Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2014 Okoboji Open – The Journey

  This past weekend I headed up to Okoboji, Iowa for the sixth year in a row to help my friend Jodene Kruse by directing the 8th Annual Okoboji Open chess tournament. With nearly $2,000 in prize money, many of the region’s top players in attendance, and Open and Reserve sections with two and three day schedules the tournament is my busiest and most pressure packed weekend each year. Having said that, I get to hang out with a bunch of great people I only get to see once or twice a year who appreciate my help and running a monthly youth tournament with anywhere from four to six separate sections is great preparation for Okoboji and helps keep me at the top of my game.

  I didn’t have a traveling companion this year and I had chess club at St. Francis in Des Moines on Friday so I packed up my car with my clothes, computer, and tournament directing stuff and left the house at 5:30 for the hour drive southwest to St. Francis for chess club. It may appear that it would be easy for me to beg out of club this particular Friday because of the Okoboji Open but it wouldn’t have been easy at all. Working with the kids and my fellow coaches is one of the highlights of my week and if everyone else can drag themselves (and their parents) to school an hour early I can spend an extra couple of hours driving to show them that their commitment is not only appreciated, it is matched. I had a great time at club and at 8:30 began the 240 mile trek northwest to Okoboji.

From the Kum & Go in Des Moines to the Casey's in Mason City, beef sticks are 2 for $1 everywhere except the Casey's in Marshalltown, Iowa.

  The trip was uneventful and I was able to take the opportunity to do a little beef stick research for my beagles, Daisy and Baxter. I’m happy to report that the beef sticks at the West Des Moines Kum & Go are still 2 for $1 and according to the manager there are no plans to raise the price. When I got to Mason City I stopped for gas at the Casey’s General Store and the Old Wisconsin Beef Sticks were also 2 for $1 and NOT 2 for $1.08 like the Casey’s in Marshalltown and the manager said it must be some test marketing because they had never heard of such a thing.

  My route to Okoboji is to take I-35 from Des Moines (or Ames via state highway 30 if I leave from my house) to Mason City where I stop for lunch and gas and then make a left turn onto state highway 18 which turns into Route 71 that I then take north to Okoboji. Route 18 is a two lane road and it seemed that I was stuck behind every grandfather and grandmother slowing at every corner to see if this corner was the turn they needed to take for their overdue eye appointment. Then I got stuck behind two different planters or fertilizers or whatever kind of farm equipment takes up more than an entire lane of road. After I finally got some clear space near Britt, Iowa a road crew that was pouring goo into each crack in the road had the highway down to one lane and just as I was about to take my rightful place in the caravan following the pilot car I was stopped by ‘Slappy’ the road guy who held up his stop sign right in front of my car with one hand while talking on his phone with the other. The stop sign meant that I had to wait until the caravan traversed the one lane stretch in single file AND the eastbound caravan followed the pilot car back past where I was before I’d be able to go so as soon as I saw the pilot car in view I turned my camera to video mode and prepared to record Slappy in action or at the least some Slappy inaction.

Slappy in action or Slappy inaction - you make the call!

  After the pilot car rolled past me, Slappy got off his phone and went into overdrive. He guided the entire lane of cars safely past my tiny Chevy Spark, rarely using more than two fingers to give his directional guidance. Once that line was over he expertly helped the pilot car turn around and then went to work on instructing the cross traffic to safely make a left turn on to Route 18 West. This task must have been more challenging since Slappy occasionally had to use both hands to signal the proper direction. After what seemed like an eternity but was only a minute or two it was finally my turn. Slappy looked at me and I looked at Slappy and Slappy looked at my camera. Realizing he was on camera, Slappy pointed at me with both index fingers and torqued his entire torso in the direction of Route 18 West. What an artisan. I was so overcome with the pride Slappy took in his work that I almost had to pull over to the side of the road to get my bearings but I quickly thought WWSD (What Would Slappy Do?) and decided to channel my emotions into running the best tournament I could in the event I ever actually got to Okoboji.

Welcome to Cylinder!

  Once I got past Britt, the traffic resumed at a normal clip and I didn’t get behind any other farm devices, pilot cars, or lost grandparents. I made such good time that I decided to take my now annual pilgrimage to Cylinder, Iowa. Cylinder has fallen on some hard times and it appeared that one of their two RV sales businesses has closed. I stopped at the Post Office on Main Street to get a stamp or some other souvenir but the Post Office was locked even though the sign said it was open. There were no Cylinderans available to ask so I got back in my car and continued my journey, arriving at the Arrowwood Resort around 1:15.

  I got to the tournament room and arranged the tables in what I thought were a suitable fashion. Last year there was a record 63 players but this year only 46 players were signed up. I wasn’t expecting a large walk-up so I set up 25 tables in as spacious a manner as possible, got my computer set up, and checked into my room. Last year there were two incidents that happened in the playing room when I wasn’t around because I was set up in an adjoining room so this year I put a table inside the playing hall by the door and set up my computer right there. This meant I wouldn’t be able to play any offhand games and since any conversation would have to take place outside the playing hall I couldn’t talk and work on the computer at the same time but it did allow me to see the tournament room and I was able to keep up entering games and getting them posted on line. I still had time to hang out in the hall and talk to players and parents so in the end I believe it helped the tournament run much more smoothly than last year.

  46 players might be seen as disappointing after last year’s record turnout but it would have been the fourth most players ever and well within historical norms. This years’ tournament happened to be on the same weekend as the national K-8 tournament which meant that the top scholastic players that attended in years past would be absent this year. I wasn’t especially concerned with the turnout since these things are very random. There is a group of 90 or so players that come to Okoboji and on any given year between 40 and 60 will attend. I can’t directly control who comes and who doesn’t – all I can do is the best job I can to provide a smooth running tournament to make the players want to come back. Jodene gets a great room rate and makes the players feel at home and even the players contribute to the feel-good spirit by getting together on the tournament's Saturday night to eat at the local Mexican restaurant and have a great time.

  This year’s field was especially strong in the open section with almost a third of the players being masters and half over expert level strength. The beautiful weather led to a lot of players to decide to head to the tournament on the spur of the moment. Five players from Nebraska decided to drive up and play, Tim Mc Entee brought my former Marshalltown traveling partner Jaleb Jay from Iowa State, long time regulars Joe Hall-Reppen and Alex Fuhs headed over. All told there were 57 players which was the second largest attendance in the eight year history of the tournament. For my part, despite the delays I had an entertaining drive to Okoboji and when I immediately recognized Roger Hale (who I met one time when he played at Okoboji a couple of years ago) in the hotel lobby and was able to greet him by name I felt that I was going to be on top of my game this weekend and that this year's Okoboji Open was going to be unforgettable.

My favorite weekend of the year...The Okoboji Open weekend!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Second Season

  The NBA playoffs started last Saturday and I have been watching with rapt attention as basketball’s second season starts. The regular season was full of stellar basketball watching for me since the Fox Sports Midwest station on my cable TV provided a steady diet of Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Timberwolves broadcasts since November.

  The Timberwolves are a talented but flawed team featuring Kevin Love (one of the league’s top scorers and rebounders) surrounded by a mismatch of spare parts like point guard Ricky Rubio and center Nikola Pekovic. Rubio has lightning quick hands and highlight reel passing abilities but is such a poor shooter that the opposing teams can play off him and negate his great passing. Center Nikola Pekovic is a hulking brute who clogs the lane on defense and has a nice scoring touch inside but is often injured and is so ponderously slow opponents just run the pick and roll play on his side for easy baskets all game long. If Rubio or Pekovic were on different teams they might be considered accomplished role players but their considerable limitations are exposed as featured players and the Timberwolves finished 40-42, missing the playoffs for the 10th year in a row. All-Star Love will be a free agent after next year and has been pilloried in the press for not leading his team to the playoffs. I believe the criticisms leveled at Love are very unfair. The Wolves record may not seem like much but it is the best record the team has achieved without future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett on the roster and was good enough to have made the playoffs in many other years. The team uncovered a diamond in the rough in rookie center Gorgiu Deng which allows the team to upgrade the roster by trading Pekovic. The Western Conference was stacked this year with 49 wins needed to make the playoffs but if the Wolves don’t trade Love before he becomes a free agent I think the team can be a playoff team in 2014-2015.

  The Pacers gave last year’s champion Miami Heat all they wanted in last year’s seven game Eastern Conference finals and looked to be a team on a mission over the first month of the 2013-14 season with a 16-1 record on December 1st. Their pace slowed a bit after with a 9-5 December, 10-5 January , and 8-3 February but were still looking like one of the league’s top teams. Then the wheels fell off and the team limped to an 11-13 finish which was still good for the best record in the Eastern Conference but left a lot of unanswered questions about the team’s confidence and motivation heading into the playoffs which only intensified after losing the first game of their opening series to the mediocre Atlanta Hawks. I’m not sure what happened to this promising team. It could be an undisclosed injury to particularly off form center Roy Hibbert but I think that when GM Larry Bird acquired swingman Evan Turner and center Andrew Bynum at the trading deadline his very youthful team took it as a sign that that management didn’t think the team was good enough to win the championship and needed an upgrade. I don’t know if the Pacers will be able to right the ship and make a championship run but their playoff debut looked suspiciously like a continuation of a mediocre finish to the regular season instead of signaling the start of a new season.

  In the first round of the NBA playoffs, the teams that consider themselves title contenders try to wrap up their first round playoff series in four or five games in order to rest while their future playoff opponents hopefully wear themselves out in long series and except for the Pacers the top contenders are on pace to do just that. The defending champion Miami Heat easily dispatched the Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday while the Heat’s 2013 finals opponent San Antonio Spurs pulled away from the Dallas Mavericks late and the Oklahoma City Thunder recovered from blowing a huge lead to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies. The Spurs finished with the best record in the league and were one clutch Ray Allen jumper away from winning the championship last year but I don’t see them taking the title. The Spurs are an excellent team that is well coached but I can’t see them matching up against the Thunder as long as the Thunder can stay healthy and get past the Grizzlies (whose physical style is the hardest for the Thunder to match up to and won the second game of the series in overtime). Last year’s Spurs team didn’t have to play a top four seed in the first three rounds of their conference playoffs (thanks largely to Thunder’s guard Russell Westbrook’s knee injury in last year’s playoffs) and it looked to me like they snuck up on the Heat last year. There will be no sneaking up this year. Westbrook barely played in half of his team’s games and in the opening game win against the Grizzlies looked rested and was clearly moving at a different speed than everyone else on either team. I picked the Heat to win the title over the Thunder as part of my New Year’s predictions and see no reason to change my mind now. The Heat seemed to have their foot off the gas pedal for most of the season while they concentrated on getting their team healthy and at full strength for the playoffs. This was the same strategy used by the Chicago Bulls in the third year of their two three-peats in the 1990’s and they managed to complete their runs despite not having home court advantage throughout the playoffs. If the Heat win their third championship in a row it would be the fourth three-peat in the last 23 years after the 1988-1989 Los Angeles Lakers became the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back championships. For all the draft lotteries, salary cap rules, and free agent restrictions the NBA has implemented to promote competitive balance there remains no substitute for front-office brains and star power when it comes to building a basketball dynasty.

  Aside from the second season for the playoff teams, the also-ran teams began their second season by trying to get their respective houses in order and pick up the pieces of a failed season. Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman retired more due his wife’s seizure disorders than his failure to produce a playoff team, the Utah Jazz failed to renew the contract of Ty Corbin when he failed to have a winning record for the first time in his three year tenure, and the New York Knicks fired coach Mike Woodson, whose injury riddled team sank from 54 wins to 37 wins in what was supposed to be a championship contending year.

  The Woodson firing is the first move in the regime of new Knicks President Phil Jackson. Jackson is an 11 time championship coach but his accomplishments tend to get discounted with the reasoning being that Jackson merely was the caretaker of the great Michael Jordan Bull and Shaq and Kobe Laker teams. This is flawed reasoning that fails to take into account the fact that Jackson was a championship player with the Knicks and also coached the minor league Albany Patroons to a CBA championship. This is a man who has won everywhere he has ever been and I see no reason he won’t as successful leading a team from the front office as he was as a head coach.

  Jackson’s former player and current announcer Steve Kerr is considered to be the front-runner to be the next Knicks coach. Kerr has no coaching experience but did play for two of the most successful coaches of his generation (Jackson and Spurs coach Greg Popovich). Kerr's three year stint as the Phoenix Suns General Manager had its ups and downs. In his first season he first ran Coach Mike D’Antoni out of town when he gutted his successful ‘7 seconds or less’ fast break offense by trading for the remains of Shaquille O’Neal. After the season D’Antoni quit and Kerr hired Terry Porter to take his place. In his second season Kerr realized his new coaching hire and O’Neal were not meshing with the rest of the team and was quick to recognize a change was needed , firing Porter in mid-season and trading O’Neal after the season. In his third season, the Suns were back to being a 50 win team if not a bona fide championship contender and Kerr resigned from the job claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family. The Knicks are over the salary cap for the foreseeable future and only have one first round draft pick for the next three drafts. As a GM, Kerr showed a marked tendency to acquire veterans at the expense of youth but if the Knicks are to become championship contenders they will have to get young players, develop the young players, and hope to pick up a superstar when their salary cap clears. I wonder if Jackson and /or Kerr will be allowed to slowly build the team under the harsh glare of the New York media and meddling owner James Dolan. I hate to bet against Jackson, but if I had to place a bet it would be that he won’t last a year and a half before trying and failing to build an instant winner as every Knick management team have tried to do for the past 20 years.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Don't Look Back

Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you. - Satchel Paige (who never owned a car with a rearview camera)

  In 2002, a New York doctor (Greg Gulbransen) backed over his 2 year old son in his SUV and killed him. Dr. Gulbransen then became an advocate for forcing rearview cameras to be added to all cars to help drivers see blind spots behind large vehicles. The law that was passed in Congress and signed into law by President G.W. Bush in 2008 was named after Culbransen’s son Cameron, ‘The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act’.

  Two weeks ago the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration) announced that all new cars and trucks sold in the United States will be required to have rearview cameras by 2018.The cameras will give the drivers a 10 by 20 foot field of view directly behind the vehicle. The NHTSA estimates that it will cost between $132 and $142 to equip each vehicle with a rearview camera.

  There were 15 million vehicles sold in 2013 in the US. Assuming that number holds steady, a $132 estimated cost to add the rear view camera will cost almost 2 BILLION DOLLARS. NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman said in a statement "Rear visibility requirements will save lives, and will save many families from the heartache suffered after these tragic incidents occur".

  I’m all for keeping people safe but for 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year I was wondering how many lives would be saved. Each year there are 210 deaths and 15,000 injuries caused by backover accidents with children under 5 and adults over 70 accounting for over half of the fatalities. The NHTSA estimated that 58 to 69 lives will be saved once all light cars and trucks on the road have the rearview camera technology (which will only happen in 2054). So using the NHTSA’s own numbers, American car buyers will be paying $28.7 MILLION DOLLARS for each life saved by making rearview cameras mandatory on cars.

  I understand the crowd that says ‘If even one life can be saved no cost is too great…’ and I suppose if I was an angst ridden New York doctor who backed over his child I may want to soothe my guilt by thinking that if I had a rear view camera in my car I would have been looking at it while I was backing out of my driveway instead of texting, drinking my coffee, thinking about my day, making a phone call, turning on the radio, lighting a cigarette, or just absentmindedly backing out of my driveway the way I’d done a thousand times before. In 2006 I backed into a stanchion outside a convenience store in Grinnell so I'm not totally unaware of how not paying attention can lead to accidents but I also know that having a rearview camera wouldn't have kept me from putting a big rip in my plastic bumper.

  Now you might tell me that there are already a lot of cars with standard or optional rear view mirrors so the cost is less than 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year and I would counter that by saying that since the 58 to 69 lives that would be saved would not be ALL saved until 2054 when all cars and trucks have rear view cameras installed that the initial cost would be far more than $28.7 MILLION DOLLARS for each life saved.

  I’m surprised there wasn’t more outrage over this rear view camera mandate and got to thinking that perhaps 2 BILLION DOLLARS doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things anymore. The US government only spent 36 BILLION dollars more than it took in in March of 2014 which was the lowest deficit in more than a decade so 2 BILLION DOLLARS would cover about 40 hours of the US deficit in the lowest deficit month in more than a decade and maybe about 8 hours when the deficit is running at all-time highs.

  I did find somewhere that a BILLION or so dollars could make a difference. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has taken the lead in virtually eliminating polio from the planet. According to the foundation, 350,000 people were paralyzed by polio annually in 1988 but in 2012 less than 250 cases were reported. The Gates Foundation claims the cost of continued worldwide vaccinations is 1 BILLION dollars a year but is not sustainable in the long-term. I’m not sure why spending 1 BILLION dollars a year to prevent 350,000 cases of paralysis ($2600 per case) isn’t sustainable while spending 2 BILLION dollars a year to prevent 58 to 69 deaths by backover accidents is sustainable but I think the money spent preventing polio is money much better spent than what will be spent to prevent backover accidents.

  If the government wants to save some lives I would suggest outlawing cigarettes. Smoking is banned in some way, shape, or form in most countries (see it here). According to the Center for Disease Control, cigarette smoking causes more than 480 thousand deaths annually. If a tenth of those deaths could be prevented (and there are 42,000 deaths a year from secondhand smoke exposure) this would be saving 600 times the lives saved by mandating rear view cameras to prevent backover accidents. And I don’t even want to get into the cost of the medical care for all these smoking related deaths that the government is paying for or the health care subsidies being paid out for the extra premiums smokers have to pay to get their health insurance.

  If I was told that having the rear-view cameras would eliminate 90% or 85% or maybe some number some number more than 75% of the backover fatalities I might be inclined to think it was a good idea. A sonar device to detect objects in the driver’s blind spots would be more to the point and could be rigged to not allow a car to drive in reverse when an object is detected in much the same way that a garage door with an electric eye stops closing when the beam is broken. I don’t see how that wouldn’t prevent most if not all the backover accidents.

  All talk about polio and smoking and sonar aside, the fact that equipping every vehicle in the country with a rear-view camera would only prevent a third of backover fatalities tells me that it isn’t a viable solution to the problem – it is only a feel-good solution. The real problem is that people don’t pay attention. The people who don’t look around their car when they are getting into it or don't swivel their heads when they back out of their driveway or parking spot aren’t going to be looking in their rear view camera either as soon as the novelty of having it wears off. At least until they hit something or someone – then they’ll look every time.

  On Monday, I decided see for myself where people are looking when they back out of a parking spot. On my lunch break I headed across the street to the shopping center parking lot and camped out across from the Dollar Tree, taking video of as many people backing out of their parking spots as I could. I found out two very important things. The first thing I found out was that if you hang around in a Dollar Tree parking lot taking videos of people backing their cars out of their parking spaces you will get a LOT of strange looks.

  The other thing I found out is that hardly anyone I videoed gave more than a cursory glance behind them as they backed out. And that's why spending 2 BILLION dollars a year equipping cars with rear view cameras won't prevent more than third of the backover fatalities - people won't give more than a cursory glance at their rear view cameras and if they could be conscripted to pay more attention when backing up there wouldn't be even a perceived need for rear view cameras. This is the same reason that the Gates Foundation can't eliminate polio worldwide - elements in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria equate the vaccinations to a Western assault on their way of life and will kill anyone who tries to vaccinate the people in the areas under their control. And how could cigarettes be banned in a country where smoking marijuana is becoming legal in more and more states? Despite all the rules, mandates, and assistance it remains extremely difficult if not impossible to change human behavior.

  I wonder when I read this post in ten years or so if I’ll look like the people who thought the sun revolved around the earth but I don’t think so. Requiring the rear-view cameras isn’t a real solution to the problem of people not paying attention when they are backing out of their parking spots or driveways and as soon as another person with way too much time on their hands backs over their child even with the mandated rearview camera in their car there will be another costly and ineffective set of requirements that will still fail to solve the problem.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Pawns Up and Pawns Down

  With the one year anniversary of film critic Roger Ebert’s death coming up I was planning on a tribute by writing a post featuring Ebert’s (and long time partner Gene Siskel) trademark phrases ‘Two Thumbs Up’ and ‘Two Thumbs Down’ like I did last year (you can read it here). At least I was until I discovered that the phrase ‘Two Thumbs Up’ is a trademark of the Ebert and Siskel estates. So in keeping with the desire to pay homage to Ebert by reducing hundreds of words to a simple catch phrase while not wanting to violate any copyright laws in the process I will break down recent current events in the ‘Ebertian’ fashion by substituting pawns for thumbs.

“The Return of Anand” – Two Pawns Up
  Former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand won last month’s Candidates Tournament in impressive fashion. Anand clinched first place with a round to spare and was the only player to not suffer a loss in the 14 round 8 player double round robin tournament. In fact, every player except Anand lost at least two games. At the halfway point Anand was tied with the top seed Levon Aronian and I thought the 32 year old Armenian would overtake the 44 year old Anand in the second half but Anand took a one point lead in the 9th round and was able to coast to victory with five draws to close out the tournament.

  With the victory Anand reminded the chess playing world that he is still the best chess player on Earth not named Magnus Carlsen and has earned a rematch with World Champion Carlsen later this year. Carlsen soundly defeated Anand in their championship match last year by the score of 3-0 with 9 draws. Can Anand defeat Carlsen in the rematch? I picked Anand to beat Carlsen last year but now that Carlsen has world championship match experience I don’t think anyone can beat Carlsen except Carlsen. If the World Champion takes Anand lightly or becomes preoccupied with his business ventures (his YouTube channel and Play Magnus app, for example) there is a possibility he could be upset. It’s a very slim chance but if Carlsen does lose his title this year, the only player who will take it from him will be Anand.

“Enter the Bladder” – Two Pawns Down
  I enjoy pharmaceutical commercials. One of the things I like is the detailed listing of the potential side effects. Who wouldn’t get a kick out of hearing “If you can’t breathe, see your doctor immediately” or “side effects include suicidal tendencies and bouts of insane rage”? But this commercial for Myrbetriq (the overactive bladder medicine) costarring ‘Bladdy’ the overactive bladder is way over the top. ‘Bladdy’ hangs out with his owner and constantly harrasses her to be emptied and even sits in on the consultation with her doctor about taking Myrbetriq. The end of the commercial shows the lady and ‘Bladdy’ spending some time with her friend in the park. Even though ‘Bladdy’ is presumably no longer overactive, it still is hanging around outside the lady instead of hanging out with the rest of her internal organs like all the other (unseen) bladders in the commercial.

The overactive bladder stars in this Myrbetriq commercial but even when the lady is cured 'Bladdy' is still hanging around...

  I appreciate the creativity involved in having the first body part to have a starring role in a pharmaceutical commercial but I can’t help wondering – If this commercial becomes popular what body part will costar in the next Viagra commercial?

“You Can’t Fight City Hall, but You CAN Fight Old Wisconsin!” – Two Pawns Up
  Last month Daisy and Baxter (my beagles) blogged about Casey’s General Store raising the price of their Old Wisconsin beef sticks from 2 for $1.00 to 2 for $1.08 (they remained 59 cents each) with a sign on the dispenser proclaiming a savings of 10 cents on the purchase of two beef sticks. No one likes bad publicity and the convenience stores of Marshalltown, Iowa are no exception. In the three short weeks since my beagles' expose, the Jiffy convenience store has removed their Old Wisconsin beef stick dispenser and replaced it with a Tillamook ‘Hunter‘s Sausage’ beef stick dispenser. While the Tillamook beef sticks are thinner and drier than the Jack Links and Old Wisconsin beef sticks, they are very meaty and cost 59 cents each and 2 for $1. When artist Lee Gordon Seebach came to Marshalltown last Sunday to visit, he joined us in taking Daisy and Baxter for a walk to the Jiffy to taste test the Tilamook beef sticks and they passed with flying colors.

Tillamook beef sticks are thinner than the Jack Links brand but there were no complaints from Daisy and Baxter. Meanwhile, at the Casey's trickery is still afoot.

  Unfortunately, Casey’s General Store is still relying on trickery instead of superior beef stick customer service. They have removed the ‘save 10 cents’ sign from their Old Wisconsin beef stick dispenser but the price of the beef sticks remains 2 for $1.08. But don’t fear – while our intrepid beagle bloggers Daisy and Baxter are happy with their gains they know their work is not complete and have vowed to keep the pressure on Casey’s until they roll back their beef stick prices.

“Ask and Ye Shall Receive” – One Pawn Up - One Pawn Down
  Last Thanksgiving I wrote about how I allowed the FiltroPur company to demonstrate their air filtration products to me with the understanding that I was to receive a $100 gas card for my time BUT what I really received was a card offering 10 mail-in $10 gas vouchers with 19 rules and regulations. I received the first two vouchers via email and dutifully filled out the forms, attached the receipts, affixed the postage, dropped the envelopes in the mailbox, and waited the 8 to 10 weeks for my $10 check. In late February I hadn’t received my monthly voucher email and called International Rebates. The clerk told me one would be on its way shortly so I decided to press my luck and ask when I could expect my first rebate check and was told it was being mailed next week.

At long last!

  I received the voucher email the next day but after a month I still hadn’t received a check so two weeks ago when I received my March voucher email I decided to call International Rebates again to see why I hadn’t received my check. I talked to a different clerk and asked why I hadn’t received my rebate check. The clerk looked me up in the computer and told me that my first check was a month overdue and my second check was a week overdue. She then told me she would send an email to the company in charge of the rebates and if there was nothing else I needed then I could hang up. My training as a telephone prankster (I wrote about it here) let me know that when I was invited to hang up that likely meant that the clerk wasn’t allowed to hang up on me so I kept asking when I was going to get my next rebate check (she didn’t know), why I hadn’t received a rebate check (she didn’t know), and when she expected to receive a response to her email to the company (she didn’t know). I repeated these three questions for the next half hour and the clerk repeated her answers for the next half hour interspersed with pleading invitations for me to hang up since she had no additional information for me. Eventually I had to hang up (I called during my lunch hour), but three days later I was greeted by a $20 check from International Rebates when I got home from work. I suppose it’s possible that I would have received my $20 even if I hadn’t made a pain of myself on the phone but if that were the case I probably would have received two $10 checks when I was supposed to and then I could have given International Rebates two pawns up.

“Don't we all want to be Rich?” – Two Pawns Up
  Almost every Saturday, Kathy and I get lunch at the local Taco John's. Kathy gets a Taco Salad and I get the Saturday Special of Soft Shell Tacos for 99 cents each along with a soda. Sometimes we head there on a Sunday but almost every time we go there for lunch there is this guy sitting in a 4 seat table in the middle of the restaurant eating a burrito and drinking his soda.

  Normally a steady customer eating a burrito and drinking a soda wouldn’t be any big deal but this guy is no customer – he’s wearing a Taco John’s shirt. When I first saw this guy I figured he must be a manager since I don’t know any fast food restaurant (and I’ve worked at a few) that let the employees eat anywhere except in the back or in a table off to the side if there is no area for the employees to eat in the back. But then one day I saw him carrying buckets of ice to the soda machine before resuming his seat in the middle of the restaurant so I knew he was a worker.

  I found out the worker’s name is Rich because one time somebody called him Rich and this information was confirmed when I saw the name ‘Rich’ written on his soda cup. Sometimes Rich has a newspaper. I assume it is the newspaper that is put in the reading rack along with some other magazines for the customers to look at because when Rich has the newspaper there is never one in the rack.

People come and go like the wind, but Rich is a force of nature in his permanency of seatedness!

  I’ve never talked to Rich but I look forward to seeing him doing his ‘Rich’ thing at the Taco John’s and I’m disappointed when I miss him. I managed to grab a table next to him last month and surreptitiously take a ten minute ‘Rich’ video so you can see him ‘in action’ (or inaction). One of these days I’m going to find a Taco John's shirt at the Goodwill or Salvation Army Thrift store and when I do I’m going to buy it, put it on, head over to the Taco John's, sit down at Rich’s table, and say “Hi, I’m the new guy.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

For the Love of the Game (or a Merit Badge)

  If I had to pick my busiest chess month of the year I’d have to pick either April or August. I always have a monthly youth tournament, but the last 5 Aprils (and this April also) I've directed the Okoboji Open and the last two Augusts I've headed up to Jackson, MN to play in Sam’s Jackson Open in addition to 4 consecutive years of attempting to win the elusive blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair (which I finally earned last year, thank you very much!) in August. I don't know what the rest of this year will bring but I think March of 2014 in general and the past week in particular will be hard to top for busy chess weeks and months.

I played Qc4 here instead of Qb3.Oh the horror...
This is covered in Chapter 2 'Why You Lose Material'
...under 'Negligence'
  On Saturday March 22nd, I headed off to Des Moines for my 39th consecutive monthly youth tournament. After 3+ years I think I finally have the right mix of prizes and entry fees to attract the type of players I want to have at my tournaments – players that want to have a good time more than they need to win. The more I run these tournaments the more I’m of the opinion that players (and parents) that only have a good time when they win are like a disease that infect the rest of the players (and parents) and drive away less skilled players before they start to understand the game and show the improvement that most young players eventually do. Maybe that is due to my splitting the tournaments into morning and afternoon sessions that cater to the casual player instead of the hardcore ones. In any event, I have a group of players that enjoy the tournaments, parents that appreciate the tournaments, and almost everyone appreciates my running them.

  The group of parents that I played against in the Parents section of the tournament was especially appreciative of me since my play was in a word, awful. In my first game I managed to win a pawn but allowed my opponent to trade down to a bishop of opposite colors ending for a draw and then when I was a pawn up in the second game I just hung my queen. There was no time for a third game which was a good thing for me because I probably have found a way to swallow a chess piece and literally choke on it since I had already choked twice figuratively.

  On Thursday March 27th, I left work a little early like I always do and headed to the Marshalltown Salvation Army building for our weekly chess club at 5pm as I have for all but two dozen or so Thursdays over the past 13 years. We have a group of 6 to 12 players that get together each week to play. Over the past few months I've had a few new adult players come to the club lured by the publicity generated by the speed chess exhibition I put on in December and the expert tournament in February. Like all but a handful of the adults that have come to club over the last decade plus, they don’t mind losing to adults but when they find that they can’t beat the younger players every single time they don’t come to club anymore.

A typical evening at the Marshalltown Chess Club... chess players having a good time playing chess.

  When I run into these adults in town and ask then why they stopped coming to club, they tell me that they are busy with work and they’ll get to club when they get a chance even though we both know they won't. I wish they understood how good some of these kids that come to my club are, especially Zach and Seth. While they have never gotten hardcode enough about the game to write down the moves or practice on the internet, they both love to play at club and each notched their fair share of scalps against the adult out of town players that would compete in the speed chess tournaments I used to hold. When I have the white pieces against these two I play the King's Gambit to get a wild game and hopefully to get them to play the King’s Gambit themselves (an unfulfilled hope so far). Here a couple of games I’ve played against them over the past two weeks.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  Ten hours after getting home from club I was leaving the house on Friday morning to head to St. Francis of Assisi to help with their weekly chess club, which I do for free in return for the ability to run a monthly chess tournament in their cafeteria. This is my fourth year at St. Francis and third year as the head coach. Normally heading to St. Francis wouldn't be something I’d write about but since there was no school the past two Fridays for spring break it felt weird to be leaving the house at 5:30.

Puzzle time at St. Francis!
  Working with the kids at St. Francis is the best part of my week. Only a dozen or so of the 60 different players that have shown up early have played in my monthly tournaments this year and that’s fine with me. These kids get up early on Friday to play chess and my goal is for them to have fun, not to play in my tournaments. Every year I send a letter to the parents saying if they are interested in my gearing the club to compete in the state scholastic tournaments to let me know because the club will have a lot more teaching and a lot less playing. I rarely receive a response to the letter but when I do it always says not to worry about scholastic competitions and keep the kids having fun, which fits right in with what I like to do.

  Having a fun club doesn't mean that there isn’t any competition. I have a ladder structure set up to encourage higher ranked players to accept challenges from lower ranked players because a loss will only drop them one spot instead of switching places on the ladder (a lower ranked winner moves half way up to the higher rated player). While most players aren't interested in their ranking most of the top 20 players check out their ranking as soon as they arrive. Now that the NCAA tournament is in full swing I divided the players into groups of 16 with each group having their own version of ‘March Madness’. Each week I setup two puzzles on my demo boards for the kids to solve. I know a player is serious when they try to solve the puzzles every week. At the end of the year I’ll have a club only tournament where everyone gets a trophy. The trophies are all the same size but some will say first, second, and third for different grade groups. The two dozen or so competitive kids will happily fight for the slightly different trophies and all the rest of the kids will be happy to play and get a trophy. It is the perfect end of the year tournament since almost everyone leaves happy.

  After chess clubs on Thursday night and Friday morning and no tournament to run on Saturday I would normally have had a day off from chess except that I had volunteered to be the chess merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts Tamaha district (TAma, MArshall, and HArdin counties – get it?). I was the merit badge counselor two years ago (and wrote about it here) so I had a good idea what was expected of me. According to the Boy Scout handbook, “Merit badges exist to encourage Scouts to explore areas that interest them and to teach them valuable skills in Scoutcraft”. I think that a big incentive for the scouts to get merit badges is that 21 of them are a requirement for becoming an Eagle Scout. The requirements for a chess merit badge can be fairly rigid. The scouts must know each piece by name and how they move, understand the history of the game, be able to demonstrate different types of tactical maneuvers, write down the moves of a game, perform a checkmate with two rooks against a king, and solve 5 direct mate puzzles.

NO, that isn't the biker merit badge class on the left - just the Corner Tap crowd in beautiful downtown Marshalltown, Iowa! 4 blocks away at the Racom building is where the Boy Scouts merit badge day was being held. Here are the scouts eating lunch before the chess class.

  My co-coach at St. Francis, Chris, is a Scout leader and I mentioned to him that I thought that to get the merit badge a scout should just have to play in tournaments and get a rating of 1200 (the beginner threshold). Chris said a merit badge should only take between 40 and 60 hours or work and study and that wasn’t nearly enough time for a Scout to get to a 1200 rating. That gave me a different perspective of what I should expect from the 29 scouts that would be trying to get the merit badge on this Saturday afternoon.

  Just like two years ago, the chess merit badge examination was part of the troops Merit Badge day at the Racom building which is one block away from the Salvation Army where we have our chess club. I got to the building a half hour early to set up but the room I was going to be using was full of scouts eating lunch so I had to wait until the 1 o’clock start time to set up the room. I had 2 helpers : Allen, a scout who already had a chess merit badge, and Aaron who was my helper two years ago and had another child getting a merit badge this year. We set up the tables in three rows and laid out the boards and laid a bag of pieces on each board.

  Once the scouts were seated, I introduced myself and asked them to each set up their board. The scouts all set up the board more or less correctly with some of the players mixing up the king and queen. I then went to the demo board and pointed out what the king and queen were on the demo board since that often confuses players that haven’t seen a demonstration board.

  I explained what we were going to do for the next three and a half hours and asked if there were any questions. Three scouts asked when they were going to play chess. I explained that playing was not a large part of the agenda since they were there to demonstrate specific skills and that if they wanted to play they could come to the chess club next door any Thursday which was not much help to the scouts who traveled from Des Moines, Fort Dodge, and Eldora to get their merit badge. Some of the scouts seemed disappointed they wouldn't just play chess for three hours to get their merit badge but they were well behaved and paid attention as we talked about the history of chess.

  Most of the scouts knew that the game originated in India but not one knew Magnus Carlsen was the World Champion. I was stunned that no one knew but it is understandable since it wasn't one of the requirements and not in the guide book like where the game originated. I moved on to have the scouts set up some positions on their boards and demonstrate that they knew how to make legal moves with the pieces. Some of the scouts had trouble with the knight and en passant captures but otherwise they demonstrated they knew how the pieces moved to my satisfaction.

  I then talked a little more about how to develop pieces in the opening and discussed the Scholar’s Mate and the Fool’s Mate (part of the requirements were to know those two) and how not to get checkmated like that. At this point it was a little past 2 and it was time to get the scouts to demonstrate they knew how to checkmate a king with 2 rooks and a king.

This bright young scout set up the puzzles on a board
and was the first to complete the requirement!
  The scouts all set up their boards and Aaron, Allen, and I each took a row and let the scouts try to checkmate us in ‘simul’ fashion going from board to board making a move. I had the back row and it was quickly apparent that not one of the scouts knew how to do the checkmate. I went to the demo board and put up the final mating position to show them what they were aiming for and that helped half the row get the checkmate. I didn't give anyone any moves but I explained the concept of getting the rooks as far away from the king as possible and that was enough to help the rest of the scouts finish the task.

  It was now 2:45 and time for the next task which was for the scouts to demonstrate that they could write down the moves of a game. I asked who already knew how to write down the moves and only two campers said they did (the rest must not have gotten very far in their guide books) so I taught them my two minute method for writing down the moves and had them pair up and play, telling them that when they completed 15 moves to come to me and I’d review their scoresheets. I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost all the scouts were able to record the games using my method and I only had to make a few play another game because they didn't understand that they had to write down the moves for BOTH sides.

  As soon as each scout demonstrated they could write down the moves, I gave them eight checkmate puzzles and told them they had to solve five of them to complete their merit badge requirements. I told them that five of the puzzles were one move checkmates but I didn't tell them which ones. Barely any of the scouts had a clue on how to solve the puzzles. After 15 minutes I told them which five puzzles were the ones with the one move checkmates. A few could solve the puzzles after that but most were still struggling so I gave them one final hint and told them that in a one move checkmate puzzle the answer MUST be a check so they would be well served to examine all their checks. At that point I played games against the players that completed the puzzles, giving some instruction and checking puzzle sheets as they were brought up to me. By the time 4:30 rolled more than half the campers had solved five puzzles and received their merit badges. If the other scouts return the sheets to me or any scout leader they can still get their merit badges. Here are the eight puzzles with White to move and mate in 1, 2, or 3 moves in all of them. You can let me know in the comments if you think I made the puzzles too hard or not.

I gave two of these puzzles to my St. Francis players and almost all the players solved a mate in one puzzle instantaneously while the top dozen players easily solved a mate in three move puzzle.

  I had a great time working with the scouts, they seemed to have a good time, and maybe one or two will come to my chess club but I was struck by how unprepared they were. The players at my tournaments play because they like to compete and the players at the Marshalltown Chess Club and the St. Francis Chess Club play because they like to play, but it seemed to me the scouts were only at the chess board Saturday to get a merit badge with the least amount of work. The scouts were well behaved, enthusiastic, and very quick learners but the fact is that only one or two of them walked in knowing how to write down moves, most didn’t understand how to checkmate with two rooks against a king, and almost half weren't able to solve relatively simple checkmate puzzles. And these were known requirements! Maybe I've been spoiled by the players at my chess clubs and tournaments but if the effort these scouts put into getting this chess merit badge is indicative of all the merit badges I’m thinking there should be a merit badge for getting merit badges.