Thursday, January 17, 2013

Greatness in Our Midst: Lionel Messi and Magnus Carlsen

I have a particular fascination with transcendent greatness, especially, but not only, within artistic realms. And I frequently find myself whining or pining over the relative scarcity of contemporary exemplars of such.

But just because I can’t cite a painter like Picasso, a saxophonist like John Coltrane or a cartoonist like Charles Schultz who exists within our midst, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t prime paragons of greatness, even genius, to be acknowledged and appreciated.

Last weekend, football fans got to watch two of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived—Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—and perhaps the greatest linebacker, Ray Lewis (though I can't really say I admire him). This coming weekend, Brady and Lewis will square off.

In basketball, Lebron James--who just became the youngest player ever to amass 20,000 NBA points--and Kobe Bryant--who had held that mark and is poised to become the NBA's 4th all-time leading scorer this season--continue to play at historic levels.

But the purpose of this post is to focus your attention—and more of mine—on the superhuman accomplishments of Lionel Messi and Magnus Carlsen. At the age of 25 and 22, respectively, both have achieved transcendent greatness. And then some.

Photo credit: Christopher Johnson, Wikipedia
If you’re already well aware of both these men, you can probably stop reading here. I am admittedly not enough an aficionado of either of their realms—soccer for Messi, chess for Carlsen—to tell you anything much beyond what can be read on Wikipedia (Messi; Carlsen).

So yes, this brief tribute will be somewhat cursory in nature, but at a time when I whine and pine over a scarcity of true virtuosity (of recent vintage), it seems proper to expand my purview.

Lionel Messi is an Argentinean who has been playing top-level professional soccer for Barcelona since 2004 (when he was 17). For the past four years, he has won the Ballon d’Or, which honors the best “football” player in the world. In 2010, France Football’s Ballon d’Or (recognizing the European player of the year) and FIFA’s World Player of the Year merged into one award, but no previous player had earned either (or both) "player of the year" awards for more than 3 different years.

Messi has now been named the best player of the year for 4 straight years, and was the runner up for FIFA’s World Player of the Year the two prior.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about soccer to tell you what makes Messi so great, other than that he scores more than anyone else. Historically so. In the calendar year 2012, Messi scored 91 goals (including within La Liga (Spanish league) and Champions League games, as well as those played for Argentina), shattering the record of 85 that had stood for 40 years).

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see all 91 of his goals from 2012—including 2 or 3 from the same game, several times—here (my favorite is goal #51):

And as this Bleacher Report article shares, Messi also gets more assists than almost anyone else. Though I know soccer can't be directly compared to hockey, I believe that's what made Wayne Gretzky so transcendent. Not just his ability to score goals, but to set up many, many more goals with his phenomenal passing ability.

I asked a friend who's an avid soccer fan what makes Messi so good. He couldn't cite any one specific thing, saying that Messi has phenomenal footwork and dribbling ability, but that so do a lot of guys who don't achieve as much. And though that Messi is a "once in a generation player" who outclasses--on the pitch and off--recent superstars like Ronaldinho, Zidane and Ronaldo, one shouldn't minimize the boost he gets from playing for Barcelona, which is consistently among the very best teams in the world.

I don’t pretend to have the perspective to intelligently suggest where Messi might place among the all-time best—Pele, Diego Maradona and Zidane being some names typically cited as such. My soccer fanatic friends are convinced that Messi has put himself into the “best ever” conversation, but articles I’ve read—including this one—seem to suggest that unless, or until, he wins a World Cup with Argentina, that will be held against him.

Barring injury he’ll have that chance in 2014, when the next World Cup is held in Brazil. But although his presence may make Argentina a legitimate contender, I don’t think many will be surprised if they don’t win.

I’ll leave Messi’s historical stature for others to argue. All I know is that what he has done, steadily now for 5+ years, has been astonishing, unprecedented and worthy of attention, no matter how much or how little, you (or I) may care about 'football.'

And even in America, I’d have to assume Messi is a household name compared to Magnus Carlsen.

I likely only know who Carlsen is due to a 60 Minutes piece (click here to see it) that called him “The Mozart of Chess.” But although I have never been much of a chess player, much less a student of the game, it is an arena that fascinates me. Chess, at the level that the best players play it, seems to combine scientific and artistic genius in ways that few other activities do.

And although it’s hard to imagine being as good as Tom Brady or Lebron or Tiger, it’s much much harder to imagine being as good as Magnus Carlsen.

Don’t ask me for the details—I know less about chess than I do about soccer—but chess players have their prowess compared according to rating system utilized by FIDE, the world chess federation. According to Wikipedia, as of November 2012, 809 chess players in the world have a rating above 2,500. Virtually of these, and others, have earned the title International Grandmaster, of which 1,380 now exist.

Any of these Grandmasters could likely play and win 20 simultaneous games against skilled recreational players, without looking at the boards. Yet from what I understand, only about 10 of them would have any chance of beating Carlsen—at least over a series of games—who at 22 has a FIDE rating of 2861, the highest ever.

Carlsen, a Norwegian, is not the World Chess Champion as he’s never played for the title (currently held by Viswanathan Anand, who he played to a draw just today in the Tata Steel Chess Tournament), but in December won the London Chess Classic for the 3rd time in the last 4 years. This is what boosted his rating to 2861, besting that of longtime champion Garry Kasparov, who many experts consider the greatest chess player of all-time.

Again, I have no idea if Carlsen is—or ever will be—better than Kasparov or Bobby Fischer. Or why.

But like Messi, for him to even be in that conversation at such a young age, means that he is doing something transcendent.

No, a brilliant chess player or even soccer player, does not brighten my existence the way a truly outstanding rock band or composer or comedian might.

But it is nice to know that there is still newfound greatness to be newly found—and celebrated—especially when from all I've gleaned, Messi and Carlsen seem to be good guys. Unlike some who are dominating the headlines these days.

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