Sunday, August 14, 2011

On Any Given Thursday

You can never tell who'll be playing chess in Marshalltown on Thursdays.

  I’ve been running a chess club in Marshalltown at the Salvation Army that has met on Thursday nights since September of 2002 and it has been one of the more rewarding things I’ve ever done. I saw in the newspaper that the Salvation Army had a game night and went down to ask if there was a chess club. Major Joan Stoker said “No. Why don’t you start one?” I started it as part of the SA’s open gym for youth that was held on Thursdays. Most of these kids were there to get the free meal that was served, but sometimes the kids would get bored with playing in the gym and wanted to see what chess was about. Very few ever stuck with it, but the people running the Army saw the benefits of getting kids to use their brains once in a while and I was invited back year after year to have the club on Thursdays.

  In January 2003, I ran the AmericInn Youth chess tournament and got the AmericInn to pay for 13 USCF memberships for the SA kids and some others instead of paying me a tournament director’s fee. Many of these kids came to the club for a few years, but the father of one the players, Jon McCord started coming to club and is a regular to this day. Jon worked at Lennox as an electrician before retiring last year and is a perfect complement to me in terms of helping kids get better at chess. I can show the kids the things they need to do to get better, but when I play them, I end up winning a pawn and trading everything off and the kids don’t get a chance to put into practice what I am trying to teach them. But Jon attacks like a cave man and makes his opponents defend themselves. If they do, they end up beating Jon and if they don’t they lose, but when they play Jon, they always have a chance to put their ideas into action.

  Jon doesn’t care if he wins or loses as long as he feels like he’s playing well, which is rare for an adult when he plays a kid. In the early years of the club, I’d get some adults from town come to play and my son Ben would offer to play them. Ben was 6 to 8 years old at this time, but would just cream these adults. I’d try to tell them that Ben was in the top 40 chess players in the US for his age group, but these guys couldn’t handle losing to a ‘little kid’ and would never be seen again.

  Even when the afterschool program was discontinued, the chess club was invited to still meet at the Salvation Army and instead of moving the club to the Wal-Mart for the summer, we now meet at the SA year round. 2 years ago it seemed the club had turned into the type of gathering where no one wanted to play, but they would just watch whoever else was playing (which was normally me and whoever I was playing). This was no kind of club, so I decided to have a rated tournament every Thursday in order to make everyone play. The only problem was that none of the club members were USCF members (you have to have a national membership in order to play in rated tournaments). Luckily, everyone bought memberships and we started the tournaments.

  The weekly tournaments are 3 games with each player having 10 minutes per game so the tournament takes about an hour. Because It is rated, I advertise it on the state chess web site and we have players from Des Moines, Ames, and Tama show to play occasionally. Once we had 16 players, but 6 to 8 is the normal amount and sometimes we only have 4 players. The last few months we have skipped the tournament if there are no out of town players, but that’s only happened a couple of times this year.

  I don’t charge an entry fee and the fee to rate the tournament is 3 or 4 dollars a week out of my pocket, but that’s a small price to pay to have a more active club and to encourage out of towners to come to Marshalltown. Last May, Brian Salomon, an expert player from Massachusetts came to play. He was originally from Cedar Rapids and had come back home to take care of his deceased fathers affairs. His dad had made a chess board and he wanted to find someone who could use it. He came to Marshalltown, won the tournament, and dropped off the chess board with pieces (which after a couple of months found a home with a top Iowan chess playing family).

Brian Salomon (standing) from Boston by way of Cedar Rapids came, saw, and conquered at the Marshalltown Chess Club in May of 2010. I fought hard in our game but a pawn down was too much against the expert.

  Starting in May, some of the members of the CCC (Cyclone Chess Club) in Ames have been traveling to town for our Thursday tournaments now that the CCC (which also meets on Thursdays) has gone to a summer schedule of bi-weekly meetings. The patron saint of the CCC, Roger Gotschall, runs the CyChess tournaments I enjoy playing in so much and that we all came over to last December. Roger is an ardent Iowa State University supporter. The ISU sport teams are called the Cyclones and not only does Roger run the Cyclone Chess Club, his license plate is ‘CyChess’ and he has a Boston Terrier named Cypher that has come to the tournaments. Cypher is very well behaved and is allowed in the building since the current Majors, John and Judith McCarthy’s dog Henry frequently roams the building. Roger is a national chess champion (2004 US Open Class D) and he and his friends provide a good way for our club to test themselves against some seasoned competition. Dan Troxell, the author of the excellently written InnocentBystander blog and the leader of the club at Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure that I visit occasionally stops by, lured by the competition and the Taco Bus that is parked across the street.

Left: Dan Troxell of 'Innocent Bystander' blogging fame is a semi-regular at the Marshalltown Chess Club; (Right) Roger Gotschall's Boston Terrier 'Cypher' came from Ames to check out the Thursday night chess action in Marshalltown. Cypher didn't play in the tournament, but may have been studying our styles for a future encounter.

  Last Thursday, I was playing a game when a young kid I never saw before came in and said his name was Ted and he wanted to sign up for chess. I thought he was a beginner from the high school so I just pointed him over to play against Jon. Jon lost quickly and came up to me and said that the new guy was a player. I asked Ted if he was a USCF member and he said yes, his name was Ted Belanoff. It turns out Ted is an expert player from California who was on his way to Indianapolis for a weekend tournament and decided to drive through Marshalltown on the way and play in the Thursday tournament. I called Matt and told him there was an expert player visiting. Matt headed on over and played a few games with Ted and the tournament started at 6. Normally if there‘s an odd number of players I sit out, but today there was an even number including me so I got to play.

  Ted was a great sport and wasn’t the least bit upset when Jerry managed to force a draw from a lost position in the first round. I got to play him in the second round. I was getting pushed around a lot, but managed to get to an endgame where I had some winning chances, but with only seconds left on my clock, I made a number of errors and was lucky to hold the draw. After the tournament, Matt, Jaleb, and Ted spent the next hour and a half playing 3 minute chess. It was the latest chess club ever, but I was happy to show extra hospitality to our travelling guest. I looked up Ted’s tournament history on the computer and since July 17th, he has played in Wyoming, Alaska, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Ohio, Minnesota, and now Iowa.

Here I am on the left with world class chess traveler Ted Belanoff. On the right is Jerry Mason's final position against Ted. With the Black pieces and 3 seconds left on his clock, Jerry just checks Ted's king over and over. If the rook is ever captured, Jerry has no moves and is stalemated. A clever trick to pull off against someone 5 rating classes higher.

  Having the tournaments on Thursday Night has turned out to be a great idea. Not only has it given the club regulars a purpose, but you never know who’s going to show up.