Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Conversation Pieces

  What do you say when someone says ‘How are you?’ When someone asks me that, I generally have to stop and think about it because I don’t think much about how I am. If I’m doing OK, I’ll say “I’m OK”; if I’m doing good, I’ll say “I’m doing good’. Every so often I’ll say “I’m great!” and if I’m feeling bad I’ll say “Hanging in there” because even though I’m feeling bad I’m not giving up. If I’m feeling impish I’ll say “Worst day of my life” just to see if the person asking me is even listening.

  I’ll say hi to everyone I know but I don’t ask too many people how they are. It’s not that I don’t care (although in many cases I don’t) but I’ve noticed I just get the same answer from the same people and it seems like a lot of wasted effort. There was one guy at work that would always say “super-fantastic” and I hope he was. If you want to see if someone is listening after they say ‘How are you?’ and you don’t want to say “Worst day of my life”, just say “I’m fine” and nothing more. If your mileage is anything like mine, at least half the time your partner in conversation will tell you their stock “How are you?” answer followed by an uncomfortable pause.

  If someone at a cash register or waiting on a table says “How are you?” to me, I will always tell them and ask “How are you?” right back. I like to do this because I hardly ever see anyone do this so I expect the service person would like to be asked and also because it generally takes the service person by surprise and one of my many quirks is that when I talk to strangers, I like to catch them off guard. One of the most common responses I hear when I ask “How are you?” is “Not too bad”. I have no idea what that means. If they’re not too bad they could be anything from really great to really, Really, REALLY bad. Here I am asking a simple question and I only get a sliver of an answer. Could you imagine asking somebody what the weather was outside and having them tell you, “It’s not too cold”. How about asking somebody the score of the big game and being told, “It’s not three to nothing”. If somebody asked my how a movie ended, I wouldn’t say “They didn’t all die!” Maybe the next time someone asks how to get to Route 30, I’ll just point in a random direction and say “It’s not that way”.

  I’ve always struggled with how to reply when someone tells me they’re “not too bad”. I used to say “I didn’t ask you how you aren’t.” but most people look at me like I have three eyes when I say that. I guess if they could follow that kind of logic they wouldn’t have said they weren’t too bad in the first place. Eventually, I gave up and now when someone tells me that they are “not too bad”. I just slowly repeat the words “not…too…bad”, which ends the conversation pretty quickly. Yesterday, I was getting gas at the Kum & Go in Marshalltown and the clerk said she was “well” and thanked me for asking.

  Another un-favorite phrase of mine is “No problem”. This is a fairly common reply I get when I thank someone for helping me. Maybe “no problem” means that I don’t need to thank anybody because it was “no problem” to help me, At least that’s something called the Wiktionary website says. I always take “no problem” to mean that if it was a problem I wouldn’t have gotten any help as opposed to a statement on the level of effort on the part of the person helping me. I’ve yet to thank anyone and have a reply like “You should thank me. It was a big problem to help you!”

  It’s bad enough to need someone’s help and even worse to be told no problem when you thank them but when I thank a customer service person and then they tell me it was “no problem” to help me that really riles me up. I always want say “I’m so glad that it was no problem for you to do your job” but I never do.

  In New Jersey, I had a guy named Marty working for me. Marty always said no problem when I asked him to do something. I eventually got him to stop saying it around me. One time we went to lunch and on the way back I stopped to get some gas. As New Jersey requires, the attendant came out, filled my tank and I paid him. The attendant gave me $10 too much change so I called him over and gave him his ten-spot. When the attendant thanked me, I deliberately said “No problem”. Marty was looking at me with a shocked expression and I told him that is really was no problem for me to give the attendant HIS money back.

  Something I hear a lot now instead of “Good-Bye” or “See you later” or “Have a nice day” is “Have a good one”. I know I’m getting old because I don’t have a clue what that means. Why only one? Can’t I have a good two? How about three? Saying “Have a good one” sounds kind of cool, but I’m afraid to say that to someone I don’t know. What if they’re going to a funeral? Or to a chemotherapy session? I wonder if death row inmates say “Have a good one” to each other?

  If you were to ask me how my football playoff picks were doing, I’d have to say pretty poorly. I was ahead by $190 going into the Ravens-Patriots game 2 Sundays ago. I had picked the Patriots and even though they were driving up and down the field in the first half, I knew I was in trouble when they had to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns and only held a 13-7 lead at the half. The Ravens took the lead early in the second half and while the Patriots where still driving up and down the field, they started turning the ball over instead of even getting field goals, leaving me with a loss and down $205 for the playoffs.

  I’ve picked against the Ravens three times and lost three times in the playoffs (My record is 4-4). The Super Bowl is the most gambled on football game because it is the last chance for the gamblers to catch up on the season and I am no exception even though my bets are only for fun and no real money is at stake. I like the 49ers to win the Super Bowl, but since I clearly have no clue when it comes to picking games involving the Ravens, instead of picking a winner I’ll bet the ‘over’ and wager $330 that more than 47 points will be scored in the game by both sides combined using the line established by on the Yahoo Sports odds page If I lose I’ll be down $535 for the playoffs and if you ask me how I am I'll say “Not too good”, but if I win I’ll be ahead by $95 and when you ask me how I am, I’ll say “Not too bad” and that my playoff bets were “no problem” and that I “Had a good one”.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Deck the Hall

  Two weeks ago the Baseball Writers Hall of America released the results of the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame selections and for only the second time in 40 years not a single player received the 75 percent of the votes required for entry to the Hall. It wasn’t as if this year’s ballot included a bunch of nobodies, it was full of baseball legends. There was Barry Bonds, seven time MVP as well as the single season and all-time home run leader; Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro who are eighth, tenth, and twelfth respectively on the all-time home run list; Roger Clemens, number 9 on the all-time wins list and third on the all-time strikeout list; Craig Biggio, whose 3,060 hits place him 21st all time; and Mike Piazza, regarded by many as the best hitting catcher ever.

  It’s no mystery why no one was selected to the baseball Hall of Fame. This was the first year on the ballot of the most successful suspected cheaters in baseball history (Bonds, Sosa, and Clemens). Bonds was never proven guilty of steroid use, but he acknowledged using the cream and the clear version of steroids with plausible deniability by saying that his trainer thought it was flaxseed oil. Sosa tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in a leaked MLB test in 2003. Palmeiro tested positive for steroids less than 6 months after wagging his finger at Congress telling them “I have never used steroids. Period.” in sworn testimony. McGwire admitted using steroids after years of denial in order to avoid the questions dogging him after he decided to become the Cardinal’s hitting coach.

  That leaves Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, and Piazza. Clemens was accused of using steroids by Brian McNamee, his personal trainer and the same man who shot Clemens' wife up with HGH (which Clemens’ wife admitted to taking but said it wasn’t in the presence of her husband). Former teammate Andy Petitte said under oath that Clemens told him he took HGH. The government took Clemens to trial for lying to Congress about never taking performance enhancing drugs, but the case fell apart when Petitte backed off his testimony and McNamee revealed the needles he saved from injecting Clemens were stored in an old beer can and Clemens was acquitted.

  There are allegations of Piazza’s steroid use. But where the statistics of Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa, and Palmeiro have them being much better in their mid to late 30’s than at any other point in their careers, Piazza was a beast of a player in his 20’s (hitting .320 + with 30+ homeruns), and as he moved into his 30’s managed to maintain his power numbers at the expense of his batting average, got hurt at the age of 34 and was a journeyman until his retirement at 38. Biggio had a longer career arc, but he never hit over .300 after the age of 32, although he did have a suspicious increase in his power numbers at age 38 and 39.

  Most of the sportswriters that I follow say that while Piazza and Biggio are worthy Hall of Famers, the reason they couldn’t be voted into the Hall is because of the cloud the steroid issue has put on baseball statistics. Statistics that would have been Hall worthy in the 70’s or 80’s look plain after the steroids era. Some even say that because the players union stonewalled drug testing efforts at every turn, even the ‘clean’ players benefitted from users in the form of greater salaries and therefore no player from the steroid era belongs in the Hall.

  I don’t like the idea of Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire and the rest of the steroid cheaters getting in the Hall of Fame but it won’t be the end of baseball if they do and someday they probably will gain entrance. Gaylord Perry won 314 games and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 in his fourth year of eligibility. Gaylord Perry was long suspected of throwing spitballs (a baseball loaded up with lubricant like Vaseline or K-Y Jelly that makes it curve in unpredictable ways). Perry was ejected from a game for cheating and after his career ended made a successful living on the banquet circuit bragging about his prowess at cheating and not getting caught. My point is that since some cheating has always been accepted in baseball keeping the current steroid cheaters out of the Hall of Fame is just a matter of being on the wrong side of a line that will likely shift as the years go by.

  Lance Armstrong recently admitted he cheated to win his seven Tour De France cycling championship, but that only had any impact because of his LiveStrong charity and his celebrity status as an American dominating a foreign sport. I don’t know many people who can name any of the other Tour riders. The steroid cheaters were a much bigger deal because baseball is a much bigger deal than cycling even if Lance Armstrong is arguably a bigger celebrity than any of the individual cheaters.

  I can even see a future where the steroid users will be celebrated as pioneers instead of their current pariah status. A compelling argument can be made that taking substances to enhance performance is perfectly acceptable in all other fields except sports. It’s OK to give children and adults drugs because they have attention deficit disorder. If a co-worker of mine that takes Adderall for their attention deficit disorder gets a promotion and I don’t, is that fair? Why should my children have to compete for college scholarships against other kids that have to take Prozac to function normally? Aren’t they taking performance enhancing drugs? I’m not saying people shouldn’t be allowed medicine in order to perform their best; I’m just saying that not allowing a professional athlete to use drugs to perform at their best could be seen as hypocritical Stone Age thinking at some point in the future. I don’t think I’ll ever come around to that point of view, but I’m something of a dinosaur anyway.

  I think the real damage done by the baseball cheaters and Armstrong is that any exceptional performance now comes with a suspicion of cheating. Derek Jeter is climbing the all-time hits leader charts. At the age of 38 Jeter had his best season in four years and the whispers of steroid use popped up. As big a Yankee fan as I am, I can’t say that in 10 years Jeter won’t be on the Oprah Winfrey Show talking about his steroid use. In 2009, Jose Bautista was a journeyman 28 year old outfielder who had never hit more than 16 home runs in a season. When Bautista hit 54 home runs in 2010 and 43 in 2011, it was immediately assumed that he had found a way to take performance enhancing drugs undetected.

  This immediate conclusion of cheating even cropped up in the chess world recently. Earlier in the month in Croatia, Borislav Ivanov had an exceptional performance in the Zadar Open. Ivanov finished third with a performance rating of 2697 that was over 400 points higher than his 2227 rating. In the first seven rounds of the nine round tournament he played 6 grandmasters, winning three; losing one; and drawing two. Ivanov was accused of cheating and searched for electronic equipment. Nothing was found, but the tournament organizers suspected Ivanov was receiving signals via skin implants and stopped the live broadcasting of the games before Round 8. When Ivanov lost his next game, this was generally accepted as proof of his cheating, but there was no explanation as to how he won his last round game against yet another grandmaster.

  Chessbase provided a link to a video by FIDE Master Valeri Lilov where he runs through all Ivanov’s games against the strongest computer engine (Houdini 3). Lilov shows how almost every one of Ivanov’s moves as the number one choice of the computer engine and makes a convincing argument that Ivanov was cheating except that when Ivanov’s moves don’t agree with the computer Lilov brushes it aside as a mistake in communication or a computer accident. It seemed to me that Lilov had made up his mind and was using his analysis to validate his conclusion.

  I don’t know if Ivanov was getting secret signals and I know that cheating in chess crops up from time to time, but it would be nice if an exceptional performance could be celebrated first and suspected second. The top ranked chess player in the world, Magnus Carlsen from Norway recently shattered Garry Kasparov’s record high rating (2851) in the recent for the highest rating at the London Chess Classic earlier this month. Carlsen has obliterated the competition at the Tata Steel Chess tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands with a score of 5 wins and 4 draws. Carlsens’s rating is now 2869 which is almost 60 points higher than his closest competitor. If this string of sterling performances continue, how long will it be before Carlsen is accused of cheating?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Competition’s Edge

Is getting a medal for participating and winning a ribbon enough to keep kids playing chess?

  On Saturday I held my first youth chess tournament at St. Francis since I made the decision not to have trophy prizes. As has been the case this school year, I had very few entries until the day before the tournament when I got a flood of entries to give me a total of 56 players (48 youth and eight parents). As a way of comparison, last January I had 69 players (54 youth and 15 parents). So it was a small drop off in players and a large drop off in parents.

  My performance as the tournament director was on the south side of competent. I wasn’t at the top of my game and made two major mistakes. One was something I did wrong and the other was something I didn’t do right. My sin of commission came when I entered a wrong result but it was caught by one of the players before the next round and no harm was done. The other mistake I made was one of omission. I didn’t notice that the only rated game left in a morning round until 11:10 didn’t have a clock (I bought new clocks and thought I’d given them to all the rated players). The game was going to last another 15 minutes and I really wanted the other players to get one more game in so I adjourned the game and had the players play it after the final round. It was uncomfortable but everyone understood and was happy to get the extra game in.

  Whatever my shortcomings as a tournament director were on Saturday, they were overcome by what I consider a stellar performance as the tournament organizer. For starters, I remembered everyone’s name except 2 players. When a game ended in a stalemate, I would sit the players down and explain how the stronger side could have gotten a checkmate. When I had an odd number of players in the afternoon session, I’d play a game with the odd person and go over some basic points of chess like developing pieces, controlling the center, and explaining simple tactics. This invariably drew a crowd of beginner players and their parents who got a lesson equal to any I gave at my chess camp last summer. When Tim McEntee (the life master and three time state chess champion from Ankeny) stopped by, I was able to introduce him to three first time tournament players from Ankeny. When kids learn chess in addition to playing and also make connections to other chess resources in the area, I like to think I’ve not only put on a tournament, I’ve raised awareness of chess in the area and that is an A+ job in my book.

No matter the prize,
checkmate is still checkmate!
  On the financial side, I had 36 players pay $3 for the morning or afternoon, 12 players pay $5 for both tournaments, and a $5 donation for a net of $173. I printed 56 medals at an estimated cost of $1.75 (including ink), $20 for ribbons, $13 to the national office for rating the tournament, and another $13 for a membership I bought a player to even out the sections for $144 in expenses. So without charging anyone more than $5, I paid for my gas and my lunch to boot.

  Not having trophies led to some disappointment on the part of the kids, but without the incentive some players moved from the unrated to the rated section and once the tournament started everyone forgot about the prizes and got to the business of chess. Instead of being asked by the players if their score was going to be good enough to win a trophy, I got asked which place ribbon the players would get if they won their last game. It was the same question and the players still wanted a ribbon with a higher place but I noticed a distinct lessening of the disappointment on the part of the players who finished outside the top ten for a ribbon as opposed to the players who just missed winning a trophy in prior months. The competition was still there but not nearly as edgy as before.

  One thing I’ll never know is how many people skipped my tournament because I didn’t offer any trophies this month. I was very upfront in my broadcast email so there wouldn’t be any surprises and I didn’t receive any feedback one way or the other. My son Matt teaches chess at three schools in Ames and he told me that not having the trophies was a risky move because many of the parents he talked to this week told him they preferred to drive 100 miles to play in a tournament in Cedar Rapids that had over 40 trophies instead of driving 30 miles to Des Moines for a tournament with no trophies.

  That’s all fine with me. I know quite a bit about the allure of chess trophies and I also know a little about selling victory as opposed to selling fun. I’ve also seen too many kids give up chess when they just miss out on a trophy one too many times. It comes down to a matter of values. I got an email on a Wednesday in October about a youth tournament that was to be held that Saturday. It was a tournament where the players competed against other players in their own grade. The email said that there were trophies and medals guaranteed down to sixth place and that no grade had more than 6 entrants. The email went on to say (and I quote) “This is a great opportunity to pick up a trophy or medal”. The value of that tournament was clearly placed on winning. Since the tournament ended up with as many as 14 participants in some grades, I wonder what a parent who read that email and took their child to the tournament but didn’t finish sixth or better to earn a prize will think about going to future chess tournaments.

  I value participation and I give each participant a custom medal. Some of the parents told me that their children have started collecting the medals and look forward to seeing what I’ll come up with next. I would hope that by valuing participation over victory I will attract players and parents who will value participating more than they value winning. The players who value victory above participation will eventually either move on to tournaments with even bigger and Bigger and BIGGER trophies or be overtaken by other players for trophies and stop playing chess when the trophy river runs dry anyway. And despite saying all that, I’m still planning on having trophies in the fall because the Halloween witch, Thanksgiving turkey, and Christmas Santa trophies are just too cool not to give out.

The prize winners seem happy enough, but time will tell...

  Getting rid of the trophies is not the same as getting rid of the competition. I’m just trying to blur the line between victory and defeat. Where there are people there will always be competition. Last Friday at the St. Francis Chess Club, I put a puzzle on the board and the players tried to solve it. As each player solved the puzzle, Tim or I would write their name on the board. The first person to solve the puzzle was first grader Jake. I wrote his name on the board with a ‘happy face’ next to it. I happened to draw Jake’s happy face with circles for eyes and the next few with dots for eyes. When someone asked why, I joked that Jake’s happy face had circles for eyes because he was the first to solve the puzzle. Tim and I kept writing down names and happy faces and then Jake came up to me and he was not happy. I asked him what was wrong and he took me to the board, stabbed his finger to a name way at the bottom of the board whose happy face had circles for eyes and said ‘You said I was the only one that would have circles for eyes!!!’

  Speaking of competition, if last weekend’s NFL playoff games were only 59 minutes and 30 seconds long instead of the full 60 minutes, I’d have gone 4-0 and been ahead an extra $710. Instead, the Falcons and Ravens dramatic wins left me $10 down for the week and $90 ahead for the playoffs. As usual, I’m betting the money line using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page and as always, this is not real gambling and don’t try this at home using real money.

49ers (-215) at Falcons (-185)
Which 49er team will show up in Atlanta on Sunday? The team that gave up 21 points to the Packers in the first half last week or the team that only gave up a field goal and a meaningless last minute touchdown in the second half? And which Falcon team will show up? The juggernaut that burst to a 27-7 lead against the Seahawks? The team that gave that lead away in the fourth quarter in what could have been one of the all-time classic chokes? Or the team that put together a game winning drive in the last 30 seconds to pull the game out? I think now that the Falcons have won their playoff game, they won’t have the same intensity to muster the effort needed to beat a San Francisco team that has been driven to get to the Super Bowl after falling just short last year. I’ll bet $215 to win $100 that the 49ers win in Atlanta to get to the Super Bowl.

Ravens (+325) at Patriots (-395)
Raven’s quarterback Joe Flacco looked like an All-Pro against the Broncos last weekend. He made good decisions and made great passes in the clutch. The Raven’s defense also looked good in holding Peyton Manning’s Broncos to 21 points in Denver (Denver got 14 points on kick returns). The Patriots looked less than impressive in beating the Texans, but did play mistake free football. My gut says to take the Ravens with the odds, but my head says that Patriot coach Bill Belichick will be able to slow down the Ravens suddenly high powered just offense enough to win the game and I’ll bet $395 on the Patriots to win $100.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Tales from the (Far) Right

Good evening and welcome to the nightly news for Friday June 13th, 2043!

  In New Jersey, the trial of star linebacker Lewis Ray of the Baltimore Ravens concluded with a guilty verdict and a life sentence when he was found in violation of the Firearm Gesture Act of 2042. As you may recall, Ray set a new sack record in last December’s game against the New York Jets and celebrated with his signature ‘AK-47’ dance in which he pretends to machine gun the opposing quarterback. The 36 year old all-pro didn’t know that he had run afoul of the new state law that prohibited any and all gestures that could be seen as promoting gun violence. The recommended sentence for a first offense is 3 years, but during the trial, the prosecution dropped the shocking revelation that 30 years ago Ray was suspended from a Maryland school for making a gun gesture when he was just six years old and attending kindergarten. This caused the court to find Ray as a habitual offender and allowed the imposition of a life sentence. It got even worse for Ray when his wife was arrested under the related Firearm Violence Glorification Prohibition Act when she told CNN that she ‘felt as if she’d been shot’ when the sentence was read.

  In Oak Brook, Illinois the Golden Arches have turned to ash as the McDonald’s corporate headquarters and all their restaurants closed their doors for the last time as their bankruptcy has become complete. McDonalds had been on the upswing since their 2033 gamble of switching to an all-vegan menu led to its return to fast food dominance after the 2035 flesh-eating virus contamination of the global meat supply. They initially paid little attention to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the inmates of Cook County Jail that claimed their lives of crime and subsequent incarcerations were caused in large part by the psychological and cultural shock of having their preferred Big Macs, Quarter Pounders, and McRib sandwiches rendered unavailable. The legal precedent for the court action was the successful billion dollar lawsuit by five Idaho inmates against beer and wine companies in 2013.

  The lawsuit was stalled in court until 2041 when the State of California joined the lawsuit in order to solve their most recent budget crisis. California successfully had the venue changed to Los Angeles and quickly won a court judgment of 2.85 trillion euros. McDonalds appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the judge in California only ruled against the company because she hadn’t been paid in eight months (part of the ruling specified the court costs were to be paid immediately). When the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, McDonalds tried to settle out of court by reinstating their meat menu and offering free Big Macs to the Cook County Jail and State of California for one year but offer was refused. After paying out the settlement and going out of business, McDonalds laid off their three million employees, who are expected to file for unemployment benefits this week. Normally this would boost the unemployment rate 3 percent, but the federal government has announced that the McDonalds layoff would qualify as a ‘seasonal adjustment’. ‘Fed’ watchers are now predicting a record low unemployment this month even if benefits are claimed by all the ex-MickeyD employees since they will be permanently classified as not looking for employment.

  In foreign affairs, the United Nations imposed new sanctions on North Korea in light of the rogue nation’s stunning launch of a nuclear missile at Seattle last December. The launch came just hours after North Korea signed an agreement with the Western powers committing North Korea to dismantling their nuclear weapons program in return for 421 trillion euros in foreign aid from the West. Even though the warhead attached to the missile miraculously failed to detonate, the resultant crash of the missile into a populated office building has left the death toll at 256 with hundreds of non-fatal injuries. The North Korean government claimed the launch was a justified retaliation for the release of the 30th Anniversary digital down load of the 2012 movie Red Dawn, which showed the North Koreans invading the United States. When pressed for comment, a National Security Council spokesperson said “the United States is committed to the security of its allies that neighbor North Korea and will work with the international community to send the country the message that its actions have consequences”. When confronted with the news that the spokesperson’s speech was the exact same speech first given in 2012 and repeated verbatim in 2018, 2023, 2027, 2030, 2033, 2038, and 2041, the head of the National Security Council said in a statement that the spokesperson had been relieved of his duty and that the ‘protection of United States soil was a top priority of the National Security Council’.

  On the lighter side of the news, a missing post from the gone but not forgotten Broken Pawn blog was found in a flash drive under a coffee maker during the demolition phase of a new expansion project at the Salvation Army Building in Marshalltown Iowa. The Broken Pawn blog discussed chess, politics, and sports in an irreverent manner in the early part of the century and at its peak in the early 20's had a cult following of dozens. Some of the original word documents signed by the author that were used for the blog have fetched a pretty price on the collectors market. This reporter has learned that the missing post contained the author’s prediction of the National Football League’s divisional playoff round of 2013 and has received permission to reprint an excerpt.

  I started my playoff gambling exercise in fine fashion on Saturday, winning both games and getting $400 ahead. Unfortunately, on Sunday the Colts failed to make a dent in the Ravens defense witht heir offensve coordinator in the hospital instead of the sidelines and the Redskins squandered a 14 point lead when quarterback RGIII hurt his knee and lost to the Seahawks. This leaves me a mere $100 ahead heading into the Divisional Round. As I did last week, I’ll be betting the money line using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page. And as I also mentioned last week, this is all for fun and there is no real gambling taking place.

Ravens (+340) at Broncos (-410)
Every playoff team that wins at home tends to look like world beaters, but if they have to go on the road the next week their newfound confidence vanishes. The Ravens emotional lift from Ray Lwis’s final chicken dance in Baltimore will be old news and they will be picked apart by Peyton Manning and the Broncos. I’ll bet $410 on the Broncos to win at home and I’ll win $100 if I’m right.

Packers (+145) at 49ers (-165)
The Packers were hailed as some sort of super team after beating the Vikings last weekend in Green Bay, but I saw a team that scored only 24 points against a defense that was exhausted because their offense was run by a backup quarterback that couldn’t give them any break from defending. I’ll pick the 49ers to take care of business in San Francisco wagering $165 to win $100.

Seahawks (+110) at Falcons (-130)
The Seahawks looked out of sorts against the Redskins last week at the beginning of the game, but quickly gained their composure. If their secondary is allowed to be as physical against the Falcon receivers as they were against the Redskins, I can’t see the Falcons being able to win. I’ll bet $100 on the Seahawks to win on the road again and pocket $110 if I’m right.

Texans (+330) at Patriots (-400)
The Texans barely beat the Bengals at home in Houston last week in a rather unimpressive performance. A month ago these two teams matched up in Foxboro, Mass and the Patriots were ahead 28-0 before the Texans had their first sip of Gatorade. If the Texans were to play their best and the Patriots played their worst, I might still pick the Patriots. As it is, I’ll go for broke and wager $1600 on the Patriots and pocket $400 when they win (or take out a second mortgage if the upset happens).

And that’s the news for Friday June 13th, 2043. Be sure to tune in tomorrow to for our special report ‘Iran: Are Sanctions Working?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Coaching Gambles and Plain Old Gambles

  The NFL season ended last Sunday and the playoffs will begin on Saturday. The New York Giants, my favorite team and defending Super Bowl Champions didn’t make the playoffs. After a 6-2 start, the Giants went into cruise control and couldn’t flip the switch when they needed to come up with a win against the Falcons and Ravens in the final weeks of the season. The Giants lost the division title to the Redskins, who beat the Cowboys in the Sunday Night season finale when Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo’s on field performance once again failed to live up to his celebrity status.

  On Monday, 22 percent of the NFL coaches were fired. Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles saw an end to his 14 year coaching tenure after a career worst 4-12 season. Reid took the Eagles to the playoffs in 9 of his first 12 seasons but missing the playoffs two seasons in a row was enough for him to lose his job. Most of the other firings were predictable. The Chiefs’ Romeo Crennel had a record of 4-15 and Chan Gailey’s 16-32 record for the Buffalo Bills weren’t remotely good enough to stay on. Ken Whisenhunt took the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl 5 seasons ago, but that is an eternity in the NFL and he lost his job after going 18-30 in the last three years. San Diego let Norv Turner go after missing the playoffs the past three years despite a 24-24 mark and new owner Jimmy Haslem of the Cleveland Browns cleaned house after their fifth straight season with 10 or more losses.

  I was surprised that meddling owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys kept his head coach Jason Garrett after his second straight 8-8 season. The Cowboys have won only one playoff game in the past 15 years and Jones isn’t known for his patience with head coaches with none lasting more than 5 years since he took over ownership 24 years ago. The other coach that I was surprised to see keep his job is Rex Ryan of the New York Jets. After getting the Jets to the AFC Championship game in his first two seasons as head coach (losing both), the Jets have regressed the past two years to an 8-8 mark last season and a 6-10 record for this year’s undisciplined mess of a team. The Jets did fire General Manager Mike Tannenbaum and if the past is indicative of the future, the new Jets GM will fire Ryan next year and bring his own coach in.

  The most controversial of the firings was Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith’s dismissal after nine seasons. Smith was the only coach with a winning record to be fired. The Bears had a 10-6 season and only missed the playoffs when the Minnesota Vikings upset the Green Bay Packers late Sunday afternoon.

  Smith took the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006 and the NFC championship game in 2010 so why did he lose his job? Last year the Bears started 7-3 but when quarterback Jay Cutler was knocked out for the season, they faded badly and finished 8-8. The blame for not having an adequate backup quarterback cost General Manager Jerry Angelo his job and Smith now had to work for General Manager Phil Emery and not the man who hired him (Angelo). This year, the Bears started 7-1 and after getting their fans dreaming of another Super Bowl appearance lost six of their next seven games. They rallied to win their last two games but not making the playoffs gave Emery the chance to make his mark on the franchise by installing his own head coach.

  Smith was the victim of relative success. He won three division championships in his nine seasons. The Bears won one division championship in the 13 years before his tenure. The Bears lost 11 games in his first season and never again lost 10 games under his watch. In the 13 years before his hiring the Bears lost ten or more games six times. I listened to the Chicago Sports radio station 670 – The Score on Sunday and Monday. Callers, commentators, and ex-players alike thought that Smith was a good coach but was not the man needed to take the Bears to the ‘next level’.

  I can agree with the premise that Smith was not going to lead the Bears to the ‘next level’ which I presume means constant playoff appearances and the occasional Super Bowl. I just think that Bears management is missing a big point. There are very few NFL coaches that take their team to the playoffs on a consistent basis along with an occasional Super Bowl and those coaches are very rarely available. Tom Coughlin has been the head coach of the Giants for nine years (the same as Smith). Coughlin’s record is two games better (83-61 vs. 81-63), has been to the playoffs five years as opposed to three for Smith, but has won both Super Bowls he led the Giants to (Smith lost in his only appearance). Tom Coughlin is the next level type of coach that the Bears are looking for, but despite occasional rumblings after a disappointing Giants season, he isn’t going anywhere and neither are other recent Super Bowl winning coaches like the Mike McCarthy of the Packers, Mike Tomlin of the Steelers, or Bill Belichick of the Patriots. This leaves the coaches who had past success and traded it in for the executive suite or the broadcasting booth like Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, or Tony Dungy that are waiting to be lured out of retirement for total control of the football operation and huge bucks besides. Firing a coach that isn’t winning is a no-brainer. Getting rid of a successful coach not for winning but for not winning enough is a very risky proposition unless that ‘next level’ coach is already waiting in the wings.

  Speaking of risky propositions, since I was so prescient in my prediction of the Lakers troubles not being a product of their coach (The Lakers have gone 14-12 after firing coach Mike Brown who had a 1-4 start) , I will be using my prognosticating skills on this year’s NFL playoffs. I’ll be picking against the money line instead of the point spread because I’m much more comfortable picking the winners and giving or taking the odds than taking or giving points and losing my bet because of a late score. I’ll be using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page. Please keep in mind that this is all in fun and I'm not betting real money - not even any of Bethany Carson's trillions of Zimbabwe dollars!

Bengals (+185) at Texans (-215)
The Texans had the best record in the conference until last week when they lost to the Colts and slid to the #3 seed and lost their week off. The Bengals were a poor team until winning seven of their last eight games. Despite the trend, I’ll bet $215 on the Texans to win at home and I’ll win $100 if I’m right.

Vikings (+300) at Packers (-360)
This is a rematch game of last week’s epic matchup that the Vikings won on a last second field goal in a game they had to win to make the playoffs. I don’t think they can upset the Packers two weeks in a row and certainly not in Green Bay. I’ll bet $1080 to win $300 that the Packers win the third matchup of these teams this season.

Colts (+245) at Ravens (-290)
The surprising Colts will be rolling into Baltimore to take on the Ravens. The Ravens will be emotionally charged up by the announcement of team captain Ray Lewis that he will retire after the playoffs. I think the Ravens are likely to win the game but I like the odds on the Colts (who did have the better regular season record) and will wager $100 to win $245 on a Colts upset.

Seahawks (-155) at Redskins (+135)
Both these teams are red hot entering the playoffs with the Redskins winning their last seven games by mostly close scores and the Seahawks winning their last five in dominant fashion. The game will be in Washington and I think the home crowd’s energy will propel the young Redskins to continue their string of dramatic victories. I’ll wager $200 to win $270 on the home town ‘Skins to pull off the upset over the favored Seahawks.