Sunday, January 29, 2012

Super Thoughts

  The Tata Steel chess tournament in Wijk ann Zee, Holland just ended with a resounding victory by Armenian Levon Aronian, who won 7 of his 13 games while losing only 2. Despite beating Aronian in their individual encounter, world ranked #1 Magnus Carlsen couldn’t keep up the pace and could win only 4 games against 1 loss enroute to tying for second place with the Azerbaijani Radjabov (the only undefeated player) and former American now Italian Fabiano Caruana. Defending champion Hikaru Nakamura of America shook off a slow start to go unbeaten after his round 2 loss to Aronian and finish tied for fifth. It was a super performance by Aronian, who will now play a match with former champion Kramnik in April as both prepare for the upcoming candidate matches of the next World Championship cycle.

  Now that the first super-GM chess tournament of the year is over, I can turn my attention to the Super Bowl, which is a rematch of the 2008 contest between the Giants and the Patriots. I ran into my friend Dennis at the Hy-Vee drug store yesterday. I hadn’t had a chance to talk to him in a couple of months. Dennis is a huge Packers fan and was still upset over their playoff loss at the hands of the Giants 2 weeks ago. I thought the Packers were going to repeat last year’s championship and even predicted it a few weeks ago, but they ran into a hot Giants team that was playing their 3rd playoff game in 3 weeks (including the season finale against the Cowboys in which the winner was in the playoffs as the NFC East champion).

  The Giants haven’t had much of a defense until the last few weeks, but the one thing they can do well is hurry the quarterback and even the best quarterbacks can look ordinary when they don’t have time to look over the field and make an unhurried throw. Packer QB Aaron Rodgers did not play up to his superhuman standards, but played well enough to win the game if the rest of the team had stepped up. Without an all-world performance from their all-world quarterback, the Packers weren’t able to overcome their receiver’s continual habit of dropping passes, and weren’t helped by their 4 turnovers (including a fumble and interception by Rodgers). Despite all their problems, the Packers were only losing 13-10 with 10 seconds left in the half, but their defense botched the Giant’s desperation pass on the last play of the first half and found themselves down 20-10 at halftime.

  I’m still not sure how the Giants managed to win the NFC championship game against the 49ers on Sunday. The 49er defense is of championship quality and their offense was top notch against the Saints, but except for allowing a couple of TD passes to All-Pro tight end Vernon Davis, the Giant Defense held the 49ers in check and were bailed out by 2 late game punt-return fumbles by Kyle Williams to escape with a 20-17 overtime victory.

  The Giants seem to be a team of destiny, replaying the same script as the Super Bowl champs of 4 years ago by barely slipping into the playoffs, beating Green Bay on the road, and winning the NFC Championship in overtime on the road. They are even playing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, albeit a 15-3 team and not the 18-0 version chasing immortality as last time. The Patriots looked quite pedestrian in barely getting past a Baltimore Ravens team that self-destructed in the final minute when Lee Evans failed to secure the winning touchdown pass (allowing it to be knocked out of his hands) and Iowa native Billy Cundiff missed a short game-tying field goal in the closing seconds.

  The odds makers are saying the Patriots are a 3 point favorite in the big game, but the sports experts I hear on the radio are split between the two teams. The Giants are the last team to have beaten the Patriots with a 24-20 win in New England in Week 8 of the regular season. The conventional wisdom favoring the Giants is not only are the Giants the team of destiny, the Patriots defense is suspect at best. I saw the Patriots get crushed by the Steelers and lose to the Giants in the last minute, but I also saw them beat Broncos and Ravens in the playoffs and I think that their defense is much improved from earlier in the season.

  Football games are often compared to chess matches. Most of the time I think it’s a stupid analogy. In chess, both players start with the same number and types of pieces and everything is out in the open, the winner being the one who ‘sees’ more than their opponent. In football, the teams have differing strengths and weaknesses and deception plays a huge role as both sides use personnel groupings and formations to disguise their plans and create mismatches. But in this case, the chess analogy seems to hold truer to me. New England coach Bill Belichick and Giants coach Tom Coughlin worked together when they were members of Bill Parcells' Giant staff of the late 80’s and they have a familiarity with each other’s styles. And since the teams have already played each other, I’m not sure either side will be able to spring too many surprises on each other, so like a chess game the winner will be who can best use the forces at their command.

  I’ve been wrong on almost every sports prediction I’ve ever made on this blog, but that won’t stop me from making a prediction. I think the Patriots are the slightly better team and that Belichick will be able to take away the Giants pass rush with quick passes, while on defense the Patriots massive tackles will stop the Giants running game without help and be able to load the defense with pass defenders. If the teams played 11 times, I’d expect the Patriots to win 6 times to the Giants 5, but since they will only play once, I'm picking the Patriots to not only win but cover the spread 28-24, but since I'm a lifelong Giants fan, I'd like nothing better than to be wrong.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Numbers Game

  In organized chess, players are given numerical ratings by whatever governing body is in charge of the rating system for said organization. Ratings are a gauge of relative strength of chess players. In America, the United States Chess Federation (USCF) is in charge of assigning ratings for all players in USCF tournaments, The British Chess Federation is in charge of England’s rating system, and FIDE assigns international ratings. I have 3 USCF ratings: a 1663 rating for quick chess play (game in under 60 minutes), a 1706 rating for long play (game over 30 minutes) and a 1591 rating for extremely slow play by email or postal mail. I also have 8 ratings from the Internet Chess Club for games in 1 minute, 2 minute, bullet, blitz, standard, 5-minute, and other chess variants. In addition to these ratings, I have a rating on, my Tactics trainer iPod app, and a host of other tactic servers. Ratings are a source of pride for some chess players, and embarrassment for others, and an obsession for most.

  At my Des Moines youth chess tournaments, I have a rated and an unrated section. The thought of getting a rating fascinates many of the unrated players and on Saturday one of them asked me what ratings meant. I explained a bit about the numbers, but I made sure to close my discussion by saying that a rating is where you’ve been, not where you’re going and except for 2 people everyone has a worse rating (not exactly true since plenty of people have the minimum USCF rating of 100) than some and a better rating than others. And at least 3 times every tournament, a rated player will ask me what I think their rating will be after the tournament. There's just something about having this little number next to your name that appeals to chess players.

  When I say ratings can be an obsession, I mean it. When I’m at a tournament and a player pulls of a big upset, they rarely say ‘I beat Sam’ or ‘I beat Johnny’, instead they say ‘I beat an 1800!’ and most players don’t talk about losing to Billy, rather bemoaning how they lost to a 1100. I used to get upset when I lost rating points, but after watching my blitz rating oscillate over the last couple of years I’ve come to the realization that when my rating is low I gain a few more points (or lose a few less) from tournaments than when my rating is high (and the inverse is true when my rating is high) so my rating at any given point is much less important than how I’m playing. Whenever anyone starts telling me about their latest rating swing, I mention this. It normally makes the player who has just lost a lot of points feel better (and sometimes enrages the player who has just gained a lot of points and now feels belittled). The math and logic is indisputable, but I wonder if it is just a coincidence that I’ve only played in one regular rated tournament since I cracked the 1700 rating mark in 2009?

  The USCF and FIDE ratings are based on the calculations of Arpad Elo, a Hungarian immigrant. The theory behind the ratings are used from everything from table tennis to role playing card games (you can find the math here). There are a few cracks in the USCF rating system that lead to rating inflation. To prevent players from artificially lowering their ratings in order to get cash prizes, the USCF instituted rating floors. With a rating floor, a players rating can never fall 200 points below their highest rating rounded down to the hundreds. For example, a player rated 1865 can never have their rating drop to below 1600 unless they petition the USCF for a lower rating. Rating floors are also assigned when a large cash prize is won for winning a prize for a certain rating. When Iowa player Tim Crouse won a huge cash prize for the best score under an 1800 rating at a big tournament in Chicago, he was assigned a rating floor of 1800 by the USCF to prevent him from winning another big under 1800 prize in the future.

  While rating floors are useful to protect the integrity of cash prizes, they lead to rating inflation when a player’s strength doesn’t match his rating floor due to age or simply not playing at the floored rating obtained from winning a large cash prize. When a player at his or her rating floor is in a slump and not playing at their rating level, lower rated players who defeat then gain rating points while the losing player's rating stays at their floor. The net effect is an increase in the total pool of rating points, leading to the inflation. Another cause of rating inflation is the bonus afforded to players who get a perfect score in a tournament.

  It isn’t uncommon for a player at my Marshalltown Thursday Night blitz tournaments to have a big day and gain a hundred points or more in a day. For example, on the January 5th tournament, Jerry Mason (rated 1155), won all 3 of his games against players rated 1087, 1304, and 1732 respectively. It was a great performance and Jerry’s rating shot up to 1324, a gain of 169 points, but the rest of the playing field lost 24 points combined. This means 145 points of Jerry’s rating increase didn’t come at the expense of the other players, but was just added to the system. This made me curious and I added the before and after ratings of all Thursday Night Blitz tournaments and found an increase of 4,453 rating points in the 106 tournaments since September 2009. For my technically-inclined readers, I’ll note that I did not include provisional ratings (the USCF counts ratings as provisional until 25 games have been played and allows the ratings to increase and decrease at a higher rate than non-provisional ratings) in this total.

  I researched the tournaments that caused the most disparities and they were all like Jerry’s big January 5th tournament. One player had a great tournament and gained a hundred rating points or more, but not at the expense of the other players. And when these lucky players came back to earth and lost some of their rating points back, the points tend to go to the other Marshalltown players because our blitz tournaments include a lot of the same players week after week. This ‘closed-loop’ effect was seen most clearly in the case of chess player (and convicted murderer) Claude Bloodgood, who attained a 1996 rating of 2700 (second in the country at the time) while only playing in prison tournaments.

  The main use I have for ratings is to keep the top players at tournaments I run from playing each other in the early going. Win TD (the pairing software I use) does this automatically for rated tournaments, but I’ve been having problems with my unrated tournaments. Since the players don’t have ratings, Win TD pairs the players randomly and sometimes will pair the best two players in the first round or give the defending champion a first round bye in case of an odd number of players. Because I have all the results in a database, I was able to spend some time on Sunday noodling around with various rating formulas to try to solve this and I discarded all my attempts as flawed. But when I started looking to see if I could ape the USCF system, I found it was nearly as flawed as anything I was coming up with and hundreds of times harder to implement.

  I’ve settled on an ‘unrated’ rating system that will take the winning percentage of a player’s latest 5 tournaments within the past 12 months scaled to 100, give a 5 point bonus for each tournament win, and add a point for each game played. The ratings will top out at 140 to 150 for a player who wins their last 5 tournaments and the lowest a player can have is a rating of 1 (playing only one game and losing it). I’m not sure if I’m going to let the players see their ratings since they will look low compared to the USCF ratings which start at 100, but I’m inclined to not only let the players see the ratings, but publish them on the Internet. After all, who doesn’t want to see that little number next to their name.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Spread the Word

  On Thursday I got an email from the IASCA scholastic director asking me what my plans were for a summer chess camp and would I like him to include them in his broadcast email? The last time the IASCA sent out a broadcast email concerning my chess activities, it was to recommend that people not go to my November tournament, so I curtly declined the invitation to spread the word. This led to another email from the IASCA scholastic director telling me he was trying to do me a favor in November because a lot of chess parents and the IASCA board members were so upset by my having the tournament in Des Moines on the same day as the IASCA Cedar Rapids tournament in November that he felt he had to mention it to stop all the negative talk about me and my tournament, but that it was a mistake to mention my tournament that way.

  I guess I can accept this explanation. After all, nobody’s perfect, especially me. And since one of my little imperfections is to hold onto my grudges like a kid holds on to their first chess trophy, I’ve had as little as possible to do with the IASCA over the last couple of months and that’s not going to change anytime soon. I can't control what other people say or do, but I can take care of the things I can take care of, like making sure I have my own means to spread the word about my chess tournaments and other chess activities. Because of my website, I have a place to post my news articles and upcoming tournaments and thanks to Ben Tessman’s advice, the site is already on the front page of the Google searches for Iowa chess. Sometimes I wish I was the type to just not tell the families who come to my tournaments about the scholastic tournaments the IASCA puts on, but that’s not one of my imperfections.

  Even in this age of the Internet, Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc…, I think email is the best way to let people know about chess tournaments and that word of mouth remains the best way to grow attendance at chess tournaments, especially in Iowa. Maybe in a densely populated area like New Jersey it would pay to advertise in Chess Life, but not in Iowa where there are only a few hundred people who are USCF members and even get the magazine. I like to send out an email a few weeks before each of my tournaments to let the parents know about it and then I wait and see. It’s always kind of depressing the first couple of days after I send out the emails because I get more UNSUBSCRIBE emails than signups, but as the week goes on, I feel better as the signups start to come in.

  Yesterday I had my 13th straight monthly family Des Moines chess tournament at St. Francis. I got the date set up last month and I found out during the first chess club of the year that the local Cub Scout troop was having their pinewood derby at St. Francis on the morning of the tournament. I knew that was going to depress attendance in the morning, but since this was my 5th straight month with the morning and afternoon tournaments, any chess players that participated in the morning pinewood’s derby (or the basketball games being played in the gym next door) were just a minute or two away from the afternoon chess tournament if they cared to play.

  The morning tournament had 23 youth and 6 parents playing, about an average number if a bit on the smallish side. I was on target for another 30 players in the afternoon, but on Friday I picked up another 10 players and when the expected snowstorm didn’t dump the predicted 4 to 6 inches in Des Moines, another half dozen players showed up to play. After recruiting some siblings and parents to give me an even number of players for all the sections, I ended up with 52 players in the afternoon for a total of 81 players with 12 playing all day (including me, because I got to play a game in the parents section!).

  It was a great day of chess and while I was busy, I still had more than enough time to meet a lot of parents who had recently signed up to help with the clubs at their schools. They were asking me about starting chess clubs, instructing beginning players, and how would they know when the kids were ready for unrated tournaments. Some of the parents of the successful players in the unrated tournaments asked me when they should get their players into the rated tournaments. I told them to leave it up to the child and offered my assessment of what their rating would be when they started playing in the rated tournaments. The only big problem I had was with my new additions of trophy prizes for the unrated players. I had been giving them first through fifth place labels to put on their participation medals, but since September I’ve had more unrated players than rated players so I decided to add trophies to the unrated players prizes. A very talented 7-year old from St. Francis had a great morning unrated tournament (winning 3 out of 5 games), but he finished tied for fourth place and missed out on the last trophy by tiebreak. He thought he was going to get the trophy and was really upset when he didn’t. I’ve seen this enough with my kids and plenty of others to know that the bad feelings won't last, but it didn’t make me feel any better to see it yesterday. I had debated whether I should lower the unrated entry fee rather than ramping up the pressure by introducing trophies, but in the end I think the trophies are modest enough that it won’t lead to too many hard feelings.

  This was a unique tournament in that there were only 5 players that came from outside the Des Moines metro area. I had about a dozen new players, who were all told about the tournament by existing players or Jose Gatica, the professional chess teacher who works at all the other Des Moines Catholic schools except St. Francis. One of the new players was Ronaldo Enamorado. The reason I mention Ronaldo is to illustrate the circuitous path by which he ended up playing chess in West Des Moines yesterday.

  Twice a year I send an email to all the schools within 3 counties of Des Moines to let them know about my tournaments. I rarely get any responses, but last January I got an email from Kelly Haase, the chess club advisor at Carlisle Middle School asking about the tournaments. Kelly let her club know about the tournament and her top player, Mathew Hintz, came to play in the unrated tournament last January. In February, Matt brought Sean Urban from the Carlisle Chess Club to play in the tournament. By April, Matt and Sean had both purchased USCF memberships and were playing in the rated tournaments. When I was setting up the chess camp for July, I let the parents know that I needed a nurse at the camp and was offering a discounted camp fee for the child of a nurse who would monitor the camp. Sean’s mom knew the Carlisle school nurse, Julie Reed, whose son Alex liked to play chess. Alex and Sean came to the camp and Alex started playing in the rated tournaments. Alex’s parents told a friend of theirs, Dell Spence, about the chess tournaments and last month Dell brought his 2 sons Seylan and Kylan to play in the unrated section. And this month Dell brought Ronaldo to play in the unrated section. And that is how Ronaldo Enamorado came to play chess in West Des Moines on January 21st, 2012. All because I sent a letter to a school in late 2010 and 4 different players liked the tournaments enough to get a friend to play. Now that’s what I call word of mouth!!

  And if I keep taking care of the things I can take care of, namely providing a positive fun family chess experience, it's only a matter of time before Ronaldo brings a friend, too!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Made in America

  The first super GM chess tournament of 2012 started on Saturday in Wijk aan Zee, Holland. This tournament is sponsored by Tata Steel and has the unique format of 3 14 players groups (A, B, and C) playing in a 13 round tournament. The ‘A’ section features 12 of the 21 top ranked players in the world along with Dutch player Loek Van Wely and last year’s champion of the ‘B’ tournament, Czech David Navara.

  Going into the tournament, the favorites were world numbers 1 and 2 Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian, and the defending champion Hikaru Nakamura of the United States. Nakamura made a big splash by winning last year’s Tata Steel tournament. It was the biggest tournament victory from a homegrown US player in at least 20 years. While there have been plenty of victories by US chess players in recent years, they have all been by émigrés from the eastern bloc countries who were already world class chess players when they arrived in the US, while Nakamura has lived in the US since he was 2 years old after being born in Japan.

  Nakamura has gotten off to a rocky start in the defense of his title, with 3 draws (2 as White) and a loss as Black to Aronian in the first 4 rounds to share next to last place. Nakamura’s results have been very erratic lately (last place at the Tal Memorial in November and a clear second in the London Chess Classic in December), so a comeback is still possible. Since winning at Wijk aan Zee last year, Nakamura was expected by many to challenge Carlsen for the top spot in the world rankings, especially once word got out that his sponsor (billionaire chess benefactor Rex Sinquefeld) had arranged for training with Garry Kasparov (the highest rated player of all time) prior to his victory. Carlsen had trained with Kasparov in 2010 before gaining the world number one ranking. Nakamura’s training with Kasparov came to an end sometime last year and probably not very amicably, with Nakamura saying that Kasparov’s main strength was getting good positions out of the openings and that other players were better than him in middlegames and endings. Carlsen said much the same thing, only much more delicately, even though as the top rated player in the world he would have the authority to take a swipe at Kasparov. Even if it true, by pointing it out publicly Nakamura is showing off his immaturity, although at 24 he is almost middle aged when compared to the top 20 players in the world.

  When chess players from the Eastern Bloc emigrated to the US en masse in the late 70s and early 80’s, there was a concern that an entire generation of talented young American grandmasters was being shut out of the already meager prize funds. To a certain extent this has been the case, but given the opportunities available outside the chess world in America, most of the homegrown US chess talent has always found their way to other professions upon reaching college age. In any event, enough homegrown American players have become able to make their way as professional chess players to be competitive in the US Championships, winning around 40% of championships held since 1990. It doesn’t bother me when chess players from other countries come to the US and dominate the national chess scene, but I have to admit I have a lot more national pride when home grown players represent our country instead of imports.

  Many of the foreign players have also had a difficult time making a living by playing chess and turned to teaching chess as a way to make a living. I wondered if this would lead to an increase in elite homegrown chess players. After a generation progress has been noticeable but slow. The huge push for chess in schools has led to exposure for many children who would never have seen a chessboard in years past and this has led to a huge increase in higher rated youngsters. For example the 100th rated 10 year old in the US is rated 1496, but when Matt cracked the top 100 list as an 10 year old in 2003, his rating was 1319 and he was in the 50's, not at the tail end of the list. There has been an increase in the number of strong young players, but I wondered if this increase has filtered through to the top levels of chess. I grabbed a list of the top 200 players by FIDE (international chess) rating born after 1991 and there were 9 Americans on the list. This is tied for 5th with Hungary and Spain behind Russia (37), China (14), India(14), and Ukraine(13). FIDE records only are available since 2009 so I have no idea whether 9 is high or low, but I suspect the US is underrepresented on the list since the USCF has its own rating system and very few US tournaments are internationally rated.

  Immigration is a hot topic in Marshalltown, Iowa and whenever someone rails to me about the large number of Hispanics that come to town (perhaps illegally) to work in the meat packing plant, I mention that I’ll worry when people don’t want to come to this country, illegally or not. It may be time for me to worry. When I was researching this post, I noticed that the foreign players at the top of the US ratings lists are the same ones that have been on these lists for years and years except for Alejandro Ramirez, a recent arrival from Costa Rica. This means that not only are the top Russian players not coming to America any more, the US isn’t a place of destination for the top chess players from China, India, South America or anywhere else in the world. And it gets even worse for the USA. When I printed out the FIDE list of the top 200 born after 1991, the top name on the list is Fabiano Caruana. Caruana is playing in Wijk aan Zee under the Italian flag, but is a homegrown American player, learning chess in New York in the 1990s. Because his mother was an Italian citizen, Caruana has Italian citizenship. He moved with his family to Europe in 2004 and hasn’t played in the United States since 2008.

  Not only is America not attracting the chess players from other countries, we can’t even retain the best of our home grown players. If this is happening in chess, I’m sure it’s happening in all professions and a clear sign that our country has lost a lot of its attractiveness to the rest of the world.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Foot on the Gas

Like most offers, this credit card that gives 5 cents per galllon back comes with strings attached.

  Iowa Republicans won control of the Governor’s mansion and House on a platform of lower taxes and less government along with the obligatory nod to social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Since the Iowa Democrats still controlled the Senate, core Democrat issues have been protected from even coming to a vote in the Senate. A bill to allow a vote to change the Iowa constitution to ban gay marriage has been blocked by the Democrats as well as a bill to block late-term abortions. A bill to make changes to the state’s collective bargaining law passed the Iowa House but was not able to come up for a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

  I don’t have a problem with the Democrats blocking legislation they don’t like. After all, that’s their job. And I don’t have an issue with the Republicans vilifying the Democrats for blocking legislation. After all, that’s their job. But when these guys all start working together, it probably doesn’t mean anything good for me. This week, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have predicted that the Legislature will pass an increase in the gas tax. The proposed tax increase will get $50 million in savings from the Department of Transportation this year and then raise $264 million dollars over the next 2 years (and $176 million a year thereafter) by raising the taxes on diesel fuel and gasoline by 4 cents a year over the next 2 years. This money is to be used to fund the increase in road construction costs. Even Governor Branstad, who said he would not approve an increase in the gas tax earlier this year has come to an about face on the issue by suggesting that he would be open to a future increase.

   As someone who drives 30 thousand miles a year to go to work, I understand the need to have well maintained roads as much as anyone, but raising the money to maintain the roads by taxing gasoline makes no sense to me. Governments never consider funding school improvements by taxing families with children because they consider education to be in the public interest. Aren’t well maintained roads in the public interest? Well maintained roads benefit the entire state, not just motorists. When people travel to Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City, etc. for sporting events, concerts, and shopping the benefits are felt by all the businesses, restaurants, and stores in the area but they don’t pay a dime for the roads these customers use to get to them.

  I don’t mind paying my fair share but this tax is an undue burden on me. Why should all the people who have electric cars get a free pass from paying for maintaining the roads? And what about all the pedestrians, bicyclists, skateboarders, etc… ? Aren’t they using the roads? A car that gets 25 miles a gallon will pay 1/3 of a cent per mile under this tax. Let’s start taxing shoes, skateboards, and bicycle tires for using our roads at that same rate.

  Aside from the prejudicial nature of the gas tax, how is it that the Republican who proclaim themselves to be against taxes are open to this particular tax increase? Because the increase won’t take effect until next year (after this year’s election). They are gambling that the people who voted them in power because of their low-tax stances won’t remember that it was these same Republicans that raised the gas tax over a year ago. I imagine the $50 million dollars in savings requested from the Department of Transportation will come in the nature of a low interest loan on the future gas tax revenues. I’m even suspicious of the timing of the announcement of the prediction. If this tax increase had come out a few weeks ago during the caucus, I’m sure the candidates would have noted their disapproval for new taxes, but now that the national attention is off the state, it is business as usual for the local politicians. I’d much rather see the Republicans follow through on their tax promises than their vows to put an end to gay marriage in the state. I’m no fan of gay marriage, but it has been almost 2 years since the courts imposed it and I haven’t noticed any great increase in the moral depravity of the state or seen any fire and brimstone raining down from the skies.

  Speaking of gasoline, when I went to the Jiffy yesterday to fill up all ticked off at the prospect of having to pay more for gas when the new taxes hit, there was a new sign on the pump letting me know that I could get 5 cents off a gallon by merely using my Phillips 66 credit card (which I’d have to apply for). I wasn’t interested in getting 5 cents off each gallon since my discover card gives me 5% cashback on gas (which works out to at least 15 cents a gallon), but since there was so much fine print I had to investigate the offer more closely. The first thing I noticed was that you had to buy 45 gallons a month to get 5 cents back on any gallon and that the offer was only good for the first 110 gallons bought any month, so the total savings in any month would be limited to $5.50. Not exactly Brewster’s Millions. I’m sure every little bit helps, but anyone who buys 45 gallons of gas a month should be getting a better deal.

  I’ve been stepping on the gas at the last 3 Marshalltown Thursday night blitz chess tournaments, winning 5 games with a loss and a draw. I’d dropped 30 points from my recent all time high rating with losses to Dave the Barefoot Chess Player and 2 losses to Joe from Waterloo in early December and was playing poorly while losing, but 2 weeks ago I got lucky and won a game off last year’s blitz champion in a comedy of errors. That piece of luck seemed to turn around my fortunes. Even though in the very next game I lost to my son Matt (who was home from college on winter break), I played a good tough game before losing a pawn to a trick set by the better player. Last week, I won my first 2 games (including a rare pasting of Jerry, last week’s tournament winner) and got to square off against Joe Meyer from Waterloo in the final round. I had White, played the Boris (1.d4, 2.f4) and we had a wild position with both sides attacking on opposite sides of the board. I managed to win a Rook for a Knight and Pawn and got to this position:
  Right here Joe offered me a draw and I immediately accepted. Why? I had 80 seconds compared to Joe’s 3 minutes and 2 moves before Joe had completely surprised me by forking my Queen and Rook with his Knight. Luckily I had an escape to keep both my pieces, but my confidence was a lot lower than it was before he surprised me. Once we agreed to the draw, Joe and Jaleb started showing me how I could have traded Queens with Qb3+ and won the game. I didn’t dispute their analysis, but was still satisfied with the result of the game. It looked like an easy win when they were going over it, but when I played it against the computer, I not only didn’t win, I was losing a lot. Maybe I could have outplayed Joe in the endgame with 80 seconds on my clock, but in this case I’m glad I took my foot off the gas.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Over his dead body

  Last month, longtime Chicago Cub third baseman and broadcaster Ron Santo was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the ‘Old-Timers’ committee, receiving 15 of the 16 committee votes (12 were needed for passage). I think Santo’s selection is well deserved. In his prime, he was the best third basemen in the National League. Santo’s statistics don’t measure up to today’s players despite playing in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field, but in the 60’s and early 70's his 25 to 30 home runs and 90+ RBI’s put him in the top 10 of the league and in the All-Star game every year.

  When a baseball player is retired for 5 years, they are eligible to be selected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) if 75% of the membership votes for selection. From 1980 to 1998, Santo never got even 50% of the votes from the BBWAA, topping out at 43% in his last year of eligibility in 1998. Santo also was passed over by the ‘Old-Timers’ committee in 2002, 2005, and 2008 before this years’ induction. After all these years of rejection from the baseball writers and the old-timers committee, why did Ron Santo finally get into the Hall of Fame this year? Simple. He died in December, 2010.

  Aside from being a great ball player, Santo was an inspiration to many by being one of the first athletes to openly acknowledge he had diabetes, an entertaining radio broadcaster for the Cubs with his frequent groans of agony as the Cubs would lose yet another game while building on their current streak of 100+ years without a World Series title and 60+ years without even a World Series appearance, and was a beacon of courage as he continued to broadcast even after his legs were amputated in 2001 and 2002.

  Except for his death what exactly changed in the 30 years since Santo first became eligible? I almost think there was a grudge against him. Having denied Santo his lifelong dream of making the Hall of Fame while he was still alive, couldn’t the old-timers committee find any living people worthy of being in the Hall of Fame? The whole think seems kind of stupid to me. The old-timers committee could have waited another 30 years to vote Santo in and he’d have still been dead. It makes me glad that Phil Rizzuto got to enjoy being a Hall of Famer while he was alive. Of course, if Rizzuto had only lived to 70 like Santo (instead of 89), he would have been 10 years too late.

  One reason I’m happy about Santo’s election to the Hall of Fame is that it enhances the candidacy of one of the great Yankees my youth (the 1970's), Graig Nettles. Like Santo, Nettles played in the pre-steroids era when 30 home runs were considered the mark of a power hitter and not the sign of an incompetent pharmacist. Nettles didn’t have the career consistency of Santo, but he was a feared power hitter, leading the league in homers in 1976 and was easily the best fielding 3rd baseman of the 1970s even though Brooks Robinson‘s scrapbook won the Gold Glove awards.

  Santo played on the Cubs teams of the late 60’s and early 70’s which featured 4 Hall of Famers (Santo, Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, and Billy Williams). With all this Hall of Fame talent, the Cubs never won the National League pennant or even a division of the National League. That group of players never played in a playoff game. Not one. By comparison, Nettles played on the 1976 Yankee World Series teams with only one Hall of Famer (Catfish Hunter) and 3 Yankee World Series teams with 2 Hall of Famers (Hunter (77) Goose Gossage (78,81) and Reggie Jackson). Just so you don’t think I’m pushing Nettles solely because of his Yankee heritage, in 1984 when Nettles was traded to the San Diego Padres at the age of 40, the Padres got to the World Series for the first time in their history with 2 Hall of Famers (Gossage and Tony Gwynn). Clearly these teams are short of Hall of Famers and I believe Nettles is the man who is missing. There’s a huge difference between being a great player on teams that win nothing and being a great player for teams that are expected to win it all. I don’t have to wonder how Santo would have performed in the crucible of a pennant race because in his only real pennant race (1969) his production shriveled in August and September as he led the Cubs to blowing a 9 game lead to the Mets over the last 2 months of the season. Compare that to Nettles 1978 season when he was at his best over the last 2 months of the year to help the Yankees erase the filthy Red Sox’s 14 game lead and win the division. Given the anti-Yankee bias in the Hall of Fame (Nettles never got even 10% of the votes from the BBWAA), I doubt Nettles will ever get his due as the best American League third baseman of the 1970’s, but if he does I hope he’s alive to enjoy it.

  What got me started on this Hall of Fame kick? The news that the old Giant coach Bill Parcells was selected as a finalist to the NFL Hall of Fame. Parcells won 2 Super Bowls with the Giants, went to another one with the Patriots, and got to the playoffs as the coach of the Jets and Cowboys, but I never thought of Parcells as Hall of Fame material. He was a great coach with the Giants, but I never considered him the equal of Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and 49er coach Bill Walsh, who both won 3 Super Bowls over a 10 year stretch encompassing Parcells 2 Super Bowl runs. I felt Parcells best coaching job was the 1990 Giants who gutted out playoff wins against the 49ers and Bills with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler to win the Super Bowl, but he also had some underachieving teams and failed to win a single playoff game in the 4 years between Giant Super Bowls. Once he left the Giants, Parcells showed he knew how to build veteran laden teams that would be able to get into the playoffs and maybe even win a game or 2. Inevitably, Parcells would get into a fight with his owners and leave them with an old team that would have to be rebuilt with younger players.

  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Parcells fan. The Giants were a laughing stock until Parcells, GM George Young, Lawrence Taylor, and Phil Simms showed up and turned the team into winners and champions. I just never thought of Parcells as a Hall of Famer… That is, until I decided to go to the Hall of Fame website and see what coaches were enshrined as Hall of Famers. I saw many of the names I’d expect to see from my lifetime of watching football; names like Gibbs, Walsh, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, and Don Shula. Of all these coaches, only Shula and Landry won 2 championships like Parcells, but they also took their teams to the Super Bowl at least 5 times each. I don’t feel Parcells belongs in this top shelf of coaches, but he certainly belonged on the next shelf with coaches like Hank Stram and John Madden who won one Super Bowl each.

  This made Parcells a marginal Hall of Fame coach in my mind, but then I got down on my hands and knees to check out the bottom shelf of Hall of Fame coaches and found George Allen, Marv Levy, and Bud Grant. Between the 3 of them they were in the Super Bowl 9 times and lost 9 Super Bowls. I remember Allen from his coaching the Washington Redskins in the 70’s. He took over the team that was recovering from the death of Vince Lombardi , brought in a bunch of veteran players, proclaimed the catchy phrase ‘The Future is Now’ , made the playoffs almost every year, went to the Super Bowl in his second year and never won another playoff game. Levy was famous for losing 4 super bowls in a row in the early 90’s. I understand that getting to the Super Bowl is a great accomplishment, and to get a team to go back to the super bowl 3 times after being stopped one game short of the championship is the mark of a great coach, but a Hall of Famer? Grant was in the same boat as the coach of the Minnesota Vikings, having a team good enough to lose 4 lopsided Super Bowls.

  Levy, Allen, and Grant were fine coaches, but I’d like to think a Hall of Fame should be for the best of the best instead of candidates for ‘The Biggest Loser’. If these are Hall of Fame coaches, I can only wonder why Parcells wasn’t selected a long time ago and I hope he makes it this year so he can enjoy it while he’s alive.

  I don't have a 'Broken Pawn Hall of Fame', but if I start one I won't wait until I'm dead to induct the game I played yesterday.
  Does anyone know where I can get a cheap plaque?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Escape to the Chessboard

Mindi 2003-2012  RIP - a great friend.
  My first week of the new year was in a word, trash. A project I’m working on progressed so poorly I had to work on it this weekend. I hurt my arm doing push-ups and had to stop for a few days. I wasn’t sleeping good because of the stress of the project, but the day I tried to catch a nap at work, a customer decided to stop over to talk about some future plans. On Tuesday night I went to bed after the caucuses, but Matt woke me up with a phone call to ask what they were like and then when he went to bed at 3 in the morning he woke the beagles up, who then proceeded to wake me up with their howling. And our neighbor’s Cairn Terrier, Mindi passed away after a sudden illness. Mindi’s owners (Bill and Marylin) are in their 90’s and are pretty devastated, as is their daughter Becky. I was there last year, but Mindi was only 8, half Queenie’s age.

Aaron Rees
One of my all-time favorites!!
  When nothing is going right, I just want the world to go away and the best way I can get the world to go away is to play chess. The Marshalltown Thursday Night Chess club was off to a great start when Aaron Rees showed up for the first time in over a year. Aaron was a member of 2 high school championship chess teams I helped put together from 2005 to 2007. In 2007, our final round match with Iowa City was tied 2-2 and Aaron was playing in the last game of the match and the tournament. With the championship in the balance and a crowd of 50 kids gathered around his board, Aaron won the game, match, and championship. He got his AA degree and enlisted in the Navy, but when he gets back to Marshalltown to visit his family, he always stops by for a few games of chess.

Jerry (left) vs. Big John from Tama
  The club got even better when Jerry showed up. Jerry is in his 50’s and works at night as a youth sports referee who’s been working every Thursday since September. Jerry and I are the same strength in long games, but I’m a little better in quick games. I beat Aaron in a game, beat Jerry in a longer game in what was an uncharacteristically weak effort from him, and beat Big John from Tama before the tournament. We had 8 players for the tournament and I was ready to play some chess. I beat Chandler, the high school kid in a smooth performance and was ready to take my bad week out on the rest of the players, but it was not to be because Dave the barefoot chess player came in late. That left us with an odd number of players and I sat out and watched Jerry win the tournament by beating Big John from Tama and then checkmating Dave the barefoot chess player with one second left on his clock. I split a couple of games with Dave after the tournament and then chess club was over and I was back to my stress-filled week.

  Friday was much like the rest of my week, except I had the escape of teaching chess at St. Francis in the morning. There were only 40 players, but I had a great time working with them by playing some games and helping the kids earn their buttons by demonstrating their skill in simple endings. Once I got to work, it was more of the same tension without even the thought of a work-free weekend. I got home I decided to unwind by playing some 3 minute chess on the internet and was on the giving and receiving end of some of the stupidest moves ever seen on the chessboard. I used to joke about writing a book of my games called ‘When Bad Players Play Badly’, but after this weekend’s games I think I may have found some material for the first few chapters. Here is a sampler:

  So bad I had to laugh…

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

...a caucus we will go...

A view from the top!

  The last week of the Iowa Caucuses saw a flurry of TV commercials, phone calls, and town hall meetings as the candidates tried desperately to get the final few votes to keep their campaigns alive. Whenever I got an automated call asking me who my first choice was, I pressed a random number and when asked who my second choice was I pressed another random number. Like the guy on the Allstate commercial that causes all the accidents is called Mayhem, I started calling myself ‘Margin of Error’. I did get to talk to a live person from the Obama campaign and when I told the lady that I was voting for Ron Paul because of a chess-playing buddy, she quickly assured me that President Obama was very much in favor of chess. When a Rick Perry person called, I told them about how my neighbors had started a half-eaten lime collection in their front yard and was assured that Governor Perry hated yard waste and would issue an executive order banning it as soon as he put Congress on part-time pay and made English the official language of the US.

  I had pledged my support for Ron Paul to my friend Lee Gordon Seebach after meeting Lee at Paul’s town hall meeting in Marshalltown last month. I like Michelle Bachmann also and was very impressed with Rick Santorum after listening to him on the Travis Justice/Tim Miller sports talk radio program 3 times in the past 2 weeks. Santorum seemed personable with a sense of good humor as one would expect a Pittsburgh Pirate fan to need with their 20 straight losing seasons. All 3 are worthy candidates and seem real to me. About all I can ask of anyone is to be who you say you are and it’s no different for politicians.

  I didn’t care for the other Republican candidates. Rick Perry looks like he just says whatever he thinks will get him votes (Witness his sudden epiphany last week causing him to be against abortions in the case of rape or incest). Mitt Romney seems OK, but he also changes his positions to suit his audience. And after 2 thirds of a lifetime in New Jersey, I’m not voting for anybody named Newt (Sorry to all my readers named Newt or have relatives named Newt). Maybe if he was called ‘Snake Gingrich’, I’d consider it. I don’t know anything about Huntsman, but if his name was Newt Huntsman, he’d be tops with the Southern gun lobby and have more name recognition.

The Marshalltown High School Roundhouse (Gym), home of the 2012 Republican caucus.
The parking lot was full and I parked 2 blocks away.

  Paul seems to have locked up the Republican chess player vote with myself, Lee, and multiple time Iowa Girls champion Bethany Carson in his corner (I’m far less hardcore than Lee and Bethany). I think there are more Democrat chess players in Iowa than Republican chess players but I’ve only met a few players who let politics get in the way of our love of chess by way of trying taunt players of the opposing parties after an election. Maybe since as chess players we need to be able to look a position from the White and Black point of view this carries over to being able to accept other people’s viewpoints even if we don’t agree with them.

  I went to the caucus last night after coming home from work, walking Daisy and Baxter, and eating dinner. I made sure I was wearing my Ron Paul button and also had my ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ button. Since I started wearing the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ button on my coat the hunters in the day-glo orange hats say 'Hi' to me when I see them at the convenience store. Maybe someday I’ll be invited to a militia meeting. The caucuses were held in the High School gym. I figured there would be a crowd, but as it turns out there was no room in any of the parking lots and I had to park 2 blocks away. I walked in and was greeted by 3 kids giving out literature for Paul, Perry, and Gingrich. I got in and sat way up high so I could get some good pictures.

Panning the crowd during fund-raising and hearing about the summer 'Pork-on-a-stick' fundraiser.

  The caucus was run by the Marshall County Republicans who also used the occasion as a fundraiser and a promotion for their republican ‘Pork-on-a-Stick’ dinner in June. After the prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, and National Anthem, there were speeches by local party officials and people running for local offices while envelopes were passed around for $10 donations (You needed to give your name if you donated more than $10). I took some time out to scan the crowd. I saw a number of people I used to work with at Fischer, some people from the St. Mary Stewardship Committee I was on for a number of years, and a couple of working class people I knew. The crowd could be accurately described as 99% rich, old, and white.

La. Governor Bobby Jindal
  After all the local pols got done with their speeches, each candidate had a speech given in their behalf by a surrogate. Romney and Paul had their speeches given by Marshalltown residents which showed a common touch, (surprising for rich man Romney). Santorum’s speech was given by local politico Jane Jech, Gingrich’s by a Texas congressman, Bachmann’s by a Chicago businessman, and Rick Perry’s was given by the Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana. That is a lot of pull by Perry and Gingrich, but pulling the star power out doesn’t seem to work in a state like Iowa. I’m wondering who showed up to talk for Perry in bigger towns like Cedar Rapids and Des Moines if the governor of Louisiana showed up in Marshalltown, Iowa? President Bush? President George W Bush? Both Bushes? Ronald Reagan’s ghost??

Jessie the Ron Paul operative from Orlando, dispenses valuable caucus advice.

  We voted and when I was leaving, the young Ron Paul operative who gave me my literature earlier saw my Ron Paul button and asked me to stick around to help elect a Ron Paul delegate for my precinct. The operative’s name was Jessie and he had driven up to the caucuses from Orlando using his own money to help out. Almost everyone had gone, but I went back over to where my precinct was. There were 12 people there. 11 of the people were Marshalltown Republican lifers and 1 was me, a first-timer and more of a voyeur at that. We talked a few minutes and then elected the 3 delegates and an alternate to the county meeting in March. 4 people volunteered to go. I asked them who they were supporting. 2 were for Santorum, 1 for Paul and the alternate said he would vote for whoever won the precinct(Ron Paul easily carried our precint, although Santorum won the caucus). This was good enough for me since with all my work and chess stuff sometimes I feel guilty if I take time to breathe and just don’t have the time for too much political stuff. Besides, if the lifers didn’t get to go to the county meeting as delegates, they wouldn’t volunteer to run these things and then we’d all be out of luck, so I said my goodbyes and left.

Marshall County Republican lifers.

  I work next to the Iowa Convention Center and the streets this week were lined with TV trucks from all over the US. They’re all gone today, but I can see why Iowa fights so hard to have the first caucuses in the country. All the attention brings in a fortune in advertising and publicity to the state as the politicians arrive here a year ahead of time to attempt to build organizations and collect the grass root supporters that every candidate needs. I don’t have an opinion as to whether it is good for the country to have Iowa be the first in the nation to make a presidential choice. After living here 17 years, I’d say that people in Iowa smile more than people in New Jersey, there are a few more nice people in Iowa, and if you buy a new car in either state you best watch your wallet. Since I’m living here now, I have to say the first in the nation caucuses are great for Iowa and great for the people in Iowa, including me. Because of them, I got to meet up with an old friend like Lee (who will get my vote for President if Ron Paul isn’t on the ballot and keep my streak alive of never voting for a major party political candidate), see Ron Paul at a town hall meeting, and hear Rick Santorum on the local radio station talking about hockey and baseball. Between that and the money it brings into the state, it’s no wonder all the other states try to jump ahead of Iowa to be first.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012 - A Brand New Year

  Just like Wednesday’s blog was my last of 2011, this blog is my first for 2012. I’m not a big new year’s resolution guy. In 2009 and 2010 I made resolutions involving thousands of perfect-pushups and stationary bicycle miles but after I broke my second stationary bicycle after I hit my goal in 2010, I decided to stop buying stationary bicycles and resolved to hit the speed bag every other day. It lasted about 2 weeks until Matt decided to start hitting the speed bag in between my breaks and twice knocked it off the mooring by hitting it so hard. That was the end of my physical fitness for the year, except for walking Daisy and Baxter. But it’s a new year and I have some resolutions for it.

  I’m resolving in 2012 not to watch one minute of any college football bowl games where either team has already fired their coaches. Yesterday I watched a large part of the ‘Fight Hunger Bowl’ from San Francisco. The UCLA Bruins lost to the Fighting Illini of Illinois in a real snooze fest. Illinois fired Ron Zook less than 2 years after a Rose Bowl appearance after his team began the season with 6 straight wins and ended the season with 6 straight losses. UCLA had fired coach Rick Neuheisel after winning his teams’division of the Pac-12 Conference with a 6-6 record (Actually UCLA finished second to USC but the Trojans were ineligible to win the division due to NCAA rule infractions). Neuheisel was allowed to coach UCLA to a loss in the Pac-12 championship game but was not permitted to coach the bowl game. With the loss, UCLA set a record as the only team to compete in a bowl game with 7 losses and the only 8 loss team to play in a bowl. There are way too many bowl games in college football when teams that are so disappointing that they fire their coaches are allowed to play in bowl game. I don’t understand why a college like Texas A&M couldn’t have waited until after their bowl game until firing coach Mike Sherman. My time would be better spent going to the tattoo parlor and getting a giant ‘LOSER’ tattoo than watching these loser teams play.

  Now that Matt is off to college, I am goig to spend 5 to 10 minutes hitting the speed bag at least every other day. I’ve been very stressed out lately and hitting something will de-stress me and make me feel better. My other physical resolution is to do 60 pushups a day with a goal of being able to do 54 pushups in 2 minutes. We’re planning a trip to the Jersey Shore and in case I get the chance to take the National Guard Fitness Challenge like I did 2 years ago, I want to win the National Guard T-shirt instead of the National Guard hand towel I got last time when I hit the wall after doing 34 pushups in 40 seconds. Being 2 years older won’t help my chances, but 2 more years of experience will help.

This guy looks pretty rusty on the speed bag after 50 weeks off. In a month or two, he'll be machine-like. Better keep that right hand up, though!

  I have 2 chess resolutions. One is to play in 6 non-blitz tournaments. Due to work, an ill-timed cold, and flat-out laziness, I didn’t play in a single weekend tournament in 2011 that had a time limit more than Game in 15 minutes. No matter how busy I get running my monthly youth tournaments, it’s important for me to find the time to play in some tournaments myself. Not only is it a lot of fun, but I get to meet up with old friends, make new ones, and I also get a week’s worth of blogs out of every tournament I go to where I write down the moves. I expect to have a lot of rust to shake off initially, but that’s the price for a long period of relative inactivity. My other goal is to spend 10 minutes a day on my iPod’s ‘Tactics trainer’ app. I’ve done this for the last 2 months and it’s helping me spot more tactics in my games. This will dovetail nicely with my other chess resolution since tactics are the number 1 reason I lose games and spending 10 minutes quietly thinking chess will help me to get in a tournament frame of mind.

  My last resolution for 2012 is to work harder at being more positive. For example, a new family has moved in next door to our house this week. I really liked having an empty house as my next door neighbor but those days are over for now. The new family seems quiet enough but again, they just moved in. Ever since Betty the little old lady moved out of the house in 2003 almost every family that has lived there seems to leave trash all over the front yard which then blows over into my yard. It’s not like Better Homes and Gardens is taking pictures of my house, but I don’t need any help decorating with left over garbage, thank you. In what had to have been the first attempt at taking their garbage to their trash can outside, the new neighbors have littered their yard with a bunch of bottle caps, sandwich wrappers, and limes. I’m going to be positive, but since I’m new at this I’m still thinking of just the right thing to say.

a) Great collection! Been at it long?
b) Those limes look really good against the leaves. Are you a decorator?
c) I was thinking of leaving half-eaten oranges in my yard. What do you think?
d) You must save a lot of money on trash pickup.

  All half-kidding aside, I’m expecting a great and productive 2012. I intend on going with Kathy on lots of long walks to the Jiffy to get beef stick treats for Daisy and Baxter, having a great time playing chess and running youth tournaments, enjoying work without letting the fast pace get to me, writing some memorable blog posts, and improving my chess website.