Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Decision

  In the spring of 2010, basketball superstar LeBron James made a decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and ‘take his talents’ to the Miami Heat. He not only made the decision, he announced it in an hour long ESPN special entitled ‘The Decision’. I don’t think anyone outside Cleveland blamed James for getting out of a poorly managed franchise in a cold weather town to play in the warmth of Florida and a franchise run by Hall of Fame coach and GM Pat Riley. The idea of creating a prime time show to announce the decision was perceived as arrogant by sports fans. At the giant ceremony unveiling the Heats ‘Big 3’ of James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, James’ prediction of eight championships for the Heat made LeBron James and the Heat easy to root against in a Yankee sort of way.

  In 2011, the Heat made it to the NBA finals, but were defeated by an inspired Dallas Mavericks team for the championship. James came under withering criticism as a poor leader who choked in the fourth quarter and couldn’t lead his team to a single championship, much less eight as he promised the previous summer.

  2012 proved to be a different story. James won the Most Valuable Player award and led the Heat to a crucial win against the Boston Celtics on the road in an elimination game to get the Heat to the finals and followed that by averaging 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists per game in the Heat’s five game finals victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. James won the Finals MVP, an Olympic gold medal over the summer, and was recently named the 2012 Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. With the this year’s NBA season nearly a third over, sports discussions about LeBron James are centered about his chances of leading the Miami Heat to a repeat championship and ‘The Decision’ Is a thing of the past.

  I’ve been wrestling with my own decision over the last couple of months concerning my monthly youth chess tournaments. As I wrote last month, ever since I added trophy prizes to the beginner (unrated) sections, the top beginners have chosen to continue playing with the beginners rather than move on to the more advanced (rated) section.

  I received a lot of feedback and suggestions about this issue. President Obama wrote to say I should award a trophy to every player. Then everyone would move up to the advanced section and I could pay for my expenses by raising the entry fee for anyone whose parents make more than $250,000 a year and if I was a little short on funds I could borrow the money to pay for the trophies. House Speaker Boehner wrote to me the next week and said increasing the entry fees on the wealthy was wrong and the president’s plan would lead to out of control spending. He suggested I only give out a trophy to the top 1 percent of the participants, but make them really, really nice trophies that cost as much or more as I could expect to take in in entry fees and if I was a little short on funds I could borrow the money to pay for the really nice trophies.

  There were a lot of suggestions from chess players and parents also. Most of the parents of the better beginner players want their children to move up and were OK with losing the trophies for the beginning players. Some of the parents recommended phasing out the trophies while others wanted to put a limit on how many times a player could win the beginner section. Other parents didn’t see any problem at all and wondered why I saw a problem in the first place.

  In a perfect world, the best idea is to force a consistent winner in the beginner section to move up. Unfortunately, the world isn’t perfect and not only would it be a lot to keep track of, I can imagine the players and parents being confused about which section they were eligible to play in. No one comes to a chess tournament looking for a surprise and I wouldn’t make any friends if I had to start telling players they had to play in a stronger section when they weren’t expecting to because they had won the beginner section too many times.

  I think it’s important to keep things as simple as possible and I strive for simplicity in most things I do. I’ve never had a car with power windows or power locks because to me it’s just one more thing to go wrong in a car. At work, the business applications I write tend not to be thought of very highly by the people who make a living designing the colors and fonts and spacing and fancy pictures because I don’t use a lot of colors and fonts and ‘sizzle’, but the people who have to use the applications daily almost always love how simple they are to use.

  Viewing my beginner section trophy ‘problem’ through the prism of simplicity, the approach I wanted to take became clear and I was able to make my decision with a clear conscience. I’ve decided to not have trophies at all. Everyone will still get a medal and I’ll recognize the top finishers in each section with a nice looking but fairly generic ribbon.

  There are many positives to not having trophies. The players can still play in whatever section they want. The entry fee will be lowered to my summertime levels ($3 for half a day and $5 for a whole day). I can give out the ribbons to 10th place including ties as opposed to trophoes to the top 5 period (no tiebreaks). A minor (but important) consideration is that I‘m always assured of breaking even moneywise for this tournament format and it takes me a step further down the desired path of having tournaments with no entry fee and only a freewill donation.

  Of course, this decision is not a slam dunk to be successful. Without the lure of a trophy, some players may not come to the tournaments at all. I don’t think this is going to happen on a mass scale but it could set my tournament series back a lot if I’m wrong. I thought about this risk a lot. I had good attendance at my summer tournaments (which have never had trophy prizes) this year and that leads me to think I’ll keep my core players. If push comes to shove I can always go back to having trophies but if the lure of a trophy is the only thing keeping chess players coming to the tournaments maybe the whole concept of monthly tournaments is misguided and I should try for a different monthly chess activity.

  However my decision works out, I’m sure of at least a few things. I won’t be hoisting an NBA championship trophy in June and I won’t be getting named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated next December. I hope I have to settle for getting the ‘beginning’ chess players that come to my monthly tournaments trying to test themselves against better competition.