Saturday, December 29, 2018

William Nack's Kentucky Derby Memories

William Nack, who passed away earlier this year, is considered one of the greatest horse racing writers of all-time. I am not a huge fan of the sport, nor am I particularly knowledgeable about it, but I respect greatness in any endeavor, so I read with interest an article by Nack in the December 31, 2018 issue of Sports Illustrated. The article is an excerpt from a memoir that Nack was working on before he died and it tells the story of the race that, as the article's subtitle puts it, "inspired his lifelong love of the sport--the 1958 Kentucky Derby."

Nack recalls his uncle Ed Feeney, then a sports photographer for the Chicago Tribune, inviting him to go to the 1958 Kentucky Derby. Nack was just 17 at the time, a horse racing fanatic who had not yet attended the race of his dreams. Nack soaked up every minute of the experience.

A few years earlier, he had memorized the names of every Kentucky Derby winner since the initial 1875 race. In 1971, as Nack describes it, his journalism career was "plodding along as a political writer at Newsday" when that memorized list helped change his life forever. At the newspaper's Christmas party, Nack recited the list and the newspaper's editor, David Laventhol, asked Nack, "Why do you know that?" Nack told him about his love for the Kentucky Derby and his trip to the 1958 event, and within minutes Laventhol tapped Nack to be the newspaper's new thoroughbread racing writer.

The rest is history.

In 2008, Nack returned to the Kentucky Derby and posed for a picture right by the spot where he had stood 50 years earlier to watch Tim Tam beat Lincoln Road by half a length.

Nack's article concludes on a note that could bring a wistful tear even to the most cynical eye:
Alas, all of them from those good old days are turned to fading shadows now and gone--Ed and Dave, Mom and Dad, Ben and Jimmy, Tim Tim and Gen. Duke, Charlie and the Shoe, Lincoln Road and Silky Sullivan, all those pretty horses.

Long gone, so long.

All these years later, I can still see them all. And I cannot shake, not in my dreams, not in my sleepless hammock reveries, that haunting line from William Faulkner set to the poignant rhythms of his poetry: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Magnus Carlsen Retains World Chess Champion Title After Sweeping Fabiano Caruana 3-0 in Rapid Tiebreak

After the first World Chess Championship match that did not have a single decisive game, Magnus Carlsen won three straight games against Fabiano Caruana in the Rapid Tiebreak to retain his title. Carlsen squeezed Caruana in the first game and then almost let Caruana escape with a draw before relentlessly punishing Caruana's endgame mistake in time pressure. Carlsen won game two convincingly and then took game three as well after Caruana went for broke, as a draw would have produced the same match outcome as a loss.

Carlsen was heavily criticized for offering a draw in a winning position in game 12 of the classical portion of the match and there was much speculation about why Carlsen failed to push for a win but it seems that the simple answer is that--based on the skill sets of the players and the match format--he decided that his best strategy was to steer the match toward the Rapid Tiebreak. While these two players are evenly matched at slow time controls, Carlsen enjoys a clear and significant advantage over Caruana in faster time controls. Carlsen's game 12 draw offer is therefore understandable--his job is to win the match/retain his title, not satisfy the expectations of others--but perhaps reveals that the match format is flawed. One thing that can be said in favor of the current format is that the faster time controls to some extent deemphasize the importance of computer preparation and thus reintroduce human elements of natural talent, calm nerves and fighting spirit that are not as evident during slower time controls in this computer-dominated era.

Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik did not like Carlsen's game 12 draw offer. Kramnik declared after game 12 and before the Rapid Tiebreak that in order to prevail Carlsen must get over his fear of losing the title. This is reminiscent of the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert's Dune, which states "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." The ability to control one's fear/nerves plays a huge role in championship level play, as I noted in "It's Just a Question of Nerves": Anand Defeats Topalov 6.5-5.5 to Retain World Chess Championship (my recap of the 2010 World Chess Championship match in which Viswanathan Anand defeated Veselin Topalov, 6.5-5.5), but the Litany Against Fear can be meaningfully applied in many areas of life.

Kramnik conceded that Carlsen should be considered the favorite in the Rapid Tiebreak but he cautioned that Caruana has legitimate practical chances if he has proper opening preparation.

Kramnik's comments make sense, but it seems a bit hypocritical for him to criticize another player's alleged fear when he dodged a rematch with Garry Kasparov, as mentioned in the interesting article Garry Kasparov: King without a Crown. While there is no question that Kramnik earned his match victory against a stubborn and complacent Kasparov, there is also no question that Kasparov deserved a rematch and should not have been forced to play in a qualifying event to get that rematch. As Kasparov stated of Kramnik, "He made new discoveries and pushed chess towards new horizons. It was not the most attractive style, but that does not matter. He came up with a strategy that took me by surprise and it is important for the development of chess that I was forced to make corrections to my style. I had been winning too many tournaments. You can't learn from your wins, only your defeats. It was a very painful defeat, but I deserved it because it taught me that I needed to change. It took a long time for me to do this--and I am still in the process of doing this--but I am winning while learning."

Kasparov retained his highest rated player in the world status even after losing to Kramnik and Kasparov absolutely dominated the subsequent tournaments. He even finally beat Kramnik's fabled Berlin Defense. "All my claims for a rematch and that I was the best player would have been weakened had I failed win," Kasparov noted. "Kramnik should play me anyway, but my victory sent out a very important message. I finally broke down the 'Berlin Wall.' I believe it is the duty of the world champion to defend his title against the most dangerous opponent. When I beat Karpov in 1985 I was forced to defend my title against him within eight months. The organizers and the public believed that Kramnik was the most dangerous opponent, so I had to play him--I had no choice. Kramnik knows this and now he is champion he must prove to the world he is 'real,' by facing his most dangerous opponent--me. In the last six months I have proved I am still the world number one and I beat Kramnik recently. But now Kramnik, who was not made to win a qualifier to play me, implies that I must qualify to play him. I don't want to diminish the importance of his victory. He deserved to win. But it is Kramnik's turn to prove Kasparov didn't go mad in London. The public need another match to prove Kramnik is the real thing."

The point of this tour down memory lane is that, while Kramnik has the right to express his opinions, it should not be forgotten that at the peak of his career as World Champion he displayed fear, if not outright cowardice. At least Carlsen embraces the opportunity to play against the second highest rated player in the world; Kramnik ducked a Kasparov rematch and eventually Kasparov retired in frustration, still the highest rated player in the world.

Interestingly, Kasparov shared Kramink's viewpoint regarding Carlsen's game 12 draw offer and Kasparov predicted that Caruana would win the Rapid Tiebreak because, according to Kasparov, the most important trait in Rapid is strong nerves and Carlsen had demonstrated that his nerves were shot. While it does appear that Carlsen's nerves or fighting spirit may not be quite what they were at the start of his reign, his performance today suggests to me that Carlsen really was just being very calculating and practical. He has enough self-awareness and enough knowledge of his opponent to understand that they are basically equal in slow games but that there is a big difference in their skills at faster time controls. It was once said of Jack Nicklaus in his prime that he knew that he was the best golfer in the world, his opponents knew and he knew that they knew. There is more than a trace of that psychological warfare in Carlsen's match strategy: he knows, and he knows that Caruana knows, that Rapid and Blitz immensely favor Carlsen.

This is the second consecutive time that Carlsen defended his title by winning a Rapid Tiebreak--he defeated Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in the 2016 World Chess Championship Rapid Tiebreak--and this is Carlsen's third title defense overall.

The World Chess Champions who dominated their eras for a long time and/or were significantly better than their contemporaries include Paul Morphy (unofficial World Champion but clearly the best player of his time), Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker, Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Carlsen, who has achieved the highest chess rating of all-time and won World Championships in Classical, Rapid and Blitz formats, deserves to be included in that group. Is he better/greater than those players? Would he have beaten them in a match? Those questions are impossible to answer, because of the differences in eras, rules, computer preparation and so forth. My opinion is that Fischer is the greatest player of all-time because he was further ahead of his contemporaries (based on the official ratings) than anyone else has ever been. It is worth mentioning that Fischer thought very highly of Morphy, who was far ahead of his contemporaries in an era when chess ratings did not exist. Carlsen's current rating, which is dozens of points below his peak rating, is still higher than Fischer's then-record 2785, but when Fischer was 2785 he was 125 points ahead of everyone else, which is more than half a rating class (a rating class is 200 points). That is a staggering margin. Caruana is currently just three points behind Carlsen and no one would put Caruana in the same sentence with Morphy, Steinitz, et. al.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Ross Sprague (1940-2018) Played Master Level Chess For More Than Five Decades

Ross Sprague, a dominant force in Midwest chess from the 1950s through the mid-2000s, recently passed away. Sprague achieved the National Master title during an era when there were only a few dozen Masters in the entire country and he later earned Senior Master status with a rating well over 2400.  He did not have the opportunity to play FIDE rated chess during his prime or he certainly would have attained FIDE Master status and he quite possibly could have become an International Master. National Master David Presser, the 1964 Ohio co-champion, told me years ago that he believes that Sprague is the most naturally talented native Ohio chess player of all-time. Sprague was a powerful attacker who knew a lot of opening theory and was blessed with a tremendous memory. If you survived the opening and middlegame against Sprague you then discovered that he seemed like a walking endgame tablebase. He had an incredible sense of how to optimally place his pieces and pawns during the latter stages of the game.

Sprague's chess career began in Cleveland, Ohio in the 1950s. He often told stories about playing ping pong and speed chess against Bobby Fischer during one of the U.S. Junior Opens in the late 1950s. Sprague also formed a friendship with Grandmaster Pal Benko, who called him "Poopsie" and taught him a lot about endgame play. Sprague served as an airplane mechanic during the Vietnam War and later became a practicing attorney.

Sprague won or shared first place in the Ohio Chess Congress four times (1958, 1975-76, 2005). He holds the record for longest time span between OCC titles (47 years), breaking the record of 35 years set by James Schroeder. Based on my recollection of conversations with Sprague, I believe that he said that he won several other state championships, including (I think) Illinois, but I cannot find official confirmation of this. Sprague also won the Dayton Chess Club Championship twice (2005-06).

After Sprague first moved to Dayton in the mid-2000s, I received many endgame lessons at his hands as I drew seemingly winning positions and lost seemingly drawn positions. He was past his prime (his U.S. Chess Federation rating had dropped from 2400-plus to the mid-2200s) but he could punch above his weight, as former World Chess Championship Challenger Gata Kamsky found out when Sprague held him to a draw at the Kings Island Open. I will never forget Sprague's concise recap: he said that Kamsky grumbled after the game that he had five different ways to win, to which Sprague replied in typical Sprague fashion "But you chose number six, which draws."

Clearly, I am far from the strongest player who crossed swords with Sprague but since 1991 (when the USCF first began keeping such records) I faced him 52 times in regular rated games, making him my most frequent opponent during that time frame. I am also listed as Sprague's most frequent opponent, one game ahead of International Master Calvin Blocker, but of course those records omit nearly 40 years of Sprague's chess career. Sprague scored 25 wins, 11 draws and 16 losses in our regular rated games.

I am Sprague's most frequent Quick chess opponent by a larger margin of 132-73 over Daytonian Mark Kellie. Sprague scored 56 wins, 28 draws and 48 losses against me in Quick chess.

He kept playing tournament chess until he completely lost his sight. He was too proud or stubborn to use the special equipment that is available to assist blind players to participate in tournament chess.

I believe that competing against and analyzing with Sprague is one of the major factors that helped elevate my rating from fluctuating in the low 2000s to consistently being above 2100 for several years (and peaking at 2190 before various life events put tournament chess on the back-burner for me for a while).

We first faced each other in a John Carroll University Action Tournament held on June 5, 1992; the 2427 rated Sprague beat me (I was then rated 1980) en route to finishing tied for second behind International Master Calvin Blocker. Our last regular rated game took place 19 years later to the day as I beat him in the final round of the 2011 Gem City Open. Sprague's rating was floored at 2200, while I was rated 2087; Sprague had been battling severe vision loss and other health problems for quite some time, so I have no illusions about my peak playing strength compared to his.

Sprague was well-read and our conversations were always interesting. If you caught him in the wrong state of mind, he could be a bit blunt and abrasive but he always treated me with respect and I think he knew how much I respected his chess abilities. We were from different generations and had different life experiences but we connected because of our mutual love of chess.

Here is my loss with Black against Sprague from the April 2005 Gem City Open. Sprague was rated 2205, while I was rated 2012. After an innocuous opening, we traded into an equal ending, whereupon Sprague methodically outplayed me:

1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6 3. Nc3 c6 4. Bg5 Qa5 5. Qd2 Nbd7 6. Nf3 h6 7. Bxf6 Nxf6 8. e5 dxe5 9. Nxe5 Be6 10. Bc4 Bxc4 11. Nxc4 Qb4 12. b3 Nd5 13. Nxd5 Qxd2+ 14. Kxd2 cxd5 15. Ne3 e6 16. Rhe1 Kd7?! 17. Kd3 Rc8 18. c4 dxc4+ 19. bxc4 Be7 20. Rab1 b6 21. f4 Rhd8 22. f5 exf5 23. Nxf5 Bf6 24. Ne3 Kc6 25. Nd5 Rxd5?! 26. cxd5+ Kxd5 27. Rbc1 Rxc1 28. Rxc1 Bxd4 29. Rc7 Be5 30. Rxf7 a5 31. h3 Bf6 32. Rc7 Kd6 33. Rc8 Kd5 34. a4 Ba1 35. Rc1 Bf6 36. Rb1 Bd8 37. Rb5+ Kc6 38. Kc4 Bf6 39. Rd5 Ba1 40. Rd1 Bf6 41. Re1 Bd8 42. Re6+ Kd7 43. Kd5 Kc7 44. Re8 Bf6 45. Rf8 b5 46. axb5 Kb6 47. Rb8+ Ka7 48. Re8 Kb6 49. Kc4 a4 50. Re6+ Kb7 51. Ra6 Be7 52. Rxa4 Kb6 53. Ra6+ Kb7 54. Kd5 Bg5 55. Rg6 Bf6 56. Rxf6 gxf6 57. Ke6 1-0.

I miss our nearly weekly friendly but fierce chess battles for Dayton Chess Club supremacy but I cherish the memories of competing against such a talented player who helped me to come closer to maximizing my potential. It is good to be challenged, to be pushed, to find out what you can do when you are tested. Thank you, Ross, and Rest in Peace.

World Chess Championship Heads to Tiebreakers After 12th Consecutive Draw

Game 12 of the 2018 World Chess Championship match came to a sudden, surprising and disappointing end after World Champion Magnus Carlsen offered a draw in a very promising position and relieved Challenger Fabiano Caruana accepted. The match, tied 6-6 after 12 straight draws, will now be decided by tiebreaker games to be played on Wednesday. The first tiebreaker is a best of four match of Rapid Chess (25 minutes per player per game, with a 10 second increment added after each completed move). The second tiebreaker is a series of up to five Blitz Chess matches of two games each played at a time control of five minutes per player per game, with a three second increment added after each completed move. If neither the Rapid nor Blitz tiebreakers prove decisive, then the World Chess Championship will be determined by a one game, winner take all Armageddon showdown during which White has five minutes and Black has four minutes plus draw odds (thus, a draw is a win for Black). An increment of three seconds per move will be applied after move 60 of the Armageddon game. The players will draw lots for color assignments in these games. The prize fund would have been split 60/40 had the outcome been decided during the 12 Classical games but now it will be split 55/45.

For those who love chess as an art and violent sport, it is sad that the linear, classical World Championship will once again be decided by games contested at fast time controls. This is exactly what happened in the previous World Championship match when Carlsen retained his title by defeating Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in a Rapid tiebreak match. At the time, I acknowledged the entertainment value of those Rapid games but also stated unequivocally that this is a "terrible" way to determine who is World Champion. There are separate championship events for Rapid and Blitz, so deciding the classical World Championship with Rapid (and possibly Blitz and even Armageddon) tiebreaks is like determining the NBA Championship with a Three Point Shootout followed by a Slam Dunk Contest; those are great events but they have nothing to do with crowning a champion.

Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of all-time and a tremendous fighter, once responded to a draw offer by growling, "I determine when it is a draw!" He won the 1964 U.S. Championship with an unprecedented 11-0 sweep, fighting to the bitter end to win the last game even though the second place finisher (former U.S. Champion Larry Evans) was hopelessly behind with 7.5/11. It was later said that Evans won the tournament and Fischer won the exhibition. Fischer later won 20 straight games en route to claiming the 1972 World Chess Championship; the mental power, psychological tenacity and personal drive that it takes to prevail in 20 consecutive games against the best players in the world is difficult to quantify or explain--but it stands in marked contrast to Carlsen's approach in this match and particularly in game 12, about which he said flatly, "I wasn't in a mood to find the punch." As Gurney Halleck told Paul Atreides in Frank Herbert's Dune, "What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises--no matter the mood! Mood's a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It's not for fighting."

It is evident that, based on Carlsen's match strategy to minimize risk as much as possible in the 12 classical games and then seek victory at faster time controls, Carlsen did not believe that "necessity" had arisen in game 12. Carlsen's strategy may make statistical sense based on a comparison of his prowess at faster time controls compared to Caruana's relative ineptitude at such time controls but this situation indicates that the match's format is flawed if fan excitement and decisive games are paramount values.

It also seems that Carlsen in general has lost some of his fighting spirit/motivation, his confidence or perhaps both. Carlsen's confidence may have been shaken after missing a winning shot in game one. Carlsen's public lament about his favorite chess player being himself several years ago--even if offered tongue-in-cheek--strikes an odd note for a World Champion and the highest rated player ever who one would expect to have tremendous confidence in his repeatedly demonstrated abilities.

Is it possible that, having been World Champion and having surpassed the rating record once held first by Fischer and then by Garry Kasparov, Carlsen has lost the drive to be the champion? He wants to win--anyone in his position would want to win--but does Carlsen still want to work hard enough to win or is he content to just kind of coast and accept whatever outcome happens? Prime Carlsen used to show at least some semblance of the fighting spirit that Fischer almost always displayed, for prime Carlsen used to press minuscule edges until his opponent cracked. Now, Carlsen lacks the willpower or patience for such long-term maneuvering.

Grandmaster Alex Yermolinsky, whose pithy, blunt and informed post-game video commentaries have been a treat to watch, speculated that the problem "may not be the format, but the players." He hypothesized that because Carlsen and Caruana have lived and are living rather sheltered lives without deprivation or risk they do not understand or appreciate what is at stake in a World Championship match. Yermolinsky stated that regardless of the outcome on Wednesday, life will proceed the same way for both players, with invitations to closed tournaments with guaranteed paydays and not much at risk.

Carlsen has already accomplished a lot in chess, and defending his crown against the second highest rated player in the world would further enhance his legacy but from the larger viewpoint of the future of the sport this kind of match is not good from an artistic or sporting standpoint--nor is there reason to believe that circumstances would improve if Caruana becomes World Champion, because throughout this match he has alternately been unable or unwilling to push Carlsen despite the fact that it is obvious that Carlsen is content to have 12 draws. If I were Caruana, I would resent the notion that I am easy prey at any time control.

It remains to be seen if either player has saved up any special opening preparation for these final games. If Carlsen has done so, then Caruana--who is uncomfortable anyway at fast time controls--is toast; if Caruana has a surprise up his sleeve then it will be interesting to see Carlsen forced to react to a novelty with limited time to think.

The tiebreaker games will likely be entertaining, but not as entertaining as it would have been to see the title determined by a decisive result in the classical portion of the match.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Carlsen Misses a Crushing Shot and Caruana Secures a Draw in Game One of the 2018 World Chess Championship

Game one of the 2018 World Chess Championship match between champion Magnus Carlsen and challenger Fabiano Caruana provided drama, inspiration and a blunder that can only evoke knowing nods from any club player. Anyone who has played tournament chess for even a brief period of time is well-acquainted with the classic lament, "I was winning but..." followed by a painfully detailed description of chessboard self-immolation. Several years ago, National Master Will Aramil became so exasperated from hearing these tales of woe that he said he was going to design t-shirts for chess players on which the front reads "I was winning but..." and the back reads "Shut up, you lost!"

Some world chess championship games fail to live up to the hype, as the players steer the game into safe waters and are content with a draw. Game one was, thankfully, not like that at all. It featured imaginative play that can inspire club players, and even Carlsen's blunder is inspirational in a way: it serves as a reminder that this game is difficult even for the best players and that it is possible to achieve great success without being perfect.

I was fortunate that the dramatic time scramble--including Carlsen's fateful blunder--took place during my lunch break, so I was able to watch that portion of the game live and enjoy the commentary of Grandmaster Robert Hess and International Master Daniel Rensch.

Carlsen did not lose game one but tonight he is surely beset by thoughts of "I was winning but..." High level, detailed analysis of each match game is available at a variety of websites, so since I am a chess Expert--and not a Grandmaster or a chess computer--I will mainly confine my commentary to the psychological and sporting aspects of the match. Carlsen has enjoyed decent success against Caruana with black and Carlsen played the Sicilian Defense in game one, which provided an indication that Carlsen was ready to fight and not merely try to "hold serve" with black. The opening moves were nothing special and one wonders what Caruana had in mind, as he used up a lot of time without gaining any kind of advantage; in fact, before move 20 it was already clear that if anyone would be pushing for an advantage it would be Carlsen, not Caruana.

Soon, Caruana faced pressure not only on the board as his position deteriorated but also on the clock, as Caruana had less than six minutes (plus the 30 second increment added after each move) to make 15 moves to reach the time control at move 40. The game looked like it had all the makings of a classic Carlsen python-like death squeeze--but Caruana has shown before that he can resist Carlsen's attacks (or at least defend stoutly enough that Carlsen loses his edge and lets the advantage slip away) and on move 34, with Caruana barely surviving on the increment and his position about to collapse, Carlsen missed a forced win. The winning sequence would not necessarily be obvious to a club player but it was well within the capabilities of a player of Carlsen's caliber.

After Carlsen missed his chance, Caruana steered the game out of the danger zone and to a pawn down endgame that is a technical draw with correct play. Carlsen did not readily concede the draw and the game lasted 115 moves, the longest game that these two competitors have played against each other--but he did not succeed in putting any further dents in Caruana's armor.

Objectively, this was a good result for Carlsen in many ways. The strategy for professional players is typically to draw with black and seek opportunities to win with white, so a draw in game one puts pressure on Caruana to not only draw game two with black but also to win one of his five remaining games with white. Also, if the match ends in a 6-6 tie then the tiebreaking games will be played at a much faster time control and Carlsen is demonstrably better at faster time controls than Caruana is.

However, the objective reality does not take into account the psychological dimension. Carlsen used to enjoy a large rating advantage over every other player in the world but now Caruana has all but caught up to Carlsen in that department. Carlsen used to be known for relentlessly pursuing the smallest edge until he obtained victory but in recent years his technique has not been so reliable, and Carlsen has publicly stated that he does not think he is as strong a player as he was a few years ago. Carlsen is a more experienced match player than Caruana is. For all of these reasons, Caruana's ability to draw a lost game against Carlsen should provide a psychological boost to Caruana and could have a negative effect on Carlsen.

Of course, at this point it is pure speculation to speak of how one game will affect the thought processes of the two competitors. Carlsen has proven to be a tough-minded person and he could very well reframe game one's events such that he has increased confidence because of how easily he obtained a winning position against the second ranked player in the world. Unless Caruana has better opening preparation for his next game with white, all of the confidence in the world will not matter much--and Carlsen is unlikely to let such a large advantage slip away for a second time.

All that we know for sure from game one is that, all factors considered, these players are evenly matched and it would be surprising if the final margin of victory is not close. Carlsen has flirted with disaster in previous world championship matches and, as noted above, he is close to losing his perch atop the ratings list, so this match with Caruana will either lift Carlsen to new heights or else push him off of the top of the heap.

I think that Carlsen will retain his title and number one ranking this time but if he does not sharpen his game I would not be surprised if his next challenger (which of course could very well be Caruana again) dethrones him.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Boston Takes Game One of the World Series With 8-4 Victory Over L.A.

I have never romanticized baseball, or loved the sport the way that so many passionate fans do--but before the 1994-95 strike and before the sport became overrun by performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to the extent that its hallowed record book was stripped of any meaning, I followed the sport closely and I particularly enjoyed the playoffs and the World Series. I remember as a child being awed by Reggie Jackson's heroics and being entertained by the "We Are Family" Pittsburgh Pirates (even though the Pirates eliminated my Cincinnati Reds en route to the World Series title).

I do not watch much baseball anymore--though I enjoy going to Dayton Dragons games with my four year old daughter Rachel, who loves the entire spectacle and yearns to join the players on the field--but tonight's World Series game one was fun to watch. The Boston Red Sox beat the L.A. Dodgers, 8-4. I don't have a dog in this hunt, so I just savored the back and forth nature of the contest and the various strategic moves made by both sides. I love seeing the best of the best compete against each other and there is no doubt that both of these teams are great.

Boston jumped out to a 2-0 first inning lead and never trailed, but L.A. tied the score at 2 in the third inning. Boston scored one run in the bottom of the third and then L.A. answered with a run in the fifth inning to once again tie the score. Boston added two runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to take a 5-3 lead and L.A. pulled to within one run in the seventh inning. It looked like we were heading for a nail-biting finish but then pinch hitter Eduardo Nunez uncorked a three run home run to break the game open, 8-4. The Dodgers' bats fell silent the rest of the way. Matt Barnes, who pitched one scoreless inning, was credited with the win, while Dodgers' starter Clayton Kershaw--who gave up five runs in four innings--suffered the loss.

After nearly a century of frustrating futility, the Red Sox appear to be on the cusp of capturing their fourth World Series title since 2004.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Why Does the Media Demonize Terrell Owens and Lionize Ray Lewis?

One member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2018 pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in an as yet unsolved double murder.

Another member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2018 did not make many friends in the media but he worked hard, played hurt and earned the respect of most of his teammates.

Guess which of these two men is regularly lionized by the media and which one of these two men is regularly demonized by the media?

Media members stumble over each other to heap praise on Ray Lewis, who at the very least actively participated in a coverup of the murders of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Sports Illustrated writer Robert Klemko is one of the few media members who has not sold out to the Lewis cult of personality (a "crime" for which Klemko was denied access to the Baltimore Ravens' locker room when Lewis was an active player). Klemko recently penned a scathing indictment of what he called "the bubble" that has protected Lewis from having to face questions or any kind of scrutiny regarding the serious crime for which he pled guilty and the even more serious crimes for which he may very well be guilty:
For 13 years, Ray Lewis had hidden from his history. He hid behind his talent. He hid behind his religion. Most effectively, he hid behind his team's PR staff. His case isn't rare. The league insulates players in protective bubbles, and in doing so creates its own warped sense of morality that reporters are expected to adhere to. In this bubble, a story about the lasting consequences of a player being convicted of obstruction of justice related to the death of two men can seem outlandish, even predatory on the part of the media organization. In the eyes of Ravens players and staffers, we were out to dirty Ray Lewis. They refused to acknowledge the way he'd dirtied himself and dodged questions in the public sphere for so long. For two far-away families, the deaths were devastating, life-altering events. To the Ravens, they were ancient history.
So Ray Lewis will now be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, having never addressed his actions in a way that wasn't stage-managed, mainly because he didn't have to. The NFL's public relations machine made that possible, by creating an environment that limits player availability and bullies reporters who attempt to hold rich, powerful men accountable for their misdeeds.
The fawning over Lewis is even more outrageous and baffling when it is compared to the abuse that is heaped upon Owens, whose most recent "crime" is deciding to not attend this year's Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. Instead, Owens--one of the greatest receivers of all-time, who was twice denied Hall induction due to petty politics among the media voters--returned to his alma mater University of Tennessee at Chatanooga to give his acceptance speech and celebrate with his family, his friends, many of his former teammates, and others.

Media members assert that Owens was a divisive force in the locker room. Tell that to his San Francisco teammate Derrick Deese, who attended Owens' celebration and said before Owens' speech, "Once people hear him today and what he has to say, they’ll shut up." Deese knows that the media caricature of Owens bears little relationship to reality. The media stated that Owens' Philadelphia teammates hated him--but the reality is that when Deese went to Owens' birthday party during Owens' tenure with the Eagles over 40 of Owens' teammates were there. Deese knew that, contrary to media accounts, Owens was a good leader whose halftime speeches to his teammates echoed the kinds of speeches that Jerry Rice had once given.

One of Owens' former coaches, Ray Sherman, declared, "People often confuse anger with passion. I never knew an angry T.O. He was never defiant or disrespectful. He was honest."

Owens delivered a heartfelt, inspirational speech. He began by stating, "I'm here to speak truth to power. And power to truth." Later, Owens told anyone in the crowd who had ever felt like an outcast to stand up and he says the same thing to anyone who ever felt isolated, or misunderstood, or who had been "been lied on, mischaracterized." Eventually, everyone in the audience was standing and Owens said, "The entire speech you thought was about me—this was for you."

Ray Lewis won two Super Bowl titles and Terrell Owens did not win any but Owens is more of a champion in life--in what really matters as a human being--than Lewis will ever be. Shame on the media for painting such distorted portraits of both men, lionizing someone who covered up murder while demonizing a hard-working and dedicated competitor who never lost sight of what really matters.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Nick Saban on the Mindset of a Champion

The May 1, 2018 issue of Fortune profiled many individuals who are leaders in their respective fields. Coach Nick Saban, who has won five national championships in nine years with Alabama and six national championships overall (the most by any college football coach in the poll era, dating back to 1936), was the obvious choice for college football (if not for the entire sports world).

Bill Belichick and Nick Saban worked together for the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s before becoming, respectively, the greatest pro football coach and greatest college football coach of this era (if not all-time). One of Belichick's most famous mantras is "Do your job"; Belichick urges each coach on his staff and each player on his team to focus on the specific responsibilities of his job and to depend on each other coach and player to also do his job. "Do your job" encompasses many concepts, including the idea that if one player is hurt or ineffective then his backup is expected to come in and not just perform adequately but rather perform at a high level.

One example of that from Saban's recent experience is the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Game versus Georgia. At halftime Alabama trailed 13-0 and Saban benched his experienced starting quarterback Jalen Hurts in favor of 19 year old freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who clinched the championship for Alabama with a 41 yard touchdown pass in overtime. Such individual and team success is not a fluke but rather a result of season-long preparation for such pressure-packed moments.

Saban told Fortune, "To me it takes a completely different mindset to stay successful as opposed to what you have to do to build something to be successful. All of us are sort of geared toward, if we have success, we're supposed to be rewarded for it, not necessarily that we have to continue to do things even better than we did before."

Saban explained that being a champion requires a different and special mindset: "I mean, it's like you make an A on a test and you say, 'I can take it easy for two weeks and make a C on the next test and have a B average' That's normal. It's special for somebody to make an A on the test and say, 'I'm going to try to make the highest grade ever in the class.' That's not normal. But yet, that's what you have to try to promote from a mindset standpoint to the people in your organization."

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Vlastimil Hort Honors Bobby Fischer Without Humoring Fischer's Hateful Sentiments

There is a fine line to walk when attempting to appreciate a genius who possessed some unsavory or even loathsome traits. It is easy to veer to one extreme or the other--to completely refuse to acknowledge the work because one does not want to justify or publicize the person's flaws or, alternatively, to meekly explain away the person's flaws because the work is so magnificent. This troubling choice presents itself in many fields of endeavor.

Of course, for chess aficionados the classic example is Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest player of all-time but also a a deeply troubled--if not mentally ill--person. Fischer spewed hatred about the Jewish people and about the United States, going so far as to praise the horrific September 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands of innocent people.

I found it disgusting when some Fischer sycophants laughed when Fischer made his hateful comments or just blithely dismissed those statements. It seems as if those people thought that by being "yes-men" to a mentally ill genius some of that genius' shine would be reflected back onto them, but instead they just came across as buffoons.

Grandmaster Vlastimil Hort, who knew Fischer for decades, struck a much better tone in his three part Chessbase series recounting his personal recollections of Fischer. Hort displayed great compassion and sympathy for Fischer the human being, as well as great appreciation for Fischer the chess player, but Hort never justified or dismissed Fischer's hateful statements.

Hort wrote early in part one, "I was lucky to meet three brilliant chess personalities, Robert Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and Mikhail Tal. For me, Bobby is definitely the strongest World Champion of all times." In part three, Hort discussed Fischer's post-World Champion days:
Bobby lives like a monk, sleeping on a mattress at his sister's place. Does he want to save the universe and mankind or does he want to flee from them?

Emanuel Lasker did not only write about chess, he also left philosophical works--which are, admittedly, not easy to digest. But from Fischer's Pasadena episode nothing tangible, logical or readable is known. Only racist statements. Did the Armstrongnism already affect his psyche much more than was thought?

His refusal to play against Karpov who had won the World Championship cycle 1972-1975 looked like giving up everything that makes the civilized world. My opinion? Against a Fischer in top form--as he was in Reykjavik--the Soviet challenger would not have had a real chance. The difference in playing strength was minimal, but the physical stamina clearly favored the American. "I want to break his ego." Playing every game until the bitter end, no breaks, no short meaningless draws would have been Fischer's strategy for the match. How many kilos would Karpov have lost during such a match? Efim Geller, Karpov's second: "We all make mistakes, but Fischer makes the fewest of us all!"
Later in that same piece, Hort wrote about the man who Fischer dethroned as World Chess Champion and later called his "frenemy," Boris Spassky and about Fischer's final days:
How did this late friendship come about? After Fischer had been arrested at Tokyo airport in July 2004 Spassky gave interviews to the press and dramatically offered to share a cell with Bobby should he be sentenced. To go to jail with him. Provided Fischer had made inner and outer peace with the state of Israel I would have joined them.

A speaker of the Iceland Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "Granting Fischer Icelandic citizenship is a purely humanitarian gesture, and by no means implicates support of Fischer's political views." How many years, Robert, would you have spent in jail should the gigantic claws of the USA snatched you?" Bravo Iceland!

In April 2009, I received an invitation from the Icelandic Chess Federation. Paul Benkö, William Lombardy, Fridrik Olafsson, Lajos Portisch, and Boris Spassky also came to Laugardælir to say goodbye to the brilliant maestro and to pay him the last respect. Only Viktor Kortchnoi did not accept the invitation. He did not want to give Bobby the license of being psychologically ill.
A small cemetery in the countryside, forgotten by civilization. A plain chapel. Small ponies trotting on the light-green grass so typical for Iceland, just behind the gravestone. Occasionally a curious seagull appeared. The earth was still frozen and we were shivering with cold. As the youngest of the group, I was last to speak. Which was difficult for me--we all furtively wiped tears from our eyes.
Hort's respect and sympathy for Fischer are evident, yet Hort in no way justifies or excuses Fischer's words or actions. Bravo Hort!

Here are links to the three articles:

Vlastimil Hort: Memories of Bobby Fischer (1)

Vlastimil Hort: Memories of Bobby Fischer (2)

Vlastimil Hort: Memories of Bobby Fischer (3)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Terrell Owens Decides to Not Attend Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and His Critics Lose Their Minds

Terrell Owens announced that he does not plan to attend the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony this fall and that has provided fodder for his many critics to crawl out of dark corners to pick on him yet again. Instead of delving into the media-created controversy or relying on second-hand accounts about Owens' thought process, here is Owens' official statement:
I am so grateful for all of the support my family, friends, and certainly my fans, have shown me throughout my entire career in the National Football League. When it was announced that I was going to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the response received from my fans was overwhelming, and I am truly humbled. I am honored to be included among this group of fellow inducted individuals.

While I am incredibly appreciative of this opportunity, I have made the decision to publicly decline my invitation to attend the induction ceremony in Canton. I have already shared this information with the Hall. After visiting Canton earlier this year, I came to the realization that I wish to celebrate what will be one of the most memorable days of my life, elsewhere. At a later date, I will announce where and when I will celebrate my induction.

I would also like to thank the San Francisco 49ers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys, the Buffalo Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals for the time I was granted with each organization. I am thankful for the relationships forged and the lessons learned while part of each team.

I wish to congratulate all past, current and future inductees. It is quite an honor to be part of such elite company. This honor is something that I will cherish forever.
Forget what anyone else says or has said about this issue. Owens' own words are measured and respectful toward the Hall of Fame, each of his former teams and his fellow inductees. Owens has the right to decline to attend the ceremony and he has made the public announcement of his intentions months in advance so as to not inconvenience or surprise the event's organizers.

Let's also make something else clear: Owens should have been selected as a first ballot Hall of Famer. It is obvious that he did not somehow become a better player or a more deserving Hall of Fame candidate three years after he became eligible for induction. The Hall of Fame voters--not just in pro football, but in other sports--have often revealed themselves to be ignorant and/or biased. If I were Owens or anyone else who was repeatedly snubbed for no good reason then I would be upset/outraged and that upset/outrage would not instantly disappear upon belatedly receiving the honor. The voters did not do anything for Owens and he does not owe them anything; Owens earned Hall of Fame status by virtue of his productivity and his durability.

What would I do if I were Owens? I would show up at the ceremony, speak about my journey to the Hall of Fame, thank those who helped me to achieve that honor and perhaps say something about the flaws in the voting process that result in deserving players either not being selected or having to wait for many years before being selected. I understand the perspective of those players who are already inducted in the Hall of Fame who feel like Owens should show up at the ceremony and publicly embrace joining the only team from which you cannot be traded or cut. It is a great honor to be selected as a Hall of Famer.

Does that mean it is wrong for Owens to not show up?

No.

If Owens feels hurt by being snubbed and/or if Owens prefers to celebrate this milestone achievement in some other manner, he has earned the right to do so. The Hall of Fame invited him to the ceremony and he politely declined. While Owens' decision is unprecedented, he has the right to make this choice and he announced his choice in a respectful manner.

Owens' critics should do some real soul-searching about why his words and choices elicit such a visceral reaction.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Endless Fascination of Chess

People who have never played chess or who only play chess casually often are puzzled by the strong grip that the game has on its most avid adherents. How can something that is "just a game" be so captivating, enticing--possibly even addictive?

A few months ago, International Master Justin Sarkar wrote eloquently about this subject, stating, "Words can hardly even describe the impact of chess on me or where I would be without chess...The inherent beauty of the game and personal benefits in fighting my illness speak louder than the implicit demands and stresses of chess tournament play, to the point of it being more like a stress reliever and positive distraction than other things."

Prof. Lakshmi Narayana's article Understanding My Passion for Chess provides an in depth look into the mind/soul of a chess lover. Please take a moment to click the link and read the entire piece; here is a taste of his perspective to whet your appetite:
If I ask myself why do I have such a great passion for chess and analyze the reasons for my predilection I get the following answers:
Logic and Reasoning triumph and there is no element of chance in chess which is the reason for any philosophically inclined person to admire chess...

Another important quality of chess is the aesthetic element. It not only satisfies the sense of logic of humans but also their desire for beauty. Beauty according to Kant's Critique of Judgment is "A harmonious interplay of all the different faculties of human mind." This definition applies very well to the chess game...

Humans have the enduring need to reach their goals in the most perfect and elegant manner. Chess reflects this and fulfils this need. The feeling of empowerment is embodied in chess and gives the experience of a sense of mastery and control to the players. People love adventures. Each game of chess is one such adventure...

The world-class grand master of his times from Germany, Dr.Siegbert Tarrasch has said "Chess like love like music has the power to make men happy" (Tarrasch,1935). Similar to the experience of love which shakes one to the core and which opens a whole new world for one completely forgetting the outside world, chess also takes one to a whole new world of pawns and bishops, knights and rooks, kings and queens and their interplay and the patterns that develop will shake you to the core.
If someone tells you that chess is just a game and you should not waste your time with it, you can reply that life may be a game with uncertain rules and outcomes but chess is an oasis of logic, beauty and purity in an otherwise often chaotic world.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Chess Life Online Disrespects GM Anatoly Lein

Grandmaster Anatoly Lein often stated that he was underrated and unappreciated. Sadly, proof of this disrespect can be seen after his passing.

Chess Life Online, the official website of the U.S. Chess Federation, posted a brief obituary for GM Lein on March 2, 2018. The headline of the obituary refers to GM Lein as "Anthony Lein." The incorrect first name is also listed under a photo caption and in the article itself. Given this tragicomedy of errors, I can understand why the byline for the obituary is US Chess, instead of a person's name.

On March 5, a reader pointed out these errors, but CLO did not correct them. Today, I posted a comment about the errors. CLO deleted my comment but still has not corrected the errors--so it is abundantly clear that CLO knows about the mistakes at this point.

For those of you who may have missed it, here is the obituary that I posted about GM Lein:

Anatoly Lein, 1931-2018: Grandmaster, Coach, Author 

It would be very nice if CLO posted an obituary worthy of GM Lein, instead of a truncated item with his name spelled incorrectly three times.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Anatoly Lein, 1931-2018: Grandmaster, Coach, Author

Grandmaster Anatoly Lein--one of the top chess players in the world in the 1960s and 1970s and an accomplished chess coach/author--passed away yesterday. Lein's beloved wife Barbara passed away on February 16. Lein was born in the former Soviet Union in 1931 and achieved prominence there--earning the International Master title in 1964 and the Grandmaster title in 1968--before emigrating to the United States in 1976. Although Lein was perhaps past his prime by the time he arrived in this country, he nevertheless made an immediate and huge splash on the chess scene, sharing first place that year in both the World Open and the U.S. Open. Lein lived in New Jersey for many years, working as a chemical engineer, before relocating to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1990s. Cleveland remained his home for the rest of his life.

Lein won the U.S.S.R. Armed Forces Championship in 1962. He followed that up with a first place finish in the 1963 Russian championship and he was a member of the Soviet Union's team that won the 1965 European Championship. He also coached the Russian junior team to a gold medal and he won two gold medals as a member of the Russian adult team. Lein was a seven-time participant in the prestigious Soviet Championship Final, a field which was dotted with World Champions past, present and future. Lein scored wins in tournament games against World Champions Mikhail Tal and Vassily Smyslov. Some of Lein's many big tournament first place finishes include the 1971 Moscow Championship, Cienfuegos 1972, Novi Sad (1972 and 1973) and the 1973 Capablanca Memorial.

After emigrating to the United States, Lein participated in four U.S. Championships (1977, 1978, 1980, 1981). He also represented the United States in the 1978 Chess Olympiad, helping the team win a Bronze medal. Lein won the New Jersey State Championship in 1993 and 1995. In 1999, Lein added the Ohio Championship to his list of titles, scoring 5/6 in the Ohio Chess Congress to tie for first place with International Master Calvin Blocker.

Lein was inducted in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame in 2004.

FIDE (the International Chess Federation) has published chess ratings since the late 1960s (the ratings became "official" in 1971) and according to their calculations Lein peaked in 1969 as the 24th highest ranked player in the world. Lein was ranked in the official top 50 in the world as late as 1979 (when he was 48 years old, an advanced age for top level chess) and after dropping as low as 194th in the early 1980s he had a revival in late 1985/early 1986 during which he surged back to 53rd in the world. Lein was still among the top 300 players in the world when he was in his early 60s.

According to Jeff Sonas' historical chess ratings, Lein peaked in the late 1960s as the 26th highest rated player in the world and he maintained top 100 status until past the age of 50, ranking among the 60 highest rated players of all-time in the 50 and over age group.

In addition to his accomplishments as a player and as a coach, Lein wrote or co-wrote several chess books, including Sharpen Your Tactics, In the World of Tactics, The Latvian Gambit: A Grandmaster View and Kasparov v. Karpov 1990 (a book that he was particularly--and justifiably--proud to have co-written with Garry Kasparov, Efim Geller and Viktor Chepishny).

I first met Lein in the early 2000s, when he was still playing in large events such as the Chicago Open. I took some chess lessons from him in the mid-2000s and some of the concepts/methods/approaches that I learned from him played a role in helping me get within 10 points of attaining the U.S. National Master title. My understanding and appreciation for top level chess increased immensely as a result of the time that I spent with him and I will forever feel privileged that I had that opportunity.

Lein could be both proud and self-deprecating, often in the same sentence: he would say, "I used to be a Grandmaster, but now I am a Grandpatzer." He had keen insight about the current chess scene. For instance, Lein told me that Anish Giri was a player to watch prior to Giri receiving much media attention. "This boy has real talent," Lein commented, after looking at some of Giri's early games--and that statement meant something coming from Lein, who often thought that even some of the most famous chess players were overrated.

Lein was an avid reader who could converse intelligently on many subjects. I enjoyed not only learning chess from him but also hearing his stories about his various experiences in the world of elite Grandmasters, as well as his observations about life.

I know that Lein felt underrated as both a player and a teacher but I always told him how much I appreciated his accomplishments and the time that he spent with me. This article can only provide a mere glimpse into what made Lein special but I hope that it serves as a worthy tribute and as a source of information for those who do not fully know chess history and Lein's rightful, prominent place in that history.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pondering the Dynasty that Belichick and Saban Could Have Built in Cleveland

Winning Super Bowl LII would have been a crowning achievement for Bill Belichick, who already owns more Super Bowl rings than any head coach (five: 2001, 2003-04, 2014, 2016) in addition to the two rings that he won as an assistant coach with the New York Giants. However, Philadelphia's thrilling 41-33 victory over Belichick's defending champion New England Patriots does not tarnish the impressive legacy that Belichick has already built.

Jenny Vrentas' recent Sports Illustrated piece titled Belichick and Saban: The Stories Behind Football’s Most Powerful Friendship details the deep and long-lasting bond that exists between Belichick--arguably the greatest pro football coach of all-time--and Nick Saban--arguably the best college football coach of all-time, winner of six national championships (2003, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017).

One of the most overlooked football stories of the past 30 years is the tremendous quality of the coaching staff that Belichick assembled when he was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Not only was Saban on that staff, but Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome--who went on to build the two-time Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens--was also hired by Belichick. Numerous other members of that staff have made a significant impact throughout pro and/or college football as executives, head coaches or assistant coaches.

Vrentas describes how the Belichick-Saban connection formed in Cleveland, after the two had previously become acquainted a few years earlier as they each worked their way up the coaching ranks:
Belichick got his first head coaching job in 1991--at age 39, with the Browns--and interviewed 85 potential assistant coaches. But his first hire was the easiest: Saban, as his defensive coordinator. He assembled an all-star staff, including nine future NFL head coaches or GMs and three coaches who would go on to lead major college programs. "But I'm going to tell you," says (Chuck) Bresnahan, the Navy linebacker who joined Belichick's Browns staff as linebackers coach, "when Bill and Nick walked in the room, there was a different response from players, coaches, everyone. Things got quiet. You knew it was time for business.'"
Before Belichick and Saban worked together in Cleveland, they had spent hours together--in secret, without their respective teams at the time knowing about this--talking football strategy and breaking down plays together. They were two like-minded, single-minded football savants who were trying to figure out how to implement the ideal method of building a team. Vrentas writes:
Belichick was trying to install a system of coaching players, evaluating players, assembling a roster. Those conversations he and Saban had at West Point about defense? In Cleveland, it was "like, 500 times more of that," Belichick says.
Vrentas notes that Belichick and Saban have different tendencies, particularly on defense: by nature, Belichick favors a more conservative bend but don't break run-stopping scheme, while Saban prefers an attacking front supported by man to man coverage. Belichick and Saban shared the same cornerstone, though, as Vrentas puts it: "Be rigid in fundamentals and techniques, but flexible in scheme." Both coaches proved over time that they could adapt their preferred schemes to both their personnel and also the opposing team's personnel.

Belichick took over a Cleveland team that went 3-13 in 1990 and doubled that win total to 6-10 in 1991. By 1994, the Browns had the best scoring defense in pro football--allowing just 12.8 ppg--and, at 11-5, were a playoff team. They beat New England in the Wild Card round before falling to Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round.

Then, in the middle of the next season Browns owner Art Modell announced his plan to move the franchise to Baltimore, where the team was renamed the Ravens (the NFL returned the Browns franchise/logo to Cleveland in 1999); that decision turned the fans against Modell and wrecked the team that Belichick had built. Modell fired Belichick, who resurfaced as a head coach a few years later in New England--and the rest is history, as Belichick finally had an owner (Bob Kraft) who enabled Belichick to fully implement his vision of how to build a team. While Belichick built a dynasty in New England, the Browns have yet to win a playoff game since the 1994 season.

Vrentas references a talk that Saban once gave to 1500 high school coaches at Mississippi's annual coaching clinic. Saban repeatedly mentioned not just how much he had learned during his time with Belichick--including, most importantly, "He defines what everybody in the organization is supposed to do"--but he also referred more than once to his time with the Browns. Saban explained that one of his key defensive concepts at Alabama--"pattern matching," a zone coverage that morphs into man to man as a pass pattern develops--"started at the Browns."

Another thing that started with the Browns is what Belichick called three "critical factors" for each position: essential criteria for a player to perform in a given role. For example, cornerbacks must be able to (1) tackle, (2) play the ball in the deep part of the field and (3) play man to man effectively. Belichick also had specific height/weight/speed preferences for each position. Saban told Vrentas that Belichick's systematic personnel evaluation techniques had "the greatest impact for me" of anything that he experienced while working with Belichick in Cleveland.

Newsome borrowed the three "critical factors," renamed them "Triangles of Success" and used the concept while building the Ravens into perennial contenders and two-time champions.

Thinking about all of this history and all of these championships won--none of them in Cleveland, where the foundation for all of this success was built--I recall how relentlessly the Cleveland media (and, often, the national media as well) belittled and attacked Belichick both during his time with the Browns and for many years afterward. These self-styled experts made declarations about how Belichick was not suited to be a head coach--and then, after it became clear to even the stupidest sportswriters that Belichick is in fact a great coach, Belichick's critics had the nerve to still assert that Belichick had "failed" in Cleveland before learning how to win in New England.

No, the truth is that Belichick built the foundation for his success in Cleveland, but Modell and many media members were not smart enough to understand this. Smart football people, though, are still applying lessons from what Belichick was doing back when he was mocked for mumbling at press conferences, as if engaging in snappy repartee with people who don't know the game has anything to do with actually coaching well.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Terrell Owens' Belated and Deserved Selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame

The Pro Football's Hall of Fame 2018 Class includes Bobby Beathard, Robert Brazile, Brian Dawkins, Jerry Kramer, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Brian Urlacher.

Each inductee has a life story worth telling but this article will focus on Terrell Owens. Owens overcame a troubled childhood--he was raised by his grandmother and did not know for several years that a man who lived across the street from him was in fact his father--to become a great, all-around football player. Owens was not only a tremendous wide receiver from the standpoint of catching the ball but he was a strong runner after the catch, a powerful blocker and a prolific touchdown maker. He finished his NFL career with 1,078 catches for 15,934 yards, a 14.8 yards per catch average and 153 receiving TDs. He ranks second in career receiving yards behind only Jerry Rice and third in receiving touchdowns behind Rice and Randy Moss. Owens is fifth in NFL history in total touchdowns (156) behind Rice, Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson and Moss. Owens ranked fifth in career receptions when he retired in 2010 and he still ranks eighth now.

Owens was inducted after his third appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot. Some would say that first ballot selection ultimately does not matter because all that really matters is getting in but Owens clearly deserved to be inducted the first time around; making him wait two years as "punishment" for some imaginary, perceived sin is ridiculous and spiteful.

Instead of praising Owens for his work ethic, his willingness to play hurt (he had an MVP-caliber performance on a broken leg during Super Bowl XXXIX) and his exceptionally consistent production over a long career, the media repeatedly and unfairly targeted Owens for criticism. Brett Favre came from a humble country background but was hailed as a hero despite his alcohol/drug addiction, a sexting scandal and a reckless playing style that proved very costly in many key situations. Owens never got in trouble with the law or the league the way that Favre did and Owens was a clutch performer but the media always found excuses to portray Owens in a negative light.

That is not to say that Owens always said or did the right thing but the overall reality is that the media often took Owens' comments out of context and manufactured/exaggerated so-called controversies at Owens' expense, roasting Owens for figurative crimes while giving free passes to players who had literally committed crimes (including fellow 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Ray Lewis).

In 2009, when Owens had already more than put up enough numbers to deserve first ballot Hall of Fame induction, Michael Smith--then one of ESPN's supposed football experts, before becoming a SportsCenter host--was not sure that Owens is a Hall of Famer. Two years before Smith hesitated to give Owens his due, I declared that Owens should be considered a future Hall of Famer, refuting the commentators who tried to belittle Owens' strong resume. 

Owens' journey from deprivation and hardship to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is inspirational. I would rather have a guy who says "Who can make a play? I can!" and then does it, as opposed to a "gunslinger" who is going to sling interceptions with everything on the line. Favre was a great player and a deserving Hall of Famer in his own right but the media's hagiographic treatment of Favre while constantly belittling Owens shines a disconcerting light on how much personal bias influences the stories that are fed to us on air, in print and online.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Keith Jackson: Voice of College Football--and Many Other Sports

Keith Jackson, for decades the voice of college football (and many other sports), passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Jackson is well known for his colorful expressions such as "Whoa, Nellie" and "Fum-bullll!" but he was more that just someone who mouthed catchphrases: he was a versatile broadcaster whose career spanned more than 50 years and who covered events ranging from college football to the NFL to the NBA to Major League Baseball to various Olympic sports and more. Jackson did the first live sports broadcast from the former Soviet Union and he was part of the original three man Monday Night Football broadcasting team along with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.

Jackson won countless awards, including an Emmy, and he was inducted into two sports broadcasting halls of fame but he will probably always be most remembered as the familiar, comforting and informed voice of college football. If you turned on the TV and saw that Jackson was doing a college football game then you knew two things: (1) It was an important game and (2) this was would be a mistake-free, professional and entertaining broadcast.

Perhaps the best thing that you can say about any sportscaster is that he did not make the broadcast about himself; the game's the thing and the best sportscasters know that. Jackson once described his broadcasting philosophy as "Amplify, clarify and don't intrude." He lived up to those words every time he spoke into a microphone.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

International Master Justin Sarkar's Eloquent Explanation of the Benefits of Chess

There is a pernicious stereotype that obsession with chess causes mental illness and/or that great chess players are almost inevitably either crazy or at least extremely eccentric. For many people, World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer is the most famous example of the supposedly inextricable link between chess and insanity.

I am much more inclined to believe that Fischer's intense focus on chess during the first portion of his life kept him healthy/balanced (or at least as healthy/balanced as he was capable of being) and that after Fischer abandoned chess his life spiraled downhill. Dr. Joseph Ponterotto's Psychobiography of Bobby Fischer discusses how Fischer's mental health problems were much more likely caused/exacerbated by his family background (both genetic and environmental) than by his involvement with chess.

In the January 2018 edition of Chess Life magazine, International Master Justin Sarkar provides a concise and eloquent explanation of the powerful and positive impact chess has had on his life. Here is an excerpt:
I have a social condition--something on the autistic spectrum. I also battle with depression, which has been affecting me for some time. Among other things, it affects my memory, speed in doing things, and especially decision making, even with seemingly trivial things like choosing what to drink. Depression is a tough illness to face, especially when combined with my interpersonal communication struggles. People often seem to not quite "get it." Words can hardly even describe the impact of chess on me or where I would be without chess...

The inherent beauty of the game and personal benefits in fighting my illness speak louder than the implicit demands and stresses of chess tournament play, to the point of it being more like a stress reliever and positive distraction than other things.
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Previous Articles About IM Justin Sarkar:

International Master Justin Sarkar's "Perfect Game"

Justin Sarkar Overcomes Obstacles, Obtains GM Norm

IM Justin Sarkar Obtains Third GM Norm