Thursday, December 15, 2011

Can Tim Tebow's Denver Broncos Outduel Bill Belichick's New England Patriots?

Tim Tebow has had a magical 2011 season, posting a 7-1 record as a starter and leading the Denver Broncos to several seemingly miraculous come from behind wins, but New England Coach Bill Belichick has specialized in devising defensive schemes to torture and confuse young, inexperienced quarterbacks. New England officially ranks last in total defense, yielding 416 yards per game, but that statistic is very misleading: the Patriots opportunistically force turnovers and thus rank a respectable 14th in points allowed (21.0 per game). The Patriots score 30.5 points per game so, much like Green Bay and New Orleans, in a very real sense their offense is their defense; it is unlikely that the Broncos can beat the Patriots by laying low for 50-55 minutes and then putting up a couple late scores to win a 13-10 nailbiter.

In terms of NFL betting, TopBet Sportsbook likes the Patriots by nearly a touchdown but Fox Sports' Peter Schrager thinks that the Broncos will win outright. The fascinating thing about Tebow, as ESPN's Tom Jackson has mentioned, is that Tebow's critics focus relentlessly on what they think Tebow cannot do but are seemingly unwilling to acknowledge the significant role he has played in Denver's victories; Jackson noted that the critics first said that Tebow could not win a game, then they said that he could not win consistently, then they said that he could not win a shootout and now they are saying that he cannot win a playoff game. Jackson half jokingly noted that if Tebow leads the Broncos to a Super Bowl victory then Tebow's critics will have to resort to saying that Tebow surely cannot lead a team to back to back championships.

Yes, Denver's defense has played well, the offensive line has blocked well for a flourishing running game and kicker Matt Prater has come through in the clutch but the Broncos were not expected to be very good this year (USA TODAY ranked Denver last in the AFC West, as did Sports Illustrated's Peter King) and the Broncos were just 1-4 before Tebow took over for Kyle Orton. Tebow has had a direct impact on the running game and the ability to control the clock has surely helped out Denver's defense as well--but in addition to those obvious tangibles it is foolish to discount the equally obvious but harder to measure intangible ways that Tebow's leadership, demeanor and poise have inspired his teammates: Tebow has a fierce will to win but he is quick to diminish the importance his own efforts in order to praise his teammates and that also surely has affected how the Broncos play on both sides of the ball. Contrast a Tim Tebow soundbite after a Denver win with one of LeBron James' infamous soundbites from last season (including such gems as "taking my talents to South Beach," boasting that he would win "not one, not two, not three" championships and dismissing critics because they would have to return to their dreary lives while James would still get to live his glorious life) and you can vividly see and hear the difference between being a real leader as opposed to simply puffing out your chest before your team has accomplished anything significant.

I expect that the Patriots will "sell out" at the line of scrimmage to force Tebow to pass the ball quickly and that the Patriots will stick to this defensive game plan for all 60 minutes, not just 50 or 55 minutes; Tebow will probably hit one or two long passes against New England's suspect secondary but if the Patriots shut down the run completely and force a couple timely turnovers then they will ultimately put up too many points for the Broncos to match.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Uncrowned Champion: Viktor Korchnoi

This article was originally published in the March/April 2009 issue of the Ohio Chess Connection.

Viktor Korchnoi, who lost World Championship matches to Anatoly Karpov in 1978 and 1981, is still going strong today; the 77 year old Grandmaster competes regularly and ranks among the top 230 players in the world! In September 2006, Korchnoi won the World Senior Chess Championship and as recently as 2007 he was still on FIDE’s top 100 list.

Jeff Sonas' Chessmetrics ratings are calculated slightly differently than FIDE ratings. According to Sonas' reckoning, Korchnoi was the number one chess player in the world from September 1965-December 1965. After briefly dropping as low as sixth on Sonas' list, Korchnoi was the second highest rated player in the world from August 1967-July 1970. Sonas ranked Korchnoi between second and eighth in the world for the next four years but Korchnoi then held on to the second spot on Sonas' list from September 1974 until December 1981. Korchnoi remained in Sonas' top ten through January 1983, dropped as low as #17 in July 1983 and then returned to Sonas' top 10 from February 1984 until March 1988. Korchnoi's last top 10 appearance in Sonas' rankings came in October 1990 when Korchnoi was 59 years old.

Korchnoi's one year peak rating in Sonas' system ranks 13th best all-time. Considering his remarkable durability, it is not surprising that Korchnoi's ranking goes up when one examines longer time frames; his best 20 year peak average ranks fifth all-time behind only Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Emanuel Lasker and Alexander Alekhine, impressive company for a player who never won the World Championship.

Much like Paul Keres and David Bronstein faced certain pressures from Soviet authorities when they battled Mikhail Botvinnik for the World Championship, Korchnoi's path to the ultimate title was made more difficult--if not outright blocked--by the Soviets, who clearly preferred Karpov, an ethnic Russian and proud Communist party member, over Korchnoi, a player with Jewish ancestry who was hardly a Communist party loyalist even before he defected to the West.

In addition to the 1978 and 1981 World Championship matches, Korchnoi also lost the 1974 Candidates' Final match to Karpov; that turned out to be a de facto World Championship match after reigning World Champion Bobby Fischer forfeited the title to Karpov in April 1975. Karpov won his 1974 encounter with Korchnoi by the score of 12.5-11.5 (3-2, with 19 draws). The match was played in Moscow and Karpov enjoyed the full weight of Soviet support: he had the best trainers--Semyon Furman and Efim Geller; Furman had worked with Korchnoi in the past and thus was keenly familiar with his strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, other strong players were discouraged and/or prevented from offering any assistance to Korchnoi.

After the match, the Soviet authorities decided to punish Korchnoi for a host of "crimes" that he had committed in recent years, including various public statements that they considered to be unpatriotic; they forbade him from traveling abroad for a year, reduced his salary and denied him opportunities to write about chess or appear on television to talk about the game. In his 1978 autobiography Chess is My Life, Korchnoi wrote (p.119), "Strong pressure was being brought to bear on me, but there was also the feeling that they were awaiting for an appropriate moment, when I should begin playing less strongly, to bring me down completely." Understandably, Korchnoi defected from the Soviet Union in 1976, seeking asylum after sharing first place with Tony Miles in a tournament in Amsterdam. Although the Soviet authorities no longer directly controlled Korchnoi, they still put tremendous psychological pressure on him because his wife and son were now essentially prisoners of the state, forbidden to go live with him in the West.

In the next World Championship cycle, Korchnoi defeated former World Champions Tigran Petrosian and Boris Spassky to earn the right to face Karpov again. Prior to the match with Karpov, Korchnoi wrote an open letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev: "Soviet leaders have declared more than once that sport must be separated from politics. It is self-evident that those states should also adhere to this principle who will participate in the World Sport Olympiad destined for Moscow in 1980. I appeal to your political common sense, my dear General Secretary: In order to ensure that this match for the World Chess Championship should take place under normal conditions, without political complications, I beg you to allow my family to depart from the Soviet Union."

Needless to say, the Soviets rejected Korchnoi's plea; they had already tried to get him banned from participating in the Candidates cycle and when that failed they found other ways to attack him politically and psychologically but--even though he ultimately fell just short of his goal--Korchnoi displayed his great fighting spirit in his match with Karpov. In the first 12 games, the players battled to a standstill (one win each, 10 draws) but Korchnoi had squandered several promising positions. Karpov then took what seemed to be a decisive lead by winning three of the next five games. Needing only two more wins to retain his crown--the match winner would be the first player to win six games, draws not counting--Karpov faltered, failing to win for nine straight games (eight draws, one Korchnoi win).

Karpov finally achieved his fifth win but then Korchnoi remarkably struck back with three victories in the next four games to tie the match at 5-5 (plus 21 draws). Karpov won game 32, ending one of the most rancorous matches in World Championship history. It is worth remembering that in addition to the political and psychological factors which favored Karpov in this match he also had Father Time on his side: the champion was 27 years old, while the challenger was 47.

The 1978 World Championship match seemed like a last hurrah at the top level for Korchnoi but he confounded the doubters, once again battling through the Candidates cycle to earn the right to challenge Karpov for the World Championship. Korchnoi's family was still trapped behind the Iron Curtain and in 1981 Karpov had a much easier time versus Korchnoi, winning 6-2 with 10 draws. Korchnoi made it to the semifinal round in the next Candidates cycle before losing to Garry Kasparov, the young titan who would ultimately end Karpov's reign. Korchnoi advanced to the Candidates round three more times (1985, 1988, 1991) but never again seriously challenged for the title.

Korchnoi has long been renowned for his defensive prowess but early in his career he understood that to contend for the World Championship he would have to change his style. As he explained in Chess is My Life (p. 51), "There came a time when I realized that the ability to defend was--for a good chess player--insufficient. You can't be dependent upon your opponent's will, you must try to impose your will on him...I would put down my successes in the 1960s, and my rise in stature as a chess player, to the fact that I learned how to fight for the initiative and maintain it." Here is an example of Korchnoi at his attacking best:

Efim Geller - Viktor Korchnoi [B03]

27th USSR Championship, 1960

1.e4 Nf6 Korchnoi needed a victory to retain any serious chances of winning the tournament, so he chose a sharp opening that Geller had not yet faced in serious tournament play. 2.e5 Nd5 3.d4 d6 4.c4 Nb6 5.f4 Bf5 6.Nc3 dxe5 7.fxe5 e6 8.Nf3 Be7 9.Be2 0–0 10.0–0 f6 "By undermining the opponent's center, Black solves his opening problems, although White retains a certain advantage in space" (Garry Kasparov). 11.Bf4?! Kasparov criticizes this move, saying that in this structure the B belongs on e3, supporting the d pawn. Since Geller only needed a draw to clinch at least a tie for first place, Kasparov adds, "The line that best corresponded with White's tournament objective was 11.exf6 Bxf6 12.Be3 Nc6 13.Qd2 Qe8 14.Rad1 Rd8 15.Qc1." In that case, Kasparov gives White a slight edge, but Korchnoi had played this position before, so from his perspective the opening had already been a success: "I had some experience with it, in contrast to Geller, who knew of the position only by hearsay. My choice of opening had been correct! Now it was just a matter of playing well." 11...Nc6 12.exf6 Bxf6 13.d5 Na5 14.Ne5 Bxe5 Korchnoi says of this move, "A mistake, typical of the early period of my chess career: in striving to win material as soon as possible, I underestimated the opponent's tactical possibilities." However, Kasparov concludes that Korchnoi's suggested improvement, ...Qe7, is in fact not objectively any stronger than the text: 14...Qe7 15.g4! Bxe5 16.Bxe5 exd5 17.Bg3 Be6 18.cxd5 Rxf1+ 19.Bxf1 Nxd5 20.Nxd5 Qc5+ 21.Bf2 Qxd5 22.Qxd5 Bxd5 23.Rd1 c6 24.b4 Nc4 25.Bxc4 Bxc4 26.Rd7 and White has sufficient counterplay for his material deficit. 15.Bxe5 Naxc4 16.Bxc4 Nxc4 17.Bxg7! Korchnoi admits that he overlooked this move but Kasparov praises "the very interesting possibility of counterplay" that Korchnoi found. 17...Ne3 17...Kxg7 18.Qd4+ Rf6 19.Qxc4 and White has the initiative (Kasparov). 18.Qe2!? 18.Qd4 Qg5 19.Rf2 Nc2 20.Rxc2 Qxg7= (Korchnoi). 18...Nxf1 19.Bxf8 Nxh2! 20.Bc5 20.Kxh2? Qh4+ 21.Kg1 Qd4+ (21...Rxf8 22.Qe5 is less clear [Kasparov].) 22.Kh2 Rxf8 23.Rd1 Qf4+ 24.g3 Qg4 and Black is better. However, after 20.dxe6 Ng4 21.e7 Qd6 (21...Qd4+ 22.Kh1 Qf4 23.g3 Qxg3 24.Rf1 Bd7 25.Qc4+ Kh8 26.Bg7+ Kxg7 27.Qf7+ Kh6 28.Qf8+ and White has a perpetual.) 22.Qf3 Be6 23.Ne4 Qh2+ 24.Kf1 Qe5 25.Kg1 White can hold. 20...Ng4 21.dxe6 Qh4 22.e7 Qh2+ 22...Re8?? 23.Qc4+ Kg7 24.Qf4± (Korchnoi). 23.Kf1 Qf4+ 24.Kg1 24.Ke1 "would have quickly led to the draw that White so desired" (Kasparov): 24...Qg3+ (24...Re8 25.Nd5 Qh2 26.Nxc7 Rxe7 27.Qxe7 Qg3+ 28.Kd2 Qd3+ 29.Ke1 Qg3+ with an equal position) 25.Kd1 Kf7 26.Qc4+ Kg6 27.Rc1 Ne5 28.Ne2 Qd3+ 29.Qxd3 Nxd3= 24...Re8 25.Qf3 Qh2+ 26.Kf1 Qh5 27.Qd5+? "In his career, Geller played and won many decisive games. When he needed to win, and his opponent was satisfied with a draw, he would calmly break down his opponent's resistance. He rarely found himself in the opposite situation--of fighting for a draw. And in this game his nerves let him down. Incidentally, similar situations also occurred with me and I did not always emerge with honor from a difficult situation" (Korchnoi). After 27.Kg1! Black has nothing better than forcing a repetition: 27...Qh2+ 28.Kf1 Qh5 (28...Qh1+?? 29.Ke2 Qxa1 30.Qxf5 Qxb2+ 31.Kd3+-) 27...Kg7 28.Qd4+ After 28.Re1 Bd3+ 29.Qxd3 Qxc5 30.Qg3 h5 White cannot play 31.Qh4?? because of 31...Qc4+ 32.Kg1 Qd4+ 33.Kf1 Ne3+ 34.Rxe3 Qxh4–+, but Kasparov points out that 31.Qf4 Rxe7 32.Rxe7+ Qxe7 33.Nd5 Qf7 34.Qxf7+ Kxf7 35.Nxc7 Ne3+ 36.Kf2 Nd1+ 37.Kg3 Nxb2 38.Nb5 would have led to a draw. 28...Kg6 29.Ne2 29.Qd8 Qh1+ 30.Bg1 Ne3+ 31.Ke2 Qxg2+ 32.Bf2 Kf7 33.Kxe3 Qg5+ 34.Kf3 Qg4+ 35.Ke3 Rxe7+–+ 29...Qh1+ 30.Ng1? 30.Qg1 Qxg1+ 31.Kxg1 b6 32.Ba3 Ne3 offers more resistance (Korchnoi). 30...b6 31.Qd8 Nf6 32.Ba3 Be4 33.Qd2 c5 34.b4 c4 35.b5 Bd3+ In the wake of Korchnoi's success in this tournament, David Bronstein wrote, "The play of the new USSR champion is characterized by amazing tenacity in defense, resourcefulness in attack and virtuoso mastery in the endgame." Famed Grandmaster and trainer Vladimir Simagin added, "In the field of tactical mastery, Korchnoi, in my view, is not inferior to Tal." In a career that has spanned six decades and counting, this still remains one of Korchnoi's favorite games: "This is a special game, one that is closest to my heart. Played towards the end of a difficult tournament, it is full of fighting spirit from start to finish." 0–1

This win helped Korchnoi to clinch the first of his four Soviet Championship titles. Although Korchnoi clearly proved that he could be a devastating attacker, he will forever be remembered mainly for his durability and for being a tenacious, opportunistic and resourceful defender. In Chess is My Life (p. 40), he recalled at least three occasions that he drew games after being down a minor piece, concluding, "It is evidently all a question of optimism. If a player believes in miracles, he can sometimes perform them."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bernie Fine Case Reveals Double Standards

As soon as the grand jury released its report about alleged pedophile Jerry Sandusky, ESPN and other media outlets essentially formed a lynch mob demanding Joe Paterno's head, a demand that the Penn State Board of Trustees eagerly met; while the media applauded the Board of Trustees' action, the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office was less than impressed: spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said, "We have a cooperating witness [Paterno], an individual who testified, provided truthful testimony but two others who were found by a grand jury to commit perjury whose legal expenses are being paid for university. One is on administrative leave. Very interesting development. It's certainly curious and [has] not been explained yet. Speaking as a prosecuting agency, we have a cooperating witness who has not been charged, while two individuals accused of committing crimes continue to be affiliated."

Sandusky had not been on Coach Paterno's staff for more than a decade by the time the grand jury report came out--but Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine was literally Jim Boeheim's right hand man for the past 36 years, during which time Fine allegedly abused at least three children, including two Syracuse ball boys. While Paterno expressed sympathy for Sandusky's alleged victims and remorse that he had not been able to do more--even though the grand jury found that Paterno had not committed any wrongdoing--Boeheim called Fine's accusers money-hungry liars while sanctimoniously declaring, "I'm not Joe Paterno. Somebody didn't come and tell me Bernie Fine did something and I'm hiding it. I know nothing. If I saw some reason not to support Bernie, I would not support him. If somebody showed me a reason, proved that reason, I would not support him. But until then, I'll support him until the day I die." Boeheim certainly is "not Joe Paterno"--Paterno has a much better resume as an educator, philanthropist and coach than Boeheim does. There is also no indication that Paterno had direct knowledge of Sandusky's conduct, while at least one of Fine's accusers states that Boeheim saw him staying in Fine's hotel room on the road (it is unusual for ball boys to travel with a team, let alone stay in the same hotel room with an assistant coach).

After the evidence against Fine piled up--including a tape of Fine's wife admitting that she knew about Fine's conduct--Syracuse fired Fine on Sunday and Boeheim went into a full backpedal, apologizing for attacking the integrity of Fine's accusers and stating that victims of abuse should not hesitate to come forward. It is not yet clear exactly what Boeheim knew about Fine's alleged misconduct but Boeheim certainly was in a greater position to know about what Fine was doing--and had a greater responsibility to keep tabs on his right hand man--than Paterno was in position to know about the actions of someone who had not been on his staff for more than 10 years. I am not saying that Boeheim should be fired but at the very least he should be formally reprimanded for the irresponsible comments he made right after the Fine investigation became publicized; obviously, if any evidence comes to light that Boeheim in any way covered up for Fine then Boeheim should be fired (I have the same opinion about Paterno--the reason I object to his firing is that Paterno was fired without any evidence that he did anything wrong).

Meanwhile, the same ESPN that littered the airwaves with high-minded commentary about Paterno's supposed moral failings suppressed for nearly a decade the tape that Fine accuser Bobby Davis made of Fine's wife admitting knowledge of Fine's homosexual/pedophilic proclivities and activities. Why didn't ESPN turn that tape over to the authorities? How many children did Fine abuse after ESPN had reason to believe that he is a sexual predator? ESPN and other media outlets insisted that Paterno deserved to be immediately fired even though a grand jury found that he committed no wrongdoing and had no knowledge of Sandusky's conduct; applying that reasoning, how many ESPN executives and reporters should be immediately fired for not alerting the police about the Davis tape?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Joe Posnanski Criticizes the Media's Coverage of the Sandusky Scandal

The most striking thing about ESPN's seemingly around the clock coverage of the Sandusky Scandal is that Jerry Sandusky's name is hardly mentioned at all. ESPN and other media outlets have made Joe Paterno the face of this scandal--and Penn State's Board of Trustees piled on by unceremoniously firing Paterno instead of letting him retire after his contract expired at the end of this season.

Joe Posnanski, who has been working on a biography of Paterno for the past two years, strongly believes that the voracious appetite of the 24 hour news cycle has unfairly chewed up and spit out the good name of a fundamentally decent man. Here is an excerpt from Posnanski's take on Paterno's firing:

I’m not saying I know Joe Paterno. I’m saying I know a whole lot about him.

And what I know is complicated. But, beyond complications--and I really believe this with all my heart--there’s this, and this is exclusively my opinion: Joe Paterno has lived a profoundly decent life.

Nobody has really wanted to say this lately, and I grasp that. The last week has obviously shed a new light on him and his program--a horrible new light--and if you have any questions about how I feel about all that, please scroll back up to my two points at the top.

But I have seen some things in the last few days that have felt rotten, utterly wrong--a piling on that goes even beyond excessive, a dancing on the grave that makes me ill. Joe Paterno has lived a whole life. He has improved the lives of countless people...

I am sickened, absolutely sickened, that some of those people whose lives were fundamentally inspired and galvanized by Joe Paterno have not stepped forward to stand up for him this week, have stood back and allowed him to be painted as an inhuman monster who was only interested in his legacy, even at the cost of the most heinous crimes against children imaginable.

Shame on them.

And why? I’ll tell you my opinion: Because they were afraid. And I understand that. A kind word for Joe Paterno in this storm is taken by many as a pro vote for a child molester. A quick, “Wait a minute, Joe Paterno is a good man. Let’s see what happened here” is translated as an attempt to minimize the horror of what Jerry Sandusky is charged with doing. It takes courage to stand behind someone you believe in when it’s this bad outside. It takes courage to stand up for a man in peril, even if he stood up for you...

...the way Joe Paterno has lived his life has earned him something more than instant fury, more than immediate assumptions of the worst, more than the happy cheers of critics who have always believed that there was something phony about the man and his ideals. He deserves what I would hope we all deserve--for the truth to come out, or, anyway, the closest thing to truth we can find.

I don’t think Joe Paterno has gotten that. And I think that’s sad.

Christine Flowers Blasts Penn State for Hastily Firing Joe Paterno

When I criticized Penn State's Board of Trustees for firing Joe Paterno I realized that I was swimming against a tidal wave of public opinion but I simply felt that someone has to speak truth to power regardless of how controversial that stance might be; no matter how many people say otherwise, it is not justified to fire Joe Paterno without clear cause nor does that summary action realistically bring comfort to Jerry Sandusky's alleged victims. It is heartening to find that at least one other writer is not afraid to speak an unpopular truth: a Philadelphia Daily News column by Christine Flowers brilliantly makes it clear that it is possible--and indeed quite reasonable--to feel full compassion for Sandusky's alleged victims while also believing that Penn State's Board of Trustees acted in a cowardly and disgraceful fashion toward Paterno. Flowers' entire piece is worth reading but her conclusion is particularly stirring:

I'm seething with anger that Penn State decided to fire Paterno before letting the legal system wind its way through the normal processes. This is a man who gave unerringly of himself to the college, who built Penn State and who didn't deserve to be kicked to the side of the road for appearances sake.

Was it too much to ask for a little introspection before trashing his legacy?

It's not a simple case of blind loyalty, nor does it mean that we're ignoring the plight of the abused kids. Clearly, there is evidence that heinous crimes were committed. But, why is it only when the accuser is a child or a woman that the usual presumption of "innocent until proven guilty" is exchanged for "hang 'em high"?

And the fact that the board of trustees didn't even have the decency to tell the greatest coach of the last half-century, in person, that he was being fired is a disgusting example of cowardice.

Pliny once wrote, "It is generally much more shameful to lose a good reputation than never to have acquired it."

JoePa definitely acquired it. But the shame is ours.

The Penn State Board of Trustees claims to be acting in the best interests of Penn State University and most media members are blindly parroting that idea but the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office--which presumably knows more about this case than ESPN's talking heads and the various other commentators who apparently delight in bashing Paterno--has a completely different take: spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said, "We have a cooperating witness [Paterno], an individual who testified, provided truthful testimony but two others who were found by a grand jury to commit perjury whose legal expenses are being paid for university. One is on administrative leave. Very interesting development. It's certainly curious and [has] not been explained yet. Speaking as a prosecuting agency, we have a cooperating witness who has not been charged, while two individuals accused of committing crimes continue to be affiliated."

The way that Penn State has handled this entire matter is a joke but not a very funny one. Why did Penn State muzzle Paterno (by cancelling his regularly scheduled news conference prior to firing him), not bring forth any administrator to publicly speak about the scandal and then send out interim head coach Tom Bradley to face questions that he cannot--and should not have to--answer? What possible sense does it make to fire Paterno and yet retain the services of Mike McQueary, the person who witnessed--and did nothing to stop--a criminal act? Why did Penn State initially indicate that McQueary would be on the sidelines during Saturday's Nebraska game and only after much public outcry then switch gears and say that--allegedly for his own protection--McQueary would not in fact be on the sidelines? If the idea behind firing Paterno was to prevent the Nebraska game from becoming an unseemly spectacle it is fair to say that the Board of Trustees completely failed--and that this failure was quite foreseeable.

The Board of Trustees acted with but one goal in mind--turning Paterno into the public face of and scapegoat for the Sandusky Scandal; the Board is despicable and most of the media coverage of Paterno's firing is equally despicable.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cowardly Lions: Penn State Acted Slowly on Sandusky Allegations but Swiftly Made Paterno a Scapegoat

Penn State University officials acted very slowly regarding allegations that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children--so slowly, in fact, that two high ranking Penn State officials have been charged with perjury and with failing to report child abuse. Now that Sandusky faces a 40 count indictment, Penn State has decided to act quickly--not to punish the aforementioned two officials but to zero in on the biggest name tangentially associated with this case and transform him into the scapegoat for the university's sins. Joe Paterno, the winningest coach in major college football history and a respected figure with an exemplary record on and off the field during his 46 year tenure as the face and voice of Penn State Nittany Lions football, was unceremoniously fired on Wednesday night via a hastily arranged phone call. The 84 year old Paterno, whose name scarcely appears in the 23 page Grand Jury report about Sandusky and who was absolved of any wrongdoing--unlike former Penn State Athletic Director Timothy Curley and former Penn State Senior Vice President Gary Schultz--offered to retire at the end of this season (when his contract expires) but rather than allow the legend to bow out gracefully the Board of Trustees shamed and embarrassed a man who has devoted his life not just to the school's football program but also to upgrading the school's academics.

Above and beyond Paterno's numerous on-field accomplishments, Paterno donated and raised tens of millions of dollars for Penn State's library and for the school's various colleges/academic departments. Paterno certainly valued winning but he emphasized doing things the right way; he suspended star players Curtis Enis and Joe Jurevicius for the 1998 Citrus Bowl for infractions that probably would have been ignored at most other big-time college programs. In 2000, Paterno caught some flak for not suspending starting quarterback Rashard Casey, who was charged with assault but later found not guilty. Those two snapshots from Paterno's career demonstrate his character: when he knew that star players had committed wrongdoings he kicked them off of the team even though that could have cost Penn State a big win but when he believed that his player was innocent he stood behind that player despite receiving a lot of very public and very harsh criticism. Jerry Sandusky, Timothy Curley and Gary Schultz have been charged with crimes but the Penn State Board of Trustees would like to turn Paterno into the public face of this scandal, make him the official scapegoat and then run him out of town, presumably carrying the bulk of the filth from this mess on his back.

The press conference announcing Paterno's firing was surreal. John P. Surma, the Board's vice chairman and the designated spokesman for the evening, could not provide one specific reason that Paterno had to be fired immediately. Surma admitted that he and the Board did not have all of the facts of the case and did not know anything beyond what appears in the Grand Jury's report. Surma would neither confirm nor deny that Penn State is paying the legal fees for Curley and Schultz. All Surma could do was mindlessly repeat the mantra that firing Paterno was "in the best interest" of Penn State University. That would certainly be true if, in fact, Paterno had committed a crime or if there were good reason to believe that he had been grossly negligent--but based on the publicly available information, it could be argued that the most that Paterno is guilty of is having too much faith in the ability/willingness of his superiors to properly handle the situation that he had brought to their attention, namely that (according to Paterno's testimony, which the Grand Jury found to be credible) in 2002 Mike McQueary had told Paterno that he saw Sandusky engaging in some kind of "horseplay" in a shower with a 10 year old boy. McQueary now says that he saw Sandusky sodomize the boy but there is no evidence or testimony that he communicated that important detail to Paterno; thus, Paterno immediately passed on what he knew--that McQueary had seen Sandusky conduct himself in a questionable manner--to Curley, who did not pursue the matter in 2002 and who provided testimony that the Grand Jury considered to be false. Why is there not more anger directed at McQueary? If McQueary, then a 28 year old adult, truly witnessed Sandusky sodomizing a boy in a shower why didn't McQueary immediately take physical action to prevent the crime and/or call the police? Surma indicated that no action has been taken to fire McQueary, who is now Penn State's recruiting coordinator/receivers coach. Why is it apparently so important to fire Paterno but not important to fire McQueary?

Much has been made by the media about Paterno's recent statement that he wishes he had done more but, as ESPN's Rece Davis astutely pointed out, the full quote from Paterno is that "in hindsight" Paterno wishes he had done more; Davis noted that there is a big difference between saying that in hindsight one wishes that one had done more and saying that one believes that he did not do enough based on what he knew at the time. I would hope that in hindsight each person associated with this sordid case wishes that he had done more but the Board of Trustees owed it to Paterno to let Paterno clearly state what he knew and when he knew it before just ending his career in such an impersonal and abrupt manner. Paterno wanted to answer questions about the Sandusky scandal but Penn State cancelled Paterno's regularly scheduled Tuesday press conference. Paterno abided by the university's wishes that he not speak publicly but that just seemed to make the situation worse; various media members took the absurd position that Paterno must be fired now because it would supposedly be an untenable situation for Paterno to answer questions about Sandusky for the first time after this Saturday's Nebraska game. Instead of cancelling Paterno's press conference and then firing him for not talking, wouldn't it make more sense to simply let Paterno talk? Unless, of course, the Board of Trustees is more interested in creating a scapegoat than really finding out exactly who was negligent back in 2002.

I don't care if people would be rioting to get Paterno fired or rioting for him to keep his job, the Board of Trustees should make decisions based on facts--not on emotion and not on perceived public relations/crisis management considerations. You don't fire a good man because this may create a favorable soundbite or reduce the media crush. The Board should have met with Paterno face to face and given him an opportunity to explain what he did or did not know and what he did or did not do regarding whatever McQueary told him in 2002. If Paterno could not satisfactorily explain his conduct then it certainly would make sense to fire him--but in the absence of clear evidence of Paterno's guilt or complicity how can the Board justify dismissing him without even giving any cause? In the absence of overwhelming evidence, decades of devoted service should not be obliterated by a brief, impersonal phone call. The sad, perverted irony is that Sandusky will get more of an opportunity to plead his case in court than the Board of Trustees gave Paterno to salvage his good name.

I don't know if Sandusky is guilty of some or all of the heinous charges against him but has everyone forgotten the Duke lacrosse scandal and the Kobe Bryant case? Public opinion vociferously spoke out against the Duke lacrosse players and against Bryant but in both instances the criminal charges were ultimately dropped. Sandusky will get his day in court and it makes sense for Penn State to suspend or fire various officials who face criminal charges and/or clearly did not perform their basic duties but it is unfair and unjust to fire Paterno without ascertaining the basic facts--and Surma stated that the Board has not ascertained those basic facts.

Paterno's "Grand Experiment"--the idea that academic achievement, integrity and high level athletic accomplishment are not mutually exclusive goals at major colleges--has now ended with Penn State humiliating and betraying a man who made so many contributions not just to his football program but to his school. The Penn State Board of Trustees voted unanimously to immediately fire Paterno; I hope that they are damn sure that he is as culpable as everyone will assume him to be in the wake of the disgrace that they have heaped upon him and his good name, because terminating Paterno's career in this abrupt manner has placed a permanent stain on his legacy.

The stark reality is that Paterno is either a basically good man who has been taken down by a Board that has been pressuring him to retire off and on for several years or he is to some degree complicit in horrifying acts of abuse against defenseless children. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I believe that the former is the case--but, regardless of what will come out in the ensuing days, weeks and months, Paterno's "Grand Experiment" has ended ignominiously and its demise may very well be the death knell for any hope of salvaging the integrity of collegiate sports: the whole infrastructure of major collegiate athletics needs to be reconfigured, most likely by reorganizing it as various minor leagues that are partially, if not completely, separated from the academic mission of our nation's universities; the unholy marriage of higher education with big-time sports seems to be irredeemably corrupt on multiple levels, resulting in an endless parade of scandals, criminal charges and broken lives.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Cardinals Seek to Crown their Improbable 2011 Season

The 2011 World Series has had more twists and turns than a Dean Koontz novel: three of the first six games have been decided by one run, including St. Louis' 11 inning, 10-9 Game Six win over Texas in which the Rangers twice were just one strike away from claiming their first World Series title. Now the Cardinals have a chance to win their second World Series in six years and the franchise's 11th overall (the Cardinals are already second on the all-time leaderboard, trailing only the Yankees' 27 titles).

The World Series has seen an abundance of heroes, goats and bizarre occurrences. In St. Louis' 16-7 Game Three win, Albert Pujols cracked three home runs to tie a single game World Series record set by Babe Ruth (twice) and Reggie Jackson--but Pujols did not get another hit until he delivered a clutch double in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Six. Jayson Stark hailed St. Louis Manager Tony LaRussa as the second coming of Anatoly Karpov after LaRussa "checkmated" the Rangers in Game One but the "Can you hear me now?" bullpen fiasco in Game Five put at least a slight dent in LaRussa's genius reputation, with the St. Louis savant seeming less like an International Grandmaster and more like a patzer (or an "International Grandmother," the self-deprecating line that Ben Finegold once used to describe his less than inspired play in a chess game). In Game Six, various players exchanged the goat's horns as the teams combined for five errors. After David Freese--who eventually hit the game-winning home run--dropped a routine pop-up, Fox commentator Tim McCarver cracked that, unlike ground balls, fly balls do not take strange bounces.

In a few hours, we may be lauding Pujols for being the 21st Century Mr. October--or we may be looking at his Game Three outburst as nothing but an aberration in an otherwise subpar series. LaRussa may be certified as a baseball genius with three World Series titles on his resume--or he may be critiqued for being a highly decorated manager with just a 2-4 record on MLB's biggest stage. Freese may go down in history with Bucky Dent as a role player who hit a crucial postseason home run for the eventual World Champions--or Freese's Game Six blast may be just a memorable footnote a la Carlton Fisk's 1975 shot. This is not to say that any such snap judgments will be right or fair but that is the nature of the media beast and that nature has only been amplified with the proliferation of social media and the apparent insatiable need that many people have to render an instant, irrevocable historical verdict about whatever has just happened.

On the Texas side of the ledger, bazooka-armed catcher Mike Napoli is hitting .375 with 10 RBI, placing him in striking distance of Bobby Richardson's World Series record of 12 RBI set in 1960; Richardson's Yankees famously lost to Pittsburgh in Game Seven courtesy of Bill Mazeroski's home run but Richardson's big bat enabled him to become the only World Series MVP who played for the losing team. Nelson Cruz collected 13 RBI in the ALCS--surpassing Richardson (and John Valentin)--for the most RBIs in any postseason series and even though he has been relatively quiet versus St. Louis a big Game Seven performance could enable him to grab MVP honors. Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler are each hitting over .300 in the World Series heading into Game Seven.

The last road team to win game seven on the road in the World Series is the "We are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979; that stat--and the Cardinals' Rasputin-like ability to repeatedly escape death--suggests that the Cardinals will triumph tonight.

MLB betting is the place to look for odds on who will game seven.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Rashid Nezhmetdinov: "Grandmaster of Chess Beauty"

"Players die, tournaments are forgotten but the works of great artists are left behind them to live on forever."--Mikhail Tal

Rashid Nezhmetdinov never received the Grandmaster title but former World Champion Max Euwe called Nezhmetdinov--who won numerous brilliancy prizes for his sparkling victories over many elite players--"Grandmaster of chess beauty." Here is the first of a three part video series celebrating Nezhmetdinov's great career (you can access the second and third parts at the end of the first video):

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Uncrowned Champion: David Bronstein

This article was originally published in the January/February 2009 issue of the Ohio Chess Connection.
Of all the Uncrowned Champions, David Bronstein (1924-2006) came closest to winning the World Championship: in 1951, he led his match with World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik 11.5-10.5 before losing game 23 and drawing game 24, enabling Botvinnik to retain the title with a 12-12 tie.

Just like Paul Keres' quest for the World Championship was likely blocked by Soviet malfeasance during the 1948 World Championship Tournament, there have long been rumblings that the Soviets strongly encouraged Bronstein not to defeat Botvinnik. Here is what Bronstein, in his book The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1995), said about this issue: "I have been asked many, many times if I was obliged to lose the 23rd game and if there was a conspiracy against me to stop me from taking Botvinnik's title. A lot of nonsense has been written about this. The only thing that I am prepared to say about all this controversy is that I was subjected to strong psychological pressure from various origins and it was entirely up to me to yield to that pressure or not. Let’s leave it at that. I had reasons not to become the World Champion as in those times such a title meant that you were entering an official world of chess bureaucracy with many formal obligations. Such a position is not compatible with my character."

Bronstein later explained why he played in the FIDE World Championship events even though winning the title was not his primary goal: "In those days there were very few international tournaments, and if one wanted to be respected by the Chess Federation, it was necessary to play to prove that you are amongst the best."

Not surprisingly, Botvinnik and Bronstein were on less than amicable terms for a while after that tightly contested match. Botvinnik said that he had been out of form due to a prolonged period of chess inactivity; he did not play any serious tournament or match games from 1948 (when he won the World Championship) until 1951, when he placed fifth in the Soviet Championship (four points behind Keres, who finished clear first). Bronstein offered this rebuttal to Botvinnik's excuse: "Also I think that it is not fair of Botvinnik to mention year after year that he did not crush me in the match only because he did not play a single game during the preceding three years and that he was rusty. I am convinced that he did not play because he did not want to reveal his opening secrets to his challenger and wanted to save his energy."

While many people emphasize the sporting aspect of chess, Bronstein had a great and nuanced appreciation for the artistic aspect of chess and he even suggested hopefully that some day chess games would not be recorded as wins, losses or draws but rather simply played for the enjoyment of the participants and the spectators. It is easy to see why someone with that temperament may not have been best suited to be the World Champion. Bronstein said, "Chess on the highest level is not only a board game. It is much more. It is part of human civilization. Both Dr. Emanuel Lasker and Dr. Max Euwe have described chess mainly as a fight…I am proud of the fact that I am not known for fights off of the chessboard but only on it."

On the other hand, Bronstein had enough ability and fighting spirit to draw a 24 game match with a fiercely competitive player who retained the title off and on for a 15 year period so it is certainly possible to envision Bronstein being a fine World Champion who would have brought a unique perspective to that role and been a great ambassador for the game.

According to Jeff Sonas' Chessmetrics ratings, Bronstein was the strongest player in the world from October 1950 to December 1951. His one year peak rating (attained from January-December 1951) is the 20th highest of all-time; the only players with a higher one year peak rating in the post-World War I era who did not win the World Championship are Viktor Korchnoi and Vassily Ivanchuk. You may recall that in my previous Uncrowned Champions article I mentioned that by Sonas' reckoning Keres had the 24th highest single year peak rating of all-time but that Keres' ranking increased over longer time frames; Keres' 20 year peak rating is the seventh best all-time. Bronstein's one year peak rating is higher than Keres' but Bronstein's 20 year peak rating ranks 15th on Sonas' all-time list. These numbers suggest that Bronstein at his absolute best was slightly stronger than Keres at his absolute best but that Keres retained a high position among the elite players longer than Bronstein did; Keres was still a top 10 player well into his 50s and at the time of his death in 1975 at age 59 he placed 36th on Sonas' list for that year, while Bronstein exited the world top 10 at the age of 35 and during the year that he turned 50 he dropped from 25th to 50th in the world, never again ranking higher than 27th.

Despite coming agonizingly close to dethroning Botvinnik in 1951, Bronstein never played in another World Championship match. In the next championship cycle (1953), Bronstein finished in a three way tie for second with Sammy Reshevsky and Keres (behind Vasily Smyslov) at the Zurich Candidates Tournament. However, for someone who placed such a value on the aesthetic side of chess it is most fitting that Bronstein's name will forever be associated with that event due to his wonderful book titled Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953, an all-time classic that every chess player should own (and read!). Bronstein explained his goal for the book: "I started from the premise that every full-bodied game of chess is an artistic endeavor arising out of a struggle between two masters of equal rank. The kernel of a game of chess is the creative clash of plans, the battle of chess ideas, which takes on its highest form in the middlegame."

Bronstein disliked the practice of citing reams and reams of variations, believing that the higher truth can be lost while wading through such minutiae: "Variations can be interesting, if they show the beauty of chess; they become useless when they exceed the limits of what a man can calculate; and they are a real evil when they are substituted for the study and clarification of positions in which the outcome is decided by intuition, fantasy and talent."

Bronstein also wrote 200 Open Games (a wonderful exploration of games that all began with 1.e4), Sorcerer's Apprentice and Secret Notes. Throughout all of these works, his love of the game and generous spirit are on full display. That generous spirit was put to the test in 1976 when Viktor Korchnoi—another "Uncrowned Champion"—defected from the Soviet Union. Bronstein was one of the few Soviet GMs who did not sign the official letter denouncing Korchnoi. As punishment for his brave stand, the Soviet authorities took away Bronstein's stipend and greatly limited his opportunities to play the game that he loved so much. Here is a game between the two "Uncrowned Champions"; the opening is nothing special but the finish more than makes up for that:

David Bronstein - Viktor Korchnoi [C83]
Moscow-Leningrad Match, 1962 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0–0 Nxe4 6.d4 b5 7.Bb3 d5 8.dxe5 Be6 9.c3 Be7 10.Bc2 (10.Nbd2 is more commonly seen in top level chess today) 10...0–0 11.Qe2 f5!? Fritz prefers White after this move and suggests that 11...Nc5 is a stronger choice. 12.exf6 Bxf6 13.Nbd2 Bf5 14.Nxe4 Bxe4 15.Bxe4 dxe4 16.Qxe4± Black does not have much compensation for his sacrificed pawn. 16...Qd7 17.Bf4!? 17.Be3 looks safer. 17...Rae8 18.Qc2 Bh4 Thanks to the unprotected B on f4, Black could have regained his pawn by playing 18...Bxc3. 19.Bg3 Bxg3 20.hxg3 Ne5 21.Nxe5 Rxe5 22.Rfe1 Rd5 23.Rad1 c5 24.a4 Rd8 25.Rxd5 Qxd5 26.axb5 axb5 27.Qe2 b4 28.cxb4 cxb4 29.Qg4 b3 30.Kh2 Qf7 31.Qg5 Rd7 32.f3 h6 33.Qe3 Rd8 34.g4 Kh8 35.Qb6 Rd2 36.Qb8+ Kh7 37.Re8 Qxf3?? In Sorcerer's Apprentice, Bronstein suggested that Black should have played 37...Qd7 38.Rh8+ Kg6 39.Rxh6+! 
In "New in Chess 2007/1," Bronstein wrote, "Korchnoi remained unruffled. He wrote down my move on his scoresheet and began carefully studying the position. I think it seemed incredible to him that White could sacrifice his last rook (I myself could not believe my eyes!). And only when he had convinced himself, did he stop the clocks. These are the variations: A) 39... Kf7 40.Qc7+ Kg8 41.Qc8+ Kf7 42.Qe6+ Kf8 43.Rh8 mate; B) 39... Kg5 40.Qe5+ Kxg4 41.Rg6+ Kh4 42.Qg5 mate; C) 39... gxh6 40.Qg8+ Kf6 41.Qf8+; D) 39... Kxh6 40.Qh8+ Kg6 41.Qh5+ Kf6 42.g5+!"

David Bronstein was a first rate chess artist and an engaging writer. As a theoretician, he will always be remembered for playing the King's Gambit against the strongest competition and for helping to develop the King's Indian Defense into a powerful weapon. GM Yasser Seirawan declared, "I consider David Bronstein to be the single most inventive chess grandmaster ever. Full stop, end of story."

Friday, September 30, 2011

Pearlman's "Definitive" Payton Biography Ignores One Very Important Subject

Jeff Pearlman has received criticism for some of the salacious details he included in his new Walter Payton biography but the Chicago Tribune's David Haugh points out that the biggest problem with the book is not so much the subjects Pearlman discussed but rather one very important subject that Pearlman ignored: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)--or, in layman's terms, the brain damage caused by receiving repeated blows to the head. There is a long, growing list of retired NFL players who seem to have suffered from CTE (I deliberately qualified that statement because I am not a doctor and because a thorough medical examination and/or autopsy is required to make such a diagnosis); Mike Webster is perhaps one of the earliest well known cases of an NFL player who had impaired brain function after he retired, while Dave Duerson is one of the most recent cases. Is it possible that at least some of Payton's later actions and behaviors may have been related to CTE? Haugh writes:

I am not a best-selling author like Pearlman. But I wonder how anybody writes a 460-page biography about a running back who carried the ball 3,838 times and ignores the possibility of brain trauma later impairing Payton's judgment. How are other salacious details revealed in excerpts deemed relevant but a possible contributor to why Payton's life was spinning out of control omitted entirely?

"I didn't address it because it would have been pure speculation since no one studied his brain after he died,'' Pearlman responded via email. "It was impossible. Certainly, however, it entered my mind.''

That notion never entered the book. Not that broaching the possible presence of CTE would excuse Payton for his infidelities or abuse of painkillers. But mentioning a proven contemporary cause of NFL retiree problems might have helped people understand the enigma at the crux of the book. Or provided a necessary layer of context.

The more I read and hear about Pearlman defending his book, the less I like Pearlman and the lower opinion I have of his work. Perhaps Pearlman's book is well-researched and accurate--but since he did not interview Payton's mother, wife or brother it is safe to assume that a lot of what Pearlman asserts is either speculation or the product of interviews with second-hand and/or unreliable sources. My problem with Pearlman is that he portrays himself like some great writer defending the bastions of journalistic integrity against the benighted souls who dare to challenge him; Pearlman huffily declares that as a biographer his job is to write the truth, not to comfort those who view Payton as a flawless icon, but Pearlman is not a world class biographer who is penning detailed accounts of the lives of politicians or religious leaders: Pearlman is a generic sportswriter--the Chicago Tribune's John Kass describes Pearlman's recent defense of the Payton book as "just about the most awful writing I've ever seen outside a 12-step Rod McKuen program"--who has raised his profile by writing warts and all biographies of famous athletes.

Pearlman did not write Payton's life story because of some great mission to deliver truth to the world (as if the world really needs to know the details of Payton's marital life)--if that were the case then Pearlman would have taken the time to investigate CTE, a subject that might not have sold any more copies of the book but is a life and death issue that clearly must be covered in any so-called "definitive" Payton life story. Payton retired as the NFL's all-time leading rusher and he may have suffered permanent brain damage while accomplishing that feat but Pearlman could not tear himself away from researching Payton's marital life long enough to speak with Chris Nowinski or Dr. Robert Cantu? Pearlman wrote the Payton book to make money and hopefully (from his standpoint) receive more money to write his next book. Payton's marital life is a subject suitable for the tabloids, while CTE is a subject deserving investigation by serious journalists; Pearlman's choices make it clear how he should be categorized as a writer.

I have covered the NBA as a credentialed writer for several years. I have never asked any players or coaches about their private lives; frankly, if one of them started talking about the subject I would try to change the topic to something else. I think that it is possible to cover sports very well without delving into private matters (the obvious exceptions would be when such private matters involve the commission of a crime and/or clearly are having an impact on the player's performance above and beyond the normal "drama" that is present in everyone's life)--but it may not be possible to cover sports in that fashion and make huge dollars: our society has a low collective attention span for important matters combined with a seemingly insatiable appetite for gossip, dirt and faux "reality" shows.

Pearlman has chosen a different, more high profile path than the one I have selected; he has every right to make as much money at his chosen profession as he can and hopefully he is every bit as conscientious as he says he is regarding his research but it is repulsive to hear him act like revealing the intimate details of Payton's private life is some kind of great public service; there is no compelling public interest or need to know these things, whether or not they are true, and the primary reason that these things are in the book is that sleaze sells. Pearlman did not have to portray Payton as some kind of saint but it is possible to allude to Payton's flaws without mentioning every last sordid detail--and it is particularly disgusting that Pearlman has the gall to say that he worries about how such revelations may affect Payton's children. I have a simple solution to that quandary: leave the gory details out of the book! It would have been more than enough for Pearlman to indicate that even though Payton enjoyed a public reputation as a good family man the reality is that Payton's domestic life was less than tranquil; Payton's widow has admitted that much and nothing else really needs to be said. If Pearlman truly were concerned about the impact that his book might have on Payton's innocent family members then Pearlman could have returned his advance and declined to finish the book.

I have no problem with Pearlman cashing his large check and enjoying the fruits of Sports Illustrated's pimping of his product as long as Pearlman has no problem admitting exactly what service he performed to receive that check. Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, we know what Pearlman is but we just don't know how much he got paid.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Uncrowned Champion: Paul Keres

This article was originally published in the November/December 2008 issue of the Ohio Chess Connection.

Paul Keres (1916-1975) learned chess as a very young child when he and his older brother watched their father play. The Keres brothers played practiced against each other for years before learning how to record the moves but as soon as they found out about chess notation they eagerly sought out chess literature that could expand their understanding of the intricacies of the game. Such opportunities were severely limited in the small Estonian town of Parnu, so young Paul borrowed chess books—starting with the Dufresne manual—and he wrote down every single game score that he could find, soon amassing a collection of nearly 1000 games.

In 1929, Keres won Parnu’s lightning championship (10-second chess). That success led to his selection to participate in a team match against players from the city of Wiljandi. Keres drew his first game and he enjoyed a two pawn advantage in his second game when he hastily captured a rook, falling for a checkmating combination. Keres later wrote, “These first hours of instruction were painful, but also very useful.”

Local opportunities to play over the board chess were very limited, so Keres utilized correspondence chess to practice his openings and sharpen his overall game; he played up to 150 postal games at the same time!

Keres captured the Estonian national championship in 1935 (sharing first place and then winning the playoff match). Jeff Sonas has calculated Chessmetrics ratings for the greatest players in modern chess history, providing monthly rating lists that go back to 1840. According to Sonas, by 1935 Keres was already the eighth strongest player in the world. In 1938, Keres won the AVRO Tournament, a super strong, double round robin event named for the Dutch broadcasting company that sponsored it; Keres battled World Champion Alexander Alekhine, former World Champions Jose Raul Capablanca and Max Euwe, future World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik plus top contenders Reuben Fine, Salo Flohr and Sammy Reshevsky. Keres and Fine tied for first with 8.5 points, though Keres was considered the champion based on scoring 1.5/2 in his encounters with Fine. Keres was the only player who did not lose a single game. Fine scored 5.5/6 before facing Keres in the game that ultimately decided the winner of the event:

Reuben Fine - Paul Keres [C86]
AVRO 1938

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.Qe2 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.a4 Bg4 9.c3 0-0 10.axb5 axb5 11.Rxa8 Qxa8 12.Qxb5 "At that time this position was regarded as favorable for White, since at first glance one cannot see how Black can get his pawn back...When I first went in for this variation I was convinced that Black's advantage in development would, nevertheless, ensure him sufficient counter chances. After some thought, too, I succeeded in finding a continuation that deprived the method of play chosen by White of all its poison" (Keres). 12...Na7 Earlier in the year, Book obtained a strong position as White versus Alexander after 12...Na5 13.Bc2 Nxe4 14.Nxe5 Rb8 15.Bxe4 but Keres' 12th move is a significant improvement. 13.Qe2 Qxe4 "After 13...Nxe4 White can either continue 14.d4 or also 14.Qe3. There is no reason for Black to avoid the ensuing exchange of Queens" (Keres). 14.Qxe4 Nxe4 15.d4 Bxf3 16.gxf3 Ng5 17.Kg2 Rb8 18.Bc4 exd4 19.cxd4 Ne6 20.d5 Nc5 21.Nc3 Nc8 22.Re1 Kf8 23.Re2 f5? "Up to here Black has played well and obtained a clear advantage in position, but with the faulty text move he gives up the greater part of his advantage. White cannot now it is true get his Knight to e4 but the unprotected pawn on f5 enables him to gain an important tempo, in consequence of which White is in a position to almost even out the game. So as to increase his advantage Black must naturally continue with 23...Rb4! The limited scope of activity for the Bishop would have then set White some difficult problems: 24.Bb5 (or 24.Ba2 Nd3 winning a pawn) 24...Na7 25.Bc6 Nxc6 26.dxc6 Rc4 and Black would win the pawn on c6 with the better position. After the imprecise text move some highly interesting complications arise" (Keres). 24.Nb5 Nb6 25.b3 Nxd5! This is Black's only chance to retain the advantage. In fact, with imprecise play he could quickly stand worse: 25...c6? 26.dxc6 d5 27.b4 Nxc4 28.c7 Rc8 29.bxc5± 26.Nd4 White could have tried 26.Nxd6 Bxd6 27.Bxd5 Nxb3 28.Rb2 Ba3 29.Rxb3 Rxb3 30.Bxb3 Bxc1 but Keres preferred Black's chances despite the opposite colored bishops: "A possible winning plan would be as follows: Black blockades the enemy f pawn by playing ...f4, gets his Bishop to b6, his King to d4 and then advances his c pawn. Once this maneuver has been carried out then White must soon give up his pawn on f2, after which he would retain merely endgame study type of drawing chances. It is naturally possible that a penetrating analysis of this ending would show that White could make a draw but one does not go in for such a position of one's own free will." 26...Nb4 27.Bd2? Keres called this move "the decisive mistake" and suggested that White should have played 27.Nxf5 Bf6 28.Bf4 27...d5! "Black had placed all his hopes on this thrust. The ensuing complications are more or less forced and lead eventually to a position where the Black passed pawns on the Queen's wing, without paying attention to the lost exchange, ensure him an advantage sufficient for a win" (Keres). 28.Bxb4 Rxb4 29.Nc6 dxc4 30.Nxb4 cxb3 31.Nd5 Both players were in time pressure by this point. White hoped to force ...Bd6 but Keres uncorked a nice tactical resource instead. 31...Nd3! 32.Rd2 (32.Rxe7 b2 33.Nc3 Kxe7-+; 32.Nxe7 Nf4+ 33.Kf1 Nxe2 34.Kxe2 b2-+) 32...b2 33.Rd1 c5 Even stronger is 33...Nc1 34.Nc3 Bb4 35.Nb1 Ke7 after which White's pieces would be, as Keres put it, "well-nigh stalemated." 34.Rb1 c4 35.Kf1 Bc5 "Black discerns that he cannot force his passed pawns through and therefore looks around for more pawns to capture" (Keres). 36.Ke2 Bxf2 37.Ne3 c3 38.Nc2 Ne1! 39.Na3 (39.Nxe1 Bxe1 40.Kxe1 c2-+) 39...Bc5? Keres gave this move a question mark even though Black is still winning, because White now has the opportunity to redeploy his Rook on the b-file and offer much more resistance. Black should have played 39...Bh4 after which White is totally lost. For instance, 40.Rxe1 Bxe1 41.Kxe1 c2 42.Nxc2 b1Q+. 40.Kxe1? Keres suggested that White should have played 40.Rxe1 Bxa3 41.Kd3 Bb4 42.Kc2 after which Black would have to very carefully neutralize White's suddenly active Rook: 42...Kf7 43.Re5 Bd6 44.Rxf5+ Kg6 45.Rb5 Bxh2 46.Kxc3 Be5+ 47.Kd3 Kf5 48.Ke3 g5 and the advance of the h pawn will be decisive. 40...Bxa3 41.Kd1 Bd6 42.Kc2 Bxh2 43.Rh1 Be5 43...Bf4 44.Rxh7 Kf7 followed by ...Bd2 is more precise, according to Keres. Now Black will have to create another passed pawn in order to win. 44.Rxh7 Kf7 45.Rh1 g5 46.Re1 Kf6 47.Rg1 Kg6 48.Re1 Bf6 49.Rg1 g4 50.fxg4 f4 51.g5 Bd4 (51...Bxg5? 52.Kxc3 and White draws.) 52.Rd1 Be3 53.Kxc3 Bc1 54.Rd6+ Kxg5 55.Rb6 f3 56.Kd3 Kf4 57.Rb8 Kg3 Fine resigned here. According to Keres, one possible continuation would have been: 58.Rg8+ Kf2 59.Kc2 Ke2 60.Re8+ Kf1 61.Rf8 f2 62.Rf7 Ke2 63.Re7+ Kf3 64.Rf7+ Bf4 followed by the promotion of the f pawn. 0-1

Although the AVRO 1938 Tournament was not formally called a candidates tournament, it was natural to assume that the winner would get the opportunity to challenge Alekhine to a match. However, much like World War I wiped out Akiba Rubinstein’s best chance to play in a World Championship match, World War II started shortly after Keres’ great victory at AVRO 1938. Keres’ native Estonia was first occupied by the Soviet Union, then captured by the Nazis and then occupied again by the Soviets. Keres and Alekhine both played in tournaments run under the auspices of Nazi rule, a decision that later negatively affected Alekhine’s reputation in some quarters and that caused Keres to be subjected to careful scrutiny by the Soviets when they recaptured Estonia.

In 1946, Alekhine became the first modern World Chess Champion to die while still holding the title. Traditionally, the World Champion handpicked a challenger, primarily based on how much financial support that player had. FIDE had long sought a larger role in determining the rules and formats of World Championship matches and Alekhine’s death provided FIDE the opportunity to take control of the title.

FIDE invited the six surviving players from AVRO 1938 (with the lone exception being the replacement of last place finisher Flohr with Vasily Smyslov) to play in a “World Championship Tournament.” Only Fine declined his invitation. The round robin event consisted of each player playing five games against each of the other players (20 rounds total). Botvinnik won decisively with a score of 14 points, while Smyslov had 11, Keres and Reshevsky tallied 10.5 each and former World Champion Euwe ended up well off the pace with just 4 points.

Botvinnik’s victory margin came from his 4-1 rout of Keres, including victories in each of their first four games. Due to Keres’ precarious status as a non-Russian in the Soviet Union there has been endless speculation about whether he was coerced to throw his games versus Botvinnik. In 1998, the Chess CafĂ©’s Tim Kingston took a fairly exhaustive look at this issue (you can find his article here) and concluded that although it is not an open and shut case, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that something was amiss—or, as Kingston colorfully put it, “Conclusion: the Commies did it.” Strong GMs have subjected those games to much analysis and reached starkly opposite conclusions: some GMs say that Keres made glaring mistakes that prove he threw the games that he lost to Botvinnik, while other GMs say that the mistakes were no worse than similar mistakes that other GMs have made in high pressure games (you may recall that recently Kramnik missed a mate in one in a high stakes match versus a powerful computer program).

By Sonas’ rankings, Keres was the second best player in the world for a significant portion of the time between July 1943 and July 1960 (52 of the 204 months during that time span, including 18 straight months from 1955-56 and 32 out of 33 months from July 1955 to March 1958). Keres has the 24th highest one year peak Chessmetrics rating but a strong indicator of his durability is that his ranking increases progressively over longer time spans: Keres’ 10 year peak Chessmetrics rating is the 19th best all-time, his 15 year peak Chessmetrics rating is the 15th best all-time and his 20 year peak Chessmetrics rating is the seventh best all-time, trailing only Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Emanuel Lasker, Alexander Alekhine, Viktor Korchnoi and Vasily Smyslov.

Although Botvinnik retained the world title for the better part of 15 years (losing once each to Smyslov and Mikhail Tal only to win rematches against each opponent), Keres may very well have been the best player in the world in the early 1950s. Keres won the Soviet Championship—arguably the strongest tournament in the world at the time—in 1950 and 1951; Botvinnik did not participate in the 1950 event but he finished fifth in 1951, two full points behind Keres, who thus earned the top spot on the Soviet Olympic team, relegating World Champion Botvinnik to second board (Botvinnik declined his invitation to play on the team).

After the 1948 World Chess Championship Tournament, Keres finished second or tied for second in the Candidates’ Tournament four straight times (1953, 1956, 1959, 1962). His performance in the 1959 event (18.5/28) was particularly impressive—3 points ahead of future World Champion Tigran Petrosian, 3.5 points clear of former World Champion Vasily Smyslov and six points ahead of 16 year old future World Champion Bobby Fischer—but Tal’s breathtaking result (20/28) denied Keres a shot at the title. Sonas considers the 1959 Candidates Tournament to be the best tournament of Keres’ career and the 22nd best tournament performance of all-time.

Keres remained a strong player on the international scene until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1975 at age 59 but he never seriously challenged for the world title after 1965, when he lost a Candidates quarterfinal match to Boris Spassky, who emerged from that cycle as the next World Champion.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Uncrowned Champion: Akiba Rubinstein

This article was originally published in the September/October 2008 issue of the Ohio Chess Connection.

Most chess players know something about the World Chess Champions, two of whom—Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov—achieved fame extending far outside of the chess community. However, there are several players who fell just short of winning the World Championship and thus do not receive the attention and credit that they deserve. This series of articles about “Uncrowned Champions” will showcase the achievements of several chess players who did not claim the ultimate crown but who deserve to be remembered. IM John Donaldson and IM Nikolay Minev wrote a 1994 book titled Akiba Rubinstein: Uncrowned King and since the title and theme of that book provided some of the inspiration for this project it is only fitting to begin by looking at Rubinstein’s brilliant and tragic career.

Akiba Rubinstein (1882-1961) first learned to play chess when he was a 16 year old student at a yeshiva (Jewish religious school) in an area of his native Poland that was then governed by Czarist Russia. Rubinstein acquired the only Hebrew chess book he could find—a volume by Talmudic scholar/polymath Joseph Sossnitz titled Chess, Checkmate—and devoured it from cover to cover.

Three years later, Rubinstein traveled to the nearby city of Lodz and met George Salwe, who was a Grandmaster strength player, though that title did not yet exist. Rubinstein discovered that he still had much to learn about the royal game but he proved to be a determined and relentless student. In 1903, Rubinstein challenged Salwe to a match and battled his much more experienced opponent to a tie (Hans Kmoch’s 1941 book Rubinstein’s Chess Masterpieces says that the match was knotted at 5-5, while Rubinstein’s page at lists a 7-7 score). Rubinstein won the rematch (Kmoch gives a final tally of 6-3, while reports a 5.5-4.5 outcome). Rubinstein began his tournament career by scoring 11.5/18 in the 1903 Russian Championship at Kiev, placing fifth. In his next seven tournaments he finished first five times, including a victory in the 1907 Russian Championship at Lodz.

According to Jeff Sonas, whose rating calculations can be found at his Chessmetrics site, Rubinstein was the strongest chess player in the world at various times between 1908-1914. From January 1908-May 1914, Sonas ranks Rubinstein either #1 or #2 on every monthly rating list. Sonas says that the best tournament performance of Rubinstein’s career came at St. Petersburg 1909 when he scored 14.5/18 and shared first place with World Champion Emanuel Lasker, 3.5 points ahead of a strong field that included Rudolf Spielman, Ossip Bernstein, Carl Schlechter, Jacque Mieses and Savielly Tartakower. Rubinstein showcased his tremendous endgame technique in his encounter with Lasker:

Rubinstein,Akiba - Lasker,Emanuel [D32]

St. Petersburg 1909 (3), 1909

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.Bg5 c5 [4...Be7 or

4...Nbd7 are preferred by modern GMs.] 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Nc3 cxd4 7.Nxd4 Nc6 ["The cause for subsequent embarrassment. 7...Be7 was preferable" (Lasker).] 8.e3 Be7 9.Bb5 ["Showing up the weakness of Black's seventh move" (Lasker).] 9...Bd7 10.Bxf6 Bxf6 11.Nxd5 Bxd4 12.exd4 Qg5 13.Bxc6 [13.Nc7+ Kd8 14.Bxc6 Bxc6 15.d5 (15.Nxa8?? Re8+-+) 15...Kxc7 16.dxc6 Rhe8+ 17.Kf1 bxc6=+] 13...Bxc6 14.Ne3 0-0-0 ["A careless move. There was no reason for Black to desist from his intention of capturing the g-pawn simply because White has omitted Qe2+. As a matter of fact, after 14...Bxg2 15.Rg1 Qa5+ 16.Qd2 Qxd2+ 17.Kxd2 Be4 Black would be quite comfortable" (Lasker).] 15.0-0 Rhe8 16.Rc1! ["A very subtle move. What with the threat of Rc5 and d5, White retains his advantage, and he can certainly cope with Black's threat of ...Rxe3" (Lasker).] 16...Rxe3 [16...Kb8 17.Rc5 Qf4 18.d5 Rxe3 19.Qc1 Re4 20.dxc6 bxc6 21.Qc3± (Lasker).] 17.Rxc6+ bxc6 18.Qc1!! Rxd4 [18...Re5 19.Qxc6+ Kb8 20.dxe5 Qxe5 21.Rc1 and Black cannot defend his exposed K against White's powerful Q and R.] 19.fxe3 Rd7 20.Qxc6+ Kd8 21.Rf4!! ["A splendid idea, threatening to decide the game at once by Qa8+, followed by a Rook check on e4 or c4; hence, Black is forced to swap Queens and to face a lost ending" (Lasker). Note how Rubinstein keenly combined attack and defense, placing his R on an aggressive post that also shields the weak e-pawn from Black's Q.] 21...f5 [Guarding the e4 square is the best practical choice in a lost position, as demonstrated by these lines provided by Lasker: [21...Qa5 22.Qa8+ Ke7 23.Re4+ Kf6 24.Qc6+ Kg5 25.h4++-; 21...Rd1+ 22.Kf2 Rd2+ 23.Ke1 Qxg2 24.Rd4+! Ke7 25.Qd6++-] 22.Qc5 Qe7 [After 22...Rd1+ 23 Kf2 Rd2+ 24 Ke1 Qxg2 White would win the Rook by 23 Qa5+ (Lasker).] 23.Qxe7+ Kxe7 24.Rxf5 Rd1+ 25.Kf2 Rd2+ 26.Kf3 Rxb2 27.Ra5 Rb7 28.Ra6 [Rubinstein's technique is most instructive: his last two moves have limited the mobility of both of Black's pieces. This allows Rubinstein to methodically build up a deadly K-side pawn storm.] 28...Kf8 29.e4 Rc7 30.h4 Kf7 31.g4 Kf8 32.Kf4 Ke7 33.h5 h6 [As is usually the case, advancing a P on the side where the opponent is attacking creates a weakness--the g6 square in this instance--but Black did not have a good alternative: 33...Kf7 34.Kf5 Ke7 35.g5 Kf7 36.e5 Ke7 37.g6 h6 38.Re6+ Kd7 (38...Kf8 39.Rd6 Ke7 40.Ra6 Rb7 41.Rc6 Rd7 42.Rc8 and White's R will capture the g-pawn.) 39.Rf6!! Ke8 (39...gxf6 40.g7 Rc8 41.exf6+-) 40.Rf7 Rxf7+ 41.gxf7+ Kxf7 42.e6+ Ke8 43.Ke5 Ke7 44.Kd5 Ke8 45.Kd6 Kd8 46.e7+ Ke8 47.Ke6 a5 48.a4 g5 49.hxg6 h5 50.g7 h4 51.g8Q# (Analysis by GM Mihail Marin).] 34.Kf5 Kf7 35.e5 Rb7 36.Rd6 Ke7 37.Ra6 Kf7 38.Rd6 Kf8 39.Rc6 Kf7 40.a3 1-0

Rubinstein won first place in five consecutive top level events from 1911-1912, a remarkable run highlighted by his clear first with a 12.5/19 score at the 1912 San Sebastian tournament, a result that Sonas ranks as the best performance by any chess player from 1912-1913. In Learn from the Legends—Chess Champions at Their Best, GM Mihail Marin offers the highest praise for Rubinstein’s winning streak: “Akiba’s performance should be put on the same level as Kasparov’s domination in the tournaments played around the turn of the millennium.”

Sonas asserts that Rubinstein was the best chess player in the world from August 1912-April 1914. Sonas calculates Rubinstein’s “five year peak rating” (2779 from Jan. 1910-Dec. 1914) to be the 18th best of all-time; Sonas’ top five players in this category are Garry Kasparov (2875 from Jan. 1989-Dec. 1993), Emanuel Lasker (2854 from Jan. 1894-Dec. 1898), Jose Capablanca (2843 from Jan. 1919-Dec. 1923), Mikhail Botvinnik (2843 from Jan. 1945-Dec. 1949) and Bobby Fischer (2841 from Jan. 1969-Dec. 1973).

Rubinstein clearly deserved an opportunity to challenge Lasker for the World Championship but during that era the World Champion had the right to set the financial terms that a prospective opponent would have to meet in order to arrange a match; basically, the World Champion could handpick his challenger. Understandably, Lasker was not eager to face Rubinstein but eventually a match between the two best players in the world was scheduled to begin in October 1914. Unfortunately, the onset of World War I canceled this showdown.

When the war ended Rubinstein was clearly not the same as a person or a chess player. Although by Sonas’ reckoning he remained one of the world’s top ten players until late in 1932, Rubinstein never quite regained the playing strength that he demonstrated from 1910-1914. Rubinstein was still capable of beating the top players in the world but his results lacked consistency and away from the board he increasingly began to demonstrate signs of a worsening mental illness, a problem that eventually forced Rubinstein to stop playing competitive chess after 1932. Just prior to that, Rubinstein enjoyed his last great triumph, leading Poland to the gold medal in the third Chess Olympiad (Hamburg 1930).

Even though Rubinstein’s career was interrupted by war and curtailed by mental illness, he still left perhaps the most impressive legacy of any chess player who did not win the World Championship. Rubinstein excelled in all phases of the game. He was an endgame virtuoso who is widely regarded as the greatest rook endgame player ever but he also made substantial contributions to opening theory. As GM Marin explains, “Rubinstein’s name is closely linked with the main lines of such openings as the Nimzo-Indian, the Queen’s Indian and the Tarrasch Defense. He invented several set-ups for Black that are still topical in the French Defense and the Ruy Lopez. He also played the modern Meran variation of the Semi-Slav for the first time.”

Rubinstein was also a daring and inventive attacking player who devised some of the most dazzling combinations ever, so this tribute to his brilliance will conclude by displaying three of his sparkling tactical gems:

Rotlewi - Rubinstein

Lodz 1907


1...Rxc3 2.gxh4 Rd2 3.Qxd2 Bxe4+ 4.Qg2 Rh3 5.Bd4 Bxd4 6.Rf2 Bxf2 0-1

Rubinstein - Hromadka

Mahrisch-Ostrau, 1923 (Brilliancy Prize)


1.Qb6 Rd7 [1...axb6 2.axb6+ Ba7 3.Rxa7+ Kb8 4.Bd4 exd4 5.Rfxb7+ Kc8 6.Ba6 Qc7 7.Rxc7+ Kb8 8.Rcb7+ Kc8 9.Ra8#] 2.Bc5 Rxf7 3.Bxd6 Rf2+ 4.Qxf2 Nxf2 5.Bc5 1-0

Michel - Rubinstein

Semmering, 1926 (Brilliancy Prize)


33...Qa1 34.gxh4 Qf1+ 35.Kg3 Qe1+ 36.Rf2 Qg1+ 37.Kf3 Qh1+ 38.Rg2 Qd1+ 39.Kg3 Qg4+ 40.Kf2 Qe2+ 0-1