Sunday, February 13, 2011

Answering The Call

  Yesterday, I had the second of my 5 open chess tournaments in Des Moines at the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School cafeteria. My tournament on January 8th had an amazing 64 players compete, but I was expecting lesser numbers this time around. The IASCA was holding the K-6 team championships in Iowa City yesterday and so I did not have any players from Ames, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City as those towns chess programs are driven by school clubs who have great interest in the team championship. I had a player and his dad from my chess club in Marshalltown, 7 players from the Madison Area Home School group in Winterset, a player from Ankeny, and a father and son from Bettendorf who were in town for a conference. It is a tremendous compliment when people travel a long distance to play in my tournaments and it gives everyone the chance to play chess and socialize with new people, but I feel a local chess program that relies on out of town players is doomed to failure. Without a base of local players to support your program, organizers from other towns will recognize that there is an unfilled need for their local players, supply tournaments to fill that need, and your tournaments will be left without the players from other towns you were relying on. Already a tournament has been scheduled in Iowa City on the same day as my April date and I recently found out that an unpublicized tournament was held in Iowa City the same date as my tournament in January.

  At the beginning of last weekend, I had a bad feeling about the tournament since I was only staring at a dozen entries. As the week went on, the entries picked up steam and I had 40 entries and with 8 entries late Friday night and walking in unannounced Saturday morning, I ended up with 48 players and parents, almost 40 from the Des Moines area. This shows me that a scholastic chess program in Des Moines will be self-sustaining without relying on the chess players from other towns to travel to Des Moines.

  An oddity of the tournament was that there was not a single player of high school age. A brother of 2 of the players from Winterset wanted to play, but when he found out he would be the oldest and highest rated player, decided to compete in the parents and friends section instead. I did get a 19 year old, Luke Munson, to help me out by playing in the rated section to give me an even number of players. Luke had brought 2 of his brothers to the tournament and had played in my tournaments for many years. When you have an odd number of players, the player who is doing the worst at the end of each round gets a ‘bye’, which is a free point as if they played and won. Some of the kids are happy to get the free point, but others feel like losers. I don’t like to tell a player they don’t have an opponent so Luke did me a big favor by playing even though he hadn’t played in 2 years.

A good thing about no older or higher rated players was that a lot of younger players had better chances to win a top prize!

  The tournament ran very smoothly and it seemed to me that all the kids had a great time. There was one young player who lost his queen and started crying, but he calmed down after a few minutes. Two brothers were talking a lot while standing by their friend’s games and his opponent’s mom got upset and called me over. I asked the brothers to either communicate by telepathy or maybe talk to each other somewhere else. This stuff happens at every tournament and was no big deal. A lot of the parents of the players who played in the unrated section for non national federation members told me they were really happy their children were taking up chess as a hobby and that there was a chess activity like the tournament to occupy their day.

  The tournament went very quickly, with most of the rounds only taking a half hour instead of the allotted hour. Instead of the half hour lunch break that was scheduled, I had almost an hour and a half. A 9 year old girl was telling me how she lost her first 2 games. We got to talking about why and I asked her if she ever thought about what her opponent was trying to do. She said no, so I printed up a game that I played last April and we played over it. It was a very simple game where one player would make a simple attack and the other player would defend the attack. There was very little high level strategy (or if there was, I missed it), and eventually one of us missed the other’s attack and lost the game. I was able to get the girl to spot many of the simple attacking moves in the game and think about a defense. After we had finished playing through the game, she asked me to play it over again. We went over it again and this time 3 or 4 of the other kids had come back from lunch and playing along at our little game of ‘find the attack’ and the 9-year old girl was playing more of the role of the teacher, showing some of the moves to the other kids. She won 1, drew 1 and lost 1 in her last 3 games and I think I helped her to see chess in a new and more enjoyable way.

This young lady has come to every tournament I've held this year. After a short lesson, she saw chess in a new way and finished the tournament with a win and a draw in her last 3 games.

  I got a special treat in the middle of the next to last game when National Master, 3-time state champ, and former IASCA president Tim McEntee came by to drop off something for me to bring to my son Matt. Tim spent every Sunday afternoon the last 2 summers helping Matt to represent Iowa in the National Tournament of High School champions. Like Jim Mona of St Francis who will mop the cafeteria floor or get awards for kids in his chess club out of his own pocket, Tim looks to do good for chess among his many other endeavors and it makes no difference to him if anyone, everyone, or no one knows about his works. Tim stayed around to talk to parents, helped any of the players who had questions for him about chess or wanted to play a game with a master, and we got a chance to talk about my plans for my program of chess tournaments. He even moved the tables in the cafeteria while I swept the floor (mopping was not required this day) and helped carry my tournament stuff to my car. And did I mention that it was his birthday?

  The tournament was over by 3:30, including giving out the awards. All the players got either a trophy or a medal and a round of applause. As an added bonus, I made enough money to pay for my gas. I would have made a profit, but I told the last unrated player to leave that if he beat me in a game, I’d give him one of my leftover trophies. I was winning easily, but stalemated him and there went my trophy out of inventory! By 9pm last night, I had the pictures and article posted on the Internet and was playing with Daisy and Baxter (my beagle puppies).

Sometimes I think the parents and friends enjoy playing in the tournament more than their kids and brothers.

  At the Salvation Army chess club last Thursday, Ed was there cooking a dinner for the Laurel Lions monthly meeting. Ed is in his late 60’s and works at the Salvation Army. He always makes sure that there are snacks set out for the chess club and there have been times when he would bake a pan of chicken legs or a bucket of chilli for us to feast on. He fulfilled one of his dreams last summer by buying his own hot dog cart and he can be seen around town during lunch hour serving the best Chicago style dogs I’ve ever eaten. Chicago style seems to be a thicker shorter dog than the New York dogs I’m used to, but like I said, they are the best! When I asked Ed what he was up to, he told me he was going to give the sermon on Sunday at the Salvation Army service. I didn’t know Ed gave sermons, so I told him I’d be there to listen. Ed is a lot like Tim and Jim, he will do what needs to be done, whether it is driving 2 hours to get a truckload of donated food, cooking a dinner for the Lauren Lions, or giving a sermon at the Salvation Army. You may have noticed that these are the kind of people I have a lot of respect for and try to emulate in my own way. I got to the service when it started at 11:00, an hour after going to Mass with my son Ben. Ed talked about the Holy Spirit working in our lives and calling us to follow Jesus. He talked a lot about things I learned from serving on the Stewardship Committee at St. Mary for 7 years, things like how God has given each of us different talents to use to help other people and we not only have an obligation to use these talents, we have a need to use them when called. Then he started to talk about the different people at the service and the different things they do to help other people, like the guy that can barely walk but he gives out the programs for the service, to the lady that does the cleaning, and many of the other people. He never mentioned himself, but then he brought me up and said that maybe there was some kid who wasn’t somewhere they shouldn’t be because they were playing chess at my club or in a tournament I was holding. That touched me since I only started the chess club in 2001 when I asked if the Salvation Army had a club and was told “No we don’t. Why don’t you start one?” If Major Joan Stoker hadn’t challenged me that day, I doubt my involvement in chess would have ever gone beyond playing and taking my kids to tournaments.

  I felt a little like I dropped the ball when I left my Des Moines tournaments to other people who didn’t follow through, but now I think it was a necessary step to strengthen my resolve to provide chess as an activity of value for families. Other people may see going from 64 players to 48 was a step back, but I see it as a giant leap forward and the parents and players now see after 2 tournaments that I am serious and committed, since I have had 2 tournaments, 3 more monthly tournaments scheduled, and if I can find a free site I’ll go through the summer. The people who have invested the time to take their kids to tournaments seemed to be telling me the same things as Ed said, only in a little different way. If this is my calling, I intend to answer the call and not put down the phone.