Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Great and Not-So-Great Games

  This is the height of chess season in Europe and Russia. In January the super-GM Tata Steel championship at Wijk aan Zee took place with Magnus Carlsen winning in record fashion over a field including World Champion Viswanathan Anand and 2800 rated Levon Aronian. Overlapping this tournament was the Gilbraltar Chess Festival, an open tournament with dozens of grandmasters including 2700+ players VasilIy Ivanchuk, Michael Adams, Gata Kamsky, David Navara. Even though this tournament didn’t have the star power of Wijk Aan Zee, it had the advantage of a compelling finish with a four way tie and a rapid chess playoff won by Russian Nikita Vitiugov over former championship candidate and defending Gibraltar champion Nigel Short.

  The very top players don’t often play in the big open tournaments because the invitations to the elite tournaments come with guaranteed appearance fees and superb playing conditions, while the open tournaments only pay for victory, all but the top boards (and sometimes even those) play in long rows of tables, and when a top player gets upset or even held to a draw by a lower ranked player it is worldwide news, as evidenced by this Gibraltar story highlighting Short’s upset in round 2 to a ‘mere’ 2400 rated player and Kamsky and Ivanchuk’s round 1 draws to even lower ranked players.

  This week while World Champion Anand, former world champion Vladimir Krammnik, 2012 championship challenger Boris Gelfand, and current golden boy Fabiano Caruana battle in a special four player double round robin tournament in Zurich, Switzerland coincidentally named the Zurich Chess Challenge in which the appearance fees presumably dwarf the prize fund and accommodations are paid for, many of the world’s top players are in Iceland for the 2013 Reykjavik Open and a top prize of around $4,000 US dollars.

  I’ve been casually following the action of all the tournaments, but I’ve especially been following the Reykjavik games of International Master John Bartholomew. I’ve met John twice when he played in the Okoboji Open that I’ve directed for Jodene Kruse. I’ve written before how impressed I am with him not because he is a great player but more because of how friendly and accessible he is. John writes about his chess travels on his blog (you can read it here) and I’m looking forward to seeing his Reykjavik post. Here are a couple of the outstanding games John has played in Iceland over the past 10 days (International ratings shown).
pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  I know these games are not against grandmasters, but I’m really impressed with how John just demolishes players that are at the US master level that can routinely demolish players that can routinely demolish me. He has also drawn two and lost two games against grandmasters. I kind of understood these last two games, but this win against a strong FIDE master was beyond my understanding and 3 days later I still don’t know how he pulled the win off except with some sort of chess jiu-jitsu.
  While the players in Wijk aan Zee and the Zurich Chess Challenge have the luxury of knowing weeks in advance who their opponents will be and what colors they will have, the players in the Gibraltar and Reykjavik tournaments are subject to the Swiss system parings and don’t know who their opponent will be until the night before the next game. Knowing the pairings in advance is something most players appreciate. I know almost all the players were very happy when the state chess association in Iowa decided to make the closed championship pairings known in advance. I’m sure most of the top players in Reykjavik research their opponent’s games on the internet hoping to find a hole in their opening preparation in order to spring a surprise on the next day. Even this level of preparation is more than American weekend tournaments allow since multiple games in a day means one’s opponent isn’t known until minutes before the game begins.

  Even in the world of one minute chess, it helps to know who you are playing in advance. I wrote last month how I hit a new high on one-minute chess on the Internet Chess Club. While I’ve fallen off my peak since then, I started playing bullet chess, which is chess at two minutes or less and has a separate rating than one minute chess.

  There are a lot of differences between one minute chess and bullet chess aside from the rating and time limit. In one-minute chess, you are placed in a pool of other one minute players with no control over who you play and once you are paired there is no way to abort the game so if the game starts at the same moment your pet beagle decided to jump on you for some pets, you will probably lose the game. In bullet chess, if you get off to a late start you can just let your time run out without making a move and the game is listed as too short for a rated result. The other big difference is that you can refuse to play your opponent and perhaps even more important, offer a rematch.

  On Sunday, I was playing one minute bullet chess on the Internet Chess Club when I got to within 50 points of my all-time high of 1546. I ran a player named pratique who was around my rating. Pratique made 14 moves in nine seconds, dropped three pawns and disconnected. I instinctively hit the rematch button and to my surprise pratique had reconnected and we played again. Pratique outplayed me and won a piece but ran out of time before he could win. We played a third time and my opponent again got disconnected in an even position.

  This got me my rating to 1543 and pratique again responded to my rematch challenge. I played my best game yet and was within sight of a personal best when I inexplicably fell apart:
  What a blunder! We played again and I won when pratique disconnected for the fourth time in five games and then with my rating at 1539 my rematch request was accepted. Just like a few minutes before when I got so close to a personal best I got a winning endgame but unlike the time before, I held on for a new high rating of 1552.
  It was good to use the differences between one minute chess and one minute bullet chess to my advantage and even though my bullet rating is barely in the top half of all the players on the Internet Chess Club and I was certainly lucky to run into a player who kept on disconnecting I'm still thrilled at my new personal high rating. It’s not Wijk aan Zee or Reykjavik, but at 52 years if age, it’s good to know I’m still hitting new heights.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Greatest??

  On Sunday, which is the same day as the NBA All-Star game, Michael Jordan turned 50 years old. The milestone birthday of what is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time has led to a lot of attention: reminisces of his greatest moments; 50 reasons why we’ll never forget him; Sports Illustrated 100 best Jordan pictures his best playoff moments; etc…, etc…,etc…

  I don’t know if Jordan is the best player of all time or even the best player ever at the time he retired. Could anyone be a greater player than Wilt Chamberlain? Wilt averaged 50 points a game in 1962, 45 points in 1963 and over 30 points a game in his first seven seasons, and never averaged LESS than 18 rebounds a game. The knock on Chamberlain was always that even though he was a dominant player his teams couldn’t get past the Boston Celtics in the playoffs except in 1967. This has led some people to claim that Bill Russell is the greatest player of all time since he was the Celtics center for 11 championships including two as a player AND coach. Jordan recently expressed his preference for Kobe Bryant over LeBron James because five (meaning Bryant’s five championships) beats one (the title James won last year). By that standard, Russell is the greatest player of all time and I wonder if Jordan would pick seven time NBA champion Robert Horry over himself because seven beats six even though Horry was not the star on any of his seven championship teams. And I haven’t even mentioned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the all-time leading scorer who was as unstoppable as any offensive player ever was and also led the league in rebounds and blocked shots a number of times.

  Kobe Bryant was the best player in the NBA from the mid-2000s until the end of the last decade but I never thought of him as the best player ever. Bryant could finish his career with the all-time scoring record, thanks to having been durable throughout his NBA career which started as soon as he got out of high school, giving him a four year head start on Abdul-Jabbar. James is clearly the best player in today’s NBA and after having led the Heat to the championship last year, his game has elevated to new heights. It appears to me that the Heat are just gliding through the season and waiting for the playoffs to start. The only team I can see having a chance of beating them are the Knicks and that is only IF they can recover their early season form and IF center Tyson Chandler can control the lane and IF big men Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace can come back from the injured list to provide backup support. With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh healthy on the Heat roster, they will only be beaten by teams that have better players at the center and point guard spots and to me only the Knicks have that combination with Chandler(and his backups) and the duo of Jason Kidd and Raymond Felton to be able to play to their strengths and the Heat’s weaknesses. I don’t give the Knicks much of a chance to dethrone the Heat, just a less miniscule chance than all the other teams.

  Even though Michael Jordan turning 50 led to a lot of attention for him, I continue to be stunned when his 1995-1996 Bulls all-time best record of 72-10 is ignored by the basketball press. As of the All-Star break, the San Antonio Spurs had the best record in the league at 42-12 so the record is already safe for another year. It is a rare occurrence when a team has less than ten losses at the halfway mark of the season. The Bulls record has stood for 17 years and in those 17 years the record was only seriously challenged by the 1996-1997 Bulls, who went 68-10 before losing three of their last four games. If you don’t think 17 years is a lot of time for this record, remember that the prior mark of 69-13 set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers lasted only seven years longer.

  As great as Jordan and Chamberlain were and James and Bryant are, I like to think that Julius Erving was the greatest player of all time. This may be because as a youngster, I was a New York Nets fan of the ABA (American Basketball Association) and unlike the modern era of cable TV and pay per view sports, the Nets game were on free TV at least twice a week. I found out how great Erving was when he led an average Virginia Squires team to the playoffs and almost single handedly defeated the Rick Barry led Nets team in the 1972 playoffs. Erving could shoot and drive and pass and play defense and could demoralize a team with his sky high dunks. When Barry left the Nets to go back to the NBA, they bought Erving from the bankrupt Squires and I got to see how great Erving was on a nightly basis. He could pass and rebound and do whatever was needed to win and led the Nets to two championships in his three years with the team. The 1974 or 1976 Nets had excellent personnel in addition to Erving with big men like Sven Nater, Billy Paultz, and Larry Kenon to go along with guards Brian Taylor and John Williamson and would have not have been underdogs to the NBA champion Celtics in either year. Because the ABA was barely covered by the sports media of the time, Erving and the Nets were unknown to the casual sports fan.

  In 1976, the ABA merged into the NBA and the Nets sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers in order to get the money to pay the NBA initiation fee. The Nets became a laughingstock and the 76ers became instant title contenders. But instead of being a rock star like Michael Jordan, Julius Erving was the villain to Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers and Larry Bird's Celtics. The sport fans of the 1970’s just weren’t ready for the best player in basketball to be a high-flying black man in a giant afro playing ‘street ball’. Erving’s first NBA appearance in 1976 was only 8 years removed from Tommie Smith and John Carlos being stripped of their Olympic medals for giving a ‘black power’ salute from the medal stand, Muhammad Ali being denied the right to fight because he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and many sports writers still insisted on calling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ‘Lew Alcindor’ years after he legally changed his name (and now no one blinks when Ron Artest changes his name to ‘Metta World-Peace’ and Chad Johnson becomes ‘Chad Ochocinco’). Erving became more popular with casual fans only when he got to the end of his career (with a more conservative haircut) but in the late 70's Magic Johnson was a much more palatable superstar with his plain American name, short haircut, media savvy and constant smile but even he got to play the villain as the ringleader of ‘Showtime’ against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics ‘purer’ (and whiter?) brand of basketball. Given another few years the public was not only ready to accept the clean-cut Jordan (he wasn’t even wearing earrings then) but they were able to make his Nike sneakers (athletic shoes…basketball shoes) an industry unto themselves and as he won his 6 championships (around a 2 year retirement) he became the personification of winning and the new champion of the fans of the old-school who had a hard time getting used to the next generation of basketball stars like Shawn Kemp and Allen Iverson who came to the NBA loaded with an assortment of love childs, gun possession and drug convictions, and tattoos. I don’t know if Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever, but of the few players in that discussion, he was the best at being in the right place at the right time.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Making Do

  The week before last I suddenly became a very popular person. I had four customers of the company I worked for from 1994 to 2008 contact me. One even looked me up on LinkedIn and called me at work. How had I become so popular with so many people from a company I stopped working for five years ago?

  All these people wanted to know what I would charge to support the old desktop version of the retail store inventory and point of sale software I wrote in the late 1990’s and enhanced until my owner sold the company to a group that moved the software development to Indianapolis and changed the software from a desktop solution to an internet solution.

A lack of tables at the St. Francis Chess Club forced us to make do with what we had, including a carpeted floor.

  The people who called me had all paid between $2500 and $3500 for the software and $500 to $1000 a year for maintenance and never upgraded to the web based software because it cost over a thousand dollars to upgrade and then $250 a month to use the software. But they were all told that the older software was not going to be supported after March 1st and now they were looking at a threefold increase to use a new version of the software they had been using for years.

  I have no idea how many people are still using the old version of the software but I do know that they weren’t getting their money’s worth from their maintenance fees for the last five years. I made a few minor changes for cash between 2008 and 2010 but otherwise the desktop software hasn’t had any significant changes in five years. Is the web based software better than the desktop software? I sure hope so, but I’m still pretty flattered that these old customers still want to use the old software even if they have thousands of reasons not to switch.

  I was easy enough for these people to find me when they had a reason to and I hadn’t gotten any Christmas cards from them in the previous five years so I know it is not my magnetic personality or tremendous software writing prowess that had then looking for me last week. These are just a bunch of people who either can’t afford to pay more for their software or don’t want to pay more for their software or just don’t want to switch until they have to. In any event, they are willing to make do with their old software and throw me a couple of bucks if they need a little help every now and again.

Del Spence (left) made his church into a tournament hall last month and used his contacts to attract many new players to tournament competition.

  Last month, I helped Del Spence have a tournament at his church on the south side of Des Moines. While I’ve known for some time that most of the chess parents in Des Moines won’t travel very far outside the city limits for a tournament, running my tournaments at St. Francis (on the west side) and Pioneer Park (on the south side) has shown me that most won’t travel very far outside their own neighborhoods for a tournament either. Del’s kids come to my tournaments and they are also heavily involved in youth soccer. Del told me that a lot of his sons’ soccer teammates and other area chess players just couldn’t get to St. Francis but would come to a tournament at his church. I visited the church last fall to make sure there was enough space for a tournament. It looked OK and I told Del to pick a weekend that there wasn’t a soccer tournament and we’d have a chess tournament.

  Del picked January 19th, which was only a week after my tournament at St. Francis. I thought it wasn’t going to be an especially well attended tournament but I noticed quite a few entries from people who had never come to any of my tournaments before. As it turned out, Del had reached out to not only to his soccer players but had also contacted a group of home-schooling parents. We ended up with 27 different players and half of them were first timers to a tournament. Del didn’t have timing or geography working for him in this tournament but made do with the contacts he did have and had a successful tournament as a result.

  Two Fridays ago I walked Daisy and Baxter at 4:45 as normal, left the house around 5:30 as normal, got a cup of coffee at the Git’n’Go as normal, and took my hour long drive to the St. Francis chess club as normal. But once I arrived at the school, things stopped being normal. I came in to the large meeting room we use for the club fully prepared to switch out some of the round tables that are so good for socializing with the rectangular tables that are perfect for chess but instead of the eight round tables in the meeting room and rectangular tables in the storage room, there were three round tables in the meeting room and nothing in the storage room. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing!! Not only weren’t there any rectangular tables there weren’t even any round tables or chairs. I poked around in the meeting room next door looking to ‘borrow’ some of the smaller rectangular tables that are normally there but that room was empty also.

   What happened? Was St. Francis the victim of a table and chair theft? No, it just happened to be the weekend of St. Francis annual fundraising auction and all the tables and chairs had been moved to the gymnasium. Last year they had left me the eight round tables while raiding the storage room, but I guess the auction was bigger this year.

  If I had known ahead of time, I probably would have cancelled the club but there was no time for that with the members due to arrive in a few minutes. I ‘appropriated’ some tables from the hallway that would hold a chessboard and my co-coach Tim and I set up as many boards as we could with the space we had available. The kids started arriving and grabbed the available spaces and when I had more players than tables and chairs, I set up some boards in the middle of the floor and let the kids play there. The kids were good sports and as my co-coach Chris said, ‘they probably play like this at home all the time’. Since everything worked out in the end I’m glad I didn’t know in advance and cancel the club. The philosophy of ‘making do’ seems a little too close the ‘it could be worse’ school of thought for my comfort, but I do recognize that there are times making do is the only option available.

  For example, the 4,200 people on board the Carnival Cruise ship ‘Triumph’ have been stranded in the Gulf of Mexico since a fire on Sunday left the ship without engine power and relying on a backup generator. The overflowing toilets in the cabins and rooting food are creating an unbearable stench in the lower levels (You can read about it here), but the intrepid crew and passengers are making do by sleeping in tents on the main deck, utilizing the towers on any passing supply ships in order to make calls with their mobile phones, and using buckets as their restrooms. They seem to be faring better than the Carnival Cruise management lines which are only able to supply cucumber and onion sandwiches and hamburgers after lengthy waits and haven’t evacuated the passengers and non-essential crew, instead waiting for two tugboats to tow the two and a half football field sized ocean liner to Alabama (arrival on Sunday). I feel sorry for all the passengers who probably fancied themselves starring in their own episode of the ‘Love Boat’ but ended up hoping to avoid being cast in the ‘Poseidon Adventure’.

  I found out about another group of people ‘making do’ in the sports section. Four football players from the two time defending college football champion Alabama were suspended from the team after being charged with second degree robbery in two separate incidents on Monday (Here is the story). Two of the players admitted to punching and kicking a student and then stealing his backpack containing an Apple laptop. Then the same two players punched another victim in the face while the other two players watched. The players then used the student identification card they stole from the victim’s wallet to buy vending machine snacks in the football player’s dorm. I wonder if these rouge football players learned this as part of their college education. Making do by assaulting fellow students and stealing their laptops and snacks if you can’t afford your own might be part of a sociology course.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Stopping at the Top

  Sunday’s Super Bowl was another in a string of very close Super Bowls that weren’t decided until late in the final quarter. It may have been all the scoring, but during the game I felt it was one of the best ones I’d seen. I just watched the game and skipped the pre game, post game, half time, pre-post game, post pre-game, and blackout shows; switching to the Law & Order marathon on TNT whenever there was a break in the action. Luckily, the marathon was playing episodes I’ve seen a couple of dozen times before and it didn’t matter if I missed a scene or two.

  I had no rooting interest in who won the Super Bowl. As a Giants fan, I dislike the 49ers and I’m still smarting from the 40-7 beatdown the Ravens put on my team in the 2001 Super Bowl. In 2 weeks of media hype leading up to the game the news items that most caught my eye was revelation that CBS analyst, former Miami Dolphin quarterback, and corporate spokesperson Dan Marino not only had an affair with a CBS production assistant, the affair produced a ‘love child’ that Marino has reportedly paid millions and millions of dollars to support and/or keep the fruits of his labors under the radar. The other story I noticed was the media questioning of Ray Lewis over his murder arrest and obstruction plea in the killing of 2 men in Atlanta over a decade ago. The questions were almost all laid out in juxtaposition to Lewis’s more recent religious quotes and allegations that he used banned deer-antler spray to help his recovery from his torn triceps muscle.

  When the Patriots lost to the Ravens in the AFC championship game two weeks ago, Anna Welker, the wife of Patriots receiver Wes Welker posted this comment on Facebook about Ray Lewis : "Proud of my husband and the Pats. By the way, if anyone is bored, please go to Ray Lewis' Wikipedia page. 6 kids 4 wives. Acquitted for murder. Paid a family off. Yay. What a hall of fame player! A true role model!" Welker apologized for her comments but they seemed to renew interest in Lewis’ checkered past. I think once Lewis was named Super Bowl 35 MVP and made the cover of the Madden NFL video game he was acquitted of all his wrongdoings in the court of public opinion. So why does is his past dredged up while Marino got away a press release? I’m not saying race is an issue, but I wonder if Marino’s fellow commentator Shannon Sharpe would have gotten off so easily if a similar indiscretion was uncovered in his past.

  The Ravens ended up winning the game 34-31 and more importantly the total score went over the line of 47 points, which made me a $95 winner in my mythical NFL playoff bets. Ray Lewis declared he would be retiring after the playoffs and will head to his new job as a talking head for one or another sports network with his second Super Bowl ring and joins John Elway and Jim Brown on a short list of Hall of Fame caliber players who retired after being a major part of a championship football team.

My one-minute rating chart in the Internet Chess Club. That flat line in the middle would be longer if I could keep my finger away from that little circle with the '1' in it at the top of the screen!

  I can relate the desire to finish on top. In July of 2011 I obtained my peak one minute chess rating on the Internet Chess Club of 1575 and I stopped playing one minute rated chess (Under the arcane rating systems of the ICC, I could still play one minute chess under my bullet rating and leave my one minute rating unchanged). My goal was to reach personal best ratings in all the ICC categories. I managed to quickly hit a new high in bullet chess (up to 2 minutes) and switched to 3 minute chess.

  These pursuits lasted more than a year until I accidentally clicked the one minute game button on ICC, was assigned a game before I could cancel my request, lost the game, and fell from my personal all time rating high. Here is the (infamous) game:
pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  I fell off the wagon in a vain attempt to get back a peak one minute rating but within a month my rating plummeted to the depths of the ICC charts. One minute chess is not like slower versions of the game. The quicker the time limit means more random results. I can compete with International Masters at one minute chess where I would never be able to beat them in an hour game. Also, it is not enough to be winning over the board in one minute chess – one must also not lose on the clock. After a few games where I was winning on the board but lost the game because I ran out of time, I uncorked this sterling effort while trying to ensure that I wouldn’t run out of time by saving a few nanoseconds not looking at my opponents moves:
  After months of up and down one minute play with my rating oscillating between 1400 and 1200, I hit a hot streak at the beginning of January. I don’t think I was playing particularly better, but I was making a lot fewer mistakes and staying ahead on the clock, which led to my winning a number of objectively lost games when my opponents ran out of time. Finally I got my rating up to 1568, 7 points away from my all-time high and I was paired against a player rated much higher than me, meaning even a draw would be enough to accomplish my goal:
  A new personal best, I thought with a smile. BUT WAIT!!! It seems that Habooji had only played one other game of one minute chess on the Internet Chess Club, so instead of the 20 or so rating points I expected to gain, I only received 5 and was still two points away from a personal best. So I clicked the little one-minute button again:
  With a new personal best one minute rating of 1588, I played a medley of the Barry Manilow tune "Looks Like We Made It" and the Queen classic "We Are The Champions" on my iPod and switched back to bullet chess for the next few days until I accidentally clicked the one-minute button and found myself playing none other than the Leif2011 that started my downfall from my one minute height last July (a fact I didn’t notice until I wrote this post).Talk about Instant Karma!
  After this game, my new rating was 1606. I lasted another couple of days before accidentally clicking the one minute button again. The results were not as spectacular and my rating is back oscillating between the 1200 to 1400 range. It would have been nice to stop playing one minute chess at the top but I have a feeling my next ascent towards my personal best will be the most fun yet since the journey is most often more satisfying than the destination.