Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Games People Play

Bill and Vince matching wits over the counter at the Jiffy.
A chessboard between them wouldn't be out of place.

  Last Saturday, Kathy and I took Baxter and Daisy to the Jiffy at 5am as we normally do but after getting my coffee and heading to the counter to pull the beef sticks out of the display and pay Vince I got to sit around for ten minutes while customer Bill paid Vince the Jiffy night shift clerk $8.19 for his pack of cigarettes and Mountain Dew in quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies after he exhausted his supply of wrinkled dollar bills. It may not have taken ten minutes, but since there were numerous restarts of counting on the parts of both Bill and Vince it may have taken a lot longer.

  While the counting was going on, there wasn’t much I could do to speed things up except leave without the beef sticks and risk the wrath of the beagles and there was still the matter of the unpaid coffee in my travel cup. I had my camera so I took a picture in an attempt to speed things along but it went unnoticed in the debate over whether 80 or 85 came after 75 when counting by fives, which took a detour when Bill or Vince (it was five in the morning and I wasn’t fully awake) claimed that one of the nickels was counted twice and that's why in this one case 85 did come after 75 when counting by fives.

  Instead of just starting the count over, Bill and Vince were equally determined to win this argument and I got to thinking about how important winning is to most people. At the chess camp that I had last week, we finished up with a ‘bughouse’ tournament. Bughouse is a chess variant where teams of two players square off against each other and when one player captures a piece, they pass it along to their partner who can place it on their board instead of making a move. I don’t get bughouse, I don’t care for bughouse, but I don’t deny the appeal it has for most young players and many older players as well and it makes for a fun way to let the kids finish the camp. Most of the campers were angling around for partners to help them be successful. The Spence brothers paired up and communicated in Spanish, which led to accusations of an unfair advantage. I disallowed those claims in order to spare me from having to monitor every conversation in the tournament for secret code words.

Bughouse chess
  Once all the players had made their teams, only Shirlin was left without a partner so I paired her with Frank, the 7th grade state champion who helped me with the camp by giving a lesson and helping out with the kids. I thought I was all set and then the youngest camper, 5 year old Jacob came up and asked who his partner was. I could have paired him with Shirlin but she already had a partner, there was something not right to me about pairing the two players who didn’t have partners, and I had 15 teams and 16 is the perfect number for a tournament so I pressed Bethany Carson into service as Jacob’s partner. Bethany was a camp instructor and loves to play bughouse but even so I was concerned how she would react to playing with a partner who was the least skilled player in the camp.

  I needn’t have worried. Bethany showed Jacob exactly what he needed to do to be a successful bughouse partner and they finished in third place among the 16 teams, while Frank and Shirlin finished first. I’ve played bughouse a few times at club and while I like to win, if my team loses I don’t get upset about it (except the time I got very upset when I told my partner not to move because I had a forced checkmate and my opponent had 30 seconds only to have my partner get checkmated ten seconds later, telling me afterwards ‘I just felt like moving’) and I've never concerned myself with the teamwork aspects of the game. But not Bethany and Frank! They found a way to be successful even though they were paired with the players no one else wanted as a partner. You don’t have to be a psychologist or even have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express to know that these two want to excel at whatever they do and that is very likely what makes them champion chess players.

  Eventually Vince and Bill forgot about their argument and managed to agree that the fourth dollar in change did add up to a dollar. They started on dollar number 5 but got sidetracked when Vince spied a wheat leaf penny (printed from 1909 to 1959) in the pile of change and tried to count the pennies before the dimes and nickels. Bill thought Vince was trying to pull a fast one and they proceeded to argue about the correctness of counting pennies before dimes and nickels and another argument ensued.

  The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi has had a couple of quotes attributed to winning 1) ‘Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing!’ and 2) ‘Winning isn’t everything – but wanting to win is’. I don’t know if he really believed this but they are the sort of manly quotes that get attributed to winning football coaches. I very rarely get into the mood where wanting to win is everything over the chessboard – I work off the assumption that being in the proper mindset to play well will lead to victories more than any deep seated desire to win. I wonder what Lombardi thought of the game of chess when the combatants can agree to a tie game at any point in the contest. Even with attempts by tournament organizers to get the players to not offer draws via the so called ‘Sofia Rules’ does not prevent players from taking the occasional quick draw via one of the many known openings where best play is a repetition of position.

vs. Robert Vance
  At June’s Time Odds Blitz, I had one of the worst days I’ve had in years. After playing a couple of good games, I gave away my queen in one game and my bishop in another. I wondered how I could have made two big blunders within a half hour of each other and the only reason I could come up with was that since the apples I brought along to eat turned out to be rotten, I didn’t eat anything all day and just wore out. I brought some PowerAde along with some non-rotten apples to the July tournament but I forgot that I scheduled the tournament to start at 12:45 and started it at 12:30 instead. I only realized when I sat down to play the first round and the mother of a ‘late’ arriving player reminded me to look at the flyer. I gave up my place to the ‘late’ arriving player and ended up missing the first round. I won my second round game and in the third round was paired against Robert Vance, the truck driver/chess teacher I played against in last May’s CyChess tournament. I was White but only had four minutes against Robert’s eight. I won a pawn and reached a king and pawn ending with two minutes on the clock vs. Robert’s four. My extra pawn was crippled and we shuffled our kings back and forth on the same squares four or five times when I offered Robert a draw.

  Robert didn’t say a word and kept shuffling his king back and forth along with me. He either didn’t hear my draw offer or was content to use his time advantage to win if I insisted on shuffling my king back and forth. I pushed a pawn on the far side of the board to attack one of Robert’s. Robert had a choice of trading pawns, advancing his attacked pawn and locking the structure, or moving his king over to recapture the pawn I was attacking. Robert advanced his pawn instantaneously which gave my king an entrance and an easy win. I don’t know if the two alternatives were any better but I know they would have made me spend more time on getting my king into his side of the board. Three moves later, Robert said ‘It’s my turn to offer a draw’ but I was winning so I just said ‘No thanks’ and he resigned a few moves later. I offered a draw because I was too lazy to work out the win, but Robert forced me to figure it out and offered me the draw only when he was lost. I wondered if he thought I thought was lost when I offered the draw.

and Tim Crouse

and Seth from Marshalltown
  Sometimes a draw is the proper outcome of a well-played game. The round after I played Robert, I took on Tim Crouse in our first over the board meeting since he beat me ten years ago in the most stinging loss I ever suffered over a chessboard. It was a great back and forth struggle where Tim was attacking my king while I was barely holding on and counterattacking on the queenside. I managed to trade queens and then the game transformed into a wildly imbalanced Rook and Pawn ending. When the dust settled, I had a Rook and Pawn vs. Rook in a drawn endgame but while I had two of my original eight minutes left, Tim had only 13 seconds of his seven minutes remaining. I looked at the clocks and offered Tim a draw, which he took. Would Tim have offered me a draw had the situation been reversed? I don’t think so but that’s not because I’m a better sport than he is – it’s because winning is more important to him than me. I was happy to have played a smart tough game and once I feel I’ve played well the result doesn’t matter as much.

and Edin (not Eddie)
  At this point I was brought back to the present when Vince managed to win the argument about whether he could count the pennies before the nickels and dimes by telling Bill that he was the clerk on duty so he could count the change any way he wanted. I don’t think Bill was in the mood to head a half mile north to Casey’s to get his Dew and cigarettes so he acquiesced and the counting proceeded apace and I was free to resume my daydreams. In the next to last round of the time odds blitz, I managed to checkmate Seth with seven seconds of my two minutes left (Seth started 3-0 but faded towards the end) and I got to play Edin from Croatia in the last round. I used to call him Eddie but I’ve recently been informed that he prefers to be called Edin. I never thought to ask my brother if he prefers to be called Edward (or Ed or even Edin) instead of Eddie but I may have to now. Edin had won his first six games and already clinched first place while I found myself in sole second place with 4.5 out of six points (including the first game that I didn’t play). I had white and played a delayed Boris against Edin, waiting a few moves to throw my f pawn up the board against his King’s Indian. I got the pawn all the way to f5 and traded it for the g6 pawn when Edin offered me a draw. I thought about it for a minute and decided that since I couldn’t finish first I’d like to ensure a tie for second so I accepted his offer. It wasn’t unlike my draw offer to John Herr last May to clinch a first place tie at a tournament. Would Edin have made the offer if he needed to win to finish first? Absolutely not! I don’t think there is anything Edin likes better than winning at chess, but having first place clinched probably dulled his competitive spirit. Frank (my camp helper) won his last game to tie me for second place and we each collected $7.50 so I guess you could say I either cost myself $7.50 by agreeing to the draw (in case I had won) or made myself $7.50 (in case I would have lost). I used the $7.50 to get myself a value meal at a fast food restaurant and victory (even a second place victory) never tasted better!

(Left to Right): Me, Edin, and Frank. Here's to the winners! If only Vince could have joined us...

  I woke up from my reverie when I heard Vince say “Beef sticks and coffee, Hank?” The counting was over and Bill was gone to drink his Mountain Dew, smoke his cigarettes, and do whatever the Bills of the world do at five in the morning after a Sunday trip to the Jiffy. I gave Vince my $2.06 in exact change and Vince took it while chortling about how he got a 1920's wheat leaf penny out of all that change counting. I was going to ask him if winning the coin or the argument was more important, but I had Kathy and two hungry beagles waiting outside and in the end it really didn’t make a difference because after all 'Winning isn't everything...'