Wednesday, September 28, 2011


  I didn’t get paid last week but I will this week. My company is not in trouble, I just get paid every other week. This is my second job in a row where I get paid every other week and it is by far my favorite way to get paid.

  I got paid by the week in all my jobs until 1990. On all except one job, my boss or supervisor would give us our check if we were working on payday. If you weren’t working that day, you’d either wait till you were working or just come in and pick up your check. When I worked as a computer operator at a Bank, the bank gave all of us an account and would deposit our money on payday. Since we were the computer operators, the payroll department would give us a tape with the deposits (no disks, internet, or flash drives way back when) and we would load it into the computer. You could always tell who was broke because they would keep asking you if the payroll had been loaded yet.

  When I was young and single, getting paid by the week was great. Get paid on Thursday or Friday, get wasted and broke on the weekend, barely eat the rest of the week, get paid on Thursday or Friday, repeat. As I got older and started getting monthly bills like utilities and rent, blowing my paycheck on the weekend didn’t cut it anymore. I started saving some of my check for the monthly expenses and used some for weekly expenses like gas, food, and laundry. The months with 5 paydays were my favorite, since I had a little extra cash, which is always fun.

  When I started working for Wyatt Data Services in 1990, I was just engaged to Kathy and I got paid only once a month. Luckily I was moonlighting for extra cash at the time. The people I was moonlighting for thought I was crazy for insisting on being paid every week, but I was pretty hard up for cash that first month. Once I got a month ahead, being paid once a month was manageable and I let my part-time boss pay me less than once a week. When I got paid once a month, instead of looking forward to the 5 week months, I was now dreading them because it meant another week of expenses but the same paycheck.

  I left Wyatt in 1993 and went back to work at an coat manufacturer called Amerex for more money so we could move to Iowa and I was back to getting paid once a week. There were a lot of warehouse workers at Amerex and the company would have payroll truck come to the warehouse on payday to cash everyone’s check. Except for the goons hanging around with guns protecting the money, I liked cashing my check before I went home for the weekend. One time I didn’t check my money until I left the window and I was $60 light. I went back to the window and the goons all put their hands on their guns so I put my hands over my head and asked extra nicely if they could give me my $60. They said they couldn’t since I left the window but I did get my $60 back when it turns out the cashier was that much over for the day. I just cashed my check at my bank after that. One time my friend Frank Brandi (the Finance V.P.) cut through the line to ask the clerk a question and one of the goons grabbed his gun. Frank got right in his face and started yelling “What are you going to do? Shoot me?” The goon backed down and was never seen again at the payroll truck.

  At my first job in Iowa, the owner gave us a personal check on the 15th and the end of the month and for 12 years it was back to dreading the 5 week months. When he sold the company, the new owners went to direct deposit and I’ve never gotten a paycheck I needed to cash since except once when my paperwork didn’t make the direct deposit in time for my first check on a new job. I miss not getting a paycheck. I don’t miss taking a trip to the bank to deposit my check, but going to the bank with my check put my job in perspective. Now that my pay is some ones and zeros streaming over the internet and magically appearing in my account, sometimes it feels like I don’t even get paid and I miss the disconnectedness between my work and getting paid.

  When I started working at SourceCorp in 2009, I got paid every 2 weeks for the first time in my life and that has continued in my current job. It’s a lot like getting paid twice a month except twice a year there are 3 checks in a month and an extra 2 week’s pay is like a real bonus. Even if the ‘bonus’ gets used for an unexpected expense like a car repair or just to get ahead on the car insurance or property taxes, I feel great when I get 6 weeks pay in a single month.

  I’ve noticed the mood of the whole company brightens up on the 3 payday months. Since the government is involved with everything else, maybe they can mandate bi-weekly pay and legislate 6 weeks in every month so we can all get 3 paychecks a month every month. Not only would it help lift the mood of the country, since the workers would have an extra paycheck every month, they could spend that money to boost the economy. I hope when they make this law, there is a ‘Buffet’ clause saying millionaires don’t get the extra paycheck, but if they did I wouldn’t mind too much. After all, have you seen the cost of getting a Cadillac or Mercedes tuned up lately? I can’t imagine a politician getting elected if they went against this proposal.

  One really cool thing about getting paid once a month was having a big fat paycheck (This was still in the day when I got paper checks instead of direct deposit). Once I went to the bank across the street from our Hillside, NJ apartment to deposit my check on a busy Saturday and waited patiently in line while the clerk made useless small talk with every customer (This clerk was the inspiration for the widespread use of ATM machines and direct deposit). Finally it was my turn. I didn’t know the teller and was ready to give a New Jersey grunt when the subject of the weather or any other subject came up when I gave her my check and deposit slip. She took a long look at my check and said at the top of her lungs, 'WOOOOOOO!THAT’S SURE A LOT OF MONEY. WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING?’ Lots of people stared at me and I was pretty embarrassed but I didn’t want to admit I only got paid once a month, so I said very softly, “I kill people for a living and it’s sure been busy lately.” I got my deposit slip back in record time along with a mumbled “Have a nice day”. I replied, “Thanks. I’d like to talk more, but I have to get back to work now.”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fall Festival Redux

  Last Sunday was the Fall Festival at St. Mary. Unlike the past 3 years, this year I wasn’t on the committee to help plan and while I missed hanging out with the other people on the committee, I’m pretty busy with work and my chess endeavors so it was nice not to have all the meetings, responsibilities, and worries over the weather, etc... I had volunteered to take money on the day of the festival like I had the past 2 years, but instead I was asked to take pictures of the Festival. It sounded like a plum job and I quickly agreed.

  Ben was finishing up his service hours for confirmation by working at the festival all day, so we drove the 6 blocks to the church at 9 in the morning to help set up. It was good to see people like Greg Konrad and Jack Kessler who helped set up for the Fall Festival each year when I was on the committee. Greg had succeeded me as a chairperson with my friend Peg Brown. Peg and I were original members of the Stewardship Committee and she was Matt’s confirmation sponsor. Peg also spent many years as the St. Mary business manager and is really good with a buck so I'm sure the festival made as much money as possible.

An empty gym at 9am turned into a packed house by 1pm.

  Unlike the last 3 years, it was raining on this festival day and that required a lot of changing plans. The games were moved into the school gym from outside. All the Hispanic food was being prepared under a tent but the customers would buy their food and take it to the gym to eat when the rain was more than a drizzle. We moved tables around and set up games and occasionally I would sneak away to take pictures of the progress of the pork loin meal being prepared in the church basement as well as the Hispanic food being cooked in the street. Then Ben and I were assigned the task of setting up the PA system for the afternoon live auction. We managed to find the speaker wire hanging behind a curtain and hook it up to the PA system. The Ben and another fellow hooked up the PA system to the wireless microphones and everything was A-OK. I took another break to take some more pictures and head to the Jiffy for a cup of coffee and get Ben a Sierra Mist with ice. When I got back to the church, I didn’t have my 2009 Yankee World Series Championship hat. I looked all over and didn’t find it, drove back to the Jiffy and didn’t find it, and went back to the gym and still didn’t find it and gave it up for lost.

  Around 11:30 the first wave of kids and parents started arriving to play the games and eat meals. I made my way around to the church basement for the pork meal, the street where the Hispanic food was being served, and the gym where the games were and took more pictures. It had stopped raining and I took a break and ate a fruit cup (watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumber) while I hung out with my friend Dennis outside the Hispanic food stand while he was eating his lunch. Dennis’ wife Tammy was on the committee all 3 years I was and Dennis would hang out a lot and help on the day of the event. Dennis works at the scrap metal yard and last year I had a case of temporary insanity and challenged him to an arm-wrestling contest. We started and he yawned for about 30 seconds while I managed to move his arm 2 or 3 inches before slamming my hand almost through the table in less than a nanosecond. He doesn’t play chess, but I bet I could beat him in a Cheetos-eating contest. Dennis was missing his favorite team, the Super Bowl champion Packers play the Carolina Panthers to hang out at the festival today and we would check the score occasionally on my amazing iPod. The Packers were losing at the half 13-7 and I told Dennis it was his duty as a Packer fan to hustle home and root his team on to victory. He left and the Packers did win 30-23 so if they end up making the playoffs by a game I’m expecting to be voted a playoff share for my contribution.

Pork Loin, potatoes, vegetables, and pie on the inside; Fruit cups, tortas, tacos, and other Hispanic food outside. But not a Cheeto in sight...

  I made another round of picture taking and helped put up a huge tent so the band could have a dry place to perform and then it was time for lunch. Last year, people would buy $1 food tickets and then pay for their food with them, but this year you bought a ticket saying what kind of food you wanted and then gave the ticket at the food stand. It was a great idea and I’m jealous I hadn’t thought of that. Not only does it keep the food preparers from having to add up food prices, but it also keeps the food line moving because everyone already knew what they wanted since they already had the tickets. I bought a $5 ticket for a torta which I can best describe as an Italian Hot Dog with steak instead of the hot dog part. I could watch people make food all day and had a full view of the cooks preparing my torta. When I lived in Florida, I used to eat at the Waffle House and I’d always sit at the counter and watch the people making eggs, waffles, and hash browns. I ’m so old I was a customer when the hash browns could only be scattered, smothered (with onions), and covered (with cheese); but now they can also be Chunked (Ham), Diced(Tomatoes), Peppered(Jalapeno), Capped(Mushrooms), Topped(Chilli), and Country(Sausage Gravy). You can see the menu here. I was born too soon!! My video was interrupted once when I had to stop and pay off a persistent raffle ticket salesman, but I did manage to get 2 minutes of Torta-making at its finest.

The only thing better than watching the torta being made was eating it!

  I sat down by the band and ate my torta (which was 5-star quality) and then took some more pictures. I got a video of the band playing a song and made my way back to the gym to shoot some videos of kids playing games and the live auction and raffle prize announcements. 2 years ago I won some Long John Silver gift certificates and a car wash, but this year was another wipeout. Once the auction was over, it was time to clean up. I took apart the PA system and when I put it back in its big wooden box, there was my Yankee hat! I must have put it in there when I was fumbling around with all the wires. I helped put some tables and chairs away and it was time to go.

The third eye doesn't lie! At the 25 second mark, a kid is going to swipe an extra bottle of soda at a ring toss game until he sees the glare of the camera.

  I’ve never gotten to walk around at the fall festival before. Every other year I was either taking money or hanging out with my kids at the games. I liked the freedom being the ‘official photographer’ afforded me and I hope the 4 CDs worth of pictures and video are useful. This year’s edition was a top-notch event despite the crummy weather and I hope all the planners are proud of their efforts.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Great Rivera

  Mariano Rivera of the Yankees set the all time saves record this week when he saved his 602nd game against the Minnesota Twins on Monday afternoon. Rivera came up as a starter/reliever in 1995 when the Yankees made the playoffs for the first time in 14 years and in 1996 became the set up man for closer John Wetteland. He was almost unhittable as a relief pitcher and was a big factor in the Yankees winning the World Series for the first time in 18 years. After 1996, the Yankees cut Wetteland loose and Rivera became the closer and the Yankees haven’t had to worry about that position for the last 15 years, except for rare occasions when Rivera gets hurt and has to miss a week or 2.

  There have been plenty of teams that have won championships with average hitting or average fielding or average starting pitching but I can’t remember a team that has won a championship without a great closer or at least one that is on a hot streak. The great Atlanta Braves teams of the 90’s had 3 ace starting pitchers in Maddux, Smoltz, and Glavine but were constantly undone by having closers that were has-been retreads like Alejandro Pena and Jeff Reardon or psychos like Mark Wohlers and John Rocker. The only championship the Braves won was in 1995 when Wohlers didn’t melt down like he did in 1996. The Braves were up 2 games to 1 and had a 6-3 lead in the 8th inning, but Wohlers gave up a 3 run homer to Yankee journeyman Jim Leyritz and was basically finished as a major league closer from then on. By contrast, the Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series with average pitching, average hitting, but the killer bullpen of Randy Myers, Rob Dibble, and Norm Charlton (aka The Nasty Boys). If the Reds had a lead after 6 innings, the game was for all purposes over. The starting pitchers knew they just had to keep their team in the game for 5 or 6 innings, the hitters knew that if the game was close they could win if they just scratched out a run or 2, and their opponents knew that any small mistake in the late innings of a close game would lead to an almost sure defeat.

  In Rivera’s first year as closer in 1997, he blew a save against the Indians to cost the Yankees the playoff series and I wasn’t sure he had the guts to be the closer, but he proved me wrong with clutch pitching to help win the next 3 World Series and has been almost unhittable for another decade after that, even well into his 40’s. Except for a receding hairline, Rivera looks the same as he did 15 years ago. He’s lost 5 miles off his fastball over the years, but has been blessed with great health, pinpoint control, and late movement on his pitches. He also has the one thing a great closer must have, which is a good temperament. Rivera has pitched for the Yankees his whole career. Losing is not tolerated in New York and the pressure is magnified when a blown save will make headlines in all the daily papers. Could you imagine driving to work and turning on the radio to hear people calling in griping about the mistakes YOU made on your job yesterday? A lot of relievers can have a stellar year or 2, but when they hit a slump and attract media criticism, they quickly circle the drain and become a ‘Where are They Now’ question. Rivera has had to deal with slumps and even blowing the World Series in 2001 and yet he still is going strong and I’ve never heard him lash out at the fans or writers like other players do when they hit a slump. Trevor Hoffman, whose record Rivera just broke, is a great pitcher but he has spent his whole career in San Diego and pitched in just one World Series in which he promptly blew the save in Game three against the Yankees in his only World Series appearance. Who saved the game for the Yankees? Yes, the great Rivera.

  I’m not trying to make light of Hoffman’s accomplishments but the fact is he racked up a lot of his saves in no-pressure situations for the loser Padres and his blown saves made all the difference between his team finishing 4th instead of 3rd and giving the San Diego fans yet another reason to look forward to football season, while Rivera has performed in the crucible of New York for a team where his perfection is not only expected, it is taken for granted.

  Is Rivera the greatest relief pitcher of all time? I'd give him my vote, but but not just based on the counting of saves. Relief pitching has evolved to the point that half of the pitching staff is reserved to get a slim lead after 5 innings to a dominant closer like Rivera. Last week the Yankees lost 2-1 to the lowly Seattle Mariners in 12 innings and Rivera didn’t even play. He was not going to pitch unless the Yankees had a lead with an inning left and only then Rivera would come in to save the game. 40 years ago, the best relief pitcher would come in after the starter and pitch for 3 or 4 innings even if they couldn’t get a save. In the early 70’s the Yankees traded a ham-an-egger 3rd baseman named Danny Cater to the filthy Boston Red Sox for a left handed relief pitcher named Sparky Lyle. It was one of the great steals of the 20th century. As a left-handed pitcher, Lyle was prone to give up big hits to right handed batters off the short ‘Green Monster’ fence in Fenway Park’s left field, but when he moved to Yankee Stadium with its 450 foot left field fence, those big hits became long outs and Lyle became the first true weapon out of the bullpen. But Lyle wasn’t used like relievers today. He would routinely come in when the score was tied or the Yankees were even losing and the bigger the game, the earlier he would come in. From 1972 to 1978, the least amount of innings Lyle pitched was 82.1. By contrast, Rivera has only pitched over 80 innings twice in his entire career (107 in 1996 before he was the closer, and 80.2 in 2001) and Hoffman went over 80 innings in a year 3 times with a high of 90 as a rookie. In 1977 Lyle pitched 137(!) innings in 72 games and was the first relief pitcher to win the Cy Young award as the best pitcher in the American League. In the current baseball climate the manager and pitching coach would be fired for abusing a pitcher like that but it was par for the course 35 years ago. Lyle’s reward for leading the team to the World Championship at the cost of years off his career was to be demoted to a setup man for Steinbrenner’s new toy, Goose Gossage and his 100 mile an hour fastball. Gossage pitched 134 innings in 1978. Gossage never impressed me as much as Lyle. It seemed to me that a good hitter would always take his fastball and put it in the seats for a home run. I recall George Brett and Kirk Gibson winning some big games against him that way. Lyle had a great slider and I don't remember anyone hitting a big home run off him.

  How many saves could pitchers like Lyle and Gossage have racked up if they had been used the way Hoffman and Rivera were? I don’t know if they would have hit 600 but they surely would have had hundreds more. And I’m not even talking about the other relievers of the 70’s and before. If I had to take one reliever to save a game that my life depended on, I think I’d probably take Lyle since he was a hero of my youth. But my life would also be in good hands with Rivera. He is such a great closer that when I think of him, instead of thinking of all the times he closed out a playoff or World Series game, I think of the shock and disbelief I felt at the handful of times he didn’t get the job done (2001 World Series Game 7, 2004 playoffs against the filthy Red Sox Game 4, 1997 vs. the Indians). I’m lucky that I’ll be able to someday tell my grandchildren that I saw both Sparky Lyle and the great Rivera pitch.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lucky Afternoon

  Last Thursday, I had a pretty normal day. As I do most Thursdays, I worked from 7am to 3:30 so I could go home and get to chess club at the Salvation Army at 5pm. I had a pretty normal day at work and when it was time to leave, I walked to the bank of 6 elevators, pressed the down key, and waited for one of the elevator doors to open. After a few seconds, I heard a familiar ding through the music from my amazing iPod’s headphones, walked through the doors and saw a dollar bill lying flat on the floor inside the elevator. I walked to the back of the elevator, reached down, and snatched the dollar bill with the speed and agility of a man half my age. I checked out the bill to see it perhaps another bill was stuck to it, but this dollar bill was all alone. Then I stuck the bill in my pocket, pressed the button to take me to the second floor and had a happy walk all the way to my car in the parking garage.

  I consider myself a very lucky guy. I have a great wife, good kids, awesome beagles and other nice pets, and have a good job, But this dollar was the first bill I had found since the magical Tuesday in 2007 when I found a 10 spot at 5 in the morning while walking Queenie and Tuffy. Queenie and Tuffy and I found a five dollar bill outside the Jiffy convenience store one weekend morning walk years ago, but except for those instances the only money I ever find is spare change laying on the street and the phone booth down the street (before someone ripped the phone out of it a few weeks ago). I’m not especially worried about money, but I think finding money is a sign from Jesus to let me know that there is always money waiting for me and there is no reason to ever worry about money. My dad used to walk all around where we lived in New Jersey and he would tell me when he found money on the street or in a phone booth he knew that times were good because he never found money lying around when times were bad.

My favorite neighbor -
An empty house!!
  I had a happy drive home and noticed that there was a police car in the driveway we share with the people that live next door. Since their garage faces the driveway and my garage faces the alleyway out in back, they tend to share the driveway more than I do. I used to like my next door neighbors and would do favors for them until they started driving through my fence, gate, and bushes. When they drove through the fence the first time on a cold winter day, they told me that they would fix it when the weather got warm. We waited until May and I fixed the fence myself. After that, when they would drive through my stuff, they’d pretend they didn’t know anything about it. I put some metal posts up along a row of evergreen bushes that run along the driveway and a guy drove over the post when he was delivering some old cement from a busted up highway (don’t ask me why). The neighbor and this guy told me they would fix the post but I called the cops to get a police report. Maybe the cement guy wasn’t supposed to be there or maybe he didn’t have a valid driver’s license, but he started begging the cop to let him fix the post instead of making out a report. I went along and I did get a new post that night along with 2 other posts that were promised to me when my neighbor drove through my gate in order to get somebody to stop leaving pieces of a broken gate (with nails sticking out) in the driveway. They aren’t the worst neighbors I’ve ever had, but I don’t like them and I’m sure they feel the same way about me.

  I got in the house, but there was no one home and Kathy left a phone message saying she was stuck at school waiting to pick Ben up, so I let the Daisy and Baxter in the backyard to go to bathroom and also to see if I could find out why the police car was in the driveway. I saw there was a lady with a camera taking a lot of pictures. I didn’t see any signs of a car accident, so I asked her if the house next door had gotten robbed and she said yes. There have been lots of burglaries all over town this summer. The police say they are investigating, but after a few months you’d think there would be some progress. You can read about the burglaries here, here, and here. There was an open meeting in the city council meeting last month where the police said that burglaries were down 14 percent from last year and that over half the break-ins were due to unforced entry. This is the same police department that claimed crime was down by 30 percent one year when what really happened was an increase in the amount of damage needed to automatically require a police report. The police recommended that people lock their doors, and photograph their items so when they are stolen, they can be recovered easily. I recommend that the police stop hiding patrol cars at the bottom of hills looking for speeders and start driving around town looking for burglars and suspicious characters. My neighbor must have taken some of the police's advice, since the thief broke a window and let themselves in to steal a game system and who knows what else. Now I’m not saying I’m glad my neighbors got robbed, but I felt pretty lucky it wasn’t me. I don’t think Daisy and Baxter are much deterrence to a burglar, but they get so loud and yappy that it would probably be easier for a crook to find a quieter target.

  A few minutes later, I was off to chess club. Matt is at college in Ames and Jaleb is busy doing other things on Thursdays so I‘ve been the strongest Marshalltown player at our weekly chess tournaments and managed to win it the last 2 weeks. 2 weeks ago I tied for first with Joe Meyer who came over from Waterloo to check out the competition. I drew Joe and he beat semi–regular Dave the barefoot chess player from Des Moines. Last week I drew Dave, but Jon beat him in the last round to give me a clear first. This week we had 5 Marshalltown players, the barefoot chess player, Steve Jacobs from Des Moines, and a new guy who came with Steve named Hunter, who tied for first in the Iowa Reserve (U1600) championship last month. Hunter is in his 20’s and is a student at the Drake Law School. Steve thought I’d get a kick out of meeting Hunter since he is from New Jersey. Sure enough, even though Hunter is from South Jersey while I am from North Jersey, when I listened to him I heard myself half a lifetime ago. Spending the last third of my lifetime in Iowa has taken the edge off my accent but the people I talk to in Iowa still know I’m not from here (When I get back to New Jersey the people I talk to there know I’m not from there) and it was great to hear a familiar voice.

  I beat local high school player Chandler in the first round and then took on Steve in the second round while Hunter played Dave the barefoot chess player. I beat Steve in a tough game and Hunter beat Dave so Hunter and I sat down to decide the winner of the blitz tournament and also decide who was the unofficial best New Jersey transplanted chess player in Marshalltown, Iowa this day. Hunter attacked like a caveman, giving me a pawn to keep my king in the center and my pieces from developing off the back row. I defended well and got my king to relative safety. Hunter then gave me a piece to get his Queen and Rook in menacing positions. I had 2 minutes and Hunter had less than 20 seconds and then I unleashed the following howler.

  I just moved my Queen from e6 to d7 to protect the rook and also stay in contact with the checkmate square on c8. Moving the Queen to d6 protects the rook and also allows me to head to b8 if Hunter tries to checkmate me on c8. The only problem with the Queen on d7 is that Hunter can just take my queen and if I take back, I get checkmated on c8 by the rook. But with only a few seconds on his clock, Hunter missed taking my queen and I ended up winning the game with my extra piece for my third stoke of luck for the day. When I told Hunter about taking my queen, he realized it immediately and smacked his head. I know we’ll meet over the board again but for now SCOREBOARD, NORTH JERSEY!!

  When Kathy and I walked Daisy and Baxter after the tournament, I stopped in the liquor store and bought a 99 cent Cranberry Sierra Mist with the dollar I found earlier that day and spent another dollar on a beef stick treat for the beagles. I wanted to see if my luck was holding out so I bought a $5 scratch lottery ticket. I went home, scratched the ticket off, and won.....nothing. But I was really, really close to winning $5,000. I mean close like one number away close. Not close enough to get me to buy another ticket, but really close...really.

  By Friday morning I knew that my lucky streak was really over when Kathy called me to say the minivan wouldn’t start and was making some indescribable noises when she tried to start it, but it was nice to have an afternoon where I was the luckiest guy around.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Original Thinking

  After Saturday’s chess tournament, I requested feedback from the parents of the participants and I got more than my fair share. Most like the change because it keeps players that have morning or afternoon activities involved in chess, but there some who didn’t like a tournament with only 3 rounds because they didn’t get to play anyone at their own level. Tim McEntee came up with a brilliant suggestion on the pairings that I’m going to experiment with, but otherwise I’m going to leave the format alone for a few months and then reevaluate. When I can count on a hundred players a month, I can see having a morning, afternoon, and an all-day tournament, but that’s a ways off.

  I like the format for a lot of reasons, not the least because it’s original. Just like the Big Money Blitz tournament earlier this month, I can’t remember anything like it being done. The next BMB is being planned for October and I hope Cub and Tim see an increase in participation. They are looking for ways to maximize participation by tweaking the prize fund and format. I’ll be watching carefully for clues to see what works and what doesn’t to apply to my next adult tournament.

  A great international chess tournament called the World Chess Cup is going on in the far away land of Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. The tournament takes 128 of the best players in the world and they play a series of 2 game knockout matches. If the match is tied after the 2 games, the match is decided on the third day with a series of rapid games at quicker and quicker time limits.The winner of each match moves on to the next round and the loser goes home. Most of the super-elite GM’s stay away from this tournament because it’s easy to lose one game and be eliminated and it gets ridiculed by some chess writers because it’s not as classical as a formal chess tournament which is either a 8 to 12 player all play all or a 12 or 24 game championship match between 2 players, but I think this is the best tournament of the year. A 2 game match is no different than a 12 game match that’s tied 5-5 after 10 games except we get rid of all the preliminaries and get right down to business. The tournament is only slightly less fast paced than a major tennis championship and features upsets (like US Grandmaster Sam Shankland defeating former world Championship finalist Peter Leko of Hungary) and former top shelf players like Judith Polgar (who made the final 8) and Leko struggling to capture their old form to regain a place on the world chess stage. For the most part, the top seeds make it to the final 4 or 8 players, but along the way there are all kinds of interesting matchups. If the World Chess Federation could find a way to get round of matches done in a day or half a day and have the tournament done in 1 or 2 weeks, I think this format would be great for a professional chess tour just like the tennis and golf tours. As the tournaments moved around the globe, each one would have a lot of the players from the home country competing for a spot in the 128 or 64 player field as the lesser players wouldn’t be able to afford the travel expenses.

  Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has done something original for this year’s attempt to win the World Series. He hasn’t picked up any big name players. I’m not sure there were any top pitchers on the market and I’m glad top prospect Montero didn’t get traded, but I wish the Yankees had another top-flight starting pitcher. The filthy Red Sox’ recent meltdown has left the division open for the taking, but unless young pitchers Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova step up, Sabathia and the cast-offs currently making up the starting pitching can’t win the World Series. The bullpen is championship caliber and the offense is starting to look like the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ offense of the glory days of the 1990s’ that made the starting pitchers throw so many pitches that they had to leave the game to lesser bullpen pitchers, but I can’t see Burnett, Hughes, Nova, Garcia, and Colon competing with the top pitchers from Detroit, Tampa Bay, Boston, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee. I’m sick of even seeing Burnett take the mound. He pitches just badly enough to lose and just well enough to keep cashing checks (yesterdays 11 strikeout win to boost his record to 10-11 notwithstanding). Even Sabathia hasn’t been dominating this year despite his 19 wins. They are mostly the product of getting a lot of runs from the offense and giving up a lot of base runners but relying on strikeouts to give up very few runs. That is a formula for beating bad teams and losing to good ones. The playoffs will be long on good teams while all the bad teams will be home for the winter. The Yankees will have to get very lucky to win a World Series. I’d be happy if they won the division, which has only happened once in the last 4 years.

  Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has broached the idea of expanding the playoffs to include another wild-card team. The 2 wild card teams will play a series to determine who will move on. One of the purported benefits is that the wild card teams will wear out their pitching playing each other and not be as competitive against the division winner they would face in the next round. I wish Selig would just say that more playoff teams mean more playoff games and more playoff games mean more money for baseball. Adding more wild card teams won’t make September any more exciting except for the 5th and 6th best teams in the league fighting for a playoff spot reserved for division losers (and not even the best of the losers at that). There hasn’t been a division race worth adding to the classics since the wild card was instituted in 1995, because now when the 2 best teams in the league battle for a division title, the loser doesn’t go home, they just make the playoffs as the wild card anyway. And no baseball writers are waxing poetic over the battle between 2 teams that weren’t even the best in their division trying to win the consolation playoff spot. And at the same time Selig is trying to expand the playoff field, he is also trying to game the system so the wild card teams are at a severe disadvantage in the playoffs that are being expanded for them to compete in.

  I would offer Selig an original way to lower the competitiveness of the baseball wild card teams. Don’t let them in the playoffs. Give each league’s division winner with the best record a first-round bye and have the other 2 division winners battle it out. If baseball needs to make up for the loss of 6 to 10 playoff games, make the remaining playoff and World Series a best out of 9 or best out of 11 instead of the current best of 7. I’m not too worried about the ‘tradition’ of the best of 7 World Series. That train left the station a long time ago when teams started winning the World Series without winning their division. I have an even more radical idea for baseball. Since the record books have been corrupted by steroid cheaters like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Rafael Palmeiro, why not throw out the record book and start over. I’d like to see teams play only on the weekend instead of the current 6 games a week. Imagine every team putting their best 3 pitchers on the mound every single weekend. As a Yankee fan, I’d be thrilled to never have to see A.J. Burnett take the mound in pinstripes again.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Back To School

Half the chess club at St. Francis.

  On Friday I held the first chess class at St. Francis for the 2011-2012 school year. We had 19 signups and I knew some kids would show up without signing up, but I was completely taken by surprise by the tidal wave of 42 young chess players that came to learn and play chess. Some of the parents helped out by supervising the experienced players and I started with the 20 or so beginners by teaching them how pawns moved. With only 45 minutes a week and many of the children arriving late at that, I have settled on using the F.O. Armbruster book “Learn Chess in 3 Hours or Your Money Back”. It is a very short book and goes over a piece at a time, with games to reinforce the lessons. I spent 10 minutes explaining how pawns move and then set the children playing a simple game with 6 pawns apiece and the first player to capture a pawn winning the game. Most of the kids picked up on the game and some of the parents also helped with the beginners. All in all it was a successful day and there are more children still signing up.

  I’m sure I’ll see some shrinkage as the school year goes on, but I expect a substantial increase over last year’s 25 or so players. Last year the club was started with the understanding that there would be a fee in order to pay an assistant chess coach. The chess coach resigned before school started and since I agreed to help the head coach Jim Mona in return for the ability to hold some chess tournaments in the school cafeteria, there was no fee. Jim has moved to another parish and I have agreed to be the head chess coach in return for having monthly tournaments at the cafeteria and so this year the club was advertised as not having a fee from the beginning.

  If my health remains good, I can see being a chess teacher at schools as a part-time job in my retirement. I really enjoy teaching chess to kids and thanks to the chess success of own children, I have an impressive enough resume and seem to have a good rapport with the kids. Maybe they get my passion for chess or my sense of humor or maybe they just think my New Jersey accent is funny, but I’ll take any edge I can get.

  Some of these kids have an immense amount of chess aptitude, but also they have supportive families to provide them a gamut of extra-curricular activities. My goal is not to compete with football, basketball, baseball, tumbling, math club, etc. My goal is just to expose the kids to the game, pique their interest, and get them to play well enough that they can be competitive in a social setting. A few of the club members come to play in my tournaments and I can help them also, but in a class that size, I have limited time for individual instruction and normally recommend that the parents take their child to an adult chess club to play better competition. I’ve put the proposition to the parents that we could take a team to the state K-6 team championships in Ames this coming February, but I’ll need to know well in advance in order to identify the top team members and get them some competitive experience. St. Francis has won a few K-3 and K-6 team state championships but hasn’t brought a team in the last few years. Hard work will be required to restore the club to statewide competitiveness.

Some pretty happy morning players.

  After the chess class ended, I drove across town for a day of work and at 8 the next morning I was back at St. Francis for the first chess tournament of the scholastic year. I had previously written how I was going to change the tournament format from 5 games lasting from 10 to 3:30 to separate morning and afternoon 3 game tournaments. I wasn’t expecting a large crowd since most of the school chess clubs haven’t started yet, but as the week wore on, many of the chess regulars had signed up and I had 21 players for the morning session and 32 play in the afternoon (along with 8 parents and friends between the 2 sessions). 17 players were in both sessions, 4 in the morning session, and 15 in the afternoon session. I’ll have to see how the trends hold up over the next few months, but most of the parents whose kids came for half a day told me they’d have skipped an all day tournament with one parent telling me it was nice that her son didn’t have to miss his morning Tae-kwon-do in order to play chess. The only kids who were upset at only 5 trophies per tournament were the ones who hadn’t won a trophy before. The participation medals were well received and I think most everyone had a fun day of chess.

Many of the afternoon players left as soon as they figured out they weren't winning a trophy, but the ones who remained looked pretty happy.

  The main problem I had was that with 21 and 26 players, a 3 round tournament didn’t allow for all the top players to face each other like a 5 round tournament would have. In both tournaments one of the top 3 seeds got through the 3 rounds without playing the other top seeds. I’d hate to have this keep the stronger players away, but I’m not sure what I can do about it. Most of the players got a game with somebody in their rating class, a game with someone they would be a favorite against, and a game with someone they would be an underdog against, so maybe there isn’t a problem at all.

  One solution to the issue of the top players not playing each other is to divide up the players into groups of 4 or 6 by rating and let them play in mini tournaments. I’ve had plenty of tournaments like that but in my opinion they wouldn’t work here. I’d be facing the possibility of having a player getting stuck in a section with 3 much stronger players because they happened to be the 4th best player in the field and only have a tiny chance at winning their section. Also, a lot of kids that are friends have similar ratings and would have to possibly play each other twice in a day.

Young or old, morning or afternoon, playing for trophies or pride, chess is battle of the mind and a terrific way to while away some time.

  The one thing I found out about having afternoon and morning tournaments is that it is a lot more work for the tournament director. I was beat by the end of the day and was lucky to have Tim McEntee, Jose Gatica, and some of the other parents help clean up and put away the sets after the tournament. In my other tournaments it is chaotic before the first game and busy in the morning, but as the day winds on, I have plenty of time to talk to the players and parents. But in this tournament, by the time everything started to slow down for me, the tournament was over and I needed to give out the prizes. But then the afternoon players started checking in and it started all over again. Extra work is OK by me. A big part of a successful program is making it as easy for the kids to play as possible, and a big part of that is having the tournaments only take 3 hours to complement rather than compete with other sports or academic activities. And if that means I have extra work, so be it.

  My next youth tournament will be on October 8th, which is National Chess Day. I’ve got a sponsor lined up so I can offer a free tournament like last year. I asked some of the IASCA board about having an IASCA adult tournament in Marshalltown like last year, but the folks in Cedar Rapids planned on having a tournament also for National Chess Day. I would need a few players from Cedar Rapids to travel to have a successful tournament in Marshalltown, so I nixed the Marshalltown tournament and will try the free tournament in Des Moines. Since the chess clubs will be started and the tournament is free, my goal is to have a full house of 80 players. It is probably too ambitious of a goal, but one well worth working toward.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

To Boldly Go...

In a far away quadrant of the Des Moines Skywalk, the Marketplace convenience store
heralds a civilization advanced in the art of the snack.

  I’ve previously written about my lunchtime experiences with the snack/convenience store on the ground floor of the downtown Des Moines building I work in. I’ve been in the habit of getting an ice cream sandwich for lunch time after my healthy lunch of an apple and an orange. The first time the lady that works there ran out of the ice cream sandwiches, I bought 2 ice cream bars and a new supply of ice cream sandwiches soon made its way to the small freezer in the back of the small store. But the second time she ran out of ice cream sandwiches, there were no ready reinforcements and I whittled away her supply of ice cream bars in the meantime. Last Monday I finally exhausted her supply. I waited 2 days before going back and looked in the freezer but there were no ice cream bars or ice cream sandwiches. The lady gave me an imploring look that I took to mean that I was now supposed to work my way through the eternally untouched fudge bars or ice cream cones with the nuts on them (not to mention the ancient Eskimo Pies and Frozen Snickers), but having been emboldened by my Cheetos boycott of the vending machine at work, I was determined not to settle for an unwanted confection and I put on my saddest face and walked out of the tiny store.

  I made my way upstairs to the second floor not looking forward to an afternoon of work without any ice cream or Cheetos in my belly and I just decided to kill some time and take a walk north along the second floor skywalk that connects all the downtown buildings and parking garages. I walk 2 blocks on the skywalk to and from my car every day and it is a fairly depressing walk. There is a fancy restaurant attached to a hotel and an assisted living home with people whizzing by in their super scooters, but otherwise there is nothing to see but people going to and from work and I wasn’t expecting anything different by walking north instead of east.

Little did I know that this humble harmonica player was the sentry to a brave new world.

  The first thing I saw on my walk was a man in the hallway playing the harmonica for the spare change people would drop in his styrofoam tray. I couldn't decide if he was playing the theme from Star Trek or 2001:A Space Odyssey, but I made my past him with no money changing hands, made a left at the end of the corridor, and ran right into a world of color and light called the Kaleidoscope Hub. Coming from the antiseptic office environment with a convenience store with no ice cream sandwiches, I felt as if I had entered the bar in the first Star Wars movie.

Not all that glitters is gold in the Kaleidoscope. How many people risked having 'BBQ to Die For'? and at the Maid Rite,
it looked as if the sign (and some of the customers) needed first aid.

  The Kaleidoscope is a combination food court/strip mall. There were tables to sit at and people everywhere. The first store I saw was an ice cream/popcorn store so I had at least one spot to buy some ice cream (albeit expensive ice cream). Then there was a ‘Happy Sushi’ eatery (I wonder if the sushi was happy).

  I made my way through a batch of places to eat (Palmer Deli, Subway, a Burger King on the first floor, etc...). I saw a store that seemed to have every kind of cell phone cover available. I went in looking for some headphones for my amazing iPod, but they had the same headphones selling for $30 that Wal-Mart charges $5 for, so I passed. Since the cell phone cover store also offers to ship packages for you I assume they have a large internet business. There were some empty spaces and run down restaurants, but as I reached the end of the Kaleidoscope, I saw a Bruegger’s Bagel shop. I tucked away the location for further notice (Kathy and I both love everything bagels with Vegetable cream cheese), and then saw a clothing store that sold nothing but Iowa Hawkeye or Iowa State Cyclone gear, which I’m sure gets a lot of busy workers picking up a piece of clothing for a last minute gift for the sports lover in the house (There is also a florist and card shop for the same purpose).

With my preferred ice cream treats unavailable, I had to forage in the Des Moines Skywalk
for a new snack supply. Luckily I found a freezer full of treats to enjoy.

  I had almost made the complete round-trip and was heading back to see the guy playing the harmonica when I saw ‘The MarketPlace’. It looked like the convenience store in the first floor of the building I worked in, only on steroids. The first thing I saw was an entire rack of snack food items. Since I’m still on my boycott from the work vending machine (I’ve only seen one bag of Cheetos move along in the last week and a half), I got myself a bag of Crunchy Cheetos. I walked through all 4 aisles of the packed shop, looking at 7 or 8 soda coolers, and all the various snack foods, when I spotted a freezer in the corner. I hustled over and saw it was chock full of Blue Bunny ice cream sandwiches. I picked out a vanilla sandwich and turned to pay when I found myself face to face with a bag of Cheeto Puffs in a rack of big snack bags. I grabbed the 3 1/4 ounce bag, put away my Crunchy Cheetos, paid the man at the counter, and made my way back to the office. Since I ate the ice cream sandwich on the way back, I had the whole bag of Cheeto Puffs to feast on back at my desk.

A snack food motherlode!!
  Eating so much junk made me kind of sluggish at work, but after being denied my favorite treats by the vending machine and convenience store it felt great to have things my way for once. I see now that I was just momentarily taken out of my comfort zone by a higher power becasue that's what it took for a creature of habit like myself to travel to an unknown destination. I’ll give the convenience store lady a couple of days to restock her supply of ice cream sandwiches, but if she doesn’t get it together, I’ll just travel to the my new snack food destination on the second floor.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Big Money Blitz

Left: Dan Vasto and the Big Money Blitz Scoreboard.
Picture courtesy of Cub Noble - Professional Photographer.
Right: Cub and Tim played in the tournament as well as ran it.

  I played in the Big Money Blitz tournament at the Dahl’s supermarket in Ankeny yesterday. Dahl’s has a meeting room that they make available for chess tournaments and at least one tournament a month is held there. Most of the tournaments have been 4 games at 75 minutes per player per game. A 12 or 13 hour day of playing chess was a lot more fun when I was in my 20’s but now that I’m in my 50’s chess stops being fun and starts being work after 6 or 7 hours so I’ve passed on these longish tournament. I am planning on playing in the Ames Chess Festival weekend tournament in late October which may mean a 17 or 18 hour chess day on Saturday, but I can sleep over in Ames and take a round off if I am tired going into the night session.

  Big Money Blitz is the brainchild of Cub Noble and Tim Harder. In this tournament, you play 2 games with every other player (1 as White and 1 as Black) with 5 minutes per side (with a one second delay before your clock runs down). The quick time limit means you can play 3 opponents in an hour and since the tournament advertised 16 players, there would be 5 hours of chess play. 5 hours of chess is a good amount for me and I signed up myself and Jaleb Jay from our club in Marshalltown in June via Paypal.

  The only prize in the tournament was for first place (90% of the entry fees) and predictably it attracted a lot of the area’s top players. Dan Vasto (who won the top prize at both of my outdoor quick chess tournaments this summer) was there, along with fellow expert Joe Knapp from Nebraska. There were 3 class A players (Eric Vander Linden, Mark Kende, and Eddie Davinovic), 5 B players (Mathew Jacob, Eddie Divanovic, Jaleb Jay, Tim Harder, and myself), D player Cub Noble, and 2 beginners Josh and Jonny. I’ve beaten Dan once out of 4 games and drawn with Mark and Eric in the only games we had played in tournaments so I figured I could have a real good tournament with a little luck. First place would probably be out of my reach, but stranger things have happened. My main goal was to play good and stay away from the time trouble that plagued me at the Iowa State Fair speed chess tournament.

  I got up at 4:30 on Saturday as usual, and Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter to the Jiffy for a beef stick treat. We got back around 6 and I took a nap, watched TV, and relaxed till 9:30. I picked up Jaleb a little before 10 and made the 50 mile trip to Ankeny. We had to go through about 5 miles of blinding rain but arrived at the Dahl’s 15 minutes before the 11am start time. I was pleasantly surprised when Cub gave me a snack bag of Crunchy Cheetos. As I found out later, Cub’s mom is a big crunchy Cheeto fan and buys them in volume, but she disagrees with my opinion that Puffy Cheetos are superior to the crunchy kind.

  Cub and Tim went over the ground rules before the tournament. Since it wasn’t rated, USCF rules didn’t have to be followed. For example, there was no touch move rule. Your move wasn’t complete until you hit your clock. The other major difference between Big Money Blitz and a rated tournament was that instead of posting pairings, the players were expected to find someone they hadn’t played, play their match, and mark it down on the scorecard each player was provided. Cub and Tim would then mark down the results on the Big Money Blitz scoreboard. I thought this kind of shotgun start would lead to everyone having to wait to play one slow player, but it worked out great and when Joe Knapp and his friend Johnny were delayed by the weather, they didn’t forfeit any games and caught up to the rest of the crowd in short order. Another benefit was that we could take a lunch or snack break whenever we wanted without making anyone wait.

Finding a different opponent each round is almost the chessic version of speed dating. But it helped the tournament handle a couple of late arrivals and I got all my games done in 4 and a half hours including a lunch break.

  I started off losing 2 quick games against Mark, but rebounded by drawing twice with Mathew Jacobs and then beating first time tournament player Josh twice to even my score at 3-3. I then played Tim Harder. I had a good game as Black, but I butchered the ending and found myself 3 pawns down when Tim ran out of time. Tim then crushed me when he had Black and I decided to take a break for lunch with a 4-4 score. Since the tournament was held in a supermarket, I could have anything I wanted. I wanted to get some Cheetos, but knew I needed a sensible lunch and settled for a cup of Yogurt and a can of Coconut Water (with Pulp). I had a nice conversation with the Dahl’s Checkout Lady.

Checkout Lady: Coconut Water?
Me : No. Coconut Water with PULP, m'am.
Checkout Lady: I didn’t know coconuts had pulp.
Me: I suppose anything can be beaten to a pulp, m’am.
Checkout Lady: Even us, I guess.
Me: I certainly have been.
  Checkout Lady declined to mention if she had ever been beaten to a pulp or maybe her supervisor was watching, but I got my change in record time, ate my yogurt, drank my coconut water (with pulp), took a walk, and got ready for the rest of the tournament.

  While I was drinking my coconut water with pulp, I decided that I was having a lot of trouble with the White pieces and would play the Boris (1.d4 2.f4) as White for the rest of the tournament against all the top rated players. I started the second half of the tournament against Cub and played my best two games of the day. I won a pawn or 2, smoothly traded down, and nailed the 2 points to go to 6-4. Next up was Dan Vasto. I had Black, he followed the same game we played last April, and I got a piece trapped and went down in flames. As White, I got a good position with the Boris and had a pretty even game. We each had about a minute left when I made my first horrible mistake of the day and hung a rook to a backward moving bishop to go to 6-6. Next up was the other expert Joe Knapp. Joe beat me pretty convincingly in both games and smashed the Boris convincingly to put me at 6-8. Next up was Eric. As White, I played the Boris for the 3rd time in a row. We got into a wild position when I found a perpetual check with my rook and knight, but we both went momentarily crazy and thought it was a checkmate. Eric resigned and afterwards we realized it wasn’t a checkmate. Eric beat me easily with the White pieces but the first game, combined with Tim’s running out of time earlier, gave me a point and a half I didn’t deserve.

  Next up was Eddie, who plays a wild and crazy style that gives me fits and has beaten me in both tournament games we have played. Today I caught Eddie in a tactic as Black in the first game to win a piece and crushed him in the second game with the Boris to get my record back to 9-9. Next up was Jaleb. Jaleb and I play 5 minute games almost every week at club and are pretty even. I started as White with the Boris, but Jaleb came up with some great ideas and beat me badly. As Black, I was up a pawn in a rook endgame, but I got over aggressive in trying to push for the win and managed to lose the game to drop my record to go to 9-11 with only 2 games left against Johnny B to try to even my score. Johnny B was not used to 5 minutes chess and got very low on time in both games so I did manage to get 2 wins and salvage an even score, which tied for 7th and 8th with Jaleb. I didn’t have the tournament I wanted, but did have the tournament someone of my ability could expect in this crowd.

  With my tournament over at around 3:30, I watched the rest of the games finish up, but first I got another yogurt and coconut water (with pulp). I also bought a big bag of Cheetos Puffs to share with the other chess players and had another great exchange at the checkout counter, this time with the Checkout Dude.

Checkout Dude: Will plastic be all right today, sir?
Me: Sure
Checkout Dude: That will be 6.82, sir.
Me (taking out some cash): Will paper be all right today, sir?

An informal show of hands showed a landslide in favor of Cheetos Puffs.
No one tried to take a swig of my coconut water WITH PULP.

  I put out the Puffs with the Crunchy Cheetos that Cub had given me and invited the other players to have a snack, but everyone who wanted a snack stuck their hand in the Puffs bag. No offense to Cub’s mom, but in my opinion comparing crunchy Cheetos to Cheetos Puffs is like comparing beef jerky and prime rib. But don’t take my word for it, just please consider that I took home the entire bag of crunchy Cheetos, but only a quarter bag of the Puffs.

  I watched Dan and Knapp battle it out in the finals (Dan winning to take the $90 cash prize) and hung around chatting with the other players till 5 and then went home. Cub and Tim even got some videos of the players in action. Here is a montage where you can see me going down in flames to Dan followed by a couple of other games. All the videos are on Cub’s page. I wish they’d gotten a video of me winning a game, but I turned that into a 50/50 proposition by winning half my games. I’ve never seen myself play before and think I’d go nuts if I had to play somebody chomping their gum as much as I do!


I've never seen myself play before. Pretty fidgety!

  Big Money Blitz was a lot of fun and a great tournament, mainly because of Cub and Tim’s innovative thinking. I got to play 22 games (some against the best players in the area) in 4 and a half hours for just $10. I’m sure some players stayed away because they don’t think 5 minutes a side is 'real' chess, but they missed out. 5 minutes is a lot of time for a game and the chess was as much fun and just as cutthroat as any I’ve ever played. In an age where innovation seems measured by how many people a government can get to believe it’s cutting their deficit at the same time it is borrowing $5,000 per year for every man, woman, and child in the country, it’s nice to see some really creative thinking and I'm looking forward to their next tournament.