Sunday, September 30, 2012

Lessons Taken

  The movie ‘Taken 2’ comes out next week and I’m eagerly looking forward to it. I went to see the first ‘Taken’ over 4 years ago and thought it was one of the better action films I’d seen, but since it has taken a place in the movie rotation on the FX network, I’ve gotten to see it at least once a month over the past year and it just keeps getting better and better to watch. Liam Neeson is a bit old to be an action star, but after the first 30 or so minutes waiting for ex special ops agent Bryan Mills’ daughter to get kidnapped in Paris by a group of Albanian human traffickers, the action is virtually non-stop.

  Neeson pursues the Albanian kidnapping gang from the Paris airport to their stashes of prostitutes on the streets, construction sites, and their headquarters in downtown Paris, leaving destruction and dead bodies in his wake. Even when the action temporarily dies down, the dialog is stellar with sudden bursts of incredible violence. When Liam is rebuffed asking his Paris police detective friend Jean-Claude for help in finding his daughter, he unexpectedly shows up at his house for dinner and tells him and his wife about how he found one of the Albanian safe houses and asks Jean-Claude if he is involved in the bribes that are paid to the Paris police. Jean Claude says “My salary is X. My expenses are Y. As long as my family is provided for, I do not care where the difference comes from. That is my entire involvement!” After some more dialog, Jean-Claude tries to shoot Liam with the gun he keeps hidden in the bathroom only to find out that Neeson had already emptied the bullets out of the gun. Out of the blue, Neeson pulls his gun, shoots Jean-Claude’s wife in the arm and while she is screaming he says “It's a flesh wound! But if you don't get me what I need, the last thing you'll see before I make your children orphans is the bullet I put between her eyes.

  I’ve casually asked acquaintances the past few weeks if they had seen Taken in the past few weeks and to a person, everyone loved it and knows many of the quotes from it. I think that the movie has attained an iconic or cult status and part of the reason is that the movie has a lot of lessons we can learn with careful study.

  When Neeson tries to get close enough to one of the Albanian pimps to plant a bug on him, he strikes up a protracted conversation with one of the prostitutes. When the pimp comes over to ask him what he is doing, Neeson tells him that he was trying to negotiate the price and the pimp says, ‘The price is the price’.

Daisy learns...
The price is the price!
  I’m not advocating we model our economy after a movie depiction of an Albanian prostitution ring, but it would be nice when shopping if ‘the price was the price’ more often. When my son Matt was trying to find out how much it would cost for them to attend a particular university 2 years ago the college recruiters would tell him how much money he would get in scholarships and financial aid, never how much money he would actually have to spend to attend the college. Ben is looking at colleges and the process is repeating itself all over again. No wonder so many people are in so much college debt.

  I received my own lesson in hidden pricing yesterday when I went to Ben’s Tires to get oil changes on my Kia Rio as I do every 6 or 7 weeks. I give the owner my car key, have a cup of coffee and a donut, watch whatever is on the TV, get my car, pay my $26.64, and I’m back home in an hour. Kathy knew I was going to get my oil changed this week and found a coupon for a $20.95 oil change in the local paper from Ben’s Tire. I got my oil changed and when it was time to pay I gave the mechanic my coupon and he said “That’ll be $25.63”. I told him I had a coupon for a $20.95 oil change and he told me that I still had to pay the oil disposal fee, supplies fee, and the sales tax. In the end I saved a total of $1.01 (6 cents short of a Dollar Tree E-Z Cake in a Cup’). I’m not upset with Ben’s Tire since I go there because I trust them, but I wish there coupon just said ‘$1 off’ so I would have known what to expect.

Work Ethic
  Jean-Claude initially dismisses Neeson’s request for help by claiming he has no authority to help saying “I sit behind a desk now. I take my orders from someone who sits behind a bigger desk.” Neeson accepts this but he knows that Jean-Claude has used his desk job as an excuse to get soft and he uses this knowledge when he removes the bullets from the gun in Jean-Claude’s apartment. When Jean-Claude attempts to shoot Neeson with the empty gun, Neeson tosses the bullets at him saying “That's what happens when you sit behind a desk! You forget things! Like the weight in the hand of a gun that's loaded and one that's not!” It is a great lesson in the value of hard work and continually honing your skills that every young person should be taught.

Negotiation Skills
  At the climax of the film, Neeson breaks into the stateroom on the boat where his daughter is held at knifepoint by Sheik Raman (who has purchased her at auction). After a tense silence the sheik says “We can nego..”, whereupon Liam Neeson shoots him in the head, resolving the negotiations in his favor and providing a reminder of the classic proverb “Never bring a knife to a gun fight”.

  I don’t have any daughters but if I did I’d make them watch this movie often to remind them that the only reason Neeson’s daughter Kim survived long enough to be found was that she was pure and could fetch a premium price. The watchful eye can’t fail to see the comparison to her friend Amanda whose promiscuous ways led to her only having a scene as a corpse after being taken.

  I’ve been getting so amped up just thinking about ‘Taken’ that I’m not sure the sequel could ever live up to my expectations, but since the movie's iconic stature owes more to it's dialog and incredible amount of classics lines than the action, I have my hopes that it can be even better. Even if it does fall short, it won’t make the original movie anything less than the classic it has become.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Piece of Cake

  I took a trip to the Dollar Tree store in Marshalltown with Kathy this past Sunday afternoon. Dollar stores have always fascinated me. A whole store full of stuff for a dollar! When my sons were younger there was a dollar store at the town ‘mall’ and I’d take them to it on Saturday and tell them they could get anything in the store they wanted. Matt and Ben would patrol the store with wide eyes trying to decide whether they would get a toy or candy or maybe a sealed ‘surprise’ bag (which tended to contain some candy and toys that broke loose from their packaging but once Matt got a baseball along with the candy and toys.

  Most of the dollar stores I used to see in New Jersey were independently owned and not franchises. There were 77 cent stores in New York City and years and years ago and I would get packs of cancelled stamps from them. The stores raised their prices to 88 cents and then 99 cents and then went out of business altogether. It’s got to be hard to run a business where everything costs a dollar. It would be easy to teach people to use the cash register but there can’t be much profit to be made on each individual item.

Candy, Toys, and snack food. If only the Dollar Tree had genuine Cheetos....

  There are plenty of stores with DOLLAR in the name like Family Dollar and Dollar General, but don’t be fooled – very little of their merchandise costs a dollar. I could start my own dollar store if I wanted to (you could also starting at this link), but in Iowa in general and Marshalltown in particular, the Dollar Tree is the king of dollar stores. The stores are all corporately owned and they even have their own Dollar Tree web site so I could take advantage of the bargains without leaving the comfort of my home.

  Most of the merchandise at the Dollar Tree is of low quality, but sometimes there are great bargains. On Sunday, they had Progresso Minestrone soup for a dollar a can. At the Hy-Vee supermarket 2 miles away, the same cans cost $1.88. It did take a little work to find undented cans but it was well worth the price. Kathy bought a pack of 60 doggy-pick-up bags for yes, a dollar. When I walk the dogs I just take a garden trowel with me and flick the stuff into the street, but I can see spending a few pennies per walk to be a good neighbor. I’ve gotten quite a few books at the Dollar Tree. Except for the Bible, the books are hardly best-sellers, but I’ve bought hockey great Phil Esposito’s autobiography and this collection of writings by sportswriter David Halberstam in the last year or so.

Survey says...32!!
  The Dollar Tree is a little too lowbrow to carry genuine Cheetos (instead carrying a cheap knock-off), but they do carry a lot of name brand candy and snacks. Due to their discount/closeout nature they tend to carry products that have odd flavors or sizes. On Sunday, I found a dollar bag of Peanut M & M’s that was almost double the size of the 85 cent pack I can get from the vending machine at work. Because I have been unusually sensitive to the pricing plight of Peanut M&M lovers lately, I put the bag in my shopping cart and when I got home I counted the contents and was pleased to find out that the bag contained 32 Peanut M & M’s, 62% more than the vending machine at work for only 17% more money and a 27% better value than even the best value the miserly crank style vending machine dispensed (6 for a quarter).

  The clip on my trusty Nikon Coolpix camera that holds the battery in place has broken but luckily I was able to add a roll of duct tape to my shopping cart to patch up my camera in the best Midwestern tradition and we made our way to the checkout line. Like most stores, the Dollar Tree has impulse buy items close to the register. There is a soda cooler nearby and gum, candy, and batteries in easy reach. After I paid for our haul of items, I looked to my left and saw 3 dozen cups of microwavable
‘E-Z Cake in a Cup’. The idea of being able to put a cup in a microwave oven and eating cake a second or two later had great appeal to me and I decided to pull a dollar out of my pocket and make the additional purchase.

  The cashier told me that the price of the ‘cake in a cup’ was $1.07 (with tax) not a dollar. This told me that the State of Iowa did not consider ‘cake in a cup’ to be food. I reviewed the Iowa sales tax guidelines on food (Here's a link) and it says that ‘Bread and flour products’ are exempt but I had to pay the tax to take my cake home. I found this a little disconcerting at the time, but the guidelines also say certain candy and soda items are taxable unless being paid for with food stamps. I’ve alerted the Romney campaign of this ‘soak the rich’ policy in case the former governor runs out of talking points in the upcoming debates.

Aided by my crack team of cake inspectors, baking a cake was 'E-Z'!

A few supplies and 4 minutes until E-Z Cake.
  I’m not much of a cake eater (even though Kathy is a great at baking) but I couldn’t resist trying to make my own cake. I was too busy on Sunday to make my ‘E-Z Cake in a Cup’, but on Monday I had some spare time and decided to go for it. Daisy and Baxter were interested in the cake also (as well as anything edible) and made sure I followed all the steps correctly. I peeled the top off the cup, poured the powder in, added 2 tablespoons of water, and stirred the mixture for 3 minutes. I was surprised that 2 tablespoons of water would be enough to make cake batter of the powder but it surely did (I didn’t think that the stirring came under the category or E-Z). I put the cup in the microwave for a minute, opened the door, and we had E-Z CAKE! I could tell you how it tasted, but showing you is E-Zier.

  While we were eating our cake, Kathy looked at the nutritional information and noticed that while the cake had over an ounce of sugar, it also contained over 40% of my daily cholesterol needs. I worked from home yesterday because I was going to take a couple of hours off and get my driver’s license renewed but I had another reason to stay in Marshalltown. Once I had renewed my license, I made my way across the street where the Dollar Tree just happened to be. I searched up and down the aisles looking for ‘E-Z Cake in a Cup’ but couldn’t find any. The manager asked if he could help me and I told him what I was looking for and he said ‘They’re gone. We can’t keep them in stock’.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Future Is Now

  In the 1970’s George Allen was hired to coach and manage the personnel for the Washington Redskins and immediately started trading his picks in future drafts for older, experienced players. The older players helped the Redskins to the Super Bowl in 1972 and to the playoffs in a number of other years (although the Allen coached Redskins never won a playoff game aside from the 1972 season). When asked about whether trading away draft picks was going to hurt the Redskins in the future, Allen sneered and said the ‘The Future is Now’, meaning the only championship the Redskins could win was the current years. Despite having leaving the Redskins with barely any draft picks when he left the team following the 1977 season. Allen may have had a point because the Redskins won half their games or more in 3 of the following 4 years and won the Super Bowl in 1982 after winning at least half their games in 3 of the 15 years before Allen became coach (season by season records here).

  The Washington Nationals baseball team faced a similar situation this year that the Redskins faced in the George Allen era. With the first overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft, the perennial loser Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg, a 21 year old pitcher who was the top prospect in the draft. Strasburg gave every indication of being an intergenerational pitcher when he struck out 92 batters in 68 innings (including 14 strikeouts in his Nationals debut in 2010) and the Nationals won 8 of the 12 games he started. Unfortunately, Strasburg tore a ligament in his pitching elbow in his 12th start of 2010, had ligament replacement surgery and didn’t pitch again until September of 2011. In 2012, Strasburg picked up where he left off in 2010, striking out 197 batters in 159 innings en route to a 15-6 record with the Nationals winning 19 of his 28 starts and pitching a scoreless inning in the All-Star game.

  After 4 seasons of losing 89 or more games, the Nationals went 80-81 in 2011 and were expected to contend for a playoff spot in 2012. Before the season, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo imposed an innings limit on Strasburg for this year, believing that any more innings would put undue stress on his still-recently surgically repaired ligament. This seemed reasonable until the Nationals burst out of the gate with the best record in National League and gained a spot in the playoffs. Rizzo has stuck to his decision and the Nationals will participate in Washington’s first baseball postseason since 1933 (encompassing 3 teams) without their best pitcher.

  I don’t know whether Rizzo’s decision is right or not, but I do know that if the Nationals don’t win the World Series, he will be judged harshly by the Nationals fans and he will get no credit for his decision if Strasburg goes on to a long Hall of Fame career that doesn’t include a Washington Nationals championship. I will say that I believe Rizzo is doing what he thinks is right for the player and the team, but if it was me, I’d let Strasburg pitch because there is no guarantee that Strasburg won’t leave the Nationals as a free agent 4 or 5 years, there is no guarantee that the Nationals will ever be this close to a championship in the next 100 years, and the only championship that the Nationals can win is this years and their future is now.

  Another ‘game’ where the future is now is the game of presidential politics. Can you name the losers of presidential elections that ran for president again in your lifetime? There’s only been one in my lifetime which encompasses 13 elections including this one (Here is the answer). If you want to go back another 40 years you can find 1 more (right here). Once the chance to run for President is obtained, there will rarely be a second chance if the opportunity doesn’t result in the presidency. This has led Romney to make a number of statements he may not otherwise have made such as attacking the government’s initial response to the attacks on our embassies in the Middle East on the 9-11 anniversaries. Romney came under a lot of fire for his remarks, but if a more vicious attack or a concrete development in Iran’s quest to create nuclear weapons had followed his remarks, they may have resonated and caused the few undecided people to consider him as Presidential material more seriously. I don’t think it is a wise tactical maneuver to attack the foreign policy of the President who gets the credit for the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but there is no next year or next election for Romney so I can’t fault him for pulling out all the stops to get a job he so obviously covets.

  My only decision in this presidential election is not to decide which Harvard educated millionaire I’m going to vote for; I’m deciding whether I’ll be casting a write in ballot for Ron Paul or Lee Gordon Seebach . I’ve never voted for a Democrat or Republican in a presidential election, but I still find the process fascinating and consider myself a reasonably accurate prognosticator. I even have a polling method and according to it, President Obama is ahead by 5.9 points. My secret scientific research method has determined that as long as price of gas at the Git’N’Go in Bondurant, Iowa is below $4.19 a gallon, the President will win the election, but the challenger Romney will win is the price hits $4.20. The current price is $3.60, but just 2 weeks ago the price was $3.83 and the contest was well within the margin of error.

  This week the Romney campaign has been embarrassed by the release of a video at a (supposedly) private fund raising talk in which he said that 47 percent of the US population won’t vote for him because they are ‘who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.’.

  Romney has gotten hammered for these comments which many say show him as insensitive and out of touch with mainstream America, but when I read the full transcript of the video (which was filmed in May), much of what Romney said makes lots of sense. Romney says on the tape ‘Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect.’ I agree 100% and why should this message connect? If I didn’t pay taxes, why would I be interested in someone who pays taxes paying less taxes? The Democrats seem to agree also. I’ve seen 4 ads this morning saying the Democrat plan is to have millionaires to pay ‘a little more in taxes’. Not being a millionaire, I have no objection but if I was a millionaire I might be OK with giving the millionaires a break and letting the billionaires pay a lot more in taxes. I’ve seen many Democratic ads showing Senior Citizens having to pay more in Medicare under Romney, students having to pay more in student loans under Romney, etc… Last month the President was in Iowa talking about the jobs that were created making turbines for wind farms and that these jobs were created in part by the tax credits that are offered for using wind energy. This week Siemens Energy announced that they will be laying off 400 workers at their wind-turbine factories in Iowa because of the uncertain future of the extension of the wind turbine tax credit. I’m sure that when oil subsidies are cut, Exxon and Shell are also laying people off in other states. Just as Romney understands that he won’t be getting votes from groups who don’t pay taxes when he is proposing tax cuts, The Democrats also understand that way to get votes from groups who are getting something is to either promise them more or tell them that the other party will be taking away what they are getting now.

  The other point on the Romney tape that I agree with almost completely is when he says ‘What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like.’ This underscores something I’ve noticed long ago about this election. Everyone I know has already made up their mind. Romney says 5 to 10 percent, but I think the number is more like 2 or 3 percent. Who what will cause the 2 to 5 people out of a hundred in a few select states that will decide the presidential election to make up their minds? I don't think anyone knows, but the more things that Romney says, the better chance on finding the one thing that will turn those select few to (or against) him.

  I like the fact that Romney isn’t backing away from anything he has said about his video. The people who support him are being fairly quiet about it and the people who don’t support him are making the same comments they were making before only now sprinkling in quotes from the video. Romney would just look silly by trying to clarify what ‘he meant to say’ on the video and after a few days it all becomes old news anyway. He is much better off just to keep on attacking as if the whole incident never happened because for his campaign, the future really is now..

  The Romney campaign wasn’t the only victim of a leak this week. I was in the midst of some investigative reporting on the miniscule number of Peanut M & M’s that were being dispensed from the new vending machine at work. I had purchased a package of Peanut M & M’s and received 20 Peanut M & M’s for my 85 cents. On Friday, I took a video of the vending machine while I fed it a quarter, expecting to receive 3 or 4 Peanut M & M’s like last week only to get 6 of the chocolate covered treats. Obviously the vending machine owner was alerted to my planned exposé and altered the machine, but the source of the leak hasn’t been discovered yet..

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Week as a Zombie

  As I wrote last week, I didn’t get much sleep after the government agency whose interface I’m responsible with went haywire after a firewall upgrade last Saturday and started giving out more misinformation than the Obama and Romney campaigns combined (Did you know that both men have not only raised or are going to raise taxes on the middle class by thousands of dollars but that both candidates are going to cut taxes on the middle class by thousands of dollars?). The government agency hasn’t solved all their problems but after another mini-meltdown on Thursday morning, they have at least stopped losing transmissions and my program has returned to a semblance of normalcy.

  I can’t remember the last time I had to work this hard on so little sleep. My mind was racing so fast trying to keep track of all the snafus I couldn’t sleep and as soon as I got into work I had to talk to one customer and give them a status a report and plan our next steps and as soon as I got off the phone I’d have a similar conversation with another customer and on and on and on… It was a hellacious week that I’m not eager to repeat but it wasn’t a problem of my making and I suppose if you don’t have those kinds of experiences at work every so often you either aren’t doing work of much import or you are very lucky or you are very competent.

  I was so tired I even resorted to taking a bottle of 5 Hour Energy to stay awake during chess club last Thursday. I’m still not sure how well it worked but I wasn’t too amped up and while I made at least one sloppy move I played well enough the rest of the time to gain a tie for first with Dave the Barefoot Chess Player in the weekly blitz tournament. After leaving the club, I monitored the government interface for a bit and crawled into bed, knowing I’d be out the door at 5:30 the next morning for chess club at St. Francis.

  It was our second club meeting of the year and I knew I was off my game when I couldn’t remember the names of all the kids I met for the first time the week before (normally I am super great at that). I was working with the new players who barely knew how the pieces moved while my co-coach Chris and 3 time Iowa champ Tim Mc Entee kept an eye on the experienced players. I was happily surprised that Tim wanted to help with the kids at St. Francis this year. He is a great asset to the kids, likes their enthusiasm, and gets that the kids are at club because they want to play and aren’t especially interested in being taught chess. This doesn’t mean that we don’t teach, just that we have to pick our spots. There are around 35 chess players so far this year which is down a few from last year. I lost some of the seventh graders to an early morning advanced math class and also heard from some of the parents that their children are still sleeping in on Fridays or have some other Friday morning activities. I have hopes that once the kids ease into the school year they’ll start to head back to chess club but a more likely scenario is that having a chess club with no fees was a novelty last year that attracted a lot of kids that wouldn’t normally have even tried chess and they just didn’t enjoy it very much.

  As usual, I got more out of helping with the chess club than the kids do and was fully energized for another day of work on Friday. It was the most human I’d felt in a week. With no new crises erupting, I was able to focus on cleaning up some of the problems that the meltdown had caused and was almost all caught up by the afternoon. After my first decent night’s rest in almost a week I was still pretty tired when I got up the next morning to take Daisy and Baxter for a walk to the Jiffy for their beef stick treats. It would have been nice to have been able to hop into bed for an early nap, but I had to leave the house at 6:30 to drive back to Des Moines for my first indoor youth chess tournament in 5 months at St. Francis.

  You never know how big or small of a crowd you are ever going to have for a chess tournament. I thought this was going to be a small crowd and it seemed to me that it was, but the numbers say I had 43 different players as opposed to 44 last September. There were 10 less players attending both sessions than last year which means that I had less players staying all day than last year. That made sense since last September was my first tournament split into morning and afternoon session and now that everyone is used to the new format I have less people staying for an entire day or chess.

  I picked up Marshalltown club players Chandler and Dalton (who set up the tournament hall in return for free entry) and got a rude awakening 60 miles later when I found the outside entrance to the cafeteria was locked. The church’s event scheduler should have had the doors opened automatically, but luckily the next entrance was open for football practice. Once into the building, I got another rude surprise when I found out the cafeteria doors were also locked! But once again the gym next door was unlocked and I was able to slip through the portable partition that separates the 2 rooms and get into the cafeteria from the inside. We got inside and set up the hall and then I got a good surprise when I found that the school now has a guest internet network. This allowed me to check my emails, enter memberships, and even correct a name for a player who bought a membership from another tournament organizer who misspelled it.

  The tournament itself went smoothly enough, although it all went by in a blur for me and I noticed I was a lot more edgy about little things than I normally was. There were 2 beginning players who barely knew how the pieces moved and they needed a lot of attention during their games. In one game, 2 players who went to my summer chess camp squared off and one of the campers pulled off a 4 move checkmate! I had given both these kids a lesson on how to avoid the 4 move checkmate at the camp (apparently not very successfully) and while I was keeping the 2 beginning players in my sights, I pulled the 2 campers aside and reprised the lesson for them.

  I was happy to see the return of a few past tournament winners who didn’t play in the summer outdoor tournaments and even got to see my son Matt for the first time in a month. Matt came down with one of his students and decided to play in the afternoon session (Matt is still 19 until December so he was eligible). All the kids were cowering and whimpering at the thought of playing the college expert. I tried to encourage them by saying that if they didn’t make any mistakes there was no reason they should lose to anyone. This is easy to say but hard to do. In 4 years of our Thursday Night blitz tournaments in Marshalltown, Matt has a record of 68 wins, 1 loss, and 2 draws. I drew him last year when he blundered a piece in the opening. I took the piece and offered him a draw which he accepted. We then played out the game and he crushed me while a piece behind. Very humbling, indeed. At Saturday’s tournament, Matt wanted to make a checkmate with 4 knights. In the first game, he was winning handily, had promoted 2 of his pawns to knights, but accidentally stalemated his opponent and gave up a draw to a player rated 1400 points below him! He did manage to checkmate a player with 5 knights in the next game so the day wasn’t a total loss for him and since he had a good humor about his draw, the more observant players learned a valuable lesson in handling setbacks and everyone learned that anything can happen over the chessboard.

  Once the tournament ended, I drove home, got all the post tournament stuff done by 9 (posting the pictures and tournament article, updating standings and ratings, etc…) and collapsed into bed. On Sunday I was hoping to be able to sleep late, get some rest, and head to the 50th CyChess tournament in Ames by 1 pm. Daisy and Baxter did not realize that I wanted to sleep late and at 4:30 in the morning they were up and wanting to be walked so Kathy and I took them to the Jiffy for a beef stick treat. After a mile and a half walk, I wasn’t feeling too sleepy so I hung out with the beagles and relaxed by watching Law & Order and Joel Osteen. I nodded off a bit but then it was 9am and I still wasn’t very tired so Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter for another long walk for beef stick treats. I piddled around until 11 and then I finally crashed and was dead to the world until 1. At that point there was no chance of getting to the chess tournament but I was still beat and was all woozy until around 3. I even crashed again from 7 to 9 in the evening and still slept all night.

  I’m bummed out at missing the 50th CyChess tournament but hopefully there’ll be a #51 that won’t get interrupted by work or sleep deprivation. I’ve played on little or no sleep when I was in my twenties. The results were awful then and I wouldn’t expect them to better 30 years later. I would have liked to fit in everything I wanted to do this weekend, but as the classic song by Ella Fitzgerald goes “You can bet as sure as you live. Something's gotta give, something's gotta give, Something's gotta give.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Criminal Acts

What comes in 7's
and is yellow, brown, & blue?
The answer is below...
  I’ve written before about my struggles with the snack food vending machine at work alternating my preferred Crunchy Cheetos and unwelcome Jalapeno Crunchy Cheetos in the same corridor. I thought I won the battle last year when the Jalapeno Cheetos disappeared but they made their reappearance in the spring and I resumed my boycott until last month when Crunchy Cheetos took sole possession of corridor A1 of the snack machine. I became a frequent customer and 2 weeks ago in what was wither a stroke of divine providence or demonically induced temptation the machine went haywire and left an extra bag of Crunchy Cheetos hanging precariously on the wire hook after dispensing my bag. I succumbed to the temptation of getting TWO bags of Crunchy Cheetos for my 85 cents, lifted the machine a couple of inches off the ground, and let gravity hand me my extra bag of Cheetos. As far as criminal acts go, it was a misdemeanor but wrong nonetheless. Even then, I could have returned the bag of Cheetos but I admit that I ate them right after the bag I rightfully paid for.

  Now that the vending machine had an empty slot in front of the row of Crunchy Cheetos, the remaining cheesy snacks sat in corridor A1 unsold until the vending machine man came. When I saw him leave, ‘Instant Karma’ by John Lennon was playing on my amazing iPod as I headed downstairs to satisfy my Cheetos fix only to find the vending machine man pulled a surprise maneuver and replaced all the Crunchy Cheetos with plain Lays potato chips. I like plain Lays potato chips just fine but not nearly as much as Cheetos and have compromised with the vending machine by getting Cheddar and Sour Cream Ruffles from corridor A3 in the vending machine. They’re still not Cheetos, but I do get to have my fingers covered with that orange cheese stuff so I don’t feel like a total loser.

There's a stranger in the house!

  Last week 2 new vending machines made their appearance to the break room at work. They were both candy dispensers. You put a quarter in the slot below your desired candy, turned the handle and candy would be dispensed through the slot below. There were Mike & Ikes, Red Hots, Plain M & M’s, Peanut M & M’s, Skittles, and Reese’s Pieces available for purchase.

Click the picture
to read the fine print...
  As I was considering whether or not to get some candy from this new contraption, I noticed a sign on the vending machine that said ‘The National Children’s Cancer Society’. I thought that maybe the proceeds from these machines were going to an organization that promotes cancer in children, but luckily the sign had plenty of fine print. The fine print said that the organization’s vending machine program raises $750,000 yearly to help children with cancer and that none of the money I put into the machine would go to the organization. The owner of the machine paid the organization a contracted amount to have the machine in place and would receive all the proceeds.

  I was convinced to try my luck and as I was ready to put my quarter in the slot for Peanut M & M’s (undoubtedly the most nutritious of the snacks), when Tony came to the break area. I told him the over/under of Peanut M & M’s was 12 and was he going to take the over or the under? Tony took the under, I placed my quarter in the slot, turned the handle, opened the dispenser door, and…

Upon further review...we have FOUR Peanut M & M's.

  OUT CAME 3 YELLOW PEANUT M & M’s. THREE!!! I congratulated Tony on being right with the under bet and then opened the dispenser door again to see if any Peanut M & M’s had gotten stuck. Out rolled a tiny brown Peanut M & M, giving me 4 Peanut M & M’s (which cost more than 6 cents each). I could not believe the stinginess of this machine and decided to try one more time. At Tony’s suggestion, I turned the handle slowly and when I opened the door, falling into the catch tray were THREE MORE PEANUT M & M’s. One yellow Peanut M & M, another tiny brown M & M, and a giant mutant blue M & M which I named Goliath. I peeked under the dispenser door and there were no laggard Peanut M & M’s so the final tally was 7 Peanut M & M’s for 50 cents.

  At the rate of 7 cents per Peanut M & M, this vending machine contains over a thousand dollars of Peanut M &M’s!! I suppose having to pay the National Children’s Cancer Society for the right to use their sign in the vending machine could make the owner have to cut corners to meet expenses, but if taking an extra bag of Crunchy Cheetos was a misdemeanor, paying 50 cents for 7 Peanut M & M’s was highway robbery!! I felt victimized as I munched down the 7 Peanut M & M's (including Goliath).

The answer to the question at the top of the post is 50 cents worth of Peanut M & M's. The Romney campaign claims that if we cut taxes on small business owners and freed them from the shackles of government regulation they would make more profits and be able to give out more Peanut M & M's for our hard-earned quarters, while the Obama campaign thinks the vending machine owners of America are making plenty of money off the backs of America's Peanut M & M consumers and should be made to pay their fair share.

  Speaking of crimes, I was the victim of theft this past week when I was robbed of the ability to sleep. The company I work for has an important interface with a government agency that I maintain as part of my responsibilities. Last Saturday, the agency underwent a firewall upgrade and for 5 days after that every document we sent to this agency was either acknowledged as being received but lost, received but not acknowledged, received and acknowledged as not accepted, or lost but acknowledged as being pending in the system. I spent all week trying to get answers from the agency while attempting to keep our systems running despite the balky interface and even when I was home, I would monitor the situation at home and woke up 2 or 3 times each night to check to see if there was some new emergency to attend to.

  I was so tired when I got to our Thursday Night chess club’s blitz tournament I could barely keep my eyes open. I’ve managed to win 3 of the last 4 tournaments and had even avenged my 2 losses in a row to Matt Kreigel 2 weeks ago with a nice victory over him last week. I haven’t been playing particularly well but was the beneficiary last week of some good fortune when Zack upset Joe from Waterloo and I was able to win a tournament without have to square off against someone I’ve beaten exactly once in 13 tournament meetings.

  In order to stay awake for the tournament, I took a shot of 5 Hour Energy for the second time in my life. I had no idea how it would work but the product was going to get a stern test when Matt Kreigel showed up a few minutes before the tournament was to start and he was joined by Dave the Barefoot Chess Player who was making his first Marshalltown appearance since March. I beat Chandler in the first round and my luck held out when Matt and Dave had to play each other in the second round while I got an easy game against Eric the new player. Dave beat Matt and we sat down to play for this week’s championship.

  I should have taken a bottle of 5 Hour Common Sense instead of 5 Hour Energy because I managed to unnecessarily lose a piece within the first 10 moves. I was tempted to resign but kept on playing and tried to pose the most problems I could a piece down against a superior player. I came close to winning my piece back on several occasions but Dave warded off all my threats and even won a couple of pawns to go along with his extra piece. We ended up in a position with my King pinned down in the corner and Dave trying to maneuver his bishop for the checkmate when I found a neat drawing resource to save the game by continually checking Dave’s king with my rook. If he ever took my rook, my king would have no moves and I would get a draw by stalemate. Once Dave saw what was happening, he gave a hearty laugh and we agreed to a draw game and a shared championship.

Left: I had just played Qe2 like a rookie to get out of the pin (Bd3 is just fine) and Dave played Qxe4, winning the piece I just protected! Right: 13 minutes later, I just check Dave over and over with my Rook on the g file. If he ever takes the rook I have no legal move with my king and get a draw by stalemate.

  Stealing a half point from Dave may not have been the crime of the century, but it was certainly the crime of the week.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

When Up is Down and Down is Up

  When the 2009 stimulus bill passed Congress, President Obama and the Democrats said it would cap the unemployment rate at 8 percent. The unemployment rate went to 10.0% in October that year and has steadily gone down since. This year the unemployment rate has been between 8.1 and 8.3 percent and this month the unemployment has gone from 8.3 to 8.1 percent. With unemployment at a 40 month low, I would expect the economy to be no kind of problem for the President’s re-election campaign but it has turned out to be a sore spot and instead of defending his economic record, President Obama has taken to deflecting attention from his economic record by taking on Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan’s support for overhauling Medicare.

  When is the unemployment rate at 3 and a half year lows not good news? When the unemployment rate is nothing but a phony made up number!! The unemployment rate doesn’t take into account people who are unemployed, only people that are unemployed AND are have actively sought work in the past 4 weeks. In August, the economy added 96,000 jobs, but the number of people employed declined by 119,000 and over twice that number just stopped looking for work. According to the way the unemployment rate is calculated, people who stop looking for work aren’t counted as unemployed anymore and help the employment rate go down. There is a broader unemployment rate mysteriously called U-6 that includes everyone who doesn’t have a job and is looking for one and also includes people who are working part-time but want a full-time job. That rate is around 15 percent, but as much as I’ve tried I can’t find out how a person that is working part-time but wants a full time job is counted. Are they half a worker or a whole worker?

  Not only is the definition of what is and isn’t unemployed a mess, the numbers that are given out are ‘seasonally adjusted’. I think this means that as an example, since the unemployment rate is expected to be lower during Christmas season and higher afterwards the unemployment rate is artificially raised when Christmas season is on and artificially lowered afterwards. So in addition to not counting people as unemployed if they give up looking for work, if an unemployed person happens to get a job in November they may not be counted as employed and when they lose their job in January they still aren’t counted as unemployed! I’ve had 4 jobs in the last 5 years and I haven’t once asked if my job was seasonal, but maybe I should have since there have been days in all of them when I wish they were.

  Americans like things simple and that includes our numbers. Clint Eastwood didn’t become an American movie icon because he stood around talking to an empty chair. He became an icon because when he was young he was in western movies and shot bad guys and then as he got older he made detective movies and shot bad guys with bigger guns. After that he could make movies about whatever he wanted to because he was the Clint Eastwood who shot bad guys and even if he wasn’t shooting anyone in his movies, that’s who people remembered and who they felt good about seeing on the screen. When Clint Eastwood was younger, if he had made movies about an unemployment rate that is bad when it goes down because people aren’t looking for work and is good when it goes up because people are starting to look for jobs and may not matter anyway depending on the season, he wouldn’t have had an empty chair to sit in much less one to talk to.

  How can anyone make sense of an unemployment rate when down is up and up is down? I suppose it makes as much sense as a government that spends a trillion more dollars more than it takes in each year and relies on something called the Federal Reserve Bank to make up fictional money to buy the government’s debt (called Qualitative Easing and here is a simple explanation).

  What if the government just told us how many people had a job? Isn’t that a more important number than trying to figure out who is actively looking for a job and who isn’t. To me, it’s a simple way to see how the job market is going. If someone works 35 or more hours in a week, they count as one person, between 15 and 35 hours they count as half a person, between 10 and 15 as a quarter person, and if you don’t work 10 hours a week – sorry , you don’t count for this survey! Maybe this new number would need a fancy title like the PWJ (People With Jobs) Index and it could even be divided by a million so the pundits could casually mention that 'the PWJ index hit 154.32 this month'. I’d also be interested in knowing how many people are collecting unemployment insurance just so I’d know the ratio of how many people are paying into the unemployment fund against how many people are drawing out of it.

  I wouldn’t seasonally adjust the PWJ Index. People understand seasons well enough to not need their numbers adjusted. When tomatoes go up in price in the winter, the price doesn’t get adjusted downward and the money in my pocket doesn’t get adjusted upward because of it and no one makes that big of a fuss, so why should employment numbers be adjusted for the season? When I was researching this post I found an excellent article on the subject on It says there are 133 million people with jobs but doesn’t disclose how part time workers are counted. The only problem I see with the PWJ is that it’s almost impossible for the political parties to play around with to make it look better or worse, but I’m sure they would surprise me and count people getting social security, welfare, and unemployment checks as 'employed' and having a job just before election time!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Talking Baseball 2012

  On July 18th, the Yankees had a record of 57-34 and a 10 game lead on the rest of the division, as well as a 10 game lead in the race for the 5th best record in the league. The playoffs seemed assured but the Yankees have been worse than a .500 team since that record of July 18th and entering today’s action are tied with the Baltimore Orioles for the division lead with a record of 78-61 and just 2 games ahead of the Rays and Angels for the last playoff spot.

  The Yankees have a favorable schedule over the last 4 weeks of the season with only 7 games against the other playoff contenders (today’s game at Baltimore and 3 home games against the Rays and A’s), but the way they have been playing nothing can be taken for granted. The Yankees have had their share of injuries and coped well with most of them. Eric Chavez has been putting up numbers close to his days as an all-star 3rd basemen with the Oakland A’s in place of Alex Rodriguez, closer Soriano has been almost as good as the irreplaceable Mariano Rivera, and the mid-season pickup of Ichiro Suzuki has been made the loss of Brett Gardner a non-issue. The injuries to the starting pitchers have exposed what was already a weakness. Michael Pineda, the big off-season pickup was lost for the year in training camp, whatever value 39-year old Andy Pettite was going to bring to the table went by the boards with his broken ankle in June, and CC Sabathia’s has been on and off the injured list for the first time in his Yankee career (I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before given his extra weight). Ivan Nova has regressed from last year and is now hurt while Phil Hughes and high-priced free agent Kuroda alternate excellent games with poor performances. Freddie Garcia has performed about as well as expected but expecting him to anchor the rotation is a bit much to ask at this stage in his career. I was hoping Derek Lowe might be able to fill in as a spot starter, but he has shown very little in his limited action. It’s possible that the Yankees can sneak into the playoffs, Sabathia, Hughes, and Kuroda all go on a hot streak, and another World Series championship makes its way to the Bronx, but as inconsistent as the starters have been this year, I'm not expecting to have to dip into my piggy bank for a championship t-shirt and cap this year.

  I’m more of a Yankee fan than a baseball fan so I haven’t been following the day to day operations of the rest of the league, but one of the stories that caught my eye is the attempt of the Pittsburgh Pirates to have their first winning season since 1992. On August 8th, the Pirates had a record of 63-47 and only needed to go 19-33 the rest of the way to get to the 82 wins needed to ensure a winning record. Today the Pirates stand at 72-66 and now need a record of 10-14 to get to their promised land. I don’t know if the Pirates can find a way to get a winning record or even sneak into the playoffs (they are currently tied with the Dodgers a game behind the Cardinals for the fifth and final wild card spot), but if they do I have to say it’s about time. They are on pace to draw more than 2 million fans for the first time since their new ballpark opened in 2001 so the fans are showing that they will support a winner. The Pirates have consistently sold off any player of promise for the last decade but they may finally have a franchise building block in 26 year old outfielder Andrew McCutchen. If the Pirates can get into the playoffs, then there’ll be even less of an excuse for the Midwest most futile team, the Kansas City Royals to not have a winning team. The Royals last winning record was in 2003 and while they have had 2 winning records in the last 20 years, they’ve also lost 100 games 4 times in that span (the Pirates have lost 100 games only once in the last 20 years). The Kansas City fans have even supported their team through this pair of losing decades with over 2 million fans attending games every year since 1988 (except for the strike years of 1994 and 1995). The Royals are run by former Wal-Mart CEO David Glass and while he looks like he is running the operation like a Wal-Mart baseball team by cutting costs, he has continually hired highly regarded baseball minds to run the operation and has made a few free-agent signings, but the free agents and young players never seem to pan out.

  The other baseball story that caught my attention is the implosion of the Boston Red Sox. After firing Terry Francona, the only manager to have won a World Series for them in the last 90 years (and he won 2) for failing to make the playoffs for the second year in a row last year, Theo Epstein, the boy wonder General Manager, left the Red Sox to take over the Chicago Cubs and attempt to break their 100+ years streak of zero World Series championships. After the revelations that the Red Sox players had been lazy and lax under Francona the new Sox GM (Ben Cherington) hired Bobby Valentine as the new manager. Valentine is the polar opposite of Francona and was quick to try to assert his authority by taking on longtime Sox favorite Kevin Youkillis in the media saying that Youkillis had lost his passion for the game. A player revolt nearly ensued and Youkillis was traded to the White Sox in a deal that saw the Red Sox get some utility players in return for paying the bulk of Youkillis’s salary. The Red Sox played better after the trade, but Valentine continued his confrontational ways, causing him to receive the dreaded vote of confidence from ownership, who also claimed that they were trying to still win this year. After dropping hopelessly out of the race with a 6-14 start to August, the Red Sox decided to punt the season and traded a quarter of a billion dollars in payroll (Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett) to the LA Dodgers. Since then, the Sox have gone 4-11 to fall to last place in the division for what could be a long stay in the cellar. The Red Sox hired the wrong manager for their players and don’t want to admit it was a mistake. Instead, they’re getting rid of all the players. There’s still a lot of young talent on this team but Bobby Valentine will alienate every player from the Francona era because that’s what Bobby Valentine does. I expect the Red Sox to get Valentine to quietly resign at the end of the year and use the money they don’t have to pay Gonzalez and Beckett to get some new free agents for 2013, but it pleases me to no end to see an organization that was a hallmark of efficiency and genius turn into a bumbling shell of itself. Because while there is nothing I like to see more than the Yankees win, seeing the Red Sox embarrass themselves comes a close second.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Movie Review – Total Recall 2012

  I went to see this movie the day I got back from the Jackson Open 2 weeks ago. Normally I would have waited until this film made it to DVD before seeing it but I was curious how one of my favorite films would fare in its remake.

  I consider the 1990 Total Recall one of the best movies ever made. Arnold Schwarzenegger gives a timeless performance as Douglas Quaid, a man not knowing whether he is: a) who his memories say he is, b) is a rebel who has been brainwashed to hide the information he has stored in his mind, or c) a government agent who has been brainwashed into believing he is a rebel that has been brainwashed. Quaid’s trip to the Rekall center to have the memories of a ‘dream vacation’ implanted into his consciousness leads to an action packed movie in a glittering Earth of the future made possible by the colonization of the people of Mars. The movie contained lines and characters that became iconic (Johnny-Cab, ‘Consider this a divorce’, ’Two weeks…two weeks… Two weeks’, etc…). Even the mutants were unique with the rebel leader Kuato as a gelatinous half man who rises from another man’s stomach, the tri chested girl, and the cyclopean one-eyed man with his cyclopean one-eyed daughter. The action was non-stop and uniquely suited to Arnold’s movie persona as the strongest guy in the galaxy.

  The 2012 version of Total Recall is set in a post-apocalyptic world where chemical warfare leaves England and Australia as the only 2 habitable areas left on the planet. England is building an army of robotic soldiers and hatches a plot to invade Australia as soon as they can find the proper pretense. Into this mess steps the 21st century Douglas Quaid, played by Colin Farrell. Farrell commutes from his impoverished quarters in Australia to his job in England by the only mass transit available, a tunnel through the center of the earth called ‘The Fall’. Farrell travels to the Rekall center just as Arnold did 20 years ago and the movie is on with many of the same characters, all the action, and much of the plot with a few new twists.

  Part of Schwarzenegger’s movie greatness is that he is so cartoonishly massive that gets laughs just by being forced to put a towel around his head or holographically disguising himself as a woman. Farrell has none of Arnold’s bulk and is written and played in a much more serious tone for a much more serious earth. Instead of leading the chase to Mars to find the rebel mutants, Farrell unwittingly leads the English shock troops to a toxic France to Matthias, the non-mutant resistance leader who hopes to recover the secret ‘kill’ code in Quaid’s brain that will shut down the robotic army.

  Aside from Farrell and his ‘wife’ played by Underworld’s leather-clad vampirella Kate Beckinsale, the other main characters came from the cast-off bin. Chancellor Cohaagen is played by ‘Malcolm in The Middle’ dad Bryan Cranston, Jessica Biel is Quaid’s dream girl Melina, Matthias by the guy who played Davy Jones in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, and the mysterious agent helping Quaid out is John Cho from Harold and Kumar fame (as well as Sulu from the new Star Trek).

  Cranston is surprisingly physical and active for the leader of a country with an army at his disposal, but Beckinsale steals the movie as the agent who was forced to play Quaid’s wife and live in their dirty apartment in Australia in order to keep tabs on him. She tries to kill Quaid in every way imaginable (fists, feet, guns, flying cars, and trickery) except by killing him with kindness. Beckinsale looks more weathered than in the ‘Underground’ films but is heartless and vicious and plays the best villainess I’ve seen since Kate Nuata as Lola in Transporter 2.

  This film is so completely different from the 1990 version that I’m sure they only bothered to keep the names of the characters or any of the basic plot elements in order to lure devotees of the original film like me to go see it. There were 2 homages paid to the original film (the tri-chested girl and a ‘Fall’ traveler saying ‘2 weeks’) but if the movie wasn’t called ‘Total Recall’ and the memory implant parlor was given a different name other than ‘Rekall’, I doubt I would have found the movie very similar to the original.

  As its own movie, I think ‘Total Recall 2012’ is very attractive and marginally worth going to the movie theatre instead of waiting for Redbox. The plot has plenty of twists and turns, Beckinsale give a great performance, and Farrell is a passable action hero. Since the creators of the movie gave it the same name to make a few extra dollars, they must risk comparison to the original movie and in my opinion it doesn’t hold a candle to it. As far as action heroes go, Arnold is in a class by himself - the only modern day actors that can come close to him are Jason Statham and Vin Diesel (in my opinion). The action and special effects are modern day, but there is nothing to compare to the freakish mutants of the original and the Martian landscape and alien machines. The only area the new version surpasses the original is in the amount of profanity (both versions have plenty). If you’ve seen Total Recall 2012 without seeing the original, I recommend heading to the Wal-Mart or Family Video, picking up a copy, and treating yourself to a true classic.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

2012 Jackson Open - Part 4 of 4

  After my third round loss against Eric Bell, there was still one game going on and I finally had a chance to chat with some of the other players. I was pretty ‘chessed’ out and I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast except a couple of apples so I was pretty hungry also. I talked John Flores into skipping the last game and having dinner with me at the Chinese restaurant a block away from the tournament.

  I took John and myself out of the tournament and set up the pairings for the last round. The 2 players that Riaz brought (Eric and Dane Zagar) were scheduled to play each other as well as the 2 players I brought (Jaleb and Tim). Tournament directors normally try to avoid pairing traveling companions, but in this instance not pairing them would have made for some drastic swings in the level of competition among the top boards. Since John was the TD and Sam the organizer, I got them and Riaz together and explained the ramifications of pairing and not pairing the 4 players. They all agreed that the traveling companions should play each other. I gave Sam the pairings, the final round got underway, and John and I left for dinner with Sam in charge of the tournament.

Sizzling Chinese Steak!
  At the time I thought it was OK to skip the final round but now I think maybe I shouldn’t have talked John into it because he had already missed Friday’s first round. But John is a generous guy, a good friend, and one of my favorite people in the world, and like the good friend he is he decided to give me some of his time and give up one of the few tournament games he gets to play in to share a meal with me. On the other hand, the food at the New China Buffet of Jackson, MN was OUTSTANDING. I ordered the Sizzling Chinese Steak and I wanted a pot of Chinese tea to go along with it. I was a little put off because they only had coffee, but was happily surprised when the waitress brought out some crab rangoons for us to munch on. After just a few minutes, the chef came running out with the Sizzling Chinese Steak and it was sizzling and tasty! I had a great time catching up with John and letting know where my youth chess program in Des Moines was at. After eating the sizzling steak (John had a peanut/cashew/chicken concoction), the waitress then brought out some watermelon slices for us to eat.

Joel Katz (right) in battle
  Once we were done feasting on Chinese food, it was back to the tournament to watch the final round games. Tim had Jaleb in a bad way but only had about 20 minutes left compared to over an hour for Jaleb, while Eric looked to have Dane Zagar all but beat on the top board. These games were interesting but the game that caught my eye was in the Senior Center next door where Joel Katz was a piece ahead against his teenage opponent. Joel is Sam’s friend from nearby Worthington who has leg problems and gets around on crutches. I’ve written before how Joel played over 50 tournament games before winning his first but he never gives up (in no small part to Sam’s encouragement) and I’ve never seen him lose his enthusiasm for chess. I’ve played Joel and he’ll make around 10 good moves in a row but then he’ll make a move that loses a piece and has a hard time coming back from it. It would be easy to dismiss Joel as just a bad player, but he normally plays against players 4 or 5 rating classes ahead of him that he isn’t expected to beat but 1 in a 1000 times. If he played people who were just a class or 2 ahead of him, he’d score a lot more wins. Joel was psyched for this game because he just earned a hard fought draw against the very underrated player who almost beat Tim Harder on Friday night. I was rooting for Joel not just because I knew that a win would make his day, week, and month; but also because I happened to see him pick himself up on his crutches and make his way to the men’s room earlier in the day. It struck me how something that would take you and me 30 seconds takes Joel at least 5 minutes and I found myself thinking how me and many people I know would just be in a wheel chair and hardly ever leave the house with that affliction, but Joel gets around under his own effort and plays tournament chess to boot!

  Before I knew it, all the games were finished and Sam was figuring out the prizes. Eric Bell won his game to win the tournament with a perfect 4-0 score, and Jaleb managed to stage a comeback in Tim’s time pressure to win his game and tie Jackson Wahl for 2nd and 3rd place with 3.5 out of 4 points. Unfortunately, Joel made a mistake, lost his queen to a knight fork, and lost the game but was as enthusiastic as ever and wanted to talk about his draw, his winning a piece, and even the mistake that cost him his last round game. I told Joel about my mistakes in my game against Eric and Joel was encouraging me and telling me that he was getting better all the time and so was I.

Left: Sam unveiling the Flores Cup'. Right: John presenting the first place prize to Eric Bell.

  Sam and John allowed me to give out a couple of the prizes to thank me for helping them by directing the first round, which was an honor. John gave out the rest of the prizes but before giving out the first prize, Sam wanted to make a speech and a special presentation. This tournament is Sam’s baby and after 6 years he finally has broken through with 26 players (The previous high was 14 in 2009). Jackson has a population of 3,500 and there are barely 100,000 people within 60 miles of Jackson. In chess terms, this is a very small population base to work with (Marshalltown has 600,000 people within an hour drive). It would have been easy for Sam to have given up his idea of an annual tournament but he has persevered and this year he was rewarded with not only a well-attended tournament but a tournament where everyone had a good time and would want to come back to.

The Flores Cup!
  John, Jodene, and Sam have played in all 6 Jackson Opens. John has been the tournament director every year and this year he told Sam to guarantee the entire $700 prize fund and he would make up for any shortfall in attendance out of his own pocket. The guaranteed prize fund no doubt lured some players, but John also paid to advertise the tournament in the IASCA and USCF magazines and got it advertised on Susan Polgar’s popular chess website. Now these are only the things I know about and I’m sure John has done a lot more in the past to help chess in the area. The climax of Sam’s speech was the unveiling of a cup that would have the winner of each Jackson Open inscribed on it and he named it the Flores Cup after John. The cup has pictures of John playing on 3 sides and already had the first 5 winners of the Jackson Open inscribed (including John who won the tournament last year). It was a neat moment and a very cool cup. I know John would rather have his good works stay in the background but we all were happy to see him get recognition for the great things he’s done for chess along the western Iowa-Minnesota border.

  I submitted the tournament to the USCF office before I left so it would be rated by the time we got home, said my goodbyes, and headed home with Jaleb and Tim. I played good if not great and as a bonus found out I had gained 3 precious USCF rating points for my weekend efforts to nudge my rating to its all-time high of 1712. It was great to finally get to play in a tournament with Minnesota-Northern Iowa crowd and I think I showed that I could play a little bit even though not at the top-shelf level like Jaleb played at.

Jodene Kruse, John Flores, Sam Smith:
The movers and shakers of chess in the Northwest Iowa - Southwest Minnesota border region.

  The ride home was uneventful and I was pretty tired when I rolled home around 12:30 in the morning, but it was a good kind of tired because every time I head to northwest Iowa/southwest Minnesota, I come back as inspired as I can be. It’s so great to be around a group of people that support and help each other. Sam, Jodene, John, and Joel have dealt with job changes, medical afflictions, and personal issues and yet they have created a chess culture in a very sparse area. There’s just no quit in this group and I won’t quit heading to Okoboji or Jackson, either.

Special thanks to my personal 'chess troubador', Austin Wahl, who graciously allowed me to make use of his image and musical skills for these last 4 blogs. I've never played any instrument except the kazoo, but as I was leaving I could have sworn he was playing the country classic 'We'll meet again'