Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Trash or Treasure?

  Last May my son Matt took a trip to Oklahoma with Tim McEntee, Pete Karagianis, Jeremy Madison to play in the North American Open. In order to play, Matt became a member of the Oklahoma Chess Foundation and gets a quarterly magazine called the Oklahoma Chess Quarterly. He received the latest copy of the magazine last Friday and on Saturday when Kathy took the boys to visit Grandma, I started reading it while the Daisy and Baxter were taking a nap on the couch.

  The Oklahoma Chess Quarterly is a very nice magazine that shows a lot of the top level games and tournament stories about the state. This issue had an article by Bob Moeller of Nogal, New Mexico on page 8 titled ‘Stop playing Trash Chess!!’ In the article, Mr. Moeller tells me that unless I’m playing chess at a time limit of at least 15 minutes or greater, I’m playing trash chess and if I’m addicted to it, I’m destroying any chance I have for chess improvement, and moreover, that I’m not a real chess player! Here I am relaxing on my couch with my beagles reading a magazine and by the time I got to page 8, I’m all insulted and hopping mad.

  Mr. Moeller says that chess was invented as a thinking person’s game and wasn’t designed to be a shoot-‘em-up video game where the winner is the guy who can jerk a mouse around the fastest. He also says that trash chess is a travesty of a game where the winner is “either the guy who still has a few seconds left on his clock when the other guy ran out [of time], or who committed the next to last game losing howler (which his opponent didn’t see)”

  I don’t know who appointed Moeller the decider of what is trash chess and what is not and whether I’m a real chess player or not but it wasn’t me.

  I play on the Internet Chess Club almost every day at the time limit of 1 minute per player for all their moves and am probably clinically addicted to it, but I haven’t seen much degrading of my chess at longer time limits. If I only have 10 minutes, I’d much rather play 5 1-minute chess games than 1 5-minute game, and I’d rather play 1 5-minute game than none at all. I’ll admit that there’s not a lot of time when playing a one minute game to ponder your moves, but a large part of the charm is being forced to go with your gut and having to make split second decisions.

  There are some benefits to playing quick chess. When I play a few quick ones before I go to work in the morning, I get a good sense of how my mind is working for the day ahead. I’ve never stayed home after a morning losing streak, but have had an extra cup of coffee and even put some simpler assignments at the top of my to-do list if I didn’t feel in good form. Since I am used to playing an entire game in one minute, when I’m teaching chess or running a tournament, I can put on a show for the kids by playing them with time odds of one minute for me and 5 or more minutes for them. I have an excellent winning percentage because not only am I generally a better player than the kids, they get in the habit of trying to match my speed.

  By playing so much one minute chess, I’ve gotten a good feel for how to play certain chess positions by having thousands of games of experience in them. There is a good argument to be made that my time would be better spent by studying one position in full, but at some point I’m going to deal with an unfamiliar position and in these cases, I’d like a refined sense of intuition to guide me to know what to analyze in the first place.

  I wish Mr. Moeller understood that chess is a GAME. A lot of people play it because it is FUN. Like thousands of other chess players, I enjoy playing 1-minute games. If you don’t approve, PLEASE keep it to yourself or at least stop saying the game I love to play is trash and I’m not a real chess player. It is not trash chess. It is just a different kind of chess than you enjoy playing. I’m sure that some correspondence players who take days to make a move snicker and laugh at you for thinking you play real chess at a time limit of an hour or two or three for all your moves and don’t think you are a real chess player either. They just are too polite to say so out loud.

  I just love these types who like to get all insulting because other people enjoy an activity in a slightly different way than they do. Like those guys who whine about the NCAA tournament having 68 teams unlike the good old days when only the 12 conference winners got a chance to play. Or the football fans who think concussions would be eliminated if the players just went back to wearing leather helmets. And the poker players who think their particular brand of game is the only true test of skill. I’m as real a chess player as the next guy and if I want to play 1 minute chess in Iowa, I don’t need some guy from New Mexico having an article in a Oklahoma chess magazine knocking me for it. As the children say, GET A LIFE!!!

  I’m planning on writing a letter to the OCQ to reply to this article, but for now, here are the 4 games of 1 minute chess I played yesterday morning. If you read the notes, I hope you will get a sense of the fun and excitement that can be had in a couple of minutes on the chessboard, even if they don’t pass Moeller’s ‘chess elegance’ test. They have more mistakes than longer games, but not that many more. I’ve played many 5 hour games and have yet to play a perfect game, but I can’t remember having more fun in 10 minutes than these 4 games.

  Don't get the wrong idea by the 4 wins. It was just a good morning. I lose a lot of games in 1-minute chess, some in embarassing fashion. But that still doesn't make it any less fun. If I needed to win every game, I'd buy a Sudoku book.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

All or Nothing

  Like most people, I’ve been watching the NCAA college basketball tournament the last few weeks. The tournament is over 3 weeks and is a gambler’s holiday. Everywhere I’ve ever worked has offered a pool where you pick the winners through all 6 rounds of the tournament, pitch in a few dollars, and maybe get lucky and win a lot. UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel was fired from his job at Washington University for lying about winning $11,000 in 2 NCAA tournament pools, among other things. Neuheisel was later cleared of any wrongdoing by the NCAA after Neuheisel threatened a lawsuit. I think it’s ironic that the NCAA would have an objection to anyone participating in the basketball pool when it is the pools that make the NCAA basketball tournament TV rights worth 11 billion dollars over the next 14 years.

  I’ve never won any money in a NCAA tournament pool and haven’t bothered playing in the last few years. I don’t follow college basketball and couldn’t name 2 players from any team except the local Iowa teams. President Obama filled out a bracket and was in the 99th percentile after picking 29 of the first 32 games correctly. None of his picks made the Final Four and his percentile rating has plummeted. He got ripped by the republicans for filling out his bracket instead of attending to the affairs of State, but I liked that he not only made a bracket, he made it public. It is a good way to see how he thinks. He picked his share of correct upsets in the first round and picked the top 4 teams to advance to the Final Four. This tells me that Obama is good at analyzing the games, but when push comes to shove, he is as conservative as they come and he only is with the underdog on matters he doesn’t feel are important.

  I got to watch both tournament games yesterday. With a few seconds left the Florida Gators and the Arizona Wildcats were behind their opponents by 2 points. Both teams had a choice. They could attempt either a 2-point basket to tie the game and force an overtime period or a 3-point basket to win the game. In both cases, the teams went for the win but each team missed their 3-point shot and watched the Butler Bulldogs and Connecticut Huskies cut down the nets to celebrate their trip to the Final Four.

  As opposed to
accolades offered to Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads failed 2-point trick play in the Nebraska game, both Florida and Arizona were chastised by the TV announcers for attempting a risky 3-point shot instead looking for the easier shot for the tie game first. Had the 3-pointer went in, I’m sure the same announcers would have celebrated the winning teams first for their courage in risking defeat in order to have a chance at victory.

  I don’t have a problem with the teams trying to win the game by going for the 3-pointer. If the coaches thought that was the best play, I’m not going to argue. Basketball is such a fluid game, it’s possible that the coaches called a play to tie the game, but a player panicked and decided to try to be the hero. Both teams looked to be doing nothing different than they had been doing all game, it just didn’t work out when they went for all or nothing.

  I also went all or nothing this month. A job offer dropped into my lap at the beginning of the month. I liked the job I had, but the company was happy to use programming technologies from the 1990’s. Even though I was allowed to use newer technologies on occasion, I had to push the issue to be allowed to. This new job uses all different technologies. I was worried that I’d find myself looking for a job with a lot of outdated skills like a few years ago, so I decided to take the gamble and I have a new job. 2 weeks in, I’m way out of my comfort zone trying to pick up on some new technologies I’m barely familiar with, but I’m learning fast. I hope when I look back on this decision a few years from now, I don’t judge it solely on its success or failure (although it would be OK if it turned out to be a success), but can say I made the best decision at the time. And if my decision doesn’t work out, at least it’s not a lose and go home situation like the NCAA playoffs.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The enemy of my enemy...

  The US government fired over 100 cruise missiles this past weekend to disable Libya’s air force. It is part of a 'joint' action with Britain and France to prevent Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from using his air force to eradicate the civil uprising that erupted a few weeks ago. When Gadhafi’s enemies (I don’t want to use labels like rebels or freedom fighters because I don’t know who these people are or what their agenda is) looked to be winning control of the country and advancing on the capital city of Tripoli, President Obama said that Gadhafi had to go just like he said Hosni Mubarak of Egypt also had to go. But the Libyan situation is a lot different than Egypt or Tunisia. Tunisia barely has an army, but in Egypt, the military was in control of the country before, during, and after Mubarak took power. There may be a new civilian government, but the military is still in charge and they chose not to use their force against the people of their country. If you don’t believe who’s in charge, look at who appointed the interim government and who will be setting up the elections.

  In the case of Libya, the armed forces of that country is mostly on Gadhafi’s side and are going keep their power by any means necessary. The military also is on the side of the ruling classes in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. It is one thing to make speeches calling for regime change, but quite another to use military power to enforce it, like the U.S. government has done.

  President Obama justified the destruction of Libya’s air capabilities, saying. "It is in America's national interests to participate ... because no one has a bigger stake in making sure that there are basic rules of the road that are observed, that there is some semblance of order and justice, particularly in a volatile region that's going through great changes". I’m not sure why we have the biggest stake in making sure the ‘rules of the road’ are being observed in Libya. England just made a deal with Gadhafi to free the bomber of Pan Am Flight 103 in order to allow British Petroleum to get in on lucrative Libyan oil contracts. Where was all this moral posturing then?

  I’d be more enthusiastic if the President just stood up and said, “We’ve been trying to get this guy for years, this is our chance, and we’re going for it.” as opposed to the humanitarian angle. There’s no question that Gadhafi is a world class bad actor, but there have been plenty of butchery going on all over the world that the US hasn’t seen fit to get involved in when there was an equal moral imperative. The Sudan has been involved in a bloody civil war for decades and no cruise missiles have found their way into that country. Iran has seen a reform movement brutally put down without any no-fly zones being enforced. And the only statement heard from the U.S. when Saudi Arabian tanks rolled into Bahrain to squelch protests in that country was to say how “deeply troubled” they were.

  If Gadhafi’s enemies win, are they going to be better than Gadhafi? Or will they be worse? No one knows. The U.S., Britain, and France seem to be going along with the theory that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. This is the same twisted logic that led to the funding of the resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the late 70’s. That turned out to be the seed money for Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaida, and the Taliban. And the same logic has left us dealing with a corrupt regime in Afghanistan to try to help us eradicate the regime we bred 30 years ago.

  A tomahawk cruise missile costs $600,000 and we just shot over 100 of them into Libya. Given the overhead of getting the military into place for the operation and the fighter jet that just got shot down, the US probably will have to borrow another billion dollars from China to pay for this show of force. And that’s just for this weekend. The U.S. government wants to relinquish control of the operation as soon as possible, but our ‘partners’ can’t seem to agree on how that will work. And why should they as long as America pays the bulk of the costs in money and blood. If England and France are so hopped up to keep Gadhafi from winning his civil war, I’d rather they pay us to bomb Libya or just pay us for the cruise missiles and do the bombing themselves. Obama has pledged not to send troops into Libya, but what will he do if Gadhafi starts massacring civilians without using his air force? Just say ‘too bad, so sad’ or treat us to another round of moral outrage? I hope other countries don’t come to Libya’s aid because they are our enemies and Gadhafi is now the ‘enemy of their enemies”?

  If Bush had known he could have just talked about wanting Iraq to ‘follow the rules of the road’, he never would have had to come up with the pretext of ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ before invading Iraq.

  This already has cost a billion dollars. It can only end 2 ways. In one way, Gadhafi wins, America looks impotent, and we pay to repair all the damage our bombs have done at the gas pump. In the other way, Gadhafi loses and we give the new government money to repair all the damage our bombs have done and we pay for it through taxes, borrowing, and at the gas pump. I’d much rather see our government spend all this time, energy, and money on helping Japan recover from their earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that is crippling one of our friends rather than try to pound on our enemies.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Goodwill Hunting

This Goodwill store has more drive up lanes than some banks.

  Every weekend that I don’t have a chess activity, Kathy and I go to the Goodwill and Salvation Army Thrift Stores. Both stores have mostly clothes for sale and provide a great service if you need some clothes but don’t have a lot of money. I think more of the Salvation Army store because anyone who is down on their luck can go to their office and get a voucher for clothes and furniture. The S.A. also collects food from the area stores and makes it available to needy people. The Goodwill store’s emphasis is to use their stores to provide jobs for hard to employ people. Both are worthy causes.

  While Kathy is looking for Christmas candles to add to her collection (at least 700) at the thrift stores, I look at the books. I’ve only found one chess book at a thrift store ‘1001 Checkmates’ by Fred Reinfeld at the Jonathon House store in Marshalltown.

  When the weather started getting nice, I started taking walks at lunchtime and a half mile where I worked was the Urbandale Goodwill store, so started walking there. I had high hopes for the book section as I approached the store. The store looked to be big and brand new with 3 drive up lanes for donations with 2 being used when I walked up.

  I always wonder how these books end up at a thrift store. Was the previous owner of the ‘Stress Management’ book cured of his stress problems and gave the book away to another did his family drop it off on their way to visit him at the nut house. I hope the previous owner of the ‘Automatic Millionaire Homeowner' book didn’t donate it on the way to the foreclosure hearing.

  These are the 3 books I picked out. I can read the ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ book while I’m walking, the ‘Trust Me’ book looked interesting, and I thought the ‘Communism’ book by J. Edgar Hoover could be a collector’s item (some copies go for $15). I was happy with the books I bought, but was disappointed at the rather high prices. The Salvation Army charges a dollar for hardcover books and 50 cents for paperbacks, but Goodwill charges 90 cents for a paperback and a dollar and a half for a hardcover. Still a bargain, though.

  On my next trip, I may get the book on how to sell and re-sell my photos. I’m sure the previous owner just dropped it off at the goodwill on his way to the bank. If not, I'll come back and get the 'Anti-Depressant Fact' book!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A quarter million dollar slap on the wrist

  In January, I wrote about the 5 Ohio State University players who were caught exchanging their signed memorabilia for tattoos. They were suspended by the NCAA for the first 5 games for next year but not the upcoming Sugar Bowl, which was part of the NCAA’s 500 million dollar bowl game package with ESPN. The NCAA’s given reason for not suspending them for the bowl game was that the players were not informed their actions were violations by the college. I thought that the NCAA had 25 million other reasons not to suspend the players, 1 reason for each dollar the Sugar Bowl’s TV revenue was bringing to the NCAA coffers.

  Last week, Ohio State University coach Jim Tressel admitted he had been informed about the player’s trades of memorabilia for tattoos last April and now says he didn’t tell anyone at the university. When the players suspensions were announced, Tressel said no one had even heard of these allegations until early December. Tressel says that since the he was asked to keep the information confidential and that the owner of the tattoo parlor was the subject of an ongoing federal investigation, he felt he was protecting the players by not telling anyone.

  The explanation sounds nice, but I think it is all nonsense. The coach knew the players were violating a NCAA rule and choose to do nothing. He could have found any number of ways to say he found out about the signed memorabilia hanging in the tattoo shop without compromising his informant or the federal investigation. There’s no record of any communication with the federal authorities asking for advice or being told to not put the tattoo shop in the headlines. This is all part of his imagination. The only thing that made him come forward was that the investigative journalists at Yahoo Sports informed him of their findings and he needed to put some sort of positive spin on the matter.

  Tressel knew that 5 of his players were doing something against NCAA rules and chose to ignore it. He could have suspended the players without even saying why (the famous ‘violation of team conduct’), but he chose to play and win with them. I don’t believe that he didn’t tell anyone at Ohio State University. I think by taking all the heat, he is giving his employer plausible deniability.

  Each of the 5 players found in violation were suspended for 5 games. This is about one tenth of their college football eligibility. I would think the penalty for knowing about these violations and doing nothing would be at least 5 games. Some people I’ve worked for would fire an employee who knew a group they were supervising were violating rules but did nothing. Jim Tressel was suspended by the University for 2 games and fined 250,000 dollars. $250,000 is a lot of money, but keep in mind that last year Tressel was paid 3.89 million dollars, so $250,000 is less than a month’s pay for him. The next time he takes Ohio State to the Rose Bowl or wins a national championship, he’ll get more than a $250,000 bonus. So here is a coach that loses 3 weeks pay and misses 2 games (against the 2 weakest teams on the schedule, by the way) for breaking the rules, and he’ll still pocket 3.64 million dollars while the players who are helping him make all this money can’t even trade a game jersey or other mementos for a free or discounted tattoo without having to miss 5 games.

  I think if Bernie Madoff could have a do-over, he’d try to run a big-time college athletic program. Ohio State’s athletic budget is 110 million dollars. They make more than that from donations, the football team, and the men’s basketball team. All the other sports lose money. No wonder they can pay a coach $4 million dollars a year. As long as the football team wins, the money will keep pouring in. And they don’t even have to pay the players. Who needs a Ponzi scheme?

  When asked if he considered firing Tressel, Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee said, “No. Are you kidding? I'm just hoping the coach doesn't dismiss me”. The NCAA may also hand down a penalty, but they will likely congratulate the coach and university for admitting their violations and cooperating with their investigation while administering a slap on the wrist. Tressel does have other punishment coming from the university. He received a reprimand and has to attend a compliance seminar. There is no word if the seminar is being held in Hawaii.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Selling fun, not victory

  Yesterday I held the third monthly youth chess tournament in my 5 month series. There were 52 youngsters and 8 parents for a total of 60 players. I was a little off my game and put a six year old girl in the parents section, but almost all of the players had a great time and I got some casual players from 2 of the local elementary schools to play in the unrated section. This is very important because my experience has shown that my tournaments work best with small groups of players from a lot of different areas, as opposed to trying to cater to the few school clubs that have a large amount of members.

  So far the tournament attendance has been better than I could have hoped for. I was happy to see the number of players go up this month since it went from 64 to 48 last month. I expect a severe drop-off in the next 2 tournament as little league and soccer start, but I think it is important to keep to a consistent tournament schedule and am working on a couple of initiatives to keep the tournaments going through the summer instead of just ending in May as I originally intended.

  The biggest issue I’m seeing is that many of the parents of the beginning players will go to a tournament when it is at their child’s school but won’t travel to another school to play. I had 20 parochial school players in February when the tournament was at St. Francis, but only 5 at yesterday’s tournament at the public school. Yesterday I had 10 players who attended the local Jordan Creek Elementary School yesterday, but only 1 at the St. Francis tournaments. The 2 schools are 5 miles apart. I’m not sure if this is a public/private school thing or the parents think they are supporting their school by attending, or just a coincidence, but it is a barrier I’ll need to break down in order to build a successful chess series in the area.

  At the last tournament, a couple of parents asked me if everyone gets a trophy or medal. I’ve been able to answer yes for every tournament so far, and have even purchased some participation trophies in order to ensure that I can answer yes. If I get questioned further, I break out one of my favorite catch phrases “I’m selling fun, not victory.” It sounds like a pithy little comment, but I really do think that when putting on a youth chess tournament, you are either selling one or the other.

  When I ran the state scholastics for the IASCA, I was running a lot of tournaments to determine the state scholastic champions. I tried to make the tournaments fun, but ultimately I was selling the chance to win a state championship. I was selling victory. I tried to sell fun by adding as many prizes as I could for players for the top scoring girls, or the best scoring new team at a team championship, or prizes for players rated under a certain level, but the bulk of the prizes (and accolades) went to the top players.

  If you have players and parents that are buying fun, you can make them happy by running a fair tournament where everyone has a good time. To me this includes having plenty of prizes on hand. I try to have slightly different medal and trophy prizes at every tournament, but the prizes themselves are of a modest size. If a player doesn’t like playing, winning a trophy or medal at every tournament isn’t going to keep them playing chess, but I think at the beginner/intermediate level of player I’m working with, the prizes are my way showing appreciation for their being willing to spend a day playing chess being willing to win and lose. The top 5 prizes at my tournament are bigger than the other prizes, but only by a little. I think that as the players realize they are all going to get a comparable prize, they stop fretting about what trophy they will win and just enjoy playing. I’ve run tournaments with 130 players and 80 prizes where the players all would tell me their score and ask me what kind of prize they would win. I’ve had none of that at these tournaments.

  Part of selling victory means you need to a steady supply of players for the victors to beat. For the lack of a better word, I’ll call them victims. I’ve always seen a tremendous amount of turnover in scholastics when the tournaments are age based and the prizes go to the top 3 or the top 6. The group of players that don’t win prizes will give up after 2 or 3 tournaments, while the players who consistently finish 3rd or 4th give it a couple of years to see if they can get to the top level. It has always taken me a tremendous amount of work and effort to get a continuing supply of victims. The only way to easily have a constant victim supply is to cater to school clubs with a lot of members so they will bring all their players to tournaments. This was the IASCA scholastic model of the early 2000’s, but when 2 of the large clubs collapsed, attendance nosedived and even the victors stopped coming to the tournaments when the supply of victims was cut off.

  Players and parents who are buying victory tend to take up a lot of time. When I ran the K-6 team tournament, one year I got a lot of pressure from some K-5 schools to allow them to include 6th graders from the middle schools in order to not be at a competitive disadvantage to the K-6 schools. I didn’t allow that, but did set aside a K-5 champion trophy in case a K-6 team won the championship (Naturally, the K-5 schools finished in the top 4 spots.) Another time I exchanged 20 emails from a coach of a Junior High School team who wanted his son to be on the top board even though his rating was lower than another player and he even lost to that player in a tournament earlier that year. I had asked the other senior tournament directors in the state and they all thought it was a bad idea. I asked on the USCF message boards and 2 national tournament directors thought it was a bad idea. But as I was the one getting the 20 emails, I relented and said I was going to do it as a favor to the host school since that is who was making the request. I only got another 10 emails after that still having to explain my decision. The IASCA now has at least 16 pages of rules and regulations concerning the running of scholastic tournaments. I had none and certainly don't have any for my new youth chess series.

  A couple of months ago, I got a long email about new IASCA regulations concerning the K-6 team tournament. At this tournament, championships are awarded to the top scorers for schools only using the scores of the kids in grades K-3. When I ran the tournament, I figured that if a 3rd graders score was good enough to help their team win a top prize in both the K-6 and the K-3, good for him or her and I’d give them 2 trophies as a team member of a top K-3 team AND a top K-6 team (the top 4 scores for each school count towards the team score and in addition to the team trophy the 4 top scorers get a team member trophy.) The 500+ word email I got from the IASCA stated that if a players score counted towards their schools K-6 score, their score could not count towards their schools K-3 score and furthermore, a coach could designate his schools K-3 players as a separate team if they notified the tournament director beforehand, but once the tournament started it would be too late. If you got a headache reading that, so did I. But when you’re selling victory, these are the things you have to deal with. What was the point of all these rules? Was another K-3 school upset that some K-3 players were picking up 2 trophies? Or was it a K-6 school? I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t want to ever deal with stuff like that.

  I was talking to a parent yesterday about this. He liked the idea of all the kids leaving the tournament with a trophy or medal. He told me a story of when he worked on a cruise line. The passengers got ‘cruise bucks’ for participating in various activities that they could redeem for merchandise. A t-shirt could be had for 10 cruise bucks. One lady was complaining to him that when she was getting her t-shirt for 10 cruise bucks, the person in front of her was redeeming only 7 cruise bucks for her shirt. He asked if that was the last shirt and was told it was not. He asked if the lady didn’t get her shirt in her size, but she did. She just couldn’t seem to enjoy her shirt knowing that another passenger got it for less than 10 cruise bucks.

  I’m probably never going to keep the people whose trophy or medal loses its significance if everyone is getting a prize, but that’s OK with me. Like I said, I’m selling fun, not victory. And since I have 5 entries for April’s tournament less than 1 day after my last one, I have to think there’s going to be enough people who want to buy fun.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

State of the Unions

  When Republican Terry Branstad was elected Governor for the fifth time after a 16 year hiatus, the defeated outgoing Governor Chet Culver quickly concluded negotiations with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) on a new 2 year contract which included yearly raises. Branstad was elected on a platform of smaller government and understanably wants to renegotiate the raises. Equally understandably, the AFSCME is reluctant to do so. The AFSCME and its members are large political contributors with the ratio of its donations 98 to 1 in favor of Democrats, so it is no surprise that a Democratic Governor gave the union a going away present and that a Republican Governor is trying to get back some money to fund his proposed decrease in the corporate tax rate (I imagine that the ratio of donations from corporate tax payers are largely Republican).

  Branstad would also like to see the AFSCME contribute more to their health care and pension in addition to accepting less money. My youngest son Ben thinks Branstad is an idiot, but I’d hate to think an idiot could get elected Governor 5 times. Once or twice maybe, but 5 times? His decision in 1992 to sign a law allowing elected officials to collect their salary AND pension seems pretty smart now that he gets to keep his $50K pension in addition to his $130K governors salary. But since he was making $357K as the president of Des Moines University and gave that job up to run for Governor, Ben may be right after all. In any event, Branstad will get his renegotiations by threatening layoffs to the AFSCME employees and see if he can get his corporate tax cut money that way. The threat of a strike vs. layoffs should make for an interesting spring and summer of negotiations.

  Things are a lot less sane in Wisconsin. Armed with a Republican controlled legislature and what he thinks is a public mandate to balance the budget, Governor Scott Walker and the legislature are trying to vote through a measure that would deny public employee unions the right to bargain collectively for anything but raises below the level of inflation and mandate their contributions to health insurance and retirement plan, among other restrictions (Curiously, the Republican-leaning police and firefighter unions are exempted from the proposed new law). Outnumbered and without the filibuster power the minority party in the US Senate has, the 14 Wisconsin Senate Democrats have left the state to prevent the measure from becoming law, since Wisconsin requires 20 of the 33 State Senators to be present when voting on a budget bill.

  Despite numerous protests and compromise attempts, both sides are standing firm, and now many states (Ohio and Idaho, among others) are trying to write law restricting public union bargaining rights. Even Iowa is getting into the act.

  It’s easy for the politicians to blame the public servants for their own shortfalls at not being able to balance their budget, but unilaterally taking away collective bargaining rights doesn’t seem like the right way to solve their budget problems. I’m not even sure how it could be legal, but in a country where it is OK to abort an inconvenient pregnancy, but a convicted murderer cannot be executed because they may suffer for a few minutes before they die during the lethal injection process I suppose anything goes. Unions were formed almost 100 years ago to combat the employer abuses of the time and their collective bargaining rights were not won without violence and bloodshed. Unions are far from perfect, but taking away collective bargaining rights forces employees to rely on the largesse and goodwill of their employers.

  When I was a security guard in 1978 to 1979, I had the chance to join the ‘security guard union’. For 10 dollars a week, I’d get 6 paid vacation days and time and a half if I got to work on the vacation day. Since I was only making $3 an hour, I passed. I later found out that the ‘union’ was part of the security guard company. Since then, I’ve never had the chance to be in a union. If any employer I worked for decided I had to pay more for health care or there would be no 401K match or if I had to take a pay cut, my only choice was to go along or find another job. Of course, if my employer is making money from my work, I can extract more money without being tied to some pay scale, so the sword cuts both ways. I worked at the Bristol-Myers factory from 1980 to 1982 and while we had no union, we got paid whatever the factory Schering-Plough paid their union workers. I was a ‘temporary’ employee, but all the old-timers would constantly talk about what a good deal they had since they had no union dues to pay and never had to go on strike, but got union wages anyway. It was a good deal, but I know if there was no Schering-Plough union, our wages would have been a lot lower. What’s my point? My point is that everyone gains when anyone stands up for their rights, even the people that take no risks at all.

  Part of management is using getting the most work done with the least amount of resources. When I was flipping burgers, the manager called a meeting for the new employees (less than 6 months) one November and us that even though we were not due for our raise until January, because of our fine work we were all getting a boost from $2.50 an hour (minimum wage) to $2.67. We were all happy until January, when the minimum wage went from $2.50 to $2.65 and we found out that people from other stores with less skilled management got raises to $2.82. The manager at our store became the district manager with a year. There are some exceptions, but if you are waiting for management to act on your behalf when it is not in their best interests, you will be waiting a long time.

  The National Football League had negotiated an agreement with the players union to split their revenues according to an agreed on percentage. The contract is up and the team owners and players are attempting to renegotiate a new agreement. The owners are threatening to lock the players out of training camp and possibly not even have a season. This is powerful leverage since the players have very few years to make their money while the owners have their lifetimes to make theirs. When the owners negotiated their last TV deal with the networks, they accepted less money over the past few years in order to have a guaranteed 4 billion dollar payout from the networks if there wasn’t an NFL season. This was stricken down by a federal judge because the owners reduced the TV revenue they would have normally had to share with the players in order to fund a lockout of the very same players. I’m not saying the NFL players aren’t rich enough already and don’t have it pretty good. I’m saying if the owners were only paying the players $10 an hour, they’d be working on a way to only pay them $9.

  If a state, county, or city government wants to change the conditions of a negotiated agreement with their employees, they should bargain with the union and fight it out in that fashion as opposed to the heavy-handed dictatorial route like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Idaho are planning. I’d think the threat of layoffs would get the unions attention and if they can’t come to an agreement, the union can strike and everyone can find out how much the public is willing to pay for their services. Everyone grouses about how much garbage men sanitation workers make until they go on strike and the trash is piling up and no one takes it away.

  The big problem everyone has with the public service unions at the moment is really the recession. When times are good and people take higher paying private sector jobs instead of working for governments, governments have traditionally offered security, health care, and pension benefits to make up for the lower pay and lack of career paths offered. But at times like now when there are few private sector jobs, the public service pay seems good and the low-cost health care and retirement plans seem excessive, so they have become easy pickings for everyone else that now have to not only make do with less, but also pay for these civil servants' health care and retirement in addition to their now-generous looking salaries. When companies start to hire again, and in time they surely will, I expect the heavy-handed governments of 2011 to make a lot of concessions to entice the workers they wouldn’t negotiate with from leaving and to entice new workers.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Joe Namath - A Biography

  I got this book last month at the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Marshalltown for 50 cents and this copy will be making its reappearance at the store when I donate it back now that I’m done with it. I could have bought this book for $6.40 + shipping at Amazon. This is not the type of book I’d pay that kind of money for, but happy to get for 50 cents at a thrift store. A great thing about the book sections at the Salvation Army and Goodwill is that you never know what you will find.

  Like Bobby Fisher, Joe Namath was an icon of my youth. I always liked the football New York Giants for the sole reason that they played in Yankee Stadium, home of my favorite team, the New York Yankees. The Jets played in Shea Stadium, home of the Mets, so most Met fans were also Jet fans. Since the Jets won the Super Bowl in 1969 and the Mets won the World Series later the same year, I always thought fans of those 2 teams were just a bunch of front-runners, but as I got older, I understood that they were just as passionate about their teams as I was about mine and as the Mets and Jets went from champs to chumps I noticed very few of their fans dumped their allegiance.

  When I was a kid, I knew of Joe Namath as the highest paid player in the NFL and as the quarterback of the Jets when they won the Super Bowl, but I also thought of him as a bunch of hype. He didn’t throw for a touchdown in the Super Bowl, was hardly ever healthy after the Super Bowl, the Jets never won a playoff game after the Super Bowl, and the Jets were never a very good team while Namath was with them from 1970 till when he left the team in 1977. Despite all that, Namath was always on TV doing commercials. He sold popcorn makers, shaving cream, and even wore a pair of panty hose in a commercial.

  I remember how Namath would be on the Super Bowl pregame shows and being able to predict the winner and the margin of victory within a point or 2 for what seemed like 5 straight years. He was on Monday Night Football for a couple of years and did the Jets games on NBC after that. And I didn’t even notice him in the news until he came on an ESPN NFL game all drunk and tried to kiss sideline reporter Suzy Kolber during an interview.

  The book was very even handed and there were a lot of things I didn’t know about Namath that made me think differently about him. He was the youngest of 5 kids and his parents split up when he was a teenager. He was always a great athlete, but liked to draw attention to himself. There is a picture in the book of his little league team and Namath is wearing sunglasses in the picture. This is in the 1950’s. I knew he went to play college ball at Alabama, but I didn’t know that he was the quarterback in the first primetime bowl game. When he signed his at the time unheard of $400,000+ contract with the Jets, he only took $25K a year in salary and bought his mother a new house, financed his brother’s insurance company, and deferred the rest of the money to be paid after he had retired. He always deferred the lion share of his contracts to be paid after he retired. He was by all accounts an excellent football strategist and knew that in the famous Super Bowl victory that he guaranteed, the Jets would be able to run all over the Colts because they would commit the bulk of their defensive resources to stopping the Jets passing attack. That’s why he didn’t throw very much in the game. He was putting his team ahead of his personal statistics, but he became the face of the championship team all the same.

  Namath was a playboy and his 'Broadway Joe' image was well publicized. Namath made no attempt at secrecy, instead explaining he wanted to get it out of his system before he settled down. And after Namath got married, there are no reports of his cheating on his wife, and he became by all accounts a model husband and father. Sadly, his wife cheated on him and his marriage ended in divorce. This is in stark contrast to the New York sports idol of the 50’s and 60’s, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, who cheated on his wife constantly, but stayed married until his death.

  Namath also drank a lot and also kept no secrets about that, either. He even owned some nightclubs until it was discovered that mobsters and gangsters frequented his establishments and was ordered to divest of his clubs by the NFL in order to continue playing football. In the book, Namath claimed that he drank mostly to kill the pain from his bad knees. I tend to think that Namath didn’t drink nearly as much as the stories told. To compare him again to Mantle (who made a nice living in the 70s and 80s talking about his drinking exploits), Namath didn’t need to have a liver transplant and is still alive in his late 60's, which I doubt would be possible if he drank as much as he was said to (the Kolber incident nonwithstanding).

  Namath appeared in a number of movies and even had his own TV variety show as he transitioned away from football. He was said to be skilled at studying tapes of NFL defenses to find their weaknesses and took that same analytical ability to his acting career. He became a skilled performer on the summer theater circuit and had a passable second career as an entertainer. His wife was an aspiring actress and financed an off-broadway play by Ibsen to showcase her talents. Namath had a part in the play as an older doctor (Namath was 20 years older than his wife), and got the better of the reviews. The book claimed this drove his wife to go to Hollywood for acting lessons, which is where she met the man she started cheating on Namath with.

  The biography does a great job of framing Namath in his times. The main thing I didn’t realize about him is that he was the first football ‘rock star’. He got the first mega contract, he was the first player to wear long hair and white shoes. Before him, the classic image of the football player was Johnny Unitas with his crew cut and high top black shoes. Namath was the first player to be marketed as a celebrity, not an athlete. Since he either deferred most of his football money or used it to support his parents and siblings, he needed the endorsement money and so was on TV more than all the other athletes. Looking at the old ads on YouTube, I am struck by how Namath seems to just be having fun being Joe Namath in the commercials.

  While Namath was also the first football ‘rock star’, he was one of the first football players whose ‘private life’ was public. 10 years before, Mickey Mantle’s womanizing and drinking was never mentioned in the media, but Joe Namath’s many liaisons and the llama skin rug in his apartment was daily fodder for the sports media. And yet, Namath took it all in with a good humor and stayed true to himself.

  I’m glad I read this book because it showed me a side of Joe Namath I never knew. I’m struck between the contrast of Joe Namath and Bobby Fischer. Both were at the top of their profession, but while Fischer was willing to not compete and live on skid row off his mother’s social security checks, Namath provided for his parents, siblings, and future generations by taking advantage of all the endorsement opportunities his fame offered. When involved in a public relations nightmare of his own making, Namath offered his apologies with no excuses and set about to rehab his image, while Fischer continued to run away from his problems until he couldn’t run away any more. Fischer turned his back on everyone who ever was his friend, but Joe Namath’s friendships have lasted a lifetime. As much as I admire Bobby Fischer for his chess accomplishments, Joe Namath would be a lot more fun to hang around with.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Endgame – The Bobby Fischer Biography

  I bought the Bobby Fisher biography “Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall - from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” from a couple of weeks ago for $14 with free shipping. The book lists for $25.99, which is what Bob Long of Thinkers Press was selling it for. was selling the book for $20. Bob is probably going to be upset with me for buying the book from Amazon if he reads this since he is always railing about how Amazon squeezes all the profits from the books, leaving little for the publisher/author and nothing for the smaller booksellers like Bob. But that is the beauty of in a Wal-Mart sort of way. If I want a book, I can probably get it from them cheaper than from anyone else and if it is a book like this one that was heavily publicized, they will send me an email offer at the lowest possible price. Anyway, I have $12 in my pocket that I can use to purchase a book or DVD from Bob which I have done plenty of times in the past and you won’t find me complaining about paying Bob $30 for his biography “The Chess Assassin’s Business Manual” when it is on sale for $10 on the remainder market 3 months later.

  I’m a product of the “Fischer Boom” of 1972. When Bobby Fischer won the right to challenge then champion Boris Spassky in Iceland, the entire country was rooting for the American to beat the Russians at their own game (5 Russians had held the championship for 34 years). The match was on public television 3 or more days a week during the summer, sales of chess sets went up 10 fold, and United States Chess Federation memberships tripled. To this day, the Fischer Boom has reverberations as people my age have taught our kids chess and volunteer to share our love of the game. Fischer won the championship, didn’t play in any tournaments or matches, and lost his crown in 1975 when he refused to defend it against the new Russian challenger, Anatoly Karpov. Sales of chess sets and USCF memberships went back to the pre-Fischer levels and the Russians held the World Championship for 33 more years, until Viswanathan Anand from India beat Vladimir Kramnik for the title in 2008. Fischer went to Yugoslavia in 1992 to play a $5 million dollar rematch against Boris Spassky in violation of a US ban on playing in a county under UN Embargo. Fischer spit on the government ban at a press conference, won the match, and was not heard from again in the mainstream press until 9-11 when he went on a Philippine radio station to declare his happiness for the destruction of America. Up until that time, he was allowed to travel the world even though the US had revoked his passport and had a warrant for his arrest, but after his 9-11 diatribes, Fischer was no longer looked on by the government with a blind eye. He was arrested in Japan in 2004 for not having a valid passport, held in jail for 9 months while he fought extradition to the US, and was given Icelandic citizenship in 2005 and lived there until his death in 2008.

  The author, Frank Brady, had written a previous biography of Fischer “Profile of a Prodigy” in 1965 and updated it in 1972 after Fischer won the World Championship. He is a professional biographer, having also written biographies of Orson Welles, Hugh Hefner, Barbara Streisand, and Aristotle Onassis.

  I knew before buying the book that there would be no chess games in it, but all the reviews I read said this was the definitive biography on Bobby Fischer that had a lot of new information, and I did like the Profile of a Prodigy book, so I went for it. I was disappointed in that there was very little in the book I didn’t already know. The first third of the book talks about his poverty stricken childhood, no father and a mother that is always working, protesting, and studying to pay much attention to him until his sister brings home a chess set among many other games to play with. He takes to chess, immerses himself in it, and his mother takes him to a chess club in Brooklyn. He gets better and better and by the time he is 15, he is the US champion and is competes successfully internationally and is one of the top 10 players in the world. The second third of the book talks about how he blames the Russians for his failures on the international stage, is insulting to the patrons of US chess (in one example, a patroness of a tournament gives Fischer his prize money in an envelope and offers her congratulations, only to have Fischer rip the envelope open and count the money to make sure it was all there, completely ignoring the patron.), dropping out of matches and tournaments over an imagined slight or argument over playing conditions. Eventually, the USCF bends every rule they could to get him into the 1972 championship cycle that Fischer didn’t bother to qualify for, and he wins an astounding 19 games in a row against grandmasters to set up his match with Spassky. Fischer held out for more prize money that had every been paid for a championship chess match, lost the first game, forfeited the second in a protest over the having the cameras removed from the playing site (they were), then came back to only lose 1 more game in the match, winning by 4 games.

  The latter part of the book details how Fischer gave most of his championship prize money to Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God and was destitute for much of the 70’s and 80’s, (even though he had numerous endorsement opportunities that he turned down), living off the Social Security checks his mother signed over to him, blaming his troubles on a Jewish conspiracy against him (Fischer is at least half-Jewish), and collecting Nazi literature to help him prove the conspiracy, his comeback, 9-11 rantings, exile to Iceland, and finally his death.

  If you are a chess player and knew about all of Bobby Fischer’s triumphs and tragedies, I think you will find very little in this book you didn’t know already. The one thing that I didn’t know was that he kept a good relationship with his mother up until her death and how supportive she was of his chess career.

  If you don’t know much about chess, would you want to read a book about someone who was a gifted chess player, but with the exception of his mother, turned his back on anyone and everyone who ever helped him or tried to help him, including his own country? Even in the last part of the book, Fisher is quoted talking disparagingly about the Icelandic people and nation, the one country that was willing to give him citizenship and rescue him from living out his life in an American prison.

  Because of Bobby Fischer, an entire generation of Americans tried out chess as a pastime and to this day more people find the measure of confidence, fellowship, and self-esteem over the chessboard that they could not through athletics and other activities. But even 40 years after he won the championship and 20 years after his last competitive game, he is the one name most people associate with chess and many of these people tend to think of chess players as crazy nuts like Bobby Fischer. This is a shame because while the population of chess players has (like all organizations) its share of crazies, most adult chess players are upstanding, hardworking, responsible people. The Iowa Closed Chess Championship will be played next month. The 6 players competing include 2 outstanding students (not high school dropouts like Fischer), 1 lawyer, 1 surgeon, 1 college professor, and 1 engineer. How much easier would it be to me to get donors for my series of chess tournaments if these 6 people came to the donor’s mind when they thought of chess players instead of Bobby Fischer? You could make the case that some or none of these people would have played chess in the first place if not for Fischer and there's a lot of logic behind that viewpoint, but I feel Fischer did at least as much harm to the perception of chess in the United States as he did good and I don't even want to get into the opportunity lost to popularize chess if he had just kept playing without going wacko.

  To sum up my thoughts on Bobby Fisher, a priest walked in on the St. Francis Chess Club 2 weeks ago and was telling the head coach Jim Mona and myself how good he thought it was that these kids were learning to play chess. Then he said, “Maybe you have another Bobby Fischer here?” and Jim and I said almost at the same time “I hope not.”