Monday, May 27, 2013

Craig Carton's Book "Loudmouth" Lives up to its Name

Craig Carton and Boomer Esiason's Boomer and Carton morning show on WFAN is the number one ranked morning show in New York--and in his new book Loudmouth, Carton often reminds the reader of that fact. Carton comes across as a combination between an immature little boy desperately seeking praise/approval and an introspective man struggling to understand how the challenges he faced during his childhood shaped the person he ultimately became. Carton writes, "I was, and am, confident--but hardly cocky or full of myself...I laugh on the outside and put on a good show. Life is like day camp to me. That's my personal mantra, and I try to live up to it as much as I can. But on the inside, I'm still a somewhat insecure child who worries about ratings, about when my show will come to an end, and about not being good enough for my boss, my partner, my wife, and my family."

Carton's life story does not read like a tale from a "day camp"; he complains about how his parents did not show him overt affection and how they disregarded what he wanted to do--play sports--and what he did not want to do--go to Sunday School. Carton whines about typical childhood experiences that most adults have either long forgotten or never dwelled on in the first place. I don't begrudge Carton his pain or his right to explore the origins of his pain but I suspect that many readers will grow tired of hearing a successful radio host drone on about how his game-winning soccer goal as an eight year old was disallowed and about other similar youthful traumas that Carton still remembers in vivid detail. I have a similar kind of elephant's memory for real and imagined slights but reading Carton's book made me more aware of how such stories sound to other people's ears; life is best lived in the present, with an eye toward future goals, as opposed to trapping oneself in an endless cycle of revisiting the past.

Carton's radio career began in Buffalo shortly after he graduated from Syracuse. He quickly moved up the food chain during stints in Philadelphia, Cleveland and Denver before he scored the job at WFAN in the wake of the infamous Don Imus scandal. Carton's brash on-air style has been compared to Howard Stern's and Carton takes that as a great compliment even though Carton's critics intend it to be an insult; Carton has a low opinion of straight, just the facts radio shows: he believes that they are boring and that in order to attract a young audience it is necessary to say and do outlandish things.

Overall, Carton has had a good life; perhaps he will eventually learn to appreciate the positive aspects instead of focusing on the negative aspects.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Chess as Art, Chess as Violent Sport

Grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek, a two-time U.S. Champion who once ranked among the top 10 players in the world, used to write a weekly chess column for the Washington Post but now his writing is regularly published by the Huffington Post. His most recent column begins with a famous quote from artist (and chess player) Marcel Duchamp: "While all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."

GM Kavalek notes that the fourth World Chess Champion, Alexander Alekhine, also saw a connection between chess and art: "To me, chess is not a game; it is art," Alekhine declared.

With all due respect to Alekhine, these categories are not mutually exclusive; chess is both an art and a violent sport. Later in his column, GM Kavalek offers a vivid description of chess' brutal nature--and its tremendous allure:

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. But in the end, they collect themselves and go back to the chessboard. And some of them may remember Alekhine's words: "I consider chess an art and accept all the responsibilities that art places upon its devotees."

Here are two other notable Alekhine quotes that fit in with GM Kavalek's exploration of the dual themes of chess as art/chess as violent sport:

"For success I consider three factors are necessary: firstly, an awareness of my own strengths and weaknesses; secondly, an accurate understanding of my opponent's strengths and weaknesses; thirdly, a higher aim than momentary satisfaction. I see this aim as being scientific and artistic achievements, which place the game of chess on a par with other arts."

"During a Chess competition a Chessmaster should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk."

Achieving chess mastery involves much more than simply acquiring basic technical knowledge about how to play; a master must have an artistic sense, a great fighting spirit and very stable nerves in order to withstand the highs and lows that inevitably occur in a chess game and in a chess tournament. Chess is highly respected as both an art and a sport in many cultures, though Americans often dismiss chess' artistic value and scoff at the notion of chess as sport.

Basketball, chess and boxing share fascinating similarities in terms of preparation, intensity and skill development but some people insist that chess is not a sport because it lacks the obvious physical component inherent in basketball, boxing and other activities that are universally considered to be sports. This way of thinking ignores two important points: (1) there is a physical component to chess in terms of energy exertion and mental/physical/emotional stress and duress; (2) it has not always been the case that sport is defined exclusively as an activity involving a certain amount of physical movement. Rune Vik-Hansen asserts that the idea of chess as sport should not be summarily rejected:

Claiming chess "is just a game," because it is rule based, and therefore unworthy of undue attention, is a tautology and explains nothing. Mind you, the activity we call life may also be perceived to be a game with rules and recipes. When asking if chess is a sport or athletics, what we're really asking is if chess players perform, and more so, in the physical sense of the word...Despite agreeing in newspapers' commentary fields that games and activities like chess, bridge, archery, dart, shooting etc., involve performance of some kind, still, the physical aspect seems to saturate contemporary understanding of what a sporting or athletic performance is. In a country obsessed with countables and quantifiables--what cannot be measured does not exist--we may ask if not the accent on the physical excludes the possibility for a finer perception of what "performance" or "achievement" might be. Few doubt mental gladiators perform, but what, where and how?  Is "blood, sweat and tears" (Johan Kaggestad, Norwegian athletics coach and TV commentator) or "motion" (1500-meter runner, Henrik Ingebrigtsen) the only criterion in a sporting or athletic performance or achievement?

I think that many people have a deeply ingrained bias against sustained intellectual concentration and against finding value in people who spend a lot of time thinking; that is why people who do well in school and/or express interest in non-mainstream subjects are often ostracized as "nerds." It is not considered normal to think too much or too deeply, so an activity like chess--which takes place in the minds of two competitors before being expressed physically/symbolically by the movement of chess pieces--is viewed with suspicion and even mockery in many quarters. Chess is difficult, chess involves thought and concentration, so it inevitably arouses suspicion among people who would prefer to think as little as possible and who see more value in running, jumping and throwing.

Instead of limiting the definition of sport to only include activities that generate "blood, sweat and tears," any rule-based activity that relies on skill should be considered a sport; some sports are mainly physical activities that include a mental component (such as basketball, boxing, football, etc.), while chess is a sport that is mainly a mainly mental activity that also includes a physical component in terms of energy exertion. It is not accidental that top level chess is dominated by young players; chess is very strenuous and thus energy and physical conditioning often outweigh the value of accumulated experience/wisdom.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Nadal Destroys Federer, Takes 20-10 Lead in Head to Head Series

Rafael Nadal smashed Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3 in the Italian Open finals, improving his record against Federer to 20-10 overall and 14-6 in finals. No one consistently outslugged Babe Ruth in Ruth's prime, no one consistently outgained Jim Brown in Brown's prime, no one consistently outplayed Wayne Gretzky in Gretzky's prime and no one consistently outplayed Michael Jordan in Jordan's prime. Ruth, Brown, Gretzky and Jordan are widely considered to be the greatest players of all-time in their respective sports and--even though there are other valid claimants to the throne in each sport--those players clearly dominated their own eras. Roger Federer has been called the greatest tennis player of all-time, so it is jarring to see him repeatedly not just beaten but often dominated to the point of humiliation by Rafael Nadal. If Karl Malone had outdueled Michael Jordan in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals instead of the other way around then Jordan would still be considered great but he would not be the icon that he is now with six titles in six Finals appearances.

Federer's advocates like to point out that a big part of Nadal's head to head advantage stems from his 13-2 record on clay versus Federer but (1) it makes no sense to call Federer the greatest of all-time when one player completely dominates him on a particular surface and (2) Nadal also has a good head to head record against Federer on other surfaces: they are tied 6-6 on hard courts--with Nadal leading 6-2 on outdoor hardcourts--and Nadal also owns a Wimbledon win against Federer, proving that Nadal can beat Federer on Federer's absolute best surface even though Federer is almost completely helpless against Nadal on Nadal's best surface.

If this were just some small sample size fluke--if Nadal owned, say, a 3-0 record against Federer on clay but had never beaten Federer anywhere else or won any other Grand Slam titles--then it could be dismissed as insignificant in the context of Federer's entire career but the sample size is sufficiently large and Nadal's career is very impressive in its own right: Nadal owns a career Grand Slam just like Federer and Nadal has a better Grand Slam event winning percentage (.333 to .309) and a better Grand Slam match winning percentage (.877 to .869). Is Federer more durable than Nadal? Yes, unquestionably. Will Federer finish his career with more Grand Slam titles than Nadal? Probably--Federer leads 17-11 and could conceivably add to his total, making it very challenging for Nadal to catch him even if Nadal does not miss any more Grand Slams due to injury. Federer is tennis' Emmitt Smith; Smith is the NFL's all-time rushing leader but no serious football analyst considers Smith to be the greatest running back of all-time: Smith was great and he was very durable but his per game and per season rushing averages do not match up with Jim Brown's.

The greatest player of all-time discussion in tennis really must be split into at least two parts--Open Era and pre-Open Era--because if Rod Laver had been permitted to play in the Grand Slam tournaments throughout his prime before the Open Era then he likely would have set records that never would have been broken. The equipment, rules and playing surfaces have all changed so much over the years that it may be more difficult to make meaningful cross generational comparisons in tennis than in any other sport.

Setting aside any discussion of Laver and the other pre-Open Era greats, is Federer the greatest player of the Open Era? Is Nadal the greatest player of the Open Era? With all due respect to those two tremendous champions, the correct answer may be "Neither": a strong case can be made that Bjorn Borg is the greatest player of the Open Era. It is hard to pick Federer after he has been so thoroughly dominated for his whole career by his main rival and neither Federer nor Nadal have matched the winning percentages and the simultaneous grass court/clay court dominance that Borg established during his reign.

It is somewhat speculative to compare Borg to Federer and Nadal since Borg never competed against either player, but we have seen Federer and Nadal compete against each other many times--and, while it can be debated exactly where to rank each one on the Open Era list, it is increasingly hard to justify placing Federer ahead of Nadal: we have no video of anyone consistently beating Jim Brown and the only footage of Ruth, Jordan or Gretzky being outdueled comes from the tail end of their respective careers. Federer has been number one in the world as recently as October 2012 and he still maintains a number two or number three ranking depending on the week; Federer's fans trumpet his every tournament win as further "proof" of his greatest of all-time status so, by the same token, every crushing loss to Nadal further proves that said status should never have been granted by the media in the first place.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What it Means to be the Best

After the New England Patriots lost 28-13 to the Baltimore Ravens in the 2013 AFC Championship, Kurt Warner sent this text message to New England quarterback Tom Brady: "Being the best doesn't mean you always win. It just means you win more than anybody else." This quote is cited in a Seth Wickersham article the 5/13/2013 issue of ESPN the Magazine. Wickersham described what that brief message meant to Brady: "It touched Brady not because Warner called him the best. No, it meant a lot because in a bottom-line profession someone recognized the virtue in striving, even if it's a consolation prize."

In sports--and in life--it is not always possible to control outcomes, no matter how dedicated, determined and talented that you are. The challenge and the opportunity is to always do your best; a person who can honestly say that he has fully committed his mind, body and soul to excellence is a champion even on the days when the scoreboard says that he has been vanquished. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Why is Chess Not More Highly Respected in America?

Chess masters are viewed as athletes and even heroes in many countries--the current Armenian champion is featured on billboards and receives a salary from the national government--but, with rare exceptions such as Bobby Fischer and perhaps Paul Morphy, that has not been the case in America. It is both rarer and more difficult to achieve chess mastery than it is to earn a doctoral degree but in America chess masters are not accorded the respect or the financial compensation commensurate with reaching the 99th percentile in their chosen endeavor.

Stuart Rachels became the youngest National Master in American history (a record previously held by Fischer and that has since been broken several times, most recently by Awonder Liang) before earning the International Master title and tying for first place in the 1989 U.S. Championship. Rachels retired from professional chess in 1993 to follow in his father's footsteps by becoming a philosophy professor. Rachels' life experiences and his training as both an elite chess player and a philosopher provide him a unique perspective regarding how chess and chess players are perceived in America. In The Reviled Art, Rachels laments chess' low status in America: "My proudest moment--winning the U.S. Championship--brought me satisfaction but no glory. By then I knew that my victory was not a national news story, but I was disappointed to discover that it was not even considered local news. In Atlanta, where I was then a college student, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution declined to run a story about the tournament, while my college newspaper ran a story on page thirteen, devoting its front page to the minor accomplishments of a Division III college swimmer."

The preface to The Reviled Art is a quote from Rachels' father, James Rachels: "If chess is an art, it is hardly treated as such in the United States. Imagine what it would be like if music were as little known or appreciated. Suppose no self-respecting university would offer credit courses in music, and the National Endowment for the Arts refused to pay for any of it. A few enthusiasts might compose sonatas, and study and admire one another's efforts, but they would largely be ignored. Once in a while a Mozart might capture the public imagination, and like Bobby Fischer get written about in Newsweek. But the general attitude would be that, while this playing with sound might be clever, and a great passion for those who care about it, still in the end it signifies nothing very important."

During the early 1970s, it seemed like Bobby Fischer's dramatic World Championship victory might elevate the status of chess in the United States but Fischer was a tormented genius who did not defend his title and after Fischer disappeared from public view the "Fischer Boom" became a whimper. However, Stuart Rachels does not believe that chess would have become a mainstream activity in the United States even if Fischer had stayed on the scene:

The Fischer-Spassky frenzy was about a Cold War clash, and about the public's interest in Fischer himself; it had little to do with chess. If Bobby had kept playing, it would have been great. Professional chess players might now make a decent living in America. The U.S. Chess Federation might have as many members as the American Contract Bridge League (USCF: 90,000; ACBL: 160,000). But Fischer could not have made chess popular in the United States. There are three reasons for this. 

The first, peculiar to the U.S.A., is our country's deeply-engrained anti-intellectualism. In America, chess is regarded as the premier strategy game, but this accolade earns the game little respect...

The second reason is that chess is an anti-social activity--or rather, tournament chess is. Casual games can be social affairs, but serious chess is quiet and solitary. Tournament games typically last for hours, and though you are playing against a human being, you do not speak to him, and you are not working with him--you are trying to beat him. Not many people want to spend hours alone with their own thoughts.

The third reason Fischer couldn't have made chess as popular as golf or tennis is that the game's beauty is invisible to those who haven't labored over a chessboard for untold hours.

Stuart Rachels gives an in depth explanation of both why chess games can be beautiful and why it is difficult for the uninitiated to appreciate this beauty. He begins by noting that when his father decided to reduce his personal library he found it easy to discard his books about bridge but he could not so blithely get rid of his chess books: "Throwing away Fischer's games," James Rachels said, "would be like throwing away Shakespeare's plays." Such a sentiment is readily understood by any chess player but may be incomprehensible to someone who does not play chess: how can moves from a board game be compared to great works of literature?

Stuart Rachels offers this description of chess beauty:

Great chess games are breathtaking works of art. What does their beauty consist in? Some facets of a game's beauty can be grasped only by considering the game as a whole. For example, an entire game can embody the flawless execution of a plan (as when, in a Queen's Gambit Declined, White launches a minority attack on the queenside, creates a weak black pawn on c6, organizes his forces around that pawn, wins it, and displays good endgame technique). Or, the protracted struggle of a long game, with its tensions, its clash of styles, and its shifting fortunes, can have aesthetic merit. Or, a whole game can be satisfying because the victor made no detectable errors; reflecting on the game as a whole, we can see that the victor's performance was unspoiled...

Explanations of beauty, however, ring hollow in chess, much as they do elsewhere. In the end, the beauty of chess is something you grasp visually, if you grasp it at all. The move, the combination, the final position, look beautiful. You see it. Even when a Grandmaster thinks about a beautiful move while he's watching a dull movie, he "sees" the board in his mind...

Chess provides a striking example of how knowledge can influence perception. When a novice and a master look at a position, there is a profound difference in their experience. The master sees the power of the pieces: he immediately knows which squares the bishop attacks; no conscious thought is required. More complicated matters can also be perceptual. A master can immediately perceive that a square is weak, a bishop is bad, a pawn is backward, and a queen is pinned. He can perceive all this in one or two seconds of scanning the board, while the novice has only taken in the fact that chess is being played on the board rather than checkers...

Once, when I was giving a thirty-five-board simul, I noticed at one board that a piece had been moved to a different square while I was concentrating on other games. My opponent immediately apologized and put the piece back, blaming the error on his small child, who was watching. This was not a matter of "memorization"—I do not have a trick memory—the position just didn't make sense with the piece misplaced.

A person does not have to possess Rachels' fine-tuned sense of the board to appreciate chess beauty but it takes a certain amount of knowledge to make sense of a chess game; as Rachels put it, a master may be able to instantly grasp the essence of a position in a glance but in that same glance most people will only be able to determine that the game being played is chess, not checkers. It is not difficult for anyone to understand the beauty and grace of a soaring slam dunk, a majestic home run or a long touchdown pass but the concept of chess beauty cannot be expected to make sense to someone who does not play chess.

After providing many examples of chess beauty and of the way that masters perceive the game differently than amateurs, Rachels concludes:

When art lovers talk about what they "see" in a painting, I usually don't believe them. I usually think they're just being pretentious. If you suspect this of me, please know this: any chess expert can confirm what I've said about chess perception. And there is no issue about determining who the experts are. In chess, the experts are the ones who win. In other artistic areas, experts are harder to discern, and so claims about perception and beauty are harder to verify.

In Mano a Mano Competition is Pure, I expressed a similar sentiment:

I love chess for many reasons--the game is part art, part science, part raw blooded competition--but one of the best things about chess is that your performance can be immediately and objectively quantified: you win, lose or draw and your rating is adjusted accordingly (often within 24 hours thanks to the internet/computers). Facing someone over the chessboard is much like going into a boxing ring--you are battling one on one against your opponent and it does not matter how rich you are, how popular you are or who you know: if you don't bring everything you've got then you will get knocked out...

Unfortunately, the writing business--like the music business--does not have objective ratings. There is no mano a mano competition; people who are completely unqualified to analyze either writing or basketball often determine who "wins" and who "loses."

While chess expertise can be accurately quantified, Rachels believes that chess beauty is too abstract of a concept for most people to grasp:

Most of the fun in chess comes from appreciating the game's beauty. This requires being able to see it. And being able to see it requires time and effort: it takes most people years to develop a competent perception of the board. This is the main reason why chess will never become popular in America--it's too hard. And this is why Fischer could not have been Caissa's Arnold Palmer.

Rachels is probably being a bit too pessimistic here and he later backs off a bit by conceding, "Weaker players can enjoy the game, and it doesn't take years to become weak. Different things are enjoyed at a lower level than at a higher level. For example, a novice might get excited by a simple knight fork, which a stronger player would find routine. But this is enjoyment nonetheless." I know from firsthand experience that in just one evening an attentive and enthusiastic student can go from knowing virtually nothing about chess to being able to appreciate, at least on a rudimentary visual level, the beauty of one of Morphy's most famous games.

Rachels devotes a significant portion of his essay to discussing chess composition. Rachels asserts, "The composed problem is the highest form of art in chess" and he is disappointed that chess problem composers are accorded so little respect even within the chess community itself:

The world of chess compositions is like the chess world writ smaller. Society ignores chess players; chess players ignore composers. Chess players don't like problems for the same reason that greengrocers don't like chess: because it strains the brain. Humans can grasp a lot about chess, but most people don't want to; chess players can grasp a lot about problems, but most aren't interested. The chess composer is a tragic figure, even compared to the chess player. Kasparov and Fischer enjoy fame, and even players who haven't penetrated the public consciousness are renowned in chess circles. Yet the Kasparovs and Fischers of the composing world are largely unknown even to chess players.

Although Rachels wishes that chess artistry in all forms were better appreciated, he rejects attempts to popularize the game by classifying chess as a sport because Rachels believes that physical exertion is an essential aspect of any sport. I disagree with Rachels; sport is not defined purely by the level of physical exertion required but rather by how much skill is utilized: that is why chess can rightly be called a sport but board games that rely on rolling dice or other elements of chance cannot rightly be called sports. Chess is a mind sport, a sport that requires extraordinary concentration, focus and mental/physical stamina; contrary to popular belief, it is very much a young person's game at the highest levels, precisely because of the sustained intense mental, physical and psychological effort that competitive chess requires.

Chess is a unique human endeavor, combining art (beauty), sport (skillful competition) and science (a strong player must know how to identify important patterns, utilize logic and employ proper technique). It is a shame that chess is not more widely appreciated and that it is not utilized as an integral part of the education process; as former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov recently stated, learning chess can provide "a self-confidence that transforms a child's view of his or her potential."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Education is the Best Weapon Against Hatred and Prejudice

I just saw the movie "42" today. Jackie Robinson's life story is inspirational because of his personal courage and integrity but it is also depressing because it reveals the depths of ignorance, prejudice and hatred that were a common part of public life not too long ago and that still simmer just beneath the surface. What is the cure for the evil that seems to be such an essential part of human nature?

Education is the best hope for humanity's survival--and chess can be an essential part of that educational process. Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov recently met Ugandan junior chess champion Phiona Mutesi at the "Women in the World Summit." Mutesi told Kasparov that he is an inspiration but Kasparov correctly noted that Mutesi's story is not only inspirational but sends a powerful message about how we can transform the world by using chess as an educational catalyst.

Kasparov expanded upon that theme in an article titled How Chess Saves Lives. Kasparov's wise words should be read in their entirety but here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Phiona came from the slums of Katwe in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, growing up in deprivation and fear that few members of our New York audience could imagine. Her discovery of Katende’s local chess club became a miracle for Phiona, showing her that she could achieve intellectually. More important than that her chess talent has allowed her to travel the world, she now plans to be a doctor! This is the first and most powerful gift chess can provide, a self-confidence that transforms a child’s view of his or her potential. Very few kids can truly expect to turn success at football or other physical sports into an education or career. This is also true for chess, but the knowledge that you can compete, succeed, and enjoy yourself on an intellectual level applies to everything you undertake in life...

When you look around the world’s trouble spots, you see that when kids don’t have access to education, many of those who are being saved by Western aid are destined for lives of misery and violence. Do not misunderstand me. This is of course not an argument against providing life-saving drugs or a denunciation of the brilliant and caring people and programs that provide them. But do not turn away as soon as the babies are born and fed. Do not turn away at all. Look at the young boys enslaved by drug gangs and armies of every stripe, at the unemployed young men who find purpose and profit in victimizing their neighbors, at the girls and women who are inevitably the greatest victims of violence. The only medicine that can cure these plagues is safe and equal access to a classroom.

The best proof of the truth of this may come from the other side, from the brutal groups that burn down schools and shoot schoolgirls. It’s rare to hear about coordinated attacks on aid that brings medicine and food. These things pose little threat to the Taliban, or to the regional warlords, or to the corrupt politicians who steal funds that could go to help their people. Religious fanatics, mercenaries, and armies all need healthy recruits, after all. What these thugs cannot abide is the flourishing of education—with the noteworthy exception of militant religious teaching that closes minds instead of opening them. They despise the possibility of an educated population, knowing it would mean the end of their kind in a generation. So the Taliban did not just close the schools where 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai lived in Swat, Pakistan, they destroyed them. They did not just tell Malala not to go to school, they shot her.