Modern Chess with Wilhelm Steinitz

Wilhelm SteinitzThis is kind of crummy day for birthdays. I’m not Tarzan but Maureen O’Sullivan was Jane, and she was born on this day in 1911. Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox was born in 1912. Songwriter Bob Merrill was born in 1921. Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite was born in 1931. If he’s alive on that spaceship, he’s 82 today. And Dennis Hopper was born in 1936.

Film producer A. C. Lyles is 95 today. Computer scientist Alan Kay is 73. Blues legend Taj Mahal is 71. And comedian Bob Saget is 57. Here he is discussing the most disgusting joke of all time “The Aristocrats.” I recommend not watching it:

The day belongs to an unusual man: chess great Wilhelm Steinitz who was born on this day back in 1836. He pretty much single-handedly changed chess into what it is today. What I mean by that is that it used to be all about clever combinations. But after him, it became a game of position. That isn’t to say that clever combinations weren’t still important. But the focus of the game became controlling the board.

This is something that annoys me to this day about the way that I was taught to play chess. The idea that you can teach a child the moves and just expect them to figure out the rest is madness. It is like telling a child you are going to teach them how to play the piano and then only show them that this key is a C, this key is a C-sharp… No one would consider that a music education and yet that is the extent of most chess education. In fact, it’s even worse. There is a kind of social Darwinian aspect to it. Step one: teach the moves. Step two: see if anyone figures out the games. Step three: properly teach the game to the survivors.

It was only in graduate school that I learned to play chess. And I did it by studying master games. By trying to understand why they moved this way rather than that, I finally figured out the nature of the game. At that point I got so that I could beat people who previously had trounced me. All that was missing between my being a hopeless player and being all right, was an understanding of the game that I think I could teach a child is a short period of time. What’s key is that without this knowledge, you end up in games that are extremely frustrating. After a few moves you are in a position were even your best moves are bad.

Combine the lack of proper elementary chess instruction with the hyper-aggressive style that is encouraged and you end up with a game that very few people enjoy. Although I enjoy the game, I don’t much like the people I’ve played against. I’m not an aggressive person. My interest in chess is more academic. In a sense, reading those master games was perfect for me. It can be as thrilling to analyze a game as it is to listen to a symphony. Thus, I have no interest in destroying my opponent. My desire in playing is to have a good game. As a result, I commonly have opponents redo bad moves. I don’t ever recall anyone reciprocating. This seems to be because of this aggressive chess mentality that teaches that the purpose of chess is to crush the opponent. I recall one time allowing an opponent to take five moves back before eventually beating me. He was very full of himself after the game. And that’s fine with me because I think he’s pathetic.

Anyway, the point of all this is that understanding positional play and the overall theory of the game makes it fun to play. It also makes it beautiful and even artistic. And we largely have Wilhelm Steinitz to thank for that. Of course, this style of play would have come along eventually. But the fact is that he is the one who did it. Unfortunately, over the last 50 years, this has been taken to extreme to the point where serious players spend much of their time studying openings that can go up to 40 moves or more. This more than anything is the reason that computers are now the best “players” in the world. That’s why I think we need to move on to something like Chess960. But for the average player, chess is still a great and fun game, and that is largely thanks to Steinitz.

So happy birthday Wilhelm Steinitz!

Space Cowboys Crashes

Space CowboysLast night I watched Space Cowboys, Clint Eastwood’s film about a group of old men who finally get their chance to go into space. It reminds me of something Andrea said after the very similar movie The Crew came out. “These films about old men reliving their glory days are really interesting. I wonder if we’re going to get a movie about four old women reliving their glory days of doing dishes and taking the kids to soccer practice?” It’s a good point. I do tire of seeing these old actors pretending as if they really are the hunka hunka burning love they used to be. But I still recalled the movie being fun, so I put it on. Boy was I wrong.

The problems with this film are extreme. And they start, like so many films, with the script. There are some genuinely funny lines in this movie. But without exception, the set-ups are so ham-handed that they almost kill the humor. It’s like watching an airplane land: turn the plane to be parallel to the runway, reduce speed, reduce altitude, lower landing gear, joke! But okay, most people watching are just glad to be in the company of these actors who we’ve loved in the past: Dirty Harry, Agent K, Rockford, and Hawkeye. Alas.

Although I don’t think much of three of these actors, I think that Donald Sutherland is fairly good. And the other three are rather good at being minor variations of themselves of screen. But in this film, I thought that pretty much all of their acting was awkward. I suspect this was not their faults. Rather, I think it was Clint Eastwood’s directing. He’s known for shooting very quickly. In this film, there were a lot of special effects. This no doubt slowed him down. Did that mean he rushed the non-special effects scenes more than usual? I don’t know. For whatever reason, the actors (Especially Eastwood himself!) were weaker than they usual are.

There were many other problems. It is always hard to tell, but the editing seemed choppy for the first half and then the pacing seemed ridiculously slow at the end. The science was laughable. The plot was stupid. The resolution was unfulfilling. Eastwood’s melodies are charitably called uninteresting. The whole thing is lit like it is taking place in a sports arena. But perhaps I’m nitpicking, and I certainly wouldn’t bring these things up if it weren’t for the major problems. Plus, there were things to like.

I especially liked seeing Marcia Gay Harden and Blair Brown. Despite whatever was holding back the men, they gave good performance. Plus, I’ve had a crush on Brown since I was a teenager. Actually, overall the supporting cast seemed pretty good to me, with the exception of James Cromwell who was uncharacteristically weak. Again: I’m sure it’s Eastwood’s fault.

Regardless, if you want to see one of these “old men reliving their glory days” films, skip Space Cowboys. Instead, watch The Crew, which certainly isn’t a great movie, but it’s better made and it has a fantastic comedy script.


Speaking of bad science, twice during the film, a character makes this argument about hitting a baseball to moon. “You just need to knock it halfway there, about 100,000 miles, and the Moon’s gravity will take it from there.” Uh, no. Gravity is directly dependent upon mass. The earth’s mass is a bit more than 80 times the moon’s mass. Thus, halfway between the earth and the moon, the earth would have 80 times as much force. (BTW: I calculated that by entering (earth mass)/(moon mass) into Google and it spit back the answer “81.2800178349.” Typically, Bing provides a nice picture of the moon, but not what I actually wanted. You do know that about Bing, right? The reason that people “prefer” its search results is that they provide more images?)

I’m not going to work out the equations for you because I know that you would just skip them. The result is that the baseball would have to be 90% of the way to the moon when it runs out of energy in order for the moon to pull it home. My former (and in some ways current, because I bug him from time to time) physics professor Joe Tenn recently told me, “If you want movies to obey the laws of physics I am afraid you are going to be disappointed.” He’s right of course, but this stuff is too fun not to do.

Are you not entertained?

The Cause Briefly

The Cause Eric AltermanI have a very bad habit of reading a great book but having so many things to say about it that I put it aside for a while. And then, despite the fact that the text is now full of my comments, I have next to no idea what it was I wanted to say. Such is the case with Eric Alterman’s The Cause. It is basically a history of liberalism from the Great Depression to last year. But the real meat of it is in the end of the book when he looks at the resurgence of the Democratic Party. Just as I do, he finds the “New Democratic” movement wanting.

A good example of this is a contrast between Mario Cuomo and his son Andrew. Mario was a good old school Democrat who stood up against unpopular issues like the death penalty. His son (a prototypical New Democrat) took a similarly unpopular stand… Against the millionaire’s tax. Alterman writes:

Cuomo scuttled the tax and then went on to compare his lone wolf position with that of his father’s unstinting opposition to the death penalty. “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much,” he explained, apparently without noticing that his father’s lonely stand had been taken on behalf of prisoners on death row, rather than multimillionaires on Wall Street.

One reason that I find Alterman so compelling is that he seems to be (like me) primarily an economic liberal. That isn’t to say that we don’t support social liberal causes. But it is the economic cause that has lately been abandoned by the liberal movement. As he writes:

Cultural liberalism, while not without political risk, did not cost the wealthy anything or restrict their ability to become even wealthier. As such, it proved a far easier sell in a political system like that in the United States in the twenty-first century, dominated, as it was, by the power of money.

If you want to know where liberalism has been in recent history, the questionable place it currently is, and where it is going, you really should read The Cause. It is largely inspiring, even if many parts will make you crazy.

Death, Teapot Dome, and Benghazi, Cuba

TeapotAccording to Public Policy Polling (pdf), 74% of Republicans think that the Benghazi scandal is worse than Watergate. But I wonder: do these people even know what Watergate was about? That scandal has come to be a blanket term for a whole lot of presidential malfeasance. The Watergate break-in was just the loose thread that once pulled unraveled the whole shirt. But we can’t know what these Republicans think about Watergate because they weren’t asked. They were, however, asked if Benghazi was worse than Iran Contra and only 70% thought it was. And even more interesting, 74% think Benghazi is worse than the Teapot Dome scandal.

(Note: the worst thing about the Benghazi “scandal” is that it has forced me to learn to spell it! Look people: I have a hard enough time keeping the spelling of all the really useful words in my mind. There’s only so much space. I blame the Republicans.)

What are we to make of these numbers? I think it’s pretty simple: Republicans don’t like Obama. Because let’s face it, I doubt that 5% of Republicans have even heard of Teapot Dome and 1% know what it was. I suspect if you asked Republicans if Benghazi was worse than Judas betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, they would say, “Yes!” I even know their argument: only one person died in Jerusalem whereas four people died in Benghazi! Okay, maybe they wouldn’t say that because most of them are Christians, but it does make as much sense as the argument, “No one died as a result of Watergate!” (Interestingly, the whole Benghazi “scandal” has been about what the White House said about Benghazi after the attack: the controversy is the “talking points.” No on died as a result of the talking points either, but that isn’t mentioned.)

If you think I am overstating the ignorance of the Republicans, just check out another part of the poll. PPP asked the “worse than Watergate” respondents where Benghazi was. Of them, 39% didn’t know. Here’s what they said:

  • 10% Egypt (Close!)
  • 9% Iran (Only 1,500 miles off!)
  • 6% Cuba (6,000 miles!)
  • 5% Syria (1,000 miles)
  • 4% Iraq (1,000 miles)
  • 1% North Korea (5,600 miles!)
  • 1% Liberia (2,600 miles, but it does sound the same)
  • 4% Didn’t know (Good answer!)

(I got the distances from this great tool: Distance From To. Check it out!)

I think the people who answered Egypt can be forgiven: it is close by and we have a similar relationship with that country. Similarly, those who thought it was Liberia: they got the first three letters right! But the rest are all, “Pick and enemy, any enemy!” It’s just silly and entirely typical of the conservative “good versus evil” mentality. They don’t need to differentiate between enemies; just like Justice Potter Stewart, they know ’em when they see ’em.

Beside the fact that Republicans don’t like Obama, this poll shows one other thing. Benghazi is a scandal for Republicans, only because they’ve been told it’s a scandal. By and large, they don’t even know what the scandal is. But it would be even bigger if they only knew that no one died in the Teapot Dome scandal either.

H/T: Eric Alterman

Affinity Bias and the White House Scandals

Obama CopeI’ve been thinking a lot about why so many journalists I follow went so wrong on the supposed White House Scandals this week. I think it has a lot to do with affinity bias. And that does not speak well for the state of journalism.

A lot of people wonder why, for example, conservatives often hold opinions that are just wrong. Throughout the Bush administration, Fox News viewers were systematically misinformed about important issues. Why was that? It’s quite simple: they trusted Fox News. And that is not only acceptable, it is necessary. We can’t independently become experts on every issue we hear about. So we find people who we trust as experts and believe what they say.

Of course, it pays to be selective. Anyone who gets their information from cable news is cruising for a bruising. In general, I think that MSNBC is a lot better than Fox News. But that isn’t always case. I think Fox News has done a better job under Obama than they did under Bush. It’s all been pretty bad, though. MSNBC has done better generally, but I think they were soft on Obama during the campaign. At times they act as apologists for the Obama Administration—especially certain shows. Regardless, I think that MSNBC does a better job of informing liberals than Fox News does informing conservatives. Of course, the best conservative print publications are better. Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Josh Barro of Bloomberg View are both fact based. I wish a lot more conservatives got their news from people like them.

There really is a difference between what liberals and conservatives think about things even when they are working off the same set of facts. And that should be enough. But instead, generally conservatives get different facts than liberals do. I think this is about 90% the fault of conservative media, but it hardly matters. My point is that we’ve got to trust someone.

I’ve worked very hard to find people who I feel I can trust—people who will not knowingly deceive me and will admit when they are wrong. I still feel very dependent on these people. But not always. For example, most of them went crazy this last week. They acted as though there was something to all these scandals. There were damned few people like me who were pushing back against this. And my question is: why?

I think there is a problem with being too plugged into the media structure—something that I cannot be accused of. And in this case, all the liberal commentators were trying to prove that they weren’t just partisans. If the Obama administration had done something wrong, they were going to hold it accountable. The problem is that this kind of thing is just as bad as blind partisanship. From Monday on, there was no information that implicated the White House. Yet much of the reporting was of the type that I saw coming from Greg Sargent: very cautious concern.

This week I wasn’t exactly kind to Obama. I blasted him about firing Steven Miller. And I’ve been very hard on him about the Associated Press, even though the scandal is systemic and not especially Obama. But I didn’t fall for the theatrics, which I correctly labeled a “perfect storm of bad sandal-like news.”

So why didn’t the others see this? I think it is the same thing as for all of us: we have people we trust. Unfortunately, many of the people I trust, themselves trust Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen of Politico. (I avoid reading them if I can.) They are the very definition of “Washington Insider.” And they create a kind of sports reporting approach to politics. Indeed, in his “nothing to see here” article yesterday, Ezra Klein wrote, “On Tuesday, it looked like we had three possible political scandals brewing. Two days later, with much more evidence available, it doesn’t look like any of them will pan out.” But the evidence that became available between Tuesday and Thursday didn’t change the facts as the Monday CNN report did change Friday’s ABC “facts.” All that changed was that the commentariat had a chance to calm down.

The whole thing reminds me of The Ox-Bow Incident. The media depended upon its trusted connections to believe that something happened that the facts just didn’t support. Ezra Klein and others are always quick to note that a stunning revelation could turn any of these supposed scandals into real scandals. But that’s always true. It could turn out that Obama got an Oval Office blow job by an intern. Or that Michelle had Vince Foster killed. Or maybe they both fired the people in the travel office to give their friends a job. Any of this could be true. But barring any actual, you know, facts, it is just a big game of telephone played by journalists who really ought to be smarter than the average cable news viewer.