Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Next Big Thing

  Chess (along with math and music) is known to produce child prodigies. The best known film about a chess child prodigy is the movie ‘Searching for Bobby Fisher’, a years’ chess journey of 6 year old Josh Waitzen learning chess from the homeless players in New York’s Washington Square Park to being the boy wonder of US youth chess to being overshadowed by another young player who seemingly only lives for chess to Josh’s eventual triumph over his rival at the National Grades Championships. The movie is adapted from the book by Josh’s father Fred (a writer for the New York Times) and takes certain liberties from the book, most notably painting Josh’s father and his chess coach as so fanatical in their desire for Josh to scale the heights of the chess world that they attempt to transform him into an automaton at the cost of his childhood.

  While in the book there is a chapter where Fred Waitzen does search for Bobby Fisher (the American Chess Prodigy who became national champion at the age of 15), to me the title signifies the search for the next great American chess prodigy that will rekindle the popularity and excitement in chess that accompanied Fisher’s ascension to the World Championship in 1972, very much like Morpheus’ excitement at the Neo possibly being ‘The One’ in the Matrix movies. Whenever a young chess talent is spotted, the unspoken question is asked; ‘Could this be the next Bobby Fisher?’ But what most people don’t realize is that Fisher not only had tremendous chess talent, he had an equal or greater talent for hard work.

  In March, I received a phone call from a lady named Kendall asking about the Marshalltown Chess Club that meets weekly at the Salvation Army. She had seen a small write-up about it in the newspaper and wanted to know if her 9 year old son (who liked to play chess and was the best player in his elementary school) would be welcome to attend and what the cost was. I’m always happy to talk about the chess club and I told Kendall how everyone is welcome and while we don’t have any dues, a national membership is required in order to play in our nationally rated weekly quick chess tournament. Kendall was excited that there was a chess club in town for her son and happy that is was just a couple of blocks from their house so they could walk to club and on March 29th Seth made his first appearance at the Marshalltown Chess Club.

  I write to the local schools once a year to remind them about the chess club, but they rarely refer students to me. I’m sure part of the reason is that the schools don’t know me (even though my son’s academic and chess exploits are well known in the local education community), part of the reason is an inherent distrust of the Salvation Army being a religious institution (even though the incredible works of the local Salvation Army is also well known in the community), and part is that the schools have their own after school programs that they’re trying to promote. It’s a shame since study after study after study come to the conclusion that learning to play chess helps many students learn critical thinking abilities that are needed to succeed in school and it is one of the least expensive activities as well.

  Seth was obviously bright, knew how the pieces moved, and already possessed a decent amount of basic chess knowledge. He understood the concept of checkmate and how to execute the king and queen vs. king checkmate. He didn’t understand how the pieces worked together to create attacks but was eager to learn and wanted to jump right in and play in our weekly speed chess tournaments. I didn’t think it was a great idea, but Kendall said it was OK so I got him a USCF membership and he played in the tournament. Seth lost all 3 games and I didn’t know if I would see him again, but he was back the next week ready to play. He had Scott (a 40+ year old mental health counselor) beat with a checkmate in one move but missed it and ended up settling for a draw. I had to play him in the final round. I quickly won a pawn but Seth battened down the hatches and didn’t make another mistake the rest of the game. I ended up winning with my extra pawn, but I was pretty impressed with Seth’s defense in the game.

  Jon (the other adult regular at the club), Jaleb (a 6 year club member who will be attending Iowa State in the fall), and I have taken turns playing Seth at club, trying to give him some pointers as we play. I gave him a book ‘Keene on Chess’ and got him playing online at He has been getting better and better and is slowly climbing the club hierarchy. He started by drawing and then beating Dalton (the least experienced player at club) in April. Then in May he beat Zach. Zach is a 5th grader who has beaten all the club regulars except Jaleb and I and gained wins last summer against out of town visitors Matt Kriegel and Roger Gotschal. I would have expected Zack to be beating Jaleb and I occasionally this year but he’s barely been at club since all his sport practices seem to be have been on Thursdays. Later in May Seth beat Chandler for the first time and in June he took out Jon.

  There have been some bumps in the Seth’s road with losses and draws to Dalton, but he never seems to get discouraged and always has a great attitude. In our first 2 tournaments in July, has gotten to the last round tied for first place and playing to be the tournament winner. He didn’t win either game (against Matt Kriegel once and me the other time), but the improvement is obvious to me and it is evident that we will have to step our games if we want to hold off this young challenger.

  This past Saturday, Seth’s dad took him to Des Moines for my monthly youth tournament. I would have taken him but Seth was going to play in the morning and then either go home or stay for the afternoon tournament. The was going to be Seth’s first games outside Marshalltown and at 30 minutes per player his first games at a longer time limit than our Thursday Night 10 minute games. In Seth’s first game, he played Sean, a middle school player from Carlisle that has won one youth tournament and finished in the top 5 in a few others. Seth won easily and then in his second round game he beat Caden, who won the June unrated tournament. In the third round Seth got to play Sam Cole, an eighth grader and 2 time Iowa grade champion. Seth’s penchant for not castling caught up to him and he went done in flames to Sam (the winner of the morning tournament). Then in the last round, Seth played Chandler and beat him to take second place in his first youth tournament.

  I was pleased but not totally unsurprised by Seth’s youth tournament debut. He was composed and confident and didn’t get flustered when he got behind in a game. He was happy with his second place finish and decided to play in the afternoon session after getting lunch. I overheard Seth tell his dad when he got back from lunch that he was tired and that was natural since he had never played in a tournament that lasted more than an hour and he had already played 3 hours and there was a noticable sloppiness in his afternoon games. He was lost in 3 of his games at some point but battled back to win 2 of them and finished the afternoon with 3 wins in 4 games and another second place finish. Seth was back playing in our blitz tournament on Thursday and got to match wits with 2 visitors from Ames, Roger Gotschall and Brad Sheperd. Seth didn’t castle in either game. Roger ( a 70+ retired civil engineer and legendary Ames chess teacher) kept Seth’s king trapped in the center and picked him apart, but noted that Seth missed an opportunity to possibly turn the tables. In his game against Brad (a retired forest ranger), Seth found himself a rook behind but not only got the rook back with some neat tactics, but managed to grind out a win from an equal rook ending.

  Is Seth going to be another Bobby Fischer? Not likely, but I'm not qualified to tell. Is he going to be a state grade champion? I know what they look like and he has the ability and potential, but he’ll have his work cut out for him to catch up with the Iowa 5th graders that have been playing 4 or 5 years instead of 4 or 5 months. Seth is heading to Marshalltown’s intermediate school this year. He was in the talented and gifted (TAG) program in his K-4 school, but the TAG teacher in that particular school has never made finding learning opportunities for gifted kids a priority (She is retired now in a stoke of good luck for many of the talented kids). The intermediate school has a better TAG teacher and it’s possible that Seth will get into an advanced math curriculum and give up chess like my younger son Ben did. Only time will tell, but his potential has me thinking just a little bit about Bobby Fischer.

  Having Seth show up at the club out of nowhere 4 months ago helped to remind me why I run the club years after the initial reason I started it (to find opponents for my children) went by the wayside. I enjoy the company of the chess players who come and go, but every once in a while there is going to be someone who really needs a place to belong for a day or a month or a year. Last Thursday I got another reminder. A teenager I didn’t recognize came into the Salvation Army building. I asked him if I could help him and he said he wanted to play chess and introduced himself as Eric. I didn’t recognize him but I recognized the name. Eric was a semi-regular at the chess club as a 5 year old whenever his grandpa or dad or mom (his parents were divorced) would bring him. Eric had a lot of the same qualities that Seth has shown this summer. He quickly mastered simple checkmates and was beating all the other beginners at club within a few weeks. Then we broke for the summer as we used to do back then and in the fall he never returned. I don’t know if his family forgot about chess or somebody got sick or somebody had to move or if chess became collateral damage in a custody fight, but 8 years later here was Eric! He remembered the club meeting on Thursdays and after 8 years I was still having the club. Eric said he was a regular at the high school chess club this past school year so I got him a USCF membership and put him in the tournament. He wasn’t used to the clock or tournament play and let himself get distracted with his cell phone sending and reading text messages and as a result played poorly and lost all his games. I have no idea if Eric will be back at the chess club soon or if I will have to wait another 8 years to see him again, but I was happy we were both here this past week.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


  ‘The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
– Groucho Marx

  I believe in divine providence. I also believe in coincidence, but not as much as divine providence. I’ve seen many more coincidences than acts of divine providence, but most of the coincidences I’ve seen are man-made. In 2008, I got my oil changed at the Jiffy Lube in Marshalltown and the manager told me my fan belt was worn and I needed a new one. I asked him to order it for me and he said it would take a week to get and he would call me when it came in (I didn’t have to pay for it until installation). I waited 2 months and then called the Jiffy Lube and got the manager on the phone. I asked him if my fan belt had arrived and he told me that it ‘actually’ arrived just an hour ago. What a coincidence! I told him I’d be right over to get it replaced. I haven’t been to the Jiffy Lube since, but if the manager ever calls me about the belt, I’ll tell him ‘What a coincidence! I was just going to call you to see if you still had it.’ That Jiffy Lube is still in business and I consider that to be an act of divine providence.

  In January of 2010, I was leaving my contracting job to take a more ‘permanent’ position and at 6:30 in the morning I sent an email to my handler at the contracting company letting him know I was leaving when my contract finished later that month. I got a call later that morning from my handler letting me know he had been working for months on my new contract, was just finishing it up, and it contained a ‘substantial’ raise. What a coincidence! He had been planning on calling me that afternoon to give me the details but offered to discuss it at that moment. This was quite a shock to me since I hadn’t heard from him in 6 months (when we all were forced to take pay cuts and he told me he was going to be sure to ‘over communicate’ with me about my contract renewal). I suppressed the fleeting thought that I had the worst timing ever and told him that I had to honor my commitment to my new employer and wasn’t interested in the details, but I was sorry that he had worked so hard on my behalf. I still shake my head at the thought of my handler slavishly working on my raise only to have me give my notice moments before my new deal was complete.

  2 Sundays ago, I wrote about my disappointment at the 2012 Chess Journalists of America (CJA) awards committee not having posted posting the list of entrants a month after the submission deadline. Early Wednesday morning, I received a comment on my blog saying I seemed ‘rude’ and that ‘complaining’ was ‘not at all in my best interests’ to make such comments about an organization I hoped to win an award from. The anonymous commenter further suggested that perhaps I should take on the ‘onerous, time consuming, thankless and unpaid responsibility’ of being on the committee. I don’t know whether the comment came from a member of the CJA awards committee, but the idea of refraining from touching on certain topics to further my ‘best interests’ is unthinkable for a curmudgeon/gadfly wannabe like me. The desire to win the award last year gave me no pause to pull my punches or pander to anyone (I was quite critical of a few aspects of the process last year) and the reason I’ve entered the competition the past 3 years is to write about the process, not to win an award. When I see kids enter my youth chess tournaments with the sole expectation of winning a prize instead of playing for the fun of it, I know I won’t see them very long. Winning is a bonus and hopefully the side effect of a little luck and the effort invested. One of the benefits of volunteering is having a feeling of ownership and it would be reasonable to expect that Broken Pawn be judged extra harshly for pointing out what some would rather be left untouched and that’s all well and fine with me. There are so many people I’ve ticked off over the years that I’d advise anyone who wants to get in that line to pack a lunch and possibly dinner as well.

  I enjoyed my anonymous commenter characterizing my observations about the month long delay in listing the award entries as ‘complaining’ and in the next paragraph describing the awards committee’s work as ‘onerous’ and ‘thankless’. I could have used this line of thinking when I forgot what time my June youth chess tournament was scheduled to start and showed up only 15 minutes before Round 1. In my naiveté, I owned up to my screw up, apologized, and ran the best tournament I could. But now that I've been enlightened to this new way of thinking, I could have pointed out that I wasn’t being thanked enough for putting on the tournament in the first place and possibly thrown in a comment or two about how putting on tournaments are so ‘onerous’.

  I did reply to my anonymous commenter and after thanking him or her for the comment, I pointed out that the job alluded to as ‘thankless’ cannot be completely thankless because I thanked the awards committee chairman the past 2 years whether I won an award or got the lowest ever score for an entry (and I have done both). I did not thank the awards committee in 2006 when I asked the judge in person what he thought about my submission only to find out he had never heard of it. It’s like my flat tire incident last week: I thanked Freedom Tire for staying late for replacing my donut with a new tire, but there’ll be no thanks for AAA not sending someone to change my tire for me when I lost my tire iron and had no way to take the donut off my car. I paid Freedom Tire for the new tire the same as I paid for an AAA membership the same as I paid for my CJA entries. If the awards committee had said they weren’t making the entries public this year that would be one matter, but they said the listing of entries were to be proof of receipt. I’m not sure how pointing out when people don’t do the things they say they will is ‘complaining’, but it’s not my world – I’m just living in it.

  In any event, it was a welcome comment and I hope to see more comments from Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. It’s been quite a while since I got this fired up to write a post AND coincidentally, the list of award entries were posted 2 days later at the CJA website (with a short note mentioning how challenging the committees work is) AND even more coincidentally was dated June 20th, right around when they could have been expected to be posted in the first place. This was noticed by Mark Weeks in his Chess for All Ages Blog AND coincidentally less than 24 hours after Mark’s mention, the post date was changed to July 20th. I’m sure it was just a coincidence and the entries were going to be posted this past week whether I had written about it or not and the date was going to be changed whether Mark had written about it or not, but all the same I’m happy to get a peek at the other entries for the best chess blog.

  Broken Pawn’s competition is much stiffer than last year. There are 2 other entries and both are top-notch. Tim Brennan’s blog is one that I read on a regular basis and enjoy very much. I bought Tim’s Tactics Time database and use the puzzles as part of my daily chess exercises. Tim’s content is 100% chess-related (little or no mention of beagles, Cheetos, Yankees, politics, or movies). It is excellently written and slickly produced, even containing audio podcasts in addition to the inspirational articles aimed at chess improvement through tactical acumen. The other entry is, written by none other than former Women’s world chess champion, former CJA President, and 2009 Chess Journalist of the Year Alexandra Kosteniuk. The Chess Queen Blog is another 100% chess blog and contains lots of chess tidbits from all over the globe. I couldn’t be upset about not winning a competition with these 2 blogging heavyweights but I also think my blog is a worthy contender in its own right. As I’ve written before, I am happy to have won the award last year in what I can only call a stroke of divine providence.

It’s just a coincidence that the house next to the Liquor Depot in beautiful Marshalltown, Iowa
has an outdoor garbage collection that would make most city dumps jealous, isn't it?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Not a 'AAA' Chess Camp

The 2012 West Des Moines Chess Camp!

  After a couple of months of organizing, advertising, and preparing lessons, we finally held our West Des Moines Chess Camp last week. Last Sunday, the family took a trip to the Wal-Mart to get the camp snacks. I packed 144 pudding cups, 14 gallons of Sunny D, 4 gallons of Apple Juice, 144 packs of cheddar chess crackers, 144 fruit cups, and a couple hundred plastic spoons and cups into my groaning shopping cart and found an empty checkout line. The checkout lady noted that I sure had a lot of stuff and started asking what I needed it for, so I asked Matt very loudly, ‘Matt, how long do we have to keep them locked in the basement?’ That was the end of any Wal-Mart cashier questions, but I did mention to her that I was buying supplies for a chess camp after I was well on my way to getting out of the checkout in record time.

  I had arranged to take Thursday and Friday off from work and on Thursday morning I packed up my car with all my chess stuff and snack items under the confused, bleary-eyed gazes of my next door neighbors, who apparently were up all night assembling Marshalltown’s largest empty beer can pyramid. We greeted each other with nods of feigned indifference and I was on the road and at the Learning Resource Center in West Des Moines at 8:30. I started dragging all the supplies in when Frank Li and his dad Jingyang arrived. Frank is a talented 8th grade chess player from West Des Moines and his parents offered his help at the camp because they wanted him to be involved in some volunteer efforts and I was happy for the help.

  Jose arrived around 9 and we decided on how we wanted to split the big meeting room into 2 and arrange the desks. Then Bethany Carson arrived. I was extremely lucky to get Bethany to my guest instructor this year. She knew many of the kids already, was as excellent with the kids as I thought she would be, and as the 5 time state girls champion had their respect as a chess instructor. Jose is awesome with kids, had many of his students in attendance, and as the state chess champion had plenty of credibility with the other kids. I felt I would have my hands full not being the weak link! The campers started to arrive at 9:40, so Jose and I started greeting the campers as they came in and got them in their proper rooms. We had 35 campers and put one third in an advanced group and the rest into a beginner section. In no time, it was 10 and we were ready to start.

  Bethany was going over some of her most instructive games with the advanced players while I was giving a lesson to the beginners in how not to lose in 4 moves. It sounds like a silly topic, but at my tournaments and at St. Francis I see so many players lose to the 4 move checkmate that I thought it would be good for these campers to learn some chess ‘self-defense’. When I give a lesson, I like to engage the kids and make them speak up and share their ideas. Out of the 2 dozen kids arranged in a semicircle around me, there were 5 or 6 kids that wanted to sit on the edges and talk with their friends, 10 or 12 kids sitting in the middle that were interested in the lesson and would contribute, and the rest of the kids would drift between goofing around and paying attention. The lesson went really well and after an hour and a half we gave the kids a break and let them either play outside or stay in and play chess.

Left: I wore my cool Marvel Comics T-Shirt on Friday. Center: Frank and Bethany enjoying a rare free moment.
Right: Jose keeping an eye on the day ending tournament.

  After the lunch break, it was my turn to work with the advanced players while Jose was going over some puzzles with the beginners. I had prepared a lesson on looking for discoveries where one piece moves to discover an attack by a piece in back of it. I like to call these moves ‘ninja moves’ since the piece hiding in back gives the visual impact of a ninja appearing out of nowhere to make an attack. The lesson was going OK, but it was taking a lot of time to switch the puzzles on the demonstration board and that slowed the pace of the lesson with a delay after every puzzle. I was trying to engage the campers in sharing their ideas and it was going well, but Frank kept on finding tricks for the defender in the positions that I hadn’t looked at when I was preparing the lesson. None of the tricks made the answers to the puzzles wrong, but it made me have to think while giving the lesson and that slowed down everything more. Next year, I’m going to make sure Frank reviews my puzzles before the camp! After the lesson, we decided the kids needed to play and gave them a choice between playing a team chess game called bughouse and a speed chess tournament. It was a good idea and except for one of the campers having to visit Julie the nurse when her finger got bruised by being caught in chess clock the day ended on a good note. We cleaned up and tried to vacuum the floor to pick up what seemed like millions of cheese cracker particles, but the vacuum cleaner's filter hadn’t been emptied since the Stone Age and the motor overheated so the vacuuming had to wait until the next morning.

  I got home at 6:30, went with Kathy to walk Daisy and Baxter, watched Burn Notice and slept like a baby until Friday morning. It’s amazing how exhausting it can be working with almost 3 dozen young chess players. I was hoping to be back at the learning center at 9am, but since we couldn’t finish vacuuming the night before, I was out of the house at 7:30 with the plan of arriving at 8:45. I was halfway between Des Moines and Marshalltown (otherwise known as the middle of nowhere), when I noticed the low tire pressure light come on. I was 15 miles away from a gas station with an air pump so I just kept going along until I felt the familiar shimmy of a flat tire. I pulled over, found the little donut spare tire, tire iron, and jack in the bottom of the trunk, and changed a tire on my Kia Rio for the first time since I bought the car 2 and a half years ago. I couldn’t go more than 50 miles an hour with the little donut tire, so instead of getting to the learning center at 8:45, I arrived at 9:10. I have an AAA card and called them to see if could get someone to come out and fix my tire. They told me they didn’t do that sort of thing. I put out the day’s snacks and started vacuuming the room when Jose and Bethany arrived. I told them the story of my flat tire and Bethany’s dad Tim offered to take my tire to get fixed. I gave him directions to the Freedom Tire shop I used to get my tires at and within an hour, he was back with a new tire which I put in my car with the idea of replacing it after the camp.

  The second day of the camp went much the same as the first day. In the morning, Jose went over his instructive games with the advanced players while I spent the morning teaching the beginners some simple endings. After the lesson, I’d let the players demonstrate what they learned by trying to win against Bethany, Frank, or myself from the lecture positions. Around the hour and a half mark they started getting noisier and noisier so I took them outside to the nearby playground to work off some energy for a half hour and then took them back in for lunch. In the afternoon, I went through an endings lesson with the advanced players and just like the day before, Frank kept on trying to find tricky ideas. But this time I knew most of the positions cold and didn’t have to spend as much time working the solutions out and I got through the lesson at a nice pace. We closed out the camp with a bughouse tournament, gave out participation certificates, and said our goodbyes to the camp for another year.

  As we were cleaning up the room and packing up from the camp (the fruit cups were a big thumbs down this year with over 100 left!), Jose and I were talking about what changes we’d make for next year’s camp. Unlike last year, I‘m planning on having a camp next year because when I talked to many of the parents, I see there is a need for an inexpensive chess camp. There is no question that a lot of the families can afford a week of their summer and hundreds of dollars for chess camps like the $400 one in Des Moines in August, but there are also a lot of families that can’t. The feedback I got from the parents was outstanding and the low-cost camp is a perfect complement to my low-cost chess tournaments.

There's always some clean up, but I wasn't expecting donuts to be on the cleanup docket!

  Filled with the great feeling of a well-run camp, I went out to my car to finally replace my donut with my new tire and found out that I left my tire iron out in the middle of nowhere when I put the donut on in the morning! I called AAA to see if they could get someone to change my tire and after punching my 16 digit membership number into the phone and then having to repeat the number to 2 operators (why do they make you punch in the number if you have to repeat it to the operator anyway), I was told that since I didn’t have a flat tire, they wouldn’t be able to help me. I asked the operator if that meant that if I punched a hole in my tire with a knife, AAA would send somebody? The operator said ‘Of course we would!’ I’ve been paying these clowns for 15 years, but at that point I hung up, loaded up my car with the leftover fruit cups and other snacks, and drove to the Target store to buy a tire iron. I didn’t realize that the Super Target’s idea of an automotive department was steering wheel covers and car wax products and so I left empty handed. I got on the highway and heard on the radio about a traffic jam up ahead so I pulled off on Hickman Road to find an auto parts store. I saw an Advance Auto Parts and pulled in to get my tire iron and next door I saw a Freedom Tire shop! I pulled in and saw they were closing in 15 minutes. I asked if they could change my donut out for the spare tire and not only did they stay open late to do it they did it for free since I had bought my tire from another Freedom Tire. If I do decide to rename next year’s chess camp, the ‘Freedom Tire Chess Camp’ wouldn’t be a bad name. It would surely be a better choice than the ‘AAA Chess Camp’.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Caring about Health Care

  3 weeks ago, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to allow the national health care reform law (‘ObamaCare’) to stand. Most parts of the system weren’t very controversial to consumers of the health care system: removing caps on benefits, allowing children up to the age of 26 to be on parent’s policies, and preventing insurance companies from dropping or excluding people who are or get sick. The most controversial part of the system is the requirement of everyone to either purchase insurance or pay a penalty. After all, someone has to pay for the new uncapped benefits and the insurance payouts for sick people… The so-called individual mandate was the main challenge to ObamaCare, but the Supreme Court ruled that since it was a tax and not really a mandate, the law was constitutional. I think it makes sense to let the health reform law stand. If enough people object to it, they can elect politicians to repeal the law just as it was enacted by Democrats when they were elected with a large majority in 2008.

  I’m conservative by nature but I like the idea of having health care coverage if I lose my job. The whole idea of having your health care benefits tied to your job is tied to the idea that people would spend their entire career with a single employer and a job change was a rarity. When I worked as a contractor in 2008-2010, I had to get an individual health care plan for my family and my insurance came with exclusion; because I had torn cartilage in my knee fixed in 2004, NONE of my joints would be covered. I called the insurance company and asked if I would be covered if I accidentally slammed my car door on my finger and broke a knuckle and I was told no. I asked if I would get a discount for not having my joints covered and I was told I would not. I have joint-inclusive insurance through my workplace now, but when I had the individual coverage I knew that if anyone in my family had come up with a costly illness, our coverage would be dropped because of some other piece of arcane health trivia that was omitted from the application that the insurance companies knew about when they assigned the policy in the first place. This is called rescission and when you are rescissioned you don’t get your premiums back even though you were never covered to the extent you were promised by the insurance companies. If I had the protections of this new law I could have continued to work as a contractor and had decent health coverage.

  The health insurance companies are exactly why government sponsored health care coverage is needed for people who don’t have the protection of a company health care plan. Capitalists point out about how the private sector can handle things better than the public sector and that the free market will take care of everything, but the free market has long ago realized that when people are sick they will do or pay anything to restore their health and the prices for all things health-related are priced accordingly. Whether it’s called a tax or a mandate or a penalty, the fact remains that health care is very expensive. It’s so expensive that you can’t even get a straight answer how expensive it is! What other product doesn’t let the consumer shop for price and also doesn’t guarantee results? Could you imagine buying a car and not being able to find out how much the car cost until you get a bill in the mail? And not getting a warranty or guarantee of performance on your car either?

  How much does it cost to spend a day at the hospital? The US average is $1910, but in Iowa the average is $1288. This New York Times blogger wrote about her $5,000+ emergency room bill when her son had a fall and needed 14 stiches. How can a visit to the emergency room cost more than twice as much as a night at the hospital? An emergency room is not allowed to turn anyone away, so they become the medical care provider of choice for those who can’t afford to pay, where a hospital doesn’t have to admit everyone and that cost is built in.

  Whether the health care system is run by the government or private entities or some mix of the two it won’t be sustainable unless costs can somehow be contained. The government seems to have done a decent enough job of controlling costs with the Medicare program. They pay so much for doctor visits and procedures and the doctors and hospitals seem to accept it and take Medicare patients, however grudgingly. Capitalists say that this causes non-government health care consumers to pay more as a de-facto subsidy to make up for the fixed-rate Medicare patients, but this already happens to people without insurance to account for the deals insurance companies currently make with health care providers. If I make an appointment to visit my doctor and don’t have insurance, it would cost me $95 dollars. Since I have insurance it costs me $20 for my co-payment but my doctor doesn’t get $75 from the insurance company; he gets around $50 as part of a prearranged deal.

  I like the new health care law but I don’t think it goes far enough. I would have liked to seen the Medicare program expanded to cover everyone and the health insurers could switch to the ‘supplemental coverage’ business that they currently pitch only to senior citizens to all Americans. I’m not too thrilled about the government providing health care insurance subsidies to those who can’t afford it because that encourages higher insurance premiums, but I end up paying for people who can’t afford health insurance in the form of higher insurance premiums anyway.

  The other component of rising health care costs that the new law doesn’t address is the terrible health habits of many Americans. Did you know that despite all the warning labels and advertising bans, there are 47 million cigarette smokers in America? (Here's proof!) Or that 1 in 12 people in the country have diabetes? Or that 1 in 9 aged 20 to 65 have diabetes? (Here's more proof!). I had no idea there were so many diabetics around, but I should have known based on the amount of commercials I see for painless ways to test blood sugar levels. Now that the government will be giving individuals health care subsidies based on income, can a subsidy formula based on income and health habits be far off? Can you imagine having to pay to subsidize the health insurance of the guy in line in front of you at the convenience store buying 2 packs of Marlboros, a 12 pack of Bud (not Bud Light), and a box of Little Debbie Honey Buns? Or that person atthe all you can eat buffet with a pyramid of food that would make a Pharaoh jealous(and a Diet Coke, naturally)? I doubt the government would ever have the will power to ban smoking and crack down on the incredible amount of sugar in foods, but at least now they would have a legal rationale if they chose to. Maybe at some point we will be required to eat certain foods in order to get our health care subsidy. The first President Bush made it clear that he wasn’t going to eat broccoli and the second President Bush also made his disdain for the vegetable known (Read all about it!), but the next President Bush may not have a choice.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Taking care of business….

  It’s been over a month since I submitted this Broken Pawn blog to the CJA (Chess Journalists of America) for the 2012 Best Blog award. In addition to hoping to win an award, I found that last year the awards submission process provided me with the source of some entertaining blog posts and had no reason to think this year would be any different.

  On June 9th, the CJA website posted a notice from the awards chairman reminding the potential entrants about the upcoming deadline. The notice said that the list of entries received ‘should’ be available on the CJA website in the near future to allow for confirmation of the entries. 5 weeks later, there is no mention of what entries have been submitted and I’m very happy that I verified that my entry was received when I saw the original web site post (my entry fee check still hasn’t been cashed).

  I know that everyone involved with the CJA is a volunteer and maybe I was spoiled by the stellar work of the awards committee the past 2 years, but it’s disappointing to me that with less than a month to go before the actual awards I don’t know who submitted awards entries, who the competition is, and I don’t have a lot of hopes for seeing the voting results after the awards have been announced. I’ll just have to wait until next month to see if I happen to win or not and that will be the end of it.

  This isn’t a case of me being part of the problem by not being part of the solution. I’ve contributed 3 columns to date to the CJA magazine ‘The Chess Journalist’. I received the latest issue (the winter 2012 issue!?) 2 weeks ago and the column about my blog exchanges last year with Bob Long and Andres Hortillosa looks great in print. You can see the issue with my first column here. I take great pains to get things I’ve committed myself to done when I say I’ll have them done and I wish others would do likewise.

  This type of stuff is common in volunteer organizations and would hardly be tolerated in the workplace. Salespeople who don’t return calls or programmers who consistently fail to meet deadlines generally end up having to find new employment. But most volunteer organizations don’t have replacement personnel at the ready and are reduced to a position of hoping that the well-meaning volunteers can eventually find the time to meet their commitments.

  I’ve been keeping to my normal chess study routine until last week when instead of clicking on the picture of a ‘3’ for a 3 minute game on the Internet Chess Club, I accidentally clicked on the picture of a ‘1’ less than an a half inch away. I lost the game and fell from my peak 1 minute rating of 1575 that I hit last July 16th. Once I hit my new high, I stopped playing 1 minute chess and worked on trying to hit an all-time high in 3 minute chess. I came close to a personal best a few times but I’m still chasing my all time of 1751 that I set in June of 2010.

  Now that I’ve fallen off my one minute high rating, I’ve broken training and have been spending almost all my time playing 1 minute chess. I forgot how much fun it is even though I’ve watched my 1 minute rating plummet from my peak of 1575 to between 1000 and 1300 depending on how I’m playing. Here’s a couple of my favorite games from the past week:

pgn4web chessboard courtesy of
  With a month to go until my next tournament (The Jackson Open in Jackson, Minnesota), I’m going to have to stop my 1 minute escapades and get back to business. I’m exactly one point away from matching my all-time peak USCF rating and I’d hate to backslide 50% like I just did in a week of playing one minute chess. When I play 3 minute games, I always go over the games afterwards to see what kind of tactics I’m missing and see if I’ve stumbled on a new opening idea. One-minute chess is tremendous fun, but I get in the habit of playing 20 or 30 games in a row and never getting around to studying them afterwards. I’ve never thought that playing chess is ever harmful no matter the time limit, but when trying to specifically improve results, some training methods are better than others and in this case I can take care of it now and not wait a month.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What’s in a Name?

Git-N-Go is celebrating 40 years in business by selling 32 ounce sodas for 40 cents….or are they?

  For a president as unpopular as George W. Bush was by the end of his 2 terms (and don’t forget, he WAS re-elected), his name didn’t get placed on the recession/depression of 2007-2008 like Hebert Hoover’s name was affixed to the great Depression of the 1930. Did you know that in the 1930’s, the newspapers homeless people used to cover themselves with at night were called ‘Hoover Blankets’ and ‘Hoover Flags’ were people pulling their empty pockets inside out? (You can find more Hooverisms here). In my opinion, the Democrats made a horrible blunder by not trying to paste Bush’s name all over the ‘Great Recession’. A bicycle could have been called a ‘Bush Limousine’, a happy meal a ‘Bush Banquet’, and the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores ‘Bush Malls’. My own particular pet peeve is the shrinking of a half-gallon of ice cream to a quart and a half. Maybe instead of calling the new carton of ice cream 48 fluid ounces, the supermarkets could call it a ‘Bush Half-Gallon’ or an ‘Obama Half-Gallon’. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stopped being referred to as the ‘War on Terror’, the media could have easily renamed them the ‘Bush Wars’ but instead simply called the conflicts the war in ‘Iraq’ or ‘Afghanistan’.

  One piece of the Bush presidency that has been indelibly stamped with his name is the ‘Bush Tax Cuts’. The Democrats like to use it to only refer to a tax cut for the richest of the rich, but the tax cuts also lowered the taxes for all Americans. I got a 2% tax cut, which was nice, but people making over $300,000 got a 4% tax cut which was even nicer. When the tax cuts were enacted in 2001, they were set to expire in 2010. The Democrats wanted to let the tax cuts expire only for people making over $250,000 dollars a year and the Republicans threatened to block all legislation and allow all the tax cuts to expire if the tax cut for the top earners wasn’t also extended. The President also wanted a 3-year extension so he could avoid dealing with the extension during his re-election, but the republicans wouldn’t go along with anything but a 2 year extension and in the end the President and Congress agreed to a 2 year extension of the cuts for everyone.

  Now 2 years later, the tax cuts are set to expire at the end of the year and the wrangling has begun anew. President Obama has used the same opening gambit as 2 years ago by offering to extend the tax cuts for everyone making less than $250,000 and the Republicans (who now control the House of Representatives instead of the filibuster proof minority they held 2 years ago) have countered with their familiar insistence for the tax cuts being extended for all or none. However this year’s squabble ends, both sides will get what they want: Obama will get to paint Romney and the Republicans as the friends of the rich and hopefully energize their base while the Republican congress will paint the Democrats as enemies of the self-made and successful and hopefully get their all-important contributions for the their congressional campaigns.

The clerk (97% Brenda) couldn’t keep the 32 ounce cups in stock,
but she knew enough to charge me $1.06 for a 20 ounce refill cup of soda…

  As much publicity as the ‘Bush Tax Cuts’ are getting, Obama has his own signature piece of legislation named after him in ‘ObamaCare’. As much as the Republicans like to bandy that phrase around, I think the President should give whoever thought that name up a big thank you. Who wouldn’t want their name associated with a compassionate word like care as opposed to phrases like ‘gate’, ‘folly’, or ‘tax’? And having your name as part of the phrase confers a kind of immortality that few presidents obtain. The political slogans ‘New Deal’, ‘Camelot’, ‘Desert Storm’, and ‘Great Society’ are well known but I doubt 1 in 5 people could associate the correct president with his military operation or social program.

  I don’t understand why in a country where 97% of the population make less than $250,000 a year, over 45% get a direct government check (not counting paychecks!), and the government is running a deficit of over $3,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country that there is even a debate whether or not to allow tax cuts to expire (or raise taxes – take your pick) for people who make more than a quarter of a million dollars a year. It could be that people are afraid that if they increase taxes on the 3% it’s only a matter of time when their taxes will go up also or maybe people really believe that the 3% are the ones creating the jobs for the other 97%. I would expect any politician that would risk a tax increase for all working people in order to not increase taxes on the 3% making a quarter of a million dollars a year or more to lose their re-elections by a margin close to 97% to 3%, yet there are enough 3-percent proponents in office to force the president into an all or nothing proposition. I’m not saying I’m in favor of taxing the richest of the rich extra to pay for government services (even though I’m not close to being in the 3%), I’m just saying that I would expect more of the 97% to feel that way and I don’t understand why.

  The simple answer could be that the majority of the 97% just aren’t very smart. I got a graphic lesson in economics – 97% style at the Git-N-Go convenience store in Bondurant yesterday when I was feeding my car with $3.18 a gallon gasoline. I was paying at the pump with my credit card as I usually do when I saw a sign in the store window proclaiming 40 cent – 32 ounce sodas in honor of the 40th Anniversary of Git-N-Go stores. It was pretty hot and I was pretty thirsty so I went in the store to buy 40 cents of soda. There were no 32 ounce cups in the dispenser, so I filled up my 20 ounce travel cup with ice and maybe 10 ounces of Dr. Pepper, and brought my ice-cold drink to the counter to pay for it. The clerk rang up my soda and told me ‘That’ll be a dollar and six cents’. I mentioned the sign on the window and she said triumphantly ‘That’s only for a 32 ounce soda, you have a 20 ounce soda there’. I was going to say that I drank 12 ounces of soda from my cup and then refilled it, but I thought the better of it after realizing that I would probably then be charged for both a 20 and a 12 ounce soda.

  I decided to take the path of least resistance and asked the clerk for a 32 ounce cup (because there weren’t any in the dispenser, remember). She gave a long deep sigh, trudged over to the cabinet under the dispenser, and pulled out a sleeve of 32 ounce plastic cups. I took one of the cups, went back to the register, and poured my 20 ounce soda into the 32 ounce cup and re-presented my purchase to the clerk. She voided out my $1.06 soda, and rang up the 5/8ths full 32 ounce soda cup, saying ‘THAT will be 42 cents for that soda, SIR!’ I gave her a dollar, got my 58 cents in change, and proceeded to pour the soda back in my 20 ounce travel cup, leaving the now empty cup on the counter. I asked the clerk if she wanted me to throw out the now empty 32 ounce cup and she said ‘I really don’t care what you do’, so I threw out the cup before I left.

American ingenuity at work!! After gaining possession of the sacred 32 ounce cup,
I pulled the ‘big switch’ and saved myself 64 cents!

  If I was Mitt Romney, I would get myself down to the Git-N-Go in Boudurant, get videoed paying $1.06 for a 20 ounce travel cup of soda, and blame the President for the shocking deterioration of common sense in America under his watch. Maybe he can come up with a catchy phrase like ‘ObamaSense’ or ‘ObamaBargain’. And the President could do the same thing, only blaming free market capitalists like Romney for the squeezing of the American soft drink consumers and label it a ‘RomneySale’.

I’ve seen this sign every day for the past 9 months when I arrive and leave work, but I only noticed today that the sign wasn’t spelled correctly (unless I’m supposed to stop for ‘Pede Strains’ or ‘Pedes Trains’?). I wonder if this is an example of ‘RomneySpell’ or ‘ObamaSpell’?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Movie Review – The Amazing Spiderman

  The Amazing Spiderman is the re-telling of the classic Marvel comic book character. Spiderman debuted in 1963 and when Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, he not only became the first teenage comic book super hero, he also was the first super hero who was treated as an outlaw by the authorities, and also the first super hero who didn’t have a comfortable lifestyle, instead helping his aunt and himself barely survive as a part-time photographer at the Daily Bugle by selling pictures of himself as Spiderman.

  The first Spiderman movies were a trilogy that ran from 2002 to 2007 starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker/Spiderman. It was an excellently done series that had great special effects. The movies were a combination of the different Spiderman comic timelines and focused on Parker’s romance with Mary Jane Watson and his relationship with Harry Osborn after the death of Harry’s father Norman (aka The Green Goblin). Spiderman has a great group of villains and while I didn’t like killing his arch enemy Green Goblin in the very first movie after the secret of his identity lasted for years in the comics, I thought the depictions of Doctor Octopus and the Sandman were right on the money although a little too human as compared with the comic book versions. It didn’t seem that the Spiderman movies were set to stop at the third one since characters like Gwen Stacey and Dr. Curt Connors (aka the Lizard) were still being introduced into the mythos, but the fourth movie was cancelled when director Sam Raimi left the project.

  This year’s movie gets back to the origin, but instead of starting with wimpy Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider, this year’s version shows Peter Parker as a young boy whose scientist father and mother leave him with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May for safekeeping while they mysteriously flee from some pursuers and die in a plane crash. Instead of being a shy, short, wimp, Parker grows up to be a lanky, sullen, monosyllabic teenager that reminds me of my own two teenagers. I like this version of a semi-athletic Peter Parker that skateboards around and isn’t afraid to take on the bully Flash Thompson or sneak into Oscorp (where he gets bit by the genetically mutated spider). Another nice change from the last series is that Parker’s scientific genius is highlighted. Where the last batch of Spiderman movies had Parker spinning webs from his body, this movie shows Parker creating his own web-slinging devices just like the comics.

  I generally think that super hero movies spend way too much time on the character’s origin and this movie was no exception, but since this origin was radically different and served to introduce a number of the main characters (including Dr. Connors), I’m not going to complain as much as usual. The movies Uncle Ben’s death scene was brutal in its sudden violence. It started as a funny scene where Parker was not allowed to take 2 pennies from the penny tray by the thuggish clerk to pay for his chocolate milk but getting it for free from the shoplifter(who he lets get away). But the robber runs into Uncle Ben on the street and his gun falls out of his belt, and he blows Uncle Ben away after a short scuffle for the gun, leaving him to die in a pool of blood in Peter’s arms.

  Once Uncle Ben is dead, the action finally starts getting underway with Parker patrolling the streets in a red mask hunting for his uncle’s killer and drawing the attention of the police department before eventually settling on his Spider-Man persona and costume. Parker also feeds some of the notes he found in a hidden compartment in his father’s briefcase to Connors, which Connors uses to implant himself with Lizard DNA in the hopes of regenerating his amputated arm. But instead of merely growing back his arm, Connors turns into an evil-minded lizard creature, complete with super strength, with the plan to turn all of Manhattan into lizard creatures.

  The new Spiderman creative team made the choice of having Gwen Stacy as Parker’s girlfriend, which is the way the plot originally went in the comics. But that’s where the comic book similarities end. Stacy and her police captain father never found out Parker’s secret identity in the comics (although when Captain Stacy died in the comics, he calls Spiderman ‘Peter’ with his dying words, leaving the readers to wonder if he knew all along or if he was delusional), but Parker volunteers his identity to Gwen and her father knows his identity before the final battle with the Lizard. The movie is a lot darker than the previous incarnation. Spiderman is a lot edgier and when he battles the Lizard; he doesn’t just have a few bruises: he is battered and bloodied with deep cuts in his face and body from the Lizards claws. Captain Stacy’s death scene was equally gruesome, being sliced open from one swipe from the Lizard (but lasting long enough to have a few last words asking Peter to stay away from his daughter to keep her out of danger).

  Aside from the inevitable slowness of the character’s origin, the movie is fast paced and the special effects were as good as I would expect from a Marvel super-hero movie. There wasn’t a lot not to like in the movie and the secrecy of Parker’s parents should lead to great plotlines for the sequels. In the final battle with the Lizard, the idea of the Manhattan crane operators swinging their cranes over 5th Avenue for Spiderman to swing over seemed silly as was Parker and Stacy arranging for their first date, but aside from that, the action was excellent and the characters were on the money. Norman Osborn (aka The Green Goblin, Spiderman’s arch enemy) wasn’t in the movie, but was alluded to as being deathly ill. His funding of Connor’s and Parker’s father’s research makes me think he will be the villain in the next movie, but if the movie series sticks to the comics (where Stacy dies at the hands of the Goblin and the Goblin dies in consecutive issues), I could see the Goblin being put off till the third movie.

  Since the trilogy seems to be the current superhero movie vehicle of choice, I wish the movie studios would get the idea of writing and filming all 3 movies at once. A 2 year wait is OK, but too many times (like this month’s Batman movie), there is a 3 or 4 year wait. The cost savings and the ability to have a feature film every year would have to outweigh the initial upfront cost and the possibility of a clunker. Even if a movie like ‘Green Lantern’ turns out to be a box office dud, the remaining 2 movies could be released straight to DVD, but when there is a proven box office character like Spider-Man or Batman, the studios could cash in right away.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Teaching and Learning

What does an alligator dinner look like? The alligator is the tiny stuff at the top of the plate.

  I’ve been spending most of my free time the past month working on lectures for the chess camp I’ll be holding later this month with Jose Gatica and Bethany Carson. I wasn’t planning on having a chess camp this year but when the other chess camps in the state were announced, I started getting inquiries from many of the parents of children who came to my tournaments this year. Last year my camp was 2 6-hour days with a cost of $75. There are camps in Cedar Rapids and Ames this month run by the Wisconsin Chess Academy that are 5-8 hour days at a cost of around $250 dollars with lunch included (I only provide Sunny D, apple juice, fruit cups, and crackers). I thought that was pretty expensive until I noticed that USA Chess Camps is having a weeklong camp in West Des Moines at a cost of $255 for 5 3-hour days and $405 for 5 7-hour days (Lunch is not included) included). I didn’t want to leave the parents who support my tournaments the choice of spending hundreds of dollars on a chess camp or having no chess camp at all for their kids, so I made sure that Jose also wanted to do a camp and started setting it up in March.

  The USA Camp has a grandmaster on their staff and the Wisconsin Chess Academy has Fide Masters on their staff, but our camp won’t be short of star power. Jose won a share of the Iowa Chess Championship in April and Bethany is the 5 time Iowa Girls Champion, so I could be fully justified in calling my camp the ‘Champions of Iowa’ camp or something equally grandiose. Instead, I’m just calling it the ‘West Des Moines Chess Camp’. I kept the same price as last year, but we offered a $25 discount for anyone who came to any tournament Jose or I put on this past year. With 2 weeks to go, I have 31 paid campers and 30 are paying $50. There won’t be any t-shirts this year, but I’m happy to be able to offer a camp for $200 less than any other chess camp in the state. It may be 2 days instead of 5, but $200 could feed my family for 2 weeks, buy 2 ‘Big Bags’ of Cheetos Puffs a week, or get Daisy and Baxter a year’s supply of beef stick treats!

  Just because I’m having a 2-day camp and not a 5-day camp and I’m serving snacks instead of lunch doesn’t mean I don’t want to have the best camp I can. Matt had already made plans for the summer, but I was very lucky to get Bethany Carson as a guest instructor. Not only is she a very strong player, she is a product of Iowa chess and someone that the other campers can look up to as an example of what they can aspire to. I still have all the lessons we used last year but now that I have another year under my belt running youth tournaments and working at the chess club at St. Francis, I have a better idea of what players don’t know and what they need to learn to get to their next level and I’m designing my lessons accordingly. That’s part of the advantage of having campers whose chess skills I'm well acquainted with.

  I’ve been trying out some of my lessons on Alex (my new student). It was a big help to be able to preview what I’ll be going over in front of 30 people in 2 weeks. Alex would be in the advanced section of the camp and was able to pick up the material quickly and even helped me with the beginner sections by finding holes in some of my example positions, alternate solutions in others, and when he had difficulty with a concept it made me either find a better explanation or maybe remove it from the beginner section.

  Working on the camp has been a lot of work at the expense of working on my own chess game, but I’m hoping it will not only pay off with a fun chess camp, but also in my being able to see the chess board with ‘new eyes’ and I’ll be able to learn something new along with the campers.

  On the subject of learning something new, yesterday my boss took the programmers in our department to Buzzard Billy’s; a bar/game room/restaurant 2 blocks from work. I’ve never been in a Buzzard Billy’s before, but it looks like a typical Applebee’s type of place with most everything having Cajun seasoning. I looked over the menu and nothing really caught my eye until I noticed the Fried Alligator Dinner. I’d never eaten alligator before and I wasn’t paying so I decided to order it. Since it was more expensive than what everyone else was getting I offered to share my alligator with the rest of the group. While we were waiting for our meal, naturally the discussion turned to alligator and I mentioned that I’d seen my first episode of ‘Swamp People’ over the weekend. The episode of ‘Swamp People’ I saw showed these Cajun people hunting alligators in the swamps of Louisiana on boats and every couple of minutes a Cajun person catches an alligator on a hook and pulls it into the boat while his partner shouts ‘It’s a big one’ and shoots the poor alligator in the back of the head. The only redeeming quality to the show was when one of the Cajun hound dogs was sick and lethargic, so his owned cooked up a mess of jambalaya and fed it to the hound, who immediately perked up after he ate the gooey mess.

  After a few minutes, our food came and there was tiny bits of my alligator spread out to the side of the plate (to look like there was more that what was really there) with a huge bowl of coleslaw (with a spoon instead of a fork in the bowl), a pile of thick cut French fries, and 2 hush puppies. One of my co-workers pointed to the hush puppies and asked what they were and I immediately replied ‘alligator balls’. The alligator was mostly breading and what meat there was seemed pretty chewy and reminded me more like the gristly part of a steak than chicken. I learned that I don’t like alligator meat very much. All in all, I’m glad to say I’ve eaten alligator, gladder to say I didn’t pay for it, and doubt I’ll ever have it again.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Making Something out of Nothing

  At work on Wednesday I didn’t have any meetings or phone calls so I could just sit at my desk and program. The cubicles in my workplace are arranged so we can ‘collaborate’. I can turn around and see the other 3 people in my cubicle block. This would be great except that while I hardly ever collaborate I can hear everyone else around me collaborate. I get easily distracted, so I normally put earplugs on and listen to my amazing iPod. Sometimes I’ll listen to the Des Moines sports radio station KXNO using the iHeart Radio application, but most of the time I’ll listen to music from the Rhapsody music service I subscribe to. I listen to a lot of different music but this past week I’ve been listening to one of my favorites (along with Johnny Cash), John Lennon. There are some things I hear from his music that I violently disagree with (‘Imagine there’s no heaven’…’God is a concept by which we measure our pain’), but I find so much more in his music that captures a lot of the way I see the world (‘Everybody’s talking but no one says a word’, ‘There’s room at the top they’re telling you still, but first you must learn to smile while you kill’) that I never get tired of listening. It may not be timeless music but it’s my times music.

  On this Wednesday afternoon I didn’t listen to music or sports radio because the Yankees were playing a rare day game (against the Cleveland Indians). Thanks to my radio package, I can listen to any baseball game on the internet so I could listen to the Yankee broadcast in WCBS in New York. The big news before the game was Yankee ace pitcher C.C. Sabathia going on the disabled list with a strained groin. After taking a 2-1 lead into the 5th inning of the game starting pitcher Andy Pettitie got hit by a line drive oand left the game which was determined later to be a broken leg. That allowed Yankee broadcasters John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman free leave to discuss how the Yankees would patch up their starting pitching during the dull spots that occur in even the tensest baseball games. The Yankees managed to squeak out a 5-4 win with the Indians having the bases loaded before finally making the last out. It was a great game to listen to not the least because of the outcome.

  Once the Yankee game was over at 3pm, I saw that the Mets were beating the Cubs by a score of 16 to 1 in the 7th inning. I decided to listen in on the Cubs broadcast because broadcasters will talk about anything to avoid talking about the game when their team is losing 16 to 1. The Cubs, who are on their 104th season without a world championship and 68th year without even a world series appearance are spending this season battling the San Diego Padres for the worst record in baseball with 28 wins against 49 losses in their first year under the stewardship of Theo Epstien, the former Boston Red Sox boy genius who was hired away to run the Cubs this past winter. I picked up the game in the top of the 7th inning and play by play man Pat Hughes was talking with Jane Lynch, one of the stars of the TV show ‘Glee’ (which I have never watched, thank you). Lynch was going to sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ during the 7th inning stretch and talked about how thrilled she was and how nervous she was about getting the words right since other celebrities have been skewered for not knowing the words to the song (like Ozzy Osbourne did here). Every so often, Hughes would mention if a Met player got a hit or made an out while Lynch was talking and then the inning was over. Lynch sang the song expertly and after some commercials, we were off to the bottom of the 7th. Hughes and his color analyst Keith Moreland talked a bit about how the rest of the game was still really important for the Cub players to ‘get in a good groove’ for future games and show management that they ‘belonged in the big leagues’. Then Hughes discussed Jane Lynch’s theatrical resume, noting she hosted the Emmy’s last year and was in the Three Stooges and also mentioned that she was an animal lover but failing to mention she is in a same sex marriage (I only bring this up because I bet they would have mentioned her husband if she had one).

  Since a Cub had actually reached base, the inning was still going on when Hughes was done with Jane Lynch’s resume, so he switched to telling us about ‘This date in Baseball History’ until the inning was over. Did you know that on June 27th, 1977 Willie McCovey became the first player to hit 2 home runs in an inning twice? Or that on the same day in 1982 the Atlanta Braves tied a major league record with 7 double plays in a 2-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds? Finally, the inning was over and we went to the 8th with the Mets still leading 16-1.

  In the top of the 8th, Hughes played selections from the late Ron Santo's CD in his series of Baseball’s Geatest Announcers. He played the Santo telling the story of how he couldn’t find his toupee and he wouldn’t leave the hotel room for the game without it until one of the broadcast gofers found it stuck to the bottom of his breakfast tray. By the time that story was over the Mets had 2 runners on and it looked like another big inning, so Hughes switched to baseball trivia and had one of the gofers ask him and Moreland questions. The first one was to see if they could name all 6 Boston Red Sox players who won the rookie of the year. Fred Lynn was identified, but then the Mets hit a double play and ended the inning after getting another run and we went to the bottom of the 8th with the score 17-1. Hughes and Moreland spend the rest of the game guessing all the Red Sox rookies of the year (missing the immortal Don Schwall’s 1961 award), but they were obviously milking the question. Every time they guessed a player that didn’t win the award, they’d spend a batter or so talking about how good they thought the player was and trying to figure out who won the award instead that year. Finally the game was over and the Cubs announcers proceeded with the day’s lowlights and were off the air in 15 minutes.

  Pat Hughes is one of the best baseball broadcasters around and Wednesday’s game was a great example why. There are only 60 major league radio broadcasting jobs around and almost every one of them is filled by a top professional who can make a tense 5-4 game sound exciting, but only the best of the best can fill in 90 minutes and can keep their listeners entertained during a 17-1 pasting as well as Pat Hughes did.

  Inspired by Pat Hughes, I had my own moment of making something out of nothing on Friday as I was heading to work. As I turned off the interstate onto the street where I work, I got stuck behind a driver education car that was going 5 miles an hour, putting their left turn signal on at every opportunity, and slowing to a stop before deciding to continue to the next street or driveway where a left turn could be made. I was only 4 blocks from work and it was taking forever, but I was listing to Travis & Tim on 1460 – KXNO (Des Moines sports radio) and they were having their Friday penalty box segment that allows the users to air their gripes by placing people in the ‘penalty box’. I called the show and ranted about the driver’s education car and put it in the penalty box as well as giving the make, model and license plate of the car. The hosts were giggling when I gave the license plate and told me I had to practice more assertive driving, so I honked my horn and they erupted in laughter (You can listen to it here at the 40 minute mark). I ended up winning a $20 gift certificate to a place called the ‘Chicken Coop’ for having the best penalty box call. I didn’t like getting stuck behind the only driver education car I’ve ever seen at 8am in Des Moines, but I’m happy to have turned the incident into $20 of chicken and I’ll toast student drivers everywhere when I’m eating the free meal they helped me get.