VB: Sure - I'm free for a while
EV: Excellent. You can refuse to answer questions if you want. Also I might combine some answers, if my questioning gets too random. But you get to edit it.
VB: This must be like a Sarah Palin campaign stop.
EV: As in highly scripted? What can you see from your window?
VB: No, in that I’ve got a lifeline. “I'll have to get back to ya!"
EV: You will have to send me an attractive picture of you with a bewitching smile and rimless glasses. In a purple suit.
VB: That'll be tough, but I can try.
EV: Let’s start with a question like.... do you think you play better in the USCL than regularly, and if so, do you attribute it to:
a) the motivation of playing on a team
b) playing better on a computer
c) being good at hyping yourself up or preparing for a single game
or d) something else?
All the questions will be multiple choice by the way. That’s my new preferred interview format. Takes the guessing out of it.
VB: Ok - I'd say that objectively, my play is worse in the USCL than it is in regular tournaments. I'd say most people play a bit worse in the USCL than they do in person, but that the drop is different for different people. My play doesn't drop quite as much, and I think it's because of some of the things you mentioned…So I suck at playing directly on the computer, which is why I have to set up a board, a clock, and scoresheet and pretend that it's a serious game, where my opponent just is walking around the whole time. I think I'm better at blitz in person than on ICC.
It certainly helps there's only one game per day, and matchups go up, so you can prepare a little bit. I think I do better at one game a day than two games.
EV: Do you think the team aspect motivates you? Or most chessplayers are plenty motivated anyway?
VB: I hope they're motivated already. But it's a little extra responsibility I think.
If I lose, I feel bad for myself, but also to all my teammates, so I definitely want to do well. Sometimes at the end of a tourney, you're just going through the motions to finish. You're not really in contention for anything. Here, it's a new match week to week, so you're always playing for something, either for yourself, or the team.
EV: So the Mechanics seem v strong, almost like they can't not win the western division. Agree?
VB: Agreed =) … well… I think the West is a bit stronger top to bottom than it may have been earlier (Arizona is solid, Seattle added Naka, etc). It's not a cakewalk to come out of the West: I think Dallas will be a real tough test, and who I would expect to play in the conference finals.
EV: But really the question here is what would have to happen for SF not to win the finals?
VB: For us not to win the finals? We could run into a buzzsaw like Queens, or a hot Boston team.
EV: By “a hot Boston team,” would you be referring to anyone in particular?
VB: I don't think they're quite as good as Queens right now, but Boston can put together a strong lineup if Larry and Jorge are in form and Esserman keeps playing like he's a 2600. Then that's a pretty damn good 1-3. Krasik is relatively weak at 4. But ok, he can play a bit, and they'll be doing well on the top 3.
EV: So you think its between SF and Dallas for the west, edge to SF, and between Queens and Boston for the east, edge to Queens?
VB: I'd probably say New Jersey is pretty strong too. They've got Andrew Ng at 1985 for the rating cap, but he's 200 pts stronger now, which means they can play 2 GMs (Benjamin + Gulko) and Ippolito. It’s not quite as strong as Boston, I think, but given some favorable colors, they can go to work. Queens has to be the favorite right now: they have a perfect record and they can play Vovsha on board 3 pretty easily
EV: Wow, you are a very knowledgeable USCL handicapper. Do you make secret weekly predictions?
VB: I looked up the team rosters just now =) Nope, to be perfectly honest, I just asked Shankland who he's playing tomorrow, and he's on my team, in our match.
EV: So what's your on-the-spot forecast for San Fran – Arizona and New York- Seattle tomorrow?
VB: Well, I did say the harder you fall, the higher you bounce (in my write-up about the Boston match) so I'll go with 3-1 for SF.
And Hikaru is playing right? I'll go with Seattle, 2.5-1.5
EV: Yeah, and most of the NY team is in China* or having a life crisis at the stock exchange.
VB: A good chunk of the SF team is going to China too ... I took one for the team and declined an all expenses paid trip. Somehow I got suckered into that decision…
EV: Slow down there.... you declined China to play for the Mechanics? I don’t believe you.
VB: : Haha, I turned it down, but not because of the team commitment … but the same issues apply to our team - Josh and David will be in China and Patrick works for a hedge fund, so times are tough all around. As a side note, I’ll mention that Patrick’s hedge fund is one of the very few that have been up over this year. Most funds are down about 20 to 30% from what I’ve read, whereas his is up more than 25%.
EV: Why did you turn the China trip down?
VB: Well, I guess it's a long story. The invitation was some time back when I didn't believe that a lot of stronger players were going to play (they had passed over almost the entire top 20 in the US by that time, I think). I was already playing a rapid event in Mainz, and felt I could better use the time to play a serious event. A rated event, that is. But I think it was more skepticism that it'd be that strong. Maybe if I knew Topalov, et al. were playing, I'd have been more interested.
EV: How much has it changed your life?
VB: Haha, quite a bit . I was working, for about 2 years, at an economic consulting firm in the Bay Area. So I quit my job, and now I just try to study chess. Even though I was playing a lot when I was younger, I never was anything close to full-time, so it's a very different experience for me - in the short-term, in that I'm not working 60 hours a week on cases with teams, but also long-term in that I pretty much stopped playing when I was at Berkeley for 4 years, and only played about 3 tourneys a year while working.
EV: Did you hate your job?
VB: No - there were good and bad things for sure, but the people were great (I still go by to have lunch or talk with people at least once a week). The hours were tough at times. I spent 35 hours in a row at the office earlier this year, came home to shower and change and that was my 30 min break.
EV: I guess what the question was trying to get at was "Did you apply for the Samford and quit your job because it wasn’t for you or because you were inescapably drawn to chess?”
VB: More because I couldn't let the chance pass me by. I had never done chess full-time, and this was my last year of eligibility. I had to apply, or else I'd have been kicking myself forever. If I hadn't gotten the Samford, I'd most likely still be at the same job.
EV: And what's your daily life like now?
VB: I get to wake up a bit later, I usually do some chess study in the afternoons.
Maybe average 4 hours or so a day? I work on occasion with Josh Friedel and David Pruess, two previous Samford winners who are in the area.
EV: If you had to describe the chess studying styles of David Pruess and Josh Friedel in five words each or less, what would they be?
VB: The studying styles? David is pretty principled, in that he looks at a position and decides what its demands are, and if his/our assessment doesn’t meet those perceived demands, he has to figure out why. So we can spend an hour on a position where maybe 2 of the 3 are certain of one assessment, but he wants to keep looking to make sure that this is really the case.
EV: Very nice. He's like the policeman in the group, the Policeman of Truth. And Josh?
VB: Josh? I have no clue what his style is. Largely, he just tools around, manages to get to a position or structure he can recognize, throws his hands up and says “White’s better” or “Black’s better” and leaves it at that. I think I learn more from him that he does from me. He probably "understands" chess better than me right now.
EV: What do the quote marks mean?
VB: It's like Morozevich said, nobody really understands chess completely. Everybody has their own understanding.
Josh has studied more than me (he’s had a year headstart on the Samford), and so he will have seen more games, more structures, etc. For me, often when I see a position, I go in with no preconceived ideas, no accumulated knowledge about those types of structures, and so I have to spend more time thinking about things, whereas he already knows what's going on.
EV: Do you have a good memory?
VB: I think my memory is pretty good, but not so for chess or for a chess player,
and I think that's partly because I've never focused on it so much. Kaidanov, who I once took lessons from, remarked that my memory was one of the worst he had seen.
It was strange, I looked at a couple games from Miami with Friedel and Alan Stein last week, and it was amusing, I couldn't remember one of the games for the life of me. I could figure out the first 15 moves or so, but then it was all a blur until move 40.
EV: And have you noticed it being better or worse than other peoples in non chess ways?
VB: I think it's better in other areas, like I still remember a decent portion of chemistry, biology, physics, history, etc. Stuff that I almost never use …
EV: Ok, back to the Samford for a moment, in the larger sense, what you want to do with the two years? What are the goals?
VB: Oof, that's a tough one. Well - for the next two years, I'd say my biggest goal is simply to get better at chess. There are intermediate goals of course, like I hit 2500 FIDE in my first tournament back this summer, so I should have the GM title soon, but the big goal is simply to get better at the end of this first year, and then at the 2nd to figure out whether I still love chess enough to do it full time.
EV: So is the idea potentially to become a professional player, someone who’s strong enough to sustain a career in chess after the Samford?
VB: Yeah, that's definitely looming. It's one thing to play chess as a hobby, which is more of what I've done for my life; it's another to do it day in and day out. Both my desire and level will let me know whether I can keep doing it after the fellowship runs out.
EV: But you are hoping for that? Or it’s unclear?
VB: Yeah, it'd be nice if it works out for me. Most people don't get to do this sort of thing as a full time job. I mean, I think it's possible my first dream would've been to be a professional baseball player, but that ain't happening. And chess isn't behind that anymore =)
EV: How close did you come?
VB: I played little league.
EV: Pretty close then.
Next question: imagine yourself looking back on your life when you are 70, making a list of the most meaningful events, the events that had the greatest impact on your life. Would you expect winning the Samford to be top 5?
And the follow-up question is “Top 10?”
VB: Top 5? Very tough - if I do it full time, then almost certainly; if not, borderline. But top 10, for sure.
EV: Great. So back to the USCL: which was your all-time most memorable game?
VB: Probably the game with Hikaru last year is the most memorable, although it certainly wasn't the best game I've played. Maybe the game as white against Orlov in 2006 was my best game from that standpoint in the league. But too many people watch Hikaru's games online for that not to be the most memorable. GZA the Genius of the Wu-Tang said this about 51…g5? instead of 51…Kg8! in that game:
“He pushed his pawn up, yo that's a wrong move
A hog move, some rap cat on dog food”
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself – I remember lyrics much better than chess theory.
EV: Do you have a favorite opponent, either someone you win against or someone you have great games with? Either USCL or not?
VB: Not really. I don't think I've played anyone often enough to develop that sort of rivalry. In the league, Miami and Dallas have historically been our strongest opponents, so the pressure might get ratcheted up a notch when you play them.
EV: Don’t you wish you had a nemesis?
VB: Haha, I don't lose any sleep over it. I haven’t come close to making a diss track like Braden Bournival.
EV: There is a great Chuck Klostermann essay about the usefulness of nemesi.
VB: Kuljasevic has beaten me twice, so I guess he's there, but I don't really see him as a nemesis. He's more of a friend who happens to have beaten me twice.
EV: Yeah to make a nemesis you need either a bar brawl or a woman in common.
Tell me a little about the mechanics as a team: preparation, atmosphere at matches, interpersonal dynamics, who chooses the lineup and how, all that stuff.
VB: Hmm, I think John's leadership as team captain makes it much closer to a professional team. It helps to have someone who has led teams at the highest levels. So he's the ultimate authority on lineups, although he gets input from everyone. If there's a disagreement though, the buck stops with him.
I think some people overemphasize our preparation - like last week, I don't think the team did their preparation together, so I'm not sure where Sam came up with this Qe2 move against Esserman.
EV: Has the buck ever stopped at John in any dramatic way?
VB: If by dramatic you mean, he explained his point of view and nobody replied, then yes. =)
EV: Silence can be deafening.
VB: Actually, this past week, it was decided by a one-handed pushup contest. Sam didn’t really want to play, but he challenged John to see who could do more one-handed pushups. Sam did 3 and was quite sure he would win, but then John did 4 and Sam had to give in. True story, scout’s honor.
But there are 2 ways of looking at the lineup creation: (1) try to put the best lineup out there every time to win and (2) try to spread the number of games out amongst the entire roster to get everybody involved. It's nice when (1) and (2) line up, but sometimes incentives don't align perfectly. But I wouldn't say there've been any heated arguments about the lineups.
EV: Which would you say SF leans towards, and which would you personally favor?
VB: Number 1 is what we go for, and I think that's the right decision. But I certainly understand #2.
In terms of team dynamics, it helps that everyone on the team gets along with each other. And since David, Sam, Josh, Donaldson, and I all live reasonably close to Berkeley we can meet up every so often, just to talk, have a meal, etc
E: Who this year has had the best performance?
VB: Patrick and Josh probably: both are undefeated while playing against the strongest players, and they haven't really been in a lot of trouble either.
Patrick has made it look pretty easy actually. His game against Kudrin was rather amusing. I was at the club that day watching, and he came in a few minutes late (market troubles, newborn child) with a big packet of market research material. He sat down to play, got up pretty often to talk to me about the market, read his papers, and held a draw with black in 20 moves against a 2600. Admittedly, his game against Zivanic was not quite as clean, but it was still an interesting game with some remarkable ideas. We’ve got some serious financial minds associated with the team – Patrick at a hedge fund, Vladimir Naroditsky (Danya’s father) travels the globe for Vega Capital, etc. I’m the lowly patzer of the group.Oh yeah, and Josh has played well, although he pretends to take it more seriously. So he's not walking around talking about the latest market news, but he's played quite well.
EV: My blog readers are terribly political. Any thoughts for them on American democracy? Or your expert opinion on the financial crisis?
VB: Pay attention, else the perfect blend of confidence and ignorance, e.g. Sarah Palin, could be a heartbeat away from becoming president? I don’t think Obama is the perfect candidate, but I question McCain much more.
As for the financial crisis, I'm not sure the bailout as currently presented is the panacea given the failures that have already occurred. It'll solve some stuff, but I think it saddles the public with too many mistakes. In my view, you can’t trumpet capitalism when there are profits and then socialize losses in this fashion.
Morgan Stanley, Goldman, and JPMorgan raised about $30 billion in capital over the past week. They’ll survive. There’s a problem for sure, but the government blindly throwing money at it isn’t the answer in my view.
EV: "They are all f*&king pigs"?
VB: Heh, not quite. But for example, the CEO pay issue is largely after the fact: most of the CEOs who presided over all this toxic debt have left already with big severance packages. It is nice that they're going to stipulate something for current CEOs of these companies, but it's a bit late in the game.
EV: It’s a shame we can't just kill some people. We might all feel a lot better then.
VB: I'm not sure that's the solution either. =) But I'm hoping the government makes a profit on this like they did with the Mexican bailout in the 1990s.
EV: What would you do, if you were the Leader?
VB: Recapitalizing is the key, but not by paying above market prices for bad debt. So it's fine to give them money ($700 billion might well be too much, and actually, the Treasury Dep’t spokesperson admitted there is no rhyme or reason for that number, they just wanted to pick “a really big number”), but there should be some stake for the government in the upside. Some warrants, for example, could be a start.
EV: What is recaptitalizing?
VB: Essentially giving the banks more money, so that they can lend it out (ostensibly in a more prudent manner). So there could be an exchange of bonds for stock. This would essentially give the public a stake in the future upside of the companies in trouble. The current plan gives the banks money, but it does so by almost forcing the government to overpay for a whole host of bad debt instruments.
EV: Nice. Ok then, is there anything else we should discuss? Anything you wish to communicate to the USCL fans?
VB: Heh, I swear I don't purposely try to get 1 minute left on my clock, despite my teammates' and others' opinions on the matter.