Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Once a Year Chess Club

To quote President George W. Bush's May 1, 2003 speech - "Mission Accomplished"

  The Iowa State Fair was last week and on the Wednesday of the State Fair I went to play in the speed chess tournament for the fourth year in a row (and the seventh time overall) to try to win the elusive first place blue ribbon in the annual speed chess competition. I’ve written about my experiences at this tournament in each of the past three years (you can see them here) and spent much of my hour-long commutes back and forth to work the week before wondering if this year’s State Fair post would be one of triumph or tragedy.

  The State Fair speed chess tournament isn’t attended by many of the state’s top players but that doesn’t diminish its importance as a statewide chess event. When I discuss chess with non-chess players their eyes glaze over when I talk about competing in a CyChess tournament or heading to Minnesota for next week’s Jackson Open or directing the super strong Okoboji Open but when these same people saw my name on TV or in the paper as a second place finisher in last year’s state fair speed chess tournament they congratulated me and treated it like a big deal and treated me like a big-time chess player because while many people don’t get chess tournaments they do get the State Fair and the status winning a blue ribbon confers.

Blue ribbon students Alex and Drake!
  I left work at 3:00 and stopped at a QuickTrip for a 32 ounce Mountain Dew/Rooster Booster Energy drink mix and a bottle of 5 hour energy in case I felt tired. I got to the fairgrounds around 3:30, paid $10 to park in the fairgrounds parking lot and another $11 to enter the fairgrounds and then made my way past the hordes of people eating anything and everything that can be coated in grease and poked with a stick while guzzling carbonated beverages out of overprized souvenir cups to get to the Administration building where the tournament was going to be held.

  When I got to the Administration building the scholastic tournament was going on with a small crowd of players. Attendance at the fair has been down in general and with school starting in August and the economy requiring more parents to work more hours and inflation raging despite what the ‘official’ numbers say I think it is getting increasingly more difficult for parents to take a day off from work to bring their kids to play chess during the week.

  Among the players in the scholastic section were 2 of my students, Alex and Drake. Alex’s mom is my chess camp nurse and in return for her help I gave Alex some lessons last summer and enjoyed it so much that we continued all year. He has steadily improved to the point that he has beaten me twice in our training games during these lessons. I donated some lessons to the Animal Rescue League for an auction in the spring and Drake’s parents bid on them and won. Drake is a super-talented 7 year old who tied for the state first grade championship last year and has won five of my beginner youth tournaments. He is a quick learner and when we played a training game in our last lesson, he outplayed me and should have won! Drake and Alex both received blue ribbons for winning their sections and I got to get some pictures of them, while making sure to tell them that winning the blue ribbon was a very big deal and also mentioning that I’ve been trying to get one for years.

  I had my second place ribbon hung up in my work cubicle where I could see it every day since last year’s fair (and my third place ribbon the year before that) to remind me how much I wanted to win the blue ribbon, but my preparations didn’t stop at hope. I did 25 puzzles from Tim Brennan’s Tactics Time database every morning (finishing all 10,001 last week!) after walking Daisy and Baxter and spent part of every lunch hour at work doing puzzles from my amazing iPod’s Tactics Trainer app. Mix in a liberal amount of blitz games on the Internet, time odds blitz games, and training games during lessons and I was as prepared to win the State Fair tournament as I ever was. But while being prepared is nice, you also have to play well on the day.

Ben Munson explaining the pool play
assignments to Life Master Tim Mc Entee
  While I was hanging out watching the scholastic players and chatting with the parents, the other speed chess players began to arrive. 3 time state champ Tim McEntee was there, but luckily for everyone who had designs on winning the tournament he was only there to hang out with the chess players and watch his student and defending champion Cub Noble compete. Joe Meyer from Waterloo (the winner of the 2012-2013 Marshalltown Blitz Series) arrived shortly after that and we caught up with a long chat. Then David Skaar, multiple-time State Fair winner and my state fair nemesis showed up. David only plays in this one tournament every year and while we were talking said that the State Fair tournament was his once a year chess club and he was right on the money. Many of us head to the Iowa State Fair this one Wednesday just to play in this chess tournament and hang out with each other for a couple of hours just like my Thursday Night chess club in Marshalltown. Steve Jacobs and Carl Peters were the other two tournament players I recognized that arrived before the 5:30 registration deadline.

  All told, there were fourteen players and tournament organizer and legendary Des Moines chess teacher Ben Munson divided us into four pools: two three player pools and two four player pools and told us that the winner of each pool would advance to the finals. I thought this was a curious decision since the players in the three player pool that didn’t advance would only get to play two games in the tournament. I think it would have been better to have two seven player pools with the top two or three advancing to the finals but it wasn’t my tournament and I was focused on playing chess. The pool assignments gave me a major break in that I was in a three player pool with two less experienced players while Cub and Joe had to play in the same pool and David and Dr. Peters were also matched up in the same pool so it was likely that some of my main competitors wouldn’t even get to the finals.

In the lead after a round
one bye in pool play

My pool play partners:
Dennis(left) and Adam
  I was in a pool with Adam and Dennis, who were playing in the first round while I had a bye. I hung out talking to Tim and watched Cub and Joe play their pool game which was won by Joe. Adam won against Dennis and I played Dennis next with the white pieces. After 5 moves, Dennis lost a piece and I went on to easily win and then Adam and I squared off to see who would advance to the finals from our pool. Adam was much better than Dennis and came up with a twist to my favorite Center Counter opening that I hadn’t seen before. I concentrated on getting a solid position and won a rook for a bishop when Adam went for an early queen exchange. I managed to open a line for my extra rook to attack Adam’s king and once my rooks crashed through the game was over and I was on to the finals. Joe was also in along with David and we were joined by Caden, who upset Steve Jacobs to win his pool. Caden was the only scholastic player to compete in last years speed chess tournament and he lost all his games. Last year we all tried to keep him from getting discouraged and were happy to see him have a big success this year by getting to the finals.

  Once the finalists were determined, Ben wrote down the schedule. I had Black against David in round one, Black against Caden in round two, and White against Joe in the final round. David and I sat down, shook hands, and squared off for our game. For the first time ever in our meetings, David opened with his king pawn and we entered a line of the Center Counter that led to a quick queen exchange. I managed to give him a weak pawn on d3 and spent most of the 5 minute game (with a 2 second delay) keeping him on the defensive but I was unable to win the weak pawn. I moved on to try to force another weakness and David managed to exchange all the pieces and we were each left with less than a minute on our clocks and a king and a pawn apiece. I managed to queen my pawn one move before David and this allowed me to check his king with my queen. In any other game, I would have offered a draw, but I really wanted to try to win this game so I gave four or five checks in the hopelessly drawn position and David made a disastrous move that cost him his queen and the game.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

Finalists Joe and David

Finalist Caden
  Two weeks ago I wrote how I offered a draw in the July Time Odds Blitz when I could have just run my opponent out of time and I said it didn’t mean I was a good sport – it just meant that winning or drawing the game didn’t mean very much to me. In this game my actions didn’t mean I was a bad sport – it just meant that winning this game was very important to me. I felt bad for David but I still was happy to get past the first hurdle. Joe beat Caden and when we went to the scoring table to write down our results I asked Ben if there was going to be a playoff for the blue ribbon in case of a tie. Ben said he had enough blue ribbons so there would be no playoff so I told Joe that when we played I would accept a draw at any time. Joe said we should worry about that later because we still had work to do. I sat down to play Caden and after 10 or so moves, he allowed a tactic that cost him a piece. I thought he would fall apart but Caden played extremely tough and made me push him back square by square, all the while setting little traps to give me ways to go wrong. I finally managed to trade off a lot of pieces and make an extra queen just before he ran out of time.

  Joe beat David a few minutes after my game was finished and while I was setting up the pieces for our game, Joe told Ben that we had agreed to a draw and a shared championship. I was willing to play for the ribbon if Joe insisted (After all, I wouldn’t have had a choice), but I was so thrilled to finally get the Iowa State Fair blue ribbon that I gave Joe a big hug and congratulated him and thanked him. Then Joe said that I wasn’t going to get off that easy and we still needed to play a game for the ‘unofficial’ championship. Joe knew all about my ‘Boris’ opening so I just played a standard setup against his Benoni but quickly got on the defensive when he managed to trade one of his queenside pawns for in return for my e4 pawn which was the key to my center position. I managed to hold on and open a file for my rooks and when Joe hastily took my other center pawn, it allowed me a tactic to win a piece and the game. Does this mean I would have won the blue ribbon if we had played for it? Hardly! I’ve only beaten Joe once in 14 rated tournament games although I have a much better record against him in casual games which means that Joe is a different player when there is something on the line or I’m a bit of a choke artist or (as is often the case) a little bit of both.

  I relayed this story of our zero move draw to a friend of mine the next day. She said that was no way to win a blue ribbon and I have to respectfully disagree. I know I got into the winners circle through the back door but it doesn’t matter whether you get in through the front door or the side door or the back door or even the doggie door – the goal is to get INDOORS. I finally have my blue ribbon, couldn’t ask for a better co-champion than Joe, and I still did have to win four games to get it. Was I lucky I had to play only four games and that David made a horrendous mistake? Sure!! But I’ve rarely seen a tournament where the eventual winner didn’t benefit from some lucky breaks along the way. I will say that I did a lot of the things that helped me take advantage of my good fortune like spending a lot of time on tactics puzzles, bringing a t-shirt to wear, apples to eat, and something to drink.

The Championship Dinner!

2012 Champ Cub Noble welcoming
me to the winner's circle
  After the tournament was over we all hung out for a while and talked and then I celebrated by sharing a late dinner with Cub and Tim. I had an $8.50 dinner of steak tips, mashed potatoes, and green beans from the nearby ‘Dawghouse’ stand and I can’t remember having a more satisfying meal. We chatted about the State Fair chess tournament and Cub’s upcoming chess tournaments in the Cedar Falls area (where he attends the University of Northern Iowa as a TRIPLE major) and then said our good byes and headed our separate ways.

  I was feeling so good about being a co-champion that I could have floated home, but instead I took my car, played ‘Cloud 9’ and ‘We are the Champions’ on my amazing iPod, and headed to the Bondurant Git’n’Go to gas up and get some coffee for the way home. Last year, I was recognized at the Git’n’Go for taking pictures to expose their scam of charging 40 cents for a 32 ounce fountain drink and $1.06 for a 20 ounce refill but given the constant churn of personnel at convenience stores in the 21st century I was able to enter the store unnoticed just 12 months later. I used the men’s room and was about to get the coffee when I noticed a sign on the ladies’ room that said ‘NO MEN’ (there was no corresponding sign on the men’s room). I was going to ask if this newly posted rule applied to state fair blue ribbon winners but I thought the better of it, paid my 74 cents for the coffee and headed home. At work the next day, I replaced the red ribbon at my cubicle at work with the blue one but on Friday I took the ribbon home and hung it on a nail with my 2 red, 2 white, and 2 yellow participant ribbons. In the years I didn’t win I wanted to keep the vision of what I wanted in front of me but now that I possess what I’ve coveted for so long I think reminding myself of that every day wouldn’t be productive to my new goal of getting a second blue ribbon!

Left: Co-champions Joe and I with tournament organizer Ben Munson. Right: Next club meeting - August 2014!