Wednesday, March 28, 2012
The woman in this picture is not only hotter than you; she's smarter, too.
I've been listening, the last few days, to Radiolab's podcast called "Games" (available here), and while the entire hour-plus is worth listening to (not least for the part where a study shows that people love underdogs so much they will root for geometric shapes they perceive as being likely to lose), the part that really got me thinking was a segment about "the man who ruined chess," Frederic Friedel.
I'm going somewhere sportsy with this, so even if you (like me) consider chess "not a sport" (disagreeing with Bobby Fischer, who said you have to be an athlete to play chess) I'll get to some sports stuff.
Anyway, Frederic Friedel ruined chess by, as I understand it, putting online a searchable database of every single chess game ever recorded.
That's what they said on the podcast, anyway -- that since the 16th century (which is when everyone invented everything) people have been recording chess games and now they're all available on a database and so chess has, for the highest level of players, turned into more or less a memory game: they play out the moves of games over and over.
Which actually was then kind of fascinating, as Radiolab took a look at a live (?) chess match and followed along with Friedel, who ran each configuration of the board through his database to tell exactly how many times that particular set up had occurred in the history of chess, and as the count got lower, dropping from over 1,500,000 to 500,000 to 25,000 to 10 to 5, I was finding myself sort of holding my breath as I listened, and then they got to a point in that match where that configuration of the board had never occurred before.
It was weirdly thrilling, listening to two people on a podcast talk about this moment in a chess match in the past where that had happened: an entirely new chess set up, a positioning of the pieces that had never been seen before by any human being.
It doesn't seem, actually, that unlikely that a new configuration of a chess board would occur, if you know the math. On the podcast, Friedel says there are more chess configurations than there are atoms in the universe. Universe Today estimates that there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in the universe. But "Every Chess Configuration" says that it would take ... well, I don't know how long to count all the legal chess configurations; greater than 58 years, at least. (I don't know what e means in an equation.)
So if there's that many configurations, and it would take that long to get through them all and we've only been keeping track for 500 years, there must be lots of configurations that haven't occurred yet, making it more likely that every game would see one, but, of course, strategy means that you won't use some weird configurations and what your opponent does dictates in part what you do, which finally brings me to the more directly-related sports point for this post, which is that one of the reasons given by Radiolab for why people love sports is because of that Off The Book moment -- that thing in sports that we see that seems never to have happened and might never happen again.
That makes a lot of sense to me -- that's why we love records, for example: A world record has never been done before and may never be done again. (And that's why it was so disappointing to find out McGuire and Sosa and Bonds were using steroids -- it's like having computers play chess. Sure, you see the moves, but the thrill isn't there and the records shouldn't count.)
And that's why we love underdogs, like Butler in the NCAA last year -- the rarity of a Hoosiers or Marlins coming and winning the championship makes it an off the book moment.
And that's why we love weird plays and grand slams and no hitters-- no hitters are extremely rare-- and holes in one and the like.
That, I think, is why some sports, like baseball and NASCAR, are not as thrilling to watch: NASCAR, to me, suffers from being the same thing every single time. Golf, too -- almost every shot is similar to almost every other shot. Strange things don't happen, off the book moments are rare.
I've mentioned at times that I'd like to see the extremely improbable happen; I used to root for a team to go 0-for-Everything, 0-16 in football, because no team had ever done that. Now, it's happened once, so if it happens again it won't be as exciting. My new sports quest is that I'd like to see a 16-seed beat a number 1 in the NCAA Tournament -- a configuration that hasn't happened in the history of college basketball. 27 years of 64-team games, so there have been 108 16-vs-1 games, and no 16s have won. When one does, I hope I'm watching (but since I rarely watch college basketball, I doubt I will have been.)
Other off-the-book moments that I could recall off the top of my head included Tebow throwing that game-winner in overtime against the Steelers, the first Giants-Patriots* Super Bowl, the Bills' fourth trip in a row to the Super Bowl, and the Red Sox's first run to a modern-era World Series win.
That, the podcast by Radiolab, is the kind of sports reporting I like. I'm not really interested in passer ratings or records over the years or whether Jeremy Lin double-dribbled. I'm interested in thinking about sports in a different way -- and now, when I watch or listen to a game, I'll be thinking about those off the book moments and paying more attention to them.
The picture on this post, by the way, is of "Regina Pokorna," woman's Slovak chess champion in 2009. She's got a 2400+ rating in chess. That's one step below grandmaster.