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12 Things I Recently Learned About Andre Agassi

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Mental_floss co-founder Mangesh Hattikudur is at the US Open today. Between matches, he'll be serving up some tennis history and random knowledge.

When Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open came out in 2010, all of the hype I heard about it surrounded the fact that the tennis great had done meth and wore a hairpiece. I had low expectations. But while reading the book last week, I learned a whole lot more about him. Here are a few of those things.

1. His Dad Has Anger Issues

In the first chapter, Agassi describes how his father—a former Olympic boxer—got angry a lot. During a spot of road rage, a trucker pulls over his rig to fight, and Agassi’s dad knocks him out. In another road rage incident, he pulls a gun on someone whose driving displeases him, then he lets young Andre know it would be better if he didn’t tell his mom about this whole thing. In a later chapter, the first time Agassi’s dad and fellow hothead Steffi Graf’s father meet, they nearly get in a fistfight.

2. Agassi Was Born to Be a Tennis Player (Whether he liked it or not)

Agassi’s father tried to make pro tennis players of his three older siblings, but he knew Andre was the one. As a baby, his father taped ping pong paddles to his wrists and had him swat at a mobile made of tennis balls. By the time Andre was 6, he was forcing him to hit 2500 tennis balls a day (he wanted Andre hitting a million balls a year) on a tennis court he built himself. He also rigged up a terrifying ball machine called “The Dragon” that spat out balls at the youngster at 110mph.

3. And He Didn’t Like It

The first sentence of the first chapter has Agassi telling you he hates tennis. And he keeps trying to convince people throughout his career!

4. He was a 9-year-old Tennis Shark

As a kid in Vegas, Agassi learned how to hustle on the courts. He'd win a hundred bucks here and there, but his dad was happy to bet on him as well. When football great Jim Brown came to town, he bet Brown $10k that his 9 year old could beat him. The cocky Brown hastily accepted, before a tennis club manager repeatedly begged him to lower the stakes. In the end, Agassi schooled the athletic Brown and made his wallet $500 lighter.

5. He’s Kind of a Cheeseball! (When it comes to Music)

For someone whose image was so punk, the young Agassi wasn’t really into raucous music. He knows the words to Grease. He likes Barry Manilow. He and Brooke Shields loved to make googly eyes at one another to the Celine Dion song from Titanic. And he’s good friends with Kenny G. and Michael Bolton.

6. He Got a Car for Being Hungover

During a Davis Cup match in 1992, Agassi wore Oakley sunglasses to cover up his bloodshot eyes and protect his reputation. He cruised past his opponent (who was also hungover in the meaningless match), and neither thought much of it. But when Agassi got home, and a deliveryman asked him to sign for a package, he got a bit of a shock. The founder of Oakley, Jim Jannard, had sent him a red Dodge Viper to thank him for his endorsement. Apparently, the photo of Agassi in Oakleys was picked up in Tennis magazine, and in just a week he’d moved enough product that Jannard wanted to buy him a car.

7. Jorts Could Have Been McEnroe's Look!

Nike offered the jeans shorts to John McEnroe, but when he laughed at the clothing option, Agassi quickly snagged them and made them his own.

8. Ivan Lendl is Kind of a Jerk

According to Agassi, Lendl liked to intimidate other players by lounging around the locker room before matches buck naked except for his tennis shoes. When asked about Agassi’s talents, Lendl told reporters he was just “a haircut and a forehand.”

9. But Courier and Connors were Worse!

After beating Agassi in Grand Slam matches, Courier would invite reporters into the locker room, put on a fresh pair of sneakers, and then announce that he was going for a jog—just so he could get a real workout! Connors was even worse—when he lost to Agassi, the older Connors tried to get under Agassi’s skin by telling reporters “I enjoy playing guys who could be my children. Maybe he’s one of them. I spent a lot of time in Vegas.”

10. His Trainer Seems Like the Sweetest Man Alive

Agassi’s barrel-chested trainer Gil is a self-taught genius when it comes to understanding the human body. The former trainer for the National Chapionship UNLV basketball team, Gil makes Agassi homemade elixirs called Gil Water to keep him hydrated. He makes him mix tapes, and exercise equipment that he welds himself. He ends up being one of Agassi’s best friends and helps Agassi play until late into his career. But his first speech to him is the best. When asked to join Agassi’s team, he tells the young player, “We’re in a fight, and you can count on me until the last man is standing. Somewhere up there is a star with your name on it. I might not be able to help you find it, but I’ve got pretty strong shoulders, and you can stand on my shoulders while you’re looking for that star.” Also, he basically steps into every situation where someone is going to cold cock Agassi, including protecting the tennis player from an entire rugby team. (You want him as a friend!)

11. Andre Agassi Really Loves Steffi Graf

Throughout the book, Agassi is a master storyteller, clearly showing why family and his entourage mean so much to him. But the way he talks about Steffi Graf and how he appreciates her as a wife is unbelievably sincere—how she used to pick the perfect Elmo songs to keep the kids quiet on the way to matches so he could concentrate, or how their third date basically turned into them living together. But the sweetest is how nervous he gets, and how honored he is, to introduce his wife as she’s inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. (Oh, and for the record, neither of them want their kids to play tennis.)

12. Agassi Never Wore Pink

The color was actually Hot Lava.

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History
A Brief History of Deep Blue, IBM's Chess Computer
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Stan Honda // AFP // Getty Images

On July 29, 1997, IBM researchers were awarded a $100,000 prize that had gone unclaimed for 17 years. It was the Fredkin Prize, created by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor Edward Fredkin in 1980. An artificial intelligence pioneer, Fredkin challenged fellow computer scientists to create a computer that could beat the best human chess player in the world. That's exactly what Deep Blue did in May, 1997.

It was an extremely long road to victory. After Fredkin's initial challenge in 1980, a team from Bell Labs created a chess computer in 1981 that beat a chess master. In 1985, Feng-hsiung Hsu created ChipTest, a chess computer that set the stage for later efforts.

By 1988, a CMU team including Hsu created a system that beat an international master. That one was called "Deep Thought," named for the computer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy—a fictional computer spent 7.5 million years calculated "the Answer to The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything." (That answer, of course, was 42.)

Deep Thought underwent additional development at IBM, and in 1989 it went head-to-head with Garry Kasparov, who is widely considered the best chess player of all time. Kasparov destroyed the machine in a two-game match. Here's the first part of a documentary about Deep Thought, which helps set the stage for Deep Blue:

Deep Thought eventually led to Deep Blue, an IBM project led by Hsu, along with his former Deep Thought collaborator Murray Campbell, among others.

The computer science problem of chess is deep. First the machine needs to understand the state of the board—that's relatively easy—but then it needs to predict future moves. Given that the 32 pieces on the board are capable of moving to a variety of other positions, the "possibility space" for the next move (and all subsequent moves) is very large.

In theory, a sufficiently beefy computer could simulate every possible move (and counter-move) in its memory, rank which moves end up doing best in each simulated game, and then perform the optimal move on each turn. But to actually implement a computer that powerful—and fast enough to compete in a time-limited tournament—was a matter of extreme effort. It took Hsu more than a decade to master it.

Six men pose with a chess board and timer. On one side of the board, a sign reads Garry Kasparov. On the other side, a computer keyboard and monitor represent Deep Blue.
The IBM Deep Blue chess computer team poses in May, 1997. From left: Chung-Jen Tan (team manager), Gerry Brody, Joel Benjamin, Murray Campbell, Joseph Hoane and Feng-hsiung Hsu (seated).
Stan Honda // AFP // Getty Images

On February 10, 1996 in Philadelphia, Deep Blue went head-to-head with Kasparov, and Kasparov beat the computer handily. Though Deep Blue scored one winning game and two draws, it lost three games to Kasparov outright. Deep Blue did set a record for winning that one game, but it needed the match to earn the Fredkin Prize.

By this point, Kasparov was used to destroying chess computers, and the media lapped it up—this was a man-versus-machine story for the ages. By May 1997, IBM had heavily upgraded Deep Blue (some called it "Deeper Blue") with vastly improved computing resources, preparing for a rematch. When that rematch came, Kasparov would face a worthy opponent.

On May 11, 1997 in New York City, the upgraded Deep Blue entered the match with a large, excited audience. Kasparov won the first game, but Deep Blue took the second, tying the players. Then came three games that ended in draws. In the sixth game, Kasparov made a mistake in the opening. Deep Blue won that sixth game quickly, winning the match, much to the astonishment of the crowd. Kasparov asked for a rematch. The Deep Blue team declined.

Kasparov claimed to have perceived a human hand in Deep Blue's play. Kasparov wondered whether a human chess player was somehow feeding the computer moves, much like the infamous Mechanical Turk of yore. Various conspiracy theories flourished, but came to nothing.

When the Fredkin Prize was awarded to Hsu, Campbell, and IBM researcher A. Joseph Hoane Jr., Fredkin told reporters, "There has never been any doubt in my mind that a computer would ultimately beat a reigning world chess champion. The question has always been when." Hsu told The New York Times, "Some people are apprehensive about what the future can bring. But it's important to remember that a computer is a tool. The fact that a computer won is not a bad thing."

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What Tennis Shoes Looked Like in the Early 1900s
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Mental_floss co-founder Mangesh Hattikudur is at the US Open today. Between matches, he'll be serving up some tennis history and random knowledge.

Image credit: whatsalltheracquet.com

In the pre-Swoosh era, the best shoes for lawn tennis had giant treads and looked like they could be worn to church.

Follow ibmsports on Instagram for scenes from the U.S. Open.

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