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Analysis Catalysis | Gimme Schalter No. 20

Gimme Schalter
Analysis Catalysis | Gimme Schalter No. 20
By Ty Schalter • Issue #20 • View online
I love sports because they’re infinitely analyzable: from the macro to the micro, from one century to another, from one GPS transceiver to the next. I will spend my entire life watching, studying, chronicling, playing, and analyzing the sports I love and never come close to knowing all there is to know about them.
As a kid, that same depth drew me to chess. So many possibilities and strategies, centuries of knowledge to learn and explore—and, oh yeah, it’s a head-to-head battle of wits. Maybe you got me in dodgeball this morning but you’re mine now, sucker.
But somewhere around junior high, chess lost its appeal. Part of it, if I’m being honest, is that I taught my little brother to play when he was around four—and by the time he turned six he was significantly better than me[1]. It’s hard to feel like an intellectual bully when a kindergartener keeps taking your lunch money.
The 2021 World Chess Championships are being held right now, and their profound failure to be interesting has helped me understand why I liked chess as a kid but never loved it; why I prided myself on my analytical mind, but blanched at memorizing openings and defenses and variants.
Chess, at its highest levels, is now just very fancy tic-tac-toe: the only way to lose is to make a mistake. The world’s top players avoid mistakes by memorizing every possible move, counter-move, variant, and permutation before they show up to play. Nobody has actually won a world-championships match in regulation since Obama was president.
Two humans killing a few hours by slowly replicating computer-perfected strategies until they inevitably agree to call it a draw could not be any less interesting to me:

It turns out I also love sports because they defy analysis.
A smart football coach can draw up a novel interaction of Xs and Os that gives their team a decided schematic advantage–but sometimes, an X just kicks an O’s ass.
How much more interesting would chess be if a knight could just ball out and jump twice in one move? If a light-squared bishop could make a play and capture a piece on a dark square? What if a queen could take over a match, and simply refuse to let her team lose?
Sorry, Magnus–you made all the right calls, but Nepomniachtchi’s pawns just wanted it more today.
Of course, as I say this, I’m using the same words as everyone who belittles nerds like me who meaningfully contribute to the game. It’s an exhausting (and, broadly, exhausted) “debate” that still manages to rope in very smart people.
For instance, NFL offensive lineman Mitchell Schwartz and The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin (and go ahead and expand out both these tweets into their respective threads):
Mitchell Schwartz
Being physically dominant (imposing your will, breaking their will, etc) is real and has an impact. It’s literally animalistic behavior at its core. Demonstrative performance breeds confidence and success, which again is at the core of football’s mental principles. (3/x)
Computer Cowboy
We should take players at their word about how certain facets of the game make them feel

We should *not* take them at their word about the extent to which this translates to something measureable: wins and losses
Football is an emotional, physical, violent game where the mentality of the players on the field dramatically impacts results. The game fundamentally works on a caveman level. But football also produces a wealth of objective data to sort through and learn from, and applying that knowledge does translate into better on-field outcomes. Two things can be true!
And that’s what I’m looking for as an analyst, journalist, and columnist: the truth. Whether I’m sifting through spreadsheets, interviewing players and coaches, or watching games, I’m trying to find out what’s really happening.
I feel the same rush of discovery whether I see something in the game that makes me run the numbers (like the 2019 Packers consistently jumping out to big leads and then losing close games), or something I see in the numbers makes me go back and watch film (like Tua Tagovailoa cracking the top five in many passing metrics in fourth quarters and overtimes this season). So any time anyone declares information (“analytics”) or intuition (“your gut”) a inferior lens through which to view sports, know that person’s watching the game with one eye closed.
But even with both eyes wide open, athletic competition can always show you surprising and delightful things. And that’s why I keep watching.
  1. When he was in fifth grade my brother placed No. 1 overall out of 416 players in the 8th-grade-and-under division, U1000 section, in a quadrennial megatournament called the Supernationals. But he quit the game shortly afterward, for some of the same reasons I did: Chess as an intuitive, interactive, competitive mental puzzle was fascinating; chess as an exercise in disciplined memorization and recall was not.
Everything Awesome
Regular readers know I struggle with religion, both internally and externally. But literary agent Hannah Bowman is one of a few people whose public faith practice makes me think, “that is the kind of Christian I want to be.”
As a child, I struggled with the obvious disconnect between what Jesus preached and what most Christians seemed to practice. As an adult, it’s the other way around: I fall so short of Christ’s radical love and selflessness that I don’t feel worthy to claim his name as a label for myself.
Maybe “advent” doesn’t mean anything to you–or “Christmas,” for that matter. Even so, I think this meditation on accepting and sheltering all of our neighbors will be worth your time.
The Cowboys beat the Saints on Thursday night–so far, so good.
NFL on CBS 🏈
We've identified a path to the playoffs for the 0-10-1 Lions ⬇️
I’m sorry, this one might be paywalled for non-subscribers? But it’s absolutely fantastic: The Pontiac, MI freshman basketball team made a group Snapchat–and accidentally invited Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who’s originally from Macomb.
Murphy-Bunting went live on camera from the locker room, had teammates from Rob Gronkowski to Lavonte David say hi, and eventually handed his phone off to Leonard Fournette, who tracked down Tom Brady and got him on camera, too. How cool of Murphy-Bunting–and how cool for those kids.
The explosion of tabletop roleplaying games among young creatives has also fostered an explosion of creative dice–and this set of clear dice containing orange, liquid, glitter-and-star-filled Dragon Ball spheres is just spectacularly creative.
Again, sadly, TikTok videos aren’t cleanly embeddable here. But trust me when I say watching Cassiopeia Dice make these gorgeous, turbo-nerd objet d'art from scratch is more than worth a click (and here’s one without the glitter, so the stars are more visible).
I logarithmically won NaNoWriMo!
Just one. zero. short.
Just one. zero. short.
Of course, any number of words is a win–and the vast majority of those words were written in the last week. I’ve got really good momentum, and the world and characters are starting to feel real to me. I should have much more progress to report next week.
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Ty Schalter

The latest thoughts, hottest takes, and coolest work of Ty Schalter, a professional writer & talker (@FiveThirtyEight, @ThreeOutPod). Lots of sports, geeky stuff, social commentary and more.

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