Sunday, December 29, 2013

Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson's Insights About Magnus Carlsen

Scottish Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson, a three-time British Chess Champion (2004-06), has some fascinating insights about the specific traits that make World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen such a great player.

Rowson explains, "Carlsen is not an idealist or a performer like Kasparov, who loved the narrative, the drama, the quest. Magnus just wants to win. So while there is plenty of creative amplitude in his play, the underlying motivational vector appears to be relatively sombre and flat." Carlsen possesses what Rowson calls "depressive realism"--Carlsen has a very objective approach to chess and his play does not seem to be dictated by his emotions but rather by a detached, clinical evaluation of the position at hand.

Rowson vigorously disagrees with the contention that Carlsen defeated World Champion Viswanathan Anand not on chess merit but simply by virtue of being younger and more energetic. Rowson asserts, "Carlsen’s nettlesomeness lies in the difference between playing consistently accurate moves, and playing consistently accurate moves that also maximise the chances of inaccuracies from the opponent. The former style beats all but the very best Grandmasters, while the latter tends to beat them too."

How does Carlsen regularly dispatch the world's foremost Grandmasters in positions that are not only seemingly equal but also seemingly devoid of any semblance of meaningful winning chances? Rowson, who has faced Carlsen in tournament play, provides an interesting list of what he considers Carlsen's unique chess warrior attributes:
  • First, avoid errors yourself.
  • Second, play relatively quickly.
  • Third, see complexity where others assume simplicity.
  • Fourth, develop exquisite timing for when to change the nature of the position.
  • Fifth, navigate towards positions where there are no obvious moves.
  • Sixth, believe in your opponent's greater and ultimate fallibility.
  • Seven, keep going relentlessly.
  • Eight, be ever ready to pounce.
  • Nine, kill them without mercy.
  • Ten, smile for the cameras.
That 10 step program may seem simple but there is a real art and skill to playing chess in that fashion. Most strong chess players possess at least some of those traits--I call it "the art of doing nothing while accomplishing something," meaning that strong players can shuffle their pieces around without any obvious goal and yet somehow improve their position while not taking any serious risks--but Carlsen brings that entire tool kit to every move, every game and every tournament.

The first step, avoiding errors, is the most difficult one for chess players at any level. There are countless examples of elite Grandmasters blundering into checkmates, hanging their Queens and committing various other forms of chess suicide. Chess requires constant concentration for hours on end and for days at a time and even the smartest, most dedicated competitors have lapses.

The advantage of playing quickly is that it puts psychological pressure on one's opponent, who literally does not have a moment to rest; in tennis terms, the ball is always coming back over the net at him--and, assuming that one keeps the ball in play (i.e., avoids errors), this forces the opponent to send the ball back over the net as well.

Chess is a complex game that can sometimes seem simple, but even the quietest positions often contain a drop of poison. It takes imagination and concentration to sense danger in what appear to be calm waters.

A chess player is perhaps most likely to make a mistake when he is taken out of his comfort level; he thinks that he is going to be playing a pawn up middlegame but all of a sudden his opponent sacrifices the Exchange. What is the nature of this new, unexpected position? Such surprises often induce mistakes.

Carlsen has the ability to "do nothing" but most chess players lack the patience, board vision and understanding for such maneuvers. When there is nothing obvious to do, it is easy to go astray.

Confidence is so very important in all areas of life. I don't play chess at anywhere near Carlsen's level but even as a local/regional champion I can recall many games that I won mainly because I simply believed (sometimes erroneously) that I was winning and that brazen confidence boosted my spirits while perhaps rattling the confidence of my opponents.

No one ever won by resigning and no one ever held a lost position without displaying great tenacity. Carlsen just plows forward regardless of the situation; as Capablanca once said, the good player is always lucky.

Opportunity may only appear once in a five or six hour playing session but when that opportunity arises Carlsen recognizes it--and he does indeed "kill" his opponents "without mercy."

Rowson's last step is tongue in cheek--at least in terms of being a necessary trait for over the board dominance--but it no doubt has helped Carlsen to land many of his endorsement deals, providing him with more financial stability than most chess players enjoy.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Where Should Magnus Carlsen be Ranked in the Chess Pantheon?

It is interesting and fun to try to rank the greatest practitioners of all-time in a given field but, no matter how conscientiously one attempts to be objective, such selections are inherently subjective.  My Pantheon series honored the 10 greatest retired professional basketball players of all-time, while also providing some recognition to four active players whose career arcs seemed destined to launch them into Pantheon territory. While I am proud of the work that I did on that project, there is a certain charm and elegant simplicity to Julius Erving's take on this subject; he has not changed his all-time starting five since he was in high school: Erving explained that his quintet "was, is, and always will be Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center."

Erving has reiterated his philosophy in multiple recent interviews that he has conducted as part of his tour to promote his autobiography, Dr. J. Erving has made it clear that he is in no way disparaging the accomplishments and/or skill level of players such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James but he strongly believes that the evolution of the game and the emergence of new stars do not diminish the greatness of the game's pioneers; each great player should be appreciated for what he accomplished in the context of his era. In Erving's view, those who operate at the highest levels of greatness are part of a continuum, not a hierarchy: Erving does not believe that his high-flying escapades eclipsed those of Baylor and Hawkins but rather that he continued down the mid-air path that they blazed, much as Jordan, Bryant and James have subsequently continued down that path as well.

Erving's approach could also be applied regarding a chess Pantheon. Olimpiu G. Urcan notes that recently crowned World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen has evoked comparisons with many of the sport's most highly regarded champions because of his ruthlessly efficient playing style, cool nerves and ability to convert the slimmest edge into a win:

Our personal observation took in verbal contrasts and juxtapositions with no fewer than seven of Carlsen's great predecessors, including Paul Morphy, José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Bobby Fischer, Vasily Smyslov, Anatoly Karpov and, of course, Garry Kasparov. Occasionally, commentators offered variations on this theme. One very notable one, in seeking an adequate Carlsen comparison, yoked together two previous world champions. On November 15, 2013, Kasparov tweeted that he "once described him [Carlsen] as Capablanca with the will of Alekhine." Another pundit, Susan Polgar, one of the commentators during the live broadcast of Game 10, made use of commercial product language, the lingo of soaps and cell phone sales: she described Carlsen as "an improved version of Bobby Fischer."

Perhaps Carlsen is an "improved" Fischer in terms of relative psychological/emotional stability--and those traits are certainly important elements in maintaining one's status as the world's best chess player--but both the chess ratings and the anecdotal evidence suggest that Fischer towered over his contemporaries in a way that is unmatched by any other player except, possibly, Morphy. How can one compare Morphy to Fischer, let alone to Carlsen? Carlsen is a full-time chess professional who has a team of seconds at his disposal, plus access to computer technology that has changed the very nature of the sport. If such computers had existed in Morphy's day would they have leveled the playing field or would Morphy's genius intellect have enabled him to process extra information more rapidly than his rivals? Morphy's style inspired the players who came after him, much like Fischer inspired a generation and much like Carlsen is inspiring a generation. Erving's continuum of greatness can be readily seen when making these comparisons.

Carlsen is already the highest rated player of all-time and the second youngest linear World Champion, narrowly trailing Kasparov for the latter honor. Where should Carlsen rank in the chess pantheon? Carlsen, to this point, has not been as dominant as Fischer but Carlsen shares Fischer's will to win/fighting spirit. There is also more than a whiff of Capablanca's elegant, deceptive simplicity to Carlsen's games; Carlsen's ideas often seem obvious in retrospect but the fact that he consistently beats elite Grandmasters proves that his ideas are not at all obvious until he executes them over the board.

One important element is the test of time. Erving has a "10 year rule": a player should not even be considered for all-time great status until he has logged at least 10 professional seasons (Erving has mentioned that Gale Sayers is perhaps the only exception he will make to this rule). Fischer once declared that he would regularly accept challenges for his World Championship title but he never played an officially sanctioned game of chess after winning that title in 1972; at the other end of the spectrum, Wilhelm Steinitz stood atop the chess world for 28 years, Emanuel Lasker reigned as World Champion for 27 years and Garry Kasparov wore the linear World Championship crown for 15 years.

Whether Carlsen reigns for three years like Fischer or nearly three decades like Steinitz and Lasker, he has already permanently etched his name in chess history by virtue of the quality of his games, his record-breaking rating and his decisive victory against Viswanathan Anand, a great champion in his own right. An old school chess "starting five" analogous to Erving's basketball "starting five" might include Morphy, Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine. That quintet will always be special--and it is possible to make room for Fischer, Kasparov and Carlsen without either forgetting the past or dismissing modern players as products of superior conditions and/or technology

Monday, December 9, 2013

How Computers Have Impacted Modern Chess

Old school chess preparation involved a deep understanding of the knowledge/techniques presented in classic chess books written by the sport's greatest players, intensive studying of the biannual Chess Informants and an awareness of the new ideas published in various chess periodicals. In The Cyber-Renaissance in Chess, David Goodman and Christopher Chabris argue that powerful chess playing engines and multimillion game databases have transformed chess and elevated the quality of play:

Once laptops could routinely dispatch grandmasters, however, it became possible to integrate their analysis fully into other aspects of the game. Commentators at major tournaments now consult computers to check their judgment. Online, fans get excited when their own "engines" discover moves the players miss. And elite grandmasters use computers to test their opening plans and generate new ideas. 

This wouldn't be very interesting if computers, with their ability to calculate millions of moves per second, were just correcting human blunders. But they are doing much more than that. When engines suggest surprising moves, or arrangements of pieces that look "ugly" to human sensibilities, they are often seeing more deeply into the game than their users. They are not perfect; sometimes long-term strategy still eludes them. But players have learned from computers that some kinds of chess positions are playable, or even advantageous, even though they might violate general principles. Having seen how machines go about attacking and especially defending, humans have become emboldened to try the same ideas. 

Goodman and Chabris note that the rise of chess computers has been accompanied by a tremendous increase in both the number of Grandmasters in the world and the number of Grandmasters who have ratings of at least 2700:
When the first international rating list was published in 1971, the only player rated over 2,700 was Bobby Fischer. (In chess ratings, a 100-point advantage corresponds to an almost two-thirds chance of winning a match.) Fischer went on to beat Boris Spassky in their celebrated 1972 world championship match. In 1974 there were two players with 2,700 ratings: Fischer and his successor Anatoly Karpov. Even by 1997 there were just eight.

There are currently 50 players who sport 2700-plus ratings and Magnus Carlsen--who just won the World Chess Championship--has the highest rating of all-time, 2872. Computer analysis suggests that Carlsen and today's other elite grandmasters play more accurately than the grandmasters of previous eras did. Carlsen has been dubbed "the hero of the computer era" and his moves tend to mirror the top choices of the best computers even more than the moves of his chief rivals.

Does this mean that Carlsen is the greatest player of all-time and that he is lording over the toughest group of grandmasters in chess history? Not necessarily--while Carlsen's rating is higher than the best rating achieved by Bobby Fischer, Fischer was much further ahead of his contemporaries than Carlsen is: Carlsen's rating is 69 points higher than the rating of the number two player (Levon Aronian) but Fischer's July 1972 rating (2785, which stood as the record for 18 years) was 125 points higher than the rating of the number two player (Spassky). Fischer stood head and shoulders above even his greatest rivals and it is reasonable to assume that, given the opportunity to train with modern computers, Fischer's talent and work ethic would have similarly lifted him above today's players as well.

Such speculation does not in any way diminish the significance of Carlsen's accomplishments; Carlsen appears to possess better emotional/psychological balance than Fischer did, so Carlsen's talent, charisma and energy combined with the technological advances that enable average players to closely follow grandmaster games could help chess become more of a mainstream sport than it has ever been.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Anand Agonistes

It has been said that athletes die twice, with their first death coming at the end of their sporting careers. Perhaps the greatest athletes in a given sport die three times: first when their primacy is challenged/overthrown, second when they are no longer capable of playing competitively at all and third when they pass away in the same fashion as all other mortal beings. If this is true, then Viswanathan Anand--barring a highly unlikely rise back to the top of the chess world--has experienced the first of his three deaths.

Anand was the undisputed World Chess Champion from 2007-2013, winning or defending the linear World Chess Championship four consecutive times (2007, 2008, 2010, 2012). The 22 year old Magnus Carlsen dethroned the 43 year old Anand in a 6.5-3.5 rout that will likely be remembered as a changing of the guard moment in chess history. Carlsen seems poised to enjoy a long reign at the top, while if Anand continues to play competitively his rating will inevitably follow the inexorably downward path previously traversed by all other former World Champions who remained on the scene.

It is worth remembering that before becoming an elder statesman Anand was once a wunderkind--and that despite his tactical acumen and dazzlingly fast rate of play there were some doubts if he possessed all of the necessary qualities to become the World Chess Champion. Anand convincingly refuted his skeptics by winning the 2007 World Championship Tournament and then by defending his crown in matches against Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and Boris Gelfand.

Cathy Forbes' 1993 Inside Chess Interview with Anand provides a fascinating, time capsule view of Anand before he reached the chess summit. Here are some choice excerpts (Forbes' comments and questions are set in regular type, while Anand's answers are set in bold); the first three paragraphs are taken from Forbes' introduction, while the remaining passages are taken from the interview itself:

Vishy talks the way he used to play chess--like a machine gun. His play may have slowed down, but not his speech. Never has my tape-recorder been so strenuously rewound for fear of missing some pearl of this great player's wisdom.

He radiates warmth, self-confidence and self-containment. His facetious, but gentle, sense of humour surfaces frequently, his giggle is infectious; incredibly enough, he seems happy.

Where is the eccentricity, the pain, the paranoia, the surliness, the arrogance, the obsessiveness of the top chess man? Surely he must be too good to be true?

People have said that Anand's play is all tricks.

I don't deny that tactics play a part in my game, but I'm a changing player, I've been changing a lot over the last few years. I think my style now, compared with 1990 or 1991, has changed quite a lot. I'm playing a lot more solid openings...on the other hand, I've lost some of the, let's say, sangfroid (laughter).
Nothing is happening in my chess career that I'm worried about, let's put it that way. There's still lots of scope for improvement, this is clear. I'm not the best player in the world at the moment, nor am I clear number two or three, but I'm one of the top players, my chess is improving and life's going well.
Tell me how you study.

Generally, I read a lot, but always in a very disorganized way. I never think, "What are my repertoire problems, and how am I going to work them out?" I just kept on reading, and a lot of it came in handy. Where I come from, India, this approach is normal. Indian players don't think about this guy's weaknesses, how to avoid all these transpositions--you don't think like this in India. Only in the Candidates Matches did I start to get some picture about how these things work. Then I did some really serious work on the opening.

I got ChessBase at the end of '89. I've been carrying it around since the Interzonal. It's almost indispensable, because without it at a tournament, the reality is that you won't know what your opponents have been doing recently and everyone else will have it.

If Kasparov came to one tournament without his computer, he could probably get away with it. But if he started to do it regularly, then the gaps in his information would start to pile up.

You need the computer to make some preparation, basically. If you want to study something, you still have to do all the studying yourself--the computer won't help you. It will just give you information on hand. The only thing the computer saves you is reinventing the wheel. I mean, if some great idea has already been played before, you're wasting your time.

Is chess a sport in your view?

Absolutely! Clearly! The sporting aspect always comes to the fore...If you asked me, would I like to be the most beautiful world champion in history or the most successful one, I'd choose the latter...most chess players would. There's always going to be a trade-off between success and beauty. Beauty is nice when it comes along, but...

Forbes also presented some longer Anand statements that he made in response to more general questions. For instance, here is part of Anand's take on the chess politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s:

I wasn't really involved in the early struggles of the GMA, but already in 1988 I realized one thing: you need some non-chess players knocking some sanity into all these Grandmasters. Chess players generally live in a world of their own. Even though they dislike each other, hate each other, like Karpov and Kasparov, Karpov and Korchnoi, they have very enjoyable analysis sessions and postmortems. It's very nice that they can talk about chess, but on other matters they can be a bit wacky. Just completely out.

For instance, among many players there is an almost ingrained hatred for rapid chess, which I find very annoying. Look what one-day cricket has done for cricket. You need to change with the times.
Finally, Anand's take on how the underdog Nigel Short should approach his upcoming World Chess Championship match against Garry Kasparov is fascinating in light of the uphill challenge that Anand just faced against the heavily favored Carlsen. The strategy Anand described is the one that he attempted to use against Carlsen--avoid disastrous mistakes, keep the score close, hope that the favorite gets nervous the longer that the outcome of the match remains in doubt--but both Kasparov and Carlsen demonstrated that their brute playing strength and cool nerves were too much for their respective opponents to overcome. It is reasonable to assume that Anand applied the same logic to his own situation prior to the Carlsen match and came to the conclusion that he had very little practical chance to beat Carlsen; before the match, Vladimir Kramnik declared that Anand "is somewhat intimidated" by Carlsen and the result backed up that analysis: Anand's timid, error-filled performance even in equal or superior positions versus Carlsen supports the theory that Anand lacked confidence that he could prevail against a younger, stronger and more consistent opponent.

Here is how Anand regarded Short's chances (Kasparov ultimately won, 12.5-7.5, the most lopsided linear World Chess Championship match by winning percentage [.625] since 1950 until Carlsen posted a .650 winning percentage against Anand) :

Well, Gazza is clear, clear favorite, no doubt about this. First of all, compare his performance in Linares, winning here this year, with Nigel's performance [last place] last year--not interesting. There is absolutely no doubt that if things go normally, Garry will probably win. But put yourself in Nigel's place. For him to give up now, to accept this view, is suicide. He has to, at least, keep the idea that he has a chance. And I believe he does have some chance. Kasparov is almost 200 rating points ahead, Nigel has a score of minus ten against him.

But Nigel doesn't have to go into the lead. What Karpov did against Kasparov in New York was brilliant. He was not leading, and Kasparov was really going for him, but Karpov always recovered, and Kasparov got very wobbly in Lyon before he eventually pulled himself together. If Nigel can learn something from this, I think he can, without too much difficulty, make it a close fight.

I believe, with some effort, Nigel can avoid getting wiped out. If he is well prepared, if he is in the match at the half-way stage, say only one point down; if he has produced some chances, Kasparov can get very edgy. If you play someone who is much weaker than you, and you're fighting for your chances, it can feel very uncomfortable.

For Nigel to win the match would be enormously difficult. Everything before, the Candidates, even the Candidates Final--will seem like a picnic. He has to look at his chances realistically, and be prepared to fight, but he has done this everywhere. In tournaments Nigel gives the impression that he couldn't care less, but in matches, he always manages to pull himself together.

For instance, there's a big difference even between drawing the match at 12-12 and letting Kasparov keep the title, and winning it 12.5-11.5. That's much, much, much more than half a point. The day Kasparov thinks he's about to lose the match, he's going to have everything put into it. He's going to fight with every bone in his body. If you cut his arms and legs off, he'll fight with his teeth.

I think I can speak for Kasparov when I say that he likes being World Champion. He'd be pretty upset about not being World Champion anymore. I don't think he can imagine life without being World Champion.

If Nigel comes to the point of beating Kasparov, he will really be working for all the millions he's making. He won't have gotten anything free. Okay, it's not a likely scenario, but let's imagine Nigel a point up with four games to go. Those games would be nightmares for Nigel--but pleasant nightmares, of course. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Magnus Carlsen Captures the World Chess Championship

"One man alone cannot fight the future."--Conrad Strughold, "The X-Files: Fight the Future"

"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets."--Damon Runyon

Magnus Carlsen displayed brilliance, patience, energy, stamina and steady nerves as he defeated Viswanathan Anand 6.5-3.5 to become the World Chess Champion. Carlsen, who previously established himself as the highest rated player in chess history, is the 16th linear World Chess Champion, joining an elite group started by Wilhelm Steinitz and including the two chess players who even most non-chess players know about: Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer.

Prior to the match, some Anand supporters suggested/hoped that Anand's vast match experience and his success in winning world championships in various formats/time controls would give him an edge over his much younger challenger but in chess--as in most sports--it is inevitable that youth will eventually be served: Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan all fell victim to Father Time, in the guise of the next generation of competitors eager to enjoy their time in the sun.

After the players opened the match with four straight draws, Carlsen delivered a knockout blow by scoring consecutive wins. Anand fought hard to draw games seven and eight but then he blundered in game nine to give Carlsen an insurmountable lead. Carlsen comfortably drew the 10th game to clinch the match victory. Carlsen seized the title with two games to spare in what will be remembered as one of the most lopsided championship battles in chess history; this is the first time in Anand's distinguished career that he did not score at least one win in a World Championship match.

Carlsen stayed true to his relentless, uncompromising approach throughout the match; in the final game he eschewed a potential early draw that would have dethroned Anand, instead seeking victory while also risking defeat and forcing the champion to tenaciously defend for several hours before the position simplified to a clear draw. Carlsen is both a quintessentially modern player and a throwback to previous eras; in the opening he obtains deceptively simple--and at times unorthodox--positions in order to render useless any pre-game computer preparation undertaken by his opponents but in the middlegame and endgame he is a relentless competitor/cool calculator in the mold of Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. When you sit down to play Magnus Carlsen you must expect a fight to the bitter end, even if the position seems devoid of winning chances and even if a draw is as good as a win for Carlsen due to the tournament/match situation.

Anand was a great champion and a gentlemanly competitor during his reign; chess lovers hope and expect that Carlsen will take the sport to even greater heights thanks to his youth, his appeal to non-chessplayers and the lyrical virtuosity of his games--a quality that has inspired GM Lubomir Kavalek to dub him "The Mozart of Chess."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Reggie Jackson Laments How the PED Users Defiled MLB's Record Book

Reggie Jackson ranked sixth on MLB's career home run list with 563 home runs when he retired in 1987 but he has now dropped to 13th--largely because of the influx of PED users, the horde of barbarians at the gate who have defiled and destroyed baseball's once sacred record book. In a recent interview with Keith Olbermann, Jackson agreed with the fans who are justifiably upset and disappointed by how a few unscrupulous, greedy cheaters have caused such great damage to baseball. You can watch the entire interview here:

Here is the specific Jackson quote about PED users and their impact on the game: "I think that my editorial, my response, is the same as everybody's: embarrassed, feel terrible about it. I remember telling stories about it five, six, seven years ago and tears would come into my eyes because I happen to be a baseball fan that was a pretty good player and got to hit home runs as a fan, OK? So the things that Mays and Ruth and Aaron and Koufax and Duke Snider and the great players did, I just thought that they were part of American folklore and I never really wanted them changed. I think that I feel the same as any other fan does."

Friday, November 8, 2013

Luck and the World Chess Championship

"I don't believe in luck. I make it, and I take it, but I don't stand around waiting for it to happen."--Vinnie Terranova, "Wiseguy"

Like fictional Organized Crime Bureau undercover agent Vinnie Terranova, I do not believe in luck--particularly in arenas where skill can and should prevail. Matthew Wilson's three part series for titled Are the chess World Champions just lucky? examines the margins of victory of various World Championship matches and attempts to ascertain whether the championship winners displayed statistically significant dominance or if the winners were "lucky" (meaning that there is at least a reasonable probability that the objectively weaker player won the match).

Max Euwe's 15.5-14.5 victory over Alexander Alekhine in the 1935 World Chess Championship does not look decisive either to a casual chess fan or to a statistically-minded observer, particularly considering that Alekhine prevailed 15.5-9.5 in the 1937 rematch. Wilson reaffirms the widely held view that "it is unlikely that Euwe is his equal."

Wilson concludes that Bobby Fischer's 12.5-8.5 victory over Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship is statistically significant; based on the players' pre-match ratings, Wilson calculates that there was only an 8.3% chance for Fischer to win so decisively (Wilson actually used 12.5-7.5 in his analysis, disregarding the unplayed game that Fischer forfeited). In marked contrast, the official FIDE World Championship titles won in knockout-style tournaments by Alexander Khalifman, Ruslan Ponomariov and Rustam Kasimdzhanov in the late 1990s and early 2000s "were denounced as being little more than lotteries and FIDE overhauled the championship cycle." The big difference is that the short knockout-style matches introduced tremendous randomness into the results; the best player will almost certainly win a lengthy match but a weaker player has a puncher's chance in a short match with fast time controls, much like a recreational basketball player is highly unlikely to beat LeBron James in a one on one game played to 21 points but the amateur could prevail in a game played under the condition that the first made basket wins.

What about the epic Garry Kasparov-Anatoly Karpov duels from the 1980s and 1990s? Kasparov only enjoys a slight overall edge in terms of the aggregate score but Wilson looks at the matchup from a different statistical perspective: "Starting from 1985, what is the probability of winning 3.5 matches out of four against Karpov?" Wilson says that this probability is less than 20%, a number that "is still not statistically significant. But if we combine this information with Kasparov's numerous tournament victories and his long reign as the #1 rated player (there are only two rating lists from 1985-2004 that do not have him at the top), then it is easy to persuade yourself that Kasparov truly was the best player in the world at his time."

The next World Chess Championship match begins on Saturday, with World Champion Viswanathan Anand defending his title against Magnus Carlsen, who sports the highest rating in chess history.
Carlsen outrates Anand by more than 80 points. Wilson ran thousands of simulations under various conditions but no matter how the numbers are tweaked Carlsen emerges as a huge favorite; even if generous statistical assumptions are made on Anand's behalf, Carlsen wins more than 77% of the simulations. The probability that Carlsen triumphs by a statistically significant margin--defined by Wilson as 7-3 or greater--is much larger than the probability that Anand prevails at all. Of course, rating differences and statistical simulations do not take into account match experience and other psychological factors that can be very important in any high level competition.

The Anand-Carlsen match is scheduled for 12 standard length games and if the match ends in a 6-6 tie then the championship will be decided by the outcome of successively faster tiebreak matches, starting with four rapid games. Is this the ideal format to prove who is the world's best chess player? Wilson suggests that the length of World Chess Championship matches should be determined by what he calls "The 50 Point Principle," namely "If one player's strength is 50 rating points above his opponent's, then the match has to be designed so that the better player wins 90% of the time...The shortest way to satisfy the 50 point principle is a 26 game match with a two game tiebreaker if the match is drawn 13-13. Fortunately, the traditional 24 game matches were very close to respecting the 50 point principle...So to answer the question asked in the beginning, most of the world champions are not just lucky, since the better player will prevail in a large majority of the standard 24 game matches."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Football is Chess"

Rich Cohen's new book Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football provides a behind the scenes account of one of the most dominating teams in NFL history. In a Wall Street Journal excerpt, Cohen explains that the 15-1, Super Bowl champion Bears faced their greatest challenge not on game days but rather in practice when their offense battled the innovative "46 Defense" invented by defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Coach Mike Ditka constantly feuded with Ryan but Ditka could not fire Ryan because Ryan had cut a special deal with Bears' owner George Halas.

Cohen, using insight gathered from an interview with Chicago safety Doug Plank, describes how Ryan's defense wreaked so much havoc:

"Buddy operated by numbers," Plank said. "There were no names. You were either an adjective, and not a very complimentary one, or you were the number on your jersey. I was 46. Being a number was an honor. It meant you weren't an adjective. Here comes this master sergeant from the Korean War and he started to develop and encourage pride in being part of a special unit, a defensive squad."

In his first years in Chicago, Ryan was coaching mostly mediocre players. On many days, the Bears were outclassed. To compete, he had to improvise. "He was experimenting with defenses," Plank said. "He was going wild, looking for some way to generate a pass rush. You'd go into a meeting and see a bunch of crazy formations on the board. He'd go through each and say, 'OK, here's what we're going to try.' And someone would say, 'What do you call it?' Buddy didn't use X's and O's.

"When he put things on the board, it was numbers. He named formations after the number in the center of the formation. So one morning we go in and sure enough there's a new defense with my number in the middle: the 46."

In the standard 4-3 defensive alignment, the offense's center usually wasn't "covered," meaning no one lined up directly in front of him. This usually allowed the center to double-team a pass-rusher. But Ryan moved a linebacker to the line of scrimmage, then shifted Plank into the gap left by that linebacker. This meant none of Ryan's rushers could be double-teamed.

On a blitz in Ryan's defense, another linebacker or safety might creep up to the line and hide behind a big defensive end. As a result, there were often more rushers than blockers, which is why, in 1985, it often looked as if the Bears had too many players on the field. Buddy called the hidden blitzers free runners. "Confuse the offense until they have no idea where you're coming from--that is what creates a free runner," Plank said. "A free runner is an unblocked defensive player, and he gets to the quarterback so much faster...When a free runner hits the quarterback, the quarterback flies through the air."

In fulfilling an age-old playground fantasy, Ryan had decided to hell with it, and seemingly sent all his guys after the quarterback with a simple mission: Nail him. Rather than try to cover everyone, Ryan decided to short-circuit the offense by taking out the quarterback. As boxers used to say: Kill the brain, and the body will follow.

"Football is chess," Plank said. "You can capture all my pawns, but if I tip over that king, I win."

Plank's analogy is apropos on more than one level: football and chess are both very strategically complex games and football and chess are both very violent games. The latter assertion may seem dubious to anyone who has only played chess casually with friends/relatives but tournament chess is violent, as noted by Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek:

It doesn't hurt your body, but your brain, your ego. Instead of concussions chess players suffer humiliation after a terrible loss. They start to question their confidence, doubting the worthiness of what they do.  

Opposing quarterbacks had to stay strong in the face of the way that Ryan's defense sought to "kill the brain" and tournament chess players face a similarly daunting challenge: they must stay mentally and emotionally strong to avoid having their brains killed by the stresses and strains imposed by hours of relentless competition.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Dick Vermeil's Changed Perspective Helped Him Author a Second Act to his Coaching Career

In 1976, Dick Vermeil became the head coach of a 4-10 Philadelphia Eagles team that had not posted a winning record since 1966. Just two years later, Vermeil molded the Eagles into a playoff team and two seasons after that they made their first Super Bowl appearance, losing 27-10 to the Oakland Raiders. On the field Vermeil was a smashing success but off the field he became the living embodiment of burnout before resigning after the strike-shortened 1982 season. He spent the next 15 years as a TV commentator analyzing college football games--and analyzing himself, trying to figure out how to balance his tremendous competitive fire with a mindset that could prevent him from breaking down mentally, physically and emotionally.

In 1995, Vermeil declined an opportunity to coach the Eagles again but two years later he returned to the NFL as the coach of the St. Louis Rams. Vermeil hired Phil Towle to be the Rams' part-time team psychotherapist. Towle supplied Vermeil with some aphorisms, including "Burnout is not caused by stress. Burnout is caused by resisting opportunities that stress provides" and "I embrace my fears because they contain my greatness within."

Vermeil's perspective changed a lot during his time away from the sidelines. He spent years in therapy, struggling to manage his anger and perfectionism. "I learned to accept praise as a truth, not to just blow it off," Vermeil explained in the December 29, 1997-January 5, 1998 double issue of Sports Illustrated. "I continued the sessions even when I felt better about those things, because I just liked it. There's such a stigma in this country about seeking help like that, but I can tell you it's one of the best things I've ever done. It has really helped me in this job. Instead of trying to make this place into Vermeil's perfect world, I've learned to accept some things as they are."

In Vermeil's third year in St. Louis, he led the Rams to a 13-3 record, largely due to a tremendous offense nicknamed "The Greatest Show on Turf." Those 1999 Rams won the Super Bowl, filling in the last blank space on Vermeil's pro football coaching resume. He retired after that triumph but only spent one year away from the sidelines before jumping back into the fray as the coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. For the third time in three tries, Vermeil turned a losing program into a winning one as the Chiefs improved from 6-10 in 2001 to 13-3 in 2003. Vermeil transformed the Chiefs into a Super Bowl contender--just like he transformed the Eagles and Rams into elite teams--but he was not able to lead them to the Super Bowl and he retired in 2005 after the Chiefs did not qualify for the playoffs despite posting a 10-6 record.

Did becoming a more balanced person make Vermeil a more effective coach and leader? Maybe not--he was a tremendous coach in Philadelphia even when he worked himself to the brink of an emotional and physical breakdown--but by changing his mindset Vermeil became better able to both enjoy success and to withstand adversity.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mario Matous, Chess Composer Extraoridnaire just posted a poignant article about the life, chess compositions and death of Mario Matous. Matous (1947-2013) held a series of mundane jobs during his life, devoting most of his time and energy to his passionate love affair with chess. He reached the master level as a player but his imagination took full flower with his magnificent chess compositions; Matous published nearly 300 studies, more than half of which won awards. Examples of his remarkable conceptions can be found by clicking on the above link to the article and also at Vladimir Grabinsky's chess website.

Here is an excerpt from Emil Vlasak's tribute to Matous:

Matouš published his first endgame study in 1968, and quickly gained an international reputation. He always needed a lot of beer to get an inspiration. But after getting it, he suddenly changed into an austere and hard-working man. He didn’t sleep, drink or eat, and spent many days and nights feverishly working out the idea. Where a normal composer would test one or two versions, Matouš sifted dozens. There were attempts to improve his studies, but usually Mario just laughed. He had almost everything on his “playground” and knew exactly why he went his way.

...his highest compositional level was maintained until about 2009. Then he became completely overwhelmed by creative depression and Mario stopped publishing altogether.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bobby Fischer's Opinion About Why Paul Morphy Stopped Playing Chess has recently published two articles containing decades-old videos of Bobby Fischer analyzing chess games and talking about great chess players like Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz and Jose Raul Capablanca:

Rare video – Bobby Fischer analyses

Rare video of Bobby Fischer analyzing – (2)

At around the eight minute mark of the second video in the second post, FM Dimitrije Bjelica asks Fischer why Paul Morphy stopped playing competitive chess; this is a fascinating exchange, because Fischer--like Morphy before him--quit playing serious chess at the height of his powers and it seems likely that both great geniuses suffered from serious mental illness (Dr. Joseph Ponterotto's take on Fischer's brilliant yet tortured mind can be found here). This is Fischer's reply to Bjelica's question:

I don't know. He got fed up with the whole chess scene, you know. He could not get this match [to prove that he was the world's best player]. He thought that they were petty people. He thought that these people were not honorable...Just the people in chess, he felt that they were not honorable people. He did not like the type of people he met, I think. For example, Staunton refused to play him and Staunton did some dishonest things in their negotiations for a match: he did everything to avoid playing him, because he would have lost easily. He [Staunton] refused to admit this and he tried to make it appear that Morphy didn't want to play or something. 

Only a few years after that interview, Fischer cut short his own chess career for similar reasons, forfeiting his World Champion title because FIDE would not agree to all of Fischer's terms regarding his scheduled title defense against Anatoly Karpov. Fischer had very rigid--but well thought out--ideas about exactly how such a match should be conducted and he refused to compromise or change anything in his proposal. Being a perfectionist and wanting everything to be just right seems like a noble ideal but tightly clinging to such hopes/dreams in this most imperfect world can lead to a lot of self-inflicted suffering. Neither Morphy nor Fischer possessed the ability to accept the world the way it is and to function within the confines of how society is organized. In contrast, Garry Kasparov--who, like Morphy and Fischer--is a genius of the highest magnitude, has the most enviable capacity to recognize his own weaknesses and to focus on the art of the possible as opposed to obsessing over creating perfection. Kasparov feuded with FIDE much like Fischer did but Kasparov did not let the fools, the criminals and the dishonorable people chase him away from the sport that he loves. It is very tragic that Morphy and Fischer did not possess such rare inner resolve, strength and tenacity; it is very difficult to be a sensitive genius in an insensitive world--and it is eerie to listen to Fischer calmly speak about Morphy's plight just a few years before Fischer descended into his notorious period of self-imposed exile from the chess world.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Sampras, Agassi Endorse Nadal as Potentially the Greatest Tennis Player of All-Time

Andre Agassi believes that Rafael Nadal has earned serious consideration as the greatest tennis player of all-time. During a recent interview with HuffPost Live, Agassi said, "Nadal has an argument to make for the best of all time. If Nadal is sitting at a table with Federer and Federer says, 'I'm the best ever,' my first question would be, 'Well, then how come you didn’t beat me, because I beat you twice as many times? And, hey, by the way, you know I won everything, including a gold medal [in singles at the Olympics] and Davis Cup [with Spain].' But at the same token, Federer has separated himself during a few years like nobody else. And he's done it more consistently. To be able to make the argument for both guys playing in the same generation is pretty remarkable."

Agassi's main rival Pete Sampras still picks Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time but Sampras concedes that Nadal is gaining ground and could surpass Federer: "It's always been so clear to me that Roger is the greatest. But I would say that, with Rafa doing what he's been doing, he has an argument to be in the conversation. Rafa isn't done yet. He could win more majors. He's got a winning record against everyone that he has played in his generation. He's won the Davis Cup [with Spain], he's won the Olympics [singles]."

Federer is a great champion and he has been remarkably durable and consistent but Agassi's comment goes right to the heart of the issue: Nadal has won everything--just like Federer--and Nadal has dominated Federer in their head to head encounters. The greatest tennis player of all-time discussion should not be limited to Federer and Nadal--Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg also deserve to be mentioned--but at this point it is not logical to rank Federer ahead of Nadal in tennis' pantheon. As I noted after Nadal won the 2013 U.S. Open to claim his 13th Grand Slam singles title, "While Borg-Nadal is difficult to call, it is very hard to understand how anyone who supported Federer's greatest player of all-time candidacy circa 2006 would not be even more strongly in favor of Nadal now: Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than Federer did, Nadal has a much better Grand Slam winning percentage, Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head and Nadal does not have a problematic individual matchup or surface. The only advantage that Federer has ever held over Nadal is that Federer has been healthier/more durable, which will make it even more remarkable if Nadal wins four more Grand Slams to tie Federer's mark."

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Jim Brown Explains Why He Retired in his Prime

Certain sports legends maintain a mystique forever because we never saw them decline: Sandy Koufax's fastball will always be untouchable in our mind's eye and Bjorn Borg simultaneously dominated Wimbledon and the French Open in a way that is unlikely to ever be matched--but the definitive example of someone who retired at the top of his game is Jim Brown.

Brown won eight rushing titles in nine seasons while earning three MVPs and leading the Cleveland Browns to the 1964 NFL title. His 12,312 career rushing yards lapped the field (and stood as the all-time standard for two decades), his 106 rushing touchdowns and 126 total touchdowns remained NFL records for three decades after he retired and he is almost universally considered to be the greatest running back--if not the greatest player, period--in NFL history. In 1965, Brown led the league in rushing yards (1544, the second best total of his career), rushing attempts (289), rushing touchdowns (17), long rushing gain (67 yards), yards from scrimmage (1872) and total touchdowns (21, three more than his previous career-high). Brown carried Cleveland to the East Division title with an 11-3 record--best in the league--before Cleveland lost 23-12 to the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game.

At that point, Brown planned to play at least one more season. He went to Europe in the offseason to star in the now-classic film The Dirty Dozen but because of delays in the shooting schedule he was not able to make it back to the United States in time for training camp. Cleveland owner Art Modell publicly threatened to fine Brown, prompting Brown to write a letter to Modell stating his intention to retire. Brown recently read that letter, in its entirety, to Branson Wright of The Plain Dealer. Here are some excerpts:

I'm very sorry to see you make the statements that you did, because it was not a victory for you or I but for the newspapermen. Fortunately, I seem to have a little more faith in you than you have in me. I honestly like you and will be willing to help you in any way I can but I feel you must realize that both of us are men and that my manhood is just as important to me as yours is to you...

You must realize that your organization will make money and will remain successful whether I am there or not. The Cleveland Browns are an institution that will stand for a long, long time. I am taking on a few projects that are very important to me. I have many problems to solve at this time and I am sure you know a lot of them. So if we weigh this situation properly, the Browns have really nothing to lose but Jim Brown has a lot to lose. I am taking it for granted that I have your understanding and best wishes, for in my public approach to this matter this will be the attitude that I will prevail...

I will give you any assistance I can and hope your operation will be a success.

Brown told Wright: "I like the letter and it was a very important statement for me to make. It represented everything about me. I think it's fair. I think it's clear. I think it's considerate. I think it shows that I'm interested in my family and my career and I knew that when I wrote it that it could be 50 years later and it would still be me. I've always taken pride in the fact that my statements over the years, they always lasted, because I think that being truthful and representing yourself as a man will always stand up. So, I'm surprised that you had (a copy of) this but I am proud that as a young man I had the ability to articulate in this way and show the kind of fairness that's in this letter."

Regarding the general subject of when an athlete should retire, Brown added these thoughts: "Athletes usually stay too long. They stay past their peak. They hold on and they become, in some cases, not pathetic but you just can't outdo yourself. Old Jim Brown can't outdo a young Jim Brown and whenever you are compared to yourself you are always going to lose. So, in order to give the fans their money's worth I think that you should always leave on time so they can remember the best of you and you can remember the best of you and you will have that forever. They can never say that I was going downhill or they can never attach a negative to my career. So, it's not even complicated. It's the right thing to do to move out on time."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Justin Sarkar Overcomes Obstacles, Obtains GM Norm

International Master Justin Sarkar finished =2nd-5th at the 2013 U.S. Masters Championship with a score of 6.5/9. He gained 44 USCF rating points, putting him at 2531--just 18 points short of his career-high. In addition to that, he obtained his second Grandmaster norm. He now needs one more norm (plus 45 FIDE rating points) for his Grandmaster title to be confirmed. Grandmaster is the most prestigious title in chess other than World Champion. It is quite an accomplishment for anyone to achieve this goal but this is particularly true for Sarkar, who has battled both Asperger's syndrome and depression to reach the elite level in a highly demanding sport/art/science.

Sarkar recently wrote an article for Chess Life Online about his ongoing life and chess transformation. Here is an excerpt:

I attribute my success to working on myself as a person outside of the game more than chess work itself...

Let me next touch upon dealing with depression, not because it's the most stimulating topic but rather to fill a gap. Although I'm undoubtedly far from alone in this world in my struggles with it, I can tell from vast personal experience that it's one of the worst feelings ever and a problem with chemical (not character), thus a true handicap and even unfortunate source of misunderstanding at times with people...

When you really think about it, surprisingly often change is easy whereas it's the resistance to change that gets in one's way. Depressed or not, it’s important to do what we love. And this is the key point: my depression eases when I play chess. Naturally, I am one of the most active players in the country.

In August 2009, I described Sarkar's "perfect game." It is wonderful and inspirational that he continues to overcome obstacles to achieve success not just in the chess world but also in terms of his personal growth and happiness. His character is defined not by the challenges he is facing but by the way that he has confronted those challenges with courage and strength.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Losing Is Painful but it is not Necessarily Bad

"Sometimes the pain is extremely intense, because the fiasco is like a small death."--Almira Skripchenko-Lautier, Europe Women's Champion, answering a question about defeats.

"I was completely winning. If I don't kill myself tonight I'm gonna to live a thousand years."--Ivan Sokolov, after his draw with Hikaru Nakamura at the 2013 Tata Steel tournament.

There is no better proof that chess is a violent game than GM Sokolov's curt comment after a draw--a draw, mind you, not a loss; if squandering even half a win can prompt thoughts of suicide, it is clear that throwing away a full point is very devastating both psychologically and physically. Chess players will understandably go to great lengths to avoid such devastation and suffering. It is tempting and seductive to think that if you are smart enough or tough enough or work hard enough then you can control all possible outcomes in sport and/or life but the reality is that even at the height of your powers you can only control, at most, one side of the equation: your thoughts/actions. You cannot control the outcome, though of course proper thinking and disciplined action provide the greatest likelihood of obtaining the desired result.

Even the most dominant players and teams do not win every single game or match. Losing is inevitable but even though losing is painful it is not necessarily bad. It is very important to develop a mindset that enables you to turn failure into success and that views a loss as a challenging stepping stone, not a permanent stumbling block.

However, that does not mean that one should receive an award just for showing up. Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson decry the "Trophy-Industrial Complex" that provides awards merely for participating. Merryman declares

It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.

If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?

If I were a baseball coach, I would announce at the first meeting that there would be only three awards: Best Overall, Most Improved and Best Sportsmanship. Then I’d hand the kids a list of things they’d have to do to earn one of those trophies. They would know from the get-go that excellence, improvement, character and persistence were valued.
Losing hurts, but in the moments following a defeat a true competitor does not want a trophy but rather an opportunity to learn from past mistakes in order to do better in future games; an introspective person learns much more from his losses than he learns from his wins and he studies his losses very thoroughly instead of being satisfied to relive his wins: one image that comes to mind in this regard is Jerry Rice saying that if he caught 10 passes and dropped one then after the game he would focus much more on the lone drop than on the many successful plays. Paraphrasing Vince Lombardi, the idea is to chase perfection because, even though it can never be captured, during that pursuit we can obtain excellence.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Habit, Attitude and Promises to Yourself

John W. Scott's book Step-by-Step Basketball Fundamentals (Prentice Hall, 1989) contains wisdom that can be applied beyond the basketball court--and even outside of sports in general. The author of this first passage, quoted on page 142, is unknown:

I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper--or your heaviest burden. I will push you onward or drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command. Half the tasks you do you might just as well turn over to me and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly. 

I am easily managed. You must merely be firm with me. Show me exactly how you want something done, and after a few lessons, I will do it automatically.

I am the servant of all great men--and, alas, of all failures as well. Those who are great, I have made great. Those who are failures, I have made failures.

I am not a machine, but I work with all the precision of a machine, plus the intelligence of a man. You may run me for profit or run me for ruin. It makes no difference to me.

Take me, train me, be firm with me, and I will put the world at your feet. Be easy with me and I will destroy you.

Who am I? I am HABIT.

I have always been a fan of wisdom presented in aphoristic form. On pp. 144-145, Scott lists a series of inspirational quotations; here is a sampling:

"To every man comes in his lifetime a special moment when he is tapped on the shoulder and offered a very special job, fitting and unique only to his talents. What a shame and a tragedy if that moment finds him unprepared or unqualified for the work."--Winston Churchill

"Blessed are those who dream dreams and are willing to pay the price to make them come true."

"Desire is the conception of talent."--J.W. Scott

"There are three kinds of people: Those who want to make things happen, those who don't know what happened and those who make things happen."

"It's better to shoot for the stars and miss, than aim for the gutter and hit."

"There is no chance, no fate, no destiny that can circumvent, hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul."

"If you perceive a goal, and reach it, you live a dream."--Lou Brock

"Make no small plans, for they have no magic to stir people's souls."--Daniel Burnham

"Each day is like a stitch in your own little pattern. The more time and effort you put into your goals, the stronger your design will be."--J.W. Scott

"The only way to coast is by going downhill!"--Zig Zigglar

"The weak let their thoughts control their actions; the strong make their actions control their thoughts."--Og Mandino

"My life is my message."--Mahatma Gandhi

"Adversity, temptation, depression, and trials come to you when you are doing something right or are about to receive a blessing, calling or victory. Your failure to persist will turn them away."--J.W. Scott

"With ordinary thought and extraordinary persistence, all things are attainable."--Thomas Buxton

"The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement!"

"Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles he has overcome while trying to succeed."--Booker T. Washington

"It's okay to have butterflies; just make sure they fly in formation!"

"Work is the only fuel the vehicle of success will run on."--J.W. Scott

"A champion doesn't give up; he gets up!"

"The smallest action is better than the greatest intention."

"The most valuable gift you give to another is a good example."

"Growth is the only evidence of life."

"Winners contemplate their desires, not their limitations."

"Desire can rewrite all of your scouting reports."

On p. 146, the chapter titled "Attitude" begins with an epigraph titled "Promise Yourself," written by an anonymous author:
  • To be strong so nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
  • To make all your friends feel that there is something great within them.
  • To look for good in everything and make your optimism come true.
  • To think only of the best, to work only for the best, to expect only the best, and never to settle for anything short of the best within yourself.
  • To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.
  • To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.
  • To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
  • To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile.
  • To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.
The "Attitude" chapter concludes with a lengthy passage by Sydney J. Harris:

How to Tell a Winner

A loser believes in "fate"; a winner believes that we make our fate by what we do or fail to do.

A loser looks for the easy way to do it; a winner knows that "the easy way" and "the hard way" are both meaningless terms--there are only innumerable wrong ways, and one right way, to achieve a goal.

A loser blames "politics" or "favoritism" for his failure; a winner would rather blame himself than others--but he doesn't waste much time with any kind of blame.

A loser feels cheated if he gives more than he gets; a winner feels that he is simply building up credit for the future.

A loser becomes bitter when he's behind, and careless when he's ahead; a winner keeps his equilibrium no matter which position he happens to find himself in.

A loser smolders with unexpressed resentment at bad treatment, and revenges himself by doing worse; a winner freely expresses resentment at bad treatment, discharges his feelings and then forgets it.

A loser sometimes tries to imitate a winner, but he takes only temporary winners as his models; a winner knows who is worth learning from and who is only a sham success.

A loser is afraid to acknowledge his defects; a winner is aware that his defects are part of the same central system as his assets, and while he tries to minimize their effect, he never denies their influence. 

A loser prides himself on his "independence" when he is merely being contrary and prides himself on his "teamwork" when he is merely being conformist; a winner knows which decisions are worth an independent stand, and which should be gone along with.

A loser is envious of winners and contemptuous of other losers; a winner judges others only by how well they live up to their own capacities, by some external scale of worldly success, and can have more respect for a capable shoeshine boy than for a crash opportunist.

A loser leans on those stronger than himself, and takes out his frustrations on those weaker than himself; a winner leans on himself, and does not feel imposed upon when he is leaned on.

A loser thinks there are rules for winning and losing: a winner knows that every rule in the book can be broken, except one--be who you are, and become what you were meant to be, which is the only winning game in the world.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why is Rafael Nadal Not Praised Now the Way that Roger Federer Was Praised in 2006?

Rafael Nadal earned his 13th Grand Slam singles title by defeating number one ranked Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the U.S. Open final. Nadal is authoring one of the greatest calendar year performances in the Open Era: he has a 60-3 match record in 2013 and he has won 10 titles, including two Grand Slams (French Open, U.S. Open). Nadal is 22-0 on hard courts this year, further refuting the notion that he is just a clay court specialist. Injuries forced Nadal to miss the 2013 Australian Open during a seven month break from competition but, even though his durability is a constant concern, he has won at least one Grand Slam in nine straight years--a remarkable record, surpassing the standard of eight set by Bjorn Borg and later matched by Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

The second ranked Nadal did not officially take over the number one spot but it is obvious that Nadal is the best player in the world. Nadal now needs just one more Grand Slam win to tie Sampras for second place on the all-time list and Roger Federer's record of 17 does not look quite as safe as it did at the start of 2013. The 27 year old Nadal owns a .361 Grand Slam winning percentage, capturing 13 titles in 36 appearances. Borg ranks first all-time in this category (11/27, .407), while Federer (17/58, .293) and Sampras (14/52, .269) are far behind Nadal and Borg. Federer's peak Grand Slam winning percentage--achieved after he won Wimbledon in 2009--was .366 (15/41).

When David Foster Wallace gushed over Roger Federer in an August 2006 essay, the 25 year old Federer had won eight Grand Slam singles titles in 29 appearances (.276 winning percentage) and had amassed six first round losses--yet Wallace and others openly and enthusiastically touted the notion that Federer had already established himself as the greatest tennis player of all-time. The first dubious aspect of such a wide-ranging declaration is that it is unfair--if not impossible--to compare Open Era players with players from earlier eras; the rules, conditions and overall context were just too different. If Rod Laver had been permitted to play in the Grand Slam events during his prime years then he likely would have set unbreakable records--but we cannot know for sure what he would have accomplished, so all that can be intelligently said is that Laver deserves to be prominently placed in any discussion of the greatest tennis players ever: he should not be punished for "only" winning 11 Grand Slams, nor can he be credited with all of the Grand Slams that he almost certainly would have won.

The second dubious aspect about declaring Federer to be the greatest player of all-time is that he has never established the simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance displayed by Bjorn Borg. When Borg made his final Grand Slam appearance in 1981--at just 25 years old--he held the modern male record for both Wimbledon titles (five) and French Open titles (six) and he had won the "Channel Slam" (capturing Wimbledon and the French Open in the same calendar year) a still-unmatched three times in a row. Sampras and then Federer dominated Wimbledon during their primes and Nadal has dominated the French Open but no one has ever mastered grass and clay at the same time the way that Borg did.

By the time that Sampras broke Roy Emerson's record for most career Grand Slam titles, many commentators touted Sampras as the greatest player of all-time but Sampras' relative ineptitude at the French Open--he only made it to the semifinals once in 13 trips to Roland Garros--disqualifies him from being favorably compared to Borg, Federer and Nadal. Federer won one Channel Slam (2009)--albeit without facing Nadal that year in the French Open--and Nadal has captured two (2008, 2010). Nadal owns a 21-10 head to head advantage over Federer and Nadal built that lead from the beginning of his career, when Federer was at the height of his powers. Nadal and Djokovic have faced each other more often than any other Open Era rivals, with Nadal winning 22 of their 37 matches. Nadal leads Federer 8-2 in head to head Grand Slam matches and Nadal has beaten Djokovic eight times in 11 Grand Slam matches.

The Borg-Nadal comparison is intriguing; Nadal owns more total Grand Slam wins, more French Open wins and a pair of U.S. Open titles (Borg reached four U.S. Open finals but never captured the crown) but Borg has a better career Grand Slam winning percentage and he established himself as his era's best grass court player and best clay court player. It is reasonable to assume that if Borg had kept playing then he would have won at least a couple more French Opens and perhaps even finally bagged the elusive U.S. Open title. Borg and Nadal are very similar in terms of athletic ability and fighting spirit.

While Borg-Nadal is difficult to call, it is very hard to understand how anyone who supported Federer's greatest player of all-time candidacy circa 2006 would not be even more strongly in favor of Nadal now: Nadal has achieved more at a younger age than Federer did, Nadal has a much better Grand Slam winning percentage, Nadal has consistently dominated Federer head to head and Nadal does not have a problematic individual matchup or surface. The only advantage that Federer has ever held over Nadal is that Federer has been healthier/more durable, which will make it even more remarkable if Nadal wins four more Grand Slams to tie Federer's mark.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Garry Kasparov on "Achieving Your Potential"

Garry Kasparov's presentation "Achieving Your Potential" is filled with insightful advice about how to maximize one's chances to be successful:

Kasparov achieved the highest rating in chess history--a record since broken by Magnus Carlsen--and he held the Classical World Champion title from 1985 until 2000, withstanding challenges from Anatoly Karpov, Nigel Short and Viswanathan Anand (who became the World Champion in 2007 and has held the title since that time). Kasparov seemed to be at the peak of his powers on the eve of his 2000 World Championship match against Vladimir Kramnik, who he had taught at the famous Botvinnik Chess School. However, Kasparov had become overconfident and Kramnik had detected some weaknesses in Kasparov's game. Kramnik surprised the chess world by defeating Kasparov and ending Kasparov's reign.

Starting around the 21:25 mark of the video, Kasparov explains what went wrong: even though he was still working hard on his game, at some level he had internalized the idea that he was unbeatable--but Kramnik came up with new ideas and repeatedly steered the games onto uncomfortable terrain for Kasparov. Kasparov viewed this failure as a learning experience, he went back to the drawing board and he maintained his status as the highest rated player in the world until he retired from professional chess five years later. Along the way, Kasparov played 11 serious games against Kramnik, scoring one win and 10 draws. Kasparov says, "That's good enough. That's a big change" compared to the result of the 2000 match.

Kasparov declares, "We should not be too proud to learn from the young generation. Otherwise, we'll not able to come back."

"Life is Bigger Than any Scoreboard"

The October 2013 issue of The Red Bulletin includes Stefan Wagner's interview with retired tennis champions Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. Agassi declares, "It is an illusion to think that setting goals and achieving them makes you happy." That may seem like a strange statement coming from someone who was once the top ranked tennis player in the world but Agassi insists that a person should not define himself by external measures: "True excellence is the person who understands that success won't come sometime in the future, but rather here, now. As soon as I understood that, a few important things became clear: It's not what I do that's important, it's how I do it. I won't accept not giving my best. I won't accept not wanting to be better."

Agassi asserts, "Success isn't what comes out, but what you put in. Doing things completely or not at all. Caring about what you do...When it comes to tennis: Find out what you're responsible for and concentrate on that. Work on your fitness, on your stroke. Don't lie to yourself and look for shortcuts. Success isn't a result. Success is a way of living that you choose for yourself. When you see success as a goal, you'll never be successful. Because it becomes like an addiction. You can never have enough. Never."

Graf agrees with her husband, adding that she defines success "by how you feel when you go to bed at night."

This is what Agassi tells young tennis players who ask him for advice: "There are a few things that are important to me, simple things. For example, that there is only one important point you play in life; that is the next one. And that you should concentrate on the things you can influence--you can control your attitude, your work ethic, your concentration. If it's windy or hot or something aches or you're tired from the match yesterday, then you have to accept it." It can be difficult to understand and accept that outcomes cannot be controlled but a person who can internalize this wisdom will have a more peaceful mindset than a person who is constantly at war with himself and the world around him, trying to change things that cannot be changed.

It is natural to dream about having a great triumph and to relish such a triumph after it happens but Agassi cautions, "The moment of victory can't be better than the moment of preparation. Learning that is pretty much a question of survival for a tennis player."

Graf adds, "Life is a good teacher, whether you're a tennis player or not. You just have to ask yourself one question and answer it honestly: Is the life I live the life that I want to live?"

Agassi concludes, "Children have to push themselves every day. For themselves, not for anyone else; certainly not for a scoreboard. When you see the result on a scoreboard, that's a bonus. But what's on the scoreboard shouldn't be the meaning of life. Life is bigger than any scoreboard."

Monday, September 2, 2013

Enjoying the Process

"Focus, while I display flows ferocious."--Busta Rhymes, "Everything Remains Raw"

Consistently converting winning positions is one of the greatest challenges that a chess player faces. Perhaps the biggest difference between Masters and non-Masters is that Masters are much more proficient at winning the games that they "should" win. I have worked very hard to improve at this phase of the game and I have made enough progress to maintain an Expert rating but not quite enough progress to earn the Master title. Throughout my chess career I have sought the advice of Masters on this subject, trying to gain insight about how their minds function when victory is in sight but not yet secured.

When I was a Class A player trying to reach Expert level in the early 1990s, Senior Master Boris Men explained to me that when you have the advantage the most important thing is to "play against your opponent's play." I had never heard this expression before, though I later realized that it is a standard Master level technique. The idea is that by squelching any possible counterplay you will force your opponent to either trade pieces or else place his pieces passively; this is much more prudent than chasing after stray pawns or prematurely launching an attack that could weaken your position. SM Men's advice has helped me a lot, though following through on his prescription is easier said than done.

More recently, Hans Multhopp, a USCF Master who is also a FIDE Master, told me to enjoy the winning process. At first I thought that he meant savor the prospect of victory--by cultivating the Relentless mindset of champions like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, players who are not satisfied until they dominate and destroy their opponents--but Multhopp clarified that a chess player should enjoy looking for the best moves and solving problems over the board. Chess should be fun! When you are winning a chess game it is easy to become bored, stressed out and/or distracted but ideally one should remain focused and joyful.

This is one of the many ways that chess is a metaphor for life. In The Spiritual Practices of the Ninja: Mastering the Four Gates to Freedom, Ross Heaven writes, "Life is meant to be played with, not stressed over." Having a winning position can be more nerve-wracking than having a losing position, because the losing player may have already resigned himself to his fate while the winning player, paradoxically, has everything to lose if he makes one false move. Chess can be a masochistic endeavor: we suffer when we are losing because we hate to lose but we also suffer when we are winning because we are afraid that we might lose! I overheard an International Master exclaim, "I hate this game!"--and this was after he had just won from a losing position. Something is very wrong if someone who has reached the 99th percentile in his chosen endeavor feels miserable after winning a game instead of being happy not just for the victory but also for becoming so proficient and accomplished in such a challenging sport/art. Caissa is a mistress who both tempts and torments her lovers.

I am more convinced than ever that Multhopp is right: enjoying the process is the key not just to attaining chess mastery but also the key to getting the most out of chess--and life. Making Master is a worthy goal but achieving mastery of one's emotions--"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same," as Kipling put it--is the ultimate goal. Win or lose, in chess or in life, I am fighting to not say/feel, "I hate this game!"

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Keith Olbermann Triumphantly Returns to ESPN

F. Scott Fitzgerald once declared "There are no second acts in American lives." The well-read Keith Olbermann--who infamously "napalmed" bridges at ESPN instead of just burning them--is no doubt familiar with that quote and he is attempting to disprove it. Olbermann returned to the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader" on Monday as the host of Olbermann, a one hour nightly show featuring Olbermann's perspectives on a variety of sports-related subjects plus interviews with media members and sports figures. Intelligent sportswriting is hard to find and should always be savored; Olbermann's writing is superb and he is also excellent at delivering those words on air (which is a completely different skill).

Olbermann is smart, funny and edgy. He does not suffer fools gladly--or at all, for that matter--which is the major reason he always seems to be at war with his bosses, his colleagues and the world in general. I can do without hearing his political views--which are not nearly as smart, funny or edgy as his take on the sports world--but after watching the premiere episode of his new show I realized just how much I missed listening to Olbermann dispense wisdom and wit about both how the games are played and how the games are covered.

Olbermann's blistering but accurate take on the latter subject will not win him many friends in the media world, not that Olbermann cares about that at all; Olbermann spent the entire first segment pointing out how one incompetent New York writer manufactured out of thin air the idea that New York Jets' Coach Rex Ryan's job is at stake because of how Ryan used quarterback Mark Sanchez in a preseason game. That writer, having no source other than his own feverish Twitter rant, then published a story acting as if his groundless speculations have some basis in fact. Olbermann notes that the responsible thing for that writer--and for the other media members working the Jets' beat--to do would be to ask Ryan and/or Ryan's employer about this directly but instead Ryan's postgame press conference turned into a bizarre Kabuki theater performance during which the media members belligerently repeated insipid questions and an exasperated Ryan issued increasingly sarcastic replies. Olbermann lamented that actual, legitimate reporting is dead and that, instead of investigating and covering news, media members now create fake controversies in order to sell newspapers, increase TV ratings and/or generate website hits. Olbermann's critique was savage, hilarious and sad: he put the incompetent writer on blast, he made some very funny (and biting) jokes and he exposed the deplorable state of modern media coverage.

It will be interesting to see the blowback from Olbermann's debut. Incompetent people do not like it one bit when their incompetence is exposed to the world, so Olbermann will catch a lot of flak, but I applaud his willingness and ability to call out people who are not doing their jobs properly; the incompetent media members give all media members a bad name--and they are stealing money as surely as the PED cheaters are stealing money from the fans. The sooner that the sports world rids itself of charlatans, cheaters and fools the better off we all will be.

Of course, Olbermann's new/old employer is as guilty as anyone else of the crimes against journalism that Olbermann so eloquently cited. It is interesting that Olbermann's show is based not at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut but rather in New York City. His show is not being aired on the flagship channel but rather on ESPN2, the network that Olbermann helped launch more than two decades ago when he said, with gallows humor, "Welcome to the end of our careers." ESPN is keeping Olbermann at arm's distance from where the sausage is made, so to speak; don't look for ESPN's ubiquitous blowhard Skip Bayless as a guest on Olbermann's show anytime soon.

Catch Olbermann while you can, because I am not sure that his marriage with ESPN will last very long. Olbermann is intelligent and fearless, two characteristics that are not well appreciated in a monolithic bureaucracy. It seems inevitable that Olbermann will say the "wrong" thing and/or offend the "wrong" person but it will be fun seeing how many apple carts he can overturn before he is sent back into exile.

Two Rick Reilly Classics Culled From the Archives

If you are looking for great sportswriting today, you either have to sift through tons of chaff to find a grain or two of wheat or you have to dive into the archives. Rick Reilly used to be the featured back page columnist for Sports Illustrated, consistently producing weekly gems containing insight and wit. Now he has some kind of nebulous role at ESPN, a conglomerate that pays him a lot of money to look very awkward on camera during the postgame show on Monday Night Football. Although Reilly is criminally miscast as an on air personality, four years ago I noted that his literary fastball still hums--and I stand by that contention, based on his recent story about Dayton-based Hall of Fame baseball writer Hal McCoy.

I miss being able to just open up a new issue of SI and find Reilly's latest column. Here are two excellent Reilly pearls from 1998:

Speaking of Class to the Class of '98

Reilly offered some words of wisdom to athletes who were about to enter the professional ranks:

"Thank you, graduates. Please be seated. It's an honor to address the college athletes who are going on to the pros this year. If I may, I'd like to offer just a few pieces of advice."

"This is the career you picked. If you can't handle public scrutiny or deal with strangers graciously, become a taxidermist."

"Read everything written about you, good or bad. Then forget about it. No matter what you do, half the people will worship you and half will detest you. You can't fight it."

"One last thing. Remember when you were a kid? All you dreamed of was playing centerfield for the New York Yankees. Soon, you'll be there. Don't forget to tingle."

Never the Groom, Ever the Best Man

After shooting a 75 in the final round of the U.S. Open and tying for fifth place, Tom Lehman declared that there are things that are much more important than winning a golf tournament: "I think life would suck if you had to be an a------ to be the Open champion. I mean, if I die and all they write on my tombstone is TOM LEHMAN: A GREAT PROFESSIONAL GOLFER, then I'll have missed the whole point of life."

The best sportswriting is elevated by the spirit that animates one of the four quotes that serves as epigraphs for my websites; Tom Callahan--who wrote two of my favorite articles (The Best the Game Offers and Dr. J is Flying Away) about Julius Erving--provided a great credo for those who love to watch sports, for those who love to write about sports and for those who love to read great sportswriting: "It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence." As Reilly's story about Lehman demonstrates, "excellence" is not only about attaining victory on the field of play but also about attaining balance in one's life.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Frank Deford's Indelible Portrait of the Beautiful Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Howard Bingham

"Only love matters to friends. If you have a friend you truly love, whether you're Howard or Muhammad, well, then you can be a friend to the world."--Frank Deford, writing about Muhammad Ali and Howard Bingham

Frank Deford and Gary Smith are two of the greatest craftsmen in sportswriting history. They are more than "just" sportswriters; they are artists who specialize in painting the big canvas, telling in-depth stories that transcend who won and who lost a game or a match. I cannot recall reading a poorly written story by either of them but some stories stand out--and one of them is The Best Of Friends, Deford's July 13, 1998 Sports Illustrated tribute to the loving friendship shared by Muhammad Ali and Howard Bingham. Aristotle called such a friendship "philia," characterized by mutual altruistic love--not a romantic love but a love shared by kindred spirits, a deep friendship in which each person can tell the other not what he wants to hear but what he needs to hear.

Ali may be the most famous man on Earth. Bingham made a name for himself as a first-rate, award-winning photographer. The two friends affectionately call each other "Bill." Deford explains by quoting Bernie Yuman, a mutual friend of Ali's and Bingham's: "You see, that's the sign of the most unqualified faith and love and trust. Bill. Simply calling each other Bill. It means, maybe you're a big-deal Muhammad Ali to the world, but that doesn't mean anything to me. To me, you're just Bill. And Howard became Bill too, because that was Muhammad saying, O.K., we're on even ground, so you're Bill too. And names don't mean anything, do they?"

Scroll back up, click on the link and read Deford's story. You won't regret it--and if you have a friend like that in your life, be very grateful.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Nadal is Dominant Again

Rafael Nadal is unlikely to ever match Roger Federer's durability and grace but the frailties of Nadal's body and the brute force nature of his playing style do not diminish his greatness. Nadal defeated Federer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 in the Western & Southern Open quarterfinals last weekend en route to claiming his ninth title in 12 ATP Tour events this year. This was Nadal's 26th ATP World Tour Masters title, extending his all-time record. Federer has won 21 such titles and Novak Djokovic, who currently is the top ranked player in the world, is third on the all-time list with 14. Nadal won the Rogers Cup event in Canada two weeks ago, so he has now captured consecutive hard court titles in back to back weeks for the first time in his career.

Federer rarely misses an event due to injury and his record of 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals appearances--more than doubling the standard previously set by Rod Laver and Ivan Lendl (10)--may never be broken. Federer's game is very aesthetically pleasing; when he is at his best, he seems to glide all over the court, flicking winners without breaking a sweat.

Nadal sometimes misses months at a time due to injuries and he prowls the court like a hungry predator hunting for food, not a ballet dancer, but Nadal has already surpassed Federer in several important categories. Nadal is the second youngest player to win 10 Grand Slam singles titles (trailing only Bjorn Borg). Nadal owns 12 Grand Slam singles titles in 35 appearances, a .343 winning percentage that is much better than Federer's .298 winning percentage. Nadal has won at least one Grand Slam title in nine straight years, eclipsing Borg's previous record of eight, so if he can string together four or five healthy years while maintaining that winning percentage then he could match Federer's record 17 Grand Slam singles titles.

Federer's durability, consistency and aesthetically pleasing game have inspired many commentators to crown him as the greatest player of all-time but such a designation unfairly ignores the accomplishments of Laver and Borg. Federer's supporters also have to disregard (or attempt to rationalize) Nadal's 21-10 head to head advantage over Federer. While the matchups Laver-Federer and Borg-Federer will only take place in the theater of imagination, there is irrefutable video evidence that Nadal bludgeoned Federer into submission nearly two dozen times; no such footage taints the greatest ever titles that have been unofficially awarded in other sports. It is erroneous to suggest that Nadal only started beating Federer after Federer's overall dominance waned. Nadal is younger than Federer but Nadal defeated Federer five of the first six times that they met, meaning that he took down Federer at the peak of Federer's game (and before Nadal had reached his prime). Federer fans may prefer to view Nadal's most recent triumph over Federer as a sign that Federer has declined but the reality is that Nadal's win is just a reaffirmation of a superiority that has been repeatedly and conclusively demonstrated for several years.