Monday, September 1, 2008

Interview with USCL Assistant Commissioner Arun Sharma

EV: So let's start with what you do: what is your actual league title, and what are your responsibilities?

AS: Greg and I actually wasted way more time then we should have in debating this. For awhile it was Assistant Commissioner and for awhile it was Vice President. Probably neither is quite accurate considering how much each of us contributes. I probably do about 80% of the work, Greg does maybe 20% (ed.: Greg disputes these figures), but in fairness to him, the 20% he does is by far the most important stuff like dealing with the managers and coordinating with ICC while most of what I do is largely filler.

EV: And your work?

AS: Things I do, all the articles I write of course, Predictions, Power Rankings, Game of the Week article, and the Prediction contest, I rule on takebacks, check everything for errors (and with Greg there are plenty), judge Game of the Week, plus I do all the statistics, updating the standings, MVP list, players' performance ratings, basically everything involved in making the Player Pages. Plus I rewrote the whole rules page before this season. And of course during the matches, I try to contribute as much as possible in kibitzing, answering people's questions, and advertising that sort of stuff.

EV: You rule on takebacks… how interesting. How many rulings have you made, and how many went each way? What criteria do you use to judge?

AS: There have been none so far this year, last year there were unfortunately two rather big ones right at the beginning of the season. There were a few others later in year, but pretty minor ones where there was no quarrel. It’s hard to say yes to no ratio honestly, since there have not been a ton of examples and ones where it's a mistake due to a relayer are handled quite differently.

As for judging, well, it's just about looking at the move itself and asking yourself if you think it was almost certainly a mouseslip, nothing more than that really.

The two big examples from last year were Philadelphia vs Miami Week 1, where the match was tied 1.5 - 1.5 and Costigan had R+2 pawns vs R and then slipped and dropped his R which obviously was a rather huge swing in terms of being granted or not. It was clearly a mouseslip, but obviously the Miami fans weren't exactly happy about it being granted.

EV: Wow, is there a time penalty for this?

AS: There is always a time penalty if a mouseslip is granted, at least five minutes but obviously in that situation a time penalty isn't going to be especially relevant, it's all about whether or not it's granted.

EV: Even if the players are under 5 minutes?

AS: If either player is especially low, typically mouseslips won't be granted. Which brings us to the other big one from last year, Boston vs Queens, where Critelli mouseslipped with about three minutes on his clock with his game deciding whether Queens drew or lost the match. His was not granted for that reason.

EV: How did you get involved working for the League to begin with?

AS: Well before the League existed, I'd basically been out of Chess completely for around four years (from 2001 - 2005). I still kept in contact with Greg on occasion though, and he mentioned to me this idea that he had which was going to come to fruition. I was kind of curious how and if it would work so I logged on to ICC during the first week to watch and found it quite entertaining so I started watching every week and there you go. During the first year, I was basically only an ardent viewer (perhaps the most devoted spectator, but I don't know).

Then come the second year, Greg asked me if I was interested in writing Preseason Predictions for the season given how much I watched the first season. He felt that someone should write them and that it would be better if someone other than himself was to do it so I did. I guess he liked it (even though several managers weren't so happy with me!) so he started asking me to write other things like the GOTW articles etc., and the rest is history.

EV: Are you happy with the League's progress in general? If so, are you surprised by it?

AS: Quite so, I think it's grown quite a bit every year, and what else can you really ask for when you have something which is only a few years old. I wouldn't say I'm surprised either, we have taken many steps to try to accomplish this. To be honest, what most surprised me was really how strong the League has been from the start. I wouldn't have anticipated that during the first year so many GMs would participate (nearly one per team even back then). I would have guessed that it would start off much more slowly and once some reasonable recognition was gained, then GMs would start to play. I was quite impressed that Greg was able to get so many strong players to play in something entirely new with no financial compensation. That is definitely one of the things he is good at though (and I suppose me working for the League is personal proof of it!).

EV: What do you see yourself doing in the League in future years?

AS: Hard to say, perhaps nothing. There is a fair chance this will be my last year working for the League as I'll be graduating this Spring and probably after that won't have the time necessary to be able to continue to do what I do. So anyone looking to take over my job next year, be sure to apply now!

EV: Most people know what you do working for the League, but tell us about yourself as a chess player.

AS: I guess my story is pretty typical for an American kid, learned at an early age, got addicted pretty quickly, and was heavily into it for several years. Then, in my early teen years when starting High School and school in general becoming a higher priority, it became secondary and basically stopped playing competitively then.

EV: If you had to pick one match from last year that was the most interesting, which would it be and why?

AS: If you're talking about sheerly interesting, I would have to say two of the three Boston vs. New York matches were the top (the Monday night one and the Semifinal). Just when those teams play there is always so much pre-game hype, and those matches in particular were really interesting on the board also. If you add drama as a factor, then it would have to be the Championship Match for obvious reasons.

EV: Can you describe one of these two matches, briefly?

AS: The Monday Match one was naturally hyped of course because of the Nakamura vs LarryC showdown, and the match itself was just super close, especially the way the Perelshteyn vs. Charbonneau game was swinging back and forth between seeming drawn or won for Black. As a result the overall match was hanging by a thread also; it was just one of the most intense nights, in terms of spectating anyway that I can remember.

EV: So I saw you picked SF to beat Boston in the final in your pre-season predictions. Has anything happened in Week One that would make you revise any of the predictions you made a couple weeks ago?

AS: I don't think so really. I based those predictions on overall factors, things which can't generally change in a week, and given how balanced the League is, changing an overall view based on one match generally seems wrong. The one thing that might be different is I might have put Dallas slightly lower, not because they lost their first match, but because they lost IM Stopa, who has been tremendous in the League, from the roster right before the season

EV: Why did they lose him?

AS: I believe it was because he ended up having to take a class on Wednesday Nights.

EV: Okay, so in terms of changes from last year, what team lost the most strength in your opinion, either through players getting higher rated and being unable to play 3rd or 4th board, or people moving, etc. I’m asking in terms of impact on overall team strength, i.e. maybe NY lost the most in Nakamura, but they partially made up for it in Fed and Shabalov.

AS: Boston for sure. Shmelov and Williams are both much higher rated than last season; not to say they aren't still a really strong team, but I don't think they are as strong as last year. That lineup they used throughout the Playoffs last year is really hard to match. I can't think of any legal lineup this season that would quite compare with that one.

EV: And who gained the most?

AS: I would definitely say San Francisco (which is the main reason I predicted them to win this year), both Shankland and Naroditsky have markedly improved in the last year, so they have two severely underrated players on the bottom two boards, similar to what Boston had last year.

EV: Who are your picks for individual board All Stars this year?

AS: Board 1 I'd have to go with Becerra, he's been an All Star all three years and a two time MVP, and you can't argue with results.

Board 2 is tougher, I could give the nod any of the three who were All Stars last year (Sammour-Hasbun, Kuljasevic, or Bhat) or now to Friedel who might play more on Board 2 this year. It's not clear who amongst them will be eligible (either play enough or maybe play more on Board 1), but those are the top picks to me.

Board 3 I like Lenderman of Queens, once again assuming he plays enough there to be eligible. Obviously he will have a big rating edge in almost all of his games.

Board 4 I'd take Naroditsky of SF, like I mentioned earlier, with his current rating he should also have a big rating edge against most of his opponents.

EV: Which player is your favorite in the league?

AS: I would have to say GM Becerra of Miami. I just like the way he plays in general, his games are always quite entertaining with strong play and nice tactics.

EV: Which division do you think is stronger, and also which division is more balanced?

AS: I actually debated this with a few people, and I think that really depends on what you mean by stronger. The East has always seemed to have that advantage since they tend to have a lot more GMs than the West, but obviously that doesn't necessarily correspond to having better teams.

If you're talking about who would win long term if they played tons of interleague matches that's a tough one. Assuming all teams could use their best lineups all the time, I really have no idea, it'd be pretty close though I think.

If you look at previous years' standings, I think the East is clearly more balanced. After all both of the last two years, the team which finished last would have made the playoffs if they'd won instead of lost in the last week. This year, honestly I don't think there is too much difference

EV: Let’s talk about the blogs for a moment. Aside from yourself and myself, who are your favorite bloggers, predictors, commentators, etc,. in terms of humor, overall interestingness, accuracy etc.?

AS: In terms of reading material, prior to this year, I liked Boylston the most, Glickman always wrote nice reports which were just good writeups in general and had some nice humor in them. I also really liked the Boston Blitz Fan Page, those interviews are always a really nice feature.

Predictor, well that has to be Ron Young, the other people who do it, like myself, are pretty much scientific about it, he obviously is not :)

Leaves comments, Ilya Krasik and it's not close, his posts always seem to have or create a large amount of entertainment (or controversy depending on how you look at it).

EV: Okay, so the future. What are your goals for the USCL?

AS: Goals for the most part are Greg's domain. I function more as a "This is what we have as of now so work with it as best you can." But nothing too fancy as of now I guess, just more of everything, more sponsorship, more blogging, more publicity.

EV: In general, would you like to see more civility or more controversy in the USCL? Please cite examples.

AS: Tough question for sure, I think rivalries are a very good thing in sports in general, it shows how much the players and fans really care, but naturally it can lead sometimes to a lack of civility.

In terms of more or less, I'd have to say more, Boston vs. New York is of course the standard example, and I think it would be good if there were more rivalries as heated as that one is.

EV: Does it bother you that people complain about the GOTW selections so much, often criticizing your decisions?

AS: Not at all really. I like that people care enough about it that they express their opinion about it whether they agree or not. Obviously it is subjective so you have to expect some amount of people to disagree with you basically every time.

EV: OK, last question… what was the funniest moment of last season?

AS: Hmm that might not be a good one for you to ask … my answers might involve some personal stuff and might insult some people …, but ok, there was an interesting issue with IM Bonin.

When we wrote up the All Stars, Bonin was third All Star on Board Three and in the commentary about him in that article, it was made mention of the fact that his Semifinal win vs. Shmelov "was tainted" due to the circumstances. And Jay got really upset about that comment said it was rude and out of line, and was blasting me to Greg.

EV: How was it tainted?

AS: Just, you know, since Shmelov was winning basically the whole game and almost certainly wouldn't have lost if the team result had depended on it… but the funny part was … like I said he was blasting me to Greg, but Greg was actually the one who had written that comment, not me.

EV: That’s hilarious.

AS: Yes I threatened to tell Jay myself, but Greg protested, still falsely claiming that he hadn't written it (even though we both knew he did), and in the end it didn't really seem important so I gave in and didn't say anything (until now!).

EV: Oh beautiful. You took the fall. That’s heroic.

AS: That's just part of my job.


Glenn Wilson said...

Takebacks? If a player enters his/her own moves takebacks should *never* be allowed and certainly not for a mere "mouseslip". If one is prone to mouseslips then one needs to take the *time* to move accurately. And *time* is a part of the game.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with glen, this is not supposed to be a league in online chess, it's a chess league that is online. Mouseslips are only a part of internet chess and a mouse is not as reliable a device as the human hand moving pieces on a big board. Even if you move a mouse really slowly you could still accidentally release the button early or whatever. I think as long as you try to claim it immediately and it's obvious it should be allowed, but I agree with the time penalty for the takeback.

Andy Lee said...

As the first ever player to mouseslip in the league, on something like move ten of the exhibition match between SF and Philly, I found that it was much safer to type in the moves. Playing chess on a computer and mouse that you're not used to is surprisingly difficult.