Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Run For the Money

  Last year I plunked down 10 dollars to join our office NCAA tournament pool. Since I know next to nothing about college basketball, I picked Missouri to win the entire tournament with my thinking being that the No 2 seeded Tigers wouldn’t be picked by many of the other contestants (who generally pick a No. 1 seed to win the tournament) so if the Tigers did manage to win the tournament I’d have a great chance of winning since picking the winning team gets 63 of the total 192 points (32 points per round) and 32 of those would be for the championship game that none of the players would get. If I had picked the favored Kentucky Wildcats, not only would they have had to win but I would have had to outscore a host of players in the early rounds which is just a guessing game for someone like me that only even knows the names of a handful of the players. This sounded like a good plan but it came to naught when despite picking 29 of the first 32 games correctly I was out of the running when one of my three incorrect games was the Missouri Tigers huge upset at the hands of tiny Norfolk State.

My 2013 NCAA Tournament bracket. You can click on it for a better view.
  Even though I ended up throwing away a ten spot on the tournament pool last year when the email came around this year I decided to try my luck again. Unlike last year’s odds-on favorite Kentucky team, this year there was no clear cut favorite and all the number one and two seeds (except for Gonzaga of the tiny West Coast Conference) did not dominate their conferences like number one seeds of the past. Through the process of elimination, I decided to pick the Duke Blue Devils as my championship team and build my bracket around that. Even though I didn’t know very many players on many of the teams, I listen to sports radio a lot on my way to and from work and had noticed that Duke had gone on a winning streak when a player named Kelly had come back from an injury. Duke is always well coached and when I saw them get upset in the ACC tournament by Maryland, I was impressed with their size up front and the quickness of their guards so despite their upset loss (and their own first round exit as a two seed last year) I decided to make them my pick.

  I filled out the rest of the bracket in about 2 minutes last Wednesday. I know there are always a lot of upsets and it’s just a matter of picking the right ones. I was surprised to see that the Pacific 12 conference champion Oregon Ducks were a 12 seed so I decided to take them to win their first two games. I took a bigger gamble by picking Wichita State to win their first two games including a potential second round matchup against the number one seed Gonzaga. I don’t know why I did that except I remembered 3 years ago when fellow Wichita’s fellow Missouri Valley Conference member UNI (University of Northern Iowa) beat top seed Kansas in the second round. I also took a couple of first round upsets that I didn't pick to win their second game; picking 11 seed Bucknell to beat 6th seeded Butler (who I consider overhyped by virtue of their 2 recent championship game appearances) and 12th seed Ole Miss to beat 5th seed Wisconsin (whose slow down style of play makes them prone to being upset as well as capable of upsetting more talented teams). Otherwise, I just stuck to picking the favorites with the only quirk in my picks being that I had failed to pick any number one seeds in the final four, opting instead for other brand name schools Duke, Ohio State, Florida, and Syracuse.

  After the first round of the tournament ended on Friday night I was happily surprised to find myself tied for third out of the 22 contestants with 24 out of 32 correct picks, 2 behind the leader. Bucknell lost to Butler, but Ole Miss, Wichita State, and Oregon all made it through the first round. I lost two of my final eight teams when LaSalle beat Kansas State and unknown Florida Gulf Coast defeated Georgetown but most of the other contestants missed those upsets also along with Harvard’s Ivy League upset of New Mexico, the third of my Sweet 16 teams to be eliminated in the first round.

  On Saturday, everything broke my way. The one final four team I selected that was playing (Syracuse) beat California, My upset team Oregon beat St. Louis to get to the Sweet 16, and my big upset came through as Wichita St. defeated top seed Gonzaga. I took a one point lead heading into the Sunday games and my luck held out on Sunday as my final four selections all won. Ohio State got a lot of help from the referees to defeat Iowa State, Florida blew out Minnesota, and Duke defeated Creighton in the last game of the day. I didn’t stay up to watch, although I had games on all day as background noise while I worked on lessons for this year’s chess camp.

  All told I had 13 of my Sweet 16 selections make it through, six of the final eight and most importantly all of my final four selections are still alive. With 33 percent of the tournament over I have a three point lead. Am I spending my winnings yet? No, I’m still a huge underdog. If I had known I would have had such a big weekend I’d have went with the odds and picked Louisville to win the championship. I’m tickled to be in the lead of our small office pool after and I’m even outpointing the President so far with 13 teams in the Sweet 16 to his 11. The President and I agree on Florida and Ohio St. making the final four, but where I have Duke and Syracuse, Obama went with number one seeds Louisville and Indiana to make the final four and the championship game, with Indiana winning. The only regret I have is that this pool doesn't offer any prizes to the leader after the first round. By the time I picked out a lawyer to rectify that injustice the tournament would already be over, but I wanted to make sure my tournament leadership was captured for posterity in this post.

President Obama's 2013 NCAA Tournament bracket. Click on it for a better view.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Problem Solving

  If you enjoy reading my blog but don’t play chess, please bear with the next couple of paragraphs.

  Here is one of my favorite chess puzzles. It is in the beginning of one of my chess books:

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  When I first tried to solve this I got the part about the king walking the rook down to the edge of the board so the pawn could promote without fear of the skewer by Rd1 and Rc1+, but completely missed the threat of Black giving up the rook for a stalemate IF White promoted to a queen and the forced win after underpromoting. That last point really captivated me and whenever I show this puzzle it has never failed to captivate whoever I’m showing it to.

  What made me think of this puzzle? This puzzle that I successfully solved on the site on Sunday morning:

  I was pretty pleased with myself for catching the fact that promoting to a queen would have left Black with the same stalemate as the first puzzle. To me, the point of doing chess puzzles is to recognize the patterns of the tactics in order to not have to figure them out under the pressure of game conditions. From a practical point of view, the chances of needing to recognize that promoting to a queen would lead to a stalemate but promoting to a rook would win are so remote that my time would have been better spent learning the two or three movers that win a piece or a pawn that come up so often in my games.

  Playing chess requires a lot of problem solving ability. Perhaps that’s why study after study after study shows that learning chess helps students learn (Here is one example). It’s not that only smart kids can play chess or that playing chess makes kids smart: learning how to solve problems over the chessboard equips students to solve problems in the classroom and adults to solve problems at work.

  I ran into a lot of problems to solve trying to set up my summer outdoor chess tournaments. The covered shelter I rented the last two years has doubled their rental fee and in the fashion made famous by the 16 ounce soda, 46 ounce bottle of vegetable juice, and 1.5 quart ‘half-gallon’ of ice cream, has split the whole-day rental into a morning-afternoon rental ending at three and an afternoon-evening rental starting at four. In order to have a morning and afternoon tournament like I did last year I would have to pay four times the amount for the use of the shelter. I don’t think there is anything insidious going on here since the other shelters have stayed the same price but possibly some statistical analysis performed by Des Moines Park and Rec determined an unusual spike in the amount of rentals at one particular shelter and prompted them to raise the price.

  With my already razor-thin margins not able to withstand a fourfold increase in rent, I decided to only have morning tournaments this summer. That will leave me two free hours in the afternoon, where I’m going to try to have a quick chess tournament where the higher rated players have to offer time odds to the lower rated players. From my experiences at my Christmas speed chess exhibitions for the Salvation Army, I think I have a good feeling for what time odds to give the lower rated players. The goal is to get a mix of experienced and younger players to come out for a couple of hours of fun chess. I’m sure some of the morning players will stick around, but based on my attempts to have outdoor speed chess tournaments at the park two years ago, I expect very few adult players will want to spend an afternoon playing. In any event, I’ll have gotten use of the park during the time I have rented it. Chess problems are reasonably easy to solve, avoiding paying four times the park rental less so. I hope I’ve solved my park problem for this year, but ultimately time will tell.

  An interesting solution to a more serious problem in occurring in Cyprus, where the nation’s banks invested billions and billions of dollars in Greek investments and lost over 10 percent of the nation’s GDP in one year (Here is a good explanation). The Cypriot banking system has been living off of European Central Bank (ECB) emergency funding and is trying to negotiate a thirteen billion dollar bailout from Germany. Germany is willing to fork over the money and save the small countries banking system IF Cyprus can raise 7.5 billion dollars.

  Now banks have stockholders and I would assume the first place the Cypriot banks would look to for capital would be the stockholders. In America the Federal Reserve would serve up a new round of ‘Qualitative Easing’ and print the 7.5 BILLION DOLLARS and give it to the banks for some of their worthless investments. This is how a government like the United States can be 16 TRILLION DOLLARS in debt but have such low interest rates. At least until the printing press runs dry and other countries refuse to accept our ‘funny money’.

  As part of the European Union, Cyprus has no access to the printing presses and so they must look for another solution. Another way to solve the problem is to just let the banks go belly up. The Cyprus government insures the first 100,000 euros in each deposit but since 68% of all the uninsured deposits are held by foreign customers there would be an international incident if a default were to happen.

  The way the Cyprus government has chosen to solve their problem is to raise the 7.5 BILLION dollars by levying a one-time tax on bank deposits. Balances in excess of 100,000 euros will be taxed at a rate of almost 10 percent while balances up to the insured limit will be taxed at the rate of 6.75%. Depositors will receive an equal amount of bank stock in return for the amount paid.

  Once news of the plan got out the Cypriot people who have rushed to the bank and ATM machines to withdraw their savings have found that while the ATMs will still give out a limited amount of money, the banks are closed for a ‘bank holiday’. The Cyprus lawmakers have overwhelmingly rejected the ECB proposal and the matter is unresolved. Since without the bailout the uninsured deposits would be lost I can see taxing the deposits over 100,000 euros, but it makes no sense to me that people who have their deposits ‘insured’ by the government would be forced to trade their savings for ‘bank stock’. The situation is complicated by the fact because Cyprus had been considered a safe haven for foreign investment, their largest depositors are Russian millionaires. The European Union doesn't want to be seen to subsidize Russian millionaires, Cyprus wants to keep their status as a parking spot for foreign money, and the Russians want to know that their investments in Europe are safe.

  I wonder what the US would do if posed with a similar problem, say the Chinese calling in 10 or 12 TRILLION of dollars of debt at once? Would the government tax our bank accounts and retirement accounts? Sure – it’s already been thought of here. Just like the old saying ‘When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’, when governments have a problem, every solution looks like taking money from those who have some. It seems to be the only pattern they have memorized.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conflicts In Coaching

  I have two weeks off from teaching chess at the St. Francis Chess Club since there is no school next Friday and the week after is spring break. Attendance at the club is down a little from last year. We regularly had between 40 and 50 players last year and this year 30 to 40 players is the norm. A quick eyeball analysis shows me that the missing players are the seventh graders who go to the high school for advanced math in the mornings and the very casual players who came to the club last year to hang out with their friends and stack the pieces up. Having 30 to 40 kids willing to wake up early to come to chess club is an indicator not only of what a fun game chess is, but also a sign that the way the club is set up is on the right track. The players receive buttons for demonstrating basic skills, get a tricky puzzle to solve each week, and a ladder tournament to provide a ranking to compete for. I would love to have a 15 minute lesson to begin the club but with an early morning club that has the members arrive anytime between 7:15 and 7:45 a structured lesson would be too prone to distractions. Besides, since these kids will be in class all day I see no reason to make them have to sit around and listen to me to start their day.

  I help run the chess club in return for being able to run a monthly tournament during the school year, and many of the Saint Francis club players have been competing in the tournaments. A few of the players compete in the rated section, but the unrated (or beginner section) is perfect for most of the players to get a few games in and not be overmatched. Having a Saint Francis player make the top five in the rated or unrated tournaments used to be a rarity, but this school year we’ve had four winners of the unrated section and one rated section champion. The parents like to give me and my co-coaches Tim (the 3 time state champ and life master) and Chris credit for this, but I know it’s mostly due to natural improvement as players and getting the hang of competitive chess where every game is important to the final standing.

  I like to say I teach by not teaching. It sounds very Zen and Yoda like, but there is more than a kernel of truth to it. I don’t have any philosophy for teaching chess except to try to understand what the motivation is for the student to improve and to figure out what kind of person they are (conservative, aggressive, reckless, shy, etc…). Most of the kids at St. Francis just want to enjoy playing so I try to teach them how not to lose in the beginning of the game and how to checkmate with an extra queen because I’ve found players are more likely to get discouraged when they lose quickly or they fail to win even when they get a queen or two ahead. If a player is more serious about getting better I try to get them to write down the games so I can look them over and see what they’re trying to do and how they're trying to do it. Very few players write down their moves, but when they do I know they are serious about improving. One of the Saint Francis players who always wrote his moves down is Zack. I was able to get a good feel for his style, which to put it mildly is an extreme caveman style. Zack used to always go for the four move checkmate and if his opponent blocked it, sacrifice a piece or two or more until he either checkmated his opponent or had nothing left to fight with. I tried to show Zack that by getting more pieces involved before he went caveman he’d develop better attacks and beat better players without changing his style and gave him some opening ideas to give away pawns to get his pieces out. Zack hasn’t been able to come to chess club this year because he is one of the unlucky seventh graders who gets to go to the high school for advanced math class, but he still plays in tournaments, still writes down the moves, was the first Saint Francis player to win one of my monthly youth tournaments (in February), and beat me in a casual game at a parochial school tournament.

  Not only am I helping teach the kids at St. Francis, I also have a ‘private student’, Alex. I gave Alex some lessons last summer in return for his mom helping at my chess camp and found I enjoyed it so we have continued the lessons through the fall and winter. Alex plays a few games a week on the internet and every other week I review his games and go over them with him. When I started working with Alex, he would retreat or trade pieces whenever given a chance and would hardly ever go on the offensive. Alex is very smart and is good at calculating variations so I showed him in his games how he could be a little more aggressive about getting his pieces out and pointed out key spots in his games where he or his opponent missed a tactic and asked him to find it. He would almost always find the tactic and helped me get him to realize that if he got his pieces out and looked for tactics he should be confident in his ability to out calculate his opponent and if he saw something that he thought would work to go for it. He had a setback ironically enough by winning a tournament in August. I think he felt a lot of pressure to win every tournament after that and went 4-9 the rest of 2012. I made it a point in our lessons that I saw a lot of improvement in his online games and that what happens on any particular tournament day has a large element of randomness. Alex has found a new level this year. He has gone 9-5 so far in 2013, but the thing that has most impressed me is that he is constantly on the lookout for tactics in his game and doesn’t get discouraged by a loss – he just keeps on fighting.

  My son Matt is quickly becoming one of Iowa’s premiere chess teachers. He coaches one 3 elementary schools in Ames (including this year’s K-6 and K-3 state team champions) and has a number of paying students. I’m very proud that he has found so much success and at the same time admit to taking a special delight when one of my students beats one of his in a tournament, but I’m very conflicted when players I like square off at one of my tournaments. Aside from Alex, Zack and the other St. Francis players, there are all the other players that are regulars at my monthly tournaments and chess camps that I have gotten to talk chess to over the past 2 and a half years. I just do my best to remain impartial, let the game play itself out, and be happy for the winner and sympathetic to the loser of the individual contest.

  At the February afternoon tournament, Zack and Alex were both playing. In the second round, Zack lost to Daniel, a very talented second grader from Ames who won the morning tournament and in the third round it was Alex’s turn to play Daniel. Daniel got a good game out of the opening, but Alex found a tactical shot to win a piece. Daniel posed a lot of problems even a piece down but Alex kept a cool head and won the best game I ever saw him play. Then in the fourth round Alex and Zack squared off. If Alex won he would guarantee first place and if Zack won he would set up a 3 way tie for first.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  Alex and Zack both played well above their rating. It was a wild game and I would have been happy to see them draw. We had time for one more round and since the three leaders already played each other, they got to play some lower ranked opponents. Zack and Daniel won their games but Alex was spent from his efforts and lost his last round game. It was a shame he didn’t get a share of the championship but I tried to impress on him that he played his best game ever and the improvement was the important thing. He was upset with the last round loss but has started playing more chess on the internet than ever before and the quality of the games has taken another leap. I can see these two pushing each other for years to come.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Something to Sequester

  I woke up on Saturday morning and I was fairly surprised. I had assumed that the world was coming to an end since the Republican House and the Democratic Senate and President couldn’t agree on a long term plan for deficit reduction, the automatic spending cut provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act kicked in and 1.2 trillion in spending cuts over nine years were automatically mandated, including an 85 BILLION DOLLAR cut this year, spread equally between defense spending and domestic spending. Since the domestic spending cuts can’t include Medicaid or Social Security, they will be compressed into fewer areas of spending.

  The media has rightly been critical of both parties for not finding a way to get spending under control and there have been national news (like here) and local news (and here) stories highlighting the pain of the arbitrary budget cuts on the lives of ordinary Americans. Furloughs for government workers, child care and flu shot cutbacks, and even delays of deploying aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf were some of the threats outlined the president in this speech. Once the cuts went into place, the president switched his message from one of impending crisis to noting that it’s not an apocalyptical event even though it will hurt and is dumb.

  What is rarely mentioned and when mentioned only in a whisper was that the 85 BILLION dollars in cuts have to be made between now and October. They aren’t being made tomorrow. Also not mentioned is that the government is on par to spend 3,800 BILLION DOLLARS this year and will run a deficit of 900 BILLION DOLLARS. The ‘fiscal cliff’ deal supposedly raised 600 BILLION DOLLARS in revenue, but it really raised 60 BILLION DOLLARS a year for ten years, or only 15% of the budget deficit. Even this sequestration and its ‘harsh’ cuts leave a budget deficit of over 800 BILLION DOLLARS for this year.

  These ‘deep’ budget cuts account for 2.4% of total spending. I’m sure that some programs (especially the ones that have overspent in the early part of the fiscal year) and their constituents will suffer, but when the social security rate cut expired for me in January, anyone paying into Social Security had a de facto 2% decrease in revenue and have managed to get by so I see no reason why the government can’t also so without 2.4% or so of its revenue.

  Politicians of all stripes are playing the blame game and even Mitt Romney has resurfaced to take a swipe at the president. Of all the politicians trying to scare the public into demanding an end to the sequestration cuts, I found Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s comments to be most surreal. Napolitano’s department made the decision to release ‘low-risk’ illegal immigrant detainees as a way to save money before the sequestered cuts take effect. The news was leaked to the media and Napolitano said she was surprised to learn about it. She also said that while ‘We are always going to put safety first…the number of Border Patrol hours that will need to be reduced equates to the equivalent of 5,000 Border Patrol agents… We deal with a lot of bad actors… the large narco traffickers, human smugglers…and we will have fewer agents to do that”. In a country where at least ELEVEN MILLION people are here illegally or are undocumented or are without status or are (insert preferred buzzword), the Department of Homeland Security is saying they won’t have the resources to perform their duties without their extra money. If one in every thirty people in this country aren’t here legally I’m not sure why this department is getting any funding at all and I certainly don’t have any confidence in their being able to identify the ‘bad actors’ from among these ELEVEN MILLION people, most of whom are just looking for a better life but if you don’t even know who they are who can how can you tell who is a bad actor and who isn’t.

  At this particular moment in the nation’s history roughly half the people are getting from the government and roughly half are giving to the government. This makes it political suicide for conservatives to raise taxes by more than the small amount they already have in letting prior tax cuts expire or liberals to cut the basic social welfare programs that is the key to their support. I’ve yet to have it explained how the government spending 815 BILLION DOLLARS that it doesn’t have will cause the loss of 750,000 jobs and lower economic growth by a third (See this report) while spending 900 BILLION DOLLARS that the government doesn’t have will keep the economy humming along. 85 BILLION DOLLARS divided by 750,000 jobs works out to be $113,333/job. If we just gave 750,000 people $70,000 apiece to do nothing we could save all 750,000 jobs and save the government over 32 BILLION DOLLARS and even more if you count the taxes that would be coming back to the government. I haven’t done the math but if we gave away $70,000 to enough people, the country could not only wipe out the deficit with the increased tax revenue, but actually create a budget surplus and lower the tax rate!!

  All seriousness aside, it seems as if the current sequestration has taken on a life of its own and will not be ended from any pressure on Washington from the American people. But that doesn’t mean that there is no way to end the sequestration. I noticed that when Secretary of State John Kerry went to Egypt this past week he handed 250 MILLION DOLLARS to Egyptian President Morsi with the promise of another 750 MILLION if the country demonstrates its credentials as a democratic nation. Another TWO BILLION DOLLARS is heading to Pakistan. The United States sends 50 BILLION DOLLARS a year overseas in foreign aid. These funds have been approved by Republican and Democrat Congresses and Republican and Democrat Presidents. Normally I’d say this is a small amount but this is money that as a country we are borrowing to send overseas. I think the government must really like all these foreign countries to be borrowing BILLIONS of dollars to send to them. The funds are not part of the sequestration, but in my opinion they should be the first funds sequestered. If the Pakistans, Libyas, Egypts, and Israels of the world lost their ‘government allowance’, they might be able to pressure the US government into the sound fiscal policies the American people can’t.