Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Meat Grinder of a Job

  In December 2008, then Iowa State football coach gene Chizik was offered the head football coaching job at Auburn University. He took the job despite proclaiming to the Iowa State fans less than a month before that he was committed to Ames for the long haul despite his 5-19 record in his two years as the Cyclone coach.

  In June 2011, Gene Chizik was at the White House with his Auburn Tigers football team to meet the President and celebrate their undefeated championship season. Two days after his White House visit, Chizik received a contract extension and a raise to three and a half million dollars a year. His book ‘All In: What It Takes To Be The Best’ entered the bookstores less than a month later.

  On Sunday, less than 18 months after his White House visit and contract extension, Gene Chizik was fired as the Auburn football coach. As part of his contract he will receive 7.5 million dollars in monthly installments over the next four years.

  What did Chizik do to lose his job just two years after an undefeated season that led to Auburn’s first national championship football team in 53 years? There was the small matter of four players arrested for armed robbery in March of 2011, but Chizik promptly booted them off the team and he did get a contract extension 3 months after the arrests (and subsequent convictions). The football program is also currently under investigation by the NCAA for recruiting violations, but there have been no findings yet and the NCAA long ago declared there were no violations in the recruitment of the 2010 championship quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton (who was accused of being sold by his advisors to the highest bidder).

  The plain and simple reason Chizik was fired was he stopped winning. Auburn has a long history of firing coaches after just one or two losing seasons regardless of past success. Pat Dye won 3 consecutive SEC championships in the 1980’s but was gone after following that up with an eight win season and then two five win seasons. Chizik's predecessor, Tommy Tuberville finished first or second in his SEC division eight straight years (including an undefeated 2004 season) and he was fired after going 5-7 in 2008. Clearly Chizik’s 3-9 overall record, 0-8 SEC conference mark, and a 49-0 drubbing to in-state rival Alabama was not acceptable.

  I give Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs a lot of credit for his honesty by making no excuses for firing Chizik. He made it crystal clear when he said 'I had hoped our team would show some improvement this season…Unfortunately it didn't. The competition in our league is fierce. I decided we could not risk falling further behind by waiting for another year and hoping for improvement.' Last year Auburn was 8-5 with a 4-4 conference record and a bowl win. For a school like Iowa State this would be the best season they had in a decade and a slightly disappointing season for the Iowa Hawkeyes. For mighty Auburn with two national champions in over a century of football, this record needed improving upon according to Jacobs.

  I’m sure Jacobs’ actions were prompted by the knowledge that if the football program isn’t turned around and quick, the deep-pocketed Auburn boosters would have him on the chopping block in short order (if he isn’t being fitted for the guillotine already), but I appreciate a person telling it like it is and Jacobs made it clear that at Auburn it is about winning.

  I thought Chizik was a lowlife for the deceptive way he bolted from Iowa State to take the Auburn job, but I may have misjudged him. His players seemed genuinely upset that he got fired and Chizik’s assistants will collect over 3.5 million dollars in their own buyout money. When a football coach is fired, normally the assistants are also fired and have to uproot their families when they get new employment so I’ll take the buyout for his assistants as something Chizik negotiated on their behalf. On the other hand, maybe they read this blog post by Iowa’s foremost sportscaster, and having seen how shabbily Chizik treated Iowa State asked for some guaranteed money to work for him.

  Despite Chizik’s contract extension and book deal, Heisman Trophy winner Newton received most of the credit for Auburn’s championship season. Chizik failed to get the accolades a national championship coach normally receives and was mostly seen as an innocent bystander who happened to be the beneficiary of Newton’s transcendent season. It didn’t seem to matter that he coached the Auburn team to bowl wins both before and after the Cam Newton season (Newton arrived as a junior college transfer and left school early to turn professional).

  Will Chizik get another high profile coaching job? I can’t see it happening anytime soon. As the defensive coordinator for a national championship Texas team, Chizik was a hot coaching prospect whose hiring was seen as a coup for Iowa State. His 5-19 record at ISU didn’t get him the Auburn job. He got it because he was so highly thought of as the Auburn defensive coordinator in the 1990’s.

  Having been fired two years after winning a national championship is a black mark on his record and makes him a risky hire for a big time athletic director. The fact that he has won a national championship will probably make schools shy away from hiring him as a defensive coordinator since he would be seen as a threat to the head coach. But he is one of only a handful of college football coaches with a national championship and being able to flash his championship ring should be more than enough to get him a head coaching job at a mid-major school and then he can start to work his way back up to the coaching food chain.

  I wonder what kind of football coach Jacobs will get to coach the Auburn Tigers. I can't imagine him getting a big name coach or hot prospect. Why would a coach with options be attracted to a football program that is such a meat grinder that winning a national championship doesn’t buy more than a year’s grace period. I think Jacobs will end up with a proven coach that had to leave his job in disgrace like former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Must See TV

  On Thanksgiving weekend, I was planning on getting a new TV for the family. Wal-Mart always has good deals on TV’s for the Black Friday weekend and I was planning on heading out on Thanksgiving night to pick one up.

  That was the plan, but the massive bowl of vanilla ice cream, berries, and pound cake I had for dinner after our Thanksgiving lunch had other ideas. I passed out in a sugar induced coma around 6 and when I regained consciousness at 9:30, I figured the TV I had was just fine and went back to sleep.

  I woke up on Friday nice and early and Kathy and I took Daisy and Baxter out for their beef stick treats. There were even more specials for TV’s and laptops on Friday at Staples, Wal-Mart, and K-Mart but I was too lazy to head out to wait in line for 2 or 3 hours and wasn’t that interested in a new TV anymore.

  My dad was a TV repairman for RCA from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. This was when a television was such a big investment that people would buy annual service contracts to have repairmen come to their house whenever the TV stopped working to have the bewildering array of tubes and wires replaced or sometimes even to climb up on the roof to fix an antennae. Drug stores used to have giant tube tester machines for the do-it-yourselfers with a large stock of tubes on hand.

  Just like most auto repairmen have old cars that they can keep in good working order, we used to have older, smaller black and white televisions that people would throw out or trade in. We didn’t have a color TV until the mid-1970’s, when my brother bought one. When he moved out of the house, he took the TV with him and it was back to discarded black and white televisions, only these had solid state circuit boards instead of tubes. Once TV’s went away from tubes, traveling repairmen were hardly needed because when a TV broke they were now light enough to be taken to a repair facility.

  When I moved to Florida in 1985, I got my first color TV and I still have it today. It was around 20 inches diagonal and was plenty big at the time. While the kids have had smaller TV’s, the main family TV has gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. We used my grandfather’s 25 inch console TV when he passed away. That TV broke and 6 years ago we got a 35 inch television to replace it. It was our first HD television, but since we don’t have digital cable, the only high definition television we see come from DVDs.

  On Friday afternoon I got an email from Staples letting me know that their Black Friday deals were good throughout the entire afternoon so I decided to take a look at their circular. They had a laptop nearly as good as the one I was going to get Kathy so we took a trip to Staples to get it. Staples was fairly deserted and not out of any of their Black Friday deals so we picked up the computer within 10 minutes and headed across the street to see what was going on at Wal-Mart.

  When I went to the Wal-Mart, there was a Salvation Army bell ringer at the front door and I didn’t give him any money because I’m saving my Salvation Army money for 3 weeks from now when I’ll be spending the day bell ringing. The Wal-Mart was more packed and much better picked through than the Staples, but right out front was 4 of the TV’s I was planning on getting the night before. We walked around the store, picked up a few items, and on the way out decided to get the TV. After paying for the TV, we walked it past the Salvation Army bell ringer to the car. Normally Kathy drives when we go out, but on this day we decided to take my car. This turned out to be a big problem when we discovered the TV would not fit in the back seat of my Kia Rio. It was just too big. We carried the TV back into the Wal-Mart (past the same bell ringer) and I sat on the bench by the entrance with the TV while Kathy drove my car back home and came to get me (and the TV) with the minivan.

  It was interesting sitting in the Wal-Mart entrance with this TV box that was almost as big as I was. Most people just ignored me, some looked at me with what I think was a look of admiration (‘what a big TV’), while others looked at me with a look of indignation (‘look at the show-off sitting in the entrance with his TV’), and still others with a look of disgust (‘what a tiny TV’ or ‘HA! He probably couldn’t fit the TV into his car’). One old guy in a super scooter asked me if my car had broken down and chuckled at me when I told him how the car couldn’t hold the TV.

  Finally, Kathy drove up and I passed the Salvation Army bell ringer for the fourth and last time and we put the TV in the minivan and drive home. I don't even want to know what the bell ringer thought of me after I went by him four times without dropping anything in his bucket.

  Matt was unimpressed with the 51 inch TV because he said everyone he knows has one at least that size. I can’t argue with that because I see a gigantic TV in almost every window that we walk Daisy and Baxter past. Matt also said that television shows wouldn’t look good because we only have regular cable TV and not the high definition cable or satellite dish.

  Matt’s opinions notwithstanding, I’m pretty impressed with the new TV. We watched the Avengers DVD last night and I thought it looked great. The Law & Order: Criminal Intent marathon on WGN also looked pretty good to me.

  I know that as far as big TVs go, this one is bottom shelf, but I’m impressed that I have a high definition TV that wouldn’t fit in my car when I think of the little black & white televisions I had growing up. And I learned something I didn’t know before. Now I understand why so many people have SUV’s and pickup trucks - so they can get their giant TV’s home. The only think still puzzling me is how the cavemen got their giant TV’s back to their caves from the Wal-Mart before the wheel was invented.

Ring out the old..ring in the new.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


  I took three days off this week and along with having Thanksgiving and the day after off this will be my second week off this year. My last week off was spent in New Jersey but this week I have nowhere to go and nothing to do but relax and take lots of walks with Baxter and Daisy for beef stick treats.

A winning scatch off ticket led to a midweek trip to Clemons Chevrolet in beautiful southern Marshalltown...

  This vacation came at a great time for another reason. Last week in the mail, I received a notice from the local Clemons Chevrolet dealer that I may have won a prize. All I had to do was to scratch the number off the ad and if it matched, I would definitely win one of the prizes. I scratched the number off and what do you know, the numbers matched and I was a WINNER!! All I had to do was go to the dealership and pick up my prize and since I had the week off I didn’t even have to spend any of my weekend to do it.

  Now that Clemons Chevrolet of Marshalltown, Iowa had certified me as a WINNER, it was time to find out what I’d won. According to the large print on the ad, I could have won $10,000 in cash (or a used car), a Wal-Mart gift card worth from $5 to $2500 dollars, a new iPhone, or a $100 Visa gift card. Then I looked at the smaller print. There were 45 thousand prizes in total, 44,996 $5 dollar Wal-Mart gift cards and one each of the $10,000(or used car), $2500 Wal-Mart gift card, iPhone, or $100 Visa gift card. Long odds, but somebody had to win the ten grand, so why not me? I had until Tuesday to pick up my prize and decided so I decided that would be the day I’d get it.

...but not before a side trip for Broaster chicken at Haley's grocery!

  I decided to have an early celebration of my being declared a WINNER so after taking Daisy and Baxter to the Kum & Go for beef stick treats, Kathy and I stopped at Haley’s to pick up a ten piece pack of broaster chicken. It may have been luck or the people at Haley’s knew I was coming, but as soon as I came to the deli counter, there was a giant bowl of fresh broaster chicken waiting for me. The deli lady put 10 pieces in a box, I paid my 11.74 at the counter, and had no trouble getting Daisy and Baxter to hurry home and help me eat some broaster chicken. I got home and checked out the chicken.Would I get a mutant chicken that was all wings and legs or a complete chicken with 2 wings, legs, thighs, and breasts in addition to the two bonus pieces? . The answer was somewhere in between: 3 legs, 3 wings, 3 thighs, and 1 breast. Obviously a genetically modified chicken bred to be a track star. I can say that the chicken may not have been Olympic quality on the track, but on my dinner plate it was worthy of a gold medal.

Gary from Georgia on the left, Gonzalo the car salesman on the right.

  After days of anticipation, Tuesday finally came and I was on my way to Clemons Chevrolet to pick up my prize. I was greeted by Gary from Georgia. Gary took my name, address, and phone number. He also asked me if I wanted to buy a car today. I said I might be interested depending on what kind of prize I won. Gary told me that I won the $5 Wal-Mart gift card, but that I was very, very close to the number that was the $10,000 winner. The winning numbers were on a poster in the dealership and Gary told me that I probably lived only a few blocks from the grand prize winner.

  After taking my information, Gary walked me to the used car lot and left me there to wander around while he got my $5 Wal-Mart gift card. While I was looking at the cars, a man came up to me and asked if he could help me with a car. His name was Gonzalo and he was the car salesman. Gonzalo tried to sell me a new car but lost some interest when I asked him for the cheapest new car he had. The cheapest car on the lot was a $16,600 car called the Sonic. I told him I wasn’t interested in a $16,600 car and tried to see if we could cut some costs. I asked Gonzalo if I could get the Sonic with a stick shift and he showed me one that cost $16,800. Gonzalo told me how nice the Sonic was and that it had cruise control, power locks, and power windows. I asked Gonzalo if I could get a car without all that stuff and he said that those features were standard on Chevrolet cars. I then asked Gonzalo if the car had air conditioning and he told me that it did so I asked if he had any cars on the lot without air conditioning. Then Gonzalo told me that air conditioning was a standard feature on Chevrolet cars.

  At this point I realized that the Chevrolet brand had passed me by and was starting to get depressed, but then Gary came by with my $5 Wal-Mart gift card. This brightened my spirits and I said good bye to Gonzalo, Gary, and Clemons Chevrolet and headed home.

If you only have a $1 Wal-Mart gift card, I hope you like sugar and water.

  Last night, Kathy and I went to the Wal-Mart to spend my $5 gift card. I walked all around the store trying to decide what to get. I’ve been buying coconut juice with pulp at the local Asian Grocery store lately so I thought I might get a few cans, but to my dismay the Wal-Mart only carries flavored coconut water and no coconut juice.

  At the Wal-Mart, most items that aren’t food cost more than five dollars, so after a quick pass through the store, I concentrated my shopping search in the food department. Even a little brick of Velveeta cost more than five dollars. I was going to get a half gallon quart and a half of ice cream but Kathy said we already had some at home so I settled on getting a pound of frozen berries to go along with my ice cream. I had a little more than a dollar left so I got 3 tangerines. We got to the register and the total was $5.32. I used my gift card (which I was happy to see worked), fished the 32 cents from my pocket and we were on my way.

A $5 dollar gift card doesn't go as far as it used to. If you want some Velveeta you'll need at least a $6 gift card. If someone on your Christmas wants to get themselves 'Buty Pant' a $10 gift-card won't do the trick.

  It was good to be a WINNER for a change. The berries and ice cream will taste great on Thanksgiving if I can hold out that long. I would rather have won the 200 MILLION dollar Powerball jackpot, but we all have to start somewhere.

What WINNING looks like!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Movie Review – SkyFall

  Kathy, Ben, our neighbor Don, and I went to see the latest James Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’ last Friday. The Marshalltown theatre we went to see it at wasn’t even a quarter full, yet the movie had the biggest US opening weekend ever for a James Bond film at 88 million dollars.

  The large box office figure can be attributed not only to the record number of screens set aside for the movie but the energy and popularity that the James Bond franchise experienced since Daniel Craig took over the role since the 2006 ‘reboot’ of the franchise.

  Craig took over from Pierce Brosnan in the James Bond role. I thought Brosnan was the best of the replacements for the irreplaceable original film Bond, Sean Connery, but at 53 Brosnan was getting too old to be James Bond. Short, stocky, and blond, Craig looks as different from the archetypical Bond as possible. Aside from looking different, Craig’s James Bond is written as more of an action hero than the previous Bonds.

  The first two movies in the current reboot attempt to show how James Bond becomes James Bond, setting it as his first missions as a ‘00’ agent. While Bond can still do all the action stuff and is able to sleep with any woman he wants to, he falls in love with treasury agent Vesper Lynd who dies in the first movie (Casino Royale) and is avenged in the second (Quantum of Solace). With the exception of the some extraordinary sappiness between Bond and Vesper (‘If the only thing left of you was your smile and your little finger, you'd still be more of a man than anyone I've ever known.’), the movies were action packed from start to finish. They were box office hits and that made the four year wait for the third movie inexplicable. The given reason for the delay was the financial problems of the MGM studios, the current owner of the franchise, but if a company is having financial problems, why wouldn’t it pour whatever resources it had into a sure moneymaker?

  Skyfall starts off with a great chase scene which ends up with Bond having an epic battle on a train ending when he gets shot by friendly fire, falls into a river, and is presumed dead. Bond spends an undetermined period of time incognito, using his supposed death to retire, but he comes back after the MI6 headquarters is bombed. Bond returns as a much older agent who is shell of himself. He can’t pass the physical and psychological tests required to get back to active duty but he is restored by ‘M’ anyway because she is under government fire because of the MI6 bombing and needs an agent she can trust.

  Bond travels to Shanghai and has a battle atop a skyscraper and eventually meets the movie’s villain, Raoul Silva. Silva is a former MI6 agent who, like Bond, was an ‘M’ protégé but has turned evil. He has mad computer skills, having hacked into M’s computer and also decrypted a secret file of all MI6 agents embedded in terrorist organizations, whose names he is releasing. Bond allows Silva to capture him and take him to his deserted island hideaway, but then outsmarts him by summoning a helicopter using a radio device given to him by the newly introduced ‘Q’.

  Unfortunately, Silva has outsmarted Bond and only allowed himself to be captured so he could be brought to the MI6 headquarters in London and have his computer examined. His computer hacks into the MI6 system, Silva escapes and proceeds with the next part of his plan, the assassination of ‘M’. Bond foils the plot and realizing his technological inferiority to Silva, takes ‘M’ to his family estate in a desolated part of England where he defeats Silva and his small army of mercenaries (and an assault helicopter) with a couple of guns and some household supplies. England is saved, Bond is proven to be back at the top of his game, and the movie ends much as the first James Bond movie begins, with Bond in ‘M’’s office getting his next assignment with Moneypenny waiting outside.

  Skyfall is smashing worldwide box office records for a Bond film and is even being touted as a potential Oscar winner. I didn’t think it was anything more than a workmanlike Bond film. I was disappointed that the movie had to be interrupted by filling in background on Bond’s past (Bond was an orphan; Bond’s family had an ancestral home; etc…). I understand that the ‘reboot’ aspect required some of this filler in the first film, but three movies into the current incarnation seemed a bit much. I imagine that the Bond enthusiasts were thrilled to see glimpses of the ‘inner Bond’ but I’m much more interested in action, thank you.

  The film was entertaining enough but except for the opening action scene, it seemed like a rip-off of other films. The final fight was more like something out of a Steven Segal movie or an episode of MacGyver than a James Bond film. Javier Barden gives a fine performance as the rouge psychopathic agent Silva. The character’s general disregard for human life (as evidenced by his callous murder of the lady companion that allows herself to be seduced by Bond and his attempt to have ‘M’ kill herself and him at the same time instead of just shooting her himself) and psychotic demeanor reminded me a lot of the Joker in the Batman movie ‘The Dark Knight’. Even some of Silva’s battle plans are similar to the Joker’s. Silva lets himself be captured by MI6 so he can attack from within just like the Joker allows himself to get captured by the NYPD so he can blow up the police station from the inside. Even the entire scenario of Bond retiring after his supposed death and then making a physically and mentally unprepared comeback is reminiscent of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

  I thought Skyfall was entertaining but nothing close to being the best Bond movie ever made and I’d put it in third place among the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. I was wondering why it took four years to make this movie and I think the reason wasn’t because of MGM’s financial problems, but rather to get a little distance between it and the Batman movie it copied so much from.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Laker Delusions

  Last week, the Los Angeles Lakers fired their head coach Mike Brown after the team went winless in the preseason (0-8) and started the season by winning one of their first five games. Brown took over last season with a four-year 18 million dollar contract, replacing retired legendary coach Phil Jackson and led the team to a 41-25 regular season record, good enough for a third place finish in the Western Conference. After squeaking by the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers were defeated soundly by the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the second round.

  In their desperation to squeeze another championship out of the Kobe Bryant era, the Lakers rebuilt their roster in the offseason. They obtained two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash as a free agent and got six time All-Star center Dwight Howard in a trade for oft-injured center Andrew Bynum. Bynum was projected to be the centerpiece of the post-Bryant Lakers, but had fallen out of favor with his injuries and questionable work ethic.

  Laker fans had visions of their new ‘Big 3’ of Bryant, Nash, and Howard not only winning the Western Conference, but also being able to take the championship away from the Miami Heat’s trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. These hopes were bolstered when the Western Conference Champion Thunder traded Olympian James Harden to the Houston Rockets rather than give him a long term contract that would put the team over the salary cap and compel them to pay a luxury tax.

  Even with Nash getting injured in the second game of the season and Howard not playing in the preseason while he recovered from offseason back surgery, losing four of the first five games was not how Laker management envisioned their season starting and Brown was fired just a day after being given a ‘vote of confidence’ from Jim Buss, the Lakers executive vice-president and son of owner Jerry Buss. I think that if a coach that was given a four-year 18 million dollar contract was fired after one season and five games, the man who signed him to the contract should be walking out the door with the coach, but I might think differently if I owned a basketball team and my son was hiring and firing the coach.

  Mike Brown was the NBA Coach of the Year in 2009, a year after taking the LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. He was the biggest coaching name available to the Lakers, who like to have a big name coaching their team. After last seasons’ disappointing playoff loss, Brown decided to install the ‘Princeton Offense’, which relies on precision movement and is generally thought of as an offense used to help teams with inferior talent compete against superior opponents. The new offense came under fire with the dismal start and was no doubt the primary cause of Brown’s dismissal. It is interesting to note that the 2 main candidates to replace Brown also have trademark offenses; 11-time NBA championship coach Phil Jackson uses the ‘Triangle’ offense and Mike D’Antoni has a fast break offense that asks his teams to take the first good shot and generally try to outscore the opposition.

  Firing the coach, any coach, for not winning enough at the beginning of the season is straight out of the Yankee playbook of the 1980s. In 1985, Yogi Berra was the manager of the Yankees and they lost the first two games of the season to the Red Sox. Owner George Steinbrenner declared that the third game of the series was a ’big game’. The Yankees lost that game and Steinbrenner was livid. The Yankees evened their record at 5-5, but after losing 5 of 6 games to the Red Sox and White Sox, Yogi was fired with a 6-10 record despite Steinbrenner’s preseason pledge that Yogi was going to be the manager the entire season.

  Another page out of the 1980’s Yankee playbook that the Lakers seem to have adopted is getting the biggest names available and expecting them to not only immediately mesh, but also play at peak levels established many years ago. New point guard Steve Nash is a two-time NBA MVP and an eight time all-star. Steve Nash is also 38 years old. Kobe Bryant has been an All-Star every year in this century and has five championship rings. Kobe Bryant is 34 years old and has played almost a hundred games a year for the last 18 years (counting playoffs and Olympics, etc...). Two other big name holdovers, Pau Gausol and Metta World Peace (the former Ron Artest) are 32 and 33 years old.

  Getting Dwight Howard makes a lot of sense to me. At 27, Howard is still in his prime years and is arguably the best center in the league IF he can come back from his recent back surgery. Howard made a lot of bad press for himself with his demands to be traded from the Orlando Magic team alternating with his holding out the promise of resigning with the Magic in return for more say in the management personnel. The Lakers understand that these issues are solved by winning. Howard’s circumstances are very similar to the last big-name center the Lakers received from the Magic, Shaquille O’Neal. Like Howard, O’Neal had led his team to the NBA finals but forced his way out of Orlando when he came to the conclusion that the Magic was never going to be able to provide him with the supporting players to help him win a championship. The only question I have about Howard is that while he has been a defensive giant (three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year) in Orlando, he constantly complained about not getting enough shots. If this behavior continues in Los Angeles, he could ignite what promises to be an uneasy chemistry.

  On Monday, D’Antoni was hired to a three year, twelve million dollar contract to coach the Lakers, whose will now be paying both Brown and D’Antoni at least four million dollars a year apiece to coach and not coach the team. Will the Lakers be able to contend for a championship? With the exception of Howard, none of their star players will be any better this year than they were last year. And last year this team was barely good enough to get to the second round of the playoffs. If the Lakers fall short, there will be plenty of people saying they should have hired Phil Jackson to be the coach, but the team didn’t look like champions two years ago in Jackson’s last season when they were swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks.

  If the entire Lakers team is healthy going into the playoffs and can stay healthy through them, there is a possibility of them making the Finals (especially if Thunder can’t replace Harden), but I can’t see them getting out of the Western Conference. There are too many younger, more talented teams like the Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Nuggets for an aging team to fight through and the experienced teams like the Spurs, Heat, and Celtics have talent just as good if not better. If the rules are changed to allow the Lakers 30-plus year old superstars to bring their scrapbooks on the court with them, I may have to revise my prediction.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Birthday Time

We turned two on Thursday.
Here's some of our presents!

  Well Daisy, it looks like another year has gone by and now we’re two years old. Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday, Baxter! Hank said we could write his blog this weekend for our birthday. I wanted to do a taste comparison of all the different type of fried chicken but Hank and Kathy wouldn’t take us out to get all the different kinds of chicken we need. I wanted to compare pizzas. YUM!!! I love pizza! We can walk to 4 pizza places and all the other ones deliver, but they said no to that too. I guess now that we’re not as young as we used to be, they don’t want us to overeat. Hank didn’t even stay home on our birthday and when he did come home, he went to play chess. Hank said it was his chess night, whatever that means. They probably don’t want to take us out for chicken and pizza because when we find a chicken bone on our walks they take it away from us real quick. They say that it’ll make us sick and then they reach into our mouths and pull the little pieces of bone out. I‘m mad they wouldn’t take us out for chicken and pizza taste tests. After all, our blogs comparing the different beef sticks and hamburgers were some of Hank’s most popular posts this year. And writing is easier with a belly full of chicken or pizza.

Presents!! Turkey!! We love Christmas!!

  Right after our birthday last year, Kathy put up a tree in the big playroom and everyone decorated it. They put packages underneath the tree, but yelled at us whenever we tried to see what was in them. After around a month, they opened the packages and Kathy cooked a giant turkey and all kinds of other food! The house smelled great! Most of the packages were presents for Kathy, Hank, Matt, and Ben. But Baxter and I each got some toys and a big bone. After we played with our toys and chewed our bones, Kathy’s mom came over, everyone ate and then Hank took apart the turkey and put it in a bag. But he also gave us lots of scraps. YUM!!! I love turkey! YUM!!!

  Yes. The turkey was so good. I wish Kathy would cook turkey more. It was cold for a long time after that but Hank still took us for a walk every day before he left us for work and on the days he didn’t leave he and Kathy would take us for walks to the Jiffy and Kum & Go to get beef sticks and coffee.   I love beef sticks! YUM!! I don’t mind walking when it’s cold but when the ground is covered with snow there isn’t as much food to scrounge and the vomit stands out so Hank and Kathy see it and don’t let us eat it.

We lost a good friend in Mindy, but Abby is our new friend.

  We were sad in January because our friend Mindy got sick and died. Mindy was the Cairn terrier that lived with our friends Bill, Marilyn, and Becky. We used to visit her almost every day. That was sad and I still miss Mindy, but a little later they got a new Cairn terrier named Abby and now we go to visit her.

  When the weather got warmer, we went for more walks. Sometime we get beef sticks three times in one day. Matthew was hardly ever home, but when he was we got to go to walk by the pond. The pond is so much fun. There are all kinds of smells and people and dogs to bark at! I don’t like to bark at the people and dogs, but Daisy starts and then I can’t help myself and start barking too. Hank and Kathy get really mad at me when I snarl at everything that moves and start barking. Sometimes I get a spank. But they know that we’re dogs and can’t help but bark. When we don’t bark at someone they praise us and tell us what good dogs we are.   My favorite thing to do on our walks is to try to catch squirrels, I try to creep up on them and when I’m close enough I lunge at them. I haven’t caught one yet, but someday I’ll catch a squirrel. Last week I found a squirrel foot on the ground. I started chewing on it, but Kathy took it away. I was so sad.

I'll catch a squirrel somday...

  Hank and Kathy take good care of us. Hank brushes our teeth and cuts our nails. When Daisy had a rash on her lips Kathy took her to the doctor and smeared white stuff her lips 2 or three times a day. Kathy also takes us on a big walk every morning past some basset hounds. Basset Hounds are funny looking! Hank always gives us some of his food and Kathy gives us peanuts! I love peanuts! YUM!!

  In the summer we went to the doctor, but instead of just staying there for an hour like normal, Kathy left us there for a whole week while everyone else went to New Jersey for a vacation! At first we were scared, but after a while we got used to it and spent all day barking at all the other dogs that were there. I hope the next time they take a vacation we get to go along with them. The doctor didn’t have any beef sticks! When we got back home we got a lot of attention. I think they missed us a lot.

  For our birthday, we got some bones, some beef stick treats, toys, and a can of dog food for dinner (we always have dry dog food). Monica and Katie are going to pay us a visit next week. I like when Monica and Katie come to visit us because then we get extra attention. We love extra attention. Daisy hangs out with Kathy and Monica and Katie rubs my tummy. I love having my tummy rubbed!

Monica and Katie pay lots of attention to us when they visit.

  It’s been a fun year. I’m looking forward to our next birthday already, Baxter! Me too, Daisy! And soon it will be Christmas and we’ll have more turkey! YUM!!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Log Jam

Could these little trophies cause a problem? Maybe...

  I’ll hold my 24th consecutive monthly youth chess tournament in the Des Moines area in December. I consider this an achievment in consistency and imagination (qualities that rarely go hand in hand). In creating this tournament series, I have constantly been challenged to think outside the box from having an outdoor playing site in the summer to keeping costs down by making my own medals to creating a website with statistics and pictures to devising my own custom rating system. Looking back after two years, these tournaments are a signature piece of work that I am exceedingly proud of, especially considering the state of disrepair the area's youth chess scene was in when I started them.

  From 2006 to 2008, I did the scholastic program for the state chess association and continued their tradition of having 2 of the major tournaments in Des Moines. I also had 3 other youth tournaments a year at the Golden Teapot Chinese Tea House in West Des Moines. When I gave up the state scholastics, the first thing my replacements did was to remove one of the big state tournaments from the Des Moines area and then a local chess teacher went to the Golden Teapot owners and convinced them to let him run chess tournaments there instead of me, but ended up only running 3 adult tournaments and no youth tournaments. Without local tournaments, the remaining state scholastic tournament had poor attendance. The state tournament in February 2010 ended up being the only youth chess tournament in Des Moines in 2010 and was not rescheduled for 2011.

  At that point I started teaching chess at the St. Francis Chess Club in return for the ability to be able to run youth chess tournaments in the cafeteria and decided that I would run monthly youth tournaments. I started this incarnation in January 2011 from scratch with the same format as my Golden Teapot tournaments: 21 trophies in the nationally rated section for a $10 entry fee and medals in the unrated section meant for beginners for a $3 entry fee. I never like to have anyone leave my tournaments empty-handed so I gave out a different participation button at each tournament. I had good attendance and broke even moneywise. As the weather got warmer my attendance shrunk, so for the summer months I rented an outdoor shelter and had quick chess tournaments that lasted from 11 to 1:30 with a $3 entry fee and medal prizes.

  The quick chess tournaments weren’t well attended, but the idea of having a tournament in three hours instead of five or six hours made a lot of sense to me. When I started back at St. Francis in September of 2011, I had separate morning and afternoon three hour tournaments that I called ‘Youth Chess Doubleheaders’.

  The doubleheader idea was and is very popular with the parents of Des Moines chess players. For most of these kids, chess is a hobby. As an all-day activity, it comes behind sports, scouts, and academic pursuits, but is the perfect complement for any of those activities and even if the child is free for the entire day, a half a day of chess is just about the right amount. Only one out of six players stays all day at my tournaments.

  For my doubleheader tournaments, I charged $5 for half a day and $8 for a whole day and everyone got a custom made participation medal (no more buttons). I only gave trophies to the top 5 scoring players in the rated section while the top 5 unrated players would get a printed plate for the back of their medal to show their place. The attendance was outstanding for the entire school year but I was getting more unrated players than rated players so in 2012 I decided to give out trophies for the unrated players as well as the rated players.

  In 2011, the top unrated players would more often than not get a USCF membership and try their luck against the better players. Almost all would struggle at first against stiffer competition. Many would rise to the challenge and take an occasional turn among the rated trophy winners while the very few players that could not compete in the new level of competition would go back to playing in the unrated section. That is the scenario I envisioned when I decided on the format of an experienced and beginner section – beginning players having a place to compete in tournaments, have success, and then move on to the next level. In the summer I went back outdoors for medal prizes and a minimal entry fee and was back at St. Francis in September.

  Adding the trophies for the beginning players has led to an unintended consequence. In my last 3 indoor tournaments I still have many more players competing in the beginner section than the experienced section and I’ve only had a couple of unrated prize winners move up to the rated section. The rest of the beginner prize winners are content to stay in their section and have an easier path to a trophy. The pool of experienced players is shrinking. The real beginner players are getting discouraged in their first few tournaments because they have to take on experienced players that haven’t moved into a higher section because they’re gunning for a trophy. And the players that are winning the beginner trophies aren’t improving as quickly as they could because they’re not playing stronger competition.

  Even though the attendance at my last 3 tournaments has been comparable to last years, I can see signs of decay and discouragement due to the log jam of players in the beginner section that are not only flooding my beginner tournaments but also drying out the experienced section.

  I was thinking that once new players found some success in the beginner section they would naturally want to test themselves against stronger competition. It hasn’t been the case. I’m not sure whether it’s the security of knowing they’ll be one of the better players in their section, the insecurity of facing the possibility of stepping up in class and losing a lot, not being able to afford the USCF membership, or just wanting to win a trophy keeping the players from moving up. The coolness of my trophies this fall is likely a contributing factor. Instead of getting trophies with chess pieces on top, I got Halloween Trophies in October with a witch & pumpkin on top and Thanksgiving trophies for November with a turkey on top and next month I’ll be having Santa trophies like last year!

  I’d been noodling around with a number of possible solutions to encourage or enforce a migration. I could stop giving out trophies in the beginner section and lower their entry fees; give the winner a USCF membership and not allow them to play in the beginner section for a few months; make the rated section trophies more attractive than the beginner trophies, etc… I’ve also toyed with the idea of getting rid of the trophies for everybody and try to guide the tournaments back into the realm of fun (playing for the enjoyment of it) instead of the realm of victory (winning the trophy). I know that you can never completely eliminate victory from a competition, but reducing the spoils to a sticker on a medal will diminish it severely.

  I consider this a pretty big decision as far as running youth chess tournaments go (although not on the order of choosing which Harvard educated millionaire will lead the country). I asked one of my youth players who wins the occasional trophy in the rated tournaments and he told me that he thought it was cool to have a chance at a trophy. I’ve asked a couple of non-chess people that work with kids and they told me that they don’t see a problem. I don’t have to make any decisions until next month, so I’ll be able to gather more opinions and think it through. I agree that it is cool to have a chance at a trophy but I disagree that there isn’t a problem. I’ve seen so many players give up playing when they see the prizes for the select few out of their reach and I think I have a whole group of players near that tipping point.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Shocks To The System

  In August, the family and I went on a week’s vacation at Seaside Heights, New Jersey. We had gone every other year or so, but after this week’s storm I don’t know if we’ll ever get to go there again. Super storm Sandy has obliterated the boardwalk and the amusement parks at either end of the boardwalk although it appears that like the row of stores facing the boardwalk is still intact. The boardwalk can always be rebuilt, but I can’t imagine that the amusement parks and boardwalk games business show enough profit to justify their re-creation instead of the owners taking their insurance money and selling their property.

Seaside Heights, New Jersey in August of this year.
Click Here to see what it looks like after Hurricane Sandy.

  As soon as I was old enough to drive I’ve been going to Seaside Heights and over 30 years seen the encroachment of mini gated communities in giant apartment complexes to within two blocks of the boardwalk and I’m sure that the ‘moneyed’ classes will use this opportunity to build even more valuable properties even closer to the beach. I could see Seaside Heights becoming like many of the other towns along the shore that discourage visitors by not having any food or amusements nearby and living off the property taxes from the expensive properties. To quote former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." And for some people that will mean semi-privatizing some of the shore that has suddenly become available.

  As shocking as it was to see one of my favorite places in the world obliterated, I received another shock when I looked at a reply email to the youth chess tournament I was running and noticed that I had mentioned that the tournament was free. Yes, FREE! A few weeks before every tournament I take the previous months email, change the dates and some other information, and send it out to my mailing list. My last month’s email was for the free National Chess Day tournament and I forgot to remove the word free when I copied the email.

  In ‘The Hustler’s Handbook’, Bill Veeck says that mistakes should not only be acknowledged, they should be celebrated! As an example, he talks about the time when as the owner/GM of the Cleveland Indians in the 1940’s he tried to trade his Hall of Fame manager and shortstop Lou Boudreau for half of the St. Louis Browns baseball team. The trade fell through, but not before the papers caught wind of the trade of Cleveland’s beloved boy manager. Instead of denying he had attempted to trade Boudreau, Veeck went to every baseball dinner in and around Cleveland that year and let the fans tell him what a fool he was and tell them that they had convinced him not to trade Boudreau after all.

  I had no need to do anything as drastic as what Veeck did, but since at least some of the people were expecting a free tournament I decided to ‘celebrate’ my mistake and make it a free tournament for everyone. I didn’t announce it or make a big deal out of it – I was just going to tell people the tournament was free if they tried to pay me.

  I had about 25 players as of Friday morning, but on Friday I got another 2 dozen signups. I needed to make more participation medals, so I got all my medals, labels, and ribbons in front of the TV and got to work. I turned the TV to the USA network expecting to see some reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit but there was a Hurricane Sandy relief concert on instead. I made the medals listening to Billy Joel, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen (along with some other singers that I’m too old to know) and then the idea hit me that I could ask for donations at the tournament.

Sometimes all you have to do is ask!

  I put a note on the door mentioning that the tournament was free but I would be taking donations. Hardly anyone caught my email mistake and everyone seemed to want to contribute. When someone tried to give me money, I just pointed them to the cash box and let them put in what they wanted to. I was surprised when people told me they didn’t know I was from New Jersey but I forgot to ask if they thought I was from Iowa.

  I got another half dozen entries on Saturday and, aided greatly by the end of scholastic football and soccer, the 56 players was the most I’ve had since April. The players had a great time, but the tournament one of my most inept efforts at running a tournament. I had a player who wanted to play in the morning assigned to the afternoon tournament and had to give him a bye in the first round when I had everyone but him playing. Then in the afternoon I made a mistake entering the results and had all the players who had sat down and were ready to play stop until I could correct my mistake and re-pair the round. I’ve never run a perfect tournament, but these are the kind of mistakes that disrupt the playing experience and luckily I don’t make them very often.

  This tournament had me asking myself if I could have free tournaments and break even on donations. I might be crazy but I think it could work and at the same time help me solve some of the problems I’ve seen crop up in my tournament series since I’ve moved back indoors.

  $304 was raised and I’ll get it sent to the Salvation Army office closest to Seaside Heights this week. I wanted to get the accidental nature of how I came up with the idea for the donation written down while it was still fresh in my mind. I know in a few years (or maybe next week), I’ll remember this tournament as the time I had this great idea to donate the tournament proceeds to Hurricane Sandy relief.