Friday, November 7, 2008

Interview with Carolina Cobra Captain Craig Jones

EV: Probably I should start with a big congratulations! What a performance by Carolina all season. Did you guys see this coming, or are you as surprised as the rest of us?

CJ: I think we are pleasantly surprised, yes.

EV: Why do you think Carolina did so well?

CJ: In hindsight, I think Greg (Shahade) alluded to this. He said, "Carolina always has its A team ready.” The more I thought about that, the more it made sense. So for example, on paper a team can be very strong, but all that matters is who shows up. You are only as good as the team you field. If a strong team fields a weaker lineup, that’s their team. Their team isn’t the one that could have played. You are what you do, not what you could have been so to speak.

On the other hand, Carolina has Lev Milman, who I believe has played more USCL matches than anyone ever. He’s always available, always willing to play, always giving his best. I hear about other teams --this or that player isn’t there etc.—that’s part of their team. That, makes them what they are. The fact that Lev and Oleg play Every week is what we are.

EV: Tell me about Oleg. What's his story?

CJ: I am not sure what Oleg’s story is. ;-) I was the private coach to a couple Denker reps several years ago when Oleg was top dog in those events so I knew of him. I believe Oleg won the Denker as a 9th grader and then did it again-- I am not sure of this just recalling. I used to chat with his mom at those events etc. Oleg is from Oregon. Oleg is quiet, always polite, always reliable, he and Lev… ALWAYS there ... that’s so important. It would be interesting to look up but I would imagine he has to be the lowest rated 2nd board in the league. It’s not easy for him, but he has a great positive attitude.

EV: Carolina started 1-2, but then went +5 =2 -0 in the last seven games. Did something change mid-season?

CJ: No, nothing changed that I can think of … well … let me answer that a little…. chicken and egg....a change didn’t make us better, however, after a few weeks of not losing that would last 7 weeks, it seemed instead of always "how do we survive another week," it turned into “it felt like we won’t lose another.” That was gradual.

EV: Optimism took over?

CJ: Exactly, and we have it now. I think we feel now we are in every match and expect to do well, whereas before it was we hoped for the best. We have improved every year in team points, btw.

EV: As manager, how do you choose your lineups each week? How much is about player availability? Do you try to predict what roster your opponents will use?

CJ: Our lineups are easy: Lev always plays. After Lev, then it’s either Oleg or Jonathan Schroer, but Jonathan prefers to be an emergency backup, and Oleg is always available, so that’s another easy decision. I made sure Jonathan got 2 matches in so he was available for the playoffs. If we play Oleg, then it’s Ron and then me: all other lineups are weaker except if we play Jonathan, then Oleg or Ron (or even myself) could go on board 3, but usually we would go with Oleg because Ron has to get up at 6:30 am for work. Ron is always available, but doesn’t complain if he stays home and gets to go to bed on time. If Schroer plays, then we use Udayan Bapat.

EV: And how often did you play this superior Lev-Oleg-Ron-you lineup?

CJ: I believe we played that lineup 7 times. I am not sure that lineup is better than Schroer-Bapat. They are about dead even I think, so that’s a hard decision. It was very difficult for playoffs, very hard to figure out which one was better.

EV: Did you try to think about who NY would play?

CJ: Well, I did. I was fairly sure they would play Charbonneau...since he has been so reliable and active for New York for so long. On a side note I believe Lev Milman has played more matches than anyone in USCL history and Charbonneau can’t be far behind in that count so you have maybe the two most active players ever meeting one another. I expected Charbonneau--Krush--Braylovsky--Herman
They played Charb--Fed—Braylovksy -Zenyuk: 50 percent we guessed right..:-)

EV: So why did you choose the lineup you did against that expected team?

CJ: I don’t know. It was a coin toss more or less. I went with the lineup that had played the most and had the most experience I suppose. I don’t have a good answer.

EV: Next question: You beat Zenyuk with black this year, and lost to Herman with white in 2006, (although I think perhaps you were better and lost while over-pressing due to the team situation) Were you surprised the Knights are playing Zenyuk? Whom would you rather face?

CJ: I wanted to play Herman. Or maybe I just expected to play him I got that in my mind and so forth. All opponents are difficult for me. I think the idea of trying to do better versus Herman this time since I let the team down last time seemed like good motivation.

EV: Let's talk about the Carolina match up board by board. Where do you see your two points coming?

CJ: I like to think we have good chances to score on every board. To think we won’t score on every board is a wrong mindset..;-) And if you feel like you have chances on every board getting 2 points feels a lot easier. Also looking at this board or that board is too confusing once the clocks start everyone is trying their best on their own games and not thinking “OK we will win x board and draw Y board I just need a draw” that’s just unrealistic.

EV: No doubt, but are there must win boards for you? Or boards where you would be happy with a draw? Or is that question ignoring your answer? It probably it is…

CJ: No, I think we are GREAT everywhere. I feel we can score on every board or at least we will try our best. I had this discussion with a team member, and it was funny. We both sorta said at same time the best way to win isn’t to try to say win here draw there play for this or that you just try your best every board. I think micro managing pre-resulting is impossible. It would be interesting to see a record of that: how many times anyone’s "goal" before any match is compared to what happens...

EV: That would be the USCL prediction contest perhaps?
So if you beat NY, you'll advance to play either Boston or Queens. Who would you rather play? What do you think Carolina's chances are to beat NY? To win the East? To win the USCL? (You can not answer the last 2 questions there, if you prefer, but I’m curious who you would rather play)

CJ: That’s a great question….Boston or Queens?... hmm… I think Boston has just done great against us over the years and Queens we did well against this year ... so therefore..... I don’t… It’s hard to think that far ahead.

EV: Sure. Okay, let me ask a more short term question...Lev Milman is graduating next year. What will Carolina do without him? Do you have any new prospects? I heard a rumor that Daniel Ludwig might be going to Wake Forest?

CJ: Yes Lev leaving is horrible. He has a job lined up in finance—one of the lucky few I imagine-- I keep suggesting he go to B school or law school or something and "hide " for 2 more years-- his prospects would be better…of course I want him to stay… But he wants to get in the working world, maybe a little tired of college. That’s where his interests are at this point..
And yes, Daniel Ludwig informed me he would be coming to Wake Forest.

EV: That’s fantastic for you. Wake Forest is quite close to Durham i think?

CJ: Yes Daniel is great. He strikes me, always has, as someone stronger than his rating though maybe that has caught up I haven’t checked. Daniel will be like Lev, always outrated, but he is the kind who can take down anyone in a given game should be an exciting first board for us as it is now. Wake Forest is a little far, an hour+: I wish he was going to UNC or Duke just for the convenience factor.

EV: Any other new prospects?

CJ: well.. every year a place like Duke/UNC seems to get a strong player and sometimes you don’t even know they are around. A few years ago there was a GM at Duke I didn’t even know it!

EV: Who?

CJ: Well, I stumbled upon him by accident, I forget how that happened. He had been out of chess and just wasn’t ready to play at that time. Anatoly Volzhin. He was @ 2600fide so very strong.

EV: Never heard of him

CJ: lol… I hadn’t either. GM Marcin Kaminski knew him. I asked Marcin to contact him initially and he did. At a very large university, the chances of an international student who is a 2300+ level player is possible. Finding them isn’t always so easy, but I will try.

EV: Interesting. Is there anyone else you could pay to travel and play? Would you do that?

CJ: We are rather isolated. Too bad Charlotte wasn’t closer. If the players from Charlotte could be included, the team could be-- maybe not stronger on the high end-- but just deeper and solid.

EV: Who’s in Charlotte?

CJ: Andre Chumachenko..a 2450ish type player. He was on our lineup last year for use in emergencies and was willing. But he is a high school teacher ... it’s 2.5 hours ... matches can end as late as midnight. It’s just a lot to ask someone.
Chris Mabe, Mike Klein: I would love if they were on the team. They are great for chess and we would love to see them on the team; it’s just too far.

EV: Mike doesn’t play anymore though-- at all, no?

CJ: Well Mike hasn’t missed a Land of Sky in many years I think. So he plays at least 1 event per year.

Speaking of not playing, Oleg is basically completely out of chess, and Lev is except for summers. Oleg’s last rated even was December 07 ... Pan Ams, and only one other event in 07. So none this year, 2 in 07, 5 in 06. This is normal for many top scholastic players they go to college and leave the chess world behind.

EV: How do you think he manages to play well without rustiness?

CJ: It’s remarkable, to be honest. He just doesn’t play or study or practice at all as far as I know. We have looked at things online together before a match and I asked him what resources he had. Like database, fritz, opening books etc. He said he didn’t have anything or I think that’s what he said. He is completely in non chess mode as far as I can tell. Makes it even more impressive he is so reliable to always make matches and so forth. I think maybe certain styles, their “muscle memory is better” I’m not sure. For example if your strength/confidence comes from specific knowledge of opening lines and you leave chess for awhile and come back your not going to be very confident. If your strength lies in areas that are less sensitive to erosion of skills—whatever that maybe—than it may not be as important. Oleg works very hard in the matches. I realized once that sometimes during entire games that last 3+ hours, sometimes he never gets up ... almost never stops looking at his screen. He’s one of those..;-)

EV: You guys play on screens not boards?

CJ: Oleg and Lev use only their comps. I like a board.. Ron uses a board … Jonathan uses a board ... Udayan does it both ways..;-)

EV: ok, a team story maybe?

CJ: Hmm, well, without a doubt the most memorable event ever was the Bereolas affair if we can all it that.

EV: hahahha. I wasn’t going to bring it up, but of course it’s hilarious.

CJ: Now we just say things like "It’s a potential Bereolos situation," or "It’s the Bereolos effect.” The moment that happened is probably unlike anything I have ever experienced in chess which shows the potential fun of team events etc.

EV: Can you briefly describe the situation for readers who aren't up on their USCL history? Or I can, but I think people might like to get the Carolina perspective on the story.

CJ: We were playing TN in the final match of the season. We had to score 4-0 to make the playoffs. (At the time of the game for some reason some of us thought we just needed 3.5) Matthew Hoekstra was playing Peter Bereolos, a 2300+ player. We had 2 rooms so all of us are in one room while Matthew sat alone in the playing room with, I think, the TD, Brad Marts. The position was such that a 1000 level player would beat Anand-- I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. The simplest of King and pawn endings, make a queen and force checkmate. We were packing up to go home. I always of course stay to the end but sometimes players leave early but this was the last game of the last match everyone was there, waiting for Matthew to resign.
Lev was sitting at his laptop and he started grinning a little and said something like “Bereolos has 7 seconds left, what’s he doing” For the next 7 seconds we of course expected him to move, get his increment and quickly win. 6 –5—4—3—2 I recall looking at Lev’s laptop leaning over and just waiting for Bereolos to move to end the drama but he never did. It hit 0 and the magical “black wins” goes up on the screen.
I think that moment is the only time in my life that I actually jumped up and down screaming over a chess result! It was just unreal. I ran over to where Hoekstra was and he just sat there with the biggest smile you could imagine and said “What just happened?” He really didn't understand what was going on. I began to think it may have been one of those situations where he got disconnected and the clock kept going that happens occasionally but it wasn’t so.

Then, as I was walking back to our other room, the phone rang. It was a very upset Greg Shahade. He was stunned … he was beside himself: “what is going on? what happened?" In the emotion of the moment he felt the match should be replayed. I didn’t want to respond to such a thought so I just handed the phone to our TD, Brad Marts.

EV: Why exactly was Greg so upset? Not because he was upset for Philly? But because people would see the result as dubious?

CJ: Well, he was scared how it would look I suppose.

EV: Right. Of course the main way it looks is hilarious.

CJ: He said something “This is just off the wall, maybe we have to replay this." He was just very concerned. So I handed the phone to our TD -- whom the Commish should be talking to during matches-- not all these players and managers anyway. So our TD explained it very well. He said, “To suggest a replay of the event lends credibility to the idea that something wrong happened and clearly nothing wrong has happened. "

Greg accepted that logic and we quickly moved on.

EV: Nice, very cool and collected of you. Another team would have threatened to withdraw from the league. And then would have been fined.
CJ: Our team is great.. everyone is cooperative and supportive and friendly. I hear so many stories of teams having issues, and in 4 years we have never even had 1 issue I can recall. We just show up and play and have fun.

EV: Want to give a coaches award to an MVP besides Lev? I mean, obviously Lev, but want to single out anyone else?

CJ: Ron Simpson has been great this year. Ron Simpson LOVES chess. Ron is one of those wonderful guys who will sit with anyone and just analyze. Ron is a creative romantic type of player, always trying to create things on the chess board. He obviously is a strong master, but I think he is as interested in creating something attractive as much as he is in winning. A true chess artist. He is super positive ... always thinks he will win, no matter how bad his position might be. Maybe he always finds something good about it to work from .That’s a great attribute.

Ron is from NYC, went to CCNY, is married, lives in Raleigh, works for NOAH (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association), has 2 kids, his older son is a higher level HS basketball player: division one material apparently.

EV: So anything else you want to say?

CJ: The USCL is great. It’s good for American chess promotion, and so we need to see the big picture: it’s most important that the League does well. And so it seems that we should focus on big issues, and not get bogged down in negativity and petty politics of trivial things. And so it’s beneficial if we all work together for that purpose, and getting bogged down in some personal issue or this right or wrong hurts the league and further hurts whatever gripe any given person feels is important at a given time. In my lifetime there have been many sponsors of chess at different levels. At the highest levels Swift Bank, Bessel Kok, Intel and many others even in this country. Erik Anderssen is just one. They were generous, but chess players don’t seem to appreciate that those who write the check usually have the most say. In most other things, any other sport, the participants are always giving huge props to the sponsor, or those that make it happen. They are almost trained to do this it's so regular. But in chess? No. It doesn’t seem so anyway.
You have players telling the sponsors how things will be, and voila! The sponsors grow tired and stop.
So something like the USCL should be appreciated as best as we can. Think about what you say or do for a moment. Of course there are many issues to be improved, but not at the cost of hurting the league. Each year I have written a letter thanking Poker-Stars for their support of this league. I certainly hope every manager does this: it’s the absolute least we can do.


Anonymous said...

You totally dissed the Gladiator.

Anonymous said...

Great job to the Carolina Cobras, very nice, question tho... what ever happened to Timur Aliyev, also what do you think are the chances that Ludwig will take Milmans place next season