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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



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

At Wednesday, November 08, 2017 11:04:00 PM, Blogger David N. said...

From what I've read, your writing is some of the best I've seen. But merit in basketball is scoring points while merit in entertainment writing is determined by popularity (let's assume a pure competition). Value in the case of entertainment writing is much more subjective, so I have trouble with the word "merit" being used because it has more of an implied objectivity of value, as I understand. I don't think that's the case for all writing. I also recognize that a basketballer's points-scored with depend on his opponents, as well as in chess, but there's still an objective measurement.

In my opinion, the best online entertainment writer is the one who is either the "best" at SEO, has some public visibility already, etc. The best entertainment is the stuff that gets good ratings and reaches the largest audience. But as a connoisseur of entertainment, most of the best entertainment is garbage to me.

Ultimately, there's no accounting for taste.

At Tuesday, November 14, 2017 2:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

David N.,

Thank you for the compliment.

I understand the argument that you make but I think that you are conflating economic value with merit. The New York Knicks are a very valuable business economically but for many years the value of their play has not been very high. Conversely, my economic value as a writer may not be as high as that of many other writers but the merit of my writing is nonetheless significant. Another way to look at this is to ask if the intrinsic merit of Van Gogh's paintings has changed since their economic value has increased. I would argue that his painting always had intrinsic--albeit, unappreciated--merit that is unaffected by the vagaries of the art market.

At Friday, November 17, 2017 2:11:00 PM, Blogger David N. said...

It looks like I'm conflating economic value and merit, but this is not the case. Essentially, I'm saying that I don't think art can have merit in any objective sense. Since you suggest competition for writing, I see economic competition as the closest thing to gauging levels of subjective liking, which is ultimately where art could derive anything like merit. That, or a panel of experts (which one might say would more closely measure a meritorious quality). But the fact remains that there aren't expert-judged competitions for entertainment writing. The very goal of entertainment writing--unlike chess, basketball, boxing, and even academic writing--is to entertain. So my argument is that the concept of merit is irrelevant in the context of entertainment writing. Entertainment writing being primarily a traffic-driving business endeavor, I would argue that entertainment writing is only as good as its surrounding marketing. Crappy (poor grammar, academically considered bad) writing that gets clicks because of a combination of its content and positioning, will serve its purpose better than good writing less read.

Has the intrinsic merit of Van Gogh's paintings changed with its change in economic value? Absolutely. If you asked an expert to judge his work during his lifetime, they would have said it was maybe "okay." Ask one today and he'll tell you it's a Van Gogh! So yes, if we want to believe that art can have intrinsic value, then the measurement results of such value (which is what experts claim to measure) has indeed changed. But again, I don't believe that art has intrinsic value. I think its "quality" or merit are subjective. Economic value is objective, and might be the closest thing to an objective measure of perceived quality, but I recognize that this does not reflect "merit" in any objectively meaningful way(since according to my perspective there isn't a meaningful way to judge the objective merit of art). So I would say, in my serious response to the question, that no, the intrinsic merit of Van Gogh's work has not changed. It started at 0 and is still at 0 because art does not have intrinsic merit (though I admit maybe we can measure how closely a given piece follows a particular clearly-defined style).

At Friday, November 17, 2017 2:11:00 PM, Blogger David N. said...

Semantic nitpickery aside, do I think this writing is good stuff? Do university professors think I know about writing? Yes to both. Do I think you know a lot about basketball? Yes. Do I, as a knowledgeable fan of writing, enjoy yours? Yes. If we were to find a writing professor at a good school who was deeply knowledgeable about and loved basketball, do I think he'd have a preference for your writing and assign it more merit than most? Yes. Still, especially when it comes to entertainment, the market makes the merit. I'm familiar with notions of objective beauty, but there's just too much variation in taste for me to believe this. More practically, I would say you find a market that has your taste in writing, and then target the subset who love basketball. A good (measured by results) marketing strategy for your site, plus your writing, equals dedicated fans. If these people are experts and influence a broader scope of opinion, then just like Van Gogh's work, yours may gain expert-rated ascribed intrinsic (paradoxical notion) artistic/entertainment value.

I regularly read from the "top" rabbinical, philosophical, and psychological writers, and judged your writing on the subject of yetzerim as very good and among the best. That being philosophical writing, I can begin to say it has something like objective merit because it accurately understands the body of literature that exists, is logically strong, grammatically correct, and presents new perspective on the subject--great stuff. In philosophical writing there are some objective standards, like in basketball. Maybe one guy has a better philosophy (more logically cohesive) but he can't articulate it on paper. His philosophy is maybe "better" but he would be an objectively worse philosophical writer, according to the standards of that tradition.

Entertainment writing is a completely different beast. If we want to find some way to judge it, I would say the closest thing is to measure how much it entertains. Since in the internet world, money follows the traffic (and visa versa), I suggest that economic value and merit (again, the closest way to measure how much it has entertained is in terms of popularity, though I ultimately reject the notion that entertainment pieces can have intrinsic value or merit) in the realm of internet entertainment writing (which is largely a encompassed within the advertising business) are closely related enough that IF one were to look for a place for merit in advertising-business/entertainment writing, the closest objective measure would be its economic success.

At Tuesday, November 21, 2017 11:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

David N.,

Thank you for providing your perspective. I understand the points that you are making but I suppose that I am a purist or an idealist in that I believe that art--including but not limited to writing--has an intrinsic "value" that transcends economic considerations.


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