Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Speed Chess

  Yesterday I had my speed chess exhibition at the Marshall Town Center Mall. I’m not the best chess player in the country or Iowa or Marshalltown or even my chess club, so why am I doing a chess exhibition? I asked myself the same question.

  I’ve finished second or third in the last three Iowa State Fair speed chess tournaments, I’m currently the 43rd ranked player in Iowa out of 474 active nationally ranked players, and I did win a couple of national G/30 class championships in the previous decade. This makes me much stronger than almost any casual player that would decide to take part in the exhibition. But that’s not what qualifies me to hold a chess exhibition.

  So what does qualify me to have a chess exhibition? I’m willing to get involved and don’t mind risking the potential ‘embarrassment’ of losing a bunch of games or not having anyone show up to play me. I’m willing to spend the time to make the arrangements with the mall and the Salvation Army, write up a press release, and meet with radio and newspaper people. And I’m willing to show up on time, have the exhibition, and chat people up to try to get them to play.

  I used the word ‘willing’ three times in the last paragraph and that’s no accident. In my experience, simply being willing to get things done is the primary factor of the success or failure of any endeavor. While it helps to have a good idea and good planning, I’ve found that even the best ideas and plans won’t overcome a lack of effort and having a person or a group of people willing to take care of the things that need to be taken care can make a bad idea look good and a garbage plan look like genius. And that is what qualifies me to have an exhibition. The fact that I’m willing to.

A busy week at the Marshalltown Salvation Army, even for the Majors' dog Henry!

  The best thing about doing something like the exhibition for the Marshalltown Salvation Army is being able to help a bunch of great people who also are willing to get things done. When the tornado destroyed the towns of Applington and Parkersburg in 2008, the at-youth director Keith, my friend Ed, and Majors John and Judith McCarty worked day and night for over two weeks to collect and deliver supplies to the disaster stricken town 90 miles north of Marshalltown. Every November, I’ve seen Major John go through the labor-intensive process of scheduling the red-kettle bell ringing sites and lining up volunteers. Then in December I watch the Major and Keith collect the kettles late at night while Major Judith makes a snack for the bell ringers.

  On Thursday, I got to the Salvation Army for our weekly chess club at 5pm on Thursday as normal and instead of the big meeting room we normally use being empty, one wall was packed from floor to ceiling with empty boxes and all the tables except a couple were full of canned goods and household items. I took a walk into the gym and it was full of toys and blankets. The food was going to be put into the boxes to give to needy families for Christmas and the toys were all gathered by the Marines as part of their annual ‘Toys for Tots’ program.

  The blankets were another story and shows how being willing to do something can make a difference. One of the Salvation Army workers said that he was talking to someone he knew who worked with the Red Cross that told him they had a bunch of stuff in the basement of a nearby building that had been laying around since the Marshalltown office was closed last year. The worker went to take a look and there were dozens of army cots, army blankets, and boxes and boxes of homemade quilts. He took the whole lot, found a group that could use the cots and will get the army blankets and homemade quilts to families that can use them. I wonder what all the people who donated or made the quilts would think if they knew they had been sitting in some basement for at least a year and a half instead of being put to good use. It seems the Red Cross was willing to let these supplies sit unused, while the Salvation Army was willing to pick them up and get them to people that can use them.

  In the exhibition, I was going to take on all comers in time odds chess where I’d have one minute to opponents ten. I practiced by playing plenty of one-minute chess on the internet and giving the same time odds at club the past two weeks. I lost quite a few games at club but except for one beatdown by Scott, every other game I lost was when I ran out of time a move or two away from checkmate.

  Despite my rocky time at club, it was good to have some practice under real conditions. There is a huge difference between playing on the internet against an unseen adversary in the comfort of your home moving the pieces with a mouse as opposed to moving the pieces by hand with your move ending by pressing the clock sitting on a plastic or metal chair with people watching and talking against an opponent so close to you that you can tell what they ate for their last meal.

Floyd the bell ringer is hard at work. That's really the 'Sports Page' not the 'Spots Page', but if they lost the 'S's it might be the 'Pot Page'.

  I got to the mall a half hour before the noon starting time and started setting up shop on the two tables that the management provided for me by an elevated area near the JC Penney entrance. There was a Salvation Army bell ringer named Floyd at the entrance. He was playing Christmas music from his boom box and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Since there was already a bell ringer present and another kettle by the ‘Pictures with Santa’ concession there would be no need for me to be ringing the bell where I was stationed.

  The mall has fallen on hard times lately. When we first moved to Marshalltown, it was full of stores and had a comic book/sports card shop, a dollar store, a video arcade, Walden Books, 3 or four places to eat, a Sam Goody music store, and a Hallmark shop. None of those stores are there now. The Menards home improvement center opened up a superstore less than a mile away, depriving the mall of one of its three anchors (along with Younkers and Penney). The Mall has rebounded in the last few months with the opening of an art gallery, knick knack store, and a miniature golf course, but I was struck by how little foot traffic there was.

A good start against Eric and Scott.

  My first two customers were chess club members, Eric and Scott. Eric hasn’t been to club the past month but decided to spend some time playing this day. Scott beat me twice at the exhibition time odds at club and wanted to see if he could do it under ‘game’ conditions. I started off pretty dialed in and was able to beat both Eric and Scott two or three times each. I never had more than ten seconds on my clock in any of my wins. As absurd as it sounds with only a minute to make all my moves, I was exceptionally patient and was able to just make good moves and take advantage of my opponent’s mistakes, snag a pawn or a piece, trade down, make a queen and get a checkmate. Scot had to leave, but Eric kept on going and after another half hour of playing, I had a checkmate in one move against Eric, but only a single second on my clock. Eric made his move and as I swooped my rook down to checkmate his king, my second ran out before I could stop the timer and Eric won one of the tournament chess sets I was giving away to anyone who defeated me.

  After Eric beat me, I had no other takers for a while. A lot of people would walk back and forth looking, but no one wanted to play because they didn’t think they could win. I could see if the exhibition was lasting a minute against an MMA fighter, but this is just a game of chess. Maybe I would do better by having a Sudoku or Tic-Tac-Toe exhibition. One of the onlookers was Ken, the guy who put in my kitchen floor and sink a few years ago. He thought he would embarrass himself by playing but did make a donation to the kettle and watched me play Eric once to get the feel for the speed chess. Try as I might, I couldn’t talk Ken into playing.

Casual player Rosa
  After Ken and Eric left, I passed the time by studying some games from the best tournament book ever written (in my opinion), Zurich 1953 by David Bronstien. Around two thirty, a girl named Rosa came up and wanted to play. She didn’t want to use the clock so we played a casual game and then I was back to studying for another half hour when Steve and Mike Anderson showed up. Mike is a senior at Coe College who came to the club for one year in the mid 2000’s and Steve is his dad. Mike’s older brother Aaron is an accomplished chess player who came to the club for many years and was on the high school chess team with my sons Matt and Ben. Mike had a lot of promise as a chess player, but he was very talented in a lot of different areas. He wrote a column for the local paper and was the drum major of the marching band and won the Fisher Controls scholarship and just didn’t have the time to put into chess.

Mike and Steve Anderson. Mike used nine minutes and 53 seconds to beat me on his third try.

  I beat Mike fairly easily the first two games and then played Steve. Steve is a genius programmer at Fisher Controls who has designed much of the software that controls the valves they produce and is in charge of his own division there. He was pretty nervous playing me and even took his own piece one time. I think this was the first time he ever played with a clock and was moving about as fast as I was.

  After beating Steve, Seth from our club showed up. Seth is a young kid that has a lot of promise as a chess player but has a bright future ahead of him in any field he wants to apply himself to. At club, he beat me in every one of our handicap practice matches where he took his time and lost whenever he tried to match my speed. Seth wanted to watch me play once so Mike decided to play me again. Mike lost a piece quickly but then got the position all locked up with our two armies’ pawns forming an impenetrable barrier. I finally broke through the wall of pawns, but then made my first bad move of the day and lost my extra piece with 10 seconds left. The position was even and I kept trying to trick Mike into making an illegal move (in which case I’d get an extra ten seconds), but Mike was extra careful and I ran out of time with Mike having only seven seconds left on his clock to win the second chess set of the day.

Jim was so dazzled by my speed chess brilliance that he wanted my autograph!

  Mike and Steve then left and Seth and I started to battle. Seth was moving way too fast in the beginning and only taking his time after I won a piece or a couple of pawns and I won each game with a second or two on my clock. As we were playing an old fellow came over to play. His name was Jim and he didn’t remember me but ten years ago he called me and asked me to set his computer up so he could play internet chess. Jim was told about the exhibition by Mark Smith (the local state representative) and he wanted to play but without the clock because he was 75 years old. After a little give and take, we decided on Jim getting 15 minutes and me getting one minute to play. Jim was another guy who wanted to move as fast as I did. I beat him with 20 seconds left, meaning I used 40 seconds. But Jim only used 100 seconds himself! I decided to give Jim one of my chess sets for coming out to play and he was so happy he had me autograph the flyer of the event for him! He promised to come to our club if we didn’t make him use a clock and then he left to get his wife’s medicine.

  After having my moment as a ‘big shot’ by giving out an autograph, I was back to playing Seth again. I beat him a couple of more times until he finally started to slow down in the beginning of the game. Seth was much harder to beat once he slowed down and after a couple of close calls he finally ran me out of time and collected his chess set.

Wrapping up with Seth (left) and Jaleb.

  After winning his chess set, Seth went back to his old ways of moving as fast as humanly possible and I won a couple of more games and then Jaleb Jay showed up. Jaleb was a club regular for five years until heading to Iowa State University this year and I hadn’t seen him since we went to play in the Jackson Open in August (where he won second place and $200). After catching up, Jaleb decided to try to win a chess set. Jaleb is a better player than me, but I was eager to play because beating him at time odds would be worth lifetime bragging rights. Unfortunately I went down in flames and he won the fourth chess set of the day. We then played three three-minute games and split them (one win each and a draw). Then Jaleb played Seth at the same time odds as I did and just crushed him two times. Jaleb is much more of an attacking player than I am and beat Seth with middlegame attacks that took the clock almost out of the equation.

  At that point it was six o’clock and the exhibition was over. Floyd was still in the mall entrance ringing his bell when I carried my chess stuff to my car. I wish more people had come out to play, but I would have wished that even if I played a hundred people. I was happy that enough people were willing to come out to keep me busy for most of the afternoon and a special treat to run into Mike, Steve, and Jim. It was a great day and any time I use to help the Salvation Army (who has hosted our chess club for a dozen years) is time very well spent. Having only one minute for a chess game really gets my adrenaline flowing. There is no time for worries, thought, reflections, or recriminations. There is only time for chess and it is a pretty addicting experience. It was quite a rush to play a whole afternoon of one minute chess and has my brain thinking about how I can try to have the same type of thing in Des Moines someday.