Sunday, August 12, 2012

Can’t Win For Losing

  This past week I couldn’t win. On Thursday, we started our fourth Marshalltown Chess Club blitz season. I was hoping to get off to a good start but we had eleven players so I was ready to sit out. The tournament started and then Matt Kriegel showed up. Normally I would have not played Matt so early in the tournament, but since we were the only two players not playing I sat down with the Black pieces, failed to make any dent in Matt’s opening, tried to push the action, missed a 2 mover, lost a rook, and lost to Matt for the second time ever and the second time in our last 4 meetings. Then in the last round I sat down against Tim Carson, patriarch of the famous chess playing Carson family. I’ve known Tim and his family for almost 10 years and I had never even given up a draw to him. I’ve had dead lost and dead drawn positions against Tim before but always managed to win. I even beat Tim in an offhand game before the tournament when he fell for an opening trap. We repeated the same opening from our offhand game in our tournament game but Tim avoided the trap and we headed to an even ending with 7 pawns, 2 rooks, and a knight apiece. I thought I had a slight edge, but just as I did against Matt Kriegel, I pushed too hard to win, lost a pawn, and then lost to Tim for the first time ever.

  Tim played mistake free and deserved his win, but I wasn’t very pleased with my contribution to the cause and it was an ominous beginning to a stretch of 10 days in which I’ll play in 5 chess tournaments. Late Friday afternoon the Chess Journalists website announced their annual award winners and this Broken Pawn was nowhere to be seen. I don’t know whether this blog finished second or third since as yet there hasn’t been any disclosure of the judging as in years past, but I know I didn’t win and there are very few times in this world where not winning can be confused with winning.

  In professional sports, not winning or not making the best attempt (or any attempt) to win is generally viewed as an acceptable practice when a goal bigger than a single game is in sight. When a baseball or football team clinches their playoff seeding, they normally try to protect their best players from injury by allowing the backups to play in their place. The Indianapolis Colts started 13-0 and 14-0 in the last decade and stopped playing their All-Pro quarterback Peyton Manning and the rest of their best players, trading away their chance at perfection in order to have a better chance at a Super Bowl championship. In both years, the decision was controversial but understood and there were no sanctions by the NFL to force teams to play their best players in every game.

  When losing in order to win works too well, rules have to be changed to prevent the practice from being repeated. In the 1983-1984 NBA season, the Houston Rockets were still struggling despite adding the top pick in the NBA draft (7’4’’ Ralph Sampson) to their roster. Over the last month of the season, the Rockets stopped playing their best players at the end of games. They lost 9 of their last 10 games to beat out the LA Clippers for last place in the Western Conference and the right to participate in a coin flip against the worst team in the Eastern Conference for the top draft pick. The Rockets won the flip, drafted Hakeem Olajuwon and were in the NBA Finals 2 years later. Coincidentally, the next year the NBA instituted a draft lottery that gave each non-playoff team an equal chance at the top draft pick.

  In the 2012 Olympics, 4 women’s badminton teams were disqualified for attempting to lose their final match in pool play. All the teams had qualified for the quarterfinals and were trying to avoid playing the second ranked Chinese team in the quarterfinals, but they were disqualified for "not using one's best efforts to win a match" and "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport". The 4 teams were more than overt in their attempts to lose their matches by serving into the net or out of bounds and making little or no attempt to return the occasional shuttlecock that was hit in bounds. In my opinion these players should have faked injuries to give themselves an excuse to play poorly or the organizers could have set the quarterfinal brackets based on any means other than the pool play results, but the teams had no business being booted out of the Olympics. If one of the players had broken their wrist diving to make a play in a meaningless match, the Badminton pundits (if there are such things) would have clucked their tongues and noted how the competitors had no business risking injury in a meaningless match. When super-Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps finished 8th in the qualifying race for the 400 Meter Individual Medley, he correctly noted that "The only thing that matters is just getting a spot in," he said. "You can't win the gold medal from the morning.” The top 8 finishers made it to the finals and Phelps made sure to finish in the top 8. Phelps finished fourth in the finals, but there was no inquiry as to whether he or any of the other swimmers had not tried their best in win a qualifying race. It appears the badminton and swimming (and most other Olympic sports) have a different definition of what trying to win is.

  In chess, there is a tactic known as the ‘Swiss Gambit’ in which a strong player will give up an early draw in order to play relatively weaker opposition (tournaments normally pair players who have the same scores) throughout the rest of the tournament, beat them, and hopefully win a top prize. When I researched this topic I was found out the Swiss Gambit is well known in other tournament sports like bridge that pair opponents using the Swiss system. I don’t know about bridge, but the rare times I’ve seen the Swiss Gambit played in chess tournaments it was met with an amount of disdain mixed with a certain admiration when the trick succeeds. I’m sure if this strategy was really effective, the rules would have been changed long ago to give an extra reward to the winners of earlier rounds.

I wonder if the 'Blue Ribbon' contibutor felt like a winner.