16.Oct.2011 Material & Positional Advantage
I am more of a nerd than a jock, so sometimes I wonder to myself, "Why are you so enamored with football?"
Well, the real-life drama is an obvious reason, but equally intriguing is the strategy, or mental component. As an avid chess enthusiast, I see similarities between the two games. This is not surprising, since chess mimics the battlefield and football is often described in tactical and bellicose terms.
Along that line of thought, I'd like to present two concepts from chess relevant to Mike Riley and the way he manages the Oregon State Beavers.
The first concept is "Material Advantage."
In chess, this is simply when a player has (a) more pieces than his opponent or (b) has higher valued pieces than his opponent. Both scenarios present a material advantage, since one player's material (i.e. his pieces) are stronger than his opponent's. For those unfamiliar with chess, there is a scoring system where a pawn is worth 1 point, a knight 3, a bishop 3, and so forth, all the way up to a queen, which is worth 9 points. This is similar to football where the QB would be the most valuable piece.
It is fair to say most opponents have a material advantage over the Beavers. Numerically speaking, they do not have more players, but they do have better players. Some would argue that coaches who allow their QBs to run do have "more pieces" since the (mobile) QB requires a dedicated defender. I'd agree with that. Doesn't it feel like the Beavers have a material disadvantage when they face mobile QBs? That is because they do.
In chess, one way to overcome material disadvantage is through positional advantage. For example, while a pawn is, generally speaking, a weak piece, if it is placed in the center of the board it becomes a pillar. Further, an opponent might have stronger pieces, but if they are trapped behind pawns and cannot break their rank, they are rendered useless. Many master level games are won via nothing more than the position of pawns.
Relating this to Beaver football, it is fair to say Mike Riley is a poor tactician. His weak pieces (e.g. offensive linemen) are used in a manner that exaggerates their weakness. A master tactician would turn the weak piece into a strength. How to do this? Possibly through misdirection, shovel passes, tosses to the edge, pulling a guard, etc. Plays that do not require power or long, sustained blocking. Regarding my second point above about pawns restricting stronger pieces from breaking rank…this relates to the Beavers as well. Markus Wheaton was the best player on the field last Saturday, but his impact was minimal, especially when compared to BYU's (less talented) WR Cody Hoffman. Metaphorically speaking, Wheaton was like a queen trapped behind pawns. Why is this? Well, the chess player (i.e. Danny Langsdorf/Mike Riley) does not understand how to free him.
This brings up another point, which is to discuss strategy versus tactic. In chess, strategy would be the big picture (or game plan). Understanding the opponents tendencies, weaknesses, etc, and formulating a general plan. Tactics are specific, short term attacks aimed at executing the strategy and attaining the end goal. The Beavers play aimless football. It makes me wonder what the big picture strategy is, and we all know about Langsdorf's tactics.
A team like Boise State has a material disadvantage, but what makes Chris Peterson a genius is his understanding of positional advantage. BYU is another great example. And even Oregon, with their undersized offensive line, has a material disadvantage which they overcome. How do these master "chess players" do it?
For insight, read this quote by Grand Master Larry Kaufman:
I would like to make reference to a famous brilliancy by Kasparov against Shirov [DH: see 3rd game on linked page.] played in 1994. I consider it one of the greatest games ever because Kasparov sacrificed (successfully!) a full Exchange (rook for knight) for purely positional compensation. Any strong player would have made the sacrifice if it had been the Exchange for a pawn, since Kasparov was left with markedly better pieces and pawn structure, but it seemed to me (and probably to most other masters) that the compensation would not be worth nearly two pawns.
However, considering the principles of this article, since the queen and the extra pair of rooks remained on the board, and since only two pawns had been exchanged (with no files fully opened), the real value of the rook for knight exchange was only about a pawn and a quarter, and since the positional compensation did appear to be worth more than a pawn, I can now see that the sacrifice was at least reasonable, if not clearly favorable.
You can see Kasparov's brilliant yet unorthodox line of thinking in Chris Peterson, Chip Kelly, and Bronco Mendenhall. Chip Kelly's spacing, read option, punt and field goal formations, rarely conceding 4th downs, etc. Mendenhall putting his TE in motion at the goal line, realizing a defender does not have time to close in that short a distance. Peterson matching up his best players on the opponents' weakest player at all times, and then drilling execution into his players until it becomes their nature, etc.
Kasparov and Bobby Fisher are the two greatest chess players in history, and both had the uncanny ability to understand when to sacrifice material to gain position. The Ruy Lopez is probably the most popular chess opening, but Kasparov preferred the unconventional Indian Defense due to it resulting in an open board that allows for better counter play.
In the Pro Set, Mike Riley and Oregon State run the equivalent of the Ruy Lopez. It is tried and true, but so common (and some would argue dated) that over the years opponents have mastered how to defend it. As I tried to explain above, in games of strategy and tactics, many times the value of a piece either do not matter or can be manipulated via positioning. My opinion is that Oregon State lacks dearly in understanding the rules of leverage, spatial relationships, creatively sacrificing, etc. What makes a chess player brilliant is the same thing that makes a head coach brilliant–understanding leverage, or the worth of material relative to situation, space, and time.
Mike Riley does not understand how to leverage position to increase the value of his players. In other words, he uses his material identically at all times. It is for these reasons more than any others that Mike Riley will never be more than an average coach.