Sunday, December 25, 2011

Playing My Drum

  I spent the week before Christmas transfixed by the song ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. My Rhapsody subscription ($15 a month for access to their entire catalog) combined with my amazing iPod allowed me to create a playlist of 30+ artist’s renditions which I found myself listening to over and over. I found the song inspirational all week long and especially liked the duet by Bing Crosby & David Bowie, with the versions by Ringo Starr, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder close behind. Like the drummer boy (and the wise men for that matter), none of our gifts are fit for the King but what little we have to offer is met with a smile as long as we offer our best. It is a tremendous thought for any time of the year and it’s important to recognize all the gifts that come our way, both big and small.

Top Left:New new guy Tony and I with our Christmas Cheetos. The rest of the pictures are of the Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co. including the Salmon Sandwich lunch special.

  I got my first present on Tuesday at work when new guy Tony brought me a big bag of Cheetos Puffs. Just having Tony around is a present to me in and of itself. Before he came on board, I was not only the new guy – I was the old guy, too. I remember when I was always the youngest person at work and now I’m older than my boss, my bosses’ boss and twice the age of some of my co-workers. There are some older network and marketing guys, but I’m the oldest programmer and I think it’s by a big margin. I pull my weight and no one calls me ‘pops’ or anything, but since Tony is older than me, he has relieved me of being the new guy and the old guy. Now I’m just the bald guy, but as the prophet Meat Loaf said “Don’t be sad, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad”.

  My day got even better when I was taken out to lunch by the project manager of the company I work for. Last week the government agency we interact with had a systems changeover and the customer was very pleased that we were able to match their changes with a minimal amount of problems. Because the customer contracts my time through my company, they aren’t allowed to give me a bonus or presents, but a ‘working lunch’ was arranged. We walked to the ‘Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company’ via the Skywalk. The restaurant is a business lunch spot and night time hangout in a bar, band, and restaurant district just off downtown Des Moines. I had the lunch special which was a grilled salmon sandwich with potato salad and the project manager had a giant burrito. The sandwich was good, the potato salad was awesome, and the price was excellent (for me, that is)! It was nice to be taken out to lunch and after the tense weeks leading up to the government changeover, and I enjoyed celebrating the success of a mostly problem free upgrade.

Jaleb Jay vs. Jon McCord

Roger & Cypher
in Cyclone gear.
  On Thursday at chess club, I got more presents with the return of Jaleb Jay and a visit from Roger Gotschall, the legendary Ames chess coach and tournament director and his traveling companion, Cypher the Boston Terrier. Jaleb hadn’t been to the club since August due to school and other scheduling issues, but will be around for a couple of weeks with school off for winter break and Roger’s Cyclone Chess Club (which also meets on Thursday) is also off for a few weeks since they are a college chess club stationed on the Iowa State University campus. Except for Jaleb, I had no other school-age kids at club. Maybe they thought there’d be no club, but since Christmas wasn’t on a Thursday, it was business as usual at the Marshalltown Chess Club!

  We had an odd number of players so I sat out of the tournament. Jaleb shook off 4 months of rust to win the tournament, but I managed to beat him 3 out of 3 in 5 minute games. I won one convincingly, and was even and lost in the other 2 when Jaleb ran out of time. When coming back after a long layoff, most players tend not to trust their calculation of tactics and use precious seconds double checking themselves. It used to be an upset when Jaleb beat me, but now I feel lucky when I win so I was thrilled to get 3 out of 3 any way I can.

Roger and Me,
Cypher & Italian Sausage!
  I didn’t get to play Roger, but we got to talk about chess, dogs, and life for around an hour. Roger and I have had our share of differences about youth chess and the direction of Iowa Chess over the years, but we get each other and have a lot in common. We're both stong-willed and indefatigable! We both have weekly chess clubs on Thursdays and while I get myself out of the house early every Friday to go to Des Moines and teach chess at St. Francis, Roger has taught chess at a minimum of 3 schools in the Ames area for years. He has had some health problems this year and is in his 70s, yet he still gets to these schools every week to teach chess. His is an enduring legacy that will last generations, but Roger isn't interested in collecting accolades. When I asked him to see if he could find a way in his capacity as Iowa's representative to the USCF to get a discounted one day youth membership established so high schools could compete in the state team championships without having to buy expensive annual memberships for only one tournament, Roger got it passed. The USCF higher-ups took the credit for getting this innovative idea, but Roger was more interested in being of service to Iowa chess players than who got credit. We are also big baseball fans, with Roger getting the leg up on me this year with his favorite Cardinals thrill-a-minute World Series victory. Now that Roger has Cypher, we also share a love of dogs. Cypher had a Cyclone colored coat with his name embroidered in it. Daisy and Baxter are so yappy I could never have them at a chess tournament, but Cypher's quieter than most chess players. It was a pleasure to have Roger and Cypher come to visit and I was surprised and pleased when they gave me a beagle calendar for Christmas. We all received another present at chess club. The Salvation Army had just had their holiday food box distribution (300+ families fed) and had boxes and boxes of close dated frozen Italian sausages left over so we each received a frozen pack of sausage.

  Saturday was my turn for some giving. The past 2 years, Matt had conducted a simultaneous chess exhibition where he would play 10 to 15 players at once. The idea was that all the participants would make a donation to the Salvation Army in order to play and that anyone who beat him would win a tournament chess set. No one ever beat Matt and except for the set I gave to Daniel Carson in 2009 for lasting the longest against Matt, I still have all the ones I bought 2 years ago. This year, when Major John asked about the chess exhibition, I didn’t have time to coordinate a simul with Matt (he’s is college and has his own plans for the holidays), so I volunteered to play speed chess against all comers on Christmas Eve. The last 2 years, we had very little participation in Matt’s simuls outside the chess club and I wanted to try to get new people in town to play some chess, so I decided to play all comers with 1 minute on my clock and 10 minutes for the challengers and give away chess sets to anyone who I couldn’t beat before I ran out of time. I cleared it with the mall, got a press release printed in the newspaper, and was off.

Johnny summed
it up in 2 words!
  I’m OK at speed chess, but almost any tournament player could beat me at these time odds. I didn’t care since I had all the chess sets I bought for Matt’s simuls sitting in a box for over 2 years and they weren't doing anyone any good in a closet. I told the mall management that I wanted to do the exhibition by the entrance to the JC Penney store where the bell ringers always are with a 4x8 table or 2 off to the side where Matt held his simul. The mall manager said it was OK with him, but he didn’t want a big table by the entrance and didn’t have anything smaller than a 4x8 table. I told him I’d bring a card table and I arrived with it at 10:30 yesterday along with my box of chess sets, a couple of chess clocks, and a Salvation Army kettle and bell.

The JC Penney manager before
banishing us to the corner.
  I was all set up by 10:50 and had the exhibition planned from 11 to 3. The first player was a kid named Rico. He didn’t want to play speed chess, so we played a couple of games until his dad told him he had to leave. Then a high schooler named Johnny came to play. He also didn’t want to try the speed chess challenge so we played some offhand games. I beat Johnny twice and he paid me my first compliment of the day when he said “You Suck”. Since he was smiling when he said it, I assume he meant it in a good way. We started a new game, but then Chandler and Dalton from the chess club came with their parents and 3 foster kids their folks are taking care of. Dalton paid his entry fee and we started playing time odds chess. Dalton is the newest tournament player at club and while he has won a few games, he was no match for me in the 3 speed games we played and never even made me use more than 20 seconds. During the second game, 2 managers from JC Penney (a man and a woman) came out and told me that I was 'impeding' their customer’s access to the store and could I move to one side or the other of the entrance. The entrance is 40 feet wide and I was 5 feet from one side so I moved the 5 feet over. Then after our third game, the lady manager came over and demanded I move to the other side of the entrance. While she was demanding, she pointed out the JC Penney was being quite gracious in allowing bell ringers to even be anywhere near their store entrance since no one else in the mall wanted the bell ringers anywhere near them. I moved the chess table and the red kettle to the other side of the entrance and proceeded to play Chandler.

Chandler's foster brothers
were donation magnets!
   Chandler played a smart game, keeping his king protected and trading pieces. I only had 8 seconds left when I hung a rook in an even position and had given away my first chess set of the day, when Keith from the Salvation Army came over and told me the woman manager had called him to let him know that the bell ringers were ‘playing chess’. I imagine no one told her about the exhibition. We moved the chess table and the kettle far away from the entrance on a landing behind a ‘hurricane machine’. Since its Christmas I’m not going to say anything bad about the manager, but if I ever have a business where I need to drive away customers, I know where I'm going first. Chandler didn’t want to play after winning the first game, so I played Dalton for another hour until I finally ran out of time and gave away my second chess set. Except for one guy that watched for a bit, no one was interested in playing speed chess, so I did some bell ringing along with Dalton and 2 of his foster brothers until about 2:15. While bell-ringing, I learned the valuable lesson that little kids ringing the bell really bring in the money as an incredible number of people would see the cute 3 or 4 year old foster brothers ringing the bell and give the kids money to drop in the kettle, including one lady who emptied handfuls of change out of her purse to give the kids to put in the kettle.

  While the youngsters were ringing the bell, the fellow who was watching me play Dalton came over and decided to play a game. His name was Gary and he really enjoyed playing even after I checkmated him using only 20 seconds. I gave him a flyer to the chess club and hope I’ll see him again. When Dalton and his family left, Major John showed up and we talked for a bit. I told him about the problems with the JC Penney manager and he said not to worry about it so I didn’t. Then a lady named Marsha and her husband Denny came over and said Marsha wanted to play a game. We started our game when Kathy came over to see how the exhibition was going. Marsha was a pretty good player and I just managed to win with 10 seconds left (Marsha used about 8 minutes). Marsha and Denny live 20 miles away in Gilman and I hope to see them again at the club someday since I think she could play even with Scott, Jon and the other regulars. I was about ready to pack up when 4 college kids came by, looked at the sign detailing the exhibition, talked amongst themselves, and started walking away when I pointed out they only had to last a minute with me over a chess board and it wasn’t like Spiderman trying to last a round with the professional wrestler. That convinced one of the kids to try his luck.

After a slow start, the speed chess exhibition picked up with 5 players in the last hour.

  It turned out the kid who was playing was Corey McMillan, a high school classmate of Matt’s. I told him I remembered how they were on the same soccer team as youngsters and that I remember he was a real good soccer player. Corey said he was playing soccer at Alleghany College in Pennsylvania and was home for the holidays. I beat Corey with 26 seconds to spare and told his friends that I’d give any of them a chess set if they could last longer and if they couldn’t Corey would get the set. 2 of Corey’s friends, Ian and Jason played, but neither lasted more than 34 seconds so one of my chess sets will be heading to Alleghany College with Corey!

  It was a slow start to the exhibition but a fantastic end with 4 games in the last half hour. I hadn’t given any money to any bell ringers once I knew I would be doing the exhibition, and put it in my kettle before I packed up and went home with Kathy to walk the dogs for another beef stick. I always like to do what I can for the Salvation Army. They host our chess club (and dozens of other groups), they get food for the hungry, and anyone who is in need of clothes or furniture can get a voucher from them to get what they need at their thrift store. In addition to all that, they have had a singularly transformative impact on my life. If I hadn’t been challenged to start a chess club by Major Joan in 2002 when I asked if the Salvation Army had one, I’d never have run a chess tournament, met many of the people that have enriched me so much, taught chess at St. Francis, or started my blog. And that’s just off the top of my head. When I get the chance to do something for the Salvation Army, I feel like the drummer boy whose gifts aren’t worthy of the recipient, but are accepted with a smile anyway because I’m giving my best effort.