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.”