Friday, July 22, 2016
The New York Knicks General Manager Phil Jackson has won 11 titles as a coach but has had a rough go in his first two years running a team. His handpicked coach Derek Fischer didn’t make it through two seasons. Jackson seemingly hit a home run when he drafted Kristaps Porzingas at #4 last year. To my eyes Porzingas is talented but was hurt a lot in his rookie season. If Porzingas turns out to be injury prone he will fit right in with the Knicks new acquisitions Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, who were both with the Bulls last year. Rose was the 2011 NBA MVP but has been plagued by knee injuries since. He played a total of 49 games in three seasons (2012-2014) although he has made it into 117 games the past two years. Noah followed his 2014 Defensive Player of the Year performance by playing in 96 games the past two years and is coming off shoulder surgery. Joining Porzingas, Rose, Noah, and max contract all-star Carmelo Anthony in the starting lineup is 30 year old Courtney Lee who is joining his 7th team proving that while he is a good enough player to be coveted by other teams he is not good enough for a team to resist letting him leave via trade or free agency. Jackson is one of my favorite coaches but as a General Manager he has proven to not be up to the task and this assemblage of all star players from 5 years ago looks like the same old quick fix that every Knicks general manager has failed with in the past 20 years.
There are trades every year and the Knicks load up on yesteryear's all-stars every few years but it is very rare in the NBA that an MVP caliber player in his prime switches teams yet that is what happened earlier this month when superstar Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors. The only comparable movements of star players to my mind was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forcing a trade from Milwaukee to the Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal leaving the Magic to join the Lakers as a free agent, and LeBron James leaving Cleveland for Miami and then heading back to Cleveland. I was too young for Wilt Chamberlain's moves from Philadelphia to California and back again which I assume were seismic in nature.
It was widely expected that Durant would sign a short term deal with the Thunder and go into free agency for real next year but he chose a short term deal with the Warrior team that came within a few minutes of winning a second consecutive championship. At his press conference Durant said that he wanted to move on to a new chapter in his life by moving to California and thinks it is going to be a lot of fun to play in the Warriors winning culture with all-stars Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson.
In order to get salary cap room to sign Durant, the Warriors had to part with five members of their championship rotation: centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, forwards Harrison Barnes and Marresse Speights, and guard Leandro Barbosa. Of these five Bogut and Barbosa will be missed the most. Bogut provided height, defense, and off the ball offense while Barbosa was often the fastest player on the court even at the age of 33. Durant will be a direct replacement and a considerable upgrade for Barnes while Ezeli had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.
I find Durant’s decision very courageous. He signed a 2 year contract for $54 million when he could have gotten 5 years and over $130 from the Thunder. This is a lot of money to leave on the table. If the Warriors win at least one championship with Durant he will undoubtedly sign a long term deal but if the Warriors fail to win a championship the Durant will be pointed to (justly or not) as the reason for the failure, not being a championship caliber player, and I could see him accused of spoiling the camaraderie of the team by causing half the roster to be jettisoned in order to pay him. And don’t forget Durant is just one year removed from missing over half a season (including playoffs) with three foot operations. It appears to me that Durant is assuming large risks to his wallet and legacy in order to play on the Warriors. It would have been easy to collect the extra money and security with the Thunder but Durant took the hard way by taking a short term deal to play for a new team where he will likely get the lion’s share of the blame if the Warriors fail to win a championship and minimal credit for any of the teams future success.
Do I think the Warriors will win the championship now that they have Durant? Probably, but they should have won the championship this past year and didn’t due to their injuries and their arrogance. Forward Draymond Green gives the Warriors a lot of their attitude but he spend the postseason punching and kicking opposing players in the groin, culminating in a suspension that cost the Warriors a chance to close out the series in 5 games. Green found himself arrested for assault in the off season. Green is starting to remind me of Dennis Rodman, a supremely talented hustle player that couldn’t stay out of trouble on or off the court. The team has no center, the bench is comprised of marginal veterans playing for minimal salaries, and there is no guarantee that Curry’s lower leg issues or Durant’s foot injury problems won’t resurface. The factor that mostly concerns me is the Warriors don’t have a quality center. When Bogut went down in Game 5 of the finals the Warriors were markedly worse defensively. Now Bogut is gone to clear the salary cap room for Durant with no replacement. This is not going to be much of a factor in the regular season but it is hard for me to see a team winning the championship without an above average center so matter how good the rest of the team is.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
My email was down for a few days a couple of weeks ago so if you sent a congratulatory message about my reaching a new record high rating of 2277 on the chess.com ‘Tactics Trainer’ let me take this opportunity to say I wasn’t ignoring you (my email wasn’t working) and thank you for your congratulations. If you are in the minority of the thousand or so visitors I get every week to the Broken Pawn that haven’t forwarded their congratulations or perhaps didn’t even notice don’t worry because I’m going to tell you all about it.
Chess.com is a free chess site with options to pay for additional features. I had a free account for many years until I started having my chess students playing on the site so I could monitor their progress (or lack thereof) by viewing their games. The free version of chess.com allows users to see the past month’s games. I had a need to occasionally look further back so I signed up for a premium membership which allows me to see the complete chess.com history of any user. Chess.com has over 50,000 puzzles in their Tactics Trainer. The puzzles are rated and timed which means a user will receive more points the quicker a puzzle is solved and if the puzzle is solved correctly but slowly the user may only gain a single point. Most puzzles are solved in multiple moves and partial credit is given if a user gets at least the first move in the sequence correctly.
The site used to let nonpaying users solve three puzzles a day (since raised to five free puzzles) and when I first started using the site in 2010 I was a puzzle solving demon, hitting a high of 2268 on November 28th, 2010. Then I hit a wall and bounced around between 2000 and 2200 before switching to the untimed and unlimited puzzles on chesstempo.com in May of 2011.
When I got the chess.com app for my amazing iPod I started doing my three free puzzles a day again when I found myself somewhere with wireless internet. I managed to get my puzzle rating over 2200 occasionally but more often found myself feeling rushed by the timed puzzles and making gut level decisions which dropped my puzzle rating to between 1800 and 2000 for most of 2013 and 2014.
Once I got the premium chess.com membership I had access to unlimited puzzles instead of three or five a day. In January I had a puzzle rating of 1905 and set myself a goal to try to break my all-time high rating of 2268. I broke 2000 on February 7th, 2100 on April 13th, and got over 2200 on May 22nd. I got to 2260 on May 28th but was back down to 2025 on June 1st after some marathon puzzle solving sessions over the Memorial Day weekend which saw me only solve 489 of 1103 puzzles. I don’t know what made me attempt to solve so many puzzles but I’ve noticed I can become addicted to the puzzles and continually promise myself I’ll quit after ‘just one more’. I throttled back on the puzzle volume, broke 2200 again on June 17th and finally reached 2270 on June 27th, ending the day at 2277. Since then I’ve gotten my puzzle rating as high as 2286 and my new goal is to get to the rare air of 2400.
Attaining this personal best puzzle rating at the age of 55 ranks as one of the most meager of my many meager chess accomplishments. I know a number of players that struggle with the chess.com puzzles and so I am using this blog post to ‘pay it forward’ by outlining some simple tips for raising your chess.com puzzle rating.
1) Use the app not the website
In my opinion, the iPod app is perfectly configured for solving the puzzles and learning from them. The screen shows the puzzle and a timer with no distracting ads, pictures, or graphics. The website has a lot of excellent features including an incredibly detailed statistics page but using the app will keep you focused without any other screens or windows to distract you. In addition, the app has an analysis button on the bottom left that I will get to in tip 3.
2) Understand the nature of the puzzles
The chess.com puzzles repeat and repeat often. It is very important to subscribe to a premium service so you can see the same puzzles over and over without waiting for them to cycle through your three or five free puzzles a day. I’ve seen some of these puzzles so many times that I know the answer as soon as I see the problem. I have not seen this repeating action on the website which is another reason to use the app. Understanding that the puzzles are repeating should keep you motivated after a miss because as long as you learn the answer you will get more points from solving the puzzle eventually than you lost by your failure to solve it the first time you saw it.
3) After a miss play it over and then use the analysis window to find out why your solution didn’t work
This is the most important step in raising your puzzle rating. When a puzzle is completed, an analysis button appears. Pressing the analysis button brings up the puzzle’s starting point and a computer evaluation. It is important to see why the move you chose didn’t work and why the move the computer grades as correct does work. This will give you a sort of ‘muscle memory’. This process takes a bit of time (it is far easier on the app than the website in my opinion) but I have found that while my mind naturally gravitates to the same wrong moves I previously made after reviewing the solution I’ll catch myself because I’ve already seen why it doesn’t work. You should also do this if you happen to guess the correct solution if you aren’t completely sure why your answer was correct.
4) Take your time always (and in all ways)
It is important to take your time when solving the puzzles. Thinking about the ticking timer will distract you from the task at hand. Taking your time also applies to the process of figuring out why your answer was incorrect and why the listed solution works. Another way you can take your time is being patient when you fail to solve a few puzzles in a row. Get up, take a break, remember that you will see these same puzzles again, and remind yourself that as long as you remember the solution the outcome will be different next time! Another thing to remember is that the puzzles will get harder as your rating rises. This is no big deal but at some point you will cycle from the puzzles you know the solutions for into unfamiliar puzzles you will need to learn.
5) When all else fails – cheat!
If you come across a puzzle that you have no clue how to solve or get distracted for a few minutes and don’t want to lose any rating points for failing to solve the puzzle simply close the app or the browser! There is no penalty for not attempting to solve a puzzle – only for incorrectly solving the puzzle. Since this is by design I’m not sure it is even cheating. If you really want to cheat and getting a high puzzle rating on chess.com is THAT important you my advice (along with my profound sympathies) is to hire somebody to login to chess.com under your credentials to get you the high puzzle rating you desire so badly. Send me a private email for my rates!
6) When cheating fails – cheat some more!
Have you ever taken a test where you knew what the questions were going to be? You may say no but if you've ever taken a spelling test I believe you would have to say yes since the words you studied are the words which are going to be on the test. The chess.com app affords the same capabilities for those who are desperate to improve your chess.com puzzle rating but can't afford to have someone else attain their fraudulently high rating. Simply go into the Tactics Trainer and watch for the computer move. Then press the back arrow and the puzzle position will be on the home page next to the text inviting you to enter the Tactics Trainer! The position will not include the computer move you need to respond to which is why I advised you to remember it. You can put the position on a board and move the pieces and for the truly desperate you can even input the position into a computer to get the answer. When you have the answer reenter the 'Tactics Trainer' and the same puzzle will start over again with your timer still where it was when you exited the screen.
I know that there will readers asking the burning question : What does this advice on getting a high chess.com puzzle rating has to do with getting better at chess? The answer is very little. There are thousands of books, blogs, articles, videos, websites, etc… to help people get better at chess and I don’t need to add to that menagerie. I am merely offering advice on the niche subject of getting a higher chess.com puzzle rating. I do want to stress that while this advice has worked for me your mileage may vary. If you want a higher puzzle rating on chess.com go ahead and give it a try – after all it’s not like I’m asking you to walk on hot coals or anything…
Thursday, July 7, 2016
Once more it's time for America's most literate beagles - Daisy and Baxter to take over the Broken Pawn to talk about matters of vital importance (importance to beagles, that is).
Let’s stop talking about my bad back and get on to the topic of our post, Daisy! YES! Let’s! It was so exciting. We had our annual beef stick taste test on July 3rd. Ever since all the convenience stores in town raised their beef stick prices Hank and Kathy give us Simms brand beef stick treats from the Aldi supermarket. We love Aldi beef stick treats but we also miss our friends at the convenience stores and eating their premium beef stick treats. So once a year we sample the beef stick treats at all the local convenience stores and judge them. This is the fifth year of the annual Daisy and Baxter convenience store awards. We judge the convenience stores on the price and quality of the beef sticks… The friendliness of the convenience store clerks and the quality of the coffee or soda that Hank gets… And any extra amenities like crushed ice and restrooms should the need arise.
Vince sure looked Spiffy at the Jiffy!
Nothing can look nicer than these Jack Links beef sticks! YUM!!
Jiffy – 4 paws
The Food & Gas Mart has tiny Slim Jims and the world's nastiest clerk.
The picture in the middle made the nasty clerk go nuts!
The Casey's lot is tastefully decorated with food posters.
And decorated inside with Old Wisconsin beef sticks! YUM!!
The Liquor Depot had more tiny Slim Jim beef sticks...
...but at least we didn't have to wait too long to eat them!
Well, that’s the end of our Daisy and Baxter beef stick awards for this year, Baxter. It was the closest race ever! And the tastiest! YUM!! Vince and the Jiffy won by half a paw over the Casey’s because of superior beef stick quality and coffee that Hank could drink. Congratulations to Vince and the Jiffy for being the 2016 Daisy and Baxter beef stick convenience store award winner! I hope next year the Liquor Depot and the Food and Gas Mart will take a lesson from Jiffy and Casey’s and lose the Slim Jims in favor of premium beef stick treats. I don’t think we’ll ever find out if the Food and Gas Mart gets premium beef sticks, Daisy. Why’s that, Baxter? Don’t you remember? The nasty clerk told Hank to keep out of his store. That’s all right Baxter. We’ll send Kathy in next year and maybe the Food and Gas Mart will read this and get Jack Links beef sticks just like the Jiffy does. OH BOY!! I can’t wait till next year! I love beef sticks! YUM!!
Thursday, June 30, 2016
I don’t normally get money in the mail that I’m not expecting but I did get some twice a couple of weeks ago from unexpected sources. In late 2013 I wrote about how I agreed to spend an afternoon of my vacation Thanksgiving week getting a demonstration of FiltroPur air filtration products in return for a $100 gas card which turned out to be 10 $10 gas rebates that I had to send to the International Rebates company in Florida. That blog post (you can read it here) is the most read post I’ve written by a factor of two, well outpacing any beagle posts and my 2011 review of a Joe Namath biography (For the record, my chess posts are far down the list with the most widely read being my review of ‘ChessNetwork’’s YouTube channel and the Chessimo iPod app. It seems there is no shortage of people who want to know more about FiltroPur and their $100 ‘gas card offer’.
I faithfully mailed a $10 rebate form every month for 10 months which cost $4.70 in postage. I wouldn’t get a rebate check for months until I would call International Rebates (the company I mailed the rebate forms to) and ask them if they had received my forms (they had) and when I would get my rebate (soon). This company would always tell me my rebate check should be mailed next week and I’d never get a rebate check.
Eventually I just kept on calling International Rebates and instead of hanging up when they told me my rebate check should be mailed next week I would stay on the phone with them as long as I could and ask them what dates they got my rebate forms and when I was supposed to get my rebate check and start all over again since if the dates were right I should have received my rebate checks already. If they hung up I would call again and start from the beginning.
I only talked to two representatives from International Rebates and I either elicited their sympathies or wore them down with my persistence since I received two checks for $20 and another check for $50 over the next year. I hope you noticed that I never received a $10 rebate and that the total of the rebates I received was $10 short of the promised $100 in rebates.
I called International Rebates 5 separate times trying to get that last $10 dollars. Each time I was told the 12 month rebate period had expired. It didn’t matter how long I stayed on the phone or that I sent the rebate form in well before the 12 month period – I got the same answer every time. What almost bothered me as much as not getting the ten dollars was that the International Rebates representatives didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by how long I kept them on the phone asking the same questions over and over. Either they had taken some Zen classes or were on to my tricks or were just delighted to tell me that I wasn’t going to get my $10.
So sometime in early 2015 I gave up and stopped calling International Rebates about getting my last $10 gas rebate check. I didn’t give it much thought and truth be told I was happy to be able to talk about my missing $10 anytime the subject of International Rebates of FiltroPur came up in casual conversation which I don’t recall it ever has.
Last month I got a letter in the mail from a company called ‘Grand Incentives’ in Florida. I figured it was one of the many offers I get for car, house, or appliance warranties. I opened the letter to see what was inside before ripping it half and tossing it into the trash but instead of some money saving offer there was a $10 check from International Rebates! My last ten dollars had finally come home. I have no idea why after over a year I finally got my last $10 gas rebate check and I didn’t call to ask either. I did try to see if there had been some sort of class action lawsuit against the company but all I found were a bevy of Better Business Bureau complaints, most of which were resolved to the complainant’s satisfaction.
I was happy to finally receive my last $10 dollars from International Rebates and close a 30 month saga that netted me $95.30 for sitting through a two hour demonstration and spending at least four hours on the phone. If I am ever again offered a $100 gas card for sitting through a demonstration I will need to have the card in my hand before any demonstration person sets foot in my door. As the late Ronald Reagan once said ‘Trust, but verify’.
A few days after I got my $10 from International Rebates, I received a check from Wells Fargo for one dollar and zero cents. I stopped banking at Wells Fargo in the summer of 2014 (and wrote about it here) after they refused to let me deposit three of 14 checks for my chess camp that weren’t specifically made out to me. It took me a few months to untangle the web that Wells Fargo wove around my finances from direct deposit and online transfers to pay bills which I consider time well spent since I have had no issues with my new bank (United Bank and Trust of Marshalltown) either depositing or withdrawing money. As a bonus I haven’t gotten any calls from Wells Fargo trying to sell me Accidental Dismemberment Insurance (that I wrote about here), Life Insurance, Car Insurance, Homeowners Insurance, Bill Pay Insurance, Brokerage accounts, etc.., etc.., etc.
The letter I got from Wells Fargo stated that I had made a deposit but filled out the deposit slip incorrectly and as a result did not get credit for a dollar that I had deposited. I was happy to get the dollar but found it ironic that the same tellers that got all ‘deposit Nazi’ on my chess camp checks couldn’t be bothered to make sure a deposit slip was totaled correctly. I got a call from Wells Fargo a week later inquiring if they could help me with my ‘banking needs’ which made me think there was no mistake on any deposit slip and the dollar was an excuse to make a cold call. I told the Wells Fargo phone representative the same thing I told the representative that called me a year ago to see what they could do to get my business back which was to wait for every other bank in town to not let me make deposits and they would be next in line. If Wells Fargo is reading this I want to point out that if you can find a $1,000 mistake I made on a deposit I promise I will open a Wells Fargo account just to deposit it in.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Does the Warriors’ failure to win the championship invalidate their record breaking regular season and remove them from the conversation as the greatest team of all time? To my mind it does. How can a team that didn't win the championship be considered an all-time great team? The Warriors’ season will take the place of the 1996 Chicago Bulls when NBA discussion turns to great regular seasons much like the Patriots 2007 season that saw an 18-0 regular season end in a Super Bowl defeat has supplanted the 1972 Miami Dolphins undefeated season that DID end in a Super Bowl victory as the comparison of choice when an NFL team threatens to go undefeated. I’m not sure that the Warriors weren’t a better team than the Cavaliers but I am sure that after the first two games of the series (both Warrior wins) the Cavaliers outworked the Warriors. The Warriors made lazy passes, half-hearted efforts to get rebounds, and slacked off getting back on defense. In the last few minutes of the final game while Kevin Love was bodying up on Stephen Curry and LeBron James was racing back 50 feet on a full sprint to block a layup, Curry made a crazy behind the back pass out of bounds and then couldn’t stay with Kyrie Irving on a go ahead three. Warriors center Draymond Green gave a great effort in Game 7 but cost the team dearly by getting suspended for game 5 when he slapped LeBron James in the groin in the last seconds of a won game. It looked like the Warriors 3 point shooting would bail them out but they went cold for long stretches in the series and when their shots aren’t falling they look like an undisciplined mess of a team. Stephen Curry will have to learn like all the great players do that when points are at a premium the star players have to head to the rim, get contact, and get to the free throw line. It will be interesting to see how the Warriors respond now that they have changed in the media’s perception from a group of whiz kids to a group of groin punching whiny players.
I had previously written about the process of updating my 30 year old basketball prediction program to the 21st century. I completed my programming over the summer and as the season started I assembled the scores and point spreads daily into my database. I used a starter formula that led to promising early results but as the season went on the formula’s performance deteriorated and despite my best efforts I could not find a reliable formula that would work for the three seasons of data I had.
After a handful of NBA predictions in this Broken Pawn Blog I moved my predictions to its own blog (nbapointspreadpredictions.blogspot.com). Since I has no reliable prediction formula, I just made the best picks I could and once my predictions were on its own blog I made predictions every day there were games on the schedule including making a pick for every single playoff game.
My picks weren’t awful but they weren’t great either. All told my record was 168 wins, 158 losses, and 3 pushes which was enough to lose me $600 based on making a $100 bet on each game which means $110 per loss (the extra $10 being the 'vigorish' or betting cost. I has two bets of $200 that came through and I lost a $300 bet on the Warriors to win the Finals game 7 which would have pulled me to a $30 profit if Golden State had won and covered.
My high point was a month into the season when I was up $960 on a 14-4 record. A month later I was down $480. A hot streak in January brought me to a plus $370 and a week later I had lost 5 straight and back in the red. My nadir was on April 18th when I was down $1260 but I rebounded to go 37-22 over the next month to get back to plus $20 on May 19th. After that I hit another down patch and spent the rest of the season in the minus column scrambling to get back to the plus side of the ledger.
It would have been great to have won my last bet of the year to finish in the black but at least I put myself in a position to be on the plus side on the last game of the year. Making 153 blog posts from December 26th to June 19th every day was exhausting. It took a lot of self-control not to take my picks personally especially when I would lose because of a missed free throw or meaningless last second shot to let a team that I picked to lose by 10 points only lose by 9. Now that I’ve had a week to reflect on publishing NBA predictions for a full season I believe it is something I want to continue when the season starts up again in late October. I hit on 51.2% of my picks which is perilously close to blind luck and also just a 2.5% improvement away from the magical 52.4% break even mark.
How can I get that 2.5% improvement? The easy solution would be to get my basketball prediction program working and I will be working on that possibly quixotic endeavor over the summer. But even if I can’t get a programmatic answer there are a few small changes I can make to improve my results. One change will be to not pick games every single day unless I see a game I want to pick. I was so fixated on providing content every day there were games on the schedule I would occasionally 'reach' for games. Another change will be to stop publishing my picks at 5am. Instead I will spend some time considering my picks and publish them in the afternoon or early evening. While I’m trying to fix my prediction program I will spend some time seeing what bets I was the most successful at. I like to pick favorites and I love to pick home favorites playing a teams that played the night before. I don’t know if I did better or worse with these bets compared to my overall bets. Finding out how good my instincts are has to be useful.
The biggest change I have planned for next year has nothing to do with improving my results. I will pick an online betting service (as long as they are still legal in Iowa) and make bets with real money. I’m planning on betting $10 a game instead of a mythical $100 a game which would have given me a $60 loss for this year. I got a few donations from my NBA prediction blog – not $60 worth but if I am betting real money with real screen shots to prove it I would expect to get more donations even if it is from readers that profit from picking the opposite of my predictions. Making picks with play money gave entertainment value but afforded a certain lack of self discipline that led to me reaching for picks to break losing streaks and make a pick every day. Just like an overweight person doesn't suddenly lose weight by purchaseing smaller clothes I doubt think betting real money will suddenly give me more self-discipline in my betting but combined with the mindfulness of my other changes it is worth the gamble.