June 12, 2008
MBA Basketball

In which I thread some beads of the corruption nibbling at the American dream, nay, inhabiting it with a vengeance. In fact, it’s looking more and more like the approach of Nemesis, who you’ll recall is the goddess who brings havoc to you and your plans in payment for your hubris.

Chess is bigger than the universe

Among chessplayers you often hear that chess is life. In many ways this analogy holds up. In fact it’s really closer than an analogy: chess isn’t like life, it is life.

Life involves making decisions about what to do and what not to do, in situations where you can’t possibly gather all the information. In chess there are estimated to be around 1050 legal positions, with a game-tree size of 10123 (game-tree size is the total number of legal games, counting different move orders arriving at the same position as different games).


For comparison, estimates for the number of atoms in the universe are around 1080.

So you can’t possibly gather all the relevant information; yet you have to make a choice, there’s a clock ticking, and you’ll be stuck with that choice for the rest of the game. You need principles, plus the technique to execute them against resistance.

The decision-making process in chess is so similar to life that it’s a bit scary to consider the implications of machines beating the crap out of the best humanity has produced. But at least it’s a game of rules. Without ignoring the occasional accusations of cheating (by, for example, Kasparov against the Deep Blue team, or by Topalov against Kramnik in the famous World Championship Bathroom Controversy), we expect the outcome of the game to be determined by who played better.

The battlefield is not a chessboard

battlefield-stretcher.jpgIf only life were like chess, and the winners were those who made the best decisions! If we chose our leaders on that basis, our quality of life would be much improved. We’d rid ourselves of servants of the dark side such as Cheney and Greenspan and Kissinger and Albright, and replace them with others like Feingold and Conyers and Kucinich and Waxman, people who find representation of the type envisioned in the Constitution more honorable than playing for Team America in the game of geostrategy.

But no. Corruption and war are profitable; and the war-maker rarely fails to draw greater praise. As Gibbon says:

…as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters.

Perhaps this is another gift George Bush will leave us with: the realization that war has become a business, and not just any business but one central to our way of life; that the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about has taken control of our government by holding the economy hostage.

Buddha_sunset_crop.jpgPerhaps we’ll decide, like the folks in Iain Banks’s Culture novels, that money’s just holding us up. When scarcity is the main problem, money provides a huge leg up. When you could feed everyone if you chose, but it’s not profitable enough so you don’t, you’re in essence killing people for money. And even from the purely economic point of view, if every individual were fed, clothed, housed, educated, and provided with transportation and medical care, how much more productive would we be as a group?

What keeps us from doing this? It’s not exactly corruption; bribes aren’t being paid, either explicitly or implicitly, to those who enforce the status quo. Unless you count the money spent on police, and the more numerous private security folks. Not to mention the various methods of enforcing that unusual system of economic class that Americans have evolved. It’s universal and not at all subtle, yet we often manage to ignore it.

To take a single example: I teach in six elementary schools in four districts each week of the school year. The educational opportunities presented to children differ significantly based on the cost of the house their families live in. That’s rational in our world, but I submit that nearly everyone would be much better off if we educated everyone to the highest standard we can manage. Rather than bombing some Asian village, for example. As Eisenhower said, every bomber we build is a school we don’t build. And bombers were dirt cheap back then.

I claim our socio-economic situation waxes and wanes as our ideas veer now toward and now away from a course parallel to reality. The corollary is that our current troubles are precipitated by a hole in our world-watching filters.

Americans are famous, or perhaps infamous, for their go-it-alone every-man-for-himself attitude. As Lisa said, how rebellious, in a conformist sort of way.

Handicapping vs. rigging: is it still corruption?

In reality everyone knows Americans love a winner. People who’ve never been to Los Angeles root for the Lakers because they think the Lakers will win (as if). Many people here in northern California root for the Patriots (once the 49ers have safely folded) despite not owning a single garment capable of withstanding the weather on a nice day at a Patriots game.

So when fans learn that their team’s best player is a rapist, or that their team taped competitors’ signals, reactions tend to fall into two groups. Some fans feel they’ve been let down by their stars or teams. Others prefer to ignore the revelations and blame the whole emotional mess on the media, or the InterTubes, or whatever: it’s all lies. This second group, one assumes, votes disproportionately for Bush.

Fortunately, there aren’t enough such people to elect him. Unfortunately, that doesn’t control who wins the elections. And corruption at the highest level of civic life sets a standard. Each new world chess champion initiates a fad for certain openings; each new administration has ripple effects throughout society.

So anyone who’s spent much time watching NBA games cannot be surprised to learn that former referee Tim Donaghy has accused the league of rigging games. Donaghy’s already been convicted of manipulating outcomes and is facing sentencing. In the plea letter his lawyer writes:

“Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew Referees A and F to be ‘company men,’ always acting in the interest of the N.B.A., and that night, it was in the N.B.A.’s interest to add another game to the series.”

The game was refereed by three tenured veterans: Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt and Bob Delaney. Bernhardt has retired from the league. Under N.B.A. rules, Bavetta and Delaney are not permitted to speak to the news media. However, Delaney, a former New Jersey state trooper, cast doubt on Donaghy’s claims in an interview with ESPN.

“This is not the first time a known or convicted criminal has lied about me before the judicial system,” Delaney said Wednesday. “I have an extensive law enforcement background, and still train police officers. I have dealt with criminals and informants, and I know full well they are capable of doing and saying anything.”

I’m assuming Delany means this to be reassuring, but somehow I don’t find it so. Are we to consider that NBA referees are no more corrupt than your hometown police force would be if it dealt constantly with the amount of money that circulates in professional sports?

Back in 2001 Milwaukee was playing Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals. George Karl, coach of the Bucks, later expressed the view that the league had decided Alan Iverson and his Philly teammates would be a better draw for the finals than the Bucks, so they arranged the calls to make that happen. He was fined $85,000, if memory serves, and got calls from several prominent players stating their agreement. (One of them was Kevin Garnett, as of this writing the best player in the NBA finals.)

The FBI has made inquiries about Bavetta, according to a former N.B.A. referee who was interviewed by federal agents last year.

Hue Hollins, who retired in 2003 and has been outspoken about the N.B.A.’s treatment of referees, said he met for about an hour with two agents from New York before last season.

In addition to asking questions about Donaghy, Hollins said the agents inquired extensively about Bavetta. They asked if he ever noticed that Bavetta “was making sure that the home team would win, and I told them I had no idea because I didn’t work with him a lot.”

Well, try watching a game. Bavetta is not the only one, but he’s one.

The most hilarious comment comes from perennial favorite Mark Cuban, who must know something about basketball; after all, he bought a team.

Mark Cuban, the outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner, who has been a leading critic of the N.B.A.’s officiating program, cast doubt on Donaghy’s claim that league officials had orchestrated anything.

“There’s no way on God’s green Earth that David Stern has ever done anything to influence the outcome of a game,“ Cuban told ESPN.com.

Spoken like a man still hoping to be admitted to the country club, and thus continuing to speak well of it even after being rejected. Nixon would have appreciated the number of outs left in that sentence. Suppose this particular earth isn’t God’s, for example? And besides, did anyone accuse Stern of rigging the games? No, it was the referees who did that; Stern orchestrated it. It’s like Bush and Cheney didn’t actually do the torture themselves, they had other people do it, but they ordered it. They’re not complicit, they’re responsible. Same with Stern, though there was no torture or killing involved (as far as I know).

This, to me, is what makes college basketball preferable, though in principle it shouldn’t be. There are few more amazing athletes in the world than NBA players, and the game they play involves much more useful civic virtues than, say, American football. College teams can reach the NCAA tournament with one or two players who’ll definitely make the NBA; three, and you’re an odds-on favorite for the whole thing. But look at the last four NBA teams standing: Los Angeles, San Antonio, Boston, and Detroit: three great teams and one great media market. The league admitted that the decisive call in the fourth game of the Western Conference final was wrong, but they figured that a Lakers-Celtics series would draw a much larger audience than Spurs-Celtics.

It’s the American way.


Posted by Chuck Dupree at June 12, 2008 03:49 AM
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Life involves making decisions about what to do and what not to do, in situations where you canít possibly gather all the information. In chess there are estimated to be around 1050 legal positions, with a game-tree size of 10123 (game-tree size is the total number of legal games, counting different move orders arriving at the same position as different games).

Well, I'm one of those people who believe that life is more like poker than chess. In chess, all the pieces that are ever going to be in play are on the board before the game starts; at all times, both players know exactly how many pieces remain in play and which player still has which pieces under his control.

This doesn't occur in poker. A third party -- the dealer -- is involved, and he may or may not be honest. You only ever know your own hand, and you never know how good a bluffer your opponent is.

Full disclosure: I am the world's worst chess player. I am the world's second worst poker player.

Posted by: Grace Nearing on June 12, 2008 10:30 PM

Life is like neither chess nor poker, unless you favor one of those metaphors. To the Chinese, it is Go. The point is that you may be playing by any set of rules you like, but anyone else may be playing by entirely different ones.

I think any kind of two-player game is entirely too constraining as a model, and the true rules are hardly so rigid.

Posted by: Michael on June 12, 2008 10:41 PM

Lots of people can play poker at the same time, Michael, not just two. (Disclosure: I played it once and won, and haven't played it since; therefore, I count myself a winning poker player. As for chess and go, I don't learn that many rules and not get paid for it.)

But your broader point may be that hardly any of us know what game is being played, let alone how to win.

Posted by: Joyful Alternative on June 13, 2008 8:46 AM
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