Sunday, August 21, 2011

A fair Iowa State Fair

This wasn't the only shot in the gut I'd be taking from David Skaar this day.
On the right is Ben Munson, legendary Des Moines chess teacher.

  This past week was Iowa State Fair Week in Des Moines and every year on the Wednesday of that week, the Iowa State Fair Speed Chess competition is held. Last year I finished second and have been pointing to this day for over a month to make another attempt at the coveted first place Blue Ribbon to along with my red (2nd), white(3rd) and 2 yellow (participant) State Fair speed chess ribbons.

  I left work an hour early, snaked my way through Des Moines, paid 5 dollars to park in some guys backyard (the state fair lots were full and this guy lives next to their parking lots), walked through the State Fair parking lot, paid my $10 dollar fair entry fee, and walked through the throngs of people drinking $5 sodas in commemorative cups ($3 refills) and eating anything that can be fried in grease and stuck on a stick (including fried butter on a stick) towards the Administration Building where the tournament is held every year. The scholastic tournaments were wrapping up and I was happy to see some of the tournament players from my scholastic events competing. I talked to some of the kids and parents while waiting for the 5:30 start time.

  The State Fair tournament is organized and run by Ben Munson every year. Ben is a concert violinist, an expert chess player, and one of the great people of Iowa chess, spending countless hours as a volunteer chess teacher in Des Moines schools over the last 3 decades. You could say that I’m an offshoot of the Ben Munson School of running tournaments in that we both want low entry fees, lots of prizes, and have no one in our tournaments walk away empty-handed. This is not to say that we agree on everything. For example, Ben doesn’t believe that kids should be playing in USCF rated tournaments until they are rated at least 1200 (ratings start at 100 and all but a few Iowa Scholastic players are rated below 1200) and I think rated tournaments are fine as long as a child’s ratings don’t become all-consuming, but the fact remains that I respect Ben’s opinions a lot and everyone I’ve ever met that knows Ben also has an enormous amount of respect for him.

  There were a lot of strong players at this year’s event like Mike Maloney. Mike outrates me by 2 rating classes, but said he just came to watch and wasn’t going to play. Another player 2 rating classes above me was George Eichhorn (who was there to play). George is an attorney and I registered as a Republican last year solely to vote for him when he ran for Secretary of State. To this date, George is the only member of a major party I have ever voted for. As a chess player, George has made the finals of the State championship 2 of the last 3 years and beat Matt in this year’s final, costing Matt the state chess championship. My longtime state fair nemesis David Skaar was on hand, along with Tim Harder (Tim is in the same rating class as I am), rising scholastic player Cub Noble (who should have beat me last year and is even a stronger player now), Marshalltown Blitz semi-regular Steve Jacobs (who has played me even this year in Marshalltown), and tournament veteran Greg Ward.

3 generations of Iowa tournament organizers: Ben Munson and myself (left).
Cub Noble and Tim Harder, representatives of the next generation (right).

  At the State Fair it is vitally important not to fall too far behind on the clock since you only have 5 minutes for the game and there is no delay before your clock runs down to allow you to make an unlimited amount of moves with just a second left on your clock. Cub offered to play me a warm up game at the time limit. He beat me easily, but I shrugged off my sloppy play and beat him in the next 3 games. Fully warmed up, I took on Mike, who crushed me. After my beatdown, I took the rest of the time to catch up with the rest of the players and Ben, and talk shop will fellow tournament organizers Cub Noble and Tim Harder about their September 3rd Big Money Blitz tournament in Ankeny. While Ben is from the previous generation of tournament organizers that does the pairings, press releases, and promotional mailings by hand, and I am of the current generation that uses a computer for the pairings and email and Internet for promotion, Cub and Tim are the next generation of organizers that accept payment by Paypal and promote via Facebook.

  Last year there were only 8 players in the speed chess tournament and we all played each other, but this year 19 players chose to compete. An all-play-all tournament would have taken at least 3 hours, so Ben divided us into 5 groups of 3 or 4 players who would play each other and the winner of each pool would compete in the finals. I was extremely lucky in that my group had 2 beginner kids and Casey Smith, the parent of a scholastic player who has played in my parent and friends tournament but had never played with a clock set to 5 minutes before. I had Black against each youngster and dispatched them in short order and then beat Casey with White to take a spot in the finals. Cub had the misfortune to be placed in George’s group and missed the finals, while Tim lost to Skaar, and Steve was upset by Greg. That’s 3 pretty strong players not even getting in the finals!

George Eichhorn
  The 5 players in the finals were George, David Skaar, Greg, myself, and a guy I never saw before named Robert who won the fifth pool. In the first game I had the black pieces against George, a daunting challenge. I thought George wanted to attack but instead he let me get my pawns on his side of the board and make him defend against me. I crashed open the center and had a monster passed pawn that put his pieces in a horrible cramp, but made a couple of bad moves to lose all my queen side pawns. I managed to come back from that to win George’s queenside pawns back and get a winning position, but then I noticed that I had 20 seconds left on the clock and George had a minute. I raced my pawns down the board and made a Queen with a forced checkmate in 5 moves, but with no delay on the clocks at the State Fair I ran out of time and lost.

  I was happy that I was able to go toe to toe with George, but if I had matched his speed maybe I’m not able to get the winning position I did. I had the second round off and David and George played to a draw, which barring a major upset sealed me off from first place for this year. I had the white pieces against Skaar in round 3. I got a great position and won a rook for a knight, but couldn’t figure out how to break through the chain of pawns protecting David’s king. I glanced at the clock and saw I only had 30 seconds to a minute and a half for David. I tried my best to break through but with 8 seconds on my clock, I moved a piece that was pinned to my king and David took my King. I’m not sure how the State Fair rules handle this, but it didn’t matter since I had no time left so I resigned.

  I was pretty bummed out as I took the black pieces against Greg. I thought I had a great chance to come home with the blue ribbon and instead I was looking at 2 straight losses in positions I could have won. I played listlessly against Greg, got too aggressive and missed a knight fork that cost me a rook for a knight. I looked at the clock and saw that Greg had 2 minutes while I had 3. Instead of attacking me with his material advantage, Greg decided to give me a piece in order to trade queens. I had a crummy position, but with equal material and a time advantage, I was able to slowly get back in the game and was a piece ahead when Greg’s time ran out. I couldn’t take a lot of joy in the victory since I had just lost 2 games in the same fashion, but a win is a win is a win. In the last round I had White against Robert, who had lost all his games. I played a smarter game this round, making safe, quick moves and built up a 2:30 to 2:00 edge on the clock. Robert finally made a mistake in time pressure, lost a piece and I brought home the point to finish 5-2 for the day, 2-2 for the finals, and the owner of my second 3rd place white ribbon from the Iowa State Fair. David and George finished in a tie for first and Ben rewarded them each with a first place blue ribbon.

On the left are the other players in my group and on the right Cub Noble battles George Eichhorn. Over the the chessboard chess players can be a cutthroat bunch, but away from the board we tend to get along great.

  Playing at the fair this year was an interesting dynamic. Except for Robert and the 2 kids I played in the preliminary round, I knew, liked, and respected everyone I played but when we sat down at the board the smiles disappeared and we went at each other like 2 dogs going after a scrap of meat, yet after the game we were as friendly as we were before the first move. We all wanted desperately wanted to win each game we sat down to play, but also understand the randomness of chess, especially the 5 minute variety, and there were no hard feelings about the results.

  I had a great time at the State Fair tournament as always, but I’m disappointed in myself for not playing as good as I thought I could have. It’s just like I tell the kids at the tournaments. My opponents just played better than me and if I can use this experience to get better, I won’t walk away from the tournament as a loser. If I am ever going to capture that blue ribbon, I have to be more aware of the clock and not get into the extreme time pressure I did on Wednesday. I’ve signed up for Tim and Cub’s 5 minute BIG MONEY BLITZ tournament in Ankeny on Labor Day weekend and in the two weeks till the tournament I am going to practice 3 and 5 minute chess on the internet and especially working on getting in the habit of looking at the clock every move to make sure I don’t fall behind on the clock.

  I bought an ice-cold pickle for the mile walk back to my car. It was a fitting reward for my 3rd place finish since as good as the cold pickle tasted on a hot night, it also left me with a sour taste when I was done. I have the white ribbon hanging up next to my monitor at work where I can see it all the time. My co-workers are impressed with my third place finish and maybe they think I have it hanging up to remind myself of my good result or to show off. I graciously accept their congratulations, but don't mention that the real reason my white ribbon is hanging by my computer screen is to remind me as often as possible how much I want that blue ribbon in 2012.