Basketball and the Night Watch.
All games, including the game of life, are ultimately chess games. The problem is in basketball, as well as life, most people are playing checkers. Some people don't even know the rules of checkers. Relationships are usually the highest form of chess. My wife and I always were playing checkers though. When the game got overly complicated, she pretended to spill her wine and while I was getting some paper towels, she flipped the game board over. The sad thing was that the game didn't just come to a sudden end though. It didn't even end when she died of cancer eleven years later; I just started playing both sides of the board.
Even games as simple as tic-tac-toe have deeper levels of significance. Regular tic-tac-toe is a simple game of position, and if both players are aware of the basic strategy of how not to get beat, most games should end in a draw. In order to gain victory in such a game you need to play against someone who is not overly bright or come up with some kind of random, outside-the-box thinking like telling your opponent to 'look over there!' and marking a square when they turn around and look. I remember once reading about how a Japanese master swordsman (the guy in The Five Rings), when meeting a very dangerous rival, showed up an hour late carrying a wooden sword. The strategy worked.
I sometimes resorted to such tactics. When I was coaching JV boys, we once came out to warm-up to Wagner's Die Valkyrie, with all of it's militaristic overtones. Another time, my girls came out to the blaring bag-pipes of a Scottish battle song, and, in another important game, the girls didn't take the court until right before the game started, having warmed up in our small gym and entering the locker room through a side-door. I did all of those type of things more to pump up our girls rather than as some psychological ploy to knock the other team off balance. I wasn't really sure what effect it would have, if any, upon the other team, and I only wanted to use things I knew that would reward the effort made. After that, we did, however, start warming-up in the small gym for all of our really important games, not only to get the girls psyched up, but also getting some extra shooting in and going over the changes that we planned to use against the particular opponent, you know, tangible stuff.
As a scout, I see an awful lot of high school games, and I'm noticing there seems to be a lot more coaches nowadays playing checkers, who, in turn, produce a lot of checker playing players instead of players who are capable of understanding the parallels between basketball and chess. I see a lot of girl's games where the coaches just let the girls do whatever they feel like doing, sometimes producing baskets and steals, but more often than not, producing misses, turn-overs, and hard-to-watch basketball
I watched a boys' game recently. The team that won is almost assured of finishing with at least twenty wins. The team has some good players with two bigs, in particular, who should be able to play after high school. Their opponents were much shorter and pretty much out-manned from the start, but after half time, the losing team, being considerably behind, came out and started trapping everything. It was a good decision on the coach's part as he had a couple of hot shooting guards who needed to get more engaged. The other team got sucked into a track meet and a pace that worked to their disadvantage. I figure that the coach was probably thinking that he had players who could handle the ball and shoot as well as the other team. He was probably right too. The thing that he didn't seem to grasp was although he had shooters too, he also had the bigs and the other team didn't. That meant what he should have done is slowed the pace and rammed the ball inside to draw fouls which would have left his team in control of the clock. They eked out a close win in a game that shouldn't have been close at all. Getting sucked up into a guard orientated running game when you have the clear advantage inside is like playing the hard ways on a crap table. There's a reason they're called the hard ways. It looks cool when they hit and you get to yell a lot, but the people who know how to take advantage of the odds on a craps table ain't making those bets, they're for the drunken tourist crowd.
I saw another game recently where two top-ranked girls' teams were playing. The visiting team's strength was predicated on their stifling full court press. The home team had obviously been experiencing some success versus that type of press by placing their big under their own basket, letting their guards break the press, then attacking the basket and passing to the big for an easy lay-up. The problem was it wasn't working against that pressing team though, and the guards kept turning the ball over for easy scores at the other end. I had just seen another team play against this same press by placing their big in the middle at half court, and they had no problem getting the ball into the middle, diving their wings toward the basket and scoring lay-ups against it. The lesson to be learned evidently was that what works against one team doesn't always work against another team. That's a chess lesson right there. I didn't stick around after half-time to see if the home team's coach ever decided to abandon the checkers strategy and move to capture the center of the board like real chess players are taught to do.
The big problem when you have coaches who only teach the basic skills like shooting, making lay-ups, or ball handling and who use the same offense and defense game-in and game-out, is that they will never learn the importance of taking calculated risks to see if their ideas work or not. If they do, you add them to your bag of tricks; if they don't, you try something different. That way you learn not only to be prepared for most events, but it also teaches you how to teach your players how to think about what they are doing on the basketball court. Teaching kids how to handle the ball and make lay-ups is a checkers skill; teaching them how and when to use a first step move in order to draw a foul is a chess move. Teaching them how to pass into the post is checkers; teaching them how and why to screen the middle defender in order to breakdown 2-3 zones from the inside out is something that is borrowed from chess, a much neglected chess skill I should add.
I remember years ago watching Marvin Welch, the legendary Woodlake coach, place two rebounders on the weak-side boards. I had also read a study back then that stated that 70% of all rebounds taken from one side, end-up coming off the weak side glass. So, doubling up the weak-side boards is a chess move, not doing it, is playing checkers. When you're on defense, teaching your players where to go on 3 pt. shots from the wings and teaching them to treat every shot as a miss and an opportunity for a rebound is a chess move; having them figure out on their own which shots need to be rebounded and which ones don't, is playing checkers, and playing checkers badly at that.
Most of the girls playing for us now have never been taught about the importance of controlling the pace of the game (chess move) so that the the flow of the game matches what they do on offense. That is just a smart thing to do; playing at pace dictated by your opponent is not. One of the ways to control pace is to teach your players how to set their defender up for a blow-by and attacking the rim to draw fouls. However, we have shot the three so well that we have won 90% of our games without making much of a concerted effort in getting to foul line. It's that 10% of our games though that will decide if we make it back to the Final Eight. Depending on your three point shooting when your threes aren't falling in a big game is the basketball equivalent of praying for success to an idol made of bricks. A cheesy analogy I know, but you get the picture. One way you hope that your shots start falling, sometimes it works, and then there's the other way, where you take active steps to keep the odds working in your favor.
I once went to a boy's practice where the head coach had been the assistant at one of the best teams in the history of the section. When I walked in, they were running the very first zone offense I had ever been taught when I was coaching the B team boys at a junior high school, a simple overload where the high post slides low on a pass into the corner. I didn't walk away thinking that, "Damn, that Coach is a checker playing fool right there." What I did learn that day is that many times, keeping things simple is the chess move.
Everything we do in life takes place in an infinite universe. That pretty much means that whatever we do has a damn near infinite variety of interpretations. Someone could do something that, on the surface, looks totally stupid and still have it work because of the time and situation. The first basketball lesson I ever learned about this subject was when I followed an old Chuck Daley aphorism, "Sometimes not to guard is to guard," and left a shooter wide open in the corner in order to sandwich a post-player who had killed us the game before. It worked then, and it's worked several times since. I used to have a weak-side double stack where I would a wing around the stack and out to the corner. I always marveled at how many times the coach, and often the fans too, would yell for the bottom zone defender to get out on the 'shooter' in the corner and leave the section's leading scorer alone on the baseline coming off a screen.
To tell the truth, I've never really been all that great a chess player. My only claim to fame in that regard was when I once beat a guy who had beaten me regularly for years by sacrificing my queen knowing that if I made it look like I had made a mistake, he would jump on it without remembering that his rook was the only thing preventing me from checking him two moves. I won't even pretend that I know all that of the chess moves that there are available in basketball. Hell, like I said, they are pretty much unlimited.
I do know that there aren't that many people who would argue against the logic of knowing that basketball coaches who understand that there is a chess gaming going on at all times have a very distinct edge over those who don't. And it only goes to say, that players who have been taught how to think that basketball is a chess game will usually prevail over the likes of those who only know how to dribble fast and shoot every time they have the ball regardless of whether they can shoot or not. Like I said, I don't know most of the chess moves, but I can recognize them when I see them, and I appreciate them greatly, and that goes double when they are done in the game of life and the game of love. You really have to admire those people who know what they are doing.
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