Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reelin' In The Years

  I tried to get to bed last Friday but tossed and turned all night anticipating the next day’s three chess tournaments at the Salvation Army: the $1150 Expert Open I was directing for Tim McEntee, the Reserve tournament for non-experts which I named the Broken Pawn Reserve, and the meet-up tournament I offered to host for the chess.com Team Iowa group. I wrote about how rare it is for plans to work out last week but the one thing I did not plan on was not getting much sleep before I rolled out of bed at 4:00 to take Daisy and Baxter on their beef stick walk to the Jiffy.

  Normally I only shave on Friday mornings before I go to teach chess at St. Francis but I had cancelled chess club because it was the weekend of the parish auction and there weren’t going to be any tables and chairs available for chess. I was looking pretty scruffy and I wanted to be clean cut for the tournament so I broke out a brand new BIC razor from its package and started to hack away at 10 days of beard. I don’t whether it was the tiredness or the newness of the razor or both but in the process of shaving I proceeded to slice away enough of my face that I could be an extra in a chain saw massacre movie so if you know of anyone that is making a chain saw massacre movie in the next week or two please pass my name around.

  While Kathy and I were taking the beagles to the Jiffy in single digit temperatures, my face stopped bleeding but the very light snowflakes glittering in the night air started getting thicker and thicker as we arrived. I got my coffee and beef sticks and paid Vince my $2.06. When Vince saw my face he said “You should sharpen your lawnmower before you shave with it, Hank!” I thanked him for his advice, fed the beef sticks to Daisy and Baxter, and Kathy and I made our way in the ever thickening snow back home.

  When someone wrote that Yogi Berra was ugly he replied “It don’t matter if you’re ugly in this racket. All you have to do is hit the ball and I never saw anybody hit one with his face” and the same could be said about directing a tournament with enough cuts on your face to start a blood bank so I stopped worrying about whether people would think I lost a fight with an electric mixer and started thinking about the tournament. The snow on the ground was a more serious matter since all but a handful of the players were traveling anywhere from 40 to 300 miles to get to the tournament. I only had three blocks to travel so I checked my email for the last time (I would have no internet at the Salvation Army building) and slid the three blocks over to the Salvation Army building at 8 to get ready for the tournament’s 10am start time.

  I had a small group of Marshalltown players that I knew would be there and Will Liang emailed me to let me know that he and his four children had made it but other than that I had no idea how many people the weather would keep away from the tournament. A few minutes after nine I had my first player arrive: Joey Kelly from Kansas. Joey’s dad Mike said they had driven four hours and all the roads he went on had one lane clear and the traffic was going a little less than the speed limit so I stopped worrying about the weather. Tim had asked for the players to arrive at 9:30 so even though I got a few calls from players saying they were running late and one cancellation the tournament started right on time.

  A few minutes before the tournament started Major Paul Fleeman arrived. Major Fleeman is the district commander of the Salvation Army for Iowa and Nebraska and is also a chess player and a chess blogger who wrote a series about comparing correct chess play and Christianity called ‘Life Lessons From Chess’. I had invited Major Paul to attend the tournament and maybe even play. When he arrived I took him around to introduce him to Tim and Bethany Carson (who recently wrote her own blog post comparing bughouse chess principles to Christianity. Paul wanted to meet Awonder Liang but the 10 year world champion was getting ready to play so I introduced him to his father Will and they chatted for a bit. Major Paul thinks chess is a great activity for both kids and adults and was so taken by the sight of 40+ chess players he called the Marshalltown Majors Ben and Beth Stillwell to come over to the building and check out the action and stayed around to watch most of the first round before leaving for other meetings he had scheduled for the day.

  This was such an interesting day and tournament that I could probably write for three months about it but I’ll limit myself to two or three posts. One thing that struck me the most was that there so many players who I first met years and years ago when they were just kids and here they were all grown up and playing chess in Marshalltown. It was brought back a flood of memories and was almost like being in a time warp.

  Years and years ago Iowa’s high school championship was a 2-stage affair – first there was a qualifying tournament to determine the top six high school players who would play in a round robin with the winner being the high school champion who would represent the state in a National tournament of High School champions. Ten years ago the qualifying tournament would have dozens of players and being in the top six was a big deal but as time went on it was difficult to get six players to the qualifying tournament so the round robin went away and the championship became a single day. In 2006 the organizer of the round robin went into radio silence and as the serving state scholastic director I piggybacked the round robin onto the State Championships in Grinnell. Only four qualifiers were willing to play so I made the tournament a double round robin over two days. Two of the players were Jeremy Madison and Daniel Brashaw.

Dan Brashaw through the years.

  Daniel (he went by Dan then) was always the strongest player for his age in the state. He is two years older than my oldest son Matt and they would play in a lot of the same tournaments and had epic battles for the High School Championship (Daniel winning in 2008 and Matt in 2009). During these and other tournaments I got the chance to get to know Daniel and his mom Jeanette. I got along real good with both of them because we’re all pretty direct people that say what we think. I remember Daniel watching me play a blitz game where I gave up a piece for an attack that didn’t work. After the game Daniel was almost laughing as he said “You gave up a piece to give ONE CHECK”. I wasn’t especially pleased at the time but I knew the teenager was right and I always tried since to get more than ONE CHECK when I give up a piece. Daniel hadn’t played in Marshalltown since the 2007 High School Championships but in the meantime he started and finished his studies at the University of Iowa. After only playing in a handful of tournaments each year Daniel started playing more frequently in 2012 and is now the state chess champion. We got to talk quite a bit on Saturday and he has the same sharp memory and fun-loving self-confidence. He asked me if I had still had the pictures of him eating a Sub City sub at the 2007 Marshalltown tournament and I did still have the pictures of Dan wolfing down this giant sub during a game! On Saturday, Daniel insisted on playing a game in the chess.com tournament and it didn’t matter to him that he was playing Tim Mc Entee in the expert section so I just paired him up and he spent the next hour walking between rooms playing two games at once. I offered to put him in the Reserve section so he could play three games at once until he pointed out that he was rated too high to be in that section. Daniel won his chess.com game and lost to Tim but he had the same fun loving attitude after the games that he had before.

The many looks of Jeremy Madison.
If you look closely you can see Dan Brashaw and his Sub City sandwich!

  Jeremy Madison is almost Daniel’s chessic polar opposite. While Dan was always the best for his age, Jeremy didn’t start playing in tournaments until he was in High School and had to climb up the ladder to become one of the best scholastic players in the state. He went to many of the same tournaments as Matt and I got to spend a lot of hours outside the playing halls of chess tournaments with his parents Steve and Diane. Jeremy always struck me as pretty shy but he knew how to stick up for himself also. In 2005 he missed out on being in the final six for the High School championship by the slimmest of tiebreak margins and went on the message board decrying the process by saying he lost out on a ‘coin flip’ which was metaphorically if not factually correct. This ruffled just a few feathers but Jeremy stuck to his guns and it got the people talking about and reforming the process. Jeremy has had epic battles over the board with Matt, Ben, myself, and Dan Brashaw for that matter and won the Iowa State Fair speed chess championship in 2007. After graduating from college, Jeremy found himself working in Wisconsin and didn’t play in a chess tournament for a year and half. Since his comeback he attained the expert rating and I barely got a chance to talk to him because his games are hardly ever the first to finish and he hardly ever left the tournament room where he was one of the four players to not have a loss.

Aaron Anderson(l) and Andrew Smith (r) - The team picture is from the 2005 High School team championships.

  While the experts were battling it out, two of the Marshalltown High School chess legends from the past decade were ten feet over in the reserve section. I wrote about Aaron Anderson and Andrew Smith at length in my Christmas post so I won’t belabor the point except to say that except for Andrew heading to Ankeny for a quad in 2010 and a handful of my blitz tournaments the last time these two played in a rated tournament was when the three of us and Jaleb Jay headed to Des Moines in 2008. We had a great time playing and when I lost to John Herr in the last round I was harassed all the way home by being asked ‘How could you lose to HER?’ It was a fun day with a fellow group of chess players and I was glad to see these two playing again. Aaron was lights out and won his last three games after losing to Edin (NOT EDDIE as I learned during last years’ Time Odds Blitz tournaments), the top ranked player in the first round while Andrew is working the third shift and arrived halfway through the tournament after getting his sleep, winning both his games to leave these two friends with a combined 5-1 mark.

Bethany Carson - A perennial champion.

  Another pair of players in the Reserve was Tim Carson and his daughter Bethany. I first met the Carsons (there are 6 including mom Betty and chldren Daniel, Charity, and Sarah Faith) when I ran an AmericInn tournament in Grundy Center in the fall of 2003. They started coming to my chess club in Marshalltown shortly thereafter and in 2006 Bethany played in her first rated tournament in Marshalltown when I hosted the state Girls Championship. Bethany finished second that year but went on to win the title five times and almost beat Matt for the High School championship in 2011. Bethany is not only a champion chess player – she is a great writer who writes for truthfulpolitics.com as well as her own blog, Liberty or Death. I consider Bethany’s father Tim a friend and when he says something I listen carefully. When I was running youth chess tournaments at the Golden Teapot in West Des Moines half a decade ago, Tim mentioned that while he liked the tournaments for his children it wasn’t much fun for him because he wanted to play also. So at my next tournament at the Teapot in May of 2007 I had what I believe to be the first parents and friends tournament ever held in Iowa and I have offered one in every youth tournament I’ve ever run since.

Tim Carson likes watching his children play chess but he likes playing just as much himself (that goes for Ping-Pong too!).

  The Golden Teapot had a ping-pong table and I played Tim a few times in between rounds at the tournaments I held there. On Saturday, Tim asked me if there was a ping-pong table in the Salvation Army building and I said I believed there was one in the gym. Then Tim pulled out a pair of paddles and a handful of balls out of his coat pocket and asked me if I wanted to play. After the reserve tournament ended us two 50+ year old men snuck into the gym like a couple of 8 year olds and turned the lights on. The gym wasn’t heated so it was freezing but we headed over to the stage and moved this incredibly heavy pool table to the middle of the stage and put the ping pong table top over the pool table and proceeded to play ping pong in the freezing cold of the gym for about 45 minutes. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t find a net – we were having a blast just batting the ball back and forth. I think Tim got the better of me but I gave it my best shot and it’s lucky I’m almost bald because I wouldn’t have been able to lift my arm over my head the next couple of days to comb my hair if my life depended on it! By the time we were done playing I was a sweaty mess and when we got back to the playing area people were staring at me because I looked like a piece of wet laundry that just got pulled out of the washing machine but I didn’t care because it was the most fun I had in a long, long time.

Kushan Tyagi - A testament to talent, persistence, and hard work

  When I first started running scholastic tournaments one player that I could always count on to attend was Kushan Tyagi from Ames. His brother Nirvan is Matt’s age and they would have an annual battle in the state grades championship but while Nirvan would only play in the official state scholastic tournaments, Kushan really loved chess and his parents would take him anywhere and everywhere to get games in. He played in almost all my Golden Teapot tournaments and had the bad (or good) fortune to play the top seed in the last round of almost every one of them for a chance at first place. It was just the luck of the draw but Kushan never hesitated to let me know about it. I don’t think he won even one of those last round teapot matchups but he kept coming back to play which told me he was going to be a really great player since I do believe that in the words of the prophet Rocky Balboa “It’s not how hard you hit…It’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward…cuz that’s how winning’s done!”. I’ve seen a lot of young players that get off to great starts in competitive chess but are kind of like bicycles in that they are easily knocked off balance by a bump in the road and fall and fall down hard while Kushan was more like an all-terrain vehicle that can handle any road conditions. Combine that mentality with supportive parents and a lot of brains and chess ability and you have the makings of a champion which Kushan has become. He is the state high school champ three years running and came with a hair’s breadth of winning the state championship as an eighth grader in 2011. In the Expert Tournament on Saturday he tied for first. I didn’t get to talk to Kushan very much on Saturday but I did get to spend some time talking with Akhilesh, with whom I’ve had many long conversations at tournaments while our kids were competing. Akhilesh is savviest traveler I know and whenever we found ourselves at the same tournament he always seemed to pay half of what I paid for a room. We got to spend some time talking and Akhilesh was nice enough to help me put away a lot of the tables after the Reserve tournament ended. Kushan hadn’t played in Marshalltown in three years and as long as I’ve known him he would write down ‘No Idea’ in the part of the scoresheet reserved for marking down what opening was played (a rarely if ever used part of the scoresheet). After his first game ended I made it a point to look at Kushan’s scoresheet to see what he wrote in the box and sure enough it said ‘No Idea’.

  It was an amazing tournament for a lot of reasons and I’ll get into some of them next week but having said that it was so cool to see so many of the players I’ve known for years and who I consider friends playing in Marshalltown after 3 or 5 or 7 years I wanted to make sure I got it written down before the good memories of the weekend and the past got washed away by the grind of daily living.