Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Getting Good by Being Bad

  The NBA season began yesterday and it promises to be one of the more fascinating seasons in many years. There are many intriguing storylines. LeBron James has rejoined the Cleveland Cavaliers and is part of a new ‘Big 3’ along with perennial All-Star Kevin Love and 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers have surrounded their Big 3 with capable role players like Shawn Marion and look to be a lock to get at least to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Chicago Bulls have a supposedly healthy Derrick Rose for the first time since his MVP season on 2011. I think the surprise team in the Eastern Conference will be the Charlotte Hornets who have assembled a talented roster and have an excellent coach in Steve Clifford. They look poised to build upon last years’ second ever franchise playoff appearance with an extended playoff run as long as they can recover from an injury plagued preseason.

  The Western Conference has already been shaken up by the broken foot suffered by Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant which will cause him to miss the first two months of the season. Durant’s injury opens the door for teams like the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and Golden State Warriors to grab a top two seed in the conference and avoid the defending champion San Antonio Spurs until the conference finals. I think the Rockets have the best chance for a breakout season. Center Dwight Howard seems to have finally recovered from the back and shoulder injuries that plagued him over the past three years and may be motivated to remind the basketball world what a great player he was with the Orlando Magic before he injured his back and became the fall guy for the end if the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty.

  I like to predict which NBA teams will contend and perform above expectations and I enjoy watching the best teams in the league play each other but as the season goes on I always find I’m much more interested in following the worst teams in the league and this year it looks like I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Philadelphia 76ers as they pursue the strategy of getting good by being bad.

  In May 2013, the 76ers hired Sam Hinkie as their General Manager. Hinkie is a Stanford MBA who specializes in advanced statistics and was the assistant GM with the Houston Rockets. HInkie took over a mediocre team that barely made the playoffs in 2012 and barely missed the playoffs in 2013. He immediately set about the task of rebuilding the team by trading All-star point guard Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel (the #6 pick in the draft who was recovering from knee surgery and didn’t play all year) and a first round pick in the 2014 draft. The 2014 76ers started with a respectable 5-5 record, lost 26 of their next 36 games to drop to 15-31 and then lost an NBA record 26 games in a row en route to the second worst record in the league at 19-63. In the midst of the losing streak, Hinkie traded starters Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner for second round draft picks instead of players who could help the team win games. In the 2014 NBA draft Hinke had two of the top 10 draft picks (the 76ers third pick in the draft and the pick he received in the Holiday trade) and selected Kansas center Joel Embiid and Croatian forward Dario Saric. On paper this looks to be two solid picks but there will be no immediate help from these two since six days before the draft Embiid broke a bone in his foot and will be likely be out the entire season while Saric is under contract to his team in the Turkish league for two more years. In addition to their two ‘non-draft’ picks, the 76ers acquired journeymen players Luc Mbah a Moute, Alexy Shved, and Marcus Teague. None of these three players have ever averaged even ten points a game in any season during their NBA careers.

  The 76ers payback from trading their All-star guard in 2013 is a player who won't play for them for another two years and the draft pick awarded them for finishing with the second worst record in the league was spent on a player who won't play this year. Without any new talent being added to a 19 win team, how do the 76ers expect to improve? Their only hope is that their top draft pick from last year (Noel) will be ready to play and capable of performing like a top ten NBA draft pick but perhaps the 76ers plan isn't to improve at all for the moment. The suspicion around the league is that the 76ers have no intention of getting better this year and Hinkie’s master plan is to have another disastrous season to gain yet another top five draft pick. The 76ers can also use their $20 million in unused salary to take on other team’s unwanted contracts in return for more draft picks, and eventually build a powerhouse team in the future with all their top draft picks.

  This strategy is commonly called ‘tanking’ but has rarely been done as blatantly as the 76ers current attempt. The last time a team blatantly tanked was in the early 1980’s when the Houston Rockets won the coin flip (back then the worst team in each conference flipped a coin to determine the top draft pick) and selected Ralph Samson. The next year the Rockets sat their better players over the last month of the season, lost 14 or their final 17 games, finished last in the conference by one game, and won another coin flip that allowed them to select Hakeem Olajuwon. Led by their two #1 draft picks the Rockets were in the NBA finals two years later.

  The NBA reacted to the Rockets strategy by instituting a ‘draft lottery’ in which all the non-playoff teams had an equal chance of getting the top draft pick. This system has evolved over the years to giving the worst teams the best chance of getting the top draft pick and only deciding the top three picks by the lottery. That last change ensured the worst team in the league would get at least the fourth pick in the draft. Hinkie’s strategy spawned a proposal to change the draft lottery by deciding the top six picks by lottery but the change was defeated last month.

  I think a better way to prevent tanking would be to prohibit any team with a top three pick in one draft from getting a top ten pick the next year so a team like the 76ers could only get the 11th pick in next year’s draft no matter how bad they were. All the same I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the draft lottery and I’m glad to see the change was defeated. There’s a good reason more bad teams don’t tank and that reason is that it rarely works as a multi-year strategy. A team can occasionally strike gold like the Rockets did with Olajawon or the Spurs with Tim Duncan but more often than not top draft picks just don’t turn into superstars and sometimes don’t even become anything more than answers to trivia questions. The top draft pick may turn out to be Tim Duncan or Magic Johnson but it could also turn out to be Greg Oden or Michael Olowokandi. No one will know for years and no one can know ahead of time.

  Hinkie’s strategy is based on his belief in his drafting ability. His other first round pick in 2013 (aside from the injured Noel) was Michael Carter Williams and Williams won the 2013-2014 Rookie of the Year Award so I would have to judge Hinkie's confidence as having some basis for being well-founded. I would have strong reservations before continually picking players that are injured before they even get to the professional level. College teams play between 30 and 45 games in a season which is only half as many the NBA teams. If a player’s body can’t withstand the rigors of a 40 games schedule it seems unlikely to last through an 82 game schedule with back to back and 4 games in 5 night stretches.

  Hinkie is betting on himself and his ability to correctly identify and draft the pieces that will build his team into a championship contender and the collateral for his bet are lost seasons for his franchise. The 76ers had the second lowest attendance of any team in the league last year and this coming year promises to be no better. This is millions of dollars in revenue that the 76ers aren’t getting but if Hinkie’s gamble pays off attendance will skyrocket and the lost revenue will be recouped multiple times over. I believe that Hinkie will be able to put together a strong playoff team if not a championship contender but I also believe the 76ers ownership will not put up with being the doormat of the league for very long. The question in my mind is if Hinkie’s plan will come to fruition before his employer’s patience runs out.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Yankee Thoughts and a Book Review of 'Driving Mr. Berra'

  It’s been a bad year to be a Yankee fan. The team failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. This hasn’t happened in 20 years. I understand that this may not seem like a big deal to fans of teams that get to the playoffs once or twice in a decade if that often when your team spends more money on players than almost every other team getting into the watered down baseball playoffs by finishing with the fifth best record in a 15 team league should be a given. The Yankees payroll this year was 209 MILLION DOLLARS. This was second in baseball to the Dodgers 235 million dollar payroll and 34 million more than the third biggest spender, the Philadelphia Phillies. For their 209 MILLION DOLLAR payroll the Yankees had the 13th best record of baseball’s 30 major league teams.

  If you owned the steak house with the second highest expenses in town but were judged as only serving the 13th best steak what would you do? I would think very hard about getting new management for my steak house. Faced with a similar situation Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner extended the contract of General Manager Brian Cashman for another three years. Cashman has been the Yankee’s General Manager since 1998 and presided over the caretaking of the championship squads of 1996-2000. As that team broke up, Cashman spent millions of dollars on ‘hot’ free agents like Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Abreu, steroid user Alex Rodriguez, Mark Texieria and veteran pitchers like CC Sabathia, Mark Mussina, and Randy Johnson. In the last 14 years, this strategy has yielded exactly one World Series championship, two World Series losses, three AL Championship series losses, and five first round division losses to go along with the three playoff misses.

  Any General Manager with a fat checkbook can sign free agents but to use this strategy to win championships the free agents must supplement home grown players from the farm system and that’s where the Yankees have been lacking. In the last 15 years, the farm system has coughed up one all-star everyday player (Robinson Cano) and one all-star pitcher (reliever David Robertson). Cashman hasn’t shown he can build a farm system that can even produce pedestrian players and yet he is still the General Manager and Joe Girardi is still the manager and the team is in their third longest stretch since 1921 of not being in a World Series (much less winning one) and I see no end in sight. I’m not saying because the Yankees spend twice as much as teams like the Baltimore Orioles, St. Louis Cardinals, or Kansas City Royals they should win twice as many games but when they can’t win at least as many games as these low spenders there’s a problem somewhere and when Cashman’s recent performance is rewarded with a contract extension I have to think the problem starts at ownership.

  Last month I was at the ‘Books-A-Million’ store in Ames and picked up a copy of the 2012 book ‘Driving Mr. Yogi : Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift’ by Harvey Araton. The book advertised itself as a collection of stories about Berra and Guidry’s adventures as spring training instructors for the Yankees over the last decade and a half where one of Guidry’s assignments was to watch over the octogenarian Berra. It looked like some easy reading about a pair of Yankee legends. Ron Guidry was a starting pitcher on the Yankees championship teams of the 1970’s and had one of the great seasons of all time in 1978 when he went 25-3 with nine shutouts and an ERA of under 2. Becayse he was from Louisiana he had nicknames like ‘Gator’ and ‘Louisiana Lightning’ and was portrayed as a Cajun country boy. He was a consistent winner for around 10 years before arm troubles ended his career and had a brief stint as the Yankees pitching coach in the mid-2000’s. The Yankees of the 1970’s were nicknamed ‘The Bronx Zoo’ and the 1980’s version was just as crazy with Billy Martin coming and going as manager and getting into fights with players and strangers in bars. While many of the other players of that era wrote tell-all books and left the team on bad terms, Guidry left the team without any recriminations or hard feelings.

  Yogi Berra is one of the greatest players in baseball history. He won three MVP’s in the 1950s and was on 10 world champion Yankee teams from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. Berra was short and squat and was constantly made fun of by the press early in his career but when it became apparent what a great player the press shifted their focus and treated him as the ‘idiot savant’ of baseball. Anything he said that was slightly off kilter was picked up on and reported on. Yogi was once asked what time it was and he said “Do you mean now?” and when asked about the restaurant he worked at in the off season replied “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded”. These became called known as “Yogisms” and further endeared him to the public as the innocent purveyor of common sense sayings wrapped in contradictions.

  As much as he was portrayed as an idiot savant, Berra was no dummy. He was the Yankee manager in 1964 and took the team to the World Series but fired when the team lost to the Cardinals in 7 games. He then became a coach for the New York Mets, took over as manager after Gil Hodges died of a heart attack and took that team to the World Series in 1973, losing in 7 games to the Oakland A’s. After being fired by the Mets in 1975, Berra went back to the Yankees as a coach and in 1984 was given the manager’s job. The 1984 season was over before it started when the Detroit Tigers bolted to a 35-5 record (this was before the days of wild card teams) but the team finished strong and expectations were high for 1985 when future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson was acquired in a trade with the Oakland A’s.

  Owner George Steinbrenner said Berra would be the manager all year, but when the team started with a 6-10 record (including a three game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox) the promise was broken and Berra was fired. It wasn’t the firing that rankled Berra – he knew as well as anyone that all managers were fired – it was that Steinbrenner didn’t tell him in person or even on the phone but instead had one of his lackeys tell Berra the news. All the other Yankees that trashed Steinbrenner and the team on their departure eventually came back to be on the coaching staff or appear at Old Timers day or receive a plaque or award but not Berra. He vowed to never return to Yankee Stadium until Steinbrenner no longer owned the team. And he stuck to his principles until 1999 when Steinbrenner went to the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair to apologize in person. Yogi was already a legend to Yankee fans and being the one man that wouldn’t knuckle under to Steinbrenner only further cemented his legendary status.

  The book starts out with Guidry picking up Berra at the beginning of Spring Training in 2011 and then drifts into a story about how Yogi had to miss the previous year’s Old-Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium because he tripped on his front steps and how the fall caused him to spend time in the hospital and how the time spent recuperating from his fall kept him inactive and slowed him considerably once he was fully recovered. After that downer of a start, the book heads back to the genesis of Guidry and Berra’s friendship in the 1970’s with Berra telling Guidry how to get George Brett out by encouraging him to throw the first pitch up and in and then throw sliders away.

  The majority of the book alternates between Guidry and Berra’s spring training routines and baseball stories from their pasts. In spring training Berra insists on adhering to routines like eating at the same rotation of restaurants and arriving at the ballpark at the same time every day which Guidry goes along with and Guidry cooks an annual feast of Cajun frog legs. There are some spring training stories that show how even in his eighties Berra gives useful and welcomed advice to the current players while Guidry passes on his knowledge to the younger pitchers and how both men have a blast just hanging around in Florida talking baseball with the rest of the old timers for a few weeks every spring.

At the 9:20 mark of this video you can see the famous Billy Martin-Reggie Jackson confrontation

  There were a lot of older stories I remembered and some I hadn’t read about before. An entire chapter was devoted to Steinbrenner’s reconciliation with Berra in early 1999 and another to Yogi Berra day at Yankee Stadium in 1999 where David Cone pitched a perfect game. Guidry gave his account of the famous dugout confrontation between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson in 1977 with a different spin, talking about how former catchers Berra and Elston Howard knew to get between Martin and Jackson. The book was a great read but got more and more depressing as it continues. Berra and Guidry’s stunned reaction to the 2004 collapse against the Red Sox, the Yankees failure to win a playoff series, the firing of Joe Torre (and Guidry as the pitching coach), and the death of Steinbrenner are backdrops for Berra’s aging and increasing enfeeblement. Only the 2009 championship brings relief from the maudlin tone of the second half of the book. By the last few chapters Berra has aged to the point of infirmity and is living in an assisted living facility and asks Guidry for permission not to get into his uniform for their 2011 spring training and eventually has so much trouble walking that when preparations for the annual Old-Timer’s day are made it is arranged for the Yankees that are Hall of Fame members to be driven by cart for their introductions to mask the fact that Berra is for the most part wheelchair bound. Thankfully the book ends before a new chapter detailing his further infirmities and the death of his wife Carmen in 2014.

  So what started out as a fun book ended up being depressing journey into old age. Berra and Guidry’s friendship is genuine enough and it is cool to read about the passing down of the Yankee traditions but I could have lived without reading how one of the greatest American success stories of the 20th century ages and becomes infirm to the point of debating to wear dark slacks in case his bladder gives out. It is a real life view and a fairly heartwarming story of a friendship but where Araton attempts to bring out a poignancy in Berra’s health problems he only brings me depression. A far better Yogi Berra book is one written by the man himself “Yogi: It Ain’t Over” which ends in 1989 and has a much more positive tone.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Special Effects with a Poverty of Content

  The Millionaire Chess Open was held in Las Vegas last weekend. When it was announced last year I wrote how I thought organizers Grandmaster Maurice Ashley and financier Amy Lee were approaching the tournament in a business-like manner by reserving the right to cancel the tournament unless they received 1,500 entries (at $1,000 per entry) for the 1 million dollar guaranteed prize fund by March 31st. At the deadline less than 100 entries were received but Ashley and Lee decided to go ahead with their vision of a high-entry, high prize fund chess tournament. At the time Ashley said he hoped to capitalize on “the incredible explosion of scholastic chess as well as the massive increase in the number of online players” to generate the enthusiasm and entries for the tournament.

  I predicted last year that the tournament was going to be successful but when the tournament started last Thursday there were less than 600 entries which to me was a very low number. I see so many young players whose parents will take them halfway across the country for national youth tournaments and so many adults that will travel to national tournaments like the World Open, US Open, Chicago Open, and National Open that I could not imagine a couple of thousand class players not putting up the $1,000 for a chance to win a $40,000 top class prize. While the high entry fees possibly scared lower rated players off and higher rated players aren’t used to paying any entry fees much less a $1,000, I believe a contributing factor to the low turnout may have been that having the tournament on National Chess Day (October 11th) meant the people who would normally travel to Las Vegas and take part in this first of a kind event were otherwise occupied by organizing and supporting their local National Chess Day events. If the scholastic players and parents that Ashley wanted to attract stayed away because of Las Vegas’ reputation (the tournament felt compelled to bill itself as 'Child Friendly') or local National Chess Day activities, online players mainly play chess online and rarely if ever play chess away from their computer screens – after all that’s why they’re online players.

  As it became clear that the attendance wasn’t going to meet projections, the tenor of Ashley and Lee’s comments changed to talking about Millionaire Chess being a business that is on a three to five year plan. I believe they didn’t talk about that before because it makes no sense to pitch a once in a lifetime tournament and future tournaments at the same time. The pair is talking about having similar tournaments in other cities and if there is one in driving distance I wouldn’t mind taking a shot at some big money (the top prize for my section at the Millionaire Open was $40,000). $1,000 is a lot to pay for a chess tournament but maybe the price could be lowered if some of the amenities (gift bags, floor shows, meals, passes to the lounge, etc…) were dispensed with.

  The Millionaire Open promised a unique Internet experience and the visual element was world class. The web page that displayed the games was very impressive. It included pictures of the players, a live computer evaluation, how much time each player had left, and how much time was being spent on the current move. In addition there is a feed of the live broadcast and a live chat board. At the bottom of the screen I could view 8 games at once or look at a graph of the computer evaluation of each move in the position. Visually it was very impressive but in my opinion there were many things missing. Only the top 13 boards of the open section were available for viewing. I’ve been watching International Master (and Okoboji Open champion) John Bartholomew’s instructional videos on YouTube and was hoping to follow his play at Millionaire Chess the same way I did at the Reykjavik Open last year but out of the first seven rounds I could only follow his games the three times he was on the top boards. The boards never seemed to have the clocks set right so it was impossible to tell which player was in time trouble and sometimes the entire page just seemed to get stuck and needed to be refreshed.

  The live game web page says ‘powered by chess24’ which means I may be off base in assigning praise or criticism to the Millionaire Open team and should instead be looking at the contractors, chess24.com. Whoever was responsible, the live game feed had a lot of bells and whistles that were attractive but was short on accuracy in regards to the clock times and content with so few games available for viewing. During the semi-finals and finals on Monday the live game page was disabled and there was no way to look in on any of the games in the final two rounds of the Open section where players were battling for IM and GM norms or even the semifinal and final round games.

  In addition to the live game feed, the tournament had a commentated broadcast for every round. The broadcast was slickly produced with a professional studio set featuring hosts Women’s international Master Arianne Caoili and Grandmaster Robert Hess. They were joined by International Master Laurence Trent who was armed with a video screen complete with computer evaluations of the game. The broadcasts were around three hours long and didn’t start until two hours into the round.

  I watched the Saturday and Sunday shows. There were plenty of breaks in the action but there were ‘competitor profiles’ to look at and puzzles to solve which was a welcome break from the commercials and Muzak filled blank screens that other tournaments show during breaks. The commentators seemed exclusively focused on the top boards even though there were nearly 3 dozen grandmasters competing. I was wondering why until a crowd gathered during a time scramble on board 10. A cameraman was there but the commentators could only guess what was happening because they couldn’t get a good view of the board.

  I was very impressed with Robert Hess as a commentator. He didn’t rely on computer analysis but gave his impressions of the player’s mindsets and how they would approach the next phase of the game. Trent’s role seemed to be to consult the computer to show when a player had or missed a tactical opportunity while Caoili seemed to be asking Trent and Hess questions that a beginner might (“Maybe he’s upset because he didn’t win with the White pieces?”) even though she is a very strong player who occasionally would throw out variations that Trent and Hess didn’t grasp but were proved correct by Trent’s computer.

A sample of the Millionaire Chess live broadcast...

  Hess was very professional in his non-chess comments but Trent and Caoili seemed very bent on ‘entertaining’ and there were parts of the broadcast where I thought I was listening to some shock jock. I heard that tripled pawns was an ‘Irish pawn center’ and that Wesley So was not a typical Filipino player because he didn’t play tactically even though Filipino players do nothing but play blitz all the time and that the Chinese players were also blitz addicts which made them particularly dangerous in time trouble. There was one game described as having blunders than a George W. Bush speech and a position that was messier than a Sarah Palin press conference. I wasn’t offended but I was vaguely uncomfortable listening to these sort of generalizations and put downs. I mentioned this to one of my co-workers and he immediately asked if the commentators were from America. When I said no (Trent is British and Caoili from Australia) he said he wasn’t surprised because this kind of talk is normal for the sports shows he watches from other countries and that Americans were pretty thin-skinned. I wish more time was spent going over the chess games on the lower boards than the commentators trying to amuse me. The tournament climaxed with the ‘Millionaire Monday’ where the top four players from each section were on the big stage battling for $100,000 in the open section and $40,000 in the lower sections (no one was actually going to become a millionaire) and the broadcast was fast paced because the games had a quicker time limit and there wasn’t time for the silly banter of the previous days.

  Everyone that participated in the tournament has written about it in glowing terms and most of the people that were watching the games or broadcast online had many of the same comments that I did about the lack of coverage of the GM games on lower boards and the uneven commentary. The online experience was far less than the groundbreaking experience advertised. An old boss of mine had a phrase that described it perfectly: “Lots of sizzle - not a lot of steak”. Great looking graphics and web pages were combined with a minimum of content. Aside from the lack of live games to view, the game files of the tournament are incomplete (only including the top boards of the first six rounds) and two days after the end of the tournament there is no comprehensive prize list on the website or even final standings. I began this post looking for reasons why this tournament didn’t attract as many players as expected and I did come up with some reasons but then I started writing about the gaps in the online coverage and lack of post-event content. I’ve never seen an organization where the habit of not taking care of details and following up after the end of a project was limited to one section or department and I wonder now if Millionaire Chess' participation goal was undone by the same inattention to detail.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Going Up

If it was up to Vince, I'd still be paying $2.06 for my beef sticks and coffee instead of $2.17...I hope

  Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter to the Jiffy the convenience store two Saturdays ago for our normal 5am walk for beef sticks and coffee. As soon as I walked in the store Vince the clerk said “I’ve got some bad news for you Hank – the price went up.” I assumed Vince meant the price of beef sticks but the price of my twenty ounce coffee refill had gone up from 99 cents to $1.09, a 10 percent increase. I wasn’t especially happy at having to pay an extra dime for the same cup of coffee but it has been over four years since the last price increase (I wrote about it here) and the price of beef sticks is still 2 for $1 so I put away my six cents and fished an extra dollar out of my pocket to pay Vince and was on my way without any complaints.

  If you are the observant type you may have noticed that I had to pay an extra 11 cents when the price of the coffee only increased by a dime. That’s because the state and county took an extra penny out of my pocket in addition to the price increase. I don’t know who first thought of the sales tax but whoever it was deserves the gratitude of every politician who doesn’t have to vote to raise income taxes or tolls or property taxes because every price increase lines the government coffers automatically without politicians having to vote for a tax increase. As Milton Freidman said “Inflation is the one form of taxation that can be imposed without legislation.” and the sales tax is how the politicians piggyback on the price increases to increase their take.

  After spending the morning readjusting my budget to account for the extra 22 cents my weekend trips to the Jiffy were going to cost Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter for their 9am weekend walk. We took the beagles west two blocks, headed north until we got to the cemetery, and then south and instead of heading home we made a left and walked the three blocks east to the Kum & Go convenience store for another coffee and beef stick stop.

A horror story worthy of The Walking Dead!
(And what horror story would be complete without a pair of unaware bystanders...)

  When I went into the Kum & Go Joel the manager was on duty for the second Saturday in a row. Normally Joel only works during the week but when I asked him about it the Saturday before he told me that this convenience store had been sold and was going to become the ‘Mishi Food Market’. One of Joel’s part-timers had quit but he wasn’t allowed to hire anyone so he had to work on the weekends until the store closed. Last Sunday Jillissa (The 2014 Daisy and Baxter beef stick award winner along with Vince from the Jiffy) told me she was going to go back to school to get her CNA so she could have a steady job.

  I got my coffee from station at the back of the store but before I could get to the counter Joel said “There’s some bad news on the beef stick front” I expected to the same type of flim-flam that the Casey’s used last year when they raised the price of their beef sticks by 8% saying the beef sticks were 59 cents each and save 10 cents of two instead of 2 for a dollar (which Daisy and Baxter wrote about here) but instead there was a new sticker on the Jack Link’s beef stick dispenser saying ‘3/$2 or 89 cents each’. This was a 50% increase in the price of single beef stick and a 33% increase in the price of beef sticks sold in bulk. Given my particular beef stick situation I consider it a 100% increase since there is no way Daisy and Baxter would let me get home with that extra beef stick in my pocket and not in their stomachs.

  Joel told me that Kum & Go was moving out of a lot of small towns in Iowa and adding stores to the big city markets like Des Moines instead. The strategy doesn’t makes a lot of sense to me. My research this spring showed that the Kum & Go in Marshalltown sells 400 hot dogs a month while the Quik Trip in West Des Moines sells 400 hot dogs in a shift. It seems obvious that Kum & Go will make a lot more money having a store in West Des Moines than Marshalltown but that's only half the story. It doesn't have to be an either/or situation - if the Marshalltown store is making money why can't Kum & Go have stores in both locations?

  Economics aside, store location issues are no excuse for price gouging on beef sticks and I told Joel so. Joel said that the new dispenser came last week and he was just as surprised at the price increase. I asked Joel if I could just get two beef sticks from the old dispenser. Joel chuckled and said no. I must have been in a state of shock at this massive price increase since I bought two beef sticks for $1.78 and didn’t get the third one for 22 cents more. Kathy and I decided we would bring beef sticks from the Aldi grocery store on our 9am walks and give them to Daisy and Baxter instead of going to the Kum & Go and I haven’t been to the Kum & Go since – not even to get a cup of coffee. Their coffee is good but not SO good that I want to spend another dollar on beef sticks.


Trophy Depot has low prices for Halloween trophies....

  Hoping to get a respite from higher coffee and beef stick prices, I took to the Internet to order the trophies for my fall chess tournaments. I gave out Santa trophies in my December tournament in 2011 and they were such a big hit I followed them up in 2012 and 2013 with Halloween (pumpkin or a witch) trophies in my October tournaments, Thanksgiving turkey trophies in November, and Santa trophies in December. I went to the web site of Trophy Depot (my preferred trophy provider) to order this year’s batch.

  I was happy to see the trophy prices hadn’t changed much since last year and proceeded to the Halloween trophy section. I picked out the trophy column and base and then went to select the top for my Halloween trophy. Normally Trophy Depot offers some standard trophy tops and some premium tops that cost extra. This year every Halloween trophy tops is classified as a premium top that cost extra! It was just a matter of whether I wanted to pay $1 or $1.50 for my Halloween trophy top.

...but having a top on the trophy will cost you!

  I’ve always enjoyed using Trophy Depot in the past but this really rankled me. I go to the Trophy Depot website. I select Halloween trophies. They show me a selection all priced with their ‘as low as’ price (which assumes I’m going to buy 250 or more trophies). I pick a trophy style and they show me the prices AND NONE OF THE PRICES APPLY TO ME BECAUSE EVERY HALLOWEEN TROPHY COSTS AT LEAST A DOLLAR MORE THAN THE TROPHY DEPOT ADVERTISED PRICE!!! Undaunted, I completed my order and then started to work on my Thanksgiving trophies only to find that both of Trophy Depot’s Thanksgiving turkey tops are classified as a premium top that costs $1.00 extra! I don’t remember what happened after that but I woke up a couple of hours later screaming and thought I might have suffered a psychotic break. I checked the news and there were no reports of any attacks on convenience store beef stick displays or trophy stores. After some research on the Internet I believe I suffered a a temporary blackout caused by PTMSSD (Post Traumatic Multiple Sticker Shock Disorder) and if it turns out I did something worthy of being on 'Criminal Minds' while I blacked out that's the story I'm going to have my defense lawyer use.

At least there's one happy ending!

  As upset as I am by all these price increases I get that the Jiffy and Kum & Go convenience stores and Trophy Depot aren’t in business for me – they’re in business to make money. If they think they can get more profit by selling less beef sticks or coffee or turkey trophy tops at a higher price that’s their decision to make and as a consumer it’s my choice whether or not to pay the higher price. I can live with paying an extra 11 cents for my morning coffee twice a week. There isn’t a large source of suppliers for turkey or pumpkin trophy tops so I’m kind of stuck there. I’m comfortable with not paying 33% or 50% or 100% more for beef stick treats for my beagles and that decision got a lot easier when a local grocery store had a sale and I bought a 32 pack of Old Wisconsin beef sticks for $12 which works out to 75 cents for two and is THE best price in town.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Chess DVDs - ‘Play Like Tal’ and ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Topalov’

Daisy kept guard over the DVD's I bought in April until I was ready to review them.

  In June, I reviewed some of the chess DVD’s I bought from www.onlinechesslessons.net on an impulse. Along with the review I wrote about how I joined their affiliate program, ran their ads on my websites, and never received the commissions I was due to receive as per their affiliate agreement. I stopped running www.onlinechesslessons.net ads in July and signed up to be an affiliate for Amazon.com. Since Amazon has already paid me a commission I'd have to say they have proven to be a reliable partner so if you are an Amazon.com customer and enjoy my blog you can help me out by clicking one of their ads on this site before you make your purchase.

  Since my two favorite summer TV shows, 'Falling Skies' and 'The Last Ship' recently ended their seasons and 'The Walking Dead' isn't starting their new season until October 12th, I had some spare viewing time on my hands took a look at two more of the chess DVDs I purchased earlier this year – ‘Play Like Tal’ by Grandmaster Simon Williams and ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Veselin Topalov’ by Grandmaster Damian Lemos.

A sample of 'Play Like Tal' courtesy of YouTube.

A great book!

  Mikhail Tal was the World Champion from 1960 to 1961 and a revolutionary figure in chess history. In the 1930’s the United States was considered the preeminent chess power in the world having won the chess Olympiads in 1931, 1933, 1935, and 1937. When international chess play resumed after World War II, it became apparent that the Soviet Union had surpassed the United States in chess and it wasn't even a close contest. The USSR trounced the United States in a 1945 ten player radio match by the score of 15.5 to 4.5 with the Americans losing 7 of the individual two game matches with one win and two ties. Mikhail Botvinnik became the first Soviet to be World Chess Champion in 1948 and the title remained in Soviet hands for the next 55 years (except for 1972-1975 when the American Bobby Fischer held the crown). Botvinnik was a national hero and considered the herald of ‘Soviet School of Chess’ which relied on physical conditioning, intense opening preparation, training matches, published analysis and annotations of games – basically a highly professional approach to chess. Because the personalities of the Soviet players were hidden by the ‘Iron Curtain’, they were thought of as robotic automatons by the western world.

  That changed when 20 year old Mikhail Tal from Riga (in Latvia) won the USSR championship in 1957. Tal’s style set him apart from the Soviet machine. He would sacrifice material for the attack and win games when his opponents would falter in their defense. Tal’s attacks would frequently prove to be unsound when picked apart in published analysis months later but that didn’t matter to him as long as he won over the board. Because of his ‘incorrect’ play, Tal was labeled as lucky and accused of hypnotizing his opponents but no one was able to stop him as he was again USSR champion in 1958, won the Interzonal tournament the same year, the Candidates tournament in 1959, and then wrested the World Championship from Botvinnik in 1960. Botvinnik won the rematch in 1961 but by holding the championship for just that one year Tal’s legacy was cemented for generations of chess players to the point that 50 years later DVDs are made about his games instead of other legendary attackers that never won the world championship.

  In the DVD, Williams takes 15 minutes to talk about Tal and another 30 minutes going over one of Tal’s 1960 games against Botvinnik. Williams then proceeds to the meat of the DVD – seven of Tal’s games produced in an interactive style. In the interactive games Williams goes over the games much like the Botvinnik game except at five to seven points the viewer is presented a choice of three moves to pick from a menu. If move Tal played is selected the DVD continues with congratulatory words from Williams and if a different move is selected Williams explains why Tal didn’t play the selected move (sometimes the chosen move was the best but just not played by Tal) and lets the viewer choose again. As a bonus there are five positions at the end of the DVD that challenge the view via the same interactive style as the critical positions in the games.

  The DVD is produced by Williams’ GingerGM company and has excellent production values. Williams takes up the right half of the screen with a chessboard in front of him while the left side of the screen has the digital chessboard with the typical arrows and highlighted squares. The entire screen is crisp and clear. Williams constantly refers to a laptop that is mostly hidden behind the digital board but does manage to make eye contact with the viewer and has a breezy conversational style. While going over the games, Williams makes the moves on the physical chessboard in front of him. The chessboard is at an angle where the viewers can see very little of it. I think the board is present for Williams' comfort level even though he has a laptop less than a yard away. The selected games are all attacking games but the interactive positions don't have obvious continuations and the viewer is forced to stop and think. I found the positions challenging and when I didn’t come up with the Tal move, Williams’ explanation were useful in helping me understand where I was going wrong.

  At seven hours of running time (not counting the time spent to calculate the moves), the 2 DVD set is a good value for $18 dollars retail price and an excellent one for the $9 I paid during a 50% off promotion. I would recommend getting the physical disk. I couldn’t figure out a way to get the player to switch to the next segment of the DVD after a game section ended when using the download, but when I put the DVD in my computer or in the player hooked up to my TV it was smooth sailing.

  The only thing I didn’t enjoy about the DVD was Williams harping on Tal’s drinking (saying he would have played with a bottle of whiskey at the table if he could have) and smoking and claiming it led to his early death. Williams mentions how Tal was addicted to morphine but failed to mention his addiction came about after an operation. Tal always seemed to be photographed with a cigarette hanging from his lips but he had a series of kidney ailments in his 20s and I can’t imagine his drinking led to that and maybe the expectation of a lifetime of health problems and/or living under the thumb of the Soviet system led to his drinking. Tal lived to be 55 which was as long or longer as World Champions Tigran Petrosian (55), Alexander Alekhine (53), and Jose Capablanca (53). While Alekhine was a heavy drinker there were no indications that the other two led the kind of lifestyle that would have led to an early death like Tal’s. I’m not saying Tal should be treated and feted as if he was Derek Jeter but I wish Williams had characterized him more as a generational chess player and less as some idiot savant (at various times Williams refers to Tal as a lunatic, nutter, bonkers, crazy...) that become world champion despite his drinking and smoking.

A sample of GM Damian Lemos going over a game from his Topalov DVD courtesy of YouTube.

  The second DVD I watched was ‘Grandmaster Secrets – Play like Veselin Topalov’. In this 2.5 hour DVD, GM Damian Lemos serves as a guide through five games by Topalov. Topalov has been a top 10 player since 1995 and won the FIDE world championship in 2005 by winning an 8 player unification tournament. In 2006 he lost his FIDE title to Vladimir Kramnik in his first title defense and failed to retake his crown in a match with Anand in 2010. I have a hard time putting Topalov on the list of World chess champions since he never won a match for the championship but many people have him on their champions list and there is no question he was universally regarded as the best player in the world in the mid 2000’s.

  All five games have Topalov building up an attack on the enemy king and eventually crashing through to victory against top level competition. Lemos isn’t as engaging as Williams but he is just as thorough in going over the games. Lemos spends a lot of time going over the opening in detail and gives extra emphasis in which side will get the ‘bishop pair’. Lemos also does a good job going over the variations in Tolalov’s attacks. He goes a little overboard on the circles, arrows, and highlighted squares but in general he does a very good job explaining the games. I only have two complaints on his presentation. Lemos doesn’t seem to know how to use the Chessbase interface in his videos. Whenever he goes into a side variation a window pops up on a piece of the demonstration board and he has to click a button to get rid of it. I found this distracting but not nearly as distracting as Lemos’ penchant for saying ‘You Know’ at every opportunity in two of the five games. Check out the free sample from the DVD that I link to above and count how many times Lemos says ‘You Know’. I lost count after 75 which averaged out to once every 20 seconds…

  This DVD is an in-house production of Online Chess Lessons and like most chess videos has the digital chessboard on the left side of the screen and the presenter on the right. Most of the Online Chess Lessons videos have the presenter in the middle of the right hand side of the screen framed by the company’s logo above and beneath and this DVD is no exception. In the ‘Play Like Tal’ video, Williams is in perfect focus, is speaking to the viewer and not a microphone, and has the same outfit and same background in the entire seven hour presentation. Lemos is out of focus, speaks into a headset, is wearing different clothes and is in front of a different background for each game (once using a makeshift backdrop consisting of a sheet). In four of the games the digital board was the kind used in Chessbase and in one of the games a Internet Chess Club board is used. Normally the presentation wouldn’t make a lot of difference to me but it gave the entire video an unprofessional feel as if it was something hurriedly put together in a series of hotel rooms. When combined with the distracting presentation $20 dollars for the download of $25 for the physical DVD is not good value for the cash.

  While I enjoyed both DVDs (even if I'll never play like Tal or Topalov), GingerGM’s ‘Play Like Tal’ far outstripped Online Chess Lessons ‘Grandmaster Secrets : Topalov’ both in content and presentation. If you get on the Online Chess Lessons mailing list they will give you free downloads and large discounts pretty frequently. I like free stuff but the problem with paying cash for chess DVDs is there is so much quality free content on the internet it hardly seems worth it. On YouTube Daniel Kings's Power Play and kingscrusher channels review the top grandmaster games, while International Masters Christof Sielecki (Chessexplained) and John Bartholomew primarily go over their own games. Those four You Tube channels are just a small sampling of chess videos available for free to the viewing public. I bought this batch of Chess DVD's in April on pure impulse but I can't see myself paying for Chess DVD's again unless it were for a targeted need like learning about an opening.