Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Return of the Chess Jedi

  The opening of the move 'Return of the Jedi' is one of my all-time favorites scenes. Han Solo is frozen in carbonite, Pricess Lea is chained to Jabba The Hut, Chewbacca is a prisoner, and all looks lost for the resistance. In this hopeless situation, Luke Skywalker walks right into Jabba's lair, cooly gives a chance to surrender, is forced to walk to plank over a 10,000 year old desert worm, only to save the day, rescue his friends, and cause the death of Jabba and all aboard his desert 'yacht'.

  When I gave up my role as Scholastic Director of the IASCA (Iowa State Chess Association) in the spring 2008, I had established a series of youth chess tournaments in the Des Moines area at the Golden Teapot in Des Moines. The Teapot was run by Ling and Shannon Zhou as a combination Chinese cultural center, Chinese grocery store, and tea and coffee house. The Zhou’s had a spare room off the coffee house with the 4x8 foot tables that are needed to have a tournament (A lot of the new school cafeteria’s are remodeled with round tables that don’t lend themselves to kids playing chess, but I’m sure get high marks from social engineering experts). The tournaments generally drew between 25 and 50 kids and attracted some of the top scholastic talent in the state.

  I had not intended to give up on the youth tournaments when I gave up my scholastic directorship and was even planning on having a chess camp at the Zhou’s request, but then national master and local chess teacher Pete Karagianis moved back to Iowa from Phoenix. He told me he had contacted the Zhou’s and was going to hold his own chess camp there as well as a series of youth tournaments and I was more than welcome to help him if I wanted. I contacted the Zhou’s and they were not interested in my running their chess camp and were looking forward to Pete’s chess program.

  Now Pete is a very talented chess coach, an excellent chess player, kids and parents like him, and he should have a good future in sales someday. I hired him to work with my son Matt for a year after Matt came within a game of winning $2500 in scholarship money at the 2003 Americinn National Tournament. Pete cleaned up a lot of the defects in Matt’s game and turned him on to a whole new level of chess. When Pete moved to Phoenix, we had arranged to do the lessons over the Internet on Tuesdays. Pete made the first lesson, e-mailed to say he was going to miss the second lesson, missed the third lesson without an e-mail, and then wrote after a month of non-contact to say his schedule didn’t fit with Matt’s lessons anymore the next week. I don’t know for sure, but Matt seemed like he thought that Pete didn’t think he was worth the effort, his chess went into a nose dive, and he didn’t play for almost a year after that. A few months before Pete was moving back to Iowa, he wrote to apologize and to see if he could start up with Matt’s lessons again. Matt wasn’t interested.

  I like Pete as a person, and I know when you deal with kids (he was 20 at the time) you have to deal with kid stuff, but after the stunt he pulled on Matt I wasn’t going to be working with him on anything anytime. It turned out he never had any youth tournaments at the Teapot, but did hold 3 adult tournaments. The first tournament had a very impressive 29 people, the second drew 20, and the third tournament drew 16 people and his wrath when Teapot’s furnace didn’t work on the winter day. He renamed the tournament the Siberian Open and never had another tournament at the Teapot. In the meantime, the IASCA has not scheduled a scholastic tournament in Des Moines the past 2 years, having to have one there in an emergency situation when a site cancelled at the last minute.

  Now that I’m back working in Des Moines and am planning to move there once my kids are out of school, I’ve been looking up some old contacts about running some tournaments like I had at the Teapot, which has since closed. I’ve run into a lot of dead ends and stone walls, but I didn't get discouraged. Everything meaningful that I’ve ever accomplished has only happened with the grace of God and this was going to be no exception. Things just have a way of falling in my lap when the time is right and I've kept to hard work and faith to see me through when all the doors look closed.

  I got an email last month letting me (among others) know that St. Francis of Assisi was looking for a chess coach since Pete has recently moved and left his position as their coach with little notice. St. Francis is a few miles from my workplace and their club meets so early in the morning that I would only have to miss 15 minutes of work once a week, so I volunteered. I met the parent contact and when we discussed payment, I told him I’d coach for nothing if I could hold a series of chess events at the school. We arrived at a compromise and I am starting to set up the schedule.

  Although this may turn out to be a false start, I’m looking forward to my return to scholastic chess. Like Luke Skywalker in the Return of the Jedi movie, I'm older, wiser and more experienced, even if I don’t have a cool black Jedi costume and a better looking, chiseled physique. And after seeing the neglect of Des Moines youth chess the last time I left it to other ‘caretakers’, I’ll not be quick to step aside this time.

  I think it will take about a year to get tournament attendance back to the levels I attained in 2008. The success of this venture will be measured by how hard I work at it and how successful I am at turning kids on to tournament chess.

  This year's St. Mary Fall Festival made $19,000 before expenses this year. It was a staggering amount. The big increase from the other 2 years I worked on the festival was due to a cash contribution from a generous parishioner and a well-received auction. The other committee members were thrilled and the church newsletter made a couple of special mentions about the 'success’ of the festival this year, but I didn’t consider it any more or less successful than the other years. We worked just as hard to put on a quality event in years we didn’t make as much money and the people who attended enjoyed themselves just as much, even if those efforts weren't as recognized as this year. I was happy we made a lot of money, but just like any other volunteer effort, success should be measured by the effort expended and not by comparing a number to years past.