Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ups and Downs at the Iowa State Fair

Left: David Skaar and I play once a year at the state fair. Here we are preparing for this year's slugfest. Right: Joe from Waterloo and I have played 14 tournaments games in the last 12 months (I've won one of them).

  On Wednesday, I continued my stretch of 5 chess tournaments in 10 days by heading to the Iowa State Fair for the annual speed chess competition. I came very close to winning the coveted blue ribbon the last 2 years, finishing second in 2010 and third in 2011 and even though I had lost 50 points off my quick chess rating in the last week I was optimistic that I had righted my ship and was ready to earn a place among the Iowa State Fair speed chess champions.

  I left work at 4:30 and made my way across town to the state fairgrounds. There was hardly any traffic this year and the people who rent their front yards for parking on state fair week were all sitting forlornly in their lawn chairs staring at their ‘Parking $5.00’ signs and empty lots. I paid my $10 to park in the main lot, paid my $10 to get in the fair and was on my way to the tournament when I saw a sign in front of a tent proclaiming free soda and energy drinks. I was armed with a shot of 5 hour energy and a travel cup of ice water with lemon, but was happy to get a free bottle of HyDrive. Next to the free drink tent was a tent proclaiming ‘Older Iowans Day’ that looked like they were also giving away free stuff but not only was I not an ‘Older Iowan’, they were only giving away sips of water, so I waded through the fair goers to the administration building where the state fair speed tournament was being held. I arrived at the building and greeted Ben Munson, who was presiding over the remnants of the afternoon scholastic tournament. He told me that there were only 12 scholastic players this year. I was disappointed at the small number since I had send out a mailing about the state fair and last year there were at least 30 players.

Left: I like FREE. Right: What are the benefits of being an Older Iowan?

  After chatting with Ben, I went over to check out this year’s competition. My longtime friendly state fair nemesis and defending co-champion David Skaar was there as well as reigning Marshalltown Blitz champion Joe Meyer (AKA Joe from Waterloo). 3 time Iowa champion and life master Tim McEntee was there along with his fellow Ankeny resident Cub Noble. Cub has been studying with Tim and shown vast improvement as most of Tim’s students do. Caden, a player from my scholastic tournaments passed on playing in the scholastic tournament to try his luck with the adults. Just before the 5:30 start time, the other defending co-champion George Eichhorn arrived. Since we had 7 players, Tim decided not to play. Ben told us that with only 6 players, we would play each of the other players twice. He also told us that unlike years past we would have a 2 second delay in addition to the 5 minutes we normally get to play the game. This was a big boost to my chances since I have always been behind on the clock at the state fair but with a 2 second delay, I would never run out of time in a winning position as long as I could make each move in the 2 second delay before the clock started running.

  I was paired with Caden in the first round and as soon as we started, tournament veteran Greg Ward showed up. I’ve seen Ben turn away players who were even a minute late, but he made an exception for Greg and told us that instead of playing each other twice, we would play each other once and each have one round off, with Greg taking the first round off. I beat Caden fairly easily in the first round with the Black pieces and had the second round off, which I spent playing a warm-up game with Tim. I played the Boris against Tim, who crushed it effortlessly.

  In the third round, I had white against George. I had a mate in 4 against him last year but lost when I ran out of time. I didn't even have a phyrric victory this year as I moved too fast in the opening and forgot to play the Boris, which allowed George to play the dangerous Albin Counter Gambit. I took the pawn but wasted so much time trying to keep it that George got a crushing bind on my queenside. I got down to 1 second on my clock, but with the delay was able to make 20 moves within 2 seconds and even managed to win a piece from George before running out of time looking for a way to stop his passed queenside pawns.

  With one loss under my belt, I sat down to play Joe with the black pieces. I’ve only beaten Joe in one of 13 tournament games (with 6 draws) but the game I won was with the Black pieces so I was confident I could win if I played well. Joe played a line against my Center Counter defense that led to a quick trade of queens and open lines for the rooks. I had 2 bishops against a bishop and knight and was pushing the action throughout, but couldn’t get Joe to fall for any tricks and we agreed to a draw when we ended up with only bishops of opposite colors. I was behind 2 minutes to 1 but with the delay there was no reason for Joe to play on. My next game was with the White pieces against Greg. Last year Greg had me beat, but ran short of time and made several poor moves in time pressure to lose so this year I wanted to stay even on the board, get ahead on the clock, and let nature take its course. I played a heady game and established a strong grip on the board against Greg’s Dutch Defense. We had even material with 6 pawns, 2 rooks, and a knight each and I was ahead on the clock with one minute to Greg’s 10 seconds when I suddenly lost my head and attempted some dubious tactics that should have lost my knight. Luckily for me, Greg missed winning the knight in his time pressure and ran out of time, giving me an undeserved win for the second year in a row. I looked up after the game was over and standing there watching was 2009 state fair champion Jon Narcisse, who was manning his Iowa Party booth and had wandered over to catch the action. Jon pointed out to Greg how he had an easy win, but when you only have a few seconds on your clock, nothing is easy.

  Feeling lucky indeed, I sat down to play Cub with the black pieces. We played a complicated game in which I wrecked Cub’s pawns to get an advantage in any endgame, but Cub used the open lines the wrecked pawns gave him to generate dangerous piece activity around my king. We were each maneuvering around and I was behind on the clock 2 minutes to 3 when Cub offered me a draw. I spent a minute looking for a way to try to get an advantage, found none, and accepted the draw.

Left: 3 Years of Iowa State Fair speed chess champions (from left) George Eichhorn, Cub Noble, Jon Narcisse, and David Skaar with tournament organizer and Des Moines chess legend Ben Munson. Right: Tim Mc Entee, Iowa's best chess teacher, observing Cub battle Joe.

  For the last round, I had white against David Skaar. The other 2 games from the last round were still going on and one of them was using my clock. We were at the table where Cub’s clock was and I asked Cub if the delay was set and he said no, his clock didn’t have a delay. I should have waited until my clock was available but I made a hasty move and decided to play using Cub’s clock. We played a complicated King’s Indian Defense and David found a tactic to win a pawn. I was behind on the clock and traded down to a Queen and Bishop ending where I was still the pawn down but while my king was safely tucked in behind my pawns, David’s was in the open and I was able to threaten it with my queen. I finally managed to win my pawn back and with each of having seconds left we had only 2 pawns each and were frantically racing them down the board. I queened my pawn first and then David queened his pawn, but I was able to force a queen trade on the next move. My king was closer than David’s to the last 2 remaining pawns and I won his with 2 seconds left on my clock. I raced my pawn down the board and made a queen and was in the process of forcing David’s king into checkmate when I stole a glance at the clock and saw I had 8 seconds left. When I checkmated David, I had 13 seconds left. I figured the clock was adding time after each move but as David and I were discussing the game afterwards, I realized that when you ran out of time using that particular clock, it starts to count up the time! I felt bad about winning that way, but it was up to David to make the claim. I could have and should have avoided the whole mess by using my clock in the first place. Anyway, it was another great game with David. We only meet this once a year, but when we battle we’re like 2 heavyweights in the middle of the ring trading blow after blow until the bell rings and this year I managed to take the split decision.

  Once I lost to George, I figured I was out of the running for a blue ribbon and when I drew Cub and Joe, I assumed there was no way I could even get third place and I watched the last game of the tournament between Cub and George. Cub was being beaten badly over the board but won the game when George ran out of time. It turned out that Cub and George were tied with 4 points apiece and by winning Cub took the tournament and I had tied for second with George. If I could have beaten Cub and if everything else has remained the same (2 very big ifs) , I would have tied him for first.

Left: The look of a champion. Right: Number 2 and Number 1, but there's always next year...

  We all talked a bit after the games were over. Caden didn’t win any games, but he had a chance to beat Greg in their matchup. We all congratulated him for playing, encouraged him, and reminded him and his parents that the best way to get better at chess is by playing stronger players and he left eager for my next youth tournament. I snapped some blog pictures, said my goodbyes, and wandered around with Tim looking for something to eat. We found a Gyro stand and I thought I had 5 minutes of incredible Gyro worker interviews, but my camera only captured a few seconds of Gyro Action! We ate under a tent while talking about the speed chess tournament, last weekend’s youth tournament, Tim’s chess plans for the area, and it was time to go home and say goodbye to State Fair speed chess and my chance at a blue ribbon for another year.

  I’m happy to have gotten my second second place ribbon, but I still covet that blue ribbon more than anything I’ve coveted in quite some time. I don’t know why I want that blue ribbon so badly. Maybe it’s because I’ve come so close or that both my children have one, but if I had to pick a reason I have to go with the totally irrational belief that the championship the blue ribbon signifies would confer a kind of Iowan chess immortality above and beyond my 2 CyChess co-championships and even the Broken Pawn’s best chess blog award. I admit it’s silly, but it’s my silliness and nothing else makes sense as to why I want to win this little blue piece of cloth so badly.

  Despite not coming home with the coveted blue ribbon yet again, I was in a pretty good mood heading home with a belly full of Gyro. I couldn’t say whether it was from the release of good feeling endorphins after the intense 5 minute battles with my fellow chess players, the realization that despite not playing especially well I was able to battle my way into second place, or just another great day playing chess and hanging out with great people. I was pretty hot and thirsty so I stopped at the Git’n’Go in Bondurant for a soda. You may recall this was the site of my June post in June about a 20 ounce soda refill costing $1.06 while a 32 ounce new soda cost 42 cents. There at the counter filing her nails was the same clerk who was on duty when I asked for a 32 ounce cup, poured the contents of my refill cup into it, paid my 42 cents, and then poured the soda back into the refill cup and left (taking photos each step of the way). As I filled my refill cup with a soda, she warily said ‘Are you going to take pictures today?’ I couldn’t believe she remembered me and I told her that I was a journalist (leaving out the chess journalist part) and that she and the 40 cent Git’n’Go anniversary 32 ounce soda figured prominently in an award winning blog. She loosened up after that, smiled, and said she told all the other clerks about me and they all have a good laugh when the subject of my taking pictures of the soda switch comes up. Then she only charged me 73 cents for the soda instead of the $1.06. So even though immortality in the world of Iowa State Fair speed chess still eludes me, I have made my mark at the Bondurant Git’n’Go. Until next year I’ll take whatever immortality I can get.