrosian were part of a three way tie for sixth-eighth.

In the pre-chess computer/pre-internet era, elite players were able to extend their careers longer than they do in the current era--now the best players become Grandmasters as teenagers and are considered old when they reach their mid-30s or early 40s--but even taking that into account it is difficult to persuasively argue that Karpov faced stronger opposition than Fischer, at least until Karpov contended with Kasparov. If Fischer had maintained the necessary psychological stability to continue his chess career, it seems likely that he would held on to the title at least until the emergence of Kasparov. 

Although Donaldson does not address how Fischer might have fared against Karpov in 1975, he quotes Grandmaster Duncan Suttles' appraisal of the 49 year old Fischer's potential chances against prime Kasparov in the wake of Fischer's comeback and his match victory versus Spassky in 1992 (p. 592):

I would say Spassky is, maybe, 2650. I don't know how you determine Fischer's performance from that number. It depends on how you count the draws. Not counting draws, maybe 2800...He beat him two to one, didn't he? What does that mean? I would say something between 2750 and 2800. What's Kasparov's rating? About 2780? Let's just say Fischer is within about 25 points of Kasparov--plus or minus.

Suttles added that he would consider Fischer the favorite against top players such as Anand, Ivanchuk, Short, and Timman, and that if "Fischer plays himself back in form" then he would even beat Kasparov. Donaldson notes that some of the sloppiness that critics observed in the second Fischer-Spassky match can be attributed to fatigue caused by how long the games were; due to the unusual time control insisted upon by Fischer, one of the games lasted nine hours! Donaldson also reminds readers that one year after losing the return match against Fischer, Spassky lost a match to Judit Polgar 5.5-4.5, a narrow margin against a top player demonstrating that Spassky was far from just a washed up legend.

I am not sure that the 49 year old Fischer would have beaten the 29 year old Kasparov, but the fact that at least one Grandmaster thinks that this is possible speaks volumes about how prime Fischer would have fared against young Karpov. Suttles' view is perhaps not the majority opinion, but if you read Suttles' complete take (pp. 592-594) then you will see that he makes excellent and credible points about the playing styles of Fischer and Kasparov.

The phrase "built different" is often thrown around now. If there ever was a chess player who was "built different" then Bobby Fischer was that player. His combination of exceptional genius and fanatical work ethic is difficult, if not impossible, to match. Donaldson quotes from an article by Richard Fireman, an amateur player who observed Fischer analyzing with the top U.S. junior players between rounds at the 1969 U.S. Junior Invitational (p. 371):

You'd think we asked for a daffodil and he'd pulled out the Burning Bush, we were so stunned. It wasn't just the sheer speed of his action--though that was certainly impressive enough--but the seeming effortlessness of it, the naturalness which he exhibited; it was as though it were all simple and straightforward and of-course-this-is-what-happens-if-you-don't-do-that, isn't it obvious? That's what was so stunning, as though his mind were a computer, as though anything we could have thought of had already been considered and incorporated and analyzed and dismissed, all in one simple algorithm. As though he were just on a whole other level. I've since met and analyzed with a number of grandmasters, and they weren't even close, so it's not just the difference in playing strength. Sure, they exhibit a natural feel for the game and understanding beyond that of the rest of us mortals, but they're still in the same order of things, the same part of the universe: they fumble around with this idea and that, and they're more likely to come to the right conclusions because of their talent and experience and insight. But they still have to work at it. With Bobby it wasn't like that. With him it was like he had a key to the door containing the mystery, a special pass.

Sadly, we will never know what would have happened if Fischer had played against Karpov in 1975, but the evidence indicates that if Fischer would have shown up in form and completed the match then he would have beaten Karpov.

The Comeback and the Sad Conclusion

Fischer may have lived the rest of his life in obscurity if not for a perfect storm of events that brought him back in the public eye and provided him with the financial resources to support himself. Donaldson quotes in full a 2017 article by Lou Hays in which Hays provides his perspective about why and how Fischer came back in 1992 to play a multi-million dollar match versus Spassky. Hays asserts that Fischer's primary motivation was wanting to have enough money to woo Hungarian chess player Zita Rajcsanyi (who traveled to the United States to spend time with Fischer, although she ultimately did not reciprocate Fischer's romantic interest). Hays states that Fischer had been destitute for quite some time, but Rajcsanyi provided inspiration to Fischer to change his circumstances after he had previously squandered many opportunities to make money. Hays notes that a major self-inflicted problem for Fischer was Fischer's insistence that any person who met with him had to first pay Fischer a fee (which had risen to $5000 by the time that Hays met with Fischer, though Hays writes that Fischer accepted half of that from Hays, in part because Hays provided some chess books to Fischer and Hays also paid a portion of Rajscanyi's airfare to the United States). Hays reports that he told Fischer that no self-respecting businessman would pay a fee to Fischer just to meet him--Hays met Fischer as a fan, not as someone who expected or hoped to profit financially from the meeting--but Fischer stubbornly insisted that every person who met him received a tangible benefit (the status of having met the World Chess Champion) and therefore he was justified to charge each person in advance for that tangible benefit. 

Hays' reflections on his interactions with Fischer provide an interesting glimpse at the thoughts and actions of the often reclusive genius. Hays concludes on a poignant note. Although Fischer's comeback provided millions of dollars to Fischer, the comeback also shined a spotlight on Fischer's paranoia and on Fischer's repugnant opinions about Jews and the United States, and Hays wonders if it would have been better to leave Fischer's legacy as a great champion untainted: "Nowadays, I look back at 1992 with some degree of remorse, seeing the devastation Fischer ultimately brought to his reputation and himself as a human being. It was a grand and exciting adventure, but in view of how Bobby Fischer's life and legacy turned out, if I had the opportunity to do it all over again, I wouldn't." Hays' perspective is understandable, but it is not his place to make such decisions on Fischer's behalf: regardless of how much help Hays or anyone else provided, Fischer deserves most of the credit--or blame--for how his comeback went and for how his life turned out. Fischer chose his path.

Fischer's paranoia and anger both increased after many of his most prized possessions were sold at an auction in 1999. For many years, Fischer had been renting a storage unit in California. After the 1992 match versus Spassky, Fischer could not return to the United States because he faced prosecution for violating federal law (the U.S. sanctions against the former Yugoslavia, where the Fischer-Spassky return match took place), so Fischer sent $5000 per year to Bob Ellsworth to pay the storage unit fees and handle other matters on Fischer's behalf. The storage unit was not rented in Fischer's name, but rather under an assumed name and also under the name of a friend who subsequently moved from California to Texas. When the storage unit company Bekins was bought by a different company, Ellsworth was not aware of the change and the new company had no way to contact Ellsworth, nor any way to know about Fischer's involvement, let alone to contact the reclusive genius. So, when the storage unit fees were not paid, the new company auctioned off the property inside the storage unit. An aghast Ellsworth belatedly found out what was happening, and he spent over $8000 of his own money to buy some of Fischer's property. Ellsworth then brought that property to Fischer, who simply asked Ellsworth where was the rest of his property. Ellsworth had no answers. Fischer was furious, and what he termed the "theft" of his property became a recurring theme in many of his most infamous (and deplorable) radio interviews.

Fischer had every right to be upset about what had happened to his property. However, he failed to take any personal responsibility for (1) his actions that caused him to become a fugitive and (2) his decision to own the storage unit anonymously, which contributed to the series of events that culminated in the auction. There is no question that Ellsworth should have done a better job of staying informed about the storage unit, but there is no evidence of personal animosity by Ellsworth toward Fischer, let alone evidence of Ellsworth's participation in some vast conspiracy against Fischer.

The book concludes with a brief Epilogue mentioning that Fischer did 35 radio interviews between 1999 and 2006, most of which Donaldson terms "painful (or impossible) to listen to when Fischer gets on a roll and expands upon his conspiracy theories with a vengeance." However, Donaldson notes that in those moments when Fischer confined his comments to chess Fischer provided welcome insights. For example, Fischer called Morphy and Capablanca "two of my favorites," while adding that Steinitz "was very great too." Fischer termed Alekhine's style "rather heavy," in contrast to Capablanca, who he described as "much more brilliant and talented, he had a real light touch."

Fischer added, "But the thing that was great about Capablanca was that he really spoke his mind, he said what he believed was true, he said what he felt."

There are virtues and drawbacks to being a person who always speaks his mind and who always says what he feels is true, and Fischer's life eloquently (and, at times, tragically) showcases both those virtues and those drawbacks.


The book is put together attractively with an easy to read font and its content is fascinating for any chess player, and for anyone who is interested to learn more about genius (and mental illness). However, the book could have benefited from better editing/proofreading. There are so many typographical errors that I will limit myself to just citing the most prominent: in the section titled "Part Five: The Late Sixties" the letter "e" in the word "the" is rendered as an "r" on the top of every single page containing that heading! As a writer whose work has sometimes been mangled by sloppy editing, I can say that this is likely not Donaldson's fault but rather the fault of the editor and/or publisher. There are also some chess notation errors; for example, on page 376 Donaldson describes a game--his own!--that began 1. d4 g6 2. d4; based on the subsequent moves, one of those d4 moves was probably e4. 

Donaldson has mentioned in at least one interview that he is working on a second volume about Fischer, though he did not specify what subject matter and/or time periods would be covered. A second volume would be a great addition to chess literature, and I eagerly anticipate its publication; it would also be great if a second edition of this book is published that corrects the typographical errors.

Further Reading:

Bobby Fischer's Mixed Legacy (January 19, 2008) 

Bobby Fischer Comes Home is a Beautiful Portrait of Genuine Friendship (February 24, 2013)

Dr. Joseph Ponterotto's Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer Provides a Balanced and Sensitive Look at a Tormented Genius (February 27, 2013)   

Thursday, February 11, 2021

"There's a Gleam": Appreciating Marty Schottenheimer

Coach Marty Schottenheimer, who passed away on February 8 at the age of 77, famously told his players, "There's a gleam." He never explained what he meant, yet we all understood: in every life there are moments of hope/moments of opportunity, and we have to make the most of those moments. 

Schottenheimer's first moment of opportunity to be a head coach--after a five year AFL career during which he played linebacker on a championship team as a rookie (1965 Buffalo Bills), and after a decade as an assistant coach--came with the Cleveland Browns in the middle of the 1984 season. He took over a floundering 1-7 squad and led the team to a 4-4 record down the stretch. Next season, the Browns went 8-8, won their first division title since 1980, and took a 21-3 lead in the Divisional Round playoff game versus the defending AFC champion Miami Dolphins before losing 24-21. The start of Schottenheimer's career in Cleveland foreshadowed how the rest of his career would go: Schottenheimer could turn teams around quickly and produce regular season success, but his teams not only usually lost in the playoffs but they often lost in heartbreaking fashion.

That 1985 loss to the favored Dolphins, even after blowing an 18 point lead, felt less like heartbreak at the time and more like the start of something big. The Browns' rookie quarterback Bernie Kosar would soon emerge as one of the league's top passers, and the Browns advanced to the AFC Championship in each of the next two seasons.

Schotteneheimer led the Browns to a 12-4 record in 1986, setting a franchise NFL record for single season wins that still stands (the Browns had three straight seasons with at least 12 wins from 1946-48 in the All-America Football Conference prior to joining the NFL in 1950). The Browns led the Denver Broncos 20-13 at home late in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship before John Elway orchestrated what will forever be known as "The Drive," a 98 yard march down the field culminating in a five yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson. The Broncos won in overtime, and advanced to the Super Bowl.

In 1987, the Browns went 10-5 in the strike-shortened season, won the division title, routed the Indianapolis Colts 38-21, and headed to Denver for the AFC Championship with redemption on their minds. Instead, the Browns suffered heartbreak again, as Earnest Byner fumbled just before entering the endzone for what would have been the game-tying touchdown.

The Browns overcame adversity in 1988 to claim a Wild Card berth with a 10-6 record before losing 24-23 to division rival Houston in the Wild Card game. After the season, Schottenheimer and Browns owner Art Modell announced that by mutual consent they had decided that Schottenheimer would not return.

Schottenheimer did not remain unemployed for long. The Kansas City Chiefs hired him prior to the 1989 season. The Chiefs went 8-7-1 that season but then made six straight playoff appearances after making the playoffs just once since 1971. Schottenheimer led the Chiefs to the postseason seven times in 10 seasons--including a pair of 13 win campaigns--but they only advanced to the AFC Championship once. Schottenheimer resigned after the team went 7-9 in 1998, the first losing season in his career. 

He returned to the sideline in 2001 with the Washington Redskins, but despite leading the team to eight wins in the final 11 games after an 0-5 start he was fired by Dan Snyder.

Schottenheimer finished his NFL coaching career in San Diego, where he experienced both the worst regular season of his career (4-12 in 2003) and the best regular season of his career (14-2 in 2006). The Chargers fired Schottenheimer after an internal power struggle following that 14-2 season, and he never coached in the NFL again, though he did win his only professional championship as a head coach in 2012 with the Virginia Destroyers of the United Football League (UFL).

Schottenheimer's Cleveland tenure lasted less than five years at the start of a long and distinguished coaching career, but I will always think of him as a Cleveland Brown. The Browns' run of success under Schottenheimer happened during my adolescence and has not been matched since. That was a fun, if sometimes heartbreaking, time to be a Browns fan. There have been precious few fun times as a Browns fan since that era, and more than 30 years later we Browns fans are still waiting to see back to back playoff appearances (maybe next year!).

Schottenheimer ranks eighth in NFL history in regular season wins (200). The seven coaches ahead of him are either already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Don Shula, George Halas, Tom Landry, Curly Lambeau, and Paul Brown) or mortal locks to be inducted as soon as they are eligible (Bill Belichick, Andy Reid).

Hall of Fame coaches who have fewer regular season wins than Schottenheimer include Chuck Noll (193), Bill Parcells (172), Bud Grant (158), Joe Gibbs (154), Steve Owen (153), Bill Cowher (149), Marv Levy (143), Tony Dungy (139), Hank Stram (131), and Weeb Ewbank (130). 

Of course, the Hall of Famers listed above with fewer regular season wins than Schottenheimer each made at least one appearance in the NFL Championship and/or Super Bowl, and--except for Grant and Levy--each won at least one NFL Championship or one Super Bowl. For that matter, each of the coaches ahead of Schottenheimer on the regular season wins list won at least one Super Bowl or NFL Championship, and Reid is the only member of that group who does not have at least two titles.

Schottenheimer ranks just 33rd in playoff wins (5), and he has the worst winning percentage (.278; 5-13 record) among NFL coaches who won at least five playoff games. He has the fourth most playoff losses all-time, but the three coaches who have more losses each had winning records and each won at least one title: Don Shula went 19-17 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl titles, Tom Landry went 20-16 in the playoffs with two Super Bowl titles, and Andy Reid has a 17-15 playoff record with one Super Bowl title.

It is too late for the Hall of Fame to honor Schottenheimer when he could have appreciated it, but there is no rule against posthumous induction. Is he a worthy candidate? If he had won just one Super Bowl he likely would have waltzed into the Hall of Fame a long time ago. Without a championship on his resume, there are lingering questions. Was there something about so-called "Martyball" that was better suited to regular season play than postseason play? Or, did Schottenheimer lift his teams farther than they otherwise would have gone? Is it reasonable to say that he "should" have taken at least one of those teams all the way? 

Schottenheimer's best regular season team, the 14-2 Chargers, lost to the team of the decade--the New England Patriots--in the playoffs. His 1997 Chiefs went 13-3 but lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Schottenheimer's two best Browns teams lost close AFC Championship games to Elway's Broncos. Individually, those losses are understandable, but one could also argue that a Hall of Fame coach should have found a way to not come up short in every single one of those contests. 

There are playoff losses that are less understandable, including when his 1995 Chiefs--a 13-3 squad with home field advantage--lost in the Wild Card game to the 9-7 Indianapolis Colts.  

It is difficult to put Schottenheimer at the absolute top level with the coaches who won multiple titles, including (in chronological order) Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, Bill Walsh, Jimmy Johnson, and Bill Belichick--but the Hall of Fame has welcomed coaches who won much less often than Schottenheimer did, and several of those coaches did not win titles. The consistent pattern with Schottenheimer--across more than 20 years and four teams--is that his teams became better after his arrival, and got worse after he departed, which suggests that he maximized or at least came reasonably close to maximizing those teams' potential.

Marty Schottenheimer is a Hall of Famer in my book. Rest in peace, Coach Schottenheimer, and thank you for reminding us all to never stop seeking the "gleam."

Monday, February 8, 2021

Placing Tom Brady's Greatness in Historical Context

Tom Brady entered uncharted territory by capturing his seventh Super Bowl title and his fifth Super Bowl MVP after leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 31-9 victory over the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs. Brady put up efficient, if not gaudy, numbers, completing 21 of 29 passes for 201 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. He joins Peyton Manning as the only two quarterbacks to win at least one Super Bowl with two different franchises. Brady extended his lead over Charles Haley for most Super Bowls won by a player at any position (Haley won five Super Bowl rings), and he is now three ahead of Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana among quarterbacks. Bradshaw's standard of four Super Bowl titles seemed daunting when he set it, and Montana was often described as the greatest quarterback of all-time after he matched Bradshaw's record while compiling superior individual statistics.

The Chiefs had won 25 of their previous 27 games, including a 27-24 victory against Tampa Bay this season, but they had no answers for a Buccaneers team that did not lose again after that Kansas City defeat dropped them to 7-5. The Buccaneers won their last four regular season games, they won three road playoff games before becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium, and they became the first team to beat three former Super Bowl MVPs (Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes) during one playoff run.

Many analysts considered Brady to be the greatest quarterback of all-time prior to yesterday, and now Brady has added another amazing chapter to his already impressive career. 

The other narrative swirling around Brady involves comparing his legacy to the legacy of Coach Bill Belichick. Belichick and Brady teamed up to win six Super Bowls together--setting the record for a coach-quarterback duo--and media members have often speculated about who was most responsible for the New England Patriots' sustained success. It is not surprising that the media narrative veered in Brady's favor as Tampa Bay advanced through the 2020 playoffs while the Patriots failed to qualify for postseason play. Tampa Bay's victory closes the book on this narrative for many media members, who now gleefully proclaim that Brady had more to do with New England's success than Belichick did.

Narratives are easy to construct, and they are often based more on emotion and selective recall/understanding of history than on objective reality.

For example, a popular narrative ranks LeBron James as the greatest basketball player of all-time, but objective analysis reveals that this assertion overlooks the accomplishments of not only some of James' predecessors but even those of his contemporaries, including Kobe Bryant. After James won his fourth NBA title and fourth NBA Finals MVP last season, the narrative uplifting James became even more prominent, but based on MVPs and championships won (two of the criteria often used to support elevating James), James has not surpassed Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Michael Jordan.

There is no doubt that James belongs in the greatest basketball player of all-time conversation, just as there is no doubt that Brady belongs in the greatest quarterback of all-time conversation, but the reality is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to objectively select one individual as the greatest performer in a team sport; even in an individual sport such as tennis there is not a clear choice, though that sport also has a media-driven narrative favoring one person (Roger Federer).

Championships won is the simple number often cited to buttress popular narratives, but it is interesting to see which championships "count" when narratives are told. It has become common practice to suggest that Michael Jordan holds some kind of record with six NBA titles, because that is often depicted as the number that Kobe Bryant was chasing (Bryant finished his career with five titles), and it is often depicted as the number LeBron James is chasing now--but Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons, in addition to leading his teams to two NCAA titles plus an Olympic gold medal. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA titles but for some reason his titles do not "count" when basketball greatness is being discussed. 

Similarly, much was made of Roger Federer's Grand Slam singles titles, but the talk of the significance of Grand Slam titles became much quieter after Rafael Nadal tied Federer with 20. Narrative creators feel free to change the stories and change the rules as opposed to changing the narrative: once Roger Federer or Tom Brady or LeBron James becomes the favored son, it takes a lot to convince media members to anoint someone else.

There is no disputing the greatness of Federer or James or Brady. Brady has not only won more Super Bowls (seven wins in 10 appearances) than any other player, but he has more Super Bowl wins than any other franchise! He would likely make the Hall of Fame just on the basis of what he has accomplished since the age of 37, including three Super Bowl wins plus earning a regular season MVP award. In that sense, he is similar to Abdul-Jabbar, whose accomplishments past the age of 35 (four NBA titles, one NBA Finals MVP, four All-NBA First Team selections, and eight All-Star selections) exceed what many Hall of Famers accomplished during their entire careers.

However, if championships are the touchstone and measuring stick of professional football greatness in general and/or the greatness of a quarterback in particular, then it must be remembered that Otto Graham made 10 championship game appearances in 10 professional seasons, leading the Cleveland Browns to seven titles. He went four for four in his All-America Football Conference championship game appearances, and then he followed that by winning three titles in six NFL seasons, including leading the Browns to a 30-28 win over the favored L.A. Rams in the 1950 NFL championship game. Against the Rams, Graham completed 22 of 33 passes for 298 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception, while also running 12 times for 99 yards. That victory happened in the first season after the NFL and AAFC merged, and it demonstrated that the Browns' AAFC titles deserved full recognition. 

It is not at all clear why NFL titles are not given equal weight with Super Bowl titles; an NFL championship is an NFL championship, regardless of what it was called in 1950 or what it is called now. AAFC titles should "count" just as much as AFL titles and pre-Super Bowl NFL titles. 

If the argument against doing so is that the rules and style of play were vastly different during Otto Graham's time and Bill Russell's time than they are in Tom Brady's time and LeBron James' time then the correct response is not to discount or ignore Graham and Russell but rather to candidly acknowledge the difficulty of making intergenerational comparisons. Perhaps there is no such thing as "the" greatest player of all-time. Maybe Graham was the greatest of his time, and now Brady is the greatest of his time (which is not to discount the possibility that other players from either era deserve consideration). 

The greatest quarterback of all-time narrative favored John Unitas for quite some time (and there is no doubt a vocal minority of observers who would still rank Unitas as the best). Unitas set career records for passing yards (40,239) and touchdowns (290) that far exceeded the marks that he broke. He won two NFL titles in the pre-Super Bowl era, plus an NFL title in the Super Bowl era (but that season ended in a famous loss to the AFL champion New York Jets in Super Bowl III). Unitas threw a touchdown in Super Bowl V before leaving the game due to injury, and his Colts won that contest on a last second field goal after Unitas' backup Earl Morrall replaced Unitas. Unitas is considered the prototype drop back passer.

It is interesting that the player who broke Unitas' records, Fran Tarkenton, was not often mentioned as the greatest quarterback of all-time; I cannot recall ever seeing or hearing a commentator rank Tarkenton as the best. Yet, Tarkenton held the career passing yardage record (47,003) for longer than any other quarterback (19 years), and he also held the career passing touchdowns record (342) for longer than any other quarterback (20 years), but Tarkenton never won a Super Bowl.

Terry Bradshaw won four Super Bowls, but his individual numbers are not as gaudy as Unitas' or Tarkenton's, nor are they efficient when compared to the statistics compiled by the passers who came after him and who benefited from rules changes that opened up the passing game.

Dan Marino at one time held the career records for passing yardage and for touchdowns, but he only made it to one Super Bowl and he never won a championship. Early in his career he was touted as someone who could become the greatest quarterback ever, but as Marino set records while Montana won Super Bowls the notion that Marino might be the greatest faded from consideration, and Marino became the Tarkenton of his era (albeit with a much different playing style, as Tarkenton was a scrambler while Marino was a pure pocket passer).

Joe Montana matched Bradshaw by winning four Super Bowls, and by the end of his career he was often touted as the greatest quarterback of all-time, a notion that went largely unchallenged until the emergence of Brady.

At some point after Brady matched Montana and Bradshaw with four Super Bowl wins while also accumulating MVP awards and posting gaudy statistics, the narrative shifted from Montana to Brady. Brett Favre--who held the career passing touchdowns record for seven years--and Peyton Manning--who held the career passing touchdowns record for five years--received some consideration prior to Brady's ascension, but Favre only won one Super Bowl and Manning only won two Super Bowls so after Brady surpassed their individual records his superior ring count took both of them out of the conversation. 

Drew Brees and Tom Brady have been trading the career passing touchdowns record recently, but Brees won just one Super Bowl, and he did not win that Super Bowl until after Brady had already been ranked ahead of Favre and Manning, so Brees has never been part of the greatest quarterback of all-time narrative.

If you believe that quarterback is the most important position in football--if not in all team sports--and if you believe that a quarterback's greatness is best measured by championships, then your choices are Otto Graham or Tom Brady. If you place more value on individual numbers, then you have to decide if it matters more to dominate your own era by a wide margin--in which case, you would probably choose Unitas--or if it matters more to dominate in recent times, in which case you could choose any one of several quarterbacks depending on which statistics you deem to be the best measure of greatness.

The larger point is that, without clearly defining the standard of greatness, the narrative elevating Brady (or anyone else) is so devoid of context as to be rendered meaningless. Was it more difficult to play in earlier eras under different rules and conditions, or are today's athletes so superior to the athletes from decades past that the athletes from previous eras would not excel today? 

Most commentators and analysts do not embrace the challenge of researching such matters and using that research as a basis to form intelligent opinions; instead, we are fed simplistic narratives about "rings" and "Who is the GOAT?" that do a disservice to the history of the game and the accomplishments of the game's greatest players.

Regarding the Belichick and Brady narrative, it is not necessary or accurate to diminish what Belichick achieved in order to give Brady the praise that he deserves. Bill Belichick's Super Bowl XX game plan as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator was so brilliant that it is on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Belichick's offensive and defensive game plans as the Patriots' head coach are indisputably great, and those schemes played a crucial role in the franchise's unparalleled success.

It is fascinating to watch how the media creates and manipulates narratives. Brady is almost universally popular, with perhaps the only exception being the fans of teams who he has beaten in Super Bowls--but Belichick is regularly mocked for his press conference demeanor. Many media members would love to bring Belichick down a notch--or six notches, by finding any excuse to discount his Super Bowl titles. Of course, the same narrative game that they are now playing with Belichick and Brady could easily be applied to Belichick and Bill Parcells--and there would be more substance to the latter, as Belichick and Parcells are both coaches and have actually gone head to head against each other in that role.

Parcells won two Super Bowl titles as a head coach, with Belichick running the defense for both squads. Parcells has never won a playoff game--let alone a Super Bowl--without having Belichick on his staff. In fact, Parcells has a losing record overall without Belichick by his side. Parcells supposedly taught Belichick how to win, which is a difficult notion to accept when you look at the won-loss records of both coaches. 

After Belichick left the New York Giants, he took over a horrible Cleveland Browns team (3-13 in 1990) and led the Browns to the playoffs in 1994. That Browns team, which went 11-5, defeated Parcells' New England Patriots in the playoffs, which was the Browns' last playoff win until this season's squad beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. There is some history and context that can be referenced to defend Parcells, but a head to head comparison of coaches who competed with and against each other over an extended period of time makes more sense than trying to define the careers of a coach and a quarterback based on their one season apart after they forged a two decade partnership filled with unequaled success.

Of course, Bill Parcells is beloved as "The Big Tuna." The media is not going to construct a narrative that elevates Belichick over Parcells.

One of the many problems with comparing a football coach's impact with a quarterback's impact is that the coach directs how the entire team plays, while the quarterback's impact is strictly limited to offense, which is less than half of the game (if you factor in that many plays involve neither offense nor defense but rather special teams). 

As a brief side note, it is a true exercise in folly to compare Tom Brady to LeBron James. A star basketball player participates in most of the game (usually at least 38-40 out of 48 minutes) and he has an impact on both offense and defense as one of five teammates on the court, while a quarterback is one of 11 teammates on the field, and his impact is restricted to offense.

Brady's impact on a team is undeniable. He is a great and charismatic leader. His quarterback skill set is impeccable. 

All of that being said and acknowledged, the notion that there is some valid way to parse out Brady's impact on the Patriots from Belichick's impact on the Patriots is absurd. You may counter, "But what if Belichick never makes the playoffs again?" Belichick is 68 years old, and he already is one of the oldest coaches to win a Super Bowl. He is undoubtedly past his prime, and he is closer to the end of his coaching career than he is to the beginning. Do you judge Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, and Don Shula by what they did in the last 5-10 years of their coaching careers, or do you judge them by their overall body of work, with a focus on their primes? 

What if Belichick grooms a young quarterback and wins one more Super Bowl before retiring? That would add to Belichick's legacy, just like yesterday's Super Bowl win added to Brady's legacy, but that would not tell us whether Belichick or Brady had more to do with the Patriots' success.

The truth is that we will never know, but that honest narrative will not move the ratings needle or generate clicks for online articles, so brace yourself for all of the "Brady Owns Belichick" stories.

It is interesting to watch the Patrick Mahomes narrative evolve in the midst of these other narratives. Mahomes has already led the Chiefs to back to back Super Bowl appearances, and one Super Bowl title. It is logical to assume that he will have many more opportunities, but--as noted above--Dan Marino made one Super Bowl appearance early in his career and then never made it back, and Brett Favre made two Super Bowl appearances (with one win) in his 20 year career. It cannot be emphasized enough that the quarterback is a very important player, but he does not play on defense or special teams, and he is rendered helpless if his teammates are ineffective--just look at what happened to Mahomes in Super Bowl LV when the Buccaneers' defense overwhelmed Kansas City's offensive line. 

The truth is that the Mahomes story is incomplete. If he finishes his career with one Super Bowl win plus some gaudy individual numbers then he will not merit being ranked alongside the absolute greatest. On the other hand, yesterday's loss does not diminish what he has already accomplished, and to suggest otherwise is as incorrect as suggesting that Brady's win somehow diminishes what Belichick has already accomplished.

What can we determine using a reasonable, objective approach? 

1) There is a strong argument that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of his time. He may be the greatest quarterback of all-time, but to make that assessment we must first decide how to validly compare statistics and team accomplishments from the 1940s-1990s with statistics and team accomplishments from 2000-present (Brady's era).

2) There is a strong argument that Bill Belichick is the greatest NFL coach of his time. He may be the greatest NFL coach of all-time, but to make that assessment we must first decide how to validly compare statistics and team accomplishments from prior eras to the statistics and team accomplishments from Belichick's era (1980s-present).

3) Under Bill Belichick's guidance, Tom Brady developed from being a sixth round draft pick into being arguably the greatest quarterback of his time, and possibly the greatest quarterback of all-time. We do not have a large enough sample size of data to determine what development path Brady would have followed without Belichick's influence. 

4) With Tom Brady as his starting quarterback, Bill Belichick has won six Super Bowls as a head coach. During that time, Belichick played a role in both player development and game plan creation. Prior to that time, in his first stint as a head coach, Belichick built the Cleveland Browns from a last place team into a playoff team; prior to coaching the Browns, Belichick's defensive game plans played a major, if not decisive, role as the New York Giants won two Super Bowls. We have a large enough sample size of data to determine that Belichick is an outstanding, versatile coach even without Brady. We do not have a large enough sample size of data to prove how many Super Bowls that Belichick's Patriots would have won without Brady.

The bottom line is that winning a championship involves many variables that cannot be controlled by either the coach or the quarterback. If the Buccaneers had not been able to shut down Patrick Mahomes, resulting in Kansas City winning a 34-31 shootout with Brady posting exactly the same numbers that he posted yesterday would that somehow diminish Brady's greatness? Would it increase Belichick's greatness by "proving" that Brady cannot win a Super Bowl without Belichick?

Framing the conversation in those terms, it should be obvious that many of the media-driven narratives are nonsense.