April 24, 2010

Football and chess

Last night, I watched a clip from a press conference with Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal FC. I'd never heard his voice before, so I just wanted to get an idea of what he sounded like. I think he's one of the more handsome men of his age that I've seen, and the voice and expression seem to match that. The substance of the presser didn't interest me so much, although I did find it remarkable that one reporter had the impertinence to ask him straight out about the impact that Arsenal's failure to win a trophy again this year might have on his tenure as manager there (IOW, "So, buddy, do you see yourself getting fired next month?"). Wenger took it in good (enough) humor, though. I guess impolite queries of that sort are common enough in the European sporting press, so he must be used to them. On the other hand, it could also be said that Wenger can dish, so he should be able to take it.

It was presumably because of this and my plans to watch Arsenal vs. Manchester City at Wolff's today that I had a dream with Mr. Wenger in it last night. In the dawn hour (this was the dream, now), I was ambling along a driveway next to a little training field, getting some exercise, and next to the field, under a tree, I see Arsene Wenger standing pensively. I said hello and introduced myself, and he was actually pleasantly surprised to meet an American supporter. (It can't be that unusual in real life, can it? This was me flattering myself subconsciously, see, that he would be pleased to meet me.) We chatted for a bit about tomorrow's game. I may even have mentioned the thing with Adebayor in some capacity, but it didn't disturb him. As we parted ways, he got into his van (yes, he had driven a van to the training facility that morning), laughingly tossed me a bottle of cognac out the window (like some odd French Santa Claus), and we went our ways.

The game itself was pretty dull, ending 0-0 with not much in the way of chances having been made or used (it took ages for van Persie to put anything on frame). It wasn't as chippy as I'd expected, which was a relief. Adebayor did show up early in the second half, to major boos, but he didn't flip out as the guy next to me watching the match expected would happen at some point. It was sad to see Shay Given get hurt the way he did--it looked like a very odd way to fall in the course of making an important save. I never like to see folks get hurt in a game, especially not goalkeepers.

After that ended, they switched over to a Bundesliga match, Werder Bremen vs. FC Köln. I always like to see Bundesliga matches when I can--the quality of the league may not be as high as some of the other biggies, but the German clubs show a kind of compromise between the approach based on speed and physicality that seems to dominate in much of the EPL and the emphasis on skill in Spain and Latin America. As it happened, the quality of the play in this German match was, I thought, overall better, but maybe that's only because these two teams weren't quite as evenly matched as Arsenal and City, so not everything bogged down in midfield. It must be admitted that the FC Köln keeper was quite a bit busier than his counterpart. I was surprised to recognize a few faces on the Köln side--Podolski, Maniche--and of course Frings for Bremen.

Partway through the match, being on my second beer, I realized that I should have had the Reissdorfer Kölsch then instead of earlier. Oh, well.

Overall, though, this game was still kind of boring to watch, because it was also 0-0 almost the whole time, though Bremen had had the better of it mostly. Wouldn't you know it, in one final attempt by Werder to score, some poor guy from the Köln squad handled the ball off the line. So Werder picked up a literally last-minute penalty, Frings put it away, and after the last futile flurry from the boys from Cologne, that was that.

While that had been going on, on the next TV screen there had been the match between Palermo and AC Milan. Palermo was up 2-0 by the 20th minute, which kind of irritated me. I take no particular interest in Serie A--I'm sure it's a fine league, but it just hasn't caught on with me yet. (I must be a sucker for the snake-oil salesmen that claim the EPL is the Best League in the World, For Sure.) But it's funny that seemingly every time I do watch an AC Milan match, they play badly. This happened even when they still had Kaká. Maybe I'm jinxing them and they should pay me to avoid watching their games, at least live.

So having spent most of the afternoon at Wolff's, I come home to find that Anand blundered away the first game of the World Championship match. I think it had been right before I left to head down to Wolff's that I had taken a glance at the game feed and seen that Anand had taken his king to f7, but I was on my way out the door by then, so I wasn't around to see Topalov's Nxf6!.

While at Wolff's, during breaks in the football, I tried to think of a few ideas for tournaments we could have in the Capital Region this summer. Do any of these look interesting?

* One or more G/10 short (half-day or less) tournaments at the area clubs;

* Youth vs. Grownups--since there aren't any Right Move events in the summer around here, it might be interesting to give the area's youth players a chance to get some good experience in a local tournament playing in a field that would have some adults as well. Ideally the adults wouldn't be just the top local players; I'd rather see a mix of skill levels that would make it more competitive for the kids. Not sure how to arrange this.

* A Saturday 4-round Swiss G/60 in Schenectady;
* My personal favorite, a kind of World Cup-theme tournament. Since, after all, the World Cup is being played this year. What I mean by 'theme' here is more in terms of the format of the thing. The World Cup is run in two stages, group and elimination. In the World Cup, groups of four teams each play a round-robin, and the top two on points progress to the elimination bracket, which is where the real fun starts. I was thinking we could do something similar chesswise--have quads from which the top two scorers advance to an elimination bracket. The bracket could be built in a way similar to the way the WC bracket is arranged, i.e. A1 plays B2, C1 plays D2, etc.

Now to make that happen, we would have to have a venue for more than one day. Day one would be the quads, and then depending on how many players there are and so on, we would need at least a second, maybe a third or even a fourth day, to finish the elimination part. The tournament would have to have a limit on number of players--we'd need a multiple of 4 to have proper quads. I suppose it might be acceptable to have one section be a 3-round Swiss instead, as was the practice in the Studio Quads; otherwise we'd have to limit entries to the first 16 or 32 players.

Or if we had an in-between number (but still a multiple of 4), we could have a wildcard option, e.g. if we had 24 players, that would make 6 quads, but if you just take the top two finishers from each, that makes a bracket with 12 players for the next stage, which means a lot of byes. We don't want byes. Byes are bad. So to make up the number in the bracket to 16, we could have the top 2 from each quad plus the best four third-placers.

Here I see a potential snag. Given that the traditional scoring system of chess (1-1/2-0 points) makes it harder to differentiate the spread than in soccer (3-1-0 points), we could either make the quads a double-round robin (which would pretty much require a rapid time control, like G/10 or so) or--what would be more intuitive and in keeping with the theme--use the soccer scoring system for the quads. (This, by the way, has been done in a couple of the FIDE Grand Prix tournaments recently.) Yes, I like that last idea. Much more sensible. So then we might not need playoff games to get the best four third-placers in that scenario. But, given that there's no 'goal difference' measure in chess, there'd have to be a different tiebreak mechanism just in case.

And then there's the question of how to sort the quads. If we just make a list of everyone in rating order and split the list up on that basis, that would certainly be traditional from a chess point of view, but it wouldn't be very competitive when it came to the elimination stage, since the rating mismatches would increase in magnitude as more players are eliminated from the bracket. Games should be getting more, not less, competitive as the bracket progresses.

One alternative would be to seed the quads by sorting the list of all registrants by rating, but then instead of the top four going into the first quad, first figure out how many quads are needed, then take every Nth player going down the list until each quad fills up, then the next, and so on. So say you have these hypothetical 24 players, which means 6 quads. Sort by rating, then take numbers 1, 7, 13 and 19 from that list--that's one group; 2, 8, 14 and 20 are another, and so on. Of course, the rating spread within each group would make the outcomes rather predictable, but what are you going to do? Make it all just random? At least the elimination stage would have some suspense using this arrangement. Besides, the World Cup itself, while it doesn't involve an Elo-like rating system for the national teams, certainly has the usual favorites within each group. In the same spirit, in the proposed tournament, it should be perfectly okay to have favorites who are expected to progress from their quads.

Another alternative, kind of like the way FIFA creates the draw for the World Cup groups by representing as many different regions as possible within each group, would be to take the list of tournament entrants and alphabetize it, then constitute the quads as above.

The only thing is that the time between now and the World Cup final is only about two months. Is that enough time to find a venue and do publicity? Maybe... maybe.....

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