Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Olympic chess?

Most of the time, when I tell people I've written a book about chess, they make presumptions. This is understandable. To the majority of Americans, chess is an inscrutable game practiced by inscrutable geniuses who wear tin-foil belts and hear Russian radio broadcasts emanating from their teeth. There's a lot of confusion, and understandably so, because chess is an intricate game, but not so intricate that a novice like me--someone who never really played much chess at all before he started writing about it--can't comprehend the general idea of what's happening, of who's winning and who's losing and who's nervous and who's not and what the general tenor of the game is.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as we Americans observe a group of men and women position forty-pound stones on a sheet of ice. The other day, I was watching the United States men's curling team blow off a match against somebody (seriously, has there been a more milquetoast Olympian than poor John Shuster? If I may get all Reilly-esque for a moment, he makes Charlie Brown seem like Norman Vincent Peale), and the loony female color commentator made an allusion to curling as "chess on ice." At some level, this felt patently ridiculous to me; so many people compare chess to so many things (football, politics, military manuevers, WB sitcom plots) that its meaning is essentially lost. Anything that is complicated and zero-sum now becomes a "chess match." I would like to rebel against that, except this is also the game's greatest selling point. This is the reason why chess continues to exist--because it is the purest manifestation of a complex, zero-sum, human endeavor.

Anyway, the other thing people tend to ask me when I tell them I've written a book about chess is whether I imagine chess to be a sport. I find this question irrelevant. To me, chess is a competitive pursuit, and I find that I'm generally interested in any competitive pursuit, though some obviously interest me more than others. I also know that I've spent eight hours in a hotel ballroom during a chess tournament, and while it's true that chess is not, and could not, be classified as a "physical pursuit," it is also true that any mental pursuit, engaged in for hours at a time, naturally leads to physical fatigue. Therefore, I would argue that chess is as much a sport as golf. I would even argue that chess is as much a sport as curling, and, given the proper broadcast team and presentation, could also be just as fascinating for a broad television audience.

So: Why not open up the Olympics to competitive chess?

All right. I can hear you laughing. But come on; how many Olympic sports have become Olympic sports simply because they are physical pursuits disguised as sport? The reason people enjoy watching curling rather than snowcrossdancing or skiboarding is because it incorporates actual thought; when I watch a curling match, it feels like doing Sudoku or a crossword puzzle. At least I'm using my brain, and that should count for something, especially at a sporting event that rests its reputation on such lofty ideals. Why shouldn't the Olympics be as much of a mental pursuit as a physical pursuit? Why shouldn't one of the oldest and purest games in the world command our attention once every four years? It might not be as physically draining as cross-country skiing, but it might actually be more exciting.

Monday, February 22, 2010

On JoePa and the Overpriced Spectacles

Matt Hinton at the excellent Dr. Saturday/Yahoo! college football blog was kind enough to link to my essay about Joe Paterno and his whale pants, in reference to the auction of Paterno's glasses for $9,000. At this point, I've given up even guessing on what's happening with Joe's physiology; I don't know if he's spending his summer in Lourdes, or if he's actually six hundred and thirty-six years old. At this point, he's turned the Abe Simpson jokes entirely around. If in five more years he starts to resemble a fifty-five year old Brad Pitt, then I'll ask some hard questions.

On The Feline Psychedelic Movement

One day, in the formative years of my childhood, my parents brought home a Siamese cat. I cannot remember where this cat came from, or what it looked like, or even whether it was a male or a female; what I remember is that we named this cat Trouble. The name arose because this cat was the feline equivalent of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. At night, it would slip out of the house unnoticed, and in the morning, it would return, looking like it had gone 12 rounds wth a steroid-addled jaguar. The other thing I remember about this cat is that it had periodic digestive problems; in the morning, at some unholy hour, I would wake up and scurry downstairs to watch the sepia-toned, intermittently racist Looney Tunes episodes that would air before Superfriends. Inevitably, I would have to slalom through several mounds of coughed-up hairball-based material (or materiel) Trouble had left behind during the night.

My point is this: I've never understood cats, but I admire their inscrutability. If I weren't prone to sneezing fits of Biblical proportions in their presence, I'd probably own one myself. But I am also fascinated by the unwavering intensity of cat culture (my book editor was, in fact, the acquirer of the I Can Haz Cheezburger books, which turned out to be one of the great money-making decisions of his career). Which brings me to the Olympics. Or more specifically, to the Olympic broadcast, whose sponsors include a cat food company called Friskies. And based strictly on their ad campaign, the Friskies company seems like it would be a hell of a place to work.

It makes sense that Friskies would advertise during the Olympics: I would imagine that when stereotypical advertising executives are sitting in their stereotypical wood-paneled boardrooms and engaging in stereotypical conversations about demographics, one of the things they probably say is, "I'll bet 93 percent of the crazy cat ladies in the top Northeast markets spend at least sixty minutes watching pairs figure skating during the Olympics." And maybe they took this information to Friskies, and the Friskies executives said, "All right, let's design a campaign that appeals specifically to people who would like their cats to have more active fantasy lives centered around foodstuffs." And the ad executives took this information, and they created a commercial that is the cat's equivalent of Yellow Submarine.

So my overarching philosophical question is this: Are we on the cusp of a feline revolution? Have a generation of housecats been so turned off by the ignominy of LOLCats that they will now readily embrace psychedelia? Will catnip be driven underground? And how do we, as humans, prepare ourselves for the uprising? Our only hope is their inherent inability to spell will hamper their efforts. Also, those flying fish are pretty distracting, man.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Abbreviated Edition)

1. Tiger.

Ugh. This again? I tell you one thing Tiger Woods has done by muzzling himself for the past three months: He's wrung all the intrigue out of this story. At this point, I'm so weary of the whole thing that I'm kind of hoping Tiger steps up to the microphone and speaks for twenty minutes about how he's been working with a new set of irons and how his sand shots have a higher trajectory and how he's reworking his swing plane. And then I hope he steps down and when someone asks him a question about his harem of female acquaintances with questionable ethics in the months to come, he says, "I already addressed these issues, and I'm not going to revisit the past." Of course, we can't get away from it: Last night, I heard a pretty solid rumor that a major gossip magazine is about to publish an expose about the "open marriage" of a prominent athlete. Six months ago, given the likeable public persona of this figure, such news would have been shocking and oddly compelling. Now, I just want it to go away.

2. Incoherent Self-Promotion

I've spent the past couple of days working on edits for this book, (which, conveniently enough, is now available for pre-order), so in that spirit, here are three random sentences, taken completely out of context, from the manuscript. If anyone out there can name the "he" in each of these sentences, you are so frighteningly channeled into my psyche that I will send you an autographed copy of Bigger Than the Game upon its release.

A.) Soon enough, he would take off his clothes.

B.) "I'd like to pull him out of the grave," she said, "and shoot him."

C.) He borrowed fifteen hundred dollars from his agent to make a down payment on a Datsun 280Z.

UPDATE: All right, so only one person bit on the trivia, perhaps because A.) No one particularly cares to win an autographed copy of an item that does not yet exist, and B.) These excerpts were far too random. Next time, I'll telegraph them a little better. In the meantime, here are the answers:

A.) Jim McMahon (in reference to his Super Bowl mooning).
B.) The wife of Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse, upon learning her late husband may have been engaged in an affair with David Brinkley's wife. A few years earlier, Culverhouse drafted Bo Jackson with the team's first pick and then managed to bungle the negotiations so badly that Bo wound up playing baseball.
C.) Len Bias. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Topical Questions

I've been traveling for a few days, and have an unholy amount of work to get done in next couple of days, but here are two questions that have arisen--well, arisen in my own mind--during my absence:

1. What percentage of major college sports are content with virtuous mediocrity? And is this choice more admirable than selling one's soul for championships?

I speak specifically of my alma mater, the Pennsylvania State University, which now stands at 0-12 in the Big Ten despite coming off a year in which it won the NIT championship, despite the fact that the roster includes a guard who is almost certainly the best player in the program's history. I've written previously about my alma mater's long and illustrious basketball tradition, and every time I think it might actually getting better, it seems to get precipitously worse: On Saturday, I went to watch Penn State play Michigan State at the mausoleum known as the Bryce Jordan Center, where Daughtry concerts and tractor pulls generate far more interest than anything basketball could provide. The place was half-full; I was told it was one of the best crowds of the season.* Anyway, this post at Black Shoe Diaries outlines a number of the major issues, and also hints at the larger philosophical issue, which is whether it is perhaps more noble--given that modern college basketball is essentially sanctioned mafia warfare--to lose with dignity rather than win ignominiously.

2. Does it make sense to slide into first base?

I don't care what you say about the Winter Olympics. I know they're an easy target for blowhards like Bernard Goldberg. But I enjoy the Winter Olympics for the same reason I enjoy college football more than I enjoy pro football: Because it essentially a two-week mosaic of athletes dealing with the biggest successes/failures of their lives on national television. And I don't really care what the pursuit is--the stakes are what make it compelling. (Then again, I also spent two years attempting to document the merits of competitive chess, so this should not exactly surprise you.) But I do think the most intriguing debate of these Olympics may be this one: A number of speedskaters, in order to make up a couple of tenths of a second in the case of a photo finish, are literally attempting to get a leg up at the finish line. It evokes the age-old argument of whether it makes sense to slide into first base, but more than that, it's one of those utterly ridiculous trends that defy neat empirical categorization, like barefoot kicking and black mamba tights. And if all this high-kicking in tight outfits will lead to an inadvertent wardrobe malfunction, well, at least it gives the skeptics something to do other than mocking male figure skaters in Cobra Kai outfits and feigning outrage over athletes who compete in sports we don't really understand.

*This could easily be remedied by moving the majority of home basketball games back to Rec Hall, which, for those who are unfamiliar, was like a scruffy replicant of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and regularly provided the home team with a 10-to-15 point home-court advantage based on overall volume and students' direct proximity to the floor (at Rec Hall, if you were so inclined, you could actually bear hug Chris Webber on an out-of-bounds play. I will never cease to romanticize the place). But to do this would be to essentially admit defeat.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Snow Bowls

It's snowing here in Brooklyn, and the shelves at Trader Joe's have been swept clean of Trader O's, and I've come to a conclusion: At this point in my existence, I like the idea of snow more than snow itself. I suppose that's inevitable; at some point, snow becomes a burden rather than an excuse, and the negatives outweigh the positives in every possible way...except when it comes to sports. I find myself actively wishing that the AFC Championship were being played at the Meadowlands this afternoon. I find myself thinking that a Super Bowl played in the snow would be, regardless of outcome, one of the three most memorable games in history. I realize that the NFL would never allow it, but the more I think about it, I'm not sure why they wouldn't; this is a sport that essentially built its legacy on a frozen tundra, but it's practitioners are too soft to play the most important game of the season in anything other than optimal conditions?

I would argue that, in this age of media saturation, we remember games affected by the weather more fondly than any other. I mean, if I bring up the Tuck Rule game, what's the first thing you remember? It was snowing. The Ice Bowl, and The Fog Bowl: This is football; or at least, this is football, until the Super Bowl, or until the bowl season.* So why not play a Super Bowl in New Jersey, or in Green Bay, or in Boston? Why not play the BCS Championship in Pittsburgh? It's not like the game won't sell out and generate millions in revenue, even if it's in Detroit. What exactly are they afraid of? CEOs contracting frostbite? Most of the halftime acts are already cryogenically preserved. If there's a populist revolution in the offing in this country, this is where the revolution begins: With a big game in the snow.

One of the three most memorable games I ever attended in person was this one, back in 1987. You want to know what I remember most? It's not the finish, even though the finish was outstanding**. What I remember is that I went to buy a hot chocolate at halftime, and I held it up to my lips and the chocolate dribbled down my chin. I was so cold that my lips had frozen into solid blocks. At the time, it was painful, but in retrospect, it was one of the seminal moments of my existence.

I don't think I'd ever want to experience that again, but I'd like to experience it vicariously.

*With the notable exception of the Cotton Bowl, where the weather seemed entirely unpredictable. The idea that it could snow in Texas never ceased to be shocking.
 **And damn, Blair Thomas was a truly great running back before he tore up his knee.

(Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Monday, February 8, 2010

On the Big Game, the Losing Quarterback, and Google's Ownership of Our Lives

1. I don't want to say I was the only person in America who saw that onside kick coming, but I am happy to make such blind assertions, because that's what blogging is all about (See No. XXII). And on that note, I'd have to disagree with Pat Yasinkas' assertion that the onside kick was not, in fact, a true gamble because Sean Payton calculated the odds to be better than 60 to 70 percent. Even if those were the odds, this was the SUPER BOWL: Payton was not only potentially risking the entire season on a complex play in which several variables (including a visibly freaked out kicker) had the potential to spontaneously implode; he was also defying tradition, spurning conservatism, and metaphorically expectorating in the face of John Facenda and Vince Lombardi and Hank Stram and George Allen. Payton made several decisions that would have been unthinkable 10-15 years ago, the onside kick foremost among them. And I'm not sure why the Super Bowl has suddenly gone from the most boring major championship game in any sport to the most exciting, but maybe this defiant shift in the coaching paradigm has something to do with it. This was football's liberal cerebellum, making itself more blatantly apparent than ever before. Never, I'm guessing, has there been an NFL season in which the two most exciting and memorable plays were a fourth down conversion that didn't work and an onside kick that did.

2. I open this question up for discussion: Who are athletes, in any sport, whose careers have advanced from "disappointing" to "transcendent" ... only to slip backward, and once again become "disappointing"?* Is this how we will now be forced to define Peyton Manning? Does one errant pass disqualify him from the moniker of Greatest Quarterback Ever? Are we judging too harshly, or does Manning's lone Super Bowl victory now stand out as the glaring exception in a career otherwise marred by an inability to finish? Honestly, I think we probably need some time to allow this one to settle before we judge. And of course, Manning still has at least 4-5 good years remaining in his career ... I have to imagine his impact on the way the game is played/called will most likely outweigh even a mistake as crushing as this one. But I could be wrong.

3. Am I the only one who found that Google ad inherently depressing? Because the underlying message had nothing to do with a love story between a boy and a girl--it had to do with our dependence on the Internet for everything we ever do. What Google was saying, essentially, is that our entire lives will, now and forever, be dictated by the results of what we type into a rectangular box. The message of the Google ad was that they own us, and they know they own us, and we know that they own us; ideologically, it was a bizarro version of Apple's 1984 ad, only this time Big Brother wins.
 *Honestly, there are none that immediately come to mind, especially when it comes to Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks. Maybe Jim McMahon, but the Bears were never really good before the '86 Super Bowl. Maybe Mark Rypien, but if I remember correctly, his opportunities were pretty limited before the '92 Super Bowl. The only other Super Bowl-winning QB with such an arc of possibility is ... Eli Manning.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

On XLIV Jarringly Specific Predictions For This Weekend's Game

I. Approximately 12 percent of the pregame coverage will be spent discussing the cuisine of New Orleans.

II. Approximately 8 percent of the pregame coverage will be spent discussing the Manning family.

III. Approximately 0.6 percent of the pregame coverage will be spent discussing Up With People.

IV. Some type of unnecessarily loud Pentagon-produced aircraft will buzz over the stadium during pregame, rendering several CEOs in attendance temporarily deaf. A Nation writer will later refer to this as an apt metaphor for America.

V. Jim Nantz will wait approximately six minutes before delivering his first overly labored play on words.

VI. Jim Nantz will deliver several extremely uncomfortable promos for How I Met Your Mother.

VII. Peyton Manning's insistent audibles and hand signals at the line of scrimmage will cause seizures among a class of Korean schoolchildren.

VIII. Within the first eight minutes, we will be subjected to eight (8) close-ups of Dwight Freeney's hideously swollen ankle.

IX. On the Saints' first drive, Reggie Bush will juke three defenders out of their socks, then fumble the ball in the open field.

X. On the Colts' first drive, Dallas Clark will catch a pass over the middle, get creamed, and stumble drunkenly to the sideline, only to return two plays later and do the same exact thing.

XI. Sometime in the first twenty (20) minutes, Jim Nantz will make a sympathetic reference to Tiger Woods.

XII. Sometime in the first eighteen (18) minutes, the cameras will close in on a major American pop star.

XIII. Said pop star will be wearing a Saints hat, despite fact that said pop star has no connection at all to New Orleans.

XIV. The Colts will score their first touchdown on a 37-yard screen pass from Manning to Joseph Addai.

XV. The Saints will score their first touchdown on a 52-yard pass from Drew Brees to Devery Henderson.

XVI. Sometime in the first twenty-six (26) minutes, Jim Nantz will explain the story behind Drew Brees' birthmark.

XVII. Before halftime, there will be at least three commercials involving talking animals.

XVIII. Before halftime, there will be at least seven commercials involving men doing unspeakable things in the name of beer.

XVIII. The Tim Tebow ad will be overshadowed by a more controversial commercial put out by a desperate corporation hit hard by the recession. Partial male nudity will be involved.

XIX. At halftime, approximately 38 percent of viewers will pose this question: That's Roger Daltrey?

XX. At halftime, Pete Townsend will attempt to shatter a guitar and fail.

XXI. At halftime, the Who will indeed perform a medley of their favorite songs, prompting 90 percent of major American bloggers to make Squeeze Box jokes.

XXII. The third quarter will begin with a trick play.

XXIII. Each team will turn the ball over two times in the third quarter.

XXIV. Phil Simms will question whether the game is getting "sloppy."

XXV. In the third quarter, Pierre Thomas will score on a 26-yard run. The play will be reviewed, and the review will be unncessarily long, prompting another round of commercials involving a talking marmot.

XXVI. In the third quarter, Manning will throw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon, who will do something nice to acknowledge Haiti.

XXVII. Jim Nantz will call the moment "one of the greatest things I've seen."

XXVIII. Twelve percent of Super Bowl parties will run short of french onion dip at the end of the third quarter.

XXIX. During the break between the third and fourth quarters, an ad for a major American beer company will feature six buxom women and a Shakespeare-quoting rhinoceros.

XXX-XL. Manning will complete ten consecutive passes in the fourth quarter, prompting Nantz to refer to him as "The Manning" after each one.

XLI. The game will come down to the final minutes, at which time Jeremy Shockey will make his only catch of the game, and immediately stand up and taunt several defenders.

XLII. In the final two minutes, Brees will be lauded for his poise immediately before throwing a crucial interception.

XLIII. In the final two minutes, a major American beer company will unveil a commercial involving a sea turtle who is also a renowned quantum physicist.

XLIV. Regardless of who wins, Nantz will punctuate it with a thoroughly vetted play on words that will cause 84 percent of Super Bowl party attendees to hurl corn-based projectiles at their television sets.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Televised Edition)

1. The End

When was the last time you prepared to watch the final season of a long-running television show, and had absolutely no idea either A.) Where the season would begin, or, B.) Where it would end? This is why Lost is one of the top five television dramas ever made: Because, more than any show, it is a living organism, ripe for theorizing and the subtextual ravaging of hypergenius enthusiasts like EW's Doc Jensen, and yet, despite being subject to more analysis than any single television program in history, it still managed to defy our expectations. We had no idea, and we may still have no idea about many things when it is finished, and if this bothers you--if you are so cynical that you cannot accept the notion that certain questions deserve to remain unanswered in a narrative as layered as this one, a program whose greater purpose was to pay homage to its myriad influences--well, then, you don't really understand this show at all.

2. Life on Mars

There should be a term for a television program/film that you stumble upon via Netflix recommendation, which then exceeds your every expectation. (NetGem?) I am not referring to the American version of Life on Mars, which I'm sure is a fine imitation and will land in my mailbox in a scarlet envelope at some later date; I am referring to the BBC version of Life on Mars, starring the ridiculously likeable John Simm (who also appeared in this miniseries, which is like The Wire, with slightly more upscale accents). Life on Mars is one of those shows, like Lost, that shouldn't really work: The premise itself, of a detective getting hit by a car and waking up in 1973, is utterly absurd, but it somehow finds a way to effectively blur the line between realism and surrealism. Also, anything that incorporates Slade, Sweet, Uriah Heep into a single soundtrack should automatically be classified as "great."

3. 96 Teams

Seriously, this has to be the dumbest idea any college basketball mind has hatched since Kelvin Sampson (to quote Mike Tyson, snubbed for an Oscar nomination this morning) faded into Bolivia. There are a million reasons to argue against it, but allow me to offer a practical one: How the hell are we going to fit 96 teams onto a single bracket sheet? Will office workers everywhere be forced to calibrate their copying machines to the 11 x 17 setting? Even on the electronic typing machines of the future, a ninety-six team bracket is daunting, almost Escher-esque. There are too many choices, and the last thing I want to do when I fill out my tournament bracket is, you know, like, think.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On The Greatest Super Bowl Week of All-Time

They held a parade in New Orleans for Buddy Diliberto on Sunday. That name might mean nothing to you; it didn't mean much to me until I started researching this book.* In fact, I didn't know until I read this story that Diliberto, a local broadcaster, had a cult following in New Orleans, that he had once pledged to wear a dress and dance through the streets if the Saints went to the Super Bowl. I really only knew one thing about Buddy Diliberto, which hearkens back to the most interesting Super Bowl week in history. Never before--not even, I would argue, in the era of Namath--has one person so defiantly courted controversy on the biggest stage in sports, and it just so happens that Buddy Diliberto was one of those people swept up in the force of nature that was Jim McMahon.

If you weren't alive in 1986, it's kind of difficult to fathom a performance like McMahon's; in the matter of a few days, he started a controversy over Eastern medicine, mooned a helicopter, urinated on Bourbon Street, and then, thanks to Diliberto, dealt with death threats for the one insult he never actually uttered: Calling the women of New Orleans "sluts," something that Diliberto reported after hearing it had been uttered on a Chicago radio show, even thought McMahon had never appeared on said radio show. By the time the game arrived, McMahon told me, his greatest concern was not the Patriots' defense; no one on that Bears team ever believed New England had a chance, and they were right. And so by gametime, McMahon's primary concern was keeping an eye out for snipers.

Every day, one longtime Bears beat reporter told me, whether intentional or not, McMahon made himself the story. Never, I would argue, has there been a better match between a sports personality and the time in which he lived. In the years before he showed up in New Orleans, the game had become staid and uninteresting; in the years after, it became micro-managed and pre-packaged. McMahon and that Bears team fit into a narrow window of opportunity, when sports and celebrity were just beginning to merge, and when the very idea of sports marketing was in its infancy, as the gaudy and self-aggrandizing spirit of the '80's reached its peak. Those Bears were full of characters, but it was McMahon who set the tone, McMahon who pushed the boundaries, McMahon who made this the most interesting (if not the best) team in the history of the NFL.** We should get a better game this weekend (or at least, I hope we do), but there may never be a better Super Bowl week.

 *Available for pre-order!
**Are there any other teams with enough lasting popularity to reprise a 25-year old video clip for a company looking to "rebrand itself"?