Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Return of The King

  When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to go to the Miami Heat four years ago I wrote about it and said how I thought it was a smart move for him professionally and that the Heat would win at least one championship with their ‘Big 3’ of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Those predictions were spot on. James was named Sports Illustrated 2012 Sportsmen of the Year and won two NBA MVP awards to go along with the Heat’s two NBA championships. While James was already a worldwide brand, the championship rings has made him even more marketable by conferring him with the status of a ‘winner’.

  In that same post I wrote four years ago, I also noted about the vitriolic response of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert in which he claimed that James had quit on the team during the previous two years playoffs along with calling him a ‘deserter’ and his signing with the Heat a ‘cowardly betrayal’. Having shown such animosity and plantation owner mentality towards a player exercising his free agent rights I imagined that any top flight NBA free agent with a choice would never willingly sign with the Cavaliers as long as Gilbert owned the team and over the last four years the Cavaliers haven’t been able to attract any notable free agents although they have been very lucky to win the draft lottery three of the last four years and were able to resign Kyrie Irving, their #1 pick in the draft from 2011 and the 2014 All-Star Game MVP.

  I imagined wrong as James signed a two-year contract to rejoin the Cavaliers this week. Four years ago James’s decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Heat was announced in an hour long television special entitled ‘The Decision’ which was widely derided as self-serving, arrogant, and disrespectful of Cleveland. This year’s decision was announced as an essay published by Sports Illustrated which has been as widely lauded as the last decision was derided.

  How will James fare in his return to Cleveland? In his absence the team hasn’t come close to making the playoffs, even though all of their top draft picks over this abysmal period are contributing to the team except for last year’s #1 overall draft pick Anthony Bennett. There is a new General Manager (David Griffin) and his first hire was to bring in a highly regarded European League coach David Blatt. Griffin and Blatt’s job description has changed from building a perennial loser to a perennial playoff team to winning a championship or at least getting to the NBA Finals. There is plenty of money to work with this year for Griffin to add another big name but next year Irving’s 90 million dollar extension kicks in and the Cavaliers will be in the position the Miami Heat were in the past few years of having to convince veteran players to play for less than their market value in the hopes of winning a championship.

  I can’t see James taking the Cavaliers to Cleveland’s first sports championship since 1948. Even though he is relatively young (he will turn 30 in December), James has been in the league for 11 years and played at least 75 of his team’s 82 games for all but one of those years. He has also played another 4 seasons worth of games competing in the playoffs and another season worth as a member of Team USA’s international competitions. He may only be 29 but I think he is an old 29.

  When LeBron’s former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade turned 30 he was still an effective player but had ceased to be an effective EVERY DAY player. He needed to take time off during the season, had nagging injuries, and wore down noticeably as the season wore on. This slowdown happens to most NBA players between the ages of 30 and 32. James’s decline won’t be nearly as noticeable as Wade’s because a) he has a good jump shot and will be able to make that more a part of his game as he ages (like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant did) and b) he is a far better player than Wade and can decline and still be very close to the best player in the game. I think there is a window of two or three seasons at most where a team with LeBron James as its best player will be able to win a championship and I wouldn’t be placing my bet on the young talent in Cleveland maturing to the point where they will be a viable supporting cast. The Cavaliers are rumored to be trying to trade some of their young talent for Minnesota's All-Star forward Kevin Love which may change their championship prospects but I think Love is like the pastries at the Starbucks - looks good and costs a lot and after you buy it you wonder why you paid so much for it. In addition, as highly as David Blatt is regarded as a coach he has no NBA coaching experience and Griffin’s acumen as a General Manager has yet to be established.

  The one thing that gives me pause in my prediction of no championships for the Cavaliers is that LeBron James has proven himself to be exceptionally intelligent and driven. Thirty years ago, the New York Mets were changed from perennial doormats to championship contenders by the arrival of super talented teenagers Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. They were the toast of New York and could have had many times the endorsements of James but instead both ruined Hall of Fame careers with drugs and alcohol. James has consistently put himself in a position to be successful and capitalize on his successes. In his essay, James wrote all the right things about wanting to go back to Cleveland to being a championship to his home area of Northeast Ohio and to be an inspiration to the youth and it made me think how James doesn't get near enough credit as a role model. He hasn’t been involved in any drug problems like any number of players, there have been no gambling controversies like a Michael Jordan, love child controversies like a Shawn Kemp (among others), or DUI and wife beating issues like a Jason Kidd. Maybe he just has a great inner circle that keeps his private life very private but there is no reason to think he’s not just as his image projects him to be.

  In addition to having a sterling public image, James has proven to be a savvy businessman. For example, he reportedly made $30 million dollars when Apple bought the Beats Electronics company. Instead of taking an endorsement fee for promoting the Beats headphones, James took a small stake in the company instead and is reaping the rewards. He is well on his way to being a billionaire and I wonder if there is an inside deal in place for him to own a piece of the Cavaliers as consideration for his return. I think there just has to be something more involved for him to work for the owner who made such vile comments about him. Ostensibly, the reason James only signed a two year contract for 41 million dollars instead of the maximum four year deal is that the NBA will sign a new TV contract in two years and the salary cap will increase, allowing James to receive an even bigger contract. I think the secondary reason for the short term contract is so James can exert maximum leverage in the operation of the team and can get out of town if management becomes satisfied with their profits from ticket, luxury box, and merchandise sales to the extent that they decide not to jeopardize their bottom line by signing top talent of not wanting to pay the luxury tax to keep their young talent.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Purely American - Accept No SUBstitutes

  The USA Men’s soccer team was eliminated from the World Cup last week in the round of 16 (the first rounds after group play) by Belgium. The team’s World Cup was widely lauded as a success since the US had survived the so-called ‘Group of Death’ containing perennial World Cup powers Germany and Portugal as well Ghana, who had defeated the US in the past two World Cups. Hopes are high that the US will become a force to be reckoned with on the world soccer stage and this World Cup will become the springboard for future successes and heightened interest in soccer in the United States.

  20 years ago the World Cup was held in the United States and the national team made it through group play and lost in the round of 16 1-0 to a Brazilian team that was playing 10 men vs. 11 for most of the match. Brazil went on to win the tournament but hopes were high that the US had become a team to be reckoned on the world stage and that the World Cup hosting experience and success of the US team would be the springboard for future success and heightened interest in soccer in the United States.

No further proof of the sad state of American soccer is needed that this spontaneous celebration over beating Ghana in a World Cup soccer match...

  It didn’t happen then and I don’t think it will happen now. The interest in the U.S. team at the World Cup is almost entirely due to the fortuitous scheduling of the Cup before the beginning of pro and college football and after the end of the after NBA season. I don’t even see the U.S. World Cup performance as particularly successful. The team played four games with a lone victory was against Ghana by the score of 2-1, a 2-2 tie against Portugal in which the US allowed a goal in the last 30 seconds, and two losses to Germany (1-0) and Belgium (2-1, but scoreless after regulation play). I can accept a close loss to Germany (a country of 80 million people where soccer is by far the most popular sport), but a loss to Belgium and a tie against Portugal? Pardon my jingoism but these two countries each have populations of 11 million people and even if every Belgian and Portuguese child grows up practicing their soccer skills non-stop there are just so many more people in the United States and so many kids playing soccer in this country of over 300 million people that the U.S. should be able to field a far superior soccer squad even if Portugal has quite possibly the best player on the planet in Cristiano Ronaldo. If only 10% of the US population was fanatical about soccer we would have still have three times the population to draw from. And I’m not turning cartwheels over beating Ghana once a decade even though soccer is the most popular sport in that country of 24 million. I’ll know soccer is turning the corner in this country when our national team not only defeats tiny countries like Belgium and Portugal on a regular basis but defeating them or holding them to a tie won’t be seen as a mark of success and close losses won't be seen as moral victories.

  On Friday I was able to take a break from thinking about how beating Ghana, tying Portugal, and suffering close losses to Belgium and Germany passed for a successful result for U.S.A. soccer and watch a sport where America is not only competitive but quite possibly dominant: The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating contest at Brooklyn’s Coney Island Amusement Park.

The Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest - where America can compete and even win...

  The contest had been won by Japanese contestants Hirofumu Nakajima and Takeru Kobayashi in 8 of 9 years between 1997 and 2006 but American Joey ‘Jaws’ Chestnut has now held the title for the last 8 years. I like watching the contest even though the pomp and circumstance surrounding the event is a bit over the top but as an experienced hot dog eater myself the only thing I don’t understand about the competition is why the contestants are allowed to eat the hot dog separate from the bun and then dunk the bun in a cup of water. That is not how anyone I know eats a hot dog and I tend to think a real hot dog eating contest should not only include some toppings on the dog or at least a little mustard but require the participants to eat the hot dog like a hot dog and not broken down to its constituent parts of meat and bun. In any event after watching the World Cup and Wimbledon Tennis (where no Americans made the round of 16 for the first time in a century) it was nice to watch some American success in international competition even if it was competitive eating.

  With the Fourth of July occurring last Friday I decided to stay home with the beagles rather than accompany Kathy to visit her sister in Missouri for the weekend. Last year July 4th was the day Daisy and Baxter had their beef stick convenience store comparison, but with only the Jiffy having a safe place to hitch the dogs to the contest will wait. Because the victory by Joey Chestnut put me in the spirit of the holiday (and I did need to eat, after all) I decided to conduct a survey of an American institution (at least according to Wikipedia) : the submarine sandwich.

The menus at Jimmy John’s, Sub City, and Subway. (click to enlarge)
Subway devotes an entire wall to their menu.

  I decided to sample the subs at the three dedicated sub shops in Marshalltown: Jimmy John’s, Subway, and Sub City. There are other places to get a sub sandwich like Casey’s and Wal-Mart but since they don’t specialize in sub sandwiches and there were only three days in the weekend I felt I needed to stick to the basics.

  My first stop on Friday took me to the newest sub shop in town, Jimmy John’s. I’ve been to the Jimmy John’s in Des Moines and always liked them and felt a Jimmy John’s would be a great fit by the Wal-Mart but when one finally appeared in Marshalltown it arrived in the K-Mart shopping center just a few blocks from the High School. I took Kathy there once when the shop first opened and the Tuna sub that Kathy ordered had so little tuna that we never went back. On Friday night I headed to Jimmy Johns and ordered the biggest sub they had – the $7.60 JJ Gargantuan. The Gargantuan has five different kinds of meat (capicola, roast beef, turkey, ham, genoa salami) and provolone on the signature 8 inch sub roll with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayo, and Italian dressing. There were two or three slices of each kind of meat and cheese on the sub. The turkey and roast beef had thick slices but everything else was cut paper thin. There was plenty of mayo and lettuce. The sub tasted good and I was full after eating it with my only complaint being there was way too much mayo. It was so filling that I wasn’t hungry for the rest of the night which is what I would hop for after spending $8.13 (including tax).

Jimmy John’s Gargantuan sub - a full plate of meat (much of which is very thinly sliced)

  On Saturday I went to the other franchise sub shop in Marshalltown - Subway. There are two Subways in town, one inside the Wal-Mart and the one I visited which was on the other side of the street from the Wal-Mart in the corner of a half-empty strip mall off a frontage road. I got to the Subway at 6pm and was the only person in the strip mall except for two Subway workers, one of whom was outside smoking. The other clerk was very friendly and when I asked him how he was doing he said he wished he was busier and had only made four sandwiches since his shift started two hours ago. I ordered the $6 Italian B.M.T. foot long sub which had pepperoni, genoa salami, ham, and one of a choice of cheeses (I took provolone). Subway offers a large variety of toppings and breads. I’m pretty conservative so I had Italian bread and lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and some hot peppers. I got my sandwich in just a couple of minutes and $6.42 later I was on my way back home with my sub.

  The B.M.T sub looked bigger than the Jimmy John’s Gargantuan sandwich and tasted just as good but on further inspection it had a lot less meat and a lot more bread, lettuce, and tomatoes. All the meat was sliced super thin and even though the sub was a foot long I didn’t feel especially full after finishing it and I didn’t think it was worth the $6.42.

Subway's Italian BMT - the lowest price but the least meat...

  For my third and final sub I went to Sub City on Main Street after work on Monday. I would have preferred to go to Sub City over the weekend but the shop is a family operation and was closed on Friday for the holiday and never open on Sundays so the owner decided to stay closed on Saturday as well for a long weekend. That’s the downside with a small family owned sub shop as opposed to a large franchise chain – they aren’t open on Sundays and holidays. The upside is that since Sub City doesn’t spend money on advertising and pre-printed cups, napkins, straws, etc.. the quality and quantity of the food has to be better or else there is no way they’d be able to stay in business.

  I got to Sub City a few minutes after six. There was no one in the shop except me and two workers. Sub City has no fancy sandwich names like the B.M.T or the Gargantuan. Every sandwich has a number and I picked my favorite, the #17 – Pepperoni and Provolone. It takes Sub City a little longer to make a sub than Jimmy Johns and Subway because while the cold cuts at the franchises are pre-sliced, at Sub City the meat and cheese is taken out of the refrigerator and sliced individually for every sandwich. The bread was cut and the lettuce, tomato, onion, and hot pepper was laid on one side of the sub while the pepperoni and provolone was sliced and laid on the other side. A few seconds and $8.29 later the sub was wrapped and I was on my way home.

  The pepperoni and provolone was sliced thin but it wasn’t a cost cutting measure – the sandwich was piled with meat and the sub roll at least 6 inches longer than the Subway foot-long. I disassembled all the subs when I got home and as you can see there was as least as much meat on the Sub City sub as the Jimmy John’s sub and way more than the Subway sub. I ate half the sub for dinner and I was so full that I had to save the second half for the next day’s dinner. Maybe if I was one of those competitive hot dog eaters like Joey Chestnut I would have shoved all the meat and lettuce down my throat and dunked the roll in water and finished the whole sub in one sitting but I’m pretty happy to have two meals for the price of one sub sandwich.

The MASSIVE Sub City #17 - Pepperoni & Provolone - Half a yard long and Beagle approved!

  I admit that I’m biased towards Sub City but I’m biased for good reason – it’s the most filling and best tasting sub on the planet and even at $8.29 is the best sub sandwich value in town. Sub City easily won my informal sub sandwich survey but there’s no reason for Jimmy John’s or Subway to feel bad. They both made excellent subs and if there was a World Cup for sub sandwiches they wouldn’t have squeaked into the round of 16 like the U.S. soccer team – both would have been in the quarterfinals at least.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

TV Reviews : Falling Skies and The Last Ship
Post-Apocalyptic Sunday on TNT

  Last Sunday marked the 2014 season premiere of one of my favorite shows – TNT’s post-apocalyptic alien invasion saga “Falling Skies”. Last year’s 10 episode season ended with the familiar crew of the remnants of the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment and their new alien allies (the Volm) in Boston destroying the invading Espheni’s radiated power grid that was keeping Volm ships off planet and threatening to destroy all life on Earth. Our hardy band of survivors then proceeded to head to their base in Charleston, South Carolina but not before lead character Tom Mason murdered the human-alien Espheni leader Karen and reunited with his love interest Anne and their months old daughter Alexis who now has the appearance of an six year old girl and is exhibiting strange alien powers. With the alien invaders seemingly defeated and the main villain dead, the only remaining plot line for the 40 week wait for the new season was the strange evolution of Alexis.

Pick your apocalypse...An alien invasion wiping out humanity...

  Since time travels differently in the world of Falling Skies than real life, the new season picks up three weeks after the old season left off with the regiment’s caravan finally arriving at the outskirts of Charleston. Unfortunately, right at that moment they are attacked by massive Espheni war ships that lay down miles of alien powered fences that divide the group into four sections and we pick up the action four months later (after a commercial break). The main group is trapped in a makeshift gulag that is patrolled by the six-legged Skitters (alien slaves of the Espheni) and has food dropped to them on a semi regular basis that the prisoners battle for like animals. Tom Mason is in solitary confinement in a guarded room but has found a way to leave his prison on occasion and mounts a motorcycle to become the mysterious ‘Ghost’ that has become a symbol of hope to the rest of the prisoners. Tom’s youngest son Matt has ended up in a highly regimented youth re-education camp where everyone wears hybrid Nazi/Boy Scout uniforms and are constantly brainwashed to believe that the Espheni are mankind’s friends and that the next step in human evolution is to join forces with the Espheni. Naturally, Matt is not taken in by the re-education and is recruiting allies among the youth for an eventual counter attack. Anne has morphed from a doctor to the leader of a band of soldiers that is searching for the rest of the regiment in general and her daughter Alexis in particular. And Alexis has aged 10 years in the four months and is now a teenager who has created a Utopian town where there is no conflict except a meeting with a giant alien mechanical robot that was disabled by a bolt of lightning which cemented Alexis’ god-like status among the residents of the town.

  During the episode we find out that except for a few dozen warriors the Volm have had to retreat from Earth in order to defend their base planet and that emboldened the Espheni to renew their attacks on the humans and that the gulags and re-education centers are all over the earth. The first episode had little action after the initial alien attack but was fast paced while still filling the gaps of the four month flash forward. With four separate storylines the rest of the season will have to be equally fast paced to bring it all together by the end of the 12 episode season. Last year's ending was very rushed with tremendous amounts of plot devices occurring between episodes (Tom sailing a one-man boat from Boston to Charleston after being kidnapped and escaping and the resistance and the Volm putting together a functioning train with a railway from Charleston to Chicago along with a battleship to take the massive Volm ray gun to Boston in the season finale. Last year the producers couldn’t bring even one storyline to a timely conclusion without resorting to gimmickry but there is a different production team this year that has hopefully learned and will be able to follow through on the ambitious start to season 4 and weave the four disparate storylines together.

  Sunday’s second episode continued on the four storylines from the season premiere with the prisoners in the Espheni ghetto taking the bulk of the hour as Tom Mason reveals himself to be the mysterious ‘Ghost’ and is taken up to the Epsheni mothership and told that the humans were being selected to become a new type of soldier to help the Epsheni battle yet a third and more powerful alien race that is yet unknown. The high production values of the show remain intact with the introduction of a new ‘hornet’ type of alien and the gulag scenes being shot in black & white to underscore the desolation of life in the prisoner camp which is in start contrast to the bare barracks of the re-education camp and the bright pastels of Alexis's peaceful town. The other major revelation is that Alexis is known by the other aliens as ‘The Hybrid’ and is developing powers akin to Dark Phoenix from the X-Men movies. Whenever Alexis even starts to get upset gale force winds and thunder gather while inanimate objects begin to levitate and explode. After 3+ years I find this show as interesting as ever and while I wish there were more than 12 episodes in a season I understand that there is no way the high production values could be maintained over a longer season.

  Before the season premiere of Falling Skies, TNT aired the debut of a new post-apocalyptic series “The Last Ship”. In this show the Navy Destroyer USS Nathan James is sent on a secret four month mission north of the Arctic Circle for two scientists to gather data while the crew believe they are testing top-secret weaponry. The scientists are attacked by Russian soldiers seeking ‘the cure’ and the crew discover that that 80 percent of the earth’s population has been infected with a deadly virus released by global warning of the glaciers, half are dead, and the rest are fighting for survival amid the collapse of all the world’s governments while the mission the ship was sent on was designed for the chief scientist Rachel Scott to get the original virus from the arctic permafrost in order to create a vaccine. After a brief communication with the remnants of the US Government and realizing there is no safe port for the crew, Commanding Officer Tom Chandler decides to disobey his last order to port in Florida and keep the 200+ members of his crew at sea while Dr. Scott creates the vaccine on the ship.

...or humanity wiped out by an ancient virus...The choice is yours on TNT Sunday nights

  The ship has a single helicopter and plenty of weaponry to start but the crew will have forage for supplies and presumably deal with other survivors weekly as they attempt to save the planet from the virus. In the first episode the crew boarded an Italian cruise ship to load up on fuel and food amid the infected corpses and lone survivor of the virus (who dies in moments). The virus is so communicable that everyone is wearing hazmat suits while on the cruise ship. When one crew member trips and breaks his helmet he immediately starts showing signs of infection and kills himself as he realizes he is going to die a grisly death and be the answer to a trivia question should the show make it big. It was a fairly slow moving episode but as an origin show it is to be expected since it must guide the viewers into the main plotlines as well as introduce the main characters.

  The second episode of The Last Ship has the USS Nathan James heading to Guantanamo Bay to gather fuel, food, and medical supplies where they meet up with more infected corpses and battle the remnants of the Al-Qaeda prison population in order to get off the island. It is revealed (only to the viewers, naturally) that there is a Russian speaking mole on board the ship and at the end of the episode the USS Nathan James is introduced to an ominous Russian warship who adds to the ominousness by telling Captain Chandler that ‘You have something I want’ in a very ominous ending. The episode itself was action packed and well-written with little time wasted on so-called character development. I'm not a big fan of character development and think the characters can be developed in action instead of using the concept as an excuse to halt the action in order to let the actors have some ‘emote’ time. Except for being on a ship and not in outer space this episode could easily have been written for the original ‘Star Trek’. Eric Dane as Commander Tom Chandler has many Shatner-esque qualities of a Captain James T. Kirk when he leads a team into ‘Gitmo’ and the way he told the ship to send a torpedo into a specific corner of a warehouse while negotiating with the Al-Qaeda terrorists reminded me of the ‘Deadly Years’ episode where the Enterprise is surrounded by Romulan warships but Kirk broadcasts to Star Fleet headquarters his intention to self-destruct the ship using the ‘Corbomite Device’ in order to trick the eavesdropping Romulans to retreat, allowing the Enterprise time to escape.

  Just like Falling Skies picks up new cast members among other survivors they meet (including the President of the United States in season 3) in episode 2 of The Last Ship the crew is joined by Jon Pyper-Ferguson best known for his role as master terrorist James Kendrick in the final season of Burn Notice. I wonder how a virus that is airborne and so virulent that bleeding sores appear seconds after infection won’t spread over the entire earth and kill everyone on the planet (including the ship's crew) in short order but as long as the ratings remain high (a 17 share and over 5 million viewers for the debut) I’m sure the writers will find a way to avoid that outcome. The debut was heavily publicized by TNT and without any alien action or spaceships or zombies or vampires or people running around with super-powers I’m not sure the show will have staying power. The next few weeks will tell the tale of the longevity of the USS Nathan James as the writers attempt to keep the episodes fresh without the help of new weaponry, alien creatures, zombies, etc... Although Falling Skies had just 3.7 million viewers in its 2014 debut (down from 4.2 in the initial 2013 episode) I’m much more optimistic about its chances for long-term survival. There is a loyal fan base and after this season there will have been 42 episodes produced. The show is getting to the point where only a few more seasons are be needed to get to syndication status where it can be shown on stations like USA Network, WGN, TNT, etc… and rack up fees forever. This makes the last few seasons of a show cost effective even if there aren’t ratings to justify continuing it.

  Even though I’m not very high on the prospects of ‘The Last Ship’ is seems to be well written and I think TNT made the right move by putting the show on Sunday nights. It doesn’t seem that many TV shows that are set in a post-apocalyptic scenarios survive (Jericho, Planet of The Apes, Revolution) past one or two seasons but the last two post-apocalypse series to air on Sundays (Falling Skies and The Walking Dead) have thrived. Maybe post-apocalyptic shows resonate with the people who work from Monday to Fridays. Just as an apocalyptic event like a virus or zombies or an alien invasion changes the world, the arrival of the work week changes the world of the leisurely weekend in what could be called a mini-apocalyptic event of having to work for a living. It could be that after watching some real post-apocalyptic drama on Sunday nights the thought of heading back to work on Mondays doesn’t seem as dire for working people and that’s what makes post-apocalypse shows on Sunday popular. I know if there were to be an apocalyptic event I’d much rather it occurs on late Sunday night or early Monday before I leave for work than Friday at 5pm.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chess - The Spectator Sport?

  There were three very different top level chess tournaments held this month that highlighted to me what kind of chess tournament will make chess a television sport. In early June, the 2014 No Logo Norway Chess super tournament was held in Stavanger, Norway. The tournament was sponsored by the gambling company UniBet but the promotion of gambling is prohibited in Norway, hence the moniker 'No Logo'. This is the second year of the Norway Chess tournament which not only coincides with native son Magnus Carlsen's ascension to the top of the chess world but also Norway’s prosperity stemming from its well managed government which has wisely saved the profits from its state run oil industry and amassed a surplus of almost a trillion dollars. Just a few days after Norway Chess concluded, one of the world’s most unique chess tournaments took place last week in the desert city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where over 100 players competed in the FIDE World Blitz and Rapid championships. The Rapid tournament was held from Monday to Wednesday with 5 games at fifteen minutes per side with a 10 second increment per day and the Blitz tournament was on Thursday and Friday with 21 rounds of action with each side getting 3 minutes per side with a 2 second increment. There was a total $400,000 ($200,000 for the rapid and blitz tournaments) prize fund with the winners of each tournament collecting $40,000. 8 of the top 10 players in the world were competing including World Champion Magnus Carlsen, former world champion Viswanathan Anand, top ranked American Hikaru Nakamura, and Sergey Karjakin (the winner of the No Logo Norway Chess tournament). This year’s event was especially compelling since World Champion Carlsen participation with the stated goal of becoming the top ranked player in Classical, Rapid, and Blitz provided a ready-made storyline.

At the No-Logo Norway Chess Open, commentators Laurence Trent and Jan Gustaffson had plenty of time to follow their Twitter feeds, catch up on the World Cup, discuss rap music and current events, and take numerous breaks in between discussing the chess games during the six hour broadcasts...

   Norway Chess was 9 rounds held over 11 days with 10 players competing in a round robin. All the players were rated over 2750 except for local qualifier Simen Agdenstein (7 time champion of Norway and a former trainer of Carlsen). The players played one game a day and after 6 rounds there was a 3 way tie between Carlsen, Kramnik, and Fabiano Caruana but Karjakin won his final 3 three games (including victories over Kramnik and Caruana) to take the tournament by a half point over Carlsen who only won one of his final three games and finished second despite being the only player not to lose a game. The tournament was broadcast on Livestream courtesy of with Laurence Trent and Jan Gustaffson commentating. I got to watch much of the broadcast and each day Trent and Gustaffson would spend quite a bit of the 5+ hour broadcast responding to viewer tweets, discussing the World Cup, making jokes, and talking about everything but the tournament. They can hardly be blamed since with only five games to discuss per day and sometimes more than a quarter hour between moves on any of the boards there were plenty of occasions where there just wasn’t a lot of chess to discuss. The pair was entertaining and personable and the tournament was fascinating with top level match ups each round but I found it easier to follow the action via Chessbase reports and Daniel King’s Power Play videos on YouTube rather than keep an eye on the action while it was happening – very much like watching ESPN or reading the morning paper to catch last night’s baseball scores rather than watching the games themselves.

  The FIDE Rapid world championship tournament was also broadcast on Livestream and was naturally faster paced. Each round took around an hour and with five rounds a day it led to around the same six hour broadcast as Norway Chess. The commentator was GM Dmitiry Komarov who made up for his thick Russian accent with boundless enthusiasm, shouting the names of the players that were winning and showering praise over the leaders of the tournament and the winners of each round. Komarov would also give his opinions on who was better and why and did a reasonable job outlining what he thought the plans should be for each player. The glaring problem with the broadcast was that even though there were over 50 games in each round the games were followed with live cameras (instead of the moves being electronically relayed) and were only enough cameras to focus on four boards at a time. This led to the same problems as the Norway Chess tournament broadcast – if there weren’t exciting games on the top boards there just wasn’t much for Komarov to discuss. This was highlighted in the next to last round when the first 10 minutes of the broadcast was spent watching Caruana and Levon Aronian stare at each other and Aronian continually getting up to walk around and look at the other games before the broadcast also got up to focus on Magnus Carlsen and Alexander Grischuk playing their game at the next table which was won by Carlsen around a half hour later in a less than action-packed grind it out game. Even at the relatively fast time control of a 15 minute game, there were too many dead spots in the broadcast to hold my interest for an entire round mostly because Komarov was captive to the lack of cameras and unable to focus on the most exciting game and look in on the other top boards intermittently.

In this video, two of the world's five best players (Fabiano Caruana and Levon Aronian) match up in the FIDE World Rapid championships. Even at a time control of 15 minutes per side (with a 10 second increment), there seemed to be so little action that the broadcast followed Aronian in watching other games.

  On Thursday and Friday, the FIDE World Blitz tournament was held at the same site as the Rapid tournament. There were 11 rounds on Thursday and 10 on Friday. The time control of 3 minutes per game with a 2 second increment meant that each round took from 10 to 12 minutes. GM Komarov was again the lone commentator and there was still a limited amount of games he could cover but the quick time controls left very little downtime between each game and never more than a few seconds between each move in every game. It seemed the fast pace emboldened the players to play in a riskier fashion and I thought most of the games were interesting and if a game turned out to be dull at least it was over quickly.

In the top video, World Champ Magnus Carlsen takes on reigning Blitz champion Le Quang Liem of Vietnam in the FIDE World Blitz. Underneath, Carlsen takes on the top American player Hikaru Namamura (at the one minute mark). If you have just ten or so minutes you can watch either game and both could be shown in a half hour TV segment with room for plenty of commercials.

  I’m sure the FIDE Blitz championship games weren’t of the same quality as the ones in Norway Chess or even the FIDE Rapid championships but I felt they were by far the most entertaining. The players had to go by their gut instincts and the live camera capturing the indecision of a player’s hand hovering over a piece with only a split-second to make the final choice added to the interest of the games. It was fascinating to see Carlsen down to seconds on his clock trying to save a draw against Nakamura and grind Quang Liem in a drawn position until he forced a mistake and time forfeit. I didn’t think the fast time controls affected the relative strengths of the players since except for Nakamura having a poor result in the Rapids and Caruana and Karjakin being pedestrian in the Blitz the top rated players at classical time controls finished at the top of the Rapid and Blitz crosstables. The best players in the world or a country or a state or a club tend to be the best players at any time controls because they are just better players. I told a fellow player how entertained I was by the blitz chess and he snickered because he thought the quality of the games were poor but by that logic only games between computers or email games that take months to complete could be worthy of attention since the best humans can’t compete with computers except in correspondence chess.

  The FIDE Blitz World Championship was chess as a spectator sport and would be the perfect tournament format for television. Ten to fifteen minutes per round and five minutes for commercials would get nine rounds in a three hour time frame with minimal dead spots. A $200,000 prize fund (the Rapid championship provided another $200,000 prize fund) and $40,000 first prize attracted most of the world’s top players. If this type of tournament could be held once a month or once a week, I can’t imagine one of the many sports networks that have recently sprung up not paying a similar amount for the broadcast rights for the weekend or two three nights of programming it would provide. I'm not saying it would get the viewership of NASCAR, golf, tennis but the fast pace and increased prominence of the sport thanks to a youthful Western European champion would guarantee a sizable audience. There will always be a place for longer time controls but I expect in the near future the suitability of the blitz format for television will be discovered and that it will eventually become the new chess standard.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Movie Review - X-Men: Days of Future Past

  I knew I’d been lax in my super hero movie watching but I didn’t realize how lax until I realized that I had missed the last five Marvel Super Hero movies. I caught a bit up the past two weeks by renting DVD’s of “Thor:The Dark World” and “The Wolverine”. While the Thor movie had cool special effects I thought it had very little plot, was very slow developing, and didn’t have nearly enough Loki. The Wolverine had less action than the Thor movie but had a great spy movie type of plot that made the movie seem to run quickly.“ Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “The Amazing Spiderman 2” were long gone from the Marshalltown movie theaters last weekend but on a recent Sunday afternoon Kathy and went to see the latest X-Men movie “X-Men: Days of Future Past”. The movie has done very well nationally with over $200 million in sales and exceptionally well internationally with over $600 million in sales, although on the Sunday afternoon matinee I attended during the 3rd week of the movie's run we were joined by only 12 other moviegoers.

  The movie is loosely based on the 1981 2 part X-Men comic book which has Kitty Pride (aka Shadowcat) being sent from a future where mutants are being exterminated by the government army of robotic Sentinels to the present to prevent the mutant assassination of Senator Robert Kelly that sparked the mutant genocide and the creation of the Sentinel program in the first place. The plot is twisted greatly for the movie and naturally, the popular Wolverine is sent back to inhabit his past self to prevent a similar assassination, this time an assassination perpetrated by the shape shifting mutant Mystique against the founder of the Sentinel program, Bolivar Trask.

  The first 3 X-Men movies were set in the present day with Patrick Stewart as super-psychic Professor X, Ian McKellen as Magneto the master of all things metal, and elevated the career of Hugh Jackman as the iconic Wolverine to the level of mega superstar. The fourth X-Men movie called “X-Men: First Class” wasn’t a reboot but an older adventure set in the 1960’s showing one of the first adventures of the X-Men and outlining the origins of the complicated Professor X – Magneto friendship/rivalry/bromance.

  The new X-Men is set in the distant future with the old Professor X (the same one that was obliterated by Jean Grey in the third movie of the series) and the old Magneto (who lost the grand majority of his powers in the same movie) as part of a hunted band of mutants whose only way to escape the shape shifting Sentinels is by sending a mutant a few minutes into the past before the attack to warn the rest of the band about the attack before it happens. This leads them to try to send Wolverine 50 years backwards into his 1970’s body to stop the assassination from ever taking place.

  The Wolverine of the 1970’s isn’t nearly as powerful as the current day Wolverine. He has no adamantium claws and skeleton – just his bone claws and healing powers. He manages to traverse the world of long hair, turtleneck sweaters, bell bottom pants, paisley shirts, and wide lapel suits to find Professor X in his shuttered school for gifted mutants. Professor X is in a drunken state, having become addicted to a serum that allows him to walk at the expense of his psychic powers and all that is left of the X-Men is the Professor and the Beast (who provides the Professor with his serum). The Professor, Wolverine, and the Beast then head to Washington to break Magneto out of his concrete prison 13 stories below the Pentagon and then all four head to Paris and Washington in an attempt to stop the assassination and the mutant genocide of the future.

No matter what the era, Magneto's mutant control of metal seems to inspire filmakers like few others...

  The action scenes set in the 1970’s are really good. There is something about Magneto’s power that seems to inspire X-Men movie makers and it doesn’t matter who is playing Magneto. In “X-Men: The Last Stand” the McKellen Magneto uproots a section of the Golden Gate Bridge to get his mutant army to Alcatraz island in an awesome display of mutant power but the Michael Fassbender Magneto tops that in Days of Future Past when he uproots RFK stadium and slams it down over the White House to cut it off from the rest of Washington. Fassbender is a worthy Magneto, exuding confidence, power, and a healthy attitude of arrogance to all the non-mutants he sees as no different than Neanderthals. The best action scenes in the movie belong to Evan Peter who steals the movie in his role of QuickSilver, the superfast punk teen teen mutant that breaks the team into the Pentagon and breaks Magneto out of his concrete prison. In a scene set in the Pentagon kitchen, with bullets and food and pots and pans flying everywhere, everything stands still except Quicksilver who seems to be in slow motion diverting bullets, tasting food, and positioning the soldiers to be in the way of fists and food. Normally super speed in the movies is portrayed as a person disappearing and instantaneously appearing somewhere else but this was a great take on super speed and I hope the makers of the new Flash TV show are watching.

  Mystique is always interesting to watch since you never know when she’s going to show up and Jennifer Lawrence does a nice enough job in the role. Nicholas Hoult's Beast is completely forgettable - I can't remember one memorable scene with him. I was left cold by James McAvoy’s version of Professor X. I suppose he was written to be weak and ineffectual so he could find himself during the movie but he seems to portray the Professor as an ineffectual weakling even at the end of the movie when he leaves Wolverine in the clutches of Major Stryker when he and the rest of his team escape.

  The action scenes set in the future seem to be spliced into the movie to show the desperation of Wolverine’s mission in the past to highlight how time is running out. The Sentinels are appropriately fearsome but all the CGI makes the future action scenes look poorly lit and blurry. It was nice seeing the return of Storm, Iceman, and Colossus from the original movie but overall I thought the futuristic action scenes detracted from the main story instead of adding to it since the only future scene needed in the movie was the initial scene to introduce the reason for Wolverine’s return to the past.

  Once the assassination was prevented and the future saved, Wolverine ends up in an entirely different future with the original X-Men cast members and the future is presumably bright and unwritten except now we know at the least which characters made it to the future without getting killed. Days of Future Present had some great action scenes but the switching between eras was more confusing than helpful and there was entirely too much soul-searching and angst on the part of Professor Xavier for my tastes. It is a movie for the time-travel and X-Men aficionados but as a super hero movie I though it lacked a focused story line. I rank this movie ahead of “X-Men” and “X-Men: First Class” but well behind “X-Men: United” and “X-Men: The Last Stand”.

  Is the future of the X-Men movie franchise in the past, present, or future? Based on the teaser introducing the time traveling mutant super-villain Apocalypse, it could be any or all. I wish the X-Men franchise had used the Days of Future Past storyline to get the younger cast into the present time (much like the Star Trek reboot). It seems like a lost opportunity but since Days of Future Past had better than a 50% increase in the US box office (and double worldwide) over the First Class movie there is a solid financial reason to give Wolverine a large role in future movies as well as provide for cameos for the other members of the original cast of mutants. Having a single movie set in the past has novelty value but it limits what technology can be used and the whole nostalgia angle can get pretty old pretty fast. Failing that, having time travel storylines is the next best thing to keeping the franchise as fresh as possible and I hope the X-Men can pull it off without confusing the moviegoers.

There may be mutant activity near the Randhawa's travel center in Melbourne, Iowa if you count the ability to put up countless signs on convenience store windows as a mutant power and there may have been a mutant with the power to mangle language...note the 'Please Hold Unto Door' sign.