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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mano a Mano Competition is Pure

"It's nice to be modest, but it would be stupid if I did not tell the truth. It is Fischer."--Bobby Fischer's response to a question about who is the greatest chess player.

"On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."--Dr. Emanuel Lasker, World Chess Champion from 1894-1921

In a recent interview with Tavis Smiley, Prince explains why he prefers the pure competition found in sports like golf, basketball and boxing to the nonsense he deals with in the music business (his comments about those subjects can be found starting at the 11:10 mark of Part II of the interview).

Prince's newest three CD set (LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSoUND/Elixer) debuted in the number two sales position despite receiving little if any radio airplay--and Prince told Smiley that his CD set may in fact have had the most sales: "SoundScan said that it was number two. Other charts say that it was number one. So, it doesn't make a difference to me one way or another. What makes a difference to me is that history is told truthfully and that's not always the case. I love golf and basketball and sports--and boxing especially--because it is mano a mano." Prince--or at least his new music--has been effectively banished from the radio because he has chosen to distribute his work via his own website and in cooperation with Target, as opposed to conforming to the traditional norms of the music industry. Prince owns his recording masters and controls his fate and it is quite an accomplishment to vault nearly to the top of the charts despite working outside of the music industry's tired, old infrastructure.

Prince's comment about relishing "mano a mano" battles resonates with me on a very deep level. I recently won the Dayton Chess Club Championship for a record seventh time (1997, 1999-2000, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2009) and I have a U.S. Chess Federation rating over 2000, which classifies me as an "Expert" and places me somewhere around the 95th percentile of American chess players. I love chess for many reasons--the game is part art, part science, part raw blooded competition--but one of the best things about chess is that your performance can be immediately and objectively quantified: you win, lose or draw and your rating is adjusted accordingly (often within 24 hours thanks to the internet/computers). Facing someone over the chessboard is much like going into a boxing ring--you are battling one on one against your opponent and it does not matter how rich you are, how popular you are or who you know: if you don't bring everything you've got then you will get knocked out. Boxers are taught to "protect yourself at all times" and I deliver a similar message to my chess students, because one lapse in concentration can completely turn a game around; if my last round DCC Championship game had been a boxing match then you could say I was losing on all of the judges' cards but my opponent made one critical error that enabled me to obtain a draw (and thus win the tournament).

You may have in mind a certain stereotype regarding chess players but I have played in USCF tournaments since 1987 and the truth is that most tournaments consist of a diverse socioeconomic melting pot; a young child from a poor neighborhood may very well be a much stronger player than a middle aged corporate executive. While a person's intrinsic worth is obviously not reflected in his USCF rating, that rating is a very reliable indicator of his chess playing strength.

What does this have to do with basketball? It can objectively be said that I am a relatively strong chess player (though there are obviously players who are much stronger than I am), but I think that it is pretty clear to anyone who understands both writing and chess that I am much "stronger" at writing than I am at chess. Over the years, some commenters here at 20 Second Timeout have asked why I don't market my writing to larger publications. The reality is that I have tried to do just that and, for someone who is in many ways an "outsider"--I don't have a journalism degree and have never worked for a newspaper--I have had a certain degree of success, landing pieces in national magazines like Hoop, Lindy's Pro Basketball and Basketball Digest. Unfortunately, the writing business--like the music business--does not have objective ratings. There is no mano a mano competition; people who are completely unqualified to analyze either writing or basketball often determine who "wins" and who "loses."

I respect the way that Prince has successfully sidestepped the music industry's bureaucracy and found ways to deliver his art straight to the public; of course, he has the advantage of already being well known and he also possesses a certain degree of wealth, though his personal fortune is minuscule compared to the resources commanded by the recording companies he is snubbing. Similarly, George Lucas obtained enough capital to assert complete control over how his films are made and the way that they are distributed. Not only have I yet to discover a similar path in the writing field, I have had to endure the indignity--and the irony, considering how I feel about chess--of seeing my work ripped off by an editor who does not even know the most basic facts about NBA history. This is a strange business, though a stronger word than strange comes to mind.

My last round DCC Championship opponent--John Dowling, who many years ago obtained the National Master title (signified by a 2200 rating) that still eludes my grasp--collects chess-themed posters/artwork and he is generous enough to display many of these items at the DCC; the piercing visage of Bobby Fischer "watched" over us during our battle for first place but my favorite poster reads, "A bad day playing chess beats a good day at work."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 PM


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At Friday, May 01, 2009 1:59:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...


I think the audience you write for is a much different audience than mainstream outlets are targeting, mostly casual fans, or fans that are interested in basketball only for the competition as opposed to the technical and fundamental intricacies of the game.

Don't take this as a slight, but your writing is much drier than the stylish and entertaining style of some of the writers at the big outlets. But as a consequence, your writing is also free of the hyperbole and inaccuracies of said writers. I personally find your writing is entertaining, but the same could be said of a doctor reading an academic journal, whereas a layman would find it to be boring.

I don't say this to suggest that you change your style at all, but if you ever wished to get the attention of the outlets, all you would need to do is change the style of your writing to be more colorful and humorous.

Otherwise, I think your writing is fine as it is, and if some people don't appreciate it, they are missing out.

At Friday, May 01, 2009 3:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

I understand what you are suggesting but if you look at the total body of work represented here (including the links in the right hand sidebar) then you will find plenty of "colorful" stories and even some examples of humor, though humor is obviously not a primary theme. My All-Star Weekend reports for HoopsHype are not "dry." My stories about the ABA are not only colorful but they present a unique perspective about the league.

Also, the numerous player profiles that I have written for various publications are hardly "dry" or overly analytical and I would favorably compare the content and writing style of such pieces to any basketball writing anywhere.

Furthermore, I don't buy your theory because several of the mainstream outlets employ "experts" who never played in the NBA, don't write as well as I do, don't understand the game and certainly are not humorous or entertaining. The "analysis" presented by such people is the real joke; compare my commentary on Team USA with such "analysis" or consider that I immediately said last summer that Bynum-Gasol-Odom would never be on the court together at the same time while the "expert" analysts and Laker blogs alike declared that this trio would be the scourge of the league. So, even if my style is dry--and I don't agree that it is--why wouldn't a mainstream site want to hire an analyst who actually knows what he is talking about?

At Friday, May 01, 2009 5:01:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

I don't know.

All I know is that I will continue to read your columns and appreciate your insight.

At Saturday, May 02, 2009 7:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

Thank you.

All I'm saying is that if there were a mano a mano writing competition based on merit--the way that golf, boxing, basketball and chess competitions are--then I would not hesitate to put my work against anyone else's, whether the category is "dry" analysis, player profiles, interviews or anything else.


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