Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A winning weekend

16 players chose to start the tournament Friday night.

  I spent the past weekend in Okoboji, Iowa directing the Okoboji Open chess tournament for my friend Jodene Kruse as I have the past 3 years. The family chess tournaments I’ve been holding in West Des Moines are challenging because I have 3 separate tournaments, 50 kids with questions, 50 parents with questions, beginning players that sometimes need a lot of explanation during the game on whether a move is legal or not, etc.... The Okoboji tournament brings a whole different set of challenges. There are a lot of experts and masters who are playing to win money (the top 3 prizes were $300-225-125) and they rightly expect good playing conditions and the tournament director to be on his or her ‘A’ game. Since I am seeing many of the players for the first time or the first time in a year, there is not the level of trust in my abilities as a tournament director than there would be in West Des Moines where I have known many of the players and parents for over 5 years.

Doug and Dave Given
travelled from Nebraska to
play in the tournament and
the father/son duo each
was first in their class.
  The tournament went very smoothly. A large number of players from Jodene’s school club came to play and they didn’t bring sets (normally these are supplied at a scholastic club), but luckily I had my sets and clocks from my chess club in my car and we used those. I also didn’t bring enough score sheets, but the people at the hotel were happy to make copies for me. I had only 2 incidents of note. One game was started with one of the players’ pieces on the wrong squares. One of the players knew they could restart the game as long as 10 moves hadn’t been played, but since I didn’t know the rule by heart, I just grabbed the rule book and verified what I was supposed to do. Later on, a class player was playing a master. Both players had just a few minutes left in a very drawish position. The master wanted to win so as to preserve his chance at winning a top prize and would not agree to a draw and kept trying to induce the class player to make a mistake. I try to be in the tournament room as the games are winding down because that is when many odd situations arise and it is helpful for me to see events unfold. I was observing the game when the class player stopped the clocks and tried to claim a draw. By rule, I had to disallow the claim (since the clocks had a delay set before the time wound down) and this emboldened the master to keep trying to trick his now distracted opponent into making a mistake, which he soon did, and the master won a game he probably had no business winning. I talked to the class player afterward and he knew he should not have let his opponent see his frustration, but he felt he was going to run out of time and needed to do something. It was a shame, but I’ve been on both sides of the table in that situation and it is certainly the right of a player to ‘test’ the knowledge of their opponent in an equal position to try to force a mistake.

  I did my best to take care of the players main concerns. I kept the playing hall as quiet as possible and I made the pairings available as soon as I could. The top players like to know who they will play the next morning and they appreciated that I let them know as soon as the last game ended instead of just going out to eat and taking care of the pairings in the morning.

  I was really happy to see that Jodene and Sam Smith from nearby Jackson, MN had about a dozen local players in this weekend’s tournament and I encouraged them as strongly as I could to find a way to have a low cost monthly tournament for these players so they could continue their tournament play. I feel very strongly that while it is nice to have a great tournament like the Okoboji Open that attracts players from a 4 hours driving radius, they are not viable in the long-term without the support of a local base of players. But a local base did support this tournament and that is not something I saw in my last couple of trips up here so I think that Jodene, Sam, and John have hit a new level in their journey to establish a long term chess culture in the area.

  Every chess tournament and most chess games have winners and losers, but I felt like I got to hang out with a lot of winners this weekend and I felt so energized by being around people who play chess, enjoy chess, understand what it can do for people, and have a need to share their understanding that I want to share my insights on some of the winners I got to hang out with.

  Jodene Kruse is someone who is very inspirational to me. Here is someone who has been afflicted with cerebral palsy, but doesn’t let it stop her from teaching chess to kids, and organizing the Okoboji Open every year. In a world where I constantly see people get upset over petty annoyances and give up on their plans and dreams because of a minor setback, how nice is it to know someone who refuses to get sidetracked by a major annoyance? I got to watch her work with her chess kids and their parents this weekend and they see the same things I do. The kids gravitate to her and she is good at getting them to think about enjoying playing, not just winning and losing. Once a lady at a tournament my kids were playing in was effusively telling me how she tried to get all her kids to enjoy chess and not think about winning or losing because after all “it’s just game”. But when each of her students left the playing hall and passed her, she’d ask them if they won. If they said yes, it was ‘high five time’, but if they said no, she’d make an exaggeratedly pouty face and then brightly say, “maybe next time”. After seeing this for around the 5th time, I asked why the first thing she asked them was whether they won if she didn’t want them to think about winning and losing. She turned beet red, muttered something I couldn’t quite make out, spun around and left. I listened to Jodene interact with the kids from her club for about an hour and a half on Sunday and I don’t think I heard the words 'win'or 'lose' come up more than a couple of times.

  Sam Smith is a chess organizer and player from Jackson, Minnesota about 20 miles north of Okoboji. He lost his long-time job a while ago and has bounced around at different places and is now assisting at a group home. Sam also helps teach chess at his local library, and this weekend brought his friend Joel to play in the tournament. Joel has leg problems and has to walk around with crutches. Joel told me he played 60 tournament games before he won his first. I doubt Joel would still be playing chess without Sam’s encouragement. Joel won a game and drew a game in the tournament and was delighted. He kept saying how it was the best tournament he ever had, but when he had lost his first 2 games, he was saying he thought he was playing well and what a great time he was having at the tournament. He sounded almost like Sam talking and I could see the influence. Sam is a chess idealist and is on a quest to play the perfect game. I was happy to see Sam play an almost perfect game in the last round to get a tie for second place in his section.

  I’ve written about John Flores before. He is someone I know I can trust and a man who has proven his honesty to me personally and commitment to chess in general. He’s a former Marine who’s been working 14 hour 6 day weeks to support his family, but was willing to make the time to support the Okoboji tournament. He’s spent many hours helping to support chess in impoverished schools in Texas and has tried to start some initiatives in Iowa chess. This weekend, John won his first 3 games, but lost his 4th game to the eventual champion in his section in a heartbreaking manner. He looked so tired that I thought he was going to fall asleep in the chair he was sitting in. It would have been easy for him to withdraw from the tournament, but he decided to play his last game. After he won against a promising junior player from South Dakota when his opponent made a horrendous oversight and lost his queen, it would have been easy for John to finally call it a day and go home for some rest, but I saw him spend an hour with the junior player (who was pretty upset), encouraging him, telling him some of the mistakes John had made over the board in the past, and going over the first 20 or so moves showing the kid all the good moves he had made before his one mistake. John wasn’t going to let that player leave for South Dakota until he felt good about the great tournament he had (3 wins and 2 losses). Once he got that done, John left to home and sleep without sticking around to collect his prize money, but not before giving me a pep talk to make sure I knew that he knew I could accomplish what I am hoping to get done with my Des Moines chess program.

  I first met Riaz Khan at last year’s tournament and immediately knew he was a good guy. When I took Matt to play in a tournament at Minneapolis last summer and brought Ben with me, we ran into Riaz again. We were looking for a Wendy’s to eat at (Ben’s a fairly picky eater) and I asked Riaz where to find one. He insisted that we all get in his car and he drove us 10 miles to the Wendy’s and 10 miles back and he wouldn’t even let me buy his lunch. He really went out of his way to make us feel at home in Minneapolis. Riaz has been promoting the Okoboji Open since January, when he asked me to email him the tournament flyer. Now that’s a very nice gesture, but instead of letting the flyer just be a piece of paper on some wall, Riaz spent a lot of time and effort telling chess players he knew what a good tournament he thought it was and trying to convince them to come and play. When grandmaster Alex Yermolinksky pulled out of his commitment to play in the tournament (after the announcements of his participation had been advertised), Riaz managed to get John Bartholomew to play in the tournament so Jodene would still have an elite player competing. Then at a scholastic event in Minnesota last weekend, Riaz got the parents of a number of Minnesota’s top scholastic players to come and play, some of whom Riaz drove over and took responsibility for. This was well above and beyond the call of duty and it probably cost Riaz a chance at first place in the reserve section. He finished tied for second, but took a bye in the 3rd round just to unwind and finished a half point behind the winner, whom he played to a tie in the last round. Riaz also spent a lot of time encouraging the less experienced kids to keep playing chess and improving and then would talk to the parents about all the good things that chess can do for kids. I was mostly glad the tournament went so smoothly because Riaz put his reputation and credibility on the line to get a lot of chess players to come and play who otherwise wouldn’t.

  I first heard of John Bartholomew when the AmericInn motels would have a tournament in each of their properties and all the top finishers would be invited to a free tournament in Minneapolis with thousands of dollars of scholarships being given to the winners. We went 3 years and John won a $2,500 scholarship all 3 years. I ran the tournament at the Marshalltown AmericInn each year. Unbelievably, the IASCA would not get on board and support the AmericInn tournaments because some of them were being held at the same time as the state grades championships and they weren’t asked beforehand. If I had been running the scholastics at that point, I’d have moved the grades championships to another month (or year or decade) and tried to support a company that was putting on 50 or 60 chess tournaments in Iowa. Sadly, AmericInn was bought out by another company that did not support chess and the tournaments died. John went to University of Texas at Dallas on a chess scholarship and graduated in 2009. He is an International Master and is going to take a crack at getting the Grandmaster title before letting chess take a back seat to another profession. Grandmaster Alex Yermolinksy was very gracious when he played in Okoboji the last 2 years, but John was really impressive. He made a point of thanking Jodene for inviting him to the tournament and after his games would hang out in the skittles room going over the game with his opponent. As you could imagine, he drew a big crowd and never seemed bothered or irritated by the attention. I wrote in my last posting how he went over his first round game with his 11 year old opponent for more than an hour. John had won with a sacrificial attack and went over all the defenses the 11 year old could have tried. There was one narrow path to avoid defeat, but it probably would have been easier to walk a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. When I was entering the 11 year old's fourth round game into the computer, I noticed that he played the same opening John played against him in the first game and won the game with almost the same attack. I asked his father about it and he said his son told him that he just tried to remember everything John had taught him about the first game they played and it was easy. John is headed to New York to take a job teaching in the 'Chess in Schools' program while training to get his grandmaster title. I think there are going to be some very lucky kids in New York this fall! Here are the two games of teacher and pupil:

  There were a lot of other great people at Okoboji this past weekend. For the second year in a row, Master Okechukwu Iwu reworked the games I placed on the internet to a better format for chess players around the world to load into their libraries. I got to meet Kent Nelson, who edits the Nebraska chess magazine ‘Gambit’ and is a true gentleman on and off the board. Alex Golubow has played at Okoboji the past 3 years and brought Kent. 2 years ago he was the victim of the largest upset in the tournament and this year he had the second largest upset. He writes articles for the Gambit magazine about the wild opening systems he plays and enjoys and give a unique perspective on the merits of playing openings that are frowned upon by the Grandmasters, but club players have a surprisingly hard time beating over the board.

   The way I’m gushing about these people might give you the impression that they are a combination of Mother Theresa, Captain America, John F. Kennedy, and Michael Jordan. They are just folks dealing with the same issues, faults, and struggles that everyone does, but they don’t let it distract them from trying to help others and enjoying their times at the chessboard. And I’m in the same boat in terms of having ups and downs and faults. If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you may have noticed that I not only can hold a grudge, I nurse them, collect them, display them like trophies, and occasionally buy storage space for them. There are also more than a few times when I cross the line from being blunt to being just mean-spirited. And that’s just scratching the surface.

  But what we all have in common is that we all are trying to reach people and we all have chosen chess as one of the ways we try to reach. When I get to make a trip to Okoboji for the Open, I have the opportunity to get together with the group of people that ‘get it’ in much the same way I do. And that makes me one of this weekend’s winners too.

Last year Riaz and John Flores started a new tradition of going out for a feast on the Saturday night of the tournament at a local Mexican restaurant. A whole group of us have a great time eating and laughing all night. From the left is half of me, Joel Katz, John Flores, Bill Broich, Riaz, John Bartholomew, Okechukwu Iwu, and a tiny part of Sam Smith. Not shown is Tim Harder, but one picture couldn't hold us all.