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    Thursday
    Jan132011

    A Tal Tale

    Alas, so far it is only being told in German. Lubosh Kavalek writes about a new book on the great Mikhail Tal, written by GM Karsten Müller and Raymond Stolze, with contributions (or at least extended quotations and/or analyses) from Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, Vladimir Kramnik, Robert Hübner and Artur Yusupov. Those who are friends of Müller's or know the Edition Olms people should harrass them as soon and as much as possible to get this book out in an English translation. (Meanwhile, I may have to brush up on my German!)

    Wednesday
    Jan122011

    My Response to Mackenzie's Reply

    In the previous post, I critiqued Dana Mackenzie's claim that opening theory is a "scam" for those under 2400. In brief, my critique was two-fold: First, it seemed to me that on a surface reading, his claim was more or less refuted by the next three statements of his "opening philosophy"; namely, that one should do one's own opening analysis, make the opponent think for himself, and look for good developing moves that are less popular than the main line. Second, I suggested that if what he really meant was that one should reject was not opening theory and study per se, but the opening materials published by professional players, he was misguided on this count as well. Taking the lone wolf approach is a foolish approach that only deprives an individual of great opportunities to learn.

    Mackenzie has since responded, and it helpfully clarifies some points and addresses part of my argument. It seems to leave other parts unaddressed, and I'm less than fully convinced by parts of his rebuttal. Let's start with a quick summary of his reply.

    First, he distinguishes opening theory and Opening Theory. The first is the body of work an individual studies and creates on his own, while the latter comprises the ultra-main lines that form super-GM practice. Mackenzie is all in favor of the former (that's the non-"scam" opening theory) and wholly against the latter. (That's the "scammy" stuff, though Mackenzie notes that he doesn't mean to imply malicious intent on the part of GM authors. This is good, but it would have been better not to use the word "scam" in the first place.) Opening Theory, as opposed to opening theory, is simply a waste of time.

    This, as he notes, is essentially a clarification aimed at my first (less serious) objection, and - as he also notes - is similar to how I interpreted his real meaning. I'm sympathetic to what he says here, but I have two comments: one terminological, the other substantive.

    The terminological point is this: it would be more useful to reserve the label "opening theory" for anything having to do with the study of openings, and then refer to particular approaches with adjectives. We need a term that refers to both "opening theory" and "Opening Theory" (in his senses), after all - I'll explain why in the next paragraph. So I propose that we use "opening theory" in this generic way - which is how it is used by most people most of the time in any case - and rename is lower-case version "personal opening theory" and the upper-case version "GM opening theory".

    The substantive point is that this is a pretty blatant false dilemma. There are books on the Najdorf and the Semi-Slav, but they make up only a tiny closet in the mansion that is opening publishing. Books on secondary openings and secondary lines in mainstream openings positively abound; indeed, it's a flourishing cottage industry. (Frankly, if anything is a literal scam in chess publishing, it's books that advocate trappy, second-rate openings. Books come out advocating sidelines no one would notice or care about, get-rich-quick amateurs buy them and use the tricks, then their opponents buy them and/or run their engines to figure out how to neutralize them, and then the lines disappear - just in time for the next volume of tricky, junky sidelines to hit the presses.) Relatively few opening books are aimed primarily at an elite level: there are Boris Avrukh's volumes, and...well, I'll get back to you on this. Of course some books are more sophisticated than others, but my experience is that most opening books are pitched to be useful to players over 1800-1900.

    Now to the meat. Mackenzie's reply to my defense of studying others' work has two parts. In the first part he addresses what I wrote, and in the second he elaborates on his preferred approach. In addressing my post, he writes the following:

    He writes about how he was able to improve rapidly past the expert stage when he started reading and absorbing a lot of mainstream theory and grandmaster games. Other players, he says, scoffed at him as a “book” player, but he argues that this is what helped him improve and leave those players behind. He also cites the example of Bobby Fischer, who was a notorious theory hound and voracious reader.

    I can’t really criticize this, because it’s written from the heart and from personal experience. Dennis truly means to defend Opening Theory, sanctified and canonized by grandmaster practice. He does not want you to play second-best moves, offbeat lines, etc. Most importantly, he argues that you should not spurn the opportunity to learn from stronger players who have written thoughtful books.

    Several points in reply. First, a clarification. As I noted in the original post, I really didn't know that much theory, except relative to my fellow experts. But by being exposed to a lot of theory and grandmaster play, I learned how to play more kinds of positions than they did, and became a better all-around player. If anyone was a specialist back then, it was my opponents in their crazy homemade sidelines.

    Second, I didn't defend Opening Theory, not as he seems to be using the term. I played some absolute main lines back then (some ultra-sharp Najdorfs, for example), but I played some secondary lines of main openings, some secondary openings and even some junk. I experimented with all kinds of openings: normal ones, gambits, positional oddities - whatever caught my eye.

    In turning to his preferred approach, he writes that his "emphasizes creative thinking above all." But I think this is a confusion, at least to the extent that he's trying to contrast his approach with mine. No one, I think, would dispute that Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov were tremendously creative players, but they were also the two biggest information hounds of their day, by a country mile. One doesn't develop creativity by insulating oneself from what others have said, thought and written. (It is not university-trained physicists who invent perpetual motion machines.)

    Further, I don't see anything particularly creative about Mackenzie's algorithm. His followers are to find new (or new-ish) moves by looking at a book or database, and then choosing to avoid the main line, picking instead "good developing moves". Okay, but why not do that at or near the end of a main line? Maybe it won't be a developing move, but some sort of common-sense move that isn't the first choice? One isn't automatically creative by varying early on, nor a drone by varying late.

    Interestingly, Mackenzie says (in a comment to my original reply) that his first post was intended as a preamble to a series on Bird's Defense in the Ruy. You can find the series here, and its apotheosis is here. The high point comes in his discussion of what looks like a good novelty, 7...c6, which he found after ten years. He played it in 2007 against then-IM Josh Friedel, and after inaccuracies on moves 9 and 11 was worse. Later Friedel erred, but Mackenzie returned the favor and lost what could have been a drawn ending. Mackenzie asks, "If I had played a main line Ruy Lopez against an IM-soon-to-be-a-GM like Josh, would I have survived and reached a drawn endgame?"

    I'm more inclined to flip it upside down. It took you ten years to find the key idea in a minor variation, and despite unloading a surprise in your favorite variation against a completely unprepared opponent, you still wound up with a difficult position before the opening was out. You almost drew, sure, but that was because of a gift on his part. Further, if you had spent 10 years or more working on another Ruy line, why would it have been shocking if you, a master, could have drawn (or at least reached a drawn position) against an IM, even a strong one?

    In sum, the point under dispute isn't one of "philosophies", with me advocating "Opening Theory" (i.e. adherence to the absolute main lines of super-GM theory) and Mackenzie plumping for creativity. It's between an approach that eschews or at least minimizes learning from others and a different approach that embraces it.

    Tuesday
    Jan112011

    Dana Mackenzie's Opening Philosophy, And Why You Shouldn't Follow It

    Dana Mackenzie, a national master and (formerly?) one of my colleagues over at ChessLecture.com, has written an interesting article on his blog expressing his opening philosophy, or at least those parts of it that apply to players rated below 2200 (HT: Brian Karen). There are four parts to it, which I quote:

    1. Opening theory is a scam (if you are rated under 2400).
    2. Do your own opening analysis!
    3. Make the opponent think for himself.
    4. Look for good developing moves that just happen to be less popular than the main line.

    Let's take a closer look at his first point, which certainly needs elaboration; after all, the remaining points all involve the creation and use of opening theory. Presumably he's not inviting his readers to join in the scamming, so he must have something particular in mind when he refers to "opening theory" in the first point.

    He begins with a quote from GM Jesse Kraai, who says that when a player crosses 2400, "Now is the time to take the openings seriously." Mackenzie seems to approve of this comment, but it's hard to see how he could, given points 2-4. Creating one's own opening theory (point 2), based on both psychological (point 3) and pragmatic (point 4) considerations certainly seems to involve taking openings seriously. Mackenzie's program would seem pretty involved:

    In one order or another, you'd have to think up some lines, and/or come up with some lines that are reasonable and will create non-trivial problems for one's opponent while not being the absolute main variations. Further, in addition to research and independent analysis, Mackenzie suggests that those following his advice do their due diligence and computer-check their results. That's a lot of work, and if this isn't taking opening seriously, I don't know what is.

    Compare this, for instance, to what many people do with the opening books they buy from those scamming GMs, who in his words "make a living off of our pathetic belief that if we just knew the openings a little bit better, we could play as well as they do." Most of the people suffering this cognitive delusion buy the books, look for lines that look entertaining, play over some of the illustrative games and main lines, and then go out there half-cocked with their very fragmented understanding. After a bad result, they will check with the book to see what they did wrong, and if they don't end up with successes soon enough, they'll move on to the next book and the next opening.

    My strong impression of amateur chess is that although they give lip service to the importance of opening theory, they really don't care about it very much. (I'm speaking very generally here, of course.) Speaking generally, their research is superficial and perhaps based on a get-rich-quick sort of mindset. An amateur who followed Mackenzie's approach would spend far more energy on the opening than he had on the previous model of "study". So I think we're forced to say one of two things about Mackenzie's first point, at least as illuminated by the Kraai quote. First, either he's guilty of quote mining, but without realizing that his point is exactly the opposite of Kraai's, or else he's engaging in what he takes to be a "noble lie". In other words, he doesn't believe for a moment that studying openings is unimportant for sub-2400s, but by misleadingly framing an arduous suggestion as hip, radical and labor-saving he hopes that his readers will be more easily persuaded to do what's good for them.

    So it's hard to take his first point seriously as stated. What I think he really means is this: opening theory is important, but you should create your theory and not waste your time and money on opening books written by GMs (allegedly for 2400s). That's a very different thesis, and now we should ask if it's true or at least plausible. He offers the following points in its favor:

    1. This is what GMs themselves do: they don't memorize; they create!

    2. When you create your own theory, you'll of course know why you're making the moves you do - this might not be true when you're following someone else's work that you've just memorized.

    3. Your opponent won't understand it, because this is your invention, not something he's just memorized.

    I think there's something to be said in favor of each of these points, and I don't reject want to reject any of them wholesale. There is nothing wrong with trying to create one's own theory, both on pragmatic grounds and because it will help a player develop. As an apologia for rejecting mainstream opening theory, books and the like, however, this is radically wrong, and I'll explain why with the help of a story.

    Once upon a time, when I was a young teenager trying to make my bones, I started out as one expert among many and made it to master long before the others did. While I wasn't a walking opening encyclopedia by any means, I did pay some attention to theory and to GM games in general, sometimes learning by design and sometimes learning by osmosis. Apparently even my relatively limited work on theory exceeded theirs, and some of my then-fellow experts would rather dismissively put down my successes against them to my being a "book" player.

    At the time, this really bothered me. It gave me a chip on my shoulder too, and accelerated the rate at which I left them in the dust. (Generally speaking, "dissing" me wasn't an effective psychological ploy, at least not for those interested in improving their expected score.) But more to the point, I felt that it denigrated my overall abilities. The opening is fine, but you still have to play after that. Further, if being a "book" player is something so worthy of dismissal, then why didn't they just spend a little time with a book (or two or ten or 100) and catch up to me?

    While the chip on my shoulder proved effective, I think my mindset was wrong. Rather than feeling belittled, I should have seen it as a backhanded compliment: they recognized that I was willing to learn from others, and apparently they weren't. Think of Bobby Fischer, for instance. He was almost definitely the greatest player ever as of 1972, and if anyone ever could have proclaimed his independence of all other chess players, it would have been him. Instead, we find just the opposite. He was rapacious and voracious, devouring chess literature wherever he could, and on all phases of the game. It could have been a women's game in a Russian chess magazine or an old opening book with Steinitz's analysis; it didn't matter. He would take it, read it, master what was there to be mastered and move on to something else. And this didn't just happen once he was great; he was a vacuum cleaner for chess material from the first possible opportunity, years before he reached 2400 strength.

    So sure, of course, if all someone does with an opening book is look at the blotches of ink, hoping that the latest sacrifice of $25-$30 will work its magic, then yes: that's a foolish approach that will lead nowhere. But many if not most opening books do try to explain what's going on at a level a middle-to-upper middle level club player can understand. It won't do it perfectly - if it could, then it would be a pretty boring and simple opening. But it's something, it's a start, and if a player is thoughtful about what's written and thinks about it in the context of what happens in his own games, he'll make progress.

    Ideally, a player should combine book study with the sort of independent analysis Mackenzie advocates. Indeed, this is probably the best way to learn, because if you analyze some mainstream variation on your own, you can then compare it to what happened in dozens if not hundreds of games (or more), and you'll see the questions that you had while you were analyzing get answered by strong players in real life. You get more feedback then you would from a handful of club games in your pet sideline. And the biggest benefit of this is not that you get a stronger opening repertoire, but that you learn more chess. This is the biggest advantage of playing and studying at least relatively mainstream lines, and conversely is the biggest detriment to those who wallow in the backwaters.

    In fact, this is why I developed faster than my peers. It wasn't my brilliant opening knowledge. In fact, the most anti-book among them probably knew their eccentric lines better than I knew my mainstream variations. Rather, the difference was that I looked at a lot of games in a lot of openings, and had some idea of how to play many different kinds of positions, while their knowledge was generally restricted to their homemade brews. Maybe they would average, say, 60-40 against me when they could get one of "their" positions, but I knew so many more kinds of positions that even if I had to make minor concessions to get there, my 60-40 advantage in 90% of the games made me a big favorite overall.

    One more point. When studied properly, knowing openings really means knowing middlegames, and sometimes even knowing endings. This won't be true when "studying" openings means getting out MCO, memorizing 10 moves, and putting the book away. But most of the books sold by those "scamming" GMs (and their IM colleagues) go much deeper. They are deeper not just, or primarily, in the move count, but in terms of ideas, plans, structures, the relevant pieces to exchange or not exchange, etc. A good opening book aimed at the club level will give you the information you need in many cases to understand (not memorize!) the way to handle a position to move 20 and beyond. This will often be explained in words and illustrated with games, and the point of the variations is rarely to memorize a magic formula but to show the way strong players think you're most likely to achieve the typical aims.

    The bottom line, then, is this. Significant parts of Mackenzie's advice are valuable - you should analyze on your own, you should look for new moves, you should not blindly memorize what you don't understand - and these points should be adopted. Where he's wrong, however - desperately wrong - is in steering readers from others' opening works. The word for someone who only learns from his own mistakes isn't "genius", it's "fool". Don't be one!

    Tuesday
    Jan112011

    Karjakin-Nepomniachtchi Blitz Match Videos

    On this page.

    Tuesday
    Jan112011

    Houdini Rolling in Computer Tournament

    Computer-computer battles are ubiquitous nowadays, but I mention this one because Houdini, which is at the moment running away with the aforelinked tournament, was mentioned more than once in the Svidler interview and because it's a freebie. Naturally, there are bells and whistles you get when you buy a Rybka or a Fritz, but for just a plain Jane engine, free is good, and as Houdini might actually be the strongest one out there at the moment, that's even better.

    HT: Freddie Jones

    Tuesday
    Jan112011

    Frank Brady Speaking About Fischer

    I recently reviewed Frank Brady's Endgame, his new biography of Bobby Fischer. The book officially comes out February 1, and Brady will make some public appearances promoting the work. The following plugs are from the publisher:

    Frank Brady Endgame talk and book signings:

    • 2/1/2011, 7pm—Barnes & Noble, 2289 BROADWAY, NEW YORK, NY 10024 
    • 2/16/2011, 7pm—Barnes & Noble, 176-60 UNION TURNPIKE, FRESH MEADOWS, NY 11366 
    • 2/20/2011, 5pm—U.S. Amateur Team Championship, Hilton Hotel, Parsippany, NJ

     

    If you haven’t already read ENDGAME, you can read the first chapter on Scribd.com. We have also posted brand new audio clips of Frank Brady speaking about his time with Bobby on soundcloud.com.

    Monday
    Jan102011

    A Review of ChessBase Tutorials/Openings #02

    ChessBase Tutorials: Openings #2: The Semi-Open Games, reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.

    A few days ago I reviewed the first volume in this new ChessBase series, dedicated to Open Games (i.e. openings starting 1.e4 e5). As with that disk, there are 24 English-language videos running about five hours (and the same in German, but to access them you find the “Option” menu in your software [Fritz, ChessBase 10/11/Reader, etc.], select the Language tab and switch the primary language to German), along with 100 illustrative games. The series is not intended for professional players or near-beginners, but, I would say, for club players roughly in the 1500-1900 range. The aim, I would say, is to familiarize the viewer with the basics of a given variation: to offer the fundamental moves defining the variation, to illustrate some of the key themes, and to offer at least the beginning of a repertoire for someone interested in playing or facing that line.

    This disk covers the “Semi-Open” games, which refers to openings starting with 1.e4, excluding those where Black plays 1…e5. Here’s the breakdown, with the number of clips given after the opening:

    Caro-Kann: 3

    French: 5

    Scandinavian (Center Counter): 1

    Sicilian: 12

    Alekhine Defense: 1

    Pirc: 1

    Nimzowitsch & Owen’s Defense: 1

    The English-language presenters this time around are GMs Daniel King and Lars Schandorff, IMs Sam Collins and Lawrence Trent, and FM Valeri Lilov. In German, the presenters are GMs Klaus Bischoff, Daniel King(!), Rainer Knaak, and Georg Meier; IM Oliver Reeh, WGM Elisabeth Pähtz and German master Niclas Huschenbeth. In what follows I’ll offer some observations on several of the videos, discussing the English presentation first, and then comparing it to what’s given in the German-language game file. It’s possible that my remarks about the German clips may be slightly unfair, given that they’re based only on what appears in the game file, but I’m writing the review for English-only viewers.

    I like Sam Collins’ video on the 2.c3 Sicilian, a variation about which he has written an entire book (not a bad little introduction, but 2.c3 aficionados should proceed directly to Evgeny Sveshnikov’s brand new magnum opus instead) and is thus especially knowledgeable. One criticism (I sometimes think the ChessBase guys should give their presenters a tutorial on some of the key functions): the variations in the accompanying game file are almost 100% in the wrong order. Collins presents a line, and then says “but such-and-such is better”, but then rather than making the new move the main line relative to what was already there, it becomes a parenthetical within the bad line, and then the other side’s further improvement becomes a sub-sub line, and the next improvement a sub-sub-sub line, and so on. Normally you want the structure to indicate what’s best, with less important moves buried in parentheses. This is standard operating procedure, so those of you watching Collins’ video should save the game file to another directory after you watch it, and then promote the lines in the right order for future reference.

    Formatting worries aside, the clip is a good one. Collins gives the viewer a good quick overview of the 2...d5 and especially the more complicated lines with 2…Nf6, and freely tells what lines he finds most interesting. This is helpful, as his preferences sometimes differ from the majority opinion!

    Pähtz focuses more deeply on the 2…d5 variation, and her emphases are a bit different. If I were building a repertoire, I’d start from Collins’ clip, but Pähtz’s clip is useful too, and can be seen as complementary rather than opposed to Collins’.

    Turning now to the mainest of main lines, the 6.Bg5 Najdorf, Danny King does a terrific job here. He makes it through a remarkable amount of material, listing almost all the main options and saying something useful about many of them, explains some important themes and manages to offer something like a mini-repertoire to boot. King’s approach focuses on solidity rather than dazzle: he doesn’t advocate the Poisoned Pawn or Perenyi’s ultra-dangerous attacking plan with 16.Rg1, but opts instead for the more reliable 13…Bxg5+ lines.

    Auf Deutsch, GM Klaus Bischoff’s presentation is a little surprising. He has very little to say about the lines with 6…e6, even though these lines are what have made the 6.Bg5 Najdorf the Rolls-Royce of chess openings. He opts instead for a somewhat idiosyncratic presentation focused on 6…Nbd7. The lines he mentions are quite interesting and can form the basis of a reasonable repertoire, but it’s difficult for me to fully approve of an overview of the 6.Bg5 Najdorf that doesn’t so much as mention (e.g.) the Poisoned Pawn! (Advocating it is another story altogether.) As mentioned in my review of volume 1, however, I have the impression that the presenters discussed their material, and often took a complementary approach. If that’s the right way to think about the disk, then the omissions in Bischoff’s clip are less serious.

    In the Sveshnikov Sicilian with 9.Bxf6, GMs Lars Schandorff (in English) and Karsten Müller offer very similar (but not identical) presentations, in both cases concluding their main lines with a perpetual check line that goes back to the game Nataf-Spasov, Calvia (Ol) 2004 (and before that, to analysis by Yuri Yakovich in his 2002 book The Complete Sveshnikov Sicilian – line C242a3 on page 237, in case you’re curious). It’s a fun variation, to be sure, but as entertaining as it is, neither presenter mentions that after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Na3 b5 9.Bxf6 gxf6 10.Nd5 f5 11.Bd3 Be6 12.0-0 Bxd5 13.exd5 Ne7 14.c3 Bg7 15.Qh5 e4 16.Bc2 0-0 17.Rae1 Qc8 no one plays 19.f3 anymore; it’s 19.Kh1 that dominates in that position. Of course, there’s only so much that can be done in a short clip – there isn’t time to create trees resulting in a line C242a3! But viewers should beware that the main line of a clip isn’t necessarily the state of the art, even in broad overview. As I wrote above, the presenters are presenting lines that illustrate themes; the clips are not theoretical surveys. With that limitation in mind, there’s no problem with Schandorff’s (and Müller’s) decision to choose the 19.f3 line and the resulting perpetual.

    On the French Winawer, Danny King has done a very nice job. He mentions the anti-Winawer lines with 4.Nge2 and 4.exd5, Fischer’s “Accelerated Winawer” (my term) with 4.a3; the Armenian Winawer (4.e5 c5 5.a3 Ba5!?); the “Black Queen Blues” (Moskalenko’s term for the variation with 5…Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Qa5 followed by 7…Qa4); the positional Winawer lines with 6…Ne7 7.Nf3 (and a quick mention of 7.a4); the solid 7.Qg4 0-0 variation; and of course the “Poisoned Pawn Winawer” with 7…Qc7 8.Qxg7 Rg8 9.Qxh7 cxd4 10.Ne2 Nbc6 11.f4 dxc3 12.Qd3 Bd7 etc. Everything that ought to be there, is there, and King is definitely my favorite of all the presenters I’ve seen on these disks.

    I’d compare his work on this clip to the German presenter’s, but the comparison is pointless. Is it because King is incomparable? As I mentioned, his work is very good, but the reason the comparison is pointless is that King presents the Winawer in German, too. (It’s his only clip in that language.)

    All in all, the product is successful in its aim, and so I’ll repeat my assessment of the first volume: This disk is not a substitute for a deeper study of the particular opening lines you choose to play in tournament chess, so you should not buy it for that purpose. Think of it instead as a sort of tour guide: the presenters lead you through the country of the Semi-Open Games, with stops at some of the major cities and landmarks therein. For those in need of such a tour, I can happily recommend the disk.

    Monday
    Jan102011

    Kasparov on Carlsen's Decision to Opt Out of the Candidates

    He's not approving, either, but as Kasparov says in response to a different question, Carlsen "is growing up just now". Carlsen, like the rest of us, gets to make his own mistakes.

    HT: Brian Karen

    Monday
    Jan102011

    ESPN on Phiona Mutesi

    A "human interest" story about a young female Ugandan player and her time at the Khany-Mansiysk Olympiad.

    HT: Brian Karen

    Sunday
    Jan092011

    Events in the Interim

    The Wijk aan Zee tournament starts later this week, but other events have transpired in the meantime.

    One relatively minor event was the Paul Keres Memorial in Tallinn, a two-stage affair won by Alexei Shirov with 6/7, a full point ahead of Jaan Ehlvest and Normunds Miezis.

    A second, smaller but stronger event was a rapid and blitz match between Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi, apparently reprising their tiebreak battle in the recently completed Russian Championship. Both rapid games were drawn, and four blitz went 2-2 (Karjakin won, then lost, then two draws) before they once again went to Armageddon. In the Russian Championship Karjakin had White in that game, stood better, but only managed a draw; this time it was the reverse. Nepomniachtchi had White and was probably winning the queen vs. rook and knight ending, but missed some tactics and stood worse when the draw was agreed. This was apparently for the something called the Russian State Social University Championship, where I'm sure the two study academic subjects at least as hard as top athletes do in the United States before they turn pro in football and basketball.