Sunday, April 29, 2012

From Sunday to Saturday

  Last Sunday, I was in Okoboji having a great weekend meeting old friends, making new friends, and directing a tournament that had 9 masters or former masters among the 40+ players looking for a piece of a $1500 prize fund. I got home at 12:30 Monday morning and rolled into bed at 1:30 in the morning for 3 hours sleep before Daisy and Baxter woke Kathy and I up like they do every day for their morning walk. Beagles are smart, but they have no sympathy for me only having 3 hours sleep since they rarely sleep 3 hours at a time. Of course, they aren’t awake more than 2 hours at a time, either!

Sunday : With IM John Bartholomew and his trophy.
Saturday: West Des Moines finest with their trophies!

  I was farsighted enough to have taken the day off from work and spend my Monday walking the dogs, finishing up entering the Okoboji Games, writing my tournament report and blog, napping, and watching some classic episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent on the USA Network. I also was taking care of entries to this years’ chess camp and my monthly youth chess tournament that I held yesterday. It was the busiest day off I’ve ever had. And even though I did get some naps in, I was dragging through the week and didn’t study chess or workout all week.

  I survived my Thursday Night Blitz tournament with a win against my fellow coach Jon McCord and draws against Matt Kreigel and Jaleb Jay. Since Matt won the Iowa Class C championship yesterday, I can’t feel too bad about only scoring .5 out of our last 2 games since I was unknowingly playing a future state champion who is obviously demonstrating a new level of ability. I had my winning chances against Jaleb, but he turned the game into an ending with Rooks and opposite colored bishops and blocked the position very skillfully. I was happy that for the first time all year I played Jaleb a game that didn't find myself lost at some point regardless of the eventual outcome.

  As usual, my entries for the Saturday tournament were trickling in until Wednesday when they started picking up steam, but just as Tim Mc Entee had predicted my attendance has lightened up as the weather got warm. I was my own worst enemy in this regard since I scheduled a St. Francis Chess Club only tournament for Monday afternoon. Since I get paid for coaching by being allowed to hold a monthly tournament in the school cafeteria, the club budget was unused this year, so I’m having a free tournament with trophies for everybody. It is a great way to reward the kids who get up early every Friday to play chess, but 2 tournaments in 3 days is a bit much for these casual chess players and their parents and I had only 3 St. Francis players come to the tournament. Throw in a big scouting event in Des Moines and little league baseball and my attendance was 47 youth players and 12 parents for my lowest attendance since last December.

Robert, Nathan, and chess coach Ben Tessman.
  I took Chandler and his brother Dalton to the tournament in return for helping me set up. Chandler had applied for and received his credentials to be a tournament director and he was going help me by taking care of any remaining games after his game had finished. I was happy to see the return to my tournaments of Sam Cole and his dad Lee Cole (the comic magician), big supporters of my chess efforts who I hadn't seen since last year due to Sam's many other pursuits (pianist, basketball, baseball, etc...) and the first time appearance of Ben Tessman, the computer expert who I met at Zanzibars last November. Ben was bringing his student, Nathan to play in his first tournament (he finished 3rd in the afternoon unrated section), and Nathan's dad Robert to play in the parents section. I also had 3 players coming from the Kansas City area to play, which was a first for me. 2 of the players were brothers who seemed to be treating the trip as a big adventure. They were wearing ‘Harry Potter’ capes (someone had to tell me that) and Star trek shirts from the original 1960’s show (those I recognized). You might think that’s a bit odd unless you saw the pictures from my last month’s tournament where kids were dressing up in St. Patrick’s gear. One of the players (Augustus) was the top rated player in the field and as luck would have it, he was paired to play Chandler in the first round.

  There was apparently some sort of problem between Chandler and Augustus during their game concerning talking or comments or something. I wasn’t there and I don’t know what happened during the game, but what I do know is that Augustus beat Chandler, and when he proffered his electronic scoresheet for Chandler to sign, Chandler wrote something that while not profane, wasn’t very nice and certainly wasn’t his signature. Everything eventually got smoothed over, but Chandler wasn’t in frame of mind to help direct the tournament. In fact, he lost his next 2 games and finished next to last in the tournament. Chandler rebounded to take fifth place in the afternoon section, but as far as running the tournament I was on my own, which was a shame since I’ve never had such an out of sync tournament. The rated, unrated, and parents section always finished at different times so I was constantly helping players find their tables, or watching games finish, or making the pairings for the next round.

  My 3 St. Francis players were in the unrated morning section. I thought 7 year old Ryan had a great chance to win the tournament before it started since he has proven to be one of the top players in the school club. Ryan won his first game, but then fell for a checkmate while a rook up and wasn’t able to recover from the shock until the last round and tied for 6th place with 2.5 points out of 5. 8 year old Will won his first 3 games, including beating a high school player and was tied for first, but then he got a little caught up in the moment and lost his last 2 games, still managing to get a trophy for a fourth place finish. 10 year old Zach was playing in his first tournament after learning to play chess 2 months ago. He lost his first 3 games before winning his fourth (he also won his last game when his opponent left early). I hope he doesn’t get discouraged from tournament chess. He was the only person playing in his first tournament, but a lot of times there is a shock when a young player runs into his first experience with an entire group of players who are the best in their house or block or class. I got to play him a game and talk to his dad and tried to show him a couple of quick things he could do to improve his results. I’d like to see these young kids keep playing in tournaments, but not if it means souring them on chess. A high school player won first place and a middle school player won second, but a 5 year old player won third place and beat both Will and Ryan when he played them. Hopefully they won’t feel like has-beens for finishing behind a 5 year old! Its one thing to be the ‘boy wonder’, but quite another to be beaten by the new ‘boy wonder’.

This was some serious basketball! I'll stick to chess, thank you....

  Early in the morning, an older lady came by and asked me if I could separate the gym from the cafeteria for their basketball tournament using the portable partition. She seemed very interested in the chess players and we talked for at least 10 minutes about the St. Francis chess club and the chess tournaments. I asked her if she was coaching a team and she said ‘oh no…I’m playing’. It turns out the tournament was a ‘Granny Basketball’ tournament (This is a real organization. Check it out here!) I had forgotten to bring my lunch, but I was in luck because the basketball tournament had a concession stand. I got 2 hot dogs, a giant pickle, and a water for lunch ($3) and ate with master chess player Tim Mc Entee and chess coach/poet Dan Troxell between tournaments. I had gotten 6 raffle tickets that they were selling at the basketball tournament and was happily surprised to win a digital picture keychain.

My week ended on Saturday with my new digital picture keychain and a great picture to go along with it. Live long and prosper!

  The afternoon tournament was just as busy as the morning, but I got a lot of help from Mark, a chess coach at a local school whose 2 children were playing. Mark was taking care of the floor and helping players whenever I was busy doing any of my many other tasks. The day ended without any more incidents and everyone went home happy. All in all, it was a great day of chess to cap a busy chess week. I’m not disappointed with the smallish attendance since I could barely handle the ones I had. I’m starting my summer outdoor series next month and since I’ll be giving out medals but no trophies, I’ll break even no matter how few or how many players show up. I’m going to start out with morning and afternoon sessions and let the players show me if I have to scale back to one session. Last year, my attendance plummeted in the outdoor tournaments but now that I’ve had a whole year to build more of a base I’m hoping to show a marked increase.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Chess Community

Great playing conditions help make the Okoboji Open a premiere tournament.
Look at all the room these players have!

  Last weekend was the weekend of the Okoboji Open and for the 4th year in a row I was invited by my friend Jodene Kruse to be the tournament director for this very strong event. I had arranged to take Friday and Monday off and after driving an hour southeast to West Des Moines for chess club at St. Francis on Friday, I picked up 3 time Iowa champion and Life Master Tim Mc Entee at his Ankeny house and we headed 200+ miles northwest to Okoboji, Iowa. Tim was getting a ride back with some of the other players, but it was good to have company for the ride and extra good to see that Tim was gearing up to come out of his chess retirement and start playing competitive chess again.

  We arrived at the Arrowwood Hotel (the site of the tournament) around 2pm and checked in. Tim went to his room to rest and I set up my computer and inspected the tournament room. The room was situated so the players would sit 4 to a table and I had them bring more tables in and rearranged the chairs so each player would have their own table. A big part of what makes this tournament special is that the playing conditions are top notch and a large part of that is the players do not have to share their table with other games. Top level chess is hard enough without having to sit next to some guy who hasn’t showered in a month or had a Big Mac with triple onions and having your own table means you won’t be close enough to any other chess player to notice this stuff (as long as your opponent isn’t hygiene-challenged, that is). In most tournaments, space is at a premium and only the top boards get to sit at their own table, but at Okoboji EVERYONE gets their own table and the players who don’t normally get this kind of treatment love it.

  I had written a number of blurbs for the state web site trying to get people to play in Okoboji, Jodene was working her contacts, and Sam Smith was doing likewise. Attendance was looking pretty thin, but once again Riaz Khan stepped up above and beyond the call of duty and convinced many of the parents of the top Minneapolis junior players to play and even took a carload himself. I didn’t have a lot of faith that there would be a big contingent of Iowa players this year since the IASCA (Iowa State Chess Association) had scheduled their annual meeting, State Championship and Class Tournament for the week after the Okoboji tournament. Jodene had gotten this date reserved from the IASCA in December of last year and it has been the first tournament of the IASCA qualifying cycle for the last 4 years. The Closed, and Class championships are the end of the IASCA qualifying cycle and had never been scheduled before the Okoboji tournament before. I understand that it is difficult to get dates for tournaments, but having made the decision to have the year ending tournament after the year beginning tournament, it would have been nice to have given the Okoboji tournament some extra time to be in the limelight. I was even more pessimistic when I got my copy of the IASCA magazine and saw a full page ad for a tournament in Davenport the Saturday of the Okoboji weekend. Not only was there an ad, there was another full page article by Bob Long, (the Davenport bookseller running the tournament) to promote his tournament. I find it especially ironic that when I ran a tournament in November that conflicted with an IASCA scholastic event, their scholastic director send a broadcast email to all the chess parents advising them not to go to my tournament, but when Jodene puts on an IASCA tournament, they accept full page ads to promote a competing tournament in their state chess magazine!

  The reason I’m pointing this out is that Jodene works very hard to cooperate with the IASCA and those 3 or 4 people that may or may not show up decide whether she takes a loss on the tournament or not. And having experienced firsthand the protectiveness involved when another tournament is scheduled the same day as an IASCA event, I find the active involvement of the IASCA in promoting a competing event in their official state magazine inconsistent at best. Perhaps they should change their name to the OLAIASCA (Our Little Area of Iowa State Chess Association). But no matter. Jodene and Sam and John Flores have taken everything life has had to dish out and they’re not only surviving but thriving so I knew none of this was going to spoil their mood.

9 master chess players! From left to right: Prasantha Amarasinghe, Okechukwu Iwu, Bob Keating, Matt Dahl, Jim Ellis, Tim Mc Entee, Robert Plunkett, Jodene Kruse, John Bartholomew, Dan Vasto.

  Things started to look up midweek when Riaz called me with a great idea and told me to put a notice on the web site listing all the master players (most of whom he had talked into playing) that would be attending. Then Tom Hesse (an IASCA Board member) put a notice on the website reminding the players that the tournament would be part of the new qualifying cycle and encouraged them to go. Tom is a good guy and I offered to drive him up to Okoboji and stay in my room at no cost. He couldn’t make it, but I know he is trying to clear some room in the IASCA schedule for the Okoboji Open and the website notice likely convinced a few people to the jump to the Okoboji side of the fence. It’s too bad that Tom couldn’t play because not only would he have had a great time playing chess, he would have met a lot of great people just like him. 3 years ago when one of our younger Marshalltown club players had to spend a few weeks in an Iowa City hospital for surgery, I wrote to Tom asking if he could visit him. Not only did Tom visit him, he also recruited other area chess players to make visits. If you read the blog I wrote last year (Click here to read it) profiling the people of the Okoboji Open, you know he’d fit perfectly in this crowd.

  Of course none of this stuff mattered once I got to the hotel because I had to be focused on doing the best job I could. All of these top players were competing for over $1500 in prize money, and they rightly expect the tournament director to be on top of his or her game. While I didn’t have it in my power to make it a great tournament, incompetence on my part could keep players from coming to Okoboji in the future. It helped that since it was my 4th year in a row at Okoboji, most of the players and I knew each other. It was great to see people that I really like but only get to see this one time a year walk in to register and greet and be greeted like old friends.

Telling James Muehlbach about my
simul game. "Missed it by that much!"
  International Master John Bartholomew arrived around 3:30. He was going to play a simultaneous exhibition at 4. I played along with 6 other people including a master. John is a great guy who wrote a really nice review of last year’s tournament for to encourage people to play, but over the board he’s all business. I played OK in the beginning, missed a move that would have given me time to develop my pieces and proceeded to get crushed. All I can say is ‘join the club’ since only 2 of the players (the master and a 1700 player) got a draw and no one beat John.

pgn4web chessboard courtesy of

  Once the simul was over, I resumed checking people in and we all received a boost to our spirits when current and former state champions Bob Keating and Dan Goffstein decided to play. Bob is not only the state champion, he is on the IASCA board and his participation was a welcome show of support along with the participation of fellow IASCA board member Bill Broich. Bill is barely playing these days in order to focus on organizing and directing tournaments, but he came because he wanted to support Jodene’s tournament. I also got a special surprise when Bob brought me a big bag of Puffy Cheetos!! I am trying to watch what I eat a little more closely these days and I’m happy to report that the bag lasted at least 2 hours and 3 or 4 of the Cheetos in the bottom of the bag survived till Saturday. Jose Gatica and Dan Vasto also made the trip so along with Bob, we had 3 of the 6 players who would compete in next week’s state championship in Okoboji.

The Annual Saturday Night dinner at the Okoboji Open. From the bottom left going counter clockwise: James Muehlbach, John Flores, Jodene Kruse, Riaz Khan, Dane Mattson, Tim Mc Entee, Joel Katz, David Floeder's father, David Floeder, Sam Smith, Jose Gatica, Tom gaul, Okechukwu Iwu, John Bartholomew, Sisira Amarasinghe, Hank Anzis.

  Friday’s first round went pretty smoothly since only 11 players were playing the 3 day schedule with the rest arriving on Saturday. When the round ended a little after 10, I went to my room to enter in the games before I went to bed. One of the things I do to try to make the tournament special is get the pairings done at night so the players know who they’re going to play and have the games and a short progress report available on the Internet. This year, since I have my own website, I was able to have the games on an interactive board like the one on this post and I have to say they looked very cool (see for yourself).

  Saturday morning was a madhouse as usual. Players were arriving for the 2 day part of the open, the reserve section and the scholastic tournament Jodene added this year. I had a few mishaps like putting one player in the wrong section and I had to take down the pairings after I posted them (which is always embarrassing), but most of the players were experienced enough to understand how busy things were and everything got started just a few minutes late. The rest of Saturday went pretty smoothly and I spent the day walking around the tournament room, posting games and results, playing some blitz with talented 6th grader Frank Li from West Des Moines and some longer games with Sam’s friend Joel Katz when he had a bye in one of the morning games and even got to play 2 5-minute games with Riaz when he started talking trash by saying the guy he drew with in the second round “was a good player, not a bad player like Hank!”. Riaz had me beat in the first game but I managed to wriggle away with a win when I ran him out of time but in the second game I used the Boris and absolutely crushed him with a king side attack. I made it a point to mention to Riaz as often as possible that I forgot who won the 2 games we played and asked if he could refresh my memory. He took the ribbing in good stride, thankfully. When the last game ended over a dozen of us went to the local Mexican restaurant for our annual Saturday night feast. The rest of the crowd could have left me to catch up with them after the last game ended, but they all decided to wait which really made me feel good to be considered part of the gang. We had a great time laughing, talking, and listening to Riaz’s stories. I had some Zotz! candy I’d gotten at the Casey’s (hard candy outside, baking soda inside) and I shared them with my side of the table. John Bartholomew and Riaz liked them so much they asked for another piece. Not surprising since Zotz! is the greatest candy in the world. You could call them the Puffy Cheetos of candy! I had forgotten to eat lunch so I ordered the biggest steak the restaurant had, but when it was time to pay, John (Flores) grabbed my check and paid for me. There are very few people I would let pay my way, but John is one of them and I was proud to accept his generosity and he also bought me lunch the next day. Jodene presented me with some Casey’s gift cards before one of the rounds which I’ll use to get Daisy and Baxter some beef sticks.

  I woke up fat and happy on Sunday and the next to last round was pretty uneventful. Sam had a great idea to take a picture of all the masters in attendance at the tournament with Jodene. It turned out we had 9 players who were currently masters or had attained the master title at one time. I would say once a master always a master, but not everyone agrees. The masters seemed elated to be recognized and if any of the other players were annoyed by the delay they were well outnumbered, judging by the round of applause the rest of the players gave the 9 masters. It was a cool picture and a neat moment.

  In the open section, John Bartholomew and Matt Dahl were tied for first with Dane Mattson and since John and Matt had drawn their game in the previous round John would play Dane and Matt would play master Okechukwu Iwu in the last round and any of the 3 could be the open champion with any of 6 different players having a chance to at least tie for the championship. In the reserve John Flores, Riaz, and Mike Trettel were all tied for first place. John and Riaz were going to play each other and Mike was going to play Roger Hale. Roger is 77 years old, helps run the famous Chess Castle in Minneapolis and learned to play chess when he was 72! Sam Smith also had a chance to tie for first if everything broke right.

John Flores presenting the
Reserve trophy to Lynn Adams.
  You may be wondering why I’m spending so much time on the reserve section so let me explain. Last year’s reserve section winner was Russ Swanson. Russ was universally liked and suddenly died last October from an aortic aneurysm. Jodene decided to name the championship trophies after Russ. She didn’t advertise it because Jodene does things from the heart and probably didn’t want people thinking she was using Russ’s passing as a publicity gimmick. Russ used to travel to play chess and go fishing with his 2 great friends Lynn Adams and Mike Trettel and the three were regulars at the Okoboji Open. Lynn was playing in the open section and brought some pictures of Russ to put by the trophies. Lynn asked for a few moments to talk to the players before the final round. He talked about what a great friend Russ was to him and how sad he was when Russ passed away and then he said he wanted to present Russ’ widow with the trophy that was named after him and offered $100 to the tournament winner in exchange for the trophy. It was a very emotional talk. I could see in John, Riaz, Mike, and Sam’s eyes that they all wanted to win the trophy not to get Lynn’s $100 but to give the trophy to him in Russ’s honor.

  John won the reserve tournament and as hard as Lynn tried to get him to take the $100, John wouldn’t accept it. He was thrilled to win the reserve championship in his first return to Okoboji since his work has taken him an hour east and everyone was happy for him to win the championship. John is a very strong player whose results suffer from time to time because he works 70+ hours a week to provide for his family. He even pulled a 14 hour overnight shift before starting play on Saturday! In the open section, Matt Dahl won his game quickly while John Bartholomew was locked in a titanic struggle with Dane Mattson, only ending when John forced a mate in 2 on the last move of the tournament!

Jodene with the Open co-champions.
  John Bartholomew won the championship trophy on tiebreaks over Matt and he was the same gracious winner he was last year, going over the games in the skittles room and making a point to thank Jodene for putting on the tournament. He would be the same great guy even if he had finished last. John told Jodene that he would attend next year’s Okoboji Open and would donate the proceeds from next year’s simul to a brilliancy prize in Russ’s honor.

  I figured out the prize fund payouts, Jodene presented the checks, and everyone gradually said their goodbyes and left. I don’t think directing the tournament was one of my better efforts, but I must have masked my mistakes pretty well because I’ve never received so much positive feedback about a tournament and I’m still getting emails thanking me for how smoothly the tournament went and thanking Jodene for all the organizational work.

  I stuck around to submit the tournament to the USCF office so it would be rated before most of the players arrived home and write a ‘final results’ paragraph on my website and then headed home. The ‘Okoboji’ weekend is my favorite weekend of the year because I get to hang around with inspirational people like Jodene, John Flores, and Sam Smith and also because I get to meet up with people who have become my friends like Joel Katz, James Muehlbach, Oke Iwu (and many others) despite the fact that we only see each other this one time a year. This year I got the feeling that everyone regarded this Okoboji Open chess tournament as something they had ownership of and wanted to do their part to help it be successful. I work an hour away from where I live and don’t really belong to either community because of that, but this one weekend a year I feel I belong. I overheard Tim Mc Entee talking to Jodene at the end of the tournament and he said it best: “You can explain this tournament to people, but until they actually come here and experience it they don’t really understand.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Beagles and Burgers

  Well Baxter, Hank is off to play chess again so we get to do another guest blog. Hank said he wasn’t going to play chess, Daisy. He was going somewhere called Okoboji to direct chess, whatever that means. That not the point. Since Hank knew he needed us to fill in for him this weekend and since so many people liked our last blog about all the places we go to eat beef sticks, Hank and Kathy spent the last 3 weeks taking us for… BURGERS…YUM!! …so we could tell you what we thought of all the different kinds of burgers. YUM!! BURGERS!! I LOVE BURGERS!! YUM!!

There are always fun things to find at the pond,
but nothing like what you can get at the McDonalds drive-through!

   There were lots of rules about getting a hamburger. First, we had to drive to the pond and walk around it 3 times… That’s so Baxter wouldn’t get fat. I’m thin enough that I could have just eaten the burgers and no one would have noticed, but Baxter is starting to put on the pounds… AM NOT!! I’m big boned! SURE you are…. Anyway, after we took our big walk, we drove to McDonalds and got a McDouble. We’re only allowed to get items that cost a dollar. Kathy wouldn’t just let us eat the McDouble in the car. We had to take it home first. The McDouble has cheese and onions and pickles and ketchup and mustard. We’re not supposed to eat onions so Hank had to scape a lot of stuff off the burger before we could eat it. Hank got a McDouble for himself and he didn’t scrape any of it off. And he gave us each a bite! YUM!! Hank gave some of the bun to Oreo and ate the rest of the bun himself. The McDouble has 2 meat patties and Hank gave each of us one. Mine was very tasty, but it still tasted like onions and I didn’t like the onion taste. I liked my McDouble. It was meaty and greasy. YUM!! I think I got the patty that didn’t have any onions. I’m giving the McDouble 4 paws. I’m only giving the McDouble 2 paws because of the onion taste.
McDouble - 3 paws 

The McDouble tasted like onions, but it's better than dog food!

After a long workout walking, a BK Stacker is quite refreshing, even without bacon!

  The next week we went for a long walk around the pond and then we went to the drive thru at the Burger King for a BK Stacker. After the messy McDouble, Hank and Kathy ordered the Stacker with nothing on it except meat. Hank got a BK Stacker for himself and when we got home he gave us the patty from our plain Stacker and it had kind of a burnt taste, but it was good. YUM!! I liked the burnt taste, but then when Hank had his BK Stacker it had BACON on it. I love bacon and I was sad there wasn’t any on ours. I love bacon too. Hank and Kathy really dropped the ball on this one, but Hank did give us some of the bacon on his BK Stacker. YUM!! It was the least he could do. I’m going to give the BK Stacker 3 paws but it might have been 4 if ours had the bacon and cheese on it like Hank's. I’m going to give the BK Stacker 2 paws because I didn’t like the burnt taste, but if they send me another one I may reconsider.
BK Stacker - 2.5 paws 

The BK Stacker tastes a little burnt but went down smoothly!!

When Matt visits, we get lots of exercise...
but that just makes us hungrier for a Cheesy Cheddarburger

   2 weeks ago on Easter Sunday, Matt came for a visit and we all went to the pond. Matt ran with me and Baxter and played with us while we walked around the pond. We only had to walk around the pond 2 times because Hank wasn’t feeling so good and wanted to go home. But on the way home we stopped at the Wendy’s Drive Thru for Cheesy Cheddarburgers!! YUM!! Hank got a Cheesy Cheddarburgers for us and him and a chicken sandwich for him. When we got home, Hank tried to pull off the Cheese from the burger, but there was so much cheese he finally gave up and gave us the burger, cheese and all! I LOVE CHEESE!! YUM!! The burger was good too. I give Wendy’s 4 paws. I love cheese too and the burger was moist without any burn or onion taste. I give the Wendy’s 4 paws also.
Cheesy Cheddarburger - 4 paws 

Wendy's Cheesy Cheddarburgers are really good!!

   Burgers are nice, but I like beef sticks better because we get to walk to the store and try to find food to scrounge. I’d rather have the burgers. It’s fun to ride in the car and I like walking around the pond and barking at other dogs and people walking around. Hank’s coming home late tonight and staying home from work tomorrow. Maybe we can take a walk for a beef stick and go to the pond for a burger. That sounds like a good compromise, Baxter. YUM!!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Movie Review - The Three Stooges

One of my favorite Three Stooges shorts. I could watch Curly carry the ice up the stairs all day long!
Part 2 is here!

  When I was a kid, I’d rush home from school and turn the TV to Channel 11 (WPIX) and Officer Joe Bolton would play 2 of the Three Stooges movie shorts with a small introduction, so I was hooked on the Three Stooges from an early age. I was never a purist that insisted on only having Curly in the show for me to enjoy it. I liked Shemp just as well even if he wasn’t quite as funny as Curly. Along with the Abbott & Costello TV show, the Three Stooges were my main source of laughter in a decidedly unlaughable youth and when I see them on TV I stop and watch and feel good to be reminded how funny I thought they were.

  I find that taste in comedians is a very personal thing. My 2 favorite comedians are Curly from the Stooges and Rodney Dangerfield. I can just look at them and start laughing but there are a lot of people that just don’t get them. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never gotten John Candy, Will Ferrell, or Chris Farley, but I recognize that other people fall over themselves laughing reciting scenes from their movies or SNL skits. So it wasn’t a surprise to me when Kathy and Ben and even my neighbor Don didn’t want to go to the movie. But that didn’t stop me from working extra hard to take care of my chores to make the 4:30 show.

  I didn’t know what to expect from the movie, but I was hoping it would have a lot of the silly violence and sound effects that the Stooges were known for. Moe getting hit in the head with a hammer; Curley carrying a ladder and turning to his left and clocking Moe and Larry and then spinning around to look for them only to clock them again as they scramble to their feet. Moe trying to stick his two fingers on his right hand into Larry’s eyes but Larry sticks his hand up to block the fingers only to have Moe use one finger from each hand to poke Larry’s eyes….PRICELESS. And I haven’t even started with all of Curly’s antics (N’YUK N’YUK N’YUK, Woooo Woooo Woooo, SOITENLY!).

  The Three Stooges brand of physical comedy was put down by the critics in the 1930’s as ‘lowbrow’, but they were well in line with the more highly regarded Marx Brothers in tweaking the noses of the moneyed classes. There are countless depression era scenes where the stooges gain entrance to a party in a mansion as plumbers, workmen, artists, or musicians only to incite the modern-day matrons and monarchs to engage in food fights, mud-slinging, or paint-throwing fights worthy of anything in ‘Animal House’. I always crack up when to see some old guy in a tuxedo have his wig taken off by Larry’s violin bow and have the guy sitting next to him slap him with it after it got deposited in his glass of champagne or a society ‘Queen Bee’ wiping a cream puff off her expensive hair do and flinging it at another society patron who returns the favor. The Stooges always showed the rich as just needing the proper provocation to release their ‘inner Stooge’. What fun could the Stooges have had nowadays with the industrialist millionaire Republican nominee Romney and the Harvard intellectual millionaire Obama’s upcoming presidential campaign?

  The movie spent about a half hour getting the Stooges updated to the 21st century by showing them in an orphanage as infants and showing them as the orphans no one wants, but after that it is more like an extended Three Stooges short with the boys working at the same orphanage as the oldest orphans in history and venturing out into the world to raise $830,000 to save the orphanage. Even though the Stooges are dressed like bumpkins with too short pants and white socks instead of bums or refugees from a Goodwill store, they fit in with their modern day surroundings to create the requisite amounts of mayhem. My favorite scene was when they snuck into a hospital with Moe and Curly dressed as nurses and are assigned to change dozens of diapers in the maternity ward. The resulting ‘human water gun’ fight almost had me needing a change!

  The Stooges somehow manage to save the orphanage after another 45 minutes of misadventure and hopefully the stage is set for sequels to follow. I thought Moe and Curly‘s characters translated well to the movie, but I also thought Larry’s character got lost in the shuffle. In the shorts, he is the most well-read and musical of the Stooges, but the movie showed him too much as an imbecile for my taste. I also didn’t like how when Moe split with the group, he became a big success as member of the ‘Jersey Shore’ TV show and Larry and Curley remained failures. I think Moe needs the other two as much as they need him and the movie made it seem the exact opposite. But those complaints are small potatoes for this Stooges fan. The movie was much better the TV advertisements promised and did a great job of bringing the classic Stooge brand of comedy to the big screen. I really enjoyed it. The Three Stooges aren’t for everyone but I think anyone who enjoyed the old movies will have a great time watching this 2012 version.

  At the end of the move the producers felt compelled to implore the audience not to beat each other up with hammers or put chainsaws to their friend’s heads. They went to great pains to show how they were just using props and sound effects. Have we really gotten that stupid as a country? When I was a kids, we all grew up watching the Stooges and Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner as kids and none of us ever thought that if we took a sledgehammer to someone’s head there would be a ‘Boink’ sound and the victim would just say ‘OW’ or if we shot someone with a rifle, their head would turn black and be OK 2 minutes later or if we fell off a cliff we would be OK after the small puff of smoke. But the Stooges and Warner Bros. cartoons are deemed ‘too violent’ for kids today. Maybe there would be less violence if kids were exposed to some of this brand of 'silly violence'.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Visit to Zanzibar's

  I ran into my friend Mike Jeter (no relation to Derek) 3 weeks ago while getting some copies made at the FedEx office. I know Mike through Dan Troxell and have played chess with him at Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure. Mike works at Wells Fargo and we’ve seen each other at the Skywalk occasionally but I hadn’t seen him since last December. We had lunch at the Basil Prosperi restaurant in the Skywalk (an excellent Italian place) last week and I thought it would be a good time to head down to Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure for a Saturday morning of coffeehouse chess.

  Playing some relaxed chess is a good way to ease myself back into the chess scene after 4 weeks with no tournaments to run or play in and the start of 5 straight weekends committed to chess activities. Next week I’ll be heading up to Okoboji to direct the Okoboji Open tournament, the 28th is my next youth tournament in Des Moines, the week after I’ll be heading to Des Moines to watch the St. Francis chess club play in a tournament, then I have a tournament to play in, and finally my first outdoor youth tournament of the summer on May 19th!

Michael with the coffees of the day and the $3.50 coffee refill with a sesame bagel!

  The last time I headed down to Zanzibar’s was on Thanksgiving weekend to meet Ben Tessman, but the Zanzibar crowd had taken the week off. I checked with Dan to make sure he would be there and after an early morning walk with Kathy to take Baxter and Daisy for some beef stick treats, it was off to Zanzibar’s’ Coffee Adventure for some coffeehouse chess. I arrived at Zanzibar’s at 8:30 just like I arranged with Dan. The rainy day had Zanzibar’s packed and Dan was setting up the board on one of the small round tables while I ordered an everything bagel and a big mug of New Guinea coffee. $4.50 later I was sitting down and ready to play Dan. Then Mike arrived and while Dan and I were playing were all talking about the Zanzibar and Marshalltown chess regulars. We had all lost touch with each other in the winter, but now that spring is here, hopefully we can all get back together for some more chess in the future. Here was my game with Dan:  These are the types of games that can happen when trying out new openings. We spent a little more time talking and then Paul showed up. Paul said he didn’t want to play, just watch. He had suffered a stroke last year and lost his memory for a time. It has taken him a long time to recover but he is back at work. That was a scary thing for me to hear. Last year I passed the age when my father had a heart attack and it is a sobering thought to realize that all the plans I have for my youth chess tournaments among many other plans and dreams can be waylaid by a stupid blood clot. But none of that mattered when I sat down to play Mike with the Black pieces:

  Mike is a strong player that has the habit of trying to get too complicated when simple solutions are called for. I have the exact opposite problem of trying to be too simple when complicated solutions are required. I wanted to be back at 12 to watch Ben play tennis for the high school team (I didn’t know that they tournament was cancelled when they couldn’t dry out the courts), so I took a break from playing and got a sesame bagel and a cup of Peruvian coffee and watched Dan and Mike play:

The battle of the breakfasts! Dan's Spartan choice of black coffee took the nod over Mike's eggs, toast, coffee, & juice this time. I take the middle road and have coffee along with a bagel and cream cheese.

  That was some real coffeehouse chess, although I think Mike got distracted by his large breakfast. Mike and Dan started another game while I took my leave of Zanzibar’s to head back home. It was fun morning of chess with friends. I was happy to have had a relaxing morning and am looking forward to when I’m living closer to Des Moines and able to visit Zanzibar’s more frequently!

You can never tell what celebrities you'll find at Zanzibar's Coffee Adventure. I captured a picture of James Brolin. He didn't seem very happy having his picture taken, probably because he shaved and got a perm to be inconspicuous. I also managed to get a side shot of Robin Williams getting his morning coffee.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

No Apology Needed

  Now that I’ve had almost a week to reflect on last Thursday’s Marshalltown Chess Club, I’ve done a 180 degree turn from my opinion that it was not one of my better days because I lost to Matt Kriegel for the first time ever to thinking that it was a pretty good day after all since I had 2 new players come to the club to play chess (a boy scout and a Mormon elder on his mission trip). New players are more the exception than the rule. The Marshalltown Chess Club has never been well attended despite being fairly well publicized due to having a couple of articles in the local newspaper every year and occasionally being mentioned on the radio in addition to being listed on the newspaper’s weekly calendar of events. I meet a lot of people who live in town who tell me they love to play chess, but when I invite them to the club I’ll likely be told they will visit some time (and I’ll never see them), and when I see them a month or a year later and ask why they never came they’ll apologize and say something to the effect that they play so bad they’ll just lose all their games. I don’t agree with this attitude since with a little practice most adults who enjoy chess get used to the club’s level of competition pretty quickly, but there’s certainly no need to apologize for not accepting an invitation to play chess.

  Ozzie Guillen, the new manager of the Miami Marlins is on his second apology after being quoted by Time Magazine as saying ‘I love Fidel Castro’. Guillen claims his remarks were taken out of context and that he was saying how he loved that Castro is still alive after 50+ years of people and governments wanting him dead, but that hasn’t stopped him from being suspended from the Marlins for 5 games without pay. If Guillen was still the manager of the Chicago White Sox, I doubt he would have had to apologize at all, but the Miami Marlins have just renamed themselves from the ‘Florida Marlins’ to capitalize on their new stadium in Miami’s ‘Little Havana’ section. The Marlins are counting on heavy attendance from the Cuban-Americans who are in Florida after their families fled Castro’s communist regime. I’m not sure the 5 game suspension will be enough. Now that the initial waves of protests and boycott threats have seen such quick movement, I suspect that there will be plenty of boycott leaders seeing an opportunity to make a name for themselves as the community leaders who got the Marlins to fire their manager.

  I wonder what the Marlins were thinking they would be getting when they hired Guillen as their manager, As a native Venezuelan, Guillen comes from a country that is closely aligned with Cuba and whose dictator (or president depending on who you listen to), Hugo Chavez, constantly praises Castro and has gone to Cuba for his cancer treatments, so it’s possible that Guillen’s comments may be more culturally based than political. But Guillen has always been a public relations nightmare. In 2006, he had to publicly apologize when he referred to Jay Mariotti as a ‘fag’ among other terms in an expletive laced rant directed at the Chicago sportswriter. His public arguments with White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams were unparalleled in their viciousness, almost leading to punches when Williams didn’t draft Guillen’s son early enough in the draft one year.

  Winning used to be the sure fire panacea when sports celebrities misspeak and have to apologize to avoid losing their jobs. Guillen was aided in 2006 by the fact that his White Sox team had won their first World Series in 88 years in 2005 and he received neither fine nor suspension, instead being ordered by Major League Baseball to attend a sensitivity training class and a trip to the Gay Games for positive publicity. Guillen appears to have kept his job despite his current faux pas, but if the new Miami stadium was in ‘Little Caracas’ instead of ‘Little Havana’ he may not only have not had to apologize, a statue of his likeness may have been built outside the ballpark. I don’t think Guillen’s apology was needed, but given the marketing strategy of his employer, it was necessary.

  Arkansas Razorback football coach Bobby Petrino was not as lucky as Guillen. Petrino parlayed his 2006 Orange bowl victory as coach of the Louisville Cardinals into the Atlanta Falcons head coaching job only to lose start quarterback Michael Vick to a dog-fighting scandal. He started the season with a 3-10 record, pledged his commitment to the team owner to coach the team for the long haul, and resigned the next day to become the head coach of the Razorbacks. After a mediocre first 2 years, Petrino led his team to 22 wins against 6 losses the past 2 years including a Cotton Bowl victory last year. With a 7 year contract paying him 3.5 million dollars a year, Petrino’s future looked to be assured. At least until he broke 4 ribs and cracked a neck vertebrae in a motorcycle accident a week and a half ago.

  Petrino has every right to ride a motorcycle, but in the aftermath of the accident, he failed to mention that he had the accident while riding in the company of a girl less than half his age. The motorcycle passenger, Jessica Dorrell is a former Razorback volleyball player who had been hired the week before by Petrino as the football program’s student-athlete development coordinator from a pool of 159 applicants.

  When the police report was released disclosing Dorrell’s involvement in the accident, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long put Petrino on administrative leave and Petrino went into apology mode, stating that the reason he didn’t mention his passenger was because of his concern to protect his family and prevent a previous ‘inappropriate relationship from becoming public’. I suppose Petrino could have protected his family better by taking Dorrell out in a car or maybe not having had the inappropriate relationship in the first place, but that ship sailed long ago for the married father of 4. Yesterday, Long disclosed that his investigation uncovered a $20,000 payment from Petrino to Dorrell but did not disclose what the payment was for. Long fired Petrino ‘with cause’ to prevent him from collecting his $18 million dollar buyout and Petrino has committed himself to ‘being a better husband, father, and human being’, which should be a piece of cake considering his current state. I’m sure Petrino will resurface as a big-time football coach in a year or two for the next college program that needs a ‘quick-fix’ so bad that Petrino’s coaching successes will overshadow his other failings. Petrino apologized again to all after his firing, but he didn’t need to. After all his misleading statements over the past two week laid waste to his family and football program, there’s no one left to care.

Eight months after winning the 2011 CJA Best Chess Blog award, I received my certificate in the mail this week. An apology for the delay was offered but it wasn't needed!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Good Friday

  Thursday Night at the Marshalltown Chess Club wasn’t one of my better days. The club started OK when 2 of the scouts showed up to finish up their merit badge requirements and one stuck around to play a game with Seth, a 9 year old who showed up at club last week for the first time and enjoyed himself so much his mom bought him a membership so he could play in our weekly tournaments. Then it got even better when the 2 Mormons who came to visit me on Monday decided to accept my invitation to play chess. I sat down to play with Elder Shoenfeld while the other Elder watched. When we used to have our club at the Wal-Mart in the summer, 2 of the Mormon elders were chess regulars one year while they were in town on their mission trip. Ironically, one of the elder’s favorite chess variation was called suicide, where you have to take your opponents pieces if possible and the winner is the player that loses all their pieces first.

  The elders and scout left when it was time to start the tournament and my day took a sudden nosedive when I played Matt Kriegel from Tama, who was playing in Marshalltown for the first time since last December. I played Matt in the second round, went pawn grabbing in the opening before castling and went down in flames in an attack to my uncastled king when I defended poorly trying to hang on to my extra pawn. It was the first time I’ve lost to Matt in 12 tournament games (10 wins and 1 draw). I felt pretty crummy about losing to Matt, but I’ve beaten better and lost to worse and hopefully I’ll learn to look more carefully the next chance I have to grab a pawn with my king in the center of the board, although this game seems eerily similar to the pasting I took from Tim Harder at Big Money Blitz last September.

7:15 - early arrivals
  On Friday morning, I left the house at 5:40 and headed off to St. Francis for chess club before work. After an entire school year of attendance between 40 and 60 kids, there were only 2 classes during the 5 Fridays of March and last week’s attendance was a year low of 36. Since a lot of the parents would no doubt be travelling for the Easter weekend, I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd but that doesn’t matter to me. The kids and I have a great time, teaching the club provides a venue for my monthly tournaments, and having fewer players gives me a chance for more individual instruction.

  I got to St. Francis at 6:45 and started setting up the room for the chess club, which involves putting away round tables, wheeling out the square tables, setting up 25 to 30 boards, and laying out the pens, scoresheets, and other materials for the players. It takes me about a half hour. While I was setting up, a well-dressed vaguely familiar guy came in the room two or three times. The first time he looked at me, the second time he asked if there were classes on Good Friday, and the third time asked what time the kids would show up for chess.

7:30 - The action
picks up!
  It turned out the guy was from KWKY, the Des Moines Catholic radio station. The station was broadcasting in the next room over. They had done this earlier in the school year (that’s where I remember the man from) and invited all the kids to come over to be on the radio just before the 8:00 break where they had them say a ‘Hail Mary’. He must have been waiting to see if the kids were going to show up before extending a similar invitation. At 7:15, Will showed up. Will is a very talented 8 year old player who beat the top player from SE Polk High School at my March tournament. We sat down to play but then Ryan showed up so I had Will and Ryan play. As more players started showing up I paired them off to play against each other, trying to avoid mismatches. When we had 10 or so players, the radio man came back and asked if I’d be willing to talk about the chess club on the radio at 7:55 and bring the players in to be on the radio also. That was OK with me.

7:45 - Full house!
  More and more players showed up and there were 32 players by the end of the club. With so much time off in March off, I’ve gotten lax about having the kids write down the moves and now only one or 2 players are doing it, but that’s going to change next week. I’ve been reviewing the games that have been written down and posting them on the internet along with my comments, so hopefully that will be an incentive.

  At 7:55, the radio man called us in to the room they were broadcasting from. When the hosts were back on the air, they said the chess club was there and asked me to talk about the club. I mentioned that these kids all get up early on Fridays to play chess and then asked the kids to shout out what times they got up. I talked a little more about the chess club and then the host told the kids that he played chess also and encouraged them to keep playing. The hosts had the kids say an ‘Our Father’ and then it was back to chess. We finished the club and then the radio man came back in with a station banner and wanted to take a picture of the chess club. Some of the kids were so wrapped up in playing that they finished their games, but the rest of the kids and I managed to get the picture taken and a picture was emailed to me within an hour.

  Like almost every Friday, I had a great chess club and was so energized that I breezed through the day at work. I’ve made every St. Francis chess cub so far this year and with only 7 Fridays till the end of the school year it looks like I’ll have perfect attendance 2 years in a row. It’s a lot of fun and I can see the improvement in many of the kids. I hope to be asked back again next year to coach, but with 60 kids in and out of the club in a year, there’s always the chance I’ve offended the child of some influential parent and there’ll be a ‘thanks but no thanks’. Irrespective of what the future may hold, I've had a blast teaching chess at St. Francis this year.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Baseball is Back

  Spring is here and a new baseball season is on the way. I was hoping after last year’s disappointing playoff loss to the Tigers, the Yankees would upgrade their starting pitching and outfielders and they’ve met my hopes halfway. The outfield looks the same as last year excepting the addition of free agent Raul Ibanez from the Phillies. Ibanez is coming off his worst year since becoming a full time player in 2002 and since will turn 40 in June, I can’t see how he is going to reclaim his hitting prowess. At best, I expect Ibanez to be a useful left handed DH off the bench to replace the retired Jorge Posada and could be productive as a part time player, but the fact that the Yankees didn't sign any big money free agents or make any trade deadline deals last year makes me wonder if the Sons of Steinbrenner are going to be willing to settle for occasional playoff runs and line their pockets with the franchise's profits instead of trying for championships.

  The starting pitching was significantly revamped with the subtraction of A.J. Burnett and the additions of 37 year old Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers, 23 year old Michael Pineda from the Mariners, and 39 year old Andy Pettitte from retirement. Kuroda ($11 Million) and Pettitte (a minor league contract) came cheap, but Pineda represented a major gamble because he cost potential once in a generation slugger Jesus Montero. Montero is a 22 year old slugging catcher who showed a lot of power in limited playing time in New York last year. There’s some questioning whether Montero will ever be a capable major league catcher, but no question about his bat. Pineda has a 99 mph fastball and struck out a batter an inning in his rookie season last year, but the Yankees record in keeping young pitchers healthy is highly suspect (Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes) and already Pineda will start this season on the disabled list with tendonitis in his shoulder. Yankee GM Brian Cashman has been a conservative trader in the past so I’m willing to give him the benefit of a doubt on this out of character Pineda deal. Old-timers Kuroda, Pettitte, and Freddie Garcia should be enough help for ace CC Sabathia to get the Yankees to the playoffs, but in order to win the championship, top shelf pitching is needed and Pineda has the potential to be a once in a generation pitcher if his arm and head can handle the stress of pitching for the Yankees.

  The Yankees should be able to win the American League East division again this year as the competition has fallen off a bit. The pesky Tampa Bay Devil Rays have lost some veteran players and aren’t inclined to spend any money on free agents, relying instead on their excellent farm system to keep the major league roster stocked with talent. This strategy seems to work for about 5 years until the farm system runs dry and the success of the major leage teams leads to low drafting position. Tampa Bay has had poor draft positions for the last 5 years and I think their run is nearing an end unless they decide to spend some of their money to keep their star players. The filthy Red Sox fired the only manager in the last 90 years to win a World Series and then their genius General Manager, Theo Epstein, bolted for the Cubs. The Red Sox upper management were stung by reports of the players having chicken and beer parties in the clubhouse during games at the end of last season and reacted by hiring disciplinarian Bobby Valentine to manage the team. Valentine has had reasonable success as a manager including taking the Mets to the playoffs in 1999 and a World Series appearance in 2000. The Red Sox look to be starting the year with ace pitcher Josh Beckett and new closer Andrew Baily on the injured list. That’s good news for this Yankee fan, since a slow Red Sox start may cause the veteran-laden team to revolt against their new manager.

  The Yankees other rivals for the American League pennant have spent millions of dollars to improve themselves this offseason. The 2 time league champion Texas Rangers have spent $51 million to acquire Yu Darvish from the Japanese leagues and then signed him to a modest $60 million 6 year contract, while the California Angels paid $240 million for 10 years of Albert Pujols’ services and the Detroit Tigers paid $214 for 9 years of slugger Prince Fielder. All the free spending has led the Cincinnati Reds to sign the 2010 MVP Joey Votto to a 10 year $220 million deal, which will now be the new benchmark for young sluggers. 2011 MVP Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers hasn’t signed to a long term deal, but he barely escaped a 50 game suspension for having his testosterone level 20 times normal on his drug test when the Fed Ex office was closed and the sample sat in the testers refrigerator for the weekend. Braun will have to prove his impressive statistics over the past few years weren’t a product of chemistry before he cashes in. The explosion in free agent spending has also been generous to pitchers with the Giant’s Matt Cain being rewarded for last year’s 12-11 record with a $100 million dollar 5 year contract extension.

  As a Yankee fan, I know that the biggest payroll doesn’t equal World Championships, but I can understand both the Angels and Tigers big money payouts. The Angels will likely be overpaying Pujols over the last half of his contract, but they should be able to sell out their stadium and have expectations of a championship in the short term. They’ll also get the publicity benefits of Pujols 500th and 600th home runs and if Pujols is really 32 years old (players from the Dominican Republic tend to lose a few years off their age when trying to get to the major leagues) he should be able to make a run at Hank Aaron’s steroid free home run record of 756 and Barry Bonds drug aided 762 homers.

  The Tigers purchase of Fielder is the sign of a team with a rich owner (Little Ceasers magnate Mike Illitch) trying to get over the top after last years near miss, but I can see this particular purchase backfiring. The Tiger’s home park is less hitter friendly than Miller Park in Milwaukee so I expect Fielder’s power numbers to suffer and if his self-image is tied too closely to being one of the league leaders in home runs, he might become an all or nothing slugger in his quest to overcome the large dimensions at Comerica Stadium in Detroit. While Fielder is young, he also weighs 275 pounds. The massive sluggers that remind me of Fielder are Mo Vaughn and Fielder’s dad Cecil. Both men’s careers were effectively over at the age of 32, possibly from carrying way too much weight. Fielder is only 27 so the Tigers can rightly expect to have at least a few years of top-flight play from their new first baseman.

  Major League Baseball added a fifth playoff team this year so now the 2 teams that don’t win their division will play each other in a one game playoff to continue on in the playoffs. The assumption is that the extra game will provide the television ratings and excitement that were provided by last year’s regular season end, when the final playoff team in each league wasn’t settled until the final plays of the Baltimore-Boston and Atlanta-Philadelphia games. What the baseball decision makers forget is that drama can’t be manufactured and if the same scenario as last year played out, there would be no drama in the end of the regular season because all the affected teams would have clinched their playoff berths.

  Baseball still has the fewest teams of all the major sports making the playoffs (10 vs. 12 for football and 16 for basketball), but it also has by far the longest season. The extra playoff team will no doubt give an extra few weeks hope for perennial losers like the Royals and Pirates that they can somehow claw their way into the playoffs as the last team but the end result will be to allow big money teams like the Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, and yes the Yankees another opportunity to get into the playoffs on an occasional off year. At some point the novelty of the play-in game will lose its luster and baseball will take the next step in rendering the longest regular season in all sports more meaningless by expanding the playoffs yet again. I expect the Yankees to be able to get in the playoffs with at least the 5th best record in the league and then there postseason fate will come down to whether the Pineda gamble has given them a second stud to go along with Sabathia.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Scouting for Chessplayers

  Last year, the Boy Scouts added Chess to their list of merit badges. Chess and the Boy Scouts have a long history. Bobby Fisher even wrote a chess column for Boys’ Life magazine (the official Boy Scout Magazine) in the 1960’s. I was asked in January to be the chess merit badge counselor for the Marshalltown Merit Badge day yesterday and I quickly agreed since you can never tell where you'll find the next members of the Marshalltown Chess Club!

  The Boy Scouts are careful about who they associate with, so I had to take their Youth Protection training and agree to a background check. Their website listed the numerous requirements for the merit badge. It required the scouts to be able to discuss the history of chess, the rules of the game, how to write down the moves, opening principles, and to be able to solve chess puzzles. The website also had a section for counselors, telling us to make sure the scouts met the requirements and not to just pass them for showing up or making a minimal effort. I took the requirements, added internet links to where the scouts could get all the information they needed and sent it off to Aaron (the scout leader who recruited me to be the counselor) so he could pass it along to the scouts who wanted to try for the chess merit badge. I also let Aaron know about our club was available in case any of the scouts wanted to get some practice in before the examination.

The RACOM building
in Marshalltown
  Like I wrote last week, I hadn’t hear from Aaron since February so I wrote to him on Monday to see if anyone was going to try for the chess badge. Aaron wrote back within an hour to let me know he had forgotten to write but there were 17 scouts signed up to attempt to get their badge and that I should be there at noon for the 1 PM start. On Saturday, I put together a giant tub of chess sets, score sheets, clocks, and pens and was at the RACOM building at noon. RACOM is a Midwest telecommunications company that has their headquarters a block away from the Salvation Army building. I’d never been in the building before and can only assume that one of the scout leaders is well connected with the company. I brought my 50 pound tub up 4 flights of stairs until I found the scout leaders only to be told that the chess class would be in the loading dock on the first floor. Luckily there was an elevator so I didn’t have to lug the 50 pound tub back down the stairs! I got to the first floor and started setting up chessboards on the 4 x 8 foot tables that were provided. There were 4 or 5 scouts that helped set up the boards and then they started playing. The scout leaders wanted to get started early but some of the scouts hadn’t shown up early so I just played some games and answered questions until I started at 1 as scheduled with 13 scouts. Aaron’s son was trying for the merit badge and Aaron and some of the other parents stuck around to watch the proceedings.

Early attendees
getting in some chess.
  I think some of the scouts thought they were just going to play chess all afternoon and get an easy merit badge. If they were, they got a rude awakening because I was determined to make sure they met all the requirements set forth by their organization and I had them stop playing and pay attention to me. First we talked about the history of chess, why the scouts think chess is important enough to have a merit badge assigned to it by the Boy Scouts, and some basic chess etiquette. A couple of the scouts weren’t paying much attention so I made sure to call on them to answer any questions I had. Then they finally got to use some of the chessboards I had set up, but only to push all the pieces to the middle of the board and demonstrate to me that they knew how to set the board up. By some coincidence, the 2 scouts that weren’t paying attention before missed putting the king and queen on the proper squares. I corrected them and we went on to the next topic.

  The next thing the scouts had to demonstrate was that they knew how the pieces moved. I put up a large demonstration wall board, set up some positions and asked them how many squares a particular piece could move to. The scouts all did very well with this exercise and some of them did better than me when I missed some queen moves. Having the demo board also got me to explain other concepts like how most pieces have more squares to move the closer they are to the center and other concepts like pins, double attacks, the relative value of the pieces and common opening mistakes. We went on to discuss the other topics like castling, the fools mate, and capturing ‘en passant’. I was convinced that the scouts understood the concepts and all 13 were on their way to earning their merit badge.

Checkmate with 2 rooks.
  By this time it was after 2 and the scouts got a chance to play some chess. One of the requirements was to demonstrate how to checkmate with 2 rooks and a king against a king. We set up the position on 17 boards arranged in 2 rows of tables. I took the side with the king and went around the rows of tables like a simul, letting each scout make a move when I got to them and I would make my reply before moving on to the next board. 3 of the scouts checkmated me right away, but the rest had to figure it out on the fly. I encouraged them to look at the boards of the 3 players who completed the challenge, and that helped a lot. At 2:30 I stopped the test and 4 of the scouts (including Aaron’s son) were not able to complete the checkmate. I told them they would get partial badge credit and could come to the chess club on any Thursday to complete the requirement.

Writing down the moves.
  The next requirement was for the scouts to demonstrate they knew how to keep score of the game so I set up a mini tournament for them to write down the moves. Some of the scouts didn’t know how to keep score so I showed them the same method I use at St. Francis which only takes 2 minutes to learn. Aaron’s son had already played 3 games with his dad and brother AND kept score so while the other scouts played, he had a chance to retake the checkmate exam (which he passed) and I went over the games with him and Aaron, showing them some things they missed and moves I thought were top notch. As the scouts games finished, I reviewed their score sheets to see how well they kept score. All but 2 players kept excellent score sheets so I started the second round of games and told the 2 players they needed to keep better score if they wanted to meet the requirement (which they did).

Puzzle Time!
  The second game finished around 3:30 and it was time for the last requirement, which was to solve some direct mate puzzles. I had printed out a sheet of 6 puzzles and told the players that they needed to solve 4 of them and that one puzzle was harder than the others and would count for solving 2. The puzzles were 4 mate in 2, 1 mate in 3, and a mate in 5 moves (a smothered mate) that counted for solving any of the other 2 puzzles. Aaron and one of the other parents started to try to solve the puzzles and the other scouts congregated in groups of 2 or 3 to work together, which I had no problem with. The scouts had an incredibly hard time solving the puzzles, but I told them it was not supposed to be easy and that they needed to look for checks to force the other sides' reply to execute the checkmates. Once each group managed to solve one of the puzzles they got the hang of what to look for and were a lot more enthusiastic about working on them and almost everyone managed to solve them. Here are the puzzles I gave assigned. White to move in all positions. I’ll put the answers in the comments.

Mate in 2 on the left, the double credit mate in 5 on the right.

Mate in 2 on the left and mate in 3 on the right.

Mate in 2 on the left and right.

  In the end, 10 of the 13 scouts passed all the requirements to earn their merit badge and if the other 3 take the time to come to the club on Thursday and finish their checkmates and puzzles, they’ll get their badge also. Their knowledge of how to play was pretty impressive and 2 or 3 of them would be pretty competitive in my youth tournaments. Scouts need 21 badges to become an Eagle Scout and most of these scouts won’t have a lot of time for playing chess, but one scout and his dad told me that they’d be coming to my club on a regular basis. Aaron told me he enjoyed my enthusiasm for chess and thought I made it interesting for the scouts, which made me feel good. I thought being the counselor was a good time and I was happy to meet some young people interested in chess even if some of them were there only to get a merit badge. I thought I did an OK job devising tests to challenge the scouts and objectively determine their chess knowledge. I don’t know if I’ll be invited back for next year’s merit badge examinations but if I am I’ll have a better idea what to expect, how to better tailor the session, and make chess even more interesting for the scouts.