Wednesday, April 10, 2019

An Amazing Endgame Position: A Tale of Zugzwangs

This position came up in the recent world championship match, with black to move:

White:  King on g6, Pawns on f5 and h5, Bishop on c4
Black:   King on f8, pawn on f6, Bishop on g5, Knight on d4

What makes this position so amazing is that, despite its seeming simplicity, none of the top players of the world were able to figure out the wining move!  And, what's even more amazing is that even after being shown the winning move, found by a computer, none of the top players in the world could see why the move won!!

Before delving into the wining continuation, I would offer some observations about the position.

1)  World champion Magnus Carlsen, playing white, has sacrificed a piece in an effort to relieve the pressure he was facing.  Carlsen candidly admitted after the game that he didn't know if this was the best move, but he just didn't know what else to do. Hence, white is now playing for a draw, and black for a win.

2)  It is apparent that white must keep his bishop on the a2-g8 diagonal, in order to prevent the black king from getting to the h8 corner. If black's king does get to the h8 corner, then his knight will check the white king from a dark square, forcing the king to f7, after which the black king leisurely walks up the h-file to capture the white pawn on h5.

3)  White's passed pawn on h5 seems like a threat, but black can stop it.  For example, if it was white to move in the starting position, play could go 1 h6 Nf3 2 h7 Ne5+ 3 Kh5 Kg7 and the black king stops the pawn.

4)  What the foregoing line illustrates is the advantage knights have in close positions like this. There is a common belief that bishops are better than knights, but when the pawns are all on one side of the board in an endgame, especially when some are locked up and therefore immobile as here, the knight is hugely better.

An analogy could be made to the rule of thumb that a knife is better than a gun when the adversaries are within 21 feet of each other, as illustrated in a memorable "Criminal Minds" episode called "The Tribe", in which the BAU team visits a Native American reservation in New Mexico.

Based on the foregoing, it might be supposed that the position is a draw. Indeed, that is what happened in the actual game, which continued 1...Nf3 2 Kh7! Ne5 3 Bb3 Ng4 4 Bc4 Ne3 5 Bd3 Ng4 6 Bc4 Nh6 7 Kg6 Ke7 8 Bb3 Kd6 9 Bc2 Ke5 10 Bd3 Kf4 11 Bc2 Ng4 12 Bb3 Ne3 13 h6 Bxh6 Drawn

But the computer came up with a move so totally counter-intuitive that no human ever considered it. (I will highlight the winning line.) The winning move is 1...Bh4!! All the top players, match participants and spectators alike, thought white could hold the draw by responding 2 Bd5. However, what the computer has seen is that black can win by playing his knight to e2, instead of to f3. Hence, black makes a waiting move, forcing the white bishop to unguard the e2 square.

After 1...Bh4 2 Bd5, play continues 2...Ne2!, and now 3 Bf3 loses to the amazing Ng1!!, another move which no human would ever even consider playing, as it seemingly traps his knight on g1. After 4 Bg4 Kg8 the win becomes obvious, as white will soon run out of moves and have to free the knight, which can then head to e5, freeing the black king.

The top human players thought 4 Bd5 would still hold (instead of Bg4), but this falls to 4...Bg5! 5 Kh7! (Avoiding 5 h6 Ne2 6 h7 Nf4mate) Ne2! 6 Bf3 Ng3 7 Bg4 (Not 7 Kg6 Kg8) Kf7 8 Kh8! 

And now it looks like white can draw by simply moving his king between h7 and h8. However, black has a diabolically clever plan to reposition his bishop to f8, creating a mating net in the h8 corner.

Bd2! 9 Kh7 Bb4! 10 Kh8 Bf8! 11 Kh7 Ne4! and white is soon mated!  Black has the classical bishop + knight mate against a bare king, as white's pawns and bishop are relegated to irrelevancy.

You might suppose that white could try 10 h6 to thwart black's mating net, the idea being that white can now drive the black king away from f7 by delivering a bishop check on h5 whenever white moves his knight to e4.  However, black plays 10...Bf8, putting white in zugzwang. If white moves his king, he loses the pawn on h6; and if he moves his bishop to any square but h3, he loses his pawn on f5. Consequently, play continues 11 Bh3 Ne4 11 Bg4 Ng5+ 12 Kh8 Bxh6 13 Bh5+ Kf8 followed by 14...Bg7mate. Black's domination of the dark squares at the end is a wonder to behold!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Prediction Analysis

AL East:       Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles
AL Central:  Indians, Twins, White Sox, Tigers, Royals
AL West:      Astros, Angels, Athletics, Rangers, Mariners
NL East:        Phillies, Braves, Nationals, Mets, Marlins
NL Central:  Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, Pirates
NL West:      Dodgers, Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Giants

                                         Sports Illustrated
AL East:       same as mine
AL Central:  Twins, Indians, White Sox, Royals, Tigers
AL West:      Astros, Athletics, Angels, Mariners, Rangers
NL East:        Phillies, Nationals, Mets, Braves, Marlins
NL Central:  same as mine
NL West:      Dodgers, Padres, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Giants

                                              Bleacher Report
AL East:       Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles
AL Central:  same as SI
AL West:      same as SI
NL East:        same as mine
NL Central:  Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Reds, Pirates
NL West:      same as mine

                                                  USA Today
AL East:       same as mine
AL Central:  same as SI
AL West:      same as SI
NL East:        Nationals, Braves, Phillies, Mets, Marlins
NL Central:   Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates, Reds
NL West:       Dodgers, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Padres, Giants

Analysis:  USA Today’s predictions are a composite of six people, and they look that way, seemingly mirroring last year’s finishes rather than offering any insight into the coming year.  SI’s picks seem the most imaginative, giving the Twins the nod over the Indians, and picking the Padres for second. 

Here are some team-by-team observations:
Red Sox:   Only Bleacher Report has them repeating.
Twins:       SI has them overtaking the Indians.
Royals:     Only I have them still in last.
Angels:     Only I have them in second.
Mariners:  Only I have them last.
Nationals: Only USA Today has them in first.
Phillies:    Only USA Today has them as low as third.
Braves:     Only SI has them as low as fourth.
Reds:        Only USA Today has them in last.
Padres:     Only SI has them as high as second, while only USA Today has them as low as fourth.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

MLB Predictions for 2019

Sports Illustrated has again come out with its list of the top 100 MLB players, so that analysis will have some bearing on my thoughts for the coming year. The Yankees head the list with 8 players in the top 100, followed by the Red Sox and Astros with 7 each, then the Brewers, Dodgers, Cardinals and Indians with 6 each, the Nationals, Rockies and Phillies with 5 each, and the Cubs and Angels with 4 each.  Four teams have nobody on the list--Tigers, Orioles, Rangers, and Marlins.

But we have to be careful not to put too much stock in who has the most stars.  Baseball can be termed a "weakest link" sport, unlike the other major team sports, meaning that in baseball you can't go to the same players over and over. Even the best players only get to bat one out of nine times, and can only field balls hit to them.

Added to this is what SI has termed the "gig economy", meaning that role players are being utilized more than ever before in baseball, with a set lineup fast becoming a thing of the past.  The Dodgers, despite all their good players, did not have a starter who started more than 140 games in the past two years, nor did they have a pitcher who threw more than 175 innings.  What this means is that role players are more important than ever, and superstars less important.

Another important consideration in my thinking this year is Bleacher Report's ranking of the farm systems for every team.  I will use this to break the ties, when I cannot decide otherwise between two teams.

So, with all that in mind, here we go.

AL East:  Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles

The Yanks have the most players in the top 100, and seem poised to give the Red Sox a run for their money.  Undoubtedly both teams will be in the playoffs again, as they were last year.  Rays have the #5 ranked farm system, while the Jays and O's are both on hard times.

AL Central:  Indians, Twins, White Sox, Tigers, Royals

Some commentators are questioning whether the Indians can repeat, but with four starting pitchers in the top 100, and with the 5th, Bieber, set to have a breakout year, I think they will win the division easily. I can't see any of the other teams even being competitive.

AL West:  Astros, Angels, Athletics, Rangers, Mariners

The Astros made what I consider the most overlooked free agent signing of the offseason when they signed Michael Brantley away from the Indians.  The Astros don't need any more superstars, but a guy like Brantley will  make them better, and will be a good mentor for the younger players.  The Angels for 2nd is a sentimental pick, as the A's will likely beat them out.  The Mariners have the worst farm system, so they get the nod for last.

NL East:  Phillies, Braves, Nationals, Mets, Marlins

The Phillies showed they are committed to winning with the signing of Bryce Harper.  Besides that, their farm system is ranked #8.  The Nationals have disappointed me so often in recent years that I am giving up on picking them to win their division.  The Mets have their usual good pitching which always seems to disappoint, the Matt Harvey fiasco of a few years ago being a good example

NL Central:  Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Reds, Pirates

The Brewers are the up-and-coming team in the division.  The Cubs have made some serious missteps recently, such as the botched negotiations last year with Jake Arrietta, and the ridiculous signing of Yu Darvish, who is so dense and lazy that he could not figure out from one start to the next in the 2017 World Series that he was tipping his pitches.  (Hey, Yu, why don't you try watching some video?)  The Cubs farm system is the second-worst of the 30 teams, so I expect that they will be on the decline during the coming years.  The Cards have historically been the best organization in baseball, with the best fan base, and they often surprise with their results.  Hence, I pick them to overtake the Cubs for 2nd, although it would be no surprise if the Cubs finish ahead of them.  I like the Reds acquisition of Yasuil Puig; I think his presence will be a shot in the arm to the team and to its long-suffering fans.  Reds also have the #9 farm system.

NL West:  Dodgers, Rockies, Padres, Diamondbacks, Giants

The Rockies showed they are committed to winning with their great signing of Nolan Arenado to a long-term deal, but I doubt they have quite enough to catch the high-flying Dodgers.  The Padres  made a big splash with the signing of Manny Machado, and they have the top-rated farm system.  They are a sentimental favorite to improve, as San Diego has never had a championship of any kind in the major pro sports, and with the Chargers gone, the Padres are the city's only hope for a championship.  I'll be rooting for them.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

MLB Free Agency

MLB players are wringing their hands over the supposedly slow pace of free agent signings, and there is talk of a player's strike when the current contract runs out. However, upon closer examination it is obvious that the problem isn't the owners' reluctance to sign free agents; rather, it is that the players are overvaluing their worth.

Even since Bill James did some groundbreaking research in the '80s which revealed that a player's prime is 26-30, and not 28-32 as previously believed, the owners have continued to give long-term contracts to players in their 30s, usually to their ultimate chagrin.  But now, the owners have finally wised up and realized what any astute baseball observer has known for over 30 years, and that is that it is sheer folly to give a long-term contract to a player in his 30s.  There are too many examples like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez for the owners to be able to  ignore this reality anymore.

Bryce Harper turned down a 10-year, $300 million contract.  What in the world was he thinking?  The idea that anybody in their right mind would top this is ludicrous. 

One thing that baseball management has been evolving to is what Sports Illustrated has termed "the gig economy".  This consists of more use of role players and less use of everyday starters, as illustrated by the Dodgers, who have won two consecutive National League pennants without any player starting 140 games in a season and without any pitcher throwing more than 175 innings in a season.

What this illustrates is that baseball is a "weakest link" game, in which it is impssible for one player to dominate.  After all, a slugger only comes to thee plate once every nine batters, and a starting pitcher only takes the mound once every five days.  It is more important, then, to have five or ten competent role players, which you can get for the same price as one superstar.

So, we see that the problem is that players overvalue their worth, pushed by the players union which is always working to raise the salaries, all of which are guaranteed.  If the players union strikes when the current contract ends, it will be the players who will end up with egg on their faces.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Mistreatment of Bob Costas

There has been no better sportscaster in my lifetime than Bob Costas. His intelligent, erudite commentary always has been right on target.

He was recently scheduled to host the Super Bowl as the last event in his remarkable 40-year career with NBC.  However, NBC, to its eternal shame, pulled him off the broadcast at the last minute, due to his comments on the danger of concussions. At a journalism symposium in Maryland, he had said that 'The reality is that this game destroys people's brains".

What Costas said is certainly true, and not news to anyone. And yet, NBC decided this was more honesty than it could tolerate.  This just illustrates the unholy alliance between the TV industry and the NFL.  Rather than practicing real journalism, NBC chose to kowtow to the NFL.  Boos and hisses to this pathetic excuse for a TV network.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Jeff Bezos and The National Enquirer

The National Enquirer has skated on the fringes of legality and respectability for a long time, but it is continuing on a downward trajectory into journalistic worthlessness.

The Enquirer used to brag that it had never been successfully sued for libel, but then Carol Burnett took extreme umbrage at a false story depicting her as an alcoholic, and sued and won, after giving heartbreaking testimony about how her parents had been alcoholics and for that reason she didn't drink herself.

And then we have the more recent stories about how the Enquirer assisted the Trump campaign and election by paying hush money to his mistresses.

But the Enquirer has met its match in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.  Instead of lying down and capitulating to the Enquirer's blackmail demands, Bezos has pushed back, blogging in detail about the Enquirer's attempts to blackmail him into calling off an investigation into how the Enquirer obtained private emails and pictures of himself and his mistress. Bezos is 100% within his rights to have this matter investigated, as this information could not have been obtained by the Enquirer except through a blatant invasion of his privacy. 

Bezos published letters sent to his lawyer in which the Enquirer insists that the pictures it has published are a legitimate matter of public concern, which is debatable at best.  Bezos is not running for any office, and there is no basis for a claim that his private life is a legitimate subject of intrusion.  The Enquirer insists that it obtained the information in a normal news-gathering way, which is laughable since it could only have been obtained through illegal electronic surveillance.

We need more people like Jeff Bezos, people who are willing to stand up for what is right and decent. Kudos to him, and boos and jeers to the mud-slinging Enquirer.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

In Praise of "The Crown"

"The Crown" is an excellent Netflix series, characterized by superb acting and faithful re-creations of historical incidents.

Claire Foy is wonderful as Queen Elizabeth II, with the sweetness you expect and want in a woman, coupled with the steely determination you expect from a reigning monarch.  I understand that a new actress will take over the role after season two, which saddens me.

Matt Smith plays Elizabeth's husband, Prince Philip, as a dashing, funloving character, who feels overly confined by his limited role as the royal spouse.  When Elizabeth sends him as her representative to Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics, she secretly encloses a note in his bag, saying "always remember you have a family".  Elizabeth is aware of his playing around, but tolerates it for the sake of the crown.

Princess Margaret is played as a somewhat tragic figure, almost pathetic at times. She is prohibited by her sister Elizabeth from marrying the love of her life, Peter Townsend.  Eight years later she married the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, announcing her engagement the day after Townsend wrote her a letter saying he had met someone else and was going to marry her.  Her heavy smoking and drinking contributed to her death in 2002 at age 71.

Winston Churchill is portrayed as bordering on the buffoonish.  During the early '50s, when he was again Prime Minister, he was obviously losing it and the Queen gently urges him to step down, which he eventually does.  The trigger for his resignation is depicted as a series of encounters between Churchill and his portrait-painter.  You wouldn't think sitting for a portrait would make for high drama, but the skillful way it is depicted makes it so.  When Churchill sees the finished product, he blows up at the artist, saying "It is cruel!", to which the artist responds, "Age is cruel!".  Thus Churchill finally realizes that it is time to step down.

Anthony Eden, who takes over from Churchill, is portrayed as somewhat incompetent and shifty.  When Israel attacks Egypt during the Suez Crisis, the Queen knows Israel would not have done that without assurances that Britain would back her up.  The Queen chastises Eden for this, as neither the crown nor Parliament had approved of this foreign policy decision.  Because of his gross bungling of the Suez Crisis, Eden resigned after less that two years in office, blaming ill health.

The Duke of Windsor appears in the second season when he seeks permission from Elizabeth to be allowed to end his exile and return to Britain.  Elizabeth is inclined to grant his request, even seeking advice on forgiveness from Billy Graham.  However, after she does her due diligence and finds out the extent of the Duke's Nazi sympathies, she cannot in good conscience grant the request.  The former Edward VIII thus spent the remainder of his life, until dying in Paris in 1972, in exile and without any official governmental role.

Another major story line in season two is the Queen's visit to Ghana, at a time when it was feared Ghana was getting too cozy with the Soviets.  She is depicted dancing with Nkrumah, an act which supposedly brought Ghana back into the Western fold.  Analysis by historians concludes that this is overly-dramatized, that yes, she did indeed dance with Nkrumah, but that Ghana was still friendly with the Soviets for years afterwards.

But what the Ghana visit illustrates is that the Queen was quite active in British governmental affairs, and that she had a mind of her own, as she went to Ghana over the protest of all of her advisers.  As she once put it, "I don't run the government, but I'm responsible for making sure the government runs properly".  This is a useful clarification for those of us who grew up in a system in which the head of state and the head of government are the same person.

2/13/19 update.  Prince Philip recently got into an accident driving his car.  The other day he decided that, at the age of 97, he would give up driving.  What is remarkable is that Philip and Elizabeth are still functioning as a royal couple, all these many years later.  To me this validates the decision she made in the fifties to make her marriage work, realizing that the crown would suffer if her marriage were to fail.

The same motivation caused Elizabeth to deny her sister Margaret the right to marry her great love, Peter Townsend.  An old law, the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, required consent of the sovereign for any marriage of a royal family member under the age of 25. (This law had been proposed by George III after his brother married a commoner.)  Elizabeth invoked the law to prohibit Margaret's marriage, yielding to pressure from both Parliament and the Church.

So why didn't Margaret marry after she turned 25?  The answer is that the government, under the "leadership" of that hypocritical bum Anthony Eden, himself divorced, decreed that if the princess married Townsend, she would be stripped of all her royal privileges as well as her income.  Margaret elected to remain part of the royal family, resulting in what seems to have been an unhappy life.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The NFL Blown Call

In the waning minutes of the NFC championship game Sunday, a Rams defender ran full speed toward a Saints receiver, savagely plowing into him and knocking him to the ground, before the pass reached him. And yet, there was no pass interference call! To make matters worse, the defender also should have been penalized for an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit!

How this could have happened is beyond belief. The refs didn't even huddle up to try to confer and get the call right.

This is just the latest example of the NFL's incompetence in enforcing its own rules. The "catch rule" sat in limbo for several years, before the NFL finally undertook to "clarify" it so that a catch would again be called a catch. (By contrast, when baseball had a problem with its catch rule, they clarified it immediately, not even waiting for the offseason.)

There are plenty of reasons to be down on the NFL, but the shoddy way it enforces its own rules is high up on the list for me.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Why Trump Should Not be Impeached

There are four basic reasons Trump should not be impeached and removed from office.

First, it would leave us with Pence as president. He would be just as bad as Trump, perhaps even worse with his right-wing policies. And much harder for the Democrats to run against next year.

Second, While Trump obviously has a serious character defect, which leaves him unable to tell the truth, and unable to treat people with respect, there has not yet been the clear abuse of power which would be a proper ground for impeachment.

Third, one lesson of the Clinton impeachment debacle is that there must be sufficient political support in the country for impeachment. Trump's approval rating is currently at 39%, certainly low by historical standards, but not  nearly low enough to support removal from office by impeachment. It is certainly low enough to prevent his re-election next year, and this is what we should be focused on.

Fourth, an impeachment effort against Trump presumes that our country's problem is who the president is. This is clearly not the case; rather, the country has a serious problem with misplaced values which led to Trump's election in the first place.

The impeachment effort would suffer form the same type of fallacy which George W. Bush did in invading Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein from power.  Toppling Hussein did not solve Iraq's problems; rather it has created a guerrilla movement within Iraq, so that now acts of terrorism occur frequently, when before there were none. Toppling Trump from power will not solve the malaise which afflicts such a large percentage of our people.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Tale of Two Stories

Many stories take a long time to develop, but we don't ind if there is a satisfying payoff at t he end. is true whether it be a movie, a play, a novel, or a long-winded joke.

I have to think of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" in this regard. It is slow-moving, even tedious, but has a nice payoff at the end. As Roger Ebert perceptively observed, the whole movie can be seen as foreplay leading up to the grand climax.

I recently read "We, The Jury", by Robert Rotstein.  What a total waste of time! I tolerated the poor writing and all the jumping around the author does in describing the jury deliberations in a murder case, thinking there would be a nice payoff at the end. But there was no payoff! The ending made absolutely no sense, and was completely unsatisfying.

By contrast, the third series of the British TV crime drama "Shetland" was wonderful. The story takes place over six episodes, which calls for a big investment of time and energy to stick with it. But the payoff at the end was absolutely worth it, as the culprit turns out to be someone we'd never suspect. And the great scenery and culture of the Shetland Islands helped make the journey worthwhile.