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.