Wednesday, August 27, 2014

2014 Jackson Open - Part 1

  Last Friday I drove to Jackson, Minnesota to play in my friend Sam Smith’s Jackson Open Super Reserve chess tournament. This is the third straight year I’ve played in this tournament (you can read about my past experiences here) which is limited to players rated below the USCF Expert level of 2000 and has a $750 guaranteed prize fund with a reasonable $25 entry fee. I don’t come to Jackson because I feel like I have a better chance to win without expert or better players in attendance or because of the exceptional value. I come to Jackson because of a sense of community I feel with Sam and the players that makes me feel welcome. Win, lose, or draw – everyone is friendly, personable, encouraging, and it's a treat and a privilege to hang out with them for a couple of days each year.

  I had the week off from work before the tournament so I could beagle-sit while Kathy and Ben drove to Idaho to get Ben settled at college. I spent some of my time off reading the posts of my last two Jackson Opens. Each player has 90 minutes for their move and each game can take up to three hours. Both years I was so exhausted after three games that I begged off from playing in the last round and took a nap instead before heading home. This year I didn't want to write about how I got so tired I begged out of the last round so my goal heading into this year’s tournament was to play all four games no matter how tired I got.

  Since I had such great success at the Iowa State Fair Speed Chess tournament using AMP Focus Energy drinks for my energy and hydration needs I planned to take some with me to Jackson. I was in Marshalltown for the week and couldn’t get to the Hawkeye Pantry in the Des Moines Skywalk (my preferred AMP Focus Energy dealer) so I planned on getting my AMP Focus Energy drinks at the Jiffy convenience store since I’ve seen them in the cooler every weekend when we take Daisy and Baxter on a walk to the Jiffy for beef stick treats. I went to the Jiffy on Tuesday but they were out of the blue Amp Focus Energy drinks (They had all the other varieties). Matt the Jiffy clerk told me they would get more on Thursday. I didn’t want to take the chance that the truck would be hijacked and shopped at the other supermarkets and convenience stores in town and found while most of the stores carried AMP energy drinks only the Kwik Star carried the AMP Focus Energy and at $2.49 each they were 50% more than the Jiffy price of three for $5.

Cody is the best convenience store clerk of all time and found a case AMP Focus Energy for me to take to Jackson. Josh gave me a sermon on 'demon energy drinks' while extolling the virtues of 'King Sugar'.

  The thought crossed my mind that my endorsement last week caused a run on the AMP Focus Energy but with the Kwik Star serving as an emergency plan I waited until Thursday and headed back to the Jiffy after chess club. To my chagrin there were no AMP Focus Energy drinks in the cooler but to my delight Cody the best convenience store clerk ever (I wrote about him last year in this post) was back at the Jiffy working second shift.

  I explained my problem to Cody and he told me that there were some boxes of AMP that he hadn’t been able to stock yet in the back of the store. I went to the back of the store and there it was – a CASE of AMP Focus Energy. I scooped up the case, paid Cody $22 for the 12 cans, and I was set for the weekend. While I was paying this meth head girl that was just hanging out in the store asked me if that stuff really worked. I told her it helped me win the State Fair Speed Chess tournament the week before. She was suitably impressed by my championship and much more impressed by the $22 I pulled out of my wallet. The meth head girl started to ask me if I had a dollar or two to spare when the guy in back of me said that energy drinks were no good for me and that they didn’t work anyway. I asked the guy what his name was. He said Josh and I said ‘Hey Josh, get off my cloud’ which made Cody and the meth head girl laugh. Josh turned a little red and told us with more insistence how energy drinks were awful for us and that they didn’t work anyway. I noticed that Josh was holding two giant cans of ice tea and was either severely overweight or shoplifting a beer keg under his shirt so I asked Josh if he knew how much sugar he had in his two cans of ice tea. Josh looked at the cans and read aloud that one can had 19 grams of sugar and the other 30 grams. Josh did some mental arithmetic and said that there was only 51 grams of sugar in the two drinks. I looked at the cans and pointed out that each can contained three servings which meant Josh was about to pour about a third of a pound of sugar down his throat. Josh shook my hand, thanked me for pointing out how much sugar he was about to drink and told me my energy drinks would kill me if I kept it up.

Welcome to Jackson!
  With my energy and focus situation resolved, I packed my AMP Energy Focus, a bag of apples, a chessboard and clock, and a travel bag of clothes into my Chevy Spark and left for Jackson on Friday at 12:30. I only stopped at the Mason City McDonald’s for a McDouble and arrived at the Jackson EconoLodge at 4:15. I checked in and found Joel Katz already in the room. Joel lives in nearby Worthington and we arranged to share a room Friday night. Joel’s legs don’t work very well and he gets around with pole type crutches that hook around his forearms with handles for his hands to grip and propel him to where he wants to go. Joel was sitting on the edge of the bed watching a marathon about life inside a real prison in California. I took a nap and a little after six we went across the street to Burger King and then two miles down the road to the tournament sites – The Jackson Senior Center and Library.

  There were familiar faces at the Senior Center waiting for the tournament to start. Two-time defending champion Eric Bell was there along with Minnesota’s premiere chess traveler Riaz Khan and Dan Voje, the famous tournament director from Minneapolis’ Chess Castle. Sam and his sister Lila were there checking in players and setting up the tournament rooms. This is the eighth year Sam has organized the tournament but 2014 was going to be his first year as the tournament director. Dan and I were willing to help if any questions came up but I didn’t come to Jackson to direct the tournament – I was there to play. There are a lot of people who can direct a tournament and play in it at the same time and I’m not one of them so Sam was for the most part on his own.

  There was a father and son from Wisconsin that came on the spur of the moment and a father and four children that travelled seven hours from the southwest tip of South Dakota to play. The dad’s name was Chet Marks. He is a farmer and a pastor in a small town of 88 people and also ministers at local Indian reservations. The Marks family was friendly, well mannered, good chess players, and fit right in with the rest of the crowd at the Jackson Open.

  The last of the players arrived a few minutes before 7pm, Sam made the pairings, and we all sat down to play. I was the fifth highest rated player just like the last two years. Last year all the players except one were rated over 1200 (the USCF benchmark for the non-beginner level) but this year 7 of the 22 players were rated below 1200. In 2013 I gave up a draw in the first round to Steve Heinisch who was rated 450 points below me and was the only one of the top players to not win. It led to a lot of tossing and turning that Friday night so in 2014 I was hoping to get both a first round win and a good Friday nights sleep.

Sabine Marks
  My first round opponent was the oldest of Chet’s children, Sabine (pronounced Sabina) Marks. Sabine is 17 and has been playing tournament chess for the past year and a half. Sabine was rated 1075 (I’m rated 1691) but there was the possibility that she was underrated since youngsters generally get better in chess in giant leaps. Underrated or not, I believe the way to play against young players is to a) Don’t let them attack - that’s likely what they’re best at, b) Use a lot of time and try to project an attitude of infinite patience because youngsters tend to get fidgety and impatient waiting for their opponent to move, and c) be willing to try to outplay the young player in the endgame because youngsters tend to win their games with attacks and will not have the adult’s endgame experience. That strategy worked out well enough in first round of the 2012 Jackson Open when I played another teenager from South Dakota, Destiny Jorenby. Destiny gave me a whale of a game but I did manage to win in the endgame and saw no reason to change my strategy two years later. I had the black pieces and set up my board with the green and white squares and the black and white pieces instead of Sabine’s pink and white board with the neon pink and white pieces, cracked open an AMP Focus Energy drink, and we sat down to play our first game in the 2014 Jackson Open.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  Except for my miscalculation at the 10th move (which I found via computer help later), I played an effective game against the younger player. I kept things simple, slowed the pace of the game, and didn’t allow any attacks. I was afraid the AMP Focus Energy I was sipping would make me jittery but I was calm and focused for the entire game. Sabine was a tricky player who would rather counterattack than defend but she moved way too fast. As soon as I thought for more than a minute she would drum her fingers or adjust the music player on her iPod. If she had taken her time after my ill-advised 10th move I would have been scrambling. I used almost 60 minutes during this game while Sabine used just 20. Sabine told me she normally played in scholastic tournaments with 30 minutes for her moves. It was a nice night so we went over the game in the courtyard between the Library and Senior Center which was the de facto 'skittles room'. The other players that were watching us go over our game were impressed by Sabine’s willingness to go for complications and take risks and told her she’ll have much better results once she takes more time.

Old Trapper Beef Sticks!
  Joel’s game finished and we headed back to the EconoLodge around 9. I was happy to have gotten through the first round with a win (unlike last year) and felt I deserved a reward. I suggested we stop at the SuperAmerica convenience store located next to the EconoLodge for a snack which was OK by Joel. Joel got a bag of Old Dutch potato chips but I couldn’t decide on a treat until I saw an unusual color beef stick dispenser at the counter. The beef sticks were the Old Trapper brand and were 2 for $1 and that was my celebratory treat. The beef sticks were skinny but very meaty and had a smoky taste. They would be good treats for Daisy and Baxter if they ever find their way to the SuperAmerica convenience store in Jackson, Minnesota. Joel and I got back to the room and we broke out a Coke for me and a Mountain Dew for Joel from my soft drink stash and watched the reality prison show marathon until I fell asleep around 10:30 with the prospect of a full Saturday of chess ahead.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Improbable Iowa State Fair

"There comes a time in every man's life, and I've had plenty of them." - Casey Stengel

At the Hawkeye Pantry in the Des Moines Skywalk I selected AMP Energy Focus for my Iowa State Fair energy and hydration needs. Caffeine, Choline, Theanine, Guarine, Taurine, Nicotine, Chlorine, and Mr. Clean. Everything a body needs and many things it doesn't...

  Last Wednesday I played in the Iowa State Fair speed chess tournament for the fifth year in a row and the eighth time in the last eleven years. I’ve posted about my previous attempts to win the coveted 1st place blue ribbon (you can read them here). Last year I finally succeeded and shared the championship with Joe Meyer (AKA Joe from Waterloo). This year I hoped to give my blue ribbon a partner so it wouldn’t be lonely amongst the two red (2nd), two white (3rd) and two yellow (participant) state fair chess ribbons I’ve earned over the years. I didn’t have the burning desire to win the blue ribbon that I coveted so much when I didn't have one but I did have the experience of winning it and the resultant knowledge that I was capable of winning a second blue ribbon.

  I wrote last week how poorly I played against Christine Denison in a two game match the Saturday before the Fair. I didn’t consider that a harbinger of bad tidings for the State Fair tournament. Christine played smart, practical, enterprising chess and showed me exactly what I needed to do on and off the board to get my head right for the State Fair in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d managed to wriggle off the hook in our games and swindle my way into draws or wins.

  I prepared for the tournament by doing 100+ puzzles a day from my amazing iPod’s Chessimo app and got some serious speed chess training when my former chess traveling partner Jaleb Jay spent the summer off from college in Marshalltown. Jaleb came to our Thursday chess club meetings and each week we played four to six games at five minutes per side (the same time limit as the fair). Jaleb is a great five minute player and competing with him weekly made me step up my game. More importantly it helped me internalize the rhythm of a five minute game. Rhythm is an essential part of speed chess, subconsciously keeping the player from getting into time trouble or moving too fast while leaving the conscious mind free to find the best moves possible.

If you like your food on a stick, you've come to the right place!

  On the day of the tournament I went to work like always and started to get a little tired at 2pm. Last year I brought a Mountain Dew/Rooster Booster mixed soda from a Quik Trip to supply my energy needs. This year I was stationed downtown without a nearby Quik Trip so I took a ‘Skywalk’ over the downtown streets to the Hawkeye Pantry and surveyed their energy drink selection. I settled on two ‘AMP Focus’ drinks for $3 and waited in line behind a group of people from the nearby apartments getting their mid-afternoon supply of beer, liquor, cigarettes, and the occasional gallon of milk. I sipped some of the first ‘AMP Focus’ and feeling much more alert left work at 4:30 and headed to the fairgrounds.

  Traffic was light. At 4:45 I paid my $10 to park and had to decide whether to pay $11 to enter the fairgrounds immediately or wait until 5 o’clock and pay only $6. I didn’t want to hang around outside the fair so I paid my $11 and went right in. I used the fifteen minutes taking pictures of the food vendors and soon arrived at the tournament site – the porch of the administration building. The scholastic chess tournament was still going on and I chatted with Drake and his parents Heather and Jason. Drake attends my youth tournaments and won a blue ribbon for the second straight year. I congratulated him and mentioned it was a good omen since I failed to win a blue ribbon for ten years until Drake won one last year. Then I saw my wife Kathy and sons Matt and Ben. They had come to the fair from Marshalltown but not to play chess – they had been to the fair for the day and were going to leave after watching some chess. In 2006 Ben won the State Fair speed chess tournament at the age of 10 which I believe to be a record and Matt would have been one of the stronger players there so while they are family I wasn’t unhappy to see them leave without playing.

  Among the people that were planning to play was my State Fair arch-rival David Skaar – a multiple time champion who I have a wild battle with almost every year. We exchanged greetings and I surprised David with a present - a copy of ‘The Chess Journalist’ magazine containing a picture of us pretending to trade punches. The picture was taken at the 2012 tournament and accompanied an article I wrote about boxing metaphors for chess. When the magazine was published, TCJ editor Mark Taylor sent me an extra copy to give to David, who was thrilled to receive it.

On the left is 2006 State Fair champ Ben Anzis. In the center David Skaar and I pose with our 2012 state fair picture from 'The Chess Journalist' magazine (You can read the accompanying article on page 12 by clicking here) while on the right Joe Meyer and Cub Noble warm up for this years slugfest and try to get in next year's magazine!

  Joe Meyer, my co-champion from last year was ready to play and so was 2012 champion Cub Noble. Tim Mc Entee, 4 time and current Iowa Chess Champion, was there to watch but not play which boosted the rest of the competitors' winning chances. Tournament regulars Tim Harder and Steve Jacobs were also waiting along with a number of people I hadn’t met before and one familiar Iowa chess face I’d never seen at the State Fair. Sitting quietly at one of the tables waiting for the tournament to begin was 2011 Iowa Chess Champion Bob Keating. Bob had come to the fair with his family and decided to compete in the speed chess tournament. I wrote about my 2006 game with Bob in last week’s post and when I went over to say hello Bob said ‘I hear I made your Mount Rushmore list’ (which Tim Mc Entee had told him about earlier in the day).

  While Bob and I talked about that game from almost a decade ago, Tim was helping long time Des Moines chess legend and State Fair tournament director Ben Munson set up the tournament format for the 15 players. Ben was planning on setting up four pools with the winners of each pool making up the field for a final tournament to decide the prize winners. Tim was helping and they asked me what I thought about the relative strengths of the players. My only thought was that Cub, David, Joe, and I should be in separate pools since we were the past champions but any decisions were OK by me. I wasn't there to hang out with my family or play speed games on the side or worry about pool play assignments. I was there to play, have a great time with the friends I get to meet at the State Fair and maybe one or two other times a year, and get another blue ribbon. After a few minutes the pool assignments were up. Joe and Cub were in pools with players I’d never met while David was in a ‘group of death’ with Bob and Steve Jacobs and for the second year in a row I was in a pool of three players.

Bob Keating, 2011 Iowa chess champion and the new kid on the block at the Iowa State Fair.

  Pool play is one of the aspects of the State Fair speed chess tournament that differentiates it from every other tournament I've played in. Most chess tournaments are indoors with conditioned air, softened water, and any errant noise quickly and firmly shushed. My outdoor tournaments are under a covered shelter in Pioneer Park a hundred yards away from birthday parties and picnickers and stay fairly quiet. The State Fair tournament is played on the porch of the administration building. The porch wraps around the entire building and is used by hundreds of fair goers who pass by inches from the players. Unaware a contest of state wide importance is taking place, these passerbys think nothing of continuing their loud conversations or sitting down next to the players to take a break. Occasionally one will interrupt a game to ask a player how that 'horsey shaped piece' moves. There is a tractor pull at the nearby grandstand that emits a deafening roar whenever a tractor attempts to pull whatever tractors pull at tractor pulls. On the south side of the building is a band shell with bands, clog dancers, and as on this day, a hypnosis act (‘You are getting sleepy…sleepy…sleepy’). The twilight sun pours onto the porch leaving the players a choice of sitting with the sun blinding them or roasting their backs while considering the moves on a board that their own or opponents shadow covers in darkness.

  My pool partners were two people I’d never met before named Forrest and Sam. I was scheduled to have Black against Forrest in the first game, watch Forrest and Sam play, and then have White against Sam. I waited by the pairing sheets watching for Forrest to find his name and look for me. Within a minute I heard a young college age man say ‘Who’s Hank?’ so I introduced myself and we sat down to play. Forrest is a college student from Iowa State University in Ames. Forrest isn’t part of the Ames chess scene but he proved to be an experienced player who played the Tennison Gambit against my Center Counter defense (1.e4 d5 2.Nf3 de 3.Ng5). I didn’t try to keep the offered pawn and built a strong center. We castled on opposite sides. I attacked Forrest with my pieces while he launched his pawns forward against my king. With each of us having two of our original five minutes left I disrupted Forrest’s attack by plunking a knight behind his attacking pawns, hitting his queen in the process. That flustered Forrest and he moved a piece in an attempt to trade the knight, forgetting his queen was under attack. I took the queen and Forrest resigned. I marked the score down and saw that Sam’s (the third pool player) name had been crossed out and replaced by Tim, who was none other than Tim Harder. This was unwelcome news to me. I’ve traveled with Tim to the Okoboji and Jackson Opens and enjoy his company but we’ve played blitz three times over the past three years and he’s beaten me twice. Tim beat Forrest much quicker than I did and after a couple of minutes we sat down to play to see who would advance from our pool.

My pool play partners Forrest and Tim Harder battle on the left while on the right David Skaar tries to get out of the 'Group of Death'. The shadows, sun, noise, and passerbys at the state fair chess tournament can be as much a factor as the clock, board, and pieces.

  We played the Slav Exchange variation and I took over the c file with my queen and rooks while falling behind on the clock three minutes to four. Tim defended well and when I wasn’t able to land a knockout punch he managed to trade all the pieces except a set of rooks. Tim had an isolated queen pawn but his king was two steps closer to the center than mine. I was down on time 30 seconds to 90 and would lose the king and pawn ending with Tim’s king so much closer to the center. I tried to keep my rook active and Tim spent two moves trying to trade it off. I used those two moves to bring my king to the center and only then did I trade rooks. Without a better king’s position Tim’s isolated pawn was a fatal liability and I captured it with 20 seconds left on my clock. Realizing that the 1 second delay on the clocks would leave me more than enough time to win the game, Tim resigned and I was off to the finals.

  My finals partners were Joe, Cub, and Bob. Bob beat David Skaar in his pool which meant that for the first time in five years David and I would not trade blows at the State Fair. Ben put the pairings up and I had White against Joe in round one, Black against Bob in round two, and White against Cub in round three. I sat facing the sun in pool play which worked out well enough but when I tried to lure Joe into the sunlight for our finals match he suggested we play in the portion of the porch that the setting sun left covered in shadows. That was fine with me and we sat down for our game.

This years finalists with tournament organizer Ben Munson on the left.

  I’ve beaten Joe exactly once in over 15 meaningful games and I knew he was out for blood today when he played the Benko Gambit. For the second time this day I concentrated on development instead of trying to hang on to the offered pawn. I slowly expanded on the king side but Joe pinned my knight against both my queen and rook with his bishop. There were a lot of tricks to watch out for but I slowly untangled myself. My plan was to plant a knight on b5 to stop Joe’s queen side attack while I was attacking his king with everything else but every time I put my knight on b5 Joe would attack it with his bishop. I retreated my knight and he moved his bishop and I put my knight back and he attacked it with his bishop and I retreated my knight and after the third or fourth time we agreed to a draw.

  Tim Mc Entee saw the draw and said that my kingside attack would have been faster than Joe’s queen side attack with or without a knight on b5. I’m sure Tim is right but I was happy to get on the scoreboard with the draw and face Bob Keating over the board for the first time in eight years.

  Bob is an e4 player and I played my Center Counter defense. Bob played an early h3 pawn move. If it was anyone else I would have considered it a ‘soft-serve’ move and made a grab for the center. Instead I made an escape hatch for my queen with an early c6 move that I’ve seen International Master John Bartholomew play at the Okoboji Open a number of times. Bob had the advantage of controlling four rows of the board as opposed to my three rows and we were fighting for footholds on the no-man’s land fifth row of the board. Bob wasn’t pushing the action more than trying to maintain control over the position. After nine minutes Bob had a bishop and I had a knight and we each had six pawns, a rook, a queen, and thirty seconds left. That’s when things got weird. I had played a fine game but at this point I cracked and let Bob get a passed pawn on the a-file. While I was trying to stop his pawn from advancing I lost a pawn so I was down a pawn and soon to be down a queen. In desperation I threw my queen on the same side of the board as Bob’s king to threaten a series of checks. As I made my move I noticed that I had five seconds left to Bob’s eight. Bob considered his move but the change in the game must have disrupted his rhythm - he forgot about the time situation, his eight seconds ran off, and he ran out of time, leaving me as the winner. It wasn’t the way I would choose to win but I’ve lost plenty of games in the exact same way including a 2011 State Fair game where I had a mate in 5 but no time on the clock (there was no delay that year). As soon as the game was over Tim and Joe showed how I had a perpetual check and with a two second delay I could have gotten a draw but with a one second delay I was sure to run out of time. Bob was as gracious in defeat as he’s been the many times I’ve seen him after a victory and correctly noted that under these tournament conditions he was the rookie in the crowd and his inexperience cost him this game.

  Joe beat Cub in their game and I sat down against Cub knowing a victory would assure me of at least a tie for first place. The game was a Slav Exchange just like my pool play game against Tim Harder. I had a reasonable game going but allowed Cub to get his pawns deep in my territory while I grabbed a pawn in the center. Cub got a rook and queen in my territory and I was scrambling to try to trade queens. Eventually we reached a similar situation as my game with Joe – I would push Cub’s Queen away with my knight, he would retreat his queen, I’d retreat my knight, he’d bring his queen back, I’d push his queen away with my knight, etc... I offered a Cub a draw and he accepted and as soon as we shook hands Tim Harder showed us that Cub had a devastating knight sacrifice that would have won immediately if I had accepted it. The draw left me with 2 points and gave Joe a chance to finish in first place all by himself if he could beat Bob. The game was equal with Bob having a time advantage when a typical State Fair moment arose. A food concession worker was cutting through the administration building porch with her friends when she saw the game between Bob and Joe and shouted to her friend (directly in Joe’s ear) “OH LOOK…THEY’RE PLAYING CHESS!!!” Joe’s concentration was wrecked and he lost the game a few seconds later which meant that Bob and I tied for this year’s State Fair speed chess championship.

2014 Iowa State Fair Speed Chess co-champions : Hank Anzis and Bob Keating.
What would Casey Stengel have thought of that?

  Bob wanted to know if we were going to play a tie break game to decide the championship. I suggested that we have a race to 30 pushups and Bob countered that we have an orthopedic surgery contest. I might have gone for that if Bob wasn’t an orthopedic surgeon but since I had my handy pocketknife I offered a compromise and proposed an amputation contest. I went looking for a volunteer when Ben Munson came to the rescue and presented us each with a blue 1st place ribbon with no tiebreak necessary.

  After six trips to the State Fair with no blue ribbon I’ve won it two years running. I wrote last year that I’ve rarely seen anybody win a tournament without some lucky breaks and that went for me in spades this year. I could have lost to Tim Harder in pool play and not even made it to the finals. In the finals I could have lost all three games but every break went my way and I was the only player out of the 15 to be undefeated. Lucky as I was, sharing the championship with Bob wasn’t all luck. I did a lot of things to help me be successful. I brought a t-shirt and some Amp Focus to keep me comfortable, hydrated, and alert as well as doing my tactics puzzles and live game practice. Luck must still be taken advantage of and if I hadn’t been practicing or been too thirsty or hot to function properly I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the breaks that came my way.

The championship dinner! Deep fried vegetables and a strawberry smoothie!

  Once the tournament was over, Tim Mc Entee, his friend Bryon, Bryon’s wife, Joe, and I had dinner before heading home. In the Iowa State Fair tradition I wanted something fried or on a stick or both fried and on a stick and settled on a $6 stickless fried veggie combo at the ‘Veggie-Table’ stand and for desert a $3.50 strawberry smoothie at the smoothie stand next to ‘Veggie-Table’. The smoothie really hit the spot since my Amp Focus was long gone and I was feeling very thirsty. The vegetable combo had all the grease I would expect from an Iowa State Fair food item and then some. I could barely taste any of the vegetables but after winning the blue ribbon I could have been eating mud and it would have tasted great.

  After our dinner, the group split up and Joe and I walked to my car so I could give him a ride to his car (parked a mile away on a side street). On our way out we saw David Skaar heading back into the fair after taking a walk around Des Moines. We chatted for a bit and said our goodbyes for yet another year. I dropped Joe off and headed back to Marshalltown for a short but happy night of sleep before another day of work and another year until the next Iowa State Fair speed chess tournament.

  Getting a blue ribbon this year was an improbable result. I was one of the oldest participants and much older than the other finalists. I wasn't close to being the best player yet I was still standing at the end. It was a surreal couple of hours. My old friend and mentor Dale Steiger had a word for this – he called it ‘serendipity’. I thought about the events of the day on the hour long drive home and came to the conclusion that my getting a blue ribbon at an Iowa State Fair speed chess tournament was no more improbable than a kid from New Jersey spending half his life getting wasted and playing in an Iowa State Fair speed chess tournament in the first place and I've been there and done that plenty. When I plugged my amazing iPod into my car and turned on the Rhapsody Music app the first song that played was a 1983 song by Yes called ‘It Can Happen’...

“It can happen to you
It can happen to me
It can happen to everyone eventually
As you happen to say
It can happen today
As it happens
It happens in every way”

...and there was no argument from me.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mount Rushmore and Soft Serve

  I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of my favorites is’s Jaleb and Jacoby show. Former NBA player Jalen Rose and producer David Jacoby discuss current events in the NBA along with a host of other topics. I find Rose an astute basketball analyst and fun to listen to. A few months ago they were discussing Jalen’s NBA Mount Rushmore. I’d never heard of an NBA Mount Rushmore and assumed it was going to be his four best players but Rose’s NBA Mount Rushmore was Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, and Gregg Popovich.

  In the role of coach or General Manager those four account for 39 of the 65 championships in the history of the NBA. Rose believes that players win championships but they have a much better chance of doing so on a team run by a member of his NBA Mount Rushmore. Despite Rose’s unique take on the subject my NBA Mount Rushmore would be all players that I’ve seen play: Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are no brainers and my fourth is LeBron James (who only recently made it to my top four). I don’t know if it’s the best four ever but I’ll take my chances.

  I find it odd that Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson are joined by Teddy Roosevelt on the actual Mount Rushmore. Roosevelt doesn’t seem to fit. One hundred years after his presidency he is rarely if ever talked about and isn’t on any paper currency like his three fellow Rushmorians or Andrew Jackson or U.S. Grant. Even William McKinley and Grover Cleveland were briefly on $500 and $1000 bills (click here if you don't believe me). T.R. being on Mount Rushmore tells me that he was highly regarded when the monument was being designed in the 1920’s (only ten years after Roosevelt’s death and twenty after the end of his presidency). Who would be on a 20th century Mount Rushmore? I think it would be a real fight but the winners would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. If it came to a public vote I think Bill Clinton would get the nod over Eisenhower but the current political divide would not allow anything other than a split ticket on ‘Rushmore II’. Since Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican he may be a better choice than Eisenhower. When it comes to Republican Presidents of the 20th century there are some pretty slim pickings – I haven’t noticed any groundswell to make monuments honoring Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, or Warren Harding, have you?

  The idea of picking the Mount Rushmore (top four) of anything is pretty challenging. Four is a good number to choose a best of list. There's no room for slackers and some top shelf material is going to be off the list. In my NBA Mount Rushmore I could rattle off players (Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, and Wilt Chamberlain for example) that would be on the top four of many other lists. I could probably do it two or three more times before I got to names that clearly shouldn’t make the top four.

  I’ve donated some chess lessons to the Des Moines Animal Rescue League the past two years. The lessons have been auctioned off with a ‘cats and dogs’ chess set. Last year the parents of a promising scholastic player won the auction. There was a lot I could show him and I thought the lessons were successful. In any event, since this player was the state grade champion the year before the lessons and was the state grade champion the year after the lessons it can be safely said that I didn’t screw him up.

  This year's auction was won by an older player who's about as good as I am. He had some specific ideas what he wanted to accomplish from the lessons and I asked him to send me his chess Mount Rushmore - his four best games. I did this so I could find out how he sees himself, what kind of style he plays when he is at his best, and to create a web page of his best games to review when he is in a slump to remind himself of the great games he has played. And since my student is around my age, I asked him to watch the movie ‘Rocky Balboa’ not only because it is the anthem for overage overachievers – it gives me a chance to quote Rocky and say stuff like ‘Nothing will hit harder than life! It will beat you to your knees and keep you there if you let it!’ and who could resist getting a chance to say stuff like that when given the chance!

   I received four games. One game was a well played 500 point upset but the rest were not exactly what I expected – a loss, a draw, and a game where my student lost his queen early but came back to win. All the opponent’s names were ‘redacted’. My student was clearly too humble for his own good – when I need a pick me up, the last thing I need to see is a loss or a game where I lost my queen! From the games we concluded that my student liked to attack and was pretty good at it so we spent the lessons devising some more aggressive opening play and did some play testing of critical positions in the middle games that he frequently encountered. The lessons were productive and while I don’t believe they were worth the auction price my student seemed satisfied and that’s good enough for me.

  I wasn’t just practicing what I preach – I made a site with my own Mount Rushmore games to show my student (and to have a ready example for future students) and it was a good thing I did after this train wreck of a game I played Saturday against Christine Denison at my monthly youth tournament.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  A pathetic effort and the worst part is there was no reason to resign. I could have played Qc3 attacking the knight on e5. I would have lost a pawn but instead I lost my head. That was the second game I lost to Christine Saturday. I won a piece in our first game but instead of giving up like I did, Christine started attacking with the pieces she had left and I lost on time defending. I give the players at club a hard time when they give up too early and here I am doing the same thing and I won't be quoting Rocky any time soon. The clinical term I use for such behavior is ‘soft-serve’ as in the soft serve ice cream that pours out of a spout and quickly turns into a puddle of goo in all but the coldest weather as opposed to ‘hard’ ice cream that has to be wrenched from its container with a scoop and melts reluctantly so it can be enjoyed for a long time even on the hottest days. If I ever make a Mount Rushmore of ‘soft-serve’ this game will have a prominent spot!

  After a loss like that I could use a boost of confidence so it’s as good a time as any to show off my Mount Rushmore of chess games. Game #4 on the mount was a game I played in 2003 in Cedar Rapids in the Rockwell-Collins cafeteria against Shawn Pavlik. Shawn used to live in nearby Green Mountain and would come to our Marshalltown Chess Club along with some of his students (Shawn is a math teacher). Shawn also played with Matt, Ben, and myself in couple of Iowa team tournaments. When we chatted before the game, Shawn told me went to the newly started Friday club at the Marshalltown Wal-Mart (run by a paid Wal-Mart employee with the store's blessing) and told me how bad the players were and that maybe one knew the name of a chess opening. My sons and I used to play with the guys at the Wal-Mart. I liked them and thought they were a competitive bunch of farmer types who gave my kids very challenging games and beat me more than once. When Shawn and I sat down to play in the third round we had each won and lost one game and I not only wanted to win the game for its own sake – I wanted to win one for the Wal-Mart chess players.

  Not only was that a satisfying game – I think I played really well. I could have played better with my dark squared bishop but I was in control from start to finish and upheld the honor of the late lamented Marshalltown Wal-Mart Friday chess club which closed shortly after this game was played when the employee that ran it was transferred to another store.

  The #3 game on my chess Mount Rushmore was also played in Cedar Rapids in the Rockwell-Collins cafeteria, this time in 2006. I left the kids home with Kathy to play Little League baseball and went to the Cedar Rapids Open which in 2006 was a six round unrated tournament with a time control of 30 minutes a side. In the first round I lost to a player rated a thousand points below me in a game that made my effort against Christine on Saturday look like one of these Mount Rushmore games. I managed to win the next three games and found myself paired in the next to last round against Bob Keating. At this point Bob was a 2 time national correspondence champion who had been playing over the board for just two years and was an expert chess player. He is an orthopedic surgeon who has since gotten his master certificate and was the Iowa chess champion in 2011. He is also a chess writer who won a Chess Journalists of America award in 2011 for game analysis. In other words, I was going up against a chess superman! The only things I had going for me were the White pieces, Bob had rarely played in tournaments with this quick of a time limit, and since we weren't playing by 'loser gets dipped in a pit of molten lava' rules I had nothing to lose.

  What a game! Compare this game to my effort against Christine on Saturday - no ‘soft-serve’ here! A draw may seem out of place on the Rushmore list but I think this was one of the best games I ever played. I got outpointed by a better player and spent a lot of time on the ropes but I stayed on my feet, avoided getting knocked out, landed a few punches myself, and was saved by the bell at the end. Rocky woulda been proud!

  Game #2 on my Rushmore list was played in the third and final round of a CyChess in Ames in 2008. I hadn’t played in a tournament in a year but I won my first two games and found myself on board 1 against Gerald Hawkins with a chance to win a tournament in Iowa for the first time ever.

  This game is one of my favorites because I felt like I knew what I wanted to do the entire game and even looking at it today it has a logical flow to it that very few of my games ever have. It was hardly a perfect game. I mistimed the Nxd5 shot and dithered with my knight in the middle but I felt I kept a hold on the position from start to finish and was smooth and consistent. I can’t be 100% sure that I could have won the game had Gerald not lost his queen at the end but since I owned the c file and had an extra pawn I like my chances.

  The #1 game on my Mount Rushmore list isn’t a big upset or a win to settle a score or a tournament winning game. It was a game I played in the third round of a tournament in Mount Vernon, Iowa in 2005 against a lower rated player who didn’t play very well at all and yet it is my all time favorite game. The USCF magazine runs a monthly guest column in which the writer goes over the game in which they played their best move and my 14th move would my ‘best move’.

  I haven’t gotten high in over half a lifetime but I had a high after this game and if I want to get a buzz all I have to do is replay it. The Qh5 move is not normally a move I would think of much less make when I have a safe no-risk alternative and 10 years later it's quite a move. I'm normally a counter puncher over the chessboard and being able to go into 'Beast' mode and dish out a pounding was pretty satisfying.

  So that’s my Mount Rushmore of chess. If you want to send me your Mount Rushmore games I’ll make a post of them as long as you include a paragraph about each game for entertainment purposes. The newest of my Rushmore games is over six years old. I’ve had more recent games (and games from the 1980’s) that could have been included but for one reason or another didn’t make the list. As I said at the top of the post, that's the beauty of the Mount Rushmore concept – picking four and only four will leave some great stuff on the cutting room floor but there will be 100% cream at the top. Hopefully I'll have another Mount Rushmore game soon but until then I’ll settle for these.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Excellent Chess Camp

  I had my chess camp in Des Moines two weeks ago. It was the fourth straight year I've conducted one. I started the camp when a few of the chess parents at my youth tournaments asked me if I knew of a lower cost chess camp than the $400+ USA chess camp that was then held in Des Moines. I got together with professional chess teacher (and 2012 Iowa chess champion) José Gatica and we designed a two-day chess camp in the summer of 2011. My son Matt (an expert player) helped us and we had 17 campers who paid $75 each for two days of camp, a T-shirt, some chess merchandise (scorebooks, pens, certificate, etc…), and as much Sunny D, apple juice, cheese crackers, fruit cups, and pudding cups as they could consume. We all had a great time and the camp was considered a success by all concerned. The camp was held at the West Des Moines Learning Resource Center which provided a huge room that we could split in two sections for $75 a day. The facility manager was delighted to have us and promised that next year we could have the camp there again so we did.

  I learned a lot in the first camp. I learned that kids prefer Sunny D to apple juice by a 2 to 1 margin, will never eat pepper jack cheese crackers when plain cheese crackers are available, any kind of pudding trumps any kind of fruit cup, and it's impossible to eat a fruit cup without the syrupy stuff in the fruit cups spilling all over the place. I also learned that while young players can concentrate three hours during my youth chess tournaments, 90 minutes is the upper limit of their attention watching or participating in a group chess lesson or activity. José knew that but I didn’t and ever since I've scheduled outside or activity time to keep the kids from getting bored.

  The 2012 camp had a few changes in addition to snack selections and scheduling play time. I decided to not have t-shirts and chess giveaway stuff and lowered the cost of the camp to $50 for anyone who came to my tournaments or went to José’s clubs. Matt took a job as an instructor at one of the other week long chess camps in the state so I needed a new instructor. Luckily I got Bethany Carson to agree to be an instructor. As a multiple state scholastic champion, Bethany had the chess credentials and has turned out to be as great a teacher as I suspected she would be. She's also a great role model and close enough in age to the campers that they relate to her better than José or me. I got more help when Jingyang Li volunteered the services of his son Frank to work at the camp. Frank was a talented 6th grade chess player and much stronger than any of the campers. Frank helped me drag out the snacks in the morning and clean up at night and he helped with some of the lessons. I didn’t know Frank was going to be helping until two months before the camp and I’d never seen him give a lesson so I didn’t assign him anything more to do which was a mistake. Without any specific tasks during the camp Frank acted like more one of the campers and would participate in the lectures. He was so much more advanced than the other campers that they had trouble understanding his questions and since he is about as strong a player as me I didn’t have ready answers to some of the tricky variations he would come up with when I was showing what I thought were simple examples to the campers.

  There were over 30 campers and the camp was a creative and financial success but when I went to book the Learning Resource Center for 2013 the facility manager had retired and his replacement told me that the building was under renovation and I could rent a cafeteria at a West Des Moines school as long as I would pay $25 an hour for a ‘custodian’ to be on the premises. When I rented school cafeterias for tournaments I paid for ‘custodians’,whose duties were to lock and unlock the doors and hand me a broom so I could sweep up when the tournament was over. That’s not 100% true - once a ‘custodian’ looked for an extension cord and another time one gave me some empty garbage bags to put in the trash cans after I emptied the trash. On the bright side, I found the ‘custodians’ exceptionally well read citizens who could discuss current events from ‘People’ magazine and the ‘Weekly World News’ verbatim. I was OK with the ‘custodian’ cost but then I was told I needed event insurance. While I was getting event insurance I was told I had to order my snacks through the school catering service. I was going to ask if the school would have air conditioning on but I was afraid I'd be told air (conditioned or not) would cost extra. This led me to look for a new site for the camp in 2013.

  In 2013 I was helping the Des Moines YMCA get a chess club started and they offered me 2 rooms for the chess camp. There was the room that would hold about 2 dozen campers where we had the chess club meetings and a room next door that was even larger. The day I accepted the offer to have the camp at the YMCA I received an invitation to have the camp at the parish hall at St. Mary in Des Moines but I had already accepted the YMCA offer. The YMCA was in what is considered a bad neighborhood in Des Moines (although it would be considered a fine neighborhood in my hometown of Hillside, New Jersey) which concerned some of the parents. Some were especially concerned when there was a shooting a few blocks away from the YMCA early on a Sunday morning but once it was understood that I went there every week for a chess club and that the camp wasn’t going to be held early on a Sunday morning the concerns melted away.

  I had over 35 campers signed up and had invited the players that attended the YMCA club to participate without a fee. I was looking at a full house. I’m the paranoid sort so almost every week I checked with the YMCA coordinators to make sure about using the rooms for the camp and almost every week I was assured there was no problem until the day before the camp when I was told that there was a problem and large room was unavailable. In addition to the small room I had a choice of two even smaller rooms: a nice board room on the second floor with no way for the campers to play chess facing each other or a tiny room in the back of the building that was used for computer testing and filled with computers. I chose the small room in the back and got to the Y early the next day and spent two hours taking apart the computer equipment and stacking it up in an orderly fashion and laying out the tables for what turned out to be a ‘Des Moines Chess Cramp’.

  Bethany and José and I all did lessons and lectures like the year before and Frank did a lecture on the Sicilian defense. The camp went well in a technical sense but everything was so cramped it was uncomfortable. When we put everyone into one room for the bughouse tournament there was barely any room to breathe. I brought some rectangular tables from home but even so there weren’t enough square tables and some of the campers had to use round or oval tables. I was pretty upset that I didn’t get the rooms I expected but since then I’ve seen other events at the YMCA that use the meeting rooms and they all had a fraction of the people they expected. I came to understand that it was the norm for the event plans to be much bigger than the event reality at this YMCA and when I said I was having over forty people (including parents) their experience led them to believe I would have closer to four. The people at the YMCA were sheepish when it turned out that as many campers attended as I told them would but by that point it was too late to arrange for me to use the large room. We muddled through and the camp was hardly a disaster but it wasn’t nearly as much fun for the campers and I was stressed out from start to finish.

  I hadn’t planned on doing the camp this year but I don’t plan on doing the camp any year until parents start asking me when the camp will be and then I start arranging it. That happened around February this year. I expected that I wouldn’t have as big a crowd as I had last year due to the problems of last year’s camp. In retail past experiences affect future sales and even if I was going to have the 2014 camp at the Taj Majal or Trump Towers there were going to be parents that were not going to have their children attend. A chess parent arranged for me to us the same St. Mary parish hall that I passed up last year and when I checked it out I was kicking myself for not looking at it in 2013. It is a spectacular location with plenty of rectangular tables, a large room that could be subdivided in any number of ways, and plenty of grassy areas for the kids to run around in. I did my normal advertising and ended up with 26 campers (not including 3 that signed up and didn’t attend).

  This year’s camp was smooth from start to finish. We made a number of small changes that I thought helped and helped a lot. At last year’s camp I had scheduled myself to teach a lesson at the beginning of the first day but there were so many late arriving campers that I was constantly being interrupted getting people settled in, collecting money, etc… I got smart this year and didn’t schedule myself to start the camp with a lesson and that gave me a chance to properly get the late arriving campers acclimated. I gave Frank extra responsibility this year by having him give two lessons and he embraced the responsibility. One lesson was a repeat of a lesson from three years ago and Frank could have just given it but he completely rewrote it and came up with some new twists.

  In previous years I had the students divided into an advanced and intermediate section but this year José wanted to call them the ‘serious’ and ‘fun’ group which made a lot of sense. What I called the ‘advanced’ group were the stronger campers who would go over complete games and harder concepts while the ‘intermediate’ group would go over basic concepts. Splitting the groups by ability was a good idea but calling a group advanced put pressure on some of the campers to be in the advanced group so they wouldn’t feel ‘unadvanced’. José’s idea to have serious and fun groups made perfect sense. It clearly delineated what the groups were about and was easily explainable: the serious group would spend more time thinking about complicated positions and the fun group would go over things lightly and have a few more activities. There was no pressure on anyone to be ‘advanced’ and some of the campers went back and forth as the mood suited them.

  My other little change happened the day before the camp when I went to the Staples to get my certificates printed and wandered over to the nearby Dollar Tree once I was done. I have always had a fascination with Dollar Stores where a dollar can get you anything in the store! Even with a dollar price tag some merchandise is overpriced but there are plenty of bargains. The Dollar Tree in West Des Moines even has a refrigerated and frozen food section. I saw a number of items that I thought would be good gag gifts for the campers. I got some straw hats, air filled squishy balls that lit up when you threw then, tiny wind-up toys that would walk or roll, and giant eyeglasses.

  I wanted to test the reaction to the Dollar Tree items so as soon as all the campers arrived and were settled down I sat in on Frank’s lecture to the ‘fun’ group. As soon as someone raised their hand and answered a question correctly I said ‘Hey, you’re on the ball!’ and threw them a squishy ball. As soon as I did that most of the kids started raising their hands so they could get something also but on the first camp day I was frugal and gave very few items away. One camper was talking all the time so I told him he was ‘wound up’ and gave him a wind-up fish that would scoot across the desk. That was probably a mistake because while he did stop talking the whirring noise of the wind-up fish was an able auditory replacement and he got his dollars’ worth out of the toy. On my way home I picked up more fine ‘Dollar Tree’ items and was very generous about giving them out on the second day of the camp.

  Of the four camps I've done this year's was the most fun. José, Bethany, Frank, Julie (camp nurse), and I are in our third year together and operated like a well-oiled machine. Frank has grown into his role as instructor and gave the campers another role model close to their age they can relate to. The facility was awesome, the kids bright and well behaved, the lessons worked well together, and the dollar store items added a welcome goofiness missing from previous camps. I got more positive feedback from the parents than ever but I did get a number of complaints from kids who got a hat but wanted a wind-up toy or got a giant pair of glasses but wanted a hat, etc..., etc..., etc... I told them all the same thing – “don’t complain – you got the most expensive thing in the store!” I don't know if it was a perfect chess camp but it was excellent and while perfection is a fools errand, excellence is a worthy goal.