Friday, December 23, 2016

For Some it Has to be All or Nothing

  The 2016 edition of the Grand Chess Tour (GCT) finished this past week with the conclusion of the London Chess Classic. The tournament was won by Wesley So, whose three wins, zero losses, and six draws enabled him to finish a half point ahead of U.S. champion and current World #2 Fabiano Caruana. So won the top prize of the entire tour by virtue of his victory in the London Chess Classic and his victory in the tours’ other classical time control event (the Sinquefield Cup) along with second and fourth place finishes in the two rapid play legs of the tour in Paris and Belgium. This year’s tour garnered far less attention than last years’ edition for one very important reason – the absence of World Champion Magnus Carlsen.

  Carlsen was allowed a wild card entry into the GCT’s two rapid events held earlier in the year but missed the Sinquefield Cup and London Chess Classic in order to defend his title against the Russian Challenger Sergey Karjakin. The championship was played in New York and received a considerable amount of mainstream press coverage. The first seven games of the 12 game match were draws. They were exciting battles with missed opportunities and skillful defense but could not be expected to retain the attention of the mainstream media which tended to put the match on the back burner until Karjakin managed to take the lead by winning game eight. Carlsen evened the score in Game ten and after two more drawn games the championship was decided in a match of four 25 minute games which was won by Carlsen. This was the second world chess championship out of the last four that was decided in a rapid tiebreak (Anand-Gelfand 2012 was the other). In the 12th and final game of the match, Carlsen had the white pieces but settled for a short draw without taking any undue risk. After winning the tiebreak match, Carlsen was lauded for having the self-awareness to realize he was more likely to retain his title by outplaying Karjakin in the tiebreak rounds rather than risk overpressing for a Game 12 win and losing which is what happened in the one game of the match he did lose. If Karjakin had won the tiebreak match and become world champion I doubt Carlsen would have been as lauded. I don’t think too much one way or the other about Carlsen’s choice because I don’t know the backstory. It’s possible that he was prepared to take more risks if Karjakin had played a different opening but perhaps was surprised in the opening and decided to bail out. No one knows and no one is telling.

  On Sunday the Tennessee Titans were trailing the Kansas City Chiefs 17-10 with 3 minutes left when they scored a touchdown to pull within one point. Instead of kicking the extra point, Titan coach Mike Mularkey decided to try to get the lead by going for a 2 point conversion instead of trying to tie the game on an extra point by kicker Ryan Succop who had made 33 of 35 extra points this season. In the first game of the season Raider’s head coach Jack Del Rio had a similar choice when his team scored a touchdown with 47 seconds left to pull within one point of the New Orleans Saints. Del Rio went for the conversion which was successful, and the Raiders won the game 35-34. The headline on this story was “Gutsy call lifts Raiders past Saints”. The call (and successful result) is seen as a masterstroke that propelled the Raiders to a 10-2 start and their best season in 15 years.

  On Sunday, Mularkey’s call didn’t look so good when the Titans failed to convert the 2 point conversion, leaving the Titans trailing by a point. The Chiefs were a first down away from running out the clock and winning the game but the Titans forced a three and out series, getting the ball back with a minute left which was just enough time to move the ball into field goal range for Succop to attempt a 53 yard field goal. The same Ryan Succop that wasn’t trusted to kick an extra point to tie the game. I think not trying to tie the game via the extra point was idiocy on Mularkey’s part. Even if the Titans had taken the lead via the two-point conversion, the Chiefs would still have gotten the ball with three minutes left which was more than enough time to attempt to retake the lead. If you tell me that Mularkey trusted his defense to stop the Chiefs and get the ball back in case the two-point conversion didn’t work I would ask if he didn’t trust his defense enough to give them a tie game to work with.

  I do have to acknowledge that Mularkey may have been on to something in not trusting his kicker. Succop missed the 53 yard field goal attempt BUT Chiefs coach Andy Reid played the ‘ice the kicker’ card and called a time out a fraction of a second before the snap. On the second attempt Succop made the field goal and Mularkey is being hailed as a genius (at least in this article).

  It is common practice for coaches and players to be judged by their results rather than the decisions leading to said results. In Game 7 of the World Series Cubs Manager Joe Maddon made several questionable decisions. He pulled his starting pitcher and catcher in the 5th inning with a three run lead and watched the replacements promptly give up two runs. Then after bringing in his closer in the 8th inning and watching him allow a game tying homer, Maddon sent him out for the 9th inning when another homer would lose the game and series. Luckily for Maddon the closer gave up no more runs, the replacement catcher hit a home run, the Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908 and Maddon’s account of the season is selling for $20 at the Hy-Vee drug store in Marshalltown.

  I didn’t think much of Maddon’s managing and Mularkey’s coaching but there was one recent risk it all decision I did agree with. The 5-8 Philadelphia Eagles were trailing the Baltimore Ravens 27-20 when they scored a touchdown with 4 seconds left in the game. Rather than kick an extra point, Eagles Coach Doug Pederson decided to go for a two-point conversion, saying after the game “I wanted to win the football game.” The two-point conversion failed and the Eagles lost the game. I don’t know if any reporter followed up with Pederson to find out if he knew that his team wouldn’t have disqualified themselves from winning by kicking the extra point but I do agree with his decision. Unlike the Titans (who are battling for a division title), the Eagles are a nothing team having a nothing year that followed up a 3-0 start by losing 8 of their next 10 games. They are going nowhere and there is no reason to not end the game as soon as possible. I tend to see Carlsen’s short draw in the final long game of the chess championship as an indication of his belief in himself while Mularkey and Pederson’s decisions to try to not get the score tied as indication of a panic move spurred by not believing their teams could outplay their opponents. The difference was Mularkey got bailed out and Pederson did not.