Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Garry Kasparov Plans Many Moves Ahead, On and Off of the Chess Board

Ron Rosenbaum's Smithsonian article What is Garry Kasparov's Next Move? discusses Kasparov's perspectives on international politics, Magnus Carlsen's victory in the World Chess Championship and the way that powerful chess engines have permanently changed tournament chess. Kasparov's take on Vladimir Putin is particularly interesting:

Kasparov’s animus toward Putin led me to ask the philosophical question "Do you believe in evil?"

"Everyone has an evil component within," he tells me. "It's matter of circumstance whether it emerges. Whether he becomes 'the right man in the right place at the right time' for evil to emerge. Stalin had it, all the components in place."

"How would you assess Putin?" I ask.

"Evil," Kasparov replies. "Pure evil."

"Evil from the beginning?" I ask.

"Yeah, it’s just the..." he pauses, trying to find a way to describe it, "evil from the very beginning, but eventually he was brought into power and eventually he discovered himself...." Again he pauses and then comes out with it. "He discovered himself in the center of this universe with unlimited powers with enormous luck!"

There's something Faustian to this characterization, this vision of Grandmaster Putin suddenly finding himself like Milton's Satan, realizing it's better to "reign in hell, than serve in heaven." He's found himself in a universe he can reign over with godlike abandon. No one in the world, not any of the leaders of the other countries, has powers so unlimited. Few in history have had it--and fewer still have been able to keep it.

But Kasparov will not grant Putin grandmaster strategist status.

"He got lucky from other factors: high price of oil, 9/11 attack, general weakness of the West, complacency, muddy waters in the global politics, apathy of Russian people--the combination [of all that]." And Kasparov also feels there are limits to the effects of Putin’s evil. "It's unimaginable to think he could cause as much damage as Hitler. It's [different], 21st century from the 20th century. I always say that Hitler used tanks, Putin's using banks. But the damage Putin has caused to the integrity of Western financial, political system has yet to be measured."

Returning to Ukraine and Putin’s Gambit, "This is an amazing moment in history, wouldn’t you say?" I ask him.

"Yes," he replies, "I think this [is] an amazing time. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the beginning of the big change. But it was a mistake to think the end of the cold war was the end of history."

Kasparov's reference is to the title of a once-fashionable geopolitical book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama, and to its thesis that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the world was on an uninterruptable path to global liberal democracy.

Kasparov believes that both Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. missed golden opportunities in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kasparov has strong opinions about the policies that the United States should have implemented at that time:

"First of all, you don’t say 'That’s the end of the game.' Because the game is endless. It's the human race. Nobody had a plan that could go for four years, six years, ten years. That was an opportunity to make plans like the Truman administration did in late-1940s."

"And now?" I ask.

"Everybody's complaining that today things are so difficult, the Obama administration is facing [so many] enemies, it's difficult to confront China and radical Islam and Putin is...someone told me that Vladimir Putin is more dangerous than Joseph Stalin in 1948. Are you serious? That insults my sense of history. It's just politicians trying to cover up a lack of ideas, inability to strategize, and unwillingness to break a status quo, desperate attempts to cling to the power by [emphasizing] the magnitude of the global challenges."

Kasparov supports making chess an integral part of the school environment:

Kasparov is already thinking several moves ahead: beyond just reforming the insular, scandal-plagued world of 64 squares to make chess a vehicle for worldwide intelligence enhancement. "Everybody talks about the shortcomings of education. And I have plenty of experience traveling around the world and talking to education authorities, from the very top to the very bottom of the social ladder."

"We have plenty of evidence that at early age chess helps kids to learn about legal frameworks, to understand logic and patterns, to see the big picture, to structure minds. We need to start reforming education, and chess is a very useful tool."

Kasparov has a very measured answer to the question of whether prime Kasparov could beat prime Carlsen: "I always resist the question of comparing people. We live at different times, so Garry Kasparov in ’85 was once the champion, but my knowledge of chess was way, way less. It was 25 years ago."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Rick Reilly's Heartfelt Tribute to Jim Murray

Rick Reilly, who has won the National Sportswriter of the Year award 11 times, could not have picked a better role model than Jim Murray, who captured that honor a record 14 times--including 12 straight from 1966-77. After Murray passed away in August 1998, Reilly penned a touching obituary that displayed Reilly's talent while also explaining the qualities that made Murray so special. I encourage you to read the entire piece; here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

I once asked Jim Murray if he kept a few extra columns in the bank for days when he had the flu or a tee time or an incurably blank computer screen. "Of course not!" he yowled. "What if I die one ahead?"

On Sunday, Jim Murray, the greatest sportswriter who ever lived, kissed his gorgeous wife, started to put on his pajamas, said, "Linda, something's wrong," and collapsed. The doctor was there in five minutes, but it was too late. Jim had died of a heart attack. He was 78.

He got his wish, though. He didn't have any columns saved up. Too bad. We could use a few laughs right now.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

More Fun With Tennis Numbers

Fun With Tennis Numbers listed some of Bjorn Borg's incredible tennis statistics; it is unfortunate that Borg's dominance is not better remembered and appreciated by a generation of fans and commentators who act as if tennis greatness begins and ends with Roger Federer. The reality is that the one contemporary player whose statistics rival Borg's is not Federer but Rafael Nadal.

Tom Perrotta's January 24, 2014 Wall Street Journal article about Nadal notes, "Of the 90 men Nadal has played at least three times in his career, he has a losing record against two of them and an even record against one, according to tennis statistics website That's better than any man who has ever been ranked No. 3 or higher since the computer ranking system was implemented in 1973, from Bjorn Borg on down." The two aforementioned players who have winning records against Nadal are Nikolay Davydenko (6-5) and Dominik Hrbaty (3-1).

Like Nadal, Borg dominated the other top players of his era. Borg played 39 Top 10 players during his career and he only had a losing record against John Newcombe (1-3), Wayne Ferreira (0-1) and Pancho Gonzales (0-1). The Ferreira match took place during Borg's ill-advised and brief 1992 comeback after more than a decade away from the ATP Tour. Borg had a tie score against Arthur Ashe (7-7), John McEnroe (7-7), Tony Roche (1-1) and Roger Taylor (1-1). 

Nadal is the only current Top 15 player who owns a winning record against every other current Top 15 player; overall, Nadal is 162-53 against that group, including 23-10 versus Roger Federer and 22-17 versus Novak Djokovic. Nadal's mastery of Federer is stunning and complete; Nadal owns a 9-2 record against Federer in Grand Slam events and he has not lost to Federer in a Grand Slam event since the 2007 Wimbledon Final. Anyone who insists on ranking Federer ahead of Nadal on the all-time list at this point is stubbornly denying the simple fact that Nadal has been dominating Federer for years head to head, in addition to posting a better overall Grand Slam winning percentage (.351 compared to .288).

While Nadal has no matchup problems versus tennis' other elite players, Djokovic has a losing record against both Nadal and Federer (15-16); Federer has a losing record against Nadal and Andy Murray (10-11). Nadal is 63-27 against the other current Top Five players, a significantly better mark than Djokovic's 55-33 and Federer's 68-44.

Monday, February 3, 2014

If Peyton Manning is Football's Roger Federer, Then the Postseason is Manning's Rafael Nadal

Roger Federer is often praised as the greatest tennis player of all-time; his game is aesthetically pleasing and technically precise and he has claimed a large portion of the sport's all-time record book--but Rafael Nadal, whose record-setting career is even more impressive than Federer's was at the same stage, has defeated Federer 23-10 in their head to head meetings. When Federer faces Nadal he does not look like the greatest player of his own era, much less the greatest player of all-time.

Peyton Manning is often praised as the greatest quarterback of all-time; his game is aesthetically pleasing and technically precise and he has claimed a large portion of the sport's all-time record book--but Manning has just an 11-12 record in playoff games, including 1-2 in Super Bowls after his Denver Broncos lost 43-8 to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.

A tennis player battles one on one against his opponent in singles matches, while a quarterback is just one of 11 offensive players--but quarterback is the most important position in football, if not all of team sports, and a great quarterback can have a disproportionate impact on the outcome of a game. Manning has no problem making his presence felt during regular season play but his playoff record does not measure up to the postseason success enjoyed by Otto Graham (10 championship game appearances and seven championships in a 10 season career), Johnny Unitas (2-1 in NFL championship games, 1-1 in Super Bowls, 6-3 overall playoff record), Joe Montana (four Super Bowl wins in four appearances, 16-7 overall playoff record) and Tom Brady (three Super Bowl wins in five appearances, 18-8 overall playoff record). Terry Bradshaw was not as efficient statistically as Manning--though Bradshaw played in an era during which the rules heavily favored the defense, while the opposite is the case now--but Bradshaw went 4-0 in the Super Bowl and posted a 14-5 overall playoff record. Steve Young began his career in the USFL, played two seasons for a terrible Tampa Bay team and then spent several of his prime years backing up Montana in San Francisco but Young still assembled a 12-8 overall playoff record, including 1-0 in the Super Bowl. Kurt Warner has the same 1-2 Super Bowl record as Manning but Warner went 9-4 overall in the playoffs and he performed better in his three Super Bowls than Manning has.

Manning receives a lot of credit for "making his teammates better"--an ambiguous phrase at best in terms of defining an athlete's greatness--but even if we accept the very debatable premise that Manning has elevated mediocre teammates and/or teams to greatness during the regular season and thus deserves praise for doing so then don't we also have to assign some of the blame to Manning if those same teammates are nervous and/or tentative at the biggest moments? More to the point, Manning himself seemed nervous and tentative during Super Bowl XLVIII; although Manning set the Super Bowl single game record for completions (34) and threw for 280 yards, Troy Aikman commented during the telecast that it was difficult to remember when Manning accumulated all of those completions and all of that yardage: Manning's performance did not pass the eye test and anyone who watched the game analytically could see that Manning did not play at a high level, regardless of how one spins the numbers.

Furthermore, the idea that Manning has thrived despite being surrounded by lesser talent does not withstand close scrutiny. Manning's teams do not generally sneak into the playoffs only to lose to clearly superior squads; his teams race to tremendous regular season records only to stumble against lesser teams: Manning has lost his first playoff game (either in the Wild Card round or after enjoying a bye week)  a record eight times. Just as it would be wrong to deny that Manning's gaudy regular season numbers have earned him a prominent place in the all-time quarterback pantheon, it would be wrong to deny that Manning's relative lack of postseason success (compared to several other members of that pantheon) strongly argues against placing Manning at the very top of the all-time quarterback list.

The title "greatest of all-time" may be largely mythical, something that is impossible to determine by purely objective means--but it is difficult to believe that someone with a glaring hole in his resume should be ranked ahead of great players who do not have a similarly glaring hole in their resumes. Is Federer one of the greatest tennis players of all-time? Of course. Is Manning one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time? Of course. Federer never mastered his main rival Nadal--or even figured out how to play against him on close to even terms--so it makes no sense to label Federer as the greatest of all-time; Manning never dominated NFL postseason play--or even came close to matching the championship success of quarterbacks like Graham, Unitas, Montana and Brady--so it makes no sense to label Manning as the greatest of all-time. Super Bowl XLVIII did not hurt Manning's legacy, because objective observers already understood where Manning should be placed in the quarterback pantheon--but Manning's mediocre performance during Denver's loss represented a missed opportunity for Manning to add to his legacy. If Manning had been sharp while leading Denver to victory then he would have written another chapter in his story, much like Federer could have done if he had ever figured out how to deal with Nadal's relentless groundstrokes.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Josh Gordon: "I'm Just Trying to Learn From the Best"

Josh Gordon was the brightest of the few bright spots in the 4-12 Cleveland Browns' dismal 2013 season; he earned First Team All-Pro honors in just his second year in the league, he led the NFL with 1646 receiving yards--shattering the franchise record of 1289 set by Braylon Edwards in 2007-- and he became the first player in NFL history to post back to back 200-plus yard receiving games. Gordon ranked second in the league with an 18.9 yards per reception average, he tied for 11th in the league with 87 receptions and he tied for 14th in the league with nine receiving touchdowns. Gordon's 95 yard TD reception in Cleveland's 33-28 week 13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars was the longest passing play in the league in 2013. Gordon torched Jacksonville for 261 receiving yards on 10 receptions after ransacking Pittsburgh with 14 catches for 237 yards the week before in Cleveland's 27-11 loss to the Steelers; Gordon's 597 total receiving yards in back to back games are the most receiving yards an NFL player has racked up in consecutive contests in league history.

Gordon also played in his first Pro Bowl and he enjoyed the opportunity to get some one on one tutoring from Jerry Rice, who is perhaps the greatest wide receiver--and arguably the greatest player, period--in NFL history. Gordon is bigger, stronger and faster than Rice was in his prime but it is most instructive to watch the video of Rice and Gordon's interactions in order to learn about Rice's mental approach to the game; Rice set up defenders like a chess grandmaster sets up a tactic and Rice was almost always one move ahead of the opposition. After Rice told Gordon that with proper technique Gordon could become unstoppable Gordon expressed appropriate deference, telling Rice, "I'm just trying to learn from the best."

Younger fans may not realize this, but the Cleveland Browns have a long and proud tradition of great receivers/tight ends, dating all the way back to the exploits of Hall of Famer Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie during the team's dominant run in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC). Lavelli and Speedie played vital roles on the Browns' four AAFC championship teams (1946-49) before helping the team win the 1950 NFL title after the leagues merged. Cleveland also advanced to the NFL title game in 1951 and 1952 before Speedie retired. Lavelli played until 1956, as the Browns won NFL crowns in 1954 and 1955 after settling for runner up honors in 1953.

Hall of Famer Paul Warfield and Gary Collins teamed up on the Browns' 1964 NFL championship team; that squad remains the last Cleveland team to win a title in the NFL, NBA or MLB. Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome played an integral part in the franchise's revival in the early to mid-1980s and he is still the Browns' career leader with 662 receptions (the all-time record for tight ends when he retired in 1990) and 7980 receiving yards.

Ray Renfro, Milt Morin, Reggie Rucker, Dave Logan, and Webster Slaughter also deserve mention as first rate Cleveland pass catchers; three-time Pro Bowler Renfro played for the Browns' 1954 and 1955 NFL championship teams, two-time Pro Bowler Morin was one of the NFL's top tight ends in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Rucker tied for the AFC lead in 1975 with 60 receptions, Logan was an excellent deep threat who averaged 16.2 yards per reception in his eight seasons with the Browns and Slaughter earned Pro Bowl honors in 1989 after setting a franchise record with 1236 receiving yards.

If Gordon keeps his mind right--he was suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season because he violated the NFL's substance abuse policy--and his body healthy he could eventually own all of the Browns' receiving records.