Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Movie Review - A Walk Among The Tombstones

A promising commercial for a Liam Neeson action movie!

  Ever since I saw the iconic movie ‘Taken’ I’ve made it a point to get to the theatres to see Liam Neeson action movies whenever I can. Taken had Neeson playing retired CIA operative Bryan Mills in an action-packed adventure to get his daughter back after she had been kidnapped by Albanian human traffickers. The role was reprised in 2012’s ‘Taken 2’ when Mills and his wife are kidnapped by the families of all the Albanian human traffickers Mills killed in the first move. I enjoyed the sequel but not nearly as much as the original.

  Earlier this year I went to see ‘Non-Stop’ in which Neeson plays Bill Marks, a former cop and alcoholic turned Federal Air Marshal who uncovers a plot to detonate a bomb that has been planted on his flight. As part of the plot, Marks is framed as the bomber but manages to save almost everyone on the plane despite the bomb going off in mid-air. It was an entertaining enough movie but no ‘Taken’, focusing too much on detective work and Marks’ shady past and not nearly enough action.

  This has been Neeson’s typical role in his action movies since Taken – a retired tough-guy who can still bring it. His movies have been missing the action element of Taken, where he kills almost a dozen bad guys in 45 seconds, shoots his best friend’s wife in the arm in order to get information, has a car chase through a construction site resulting in explosions and car crashes and construction site damage along with many other scenes of gratuitous violence broken up by a small amount of detective work and witty dialogue. This weekend’s new movie releases included another Liam Neeson action movie ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’. The commercials looked promising – Neeson listens to a man telling him his wife got kidnapped and then listens to a tape of the man’s wife screaming. Thinking there could be nothing more Taken-like, Kathy and I made plans to see it when it opened this past weekend.

  A couple of work emergencies had me putting in enough time during the week that I was able to take Friday afternoon off and go with Kathy to the afternoon matinee at the local movie theatre. $25.50 later we were armed with popcorn, soda, and two tickets which allowed us to take our place among the other 11 movie-goers.

  The film starts in 1991 with a healthy dose of action. Neeson is a long-haired, bearded New York City detective who leaves his partner in their car to head into a bar for a couple of drinks. Two men walk in to the bar to rob it and shoot the bartender dead. Neeson chases the men into the street, shoots and kills one robber and then shoots the fleeing getaway driver dead while the second robber runs away. Neeson shoots the remaining crook in the leg and follows him as he limps to a secluded alley where he proceeds to shoots him dead. It was a fine start to an action movie.

  The movie then flashes ahead to 1999 although the only way I would have known if I hadn’t been told was the billboards, bumper stickers, and signage urging people to be prepared for Y2K and the oversized computer monitors. We see a woman being fondled by two men and then shown the duct tape covering her mouth and we can safely assume she is the kidnap victim.

  Meanwhile Neeson is in an AA meeting and introduced to us as retired detective Matt Scudder, who now has short hair and no beard and works as an unlicensed private investigator. Scudder recounts the tale of the shooting which seems to have been so traumatic that he not only quit the police force – he quit drinking. Once the AA meeting ends, Scudder goes to a local diner for a steak when he is joined by one of his AA cohorts who wants Scudder to meet with his brother Kenny Kristo because Kenny has a problem. Scudder meets with him and finds out Kristo’s wife had been kidnapped and killed after the ransom had been paid and that Kenny is a drug trafficker. Scudder turns down the $20,000 in cash to find the kidnapper/murderers but changes his mind after learning of the exceptionally grisly nature of the crime.

  Even though there was no kidnap victim to rescue, I was hoping for a fast paced adventure of finding the kidnappers and exacting revenge much like the movie Taken. Instead I felt like I was watching a misfit version of another film starring Neeson – ‘The A-Team’. Scudder does most of the slow-moving detective work in between AA meetings to locate the kidnappers and find out the full scope of their heinous crimes. While he is researching microfilm in the New York Library he joins forces with a homeless teenager named T.J. Scudder gets T.J. to do his research on the Internet and visits him in the hospital after T.J. gets busted up for stealing a gang members gun. Rounding out the team is Kenny Kristo and his brother Peter, who is shooting heroin when not attending AA meetings.

  Scudder learns the names of one of the villains, discovers that they are serial killers, and even how they pick their victims but has no luck tracking them down until they kidnap the daughter of one of Kenny’s drug trafficking rivals. Scudder inserts himself into the negotiations as the point man and sets up the payoff in a cemetery for the first of two climactic scenes. After a shootout at the cemetery, Scudder and remaining members of his ‘team’ (I don’t want to give away too much) track the murderers to their hideout and the final climactic and grisly end (which is performed to the recitation of the AA 12 step creed).

If you look up the definition of 'action' in a dictionary you'll probably find these clips from the movie 'Taken'

  The murders are all done off screen with a few flashback glimpses of torture but are nothing that I would consider eye-raising. Compared to the ‘Criminal Minds’ reruns on ION television that I’ve been watching the crimes in this movie are downright pedestrian. There are two serial killers who we only know by their first names and while they seem equally creepy I did enjoy the performance of David Harbour as Ray who was the chattier of the pair and the one who makes the phone calls to extract the ransom and talk to the kidnap victims.

  Aside from Neeson’s workman like effort and Harbour’s professional performance I thought rest of the cast was nondescript at best although the stereotypical characters probably give them much to work with. The film was adapted from the 1992 novel by Lawrence Block which is one of many featuring the recovering alcoholic Scudder. I think the filmmakers tried too hard to integrate the AA meetings and 12 steps into the movie. While those characteristics are central to who Matt Scudder is as a fictional character in novels these traits have the luxury of being developed over thousands of pages in years of novels. The task of trying to make them the central theme of a two hour movie led to a disjointed and slow moving storyline in which any small amount of action was met by yet another AA meeting, lecture by Scudder to the youthful T.R., or some slow-moving detective work.

  I can't fault 'A Walk Among the Tombstones' for not being as good as Taken when so few movies are but I can and will fault it for being slow moving with so little action. Even if I were to consider it a mystery movie the main characters are all pretty unlikeable - drug addicts or drug dealers or alcoholics or serial killers. The only characters I felt any sympathy for are T.J. (the homeless petty thief) and the kidnap victims (who aren't on screen very much). As much as I enjoyed the movie Taken and Neeson’s take no prisoner performance in it, I felt I got taken by ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones’. This movie was advertised as an action movie but it was really a mystery movie and a slow moving one at that. I would have been better off keeping my $25 in my pocket and laying out 6 quarters at the Redbox in a few months. The movie grossed $13 million on it's opening weekend which is more than enough to keep Liam Neeson in starring roles considering its $48 million dollar budget but I won’t be watching any Liam Neeson ‘action’ movies in the theatres until I get one from Redbox and it so action-packed that I wish I had seen it in the theater.

These geese in Marshalltown, Iowa channeled their inner Liam Neeson...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Who Wants my Vote?

Election signs, mailings, commercials, and videos are nice but what's in it for me?

  Iowa is holding its first Senate election without an incumbent in 30 years and the hotly contested election between Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst is less than two months away. Given Iowa’s track record of electing incumbents the winner of the election will be conferred with a Mafia-esque ‘made’ status and a lifetime job. Ernst is 44 years old and could serve 6 or more terms in office while the 57 year old Braley could serve 3 terms and they would be about as old as Tom Harkin, the retiring Senator whose seat the campaigning duo hopes to be elected to. The candidates have combined to spend $6 million dollars on the election while the desperation of both parties to win a majority in the Senate has spurned outside interests to spend almost twice that much on mostly negative campaign ads (Here is the spending breakdown).

While one of our Senate candidates is in the pockets of big corporations, the other one is missing committee meetings...Does anyone really care?

  I’ve gotten mailers and phone calls from both parties. The phone calls are tricky. I got a phone call last week with a recorded voice asking me who I was going to support in the upcoming election. Since it was an odd numbered day, I pressed 1 which on this day was the Braley button. Then the recorded voice asked what the most important issue to me was about the election and I pressed 2 which was immigration. Then the recorded voice asked me to press one if I thought we needed to reform immigration to let the ‘immigrants out of the shadows’ and to press two if I thought we needed to ‘secure our borders and enforce the current immigration laws’. I know that Braley endorses immigration reform but I pressed two just to see what the recorded voice had to say about that. I must have crashed the program because the recorded voice hung up.

Here's some 'guilt by association' pieces....

  Judging from the campaign commercials and literature I’ve received so far the hot issues in this election is Braley missing most of the votes of the Veteran Affairs Committee Meetings he’s a member of, Ernst being in the pockets of big oil companies who want to get big tax breaks for themselves and end the subsidies for renewable fuels, Braley complaining to a bunch of Texas lawyers that if the Republicans win the Senate an Iowa farmer who never went to law school would be the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, how Joni Ernst wants to repeal Obamacare and cut Medicare and other entitlements, and how Bruce Braley repeatedly voted for runaway spending.

  None of these issues resonate with me. I don’t care if Bruce Braley misses a bunch of votes or tells a bunch of Texas lawyers what they want to hear in order to raise money and if he did vote for runaway spending he had plenty of company from both parties. As long as the price of gasoline is hanging around $3 a gallon I’m just fine with big oil companies getting a few tax breaks and if Joni Ernst thinks she’s going to cut spending after politicians of all parties have rung up a 17 TRILLION DOLLAR Deficit all I can say is ‘Good Luck’. I don’t belong to a union and I’m not a farmer so right to work and agriculture issues don’t excite me. I’m already married so I don’t have any opinion on who should or shouldn’t get married. I’ve never been in the military and I'm already a citizen so veteran affairs and immigration issues don’t sway me. The recent spate of beheadings aren’t concerning me with since I'm not heading to the Middle East anytime soon. No, my concerns are more immediate and since I’m sure I’m not alone in common sense low-level thinking I’m using this post as a public service to let this year’s Senate candidates know what would get my as yet undecided vote.

  1.5 million Iowans voted in the 2012 presidential election. 20 percent of the voters in the current Senate election are undecided – that amounts to approximately 300,000 voters. So far 18 MILLION dollars have been spent on this Senate election and there are still two months left. Let’s say there will be another 18 MILLION dollars spent on the campaign (I think this is a low number). That makes 36 MILLION dollars being spent on 300,000 votes. That amounts to $120 for each undecided voter and since there is normally a lesser turnout in non-presidential election years the $120 figure is likely closer to $200.

  The 36 million dollars that is being spent to attract undecided voters will be going to the post office, printers, newspapers, internet advertisers like Google, television and radio stations, commercial producers and writers, consultants, etc… None of this money will be going directly to the voters. I think that’s wrong – why should everyone profit from my undecidedness but me? That money being spent to get my vote would look a lot better in my pocket than some advertising agency or Google. I’ve written before (Click here to read it) how Americans should have the freedom to sell their votes directly to the politicians instead of letting everyone else profit from our right to vote. I’d love to put my vote up for auction on eBay but while spending MILLIONS and MILLIONS of dollars to get out the vote and sign up voters and advertise for votes is legal selling the same votes is illegal. I’ll be very inclined to vote for the Senate candidate that will legalize vote selling and allow campaigns to bargain directly with the voters. With a presidential election and a likely Iowa Senate Seat up for grabs in 2016 this is an issue that all Iowans can rally around and profit from.

My 10 minute trip on I-235 took 40 minutes today. Even with one lane closed, there was plenty of room for Des Moines traffic if everyone could have looked at the accident without having to rubberneck...

  Another issue I’d like to see our elected officials address is our outdated highway system. The roads I use in my hour long commute are just fine as long as there aren’t any accidents – thousands of cars travel daily on Interstates 80, 35, and 235 at anywhere from 60 to 75 miles an hour sliding across the lanes with barely any regard for anyone or anything other than their need to get where they’re going as quickly as possible. The interstates have three lanes and even two lanes are plenty for Des Moines, Iowa but when there’s an accident everything stops as every car slows down to catch a glimpse wrecked cars and possible injuries.

  The government has already funded some traffic guidance signs on the interstates in Des Moines to let me know how many people have died in auto accidents this year and how many minutes it will take me to get to the next few exits. I’d like my next Senator to take this concept to the next level and replace the current signage that is a descendent of the old monochromatic computer terminals with the full color displays found in football stadiums. Whenever there is an accident, the new displays can not only let the drivers know about the accident, they can display pictures of the accident. Once the driving public has seen the accident on the big screen they wouldn’t need to slow down to see the wreckage and could resume their normal driving habits so I could get to work and get home faster. The accident displays will probably pay for themselves by selling ads to insurance companies or sending the accident pictures directly to the driver’s smart phones for a small fee. Reducing rubbernecking will not only make the roads safer – it will reduce road rage and get me my way quicker and could be a reality with some government seed money to incentivize the process. Up to now Joni and Bruce have been silent about getting me where I need to go faster but their ideas on this issue will play a big part in getting my vote.

2014 Daisy and Baxter beef stick award winner Jillissa (left) could devote more time to superior beef stick service if she could put Little Debbie snack cakes, 2 liter bottles of soda, chips, cigarettes, and beer all on one convenient EBT transaction. On the right was the mob scene at the Hawkeye Pantry last month. I could have been in and out with my AMP Focus Energy if the clerk didn't have to argue with every customer when they insisted on paying for their six-pack or smokes with their EBT card.

  While allowing voters to sell their votes would benefit voters and reducing rubbernecking would benefit commuters, my third and final election criteria would benefit all of Iowans. I go to a lot of convenience stores and often find myself waiting in line behind people who are buying beer, liquor, cigarettes, and maybe a few groceries. Many of these people use their EBT card to buy their groceries under the state's Food Assistance program and also try to pay for their beer, liquor, and cigarettes with their EBT cards. When the clerk tells them that they can’t pay for their beer, liquor, or cigarettes with their EBT card the customers are told that the ‘other’ clerk lets them do it all the time. A lengthy argument ensues; the customer ends up paying cash for his beer, liquor, or cigarettes; and if the rest of us in line are having a bad day or are in a hurry the process repeats itself with the next customer.

  I’d like to think my next Senator could help me get my beef sticks, coffee, or soda pop without having to play EBT roulette and I have a simple solution to the problem – make EBT cards eligible for beer, liquor, and cigarettes. The Iowa EBT program is funded by the federal government so the federal government can authorize these categories to be eligible for benefits. I discussed this subject at work and at chess club and many people said “Food Stamps are for food not for beer and cigarettes” but I beg to differ. EBT stands for ‘Electronic BENEFITS Transfer”, not Electronic FOOD Transfer. It may be a stretch to label cigarettes and alcohol as ‘food’ but beer certainly has some nutritional content. After all, can cigarettes, liquor, and beer be that much worse for a person than a $4 10 ounce bag of potato chips or $1 Little Debbie Lemon pies? This is a win-win situation – People that want to get beer, liquor, and cigarettes with their EBT cards can do so; convenience stores have fewer regulations to keep track of; and we all get out of the convenience stores faster. The gains in leisure time and productivity will more than make up for the extra medical expenses incurred by all the beer, liquor, and cigarettes consumed (and all these people seem to have the money to buy this stuff anyway). This is another issue the candidates have skirted around but if I had a gun to my head I’d say getting me out of convenience stores faster is my number one election year concern.

   And that’s my wish list for our two Senate hopefuls this year. These issues may seem trivial to some but they would improve the quality of my life in particular and all Iowans in general. In any event, I’d like to have the candidates talking about what they are going to do FOR me instead of talking about what their opponent is going to do TO me. If you have any issues to add leave them in the comments or better yet tell the candidates at and and let them know what will get your vote. It never hurts to ask.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Return of King Football

  I’ve been onsite at a bank for the past few months. The bankers are a friendly enough group but I rarely see them talk much about non-bank stuff until last week when groups started getting together in clusters to loudly voice their opinions. The subject of this new-found collegiality wasn’t the upcoming Iowa elections or the spate of beheadings in the Middle East or the record highs of the stock market or even what the new Apple iWatch looks like. What brought these bankers together is the same matter of vital national importance that brings people together in workplaces all over America this time of the year – the return of football.

  King football has made its 2014 fall debut two weeks ago in all its varieties. The Marshalltown High School football team won their opening game 41-0 over Waterloo East which equaled their win total from 2013. That win was followed by a 45-20 loss to Newton to even their record at 1-1. The Bobcats will play 11 games this season and if they manage to finish fourth or better in their 6 team division will make the Iowa High School Football Playoffs. The loose playoff requirements provide hope to all but the worst high school football teams – the 1-11 Bobcats headed into their final game with a chance to make the playoffs if they could have just won their last game. Now that the games have begin there has been no mention of Blair Van Staauldine, the player who made national headlines when he was suspended for the first three games of the season after being pictured on social media making a 'W' with his hands.

  The National Football League season started this past Thursday with the Seattle Seahawks beginning their defense of last season’s Super Bowl with a 36-16 crushing of the Green Bay Packers. The start of the season must come as a welcome relief to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who has been in for an unaccustomed heavy dose of criticism this summer. After levying a two game suspension for Ray Rice when he was arrested for domestic violence and a video released by TMZ showed him dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator, Goodell and the NFL was pilloried in the press for imposing a sentence only half the length routinely handed out to substance abusers. Goodell bowed to the pressure by publicly saying he got the suspension wrong, but when a group of US Senators sent a letter to the Commissioner with the veiled threat of congressional action, Goodell announced new penalties of a six game suspension for first time domestic abusers with a life time ban (reversible at the commissioner’s discretion) for a second offense. No sooner had the interest in this issue receded, TMZ published video from inside the elevator showing Rice dropping his fiancée with a left that would do Mike Tyson proud. This has caused the Ravens to terminate Rice’s contract and the NFL to issue a lifetime ban. Even though all criminal charges will be dismissed if he completes a ‘diversion’ program I doubt any other team will be willing to pick up Rice and the media storm that will come along with him even if the lifetime ban would ever be lifted.

  If that was the NFL’s only public relations nightmare it would likely have been marked down as a successful summer in the league’s corporate offices, but the league has been hit with a new wave of lawsuits following the recent multimillion dollar settlement of the concussion lawsuit brought on by former players. This year NFL teams have been accused of illegally giving their players painkillers and narcotics from 1968 to 2008 without regard to their long-term health. No matter the outcome of the lawsuits, the continual interviews of the stars of yesteryear talking about the number of pain killing injections will be a perpetual black eye for the NFL for the entire season.

  The NFL’s other perpetual black eye is the public outrage over the Washington Redskins' team nickname, which is being seen as offensive by more and more people with momentum growing in the calls the team to change its name. In May Redskin owner Dan Snyder vowed to ‘never’ change the name of his team and has resisted all pressure and threats to make him do otherwise. Snyder has proven to be an exceptionally poor owner with only three playoff teams and eight head coaches in his 16 years at the Redskin helm. But Snyder is an exceptional businessman ironically making his billions in the advertising field and increased Redskins’ revenue by luring big name advertisers like Coke, Budweiser, and the $207 million dollars paid by Federal Express to rename ‘Redskins Stadium’ as ‘FedEx Field’. With many media outlets refusing to use the ‘Redskin’ name, increasing boycotts of his team and sponsors, and a 35% decrease in the sales of Redskin merchandise, I expect Snyder will soon put some of his millions to work by paying a public relations firm to come up with a new name and logo for his team so he can get rid of his bad publicity and cash in on the merchandise dollars his new logo will bring him.

  In Iowa the NFL is popular and every town loves their high school team but around these parts the college football Iowa Hawkeyes and Iowa State Cyclones ARE football. While a few of the bankers that are Chicago Bears fans took some ribbing because of the team’s home loss to the lowly Buffalo Bills on opening weekend, everyone was discussing Saturday’s Hawkeye comeback and the instant replay snafu that seemed to give the Cyclone’s opponent a touchdown late in the first half. The conversations were all civil but the passion heated up as Cyclone and Hawkeye fans compared opinions on who would win this weekend’s annual contest between the two teams.

  When I set up my monthly youth chess tournament for this Saturday, I was warned that this was the weekend of the BIG Iowa – Iowa State football game. I’ve scheduled a tournament for this date in the past and while there is only a small impact on attendance there are plenty of parents in the parking lot listening to the game on the radio and updating the rest of us after each score, fumble, interception, or if the coach sneezes or a quarterback walks back to the huddle with a limp. The Friday before the game has been a de-facto company holiday at all my jobs in Iowa for the past 20 years, with cookouts and pot lucks and employees encouraged to wear their team’s colors as if we were street thugs that had to decide what gang we were going to be part of.

  Both teams have been less than impressive in the early part of the season although their results have been as different as they can be. In the first week of the season both teams took on opponents from the ‘minor league’ FCS. The Cyclones hosted the top ranked FCS team the North Dakota State Bisons and took a 14-0 lead before allowing the Bisons to score the next 34 points on their way to a 34-14 Cyclone loss. The Hawkeyes played the 12th ranked FCS University of Northern Iowa. The Hawkeyes fell behind 10-7 in the first half but retook the lead by half time and held on for a 31-23 victory. What is the difference between the major league FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) and the minor league FCS (Football Championship Subdivision)? FBS teams like Iowa and Iowa State are allowed to give out 85 scholarships for football while the FCS schools are limited to 63 scholarships. FBS schools also share in the lucrative college bowls and the upcoming playoff revenue and the members of the FBS power conferences (like Iowa State of the Big 12 and Iowa in of the Big 10) collect millions of additional dollars from their conferences TV networks. Just compare their athletic budgets. North Dakota State has an athletic budget of $15 million, Iowa State $60 million, The University of Iowa $84 million, and the University of Northern Iowa $13 million. Yet even with these advantages low-level FBS schools like Iowa State regularly lose to their FCS little brothers and mid-level FBS schools like Iowa have great difficulty defeating the minor leagues of college football.

  Last week, Iowa took on mid-level FBS school Ball State in Iowa City while Iowa State hosted Big 12 conference rival Kansas State. Ball State has been on a roll over the last two years winning nine games in 2012 (losing to the University of Central Florida in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl) and ten games in 2013 (losing to Arkansas State in the Bowl). Ball State played a fine game against the Hawkeyes and led by 10 points with three minutes left before surrendering two touchdowns within 30 seconds to lose 17-13. Hawkeye fans were relieved at the win and pessimistic for the rest of the season after two narrow wins against teams that they judge to be decidedly inferior.

  The Kansas State Wildcats have all the advantages of being in a power conference that the Iowa State Cyclones have along with the same disadvantages of being in a sparsely populated state with little local football talent to draw from and limited local radio and TV possibilities. But while the Cyclones have won more games than they’ve lost three times in the past twenty years, the Wildcats have had 13 winning seasons over the same span including nine seasons of ten wins or more (the Cyclones have never won ten in a season). The Cyclones started fast and led 28-13 with a minute to go in the first half but allowed Kansas State to score the last 19 points of the game to lose 32-28.

  Cyclone fans have already begun their annual litany of excuses for their two losses in what looks like another disastrous season: an iffy call against Kansas State, their starting center being injured early in the North Dakota State game, the misfortune of having the FCS champion Bisons on their schedule instead of a creampuff team, no easy games in the tough Big 12 conference, etc…, etc…,etc… From an outsider’s view point I see head coach Paul Rhoads has had the following won loss record over the past five years : 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 5-7, and 3-9 (here is the complete list) and see something is obviously missing in the area of recruiting, game management, game planning, leadership or some combination of these. The Cyclones have pulled some huge upsets under Rhoads' tenure – they beat Nebraska and Texas on the road and defeated a #2 ranked Oklahoma State team in a nationally televised game a few years back – but have never been able to establish themselves as even a middle of the road team in their own conference. The upsets and Rhoads fiery post game speeches after them have gained him far more national notoriety than his team’s records warrant and gained him the long term support of the fans and athletic department - all I see is a team that every other team looks forward to playing and a fan base that accepts playing just good enough to lose.

  The Cyclones will bring their 0-2 record to Iowa City to play the 2-0 Hawkeyes this weekend which will culminate another week of workplace dress-up, tailgating, and smack talk. While the Hawkeyes haven’t played especially well they have played well enough to win which is a quality I always find more impressive than playing well enough to lose like the Cyclones. Whenever I point out the Cyclones’ shortcomings they always seem to pull off one of their signature upsets and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win this week but I’m not counting on it. What I am counting on is hearing plenty of talk about the game at work next Monday.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

2014 Jackson Open - Part 2

  The Jackson Open’s schedule of one game on Friday night and three games on Saturday is a double edged sword in terms of getting a good night’s sleep on Friday. In 2013 I played poorly on Friday night, had to struggle for a draw against Steven Heinisch, and tossed and turned all night. This year I won my first round game against Sabine Marks and I slept like a rock through massive thunderstorms and woke up Saturday at 6:30am ready for three games that could last 3 hours each.

Joel Katz with breakfast at the Jackson, MN. Econo Lodge. Make sure to get there early before the sausage and egg patties get 'handled'!

  My roommate Joel Katz and I headed to the Econo Lodge’s free continental breakfast. Along with the cold cereal, donuts, toast, and bagels there was a small refrigerator that had hard-boiled eggs, watermelon, and a platter of cheese, egg patties, and sausage patties. I asked Joel if he wanted an ‘Egg McMuffin’. Joel said yes so I got an English muffin and used the tongs to pull a sausage patty, egg patty, and a slice of cheese out of the refrigerator. I unwrapped the cheese slice (the sausage and egg patties were unwrapped), slapped everything on the muffin, and put in in the microwave.

  While Joel’s sandwich was heating up, I spooned out a bowl of watermelon to go with some toast, a hard-boiled egg, coffee, and orange juice. Joel’s sandwich finished heating and we had our breakfast while watching the morning news. A lady then came into the breakfast room with two small children. One of the children got on his tiptoes and pulled out handfuls of sausage and egg patties from the refrigerator WITH HIS BARE HANDS and piled them on his plate. The lady was filling three cups with orange juice and then noticed all the patties on her son’s plate. She told him to put some of the food back so he stacked up the patties WITH HIS BARE HANDS and put them back on the platter in the refrigerator. I was happy the watermelon was on the top shelf and that we had gotten to the breakfast room ahead of this grabby young man.

  No sooner had the refrigerator door closed than the lady picked up the three cups of orange juice and one of them exploded, splashing orange juice all over herself, the counter, and the floor. Her children started laughing and she started yelling at them to be quiet. She left for a few moments and came back with the night clerk while the children were stomping in the orange juice puddles. The night clerk brought a pile of towels and started cleaning up the orange juice mess. The lady must have seen me staring at this spectacle because she engaged Joel and I in a conversation. She told us that the room she checked into last night had a leak in the roof and water was ‘pouring in the room’ so they moved her to a different room and when she woke up there were two inches of water in the bathroom and now this with the orange juice. She asked what we thought of that. I thought of taking the optimistic view and saying perhaps all that water kept her child's hands sanitary enough to avoid getting every Econo Lodge guest that made themselves a breakfast sandwich sick. Instead I took the practical view and said “It sounds to me like you’re a jinx, ma’m”. She muttered something I couldn’t quite make out, grabbed her children, and left Joel and I to finish our breakfast. I liked the Econo Lodge a lot better than this lady did – there were no leaks in my room, no standing water in the bathroom, my orange juice stayed in the cup, and the room was clean and quiet. The only suggestion I have is to have a worker in the breakfast room to make sure that the guest’s children keep their grubby hands off of the sausage and egg patties.

Sam Smith
  After breakfast, Joel and I checked out and headed the two miles to the Jackson Senior Center to join the rest of the players. Sam was waiting for any non-registered players to arrive and hadn’t finalized the pairings but when he greeted us he looked me in the eye with a grin and said “It’s you and me.” I played Sam in the 2012 Jackson Open (you can read about it here) and after getting pushed around for most of the game I found a game winning smothered mate when Sam made a rare defensive move. I was due to have the White pieces and remembered how I didn’t let Sam play his favorite Budapest Gambit defense two years ago. Sam used this defense to hold IM John Bartholomew to a draw at his 2013 Okoboji Open simultaneous exhibition and I made a mental note to not let him play it against me this year either. A little after nine Sam made the final pairings and we were still paired so I cracked open an AMP Focus Energy drink and we sat down for our game.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  Sam used 85 of his 90 minutes while I used a little over 60. I don’t mind defending cramped positions but this was ridiculous. Except for trading off Sam’s pieces, I never put a piece past my third rank until the 23th move of the game. I played far too passively in the beginning of the game and let Sam push me around far too much. Sam sacrificed a piece to push me around in 2012 but this year I let him do it for free. I was very lucky not to lose the game and even luckier to win it.

Dan Voje
  Even though my strategic play was highly suspect, I managed to avoid any overt tactical mistakes and found myself one of five players with 2-0 scores at the halfway point. The other four perfect scores were held by the top two seeds Dan Voje and Eric Bell, fellow 1600 player Mike Heinisch, and Riaz Khan who had scored a 300 point upset of the third seed Vince Wisnewski. While most of the other players went to have lunch, I ate a couple of apples, had a chat with Dan Voje and Rochester player Tom Brinkmann, and took a 30 minute nap in the courtyard between the Senior Center and Library. I woke up a few minutes before one, checked the pairings and saw that I was going to play top seed Dan Voje with the black pieces on board one. I’ve never played Dan before and couldn’t remember any of his games from the 2013 Okoboji or Jackson tournaments. As I cracked open my second AMP Focus Energy drink of the day I reminded myself to try to be more aggressive in this game than I was against Sam in the morning game.

  This was a hard loss to stomach. I didn’t think it was possible to be more cramped than my game against Sam yet I managed to have the granddaddy of all cramped positions. Even so, I had it all in my hands – an extra pawn, queens off the board, and an extra half hour on the clock – and I choked it all away with lazy thinking on my 36th move. I knew I was allowing a knight check but I was looking for Dan’s next move instead of taking the time to figure out EXACTLY where my king was going to go. Once I realized what happened I put up no resistance at all, quite unlike Dan continuing to pose me problems after his attack went wrong. Looking back at this game a week later, I’m pleased with my dogged defense in the middle part of the game but that’s all I’m pleased with since it was surrounded by yet another passive beginning and a meltdown at the end.

  With the 4th and final round starting just a few minutes after this disaster I was sorely tempted to take the last round off and head home early. And I would have except that my goal coming into the weekend wasn’t to go 3-0 or win the tournament or beat Dan Voje or not meltdown – my goal was to play all four games and that goal was well within reach. Thanks to my great breakfast at the Econo Lodge, my Amp Focus Energy, and the apples I’d been eating all day I didn’t feel tired at all so I went over to the Senior Center, relaxed, and waited for the last few games to finish.

Riaz Khan
  A little before 4:30, Riaz Khan came up to me and told me how he had been reading my blog and that I was way off base in my comments about the U.S. Soccer team (you can read them here). He offered his opinion that the U.S. had a very respectable World Cup and I reiterated my opinion that a country of 330 million people should consider a tie against Portugal (11 million people), a win against Ghana (24 million people), and a close loss to Belgium (11 million people) a pathetic result and not a respectable one. Riaz asked me how my game against Sam’s Budapest Defense went and I told him how I didn’t let Sam play it against me. And then Riaz told me that we were going to be playing in the last round. I checked the pairings and sure enough I was going to have White against Riaz with the winner having at least a share of 3rd place money and possibly 2nd place cash.

  Riaz is a one of those people who makes a tournament special just by his presence. He has a great sense of humor and a friendly, encouraging demeanor. He is also a tireless advocate of the Okoboji and Jackson Opens to the Minneapolis chess players. I’ve written about Riaz plenty (Here is an example) but never played against him in a tournament before. He proved to be psychologically prepared for our match up. When I pulled out my iPod to take a picture of Riaz for my blog, Riaz wheeled out his smart phone and started taking pictures of me! Then when the game started Riaz played the same Budapest Defense I tried so hard to avoid against Sam!

  Another wasted opportunity but that’s chess - one moment of inattention can throw away hours of hard work. I probably made a mistake by not cracking open a third AMP Focus Energy but I can't say it helped an awful lot late in the game against Dan. After the game, Riaz said “I knew Hank likes pawns so I just kept feeding them to him until he took one one too many.” Riaz and Dan both play at the Chess Castle in Minneapolis and they did their club proud as far as I’m concerned. They were both tough as nails over the board and great company off the board.

  After the game, I hung out with Riaz in the courtyard, played blitz with the Marks children, and waited for the final games to finish. Eric Bell beat Dan to win his third straight Jackson Open and the $300 first prize while Dan, Eddie Wasserman, and Chet Marks (the patriarch of the Marks family) shared second and third and each taking home over $100 which I could have shared if I had won either of my last two games. Dan and I helped Sam calculate the prizes and I helped Sam get the tournament rated. Then Sam, Joe, Riaz, Eddie, and I headed to the local Pizza Ranch for a quick meal. And after that I was on my way to Marshalltown 29 hours after arriving in Jackson.

Eric Bell, Chet Marks, and Dan Voje were among the prize winners. For the third straight year I didn't make that list, but there's always 2015...

  This year’s Jackson Open was everything I expected. I expected to have a great time with some great people and that’s exactly what I did. I met up with some old friends, made new ones, and as a bonus played four intense and interesting chess games. Sam did an excellent job as the tournament director. All I want when I'm playing in a chess tournament is to not have to wait around for the pairings and Sam was perfect in that regard. Sam also has everyone’s respect which is an underrated aspect of directing a tournament that helps everything run smoothly. I was pleased that I finished the four game schedule for the first time in my three trips to Jackson. All told I spent over 9 hours over the board but thanks to my AMP Focus Energy I never felt tired. I could have won all four of my games but I also could have lost all four of them so getting 2.5 out of four points was about the result I deserved. My play was consistently erratic. I was passive in the beginning of games, sharp and creative when defending in the middle games, and exceptionally poor finishing out games so I have plenty to work on before my next tournament. The AMP Focus Energy did what it was supposed to do (give me energy and keep me focused), but in addition to my chess study I’ll be on the lookout for ‘AMP Attack Energy’ and ‘AMP Closer Energy’ drinks to help me be more aggressive at the start of games and finish games better at next year’s Jackson Open.