Monday, March 30, 2015

Well, Well, Wells

  I tend to patronize companies until I have a reason not to. When we first moved to Iowa in May 1994 and rented a house in Lawler Iowa (population 431) I opened a bank account at the ‘State Bank of Lawler’. Even though we left Lawler for good in October of that same year I still have an account at the ‘State Bank of Lawler’ which has been bought and rebought and is now called ‘Bank Iowa’.

  When we bought our house in Marshalltown in October 1994 the realtor was ‘Brenton Realty’ which was a part of a bank called ‘Brenton Bank’. We got our mortgage through Brenton Bank and opened an account there also. Brenton Bank had one branch within walking distance from our house and I used their one ATM machine. A few years later Brenton Bank was bought by Wells Fargo and so I had an account with Wells Fargo that I never asked for. Banking with Wells Fargo had a major advantage. They were a nationwide company with ATM machines and branches all over Iowa. There was a branch in Des Moines a half mile away. I would go there on my lunch times and deposit my paychecks.

  When I started running youth chess tournaments in 2006 I would have a lot of people paying me with checks. Most of the times the checks were made out to me but sometimes they would be made out to ‘Chess’, ‘USCF’ or not made out to anyone at all. I would take all these checks to the Wells Fargo branch in Des Moines to deposit. I would put my name on any check not made out to me and in three years of doing this I had one problem with one teller who wouldn’t take my deposit for some of these checks because they didn't have all the same handwriting. I called the manager over and the manager saw that I had 30 or 40 checks made out to me referencing chess. The manager told me that they wouldn’t cash the checks that I had written on. I told the manager that I was depositing the checks not cashing them and even had a flyer for the chess tournament asking that the checks be made out to me.

  The manager was pretty insistent so I asked if I could talk to the manager’s supervisor and was told she wasn’t available. I them asked if the manager could help me close out my accounts with Wells Fargo. The manager excused himself for a few minutes and came back and said that since I was a valued customer they would deposit my checks but there might be a few extra days hold on them. I thanked the manager and deposited the checks.

  In those ancient times I got my cancelled checks returned to me with my bank statements. I went back through these cancelled checks and noticed that there were a few times where I didn’t write down who the check was for or had the wrong companies name on the check, other times I wrote down the wrong amount and the check was cleared for the amount on the bill, and a few times I didn’t even sign the check. Every one of these checks was cleared the banks - even the ones I didn’t sign. I didn’t have any problems cashing checks at that Wells Fargo branch but if I had I would have told Wells Fargo that they have been clearing checks I didn’t make out to the right people and checks I didn’t even sign.

  When I stopped working in Des Moines I deposited the checks from my chess tournaments and chess camp at the local Wells Fargo branch in Marshalltown. I still put my name on the checks that weren't made out to me and had no problems until I tried to deposit 15 checks for my chess camp last summer. Three of the checks were made out to ‘Des Moines Chess Camp’ and the rest were made out to Hank Anzis or ‘Hank Anzis – Des Moines Chess Camp’. I wrote my name on the three checks that were made out to Des Moines Chess Camp and stopped in the Marshalltown Wells Fargo to deposit the checks. The teller told me that the she wasn’t going to deposit the three checks that weren’t made out to me. I showed my chess camp flyer but the teller still wasn’t going to deposit the checks. I asked to talk to the manager but the manager was busy so I asked if I could close my account and was told to take a seat. At that point I just left.

  It was just a minor annoyance but it got me so ticked off that a bank that will take money out of my account on a check that isn’t even signed won’t let me deposit a check into my account because of a name. The branch manager that wasn’t available on Saturday sent me an email on Monday to let me know she was ‘all about customer service’ and was hoping we could resolve the issue. I sent her an email back saying the issue was resolved because I was going to find a bank that would let me deposit money in my accounts. I’ve researched this issue and it appears that the question of an improperly made out check is left to the discretion of the bank. That means the teller was in her rights to not let me deposit my checks but part of that decision is to risk losing me as a customer which they did.

  The next week I opened an account at a different bank in town using the same checks I couldn’t deposit at my bank and stopped using Well Fargo. I didn’t realize how complex banking had become in the last decade. I used to get paychecks but I’ve had them deposited in my bank account in my last four jobs so I had to change that. I also had my bank account linked to three credit cards so I could pay the credit card bills on line and I had to change those. The bank account was also linked my PayPal account among others and I had to decouple all of those. I wasn’t in a rush but by last November I was done and finally ready to close out my Wells Fargo account but I wanted to wait a few more months to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. The only thing I missed was the bank account where my tax return was going. I fixed that two weeks ago and last Friday I finally pulled the plug on Wells Fargo.

  I like my new bank and haven’t had any problems with depositing checks and until I do I’ll keep on using them. I’m not sure why Wells Fargo decided to be such jerks about depositing my checks but I have an idea. Most people would never go through the hassle of changing banks unless they absolutely had to and combined with how big Wells Fargo has become probably affords them a sense of arrogance that most other organizations couldn’t get away with. In this case they ran into one of the few people that actually would switch banks. I’ve gotten some emails and a phone call asking why I stopped using Wells Fargo and I make sure to mention the problem I had depositing checks and the name of the branch manager I had the problem with. One representative asked me what Wells Fargo could do to get my business back and I told them that all they had to do was to wait for every other bank in town to act like they did and they would be next in line.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The day I was a Boston Fan

  I got my first programming job in Florida in 1985. I was the full-time computer operator (a job that doesn’t exist anymore) and a part-time programmer with two other programmers. When one of the programmers quit I became a full-time programmer and remained the full-time computer operator and even got a 30 cent an hour raise to $7.55 an hour as part of my promotion. At the time the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour and I was thrilled because at that point it was more important to learn programming than make money and since I was working over 60 hours a week I already had plenty of money and no time to spend it. My attitude soon changed when I was promoted to a full-time programmer with an extra 25 cents an hour but no more overtime and my replacement as full-time computer operator was hired for $8.50 an hour which I only found out when I was working on some payroll reports.

  I soon made my way back to New Jersey and got a job as a full time programmer in March of 1987 at Amerex of California for a salary that worked out very close to the $8.50 an hour the Floridian computer operator was making if you don’t count the fact that I worked over 50 hours a week because I loved programming so much. I worked in a three person shop with Greg the programmer/manager and Bruce the vice president of data processing. Bruce was 20 years older than me and had written the systems I worked on. Bruce and I got along pretty well and we would talk about sports a lot. While I was interested in which team would win their division or win a game or a series Bruce was much more interested in who would win a single game along with point spreads and odds which was natural when you think about it because Bruce loved to gamble.

  Bruce would gamble on whatever sport was in season and during the summer of 1987 he would show me his bets on the baseball games and explain to me his thought processes he would use in considering the combination of the starting pitchers and odds he would get. In the fall he switched to football and hockey with horse racing a constant staple of his betting adventures. Bruce was really smart and had an excellent memory. He was a great card player and had a big money Friday night poker game that he said funded his weekly bets. I think he won his bets most weeks but there were some occasions that he would ask me what I thought about the Monday Night Football game and mention he needed to win his bet to ‘catch up’.

  I had my first personal computer at Amerex. It has a 10 megabyte hard disk drive and two floppy disk drives that provided another 720 kilobytes of portable storage. All together this amount of storage wouldn’t be enough to save a picture from today’s digital cameras but back then it was a lot of storage and allowed unheard of freedom and flexibility. I dabbled in a program called Dbase which was a database program that allowed users to make data tables and write programs to manipulate them. In the fall of 1987 I entered the first two months of NBA scores and betting lines into a Dbase table. There was no internet and I got my data from newspapers or radio. It wasn’t a trivial task because west coast scores weren’t reported in the morning papers and hardly mentioned on the sports reports but after two months I had my data and started work on a program to pick basketball games.

  My program measured team’s margin of victory in their home and road games and predicted a winner with a margin of victory. I then compared my results to the actual results and the betting lines. I experimented with weightings to favor more recent results and eventually came up with a system that I felt comfortable worked. When my assessment was 5 points different that the betting line I was right on 58% percent of my predictions, when my assessment was 3 to 5 points different I was right 53% percent of the time and when my assessment was under a three point difference I was only right 49% of the time.

  This year’s Super Bowl betting saw the Patriots as a two to three point favorite two weeks before the game but as the betting public bet their money on Seattle the bookmakers had the Patriots giving less points to attract betting on the Patriots. This is because the bookmakers don’t want to gamble on a game – they want a guaranteed profit and they get that by having an equal amount of money on both sides of a bet. The profit is guaranteed because straight bets like the point spread or the over/under generally carry a 10 percent penalty for losing bets. This is called the ‘vigorish’ and is the bookmaker’s commission for matching the bets and ensures a profit as long as bets are equally made on both sides of a proposition.

  This means two very important things to gamblers and prognosticators. First, any betting system needs 11 winning bets for every 10 losing bets to make up for the vigorish. This works out to a 52.4 winning percentage just to break even. Second, the goal isn’t to beat the bookmakers but to find and exploit the betting biases in the gambling population that distort the point spreads or over/under numbers. My system being 53% correct with a 3 to 5 point variance was just barely enough to break even and could leave me a loser when betting a small number of games. The 58% success rate when my system strongly disagreed with the point spread was something worth pursuing with the only red flag being that my system only spit out this type of disagreement a few times a week.

  In the first two weeks of 1988 my system came up with seven games that were bet-able and was right five of the seven times. Bruce knew I was working on the system in my spare time and one Friday morning he asked if there was a game I recommended to bet on that day. The lowly Sacramento Kings were in Boston to take on the mighty Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish. The Celtics had just defeated the Detroit Pistons by almost 40 points at home while the Kings had won only one road game all year. The Celtics were 24 point favorites and my system predicted a 32 point victory. I asked Bruce if he would put $50 on the Celtics for me. Bruce said he would if he could get ahold of his bookie. At quitting time on Friday I asked Bruce if he had gotten ahold of his bookie and he said he did but instead of just putting $50 on the Celtics he put a couple thousand dollars on them since he needed to catch up on a bad week.

  I drove home in a cold sweat never expecting my boss’s boss to bet what for me would have been a couple month’s pay based on my little Dbase program. ESPN was a regional cable network at that time and I didn’t have cable TV anyway so to keep track of the scores I switched between New York’s only sports station WFAN with their reports at the top of the hour and 20 minutes after and 20 minute before the hour, WCBS new radio 880 with sports reports at 15 and 45 past the hour, and 1010 news radio WINS with sports reports 10 past each half hour.

  The first report came with the Celtics grabbing a 20 point lead in the first quarter but then the Kings cut it to a dozen 20 minutes later. By the next report the game was at halftime with the Celtics back to a 20 point lead which grew to 40 in the third quarter. I was feeling pretty good and considering the prospects of a promotion when the next report had the Kings cutting the lead to 18 in the fourth quarter. I started scanning the want ads in the newspaper for programming jobs when the next report had the Celtics with a 26 point lead with a few minutes left. I had my heart in my stomach waiting for the final score but the sports report gave the hockey scores and only noted the winners of the basketball games. I waited another 20 minutes and finally the score came and the Celtics won by well over 24 points. I let out a huge sigh of relief and went to bed a happy person.

  When I got to work on Monday Bruce had my $50 and I was expecting some congratulations for helping him break even for the week and maybe even a tip but instead Bruce said “I told my poker game how I had this genius working for me and that he figured out a basketball system. Then I told them about the bet I made on the Celtics giving 24 points and they made fun of me all night.” I asked why and Bruce said, “They told me that only an idiot or a Boston fan ever gives that many.” I pointed out that the bet won and Bruce said “Yeah, but these guys killed me all night at the poker game. They called all my bluffs because they thought since I was stupid enough to give 24 points with the Celtics that I was probably stupid enough to be bluffing!”

  Bruce never asked me for any sports advice after that and I stopped entering the data into the dBase program soon after but I never forgot the day I was the biggest Celtics fan there ever was.

  I've thought from time to time about resurrecting my basketball picking program but there's no need to at the moment thanks to my 4-1 mark last week which boosted my record to 12-2 over the last three weeks and padded my winnings to 310 mythical dollars - a big improvement from the $570 hole I found myself in three weeks ago. In the last three weeks I've done well picking good teams at home to cover the spread against bad teams and picking against teams playing on the second night of a back to back. There are no teams playing back to back and few pushovers on the road in tonights well-balanced schedule. On Wednesday afternoon I thought I had everything figured out, - Boston and Phoenix were hot, Portland was cold, and Brooklyn was playing poorly at home. Then on Wednesday night, Portland won a gritty road game at Utah, Phoenix was awful at home against Sacramento, and an injury plagued Miami Heat team won in Boston. Nonetheless I see some opportunities for profit on tonight's slate and as usual I'll be making my picks using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only.

Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets
I picked against the Nets at home last week and was punished with my lone setback in the last two weeks when they beat the Milwaukee Bucks in double overtime. The Nets have won five out of their last seven to put them on the periphery of the Eastern Conference playoff race but the Cavaliers are playing at a championship level and I'll pick them to take the road contest and will lay the 8.5 points to win $100.

Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs
On Tuesday the Mavericks fell behind early but outscored the Spurs by 20 in the middle two quarters to win easily in Dallas. I think the Spurs will have something to prove to their home crowd and will pick them to win by more than the 8.5 points on a $100 bet.

Portland Trailblazers at Phoenix Suns
The injury plagued Trailblazers just broke their five game losing streak while the Suns had their four game winning streak snapped in an awful home loss to the lowly Kings. I predict the Suns will rebound from their putrid performance and beat Portland to win me $100 and I even get a point.

Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies
When these two teams met in December, the Grizzlies won by seven at home but the Warriors were without big men Andrew Bogut and David Lee. The Warriors will have these two for tonight's game to battle Memphis bigs Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and are getting 3.5 points besides so I will take the Warriors and the points for a $100 wager.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mine all Mine

  Before I get started on the main topic of this post I wanted to weigh in on the ongoing staggeringly popular NCAA Basketball tournament that generates BILLIONS of dollars in revenue (see it here)...

  Unlike most of America I didn’t fill out a bracket sheet for this month’s NCAA March Madness mens basketball tournament. Like most of America I watched a large sampling of the first two rounds this past weekend. The big storyline this year is whether the Kentucky Wildcats will win the championship and have the first perfect college basketball season in 39 years. I got to see Kentucky play for the first time this year on Saturday against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Kentucky is very long but not very beefy and were getting pushed around by the very physical Bearcats for most of the first half. What I liked about the Wildcats was that instead of settling for jump shots in the face of a physical challenge they kept bringing the ball inside first and only tried to score from outside when the lane was closed. Cincinnati was unable to sustain their effort for a full 40 minutes and lost by a fairly respectable 13 points. I like the way Kentucky faced up to the physical challenge and I think they will win this tournament and take their place among the best NCAA teams of all time. There is the possibility their season could be undone by a hot three point shooting team but those teams tend to disappear as the tournament goes on since it is exceedingly hard to win game after game with long range shooting. I’ll put my money on the team that can get the ball inside for easy baskets every time and be right more than I’m wrong.

The four door Chevy Spark on the left has the same VIN number than the one on the right but there is a difference. The Spark on the left belonged to Bob Brown and then to me and a finance company while the one on the right is all mine as of last week.

  I’ve had my 2013 Chevy Spark for a little less than two years. When I got the car I put no money down and signed up for a 60 month loan with a payment of $249 a month which included the taxes and a 100,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty. The interest rate on my loan was 2.44% which was outstanding but getting the loan at a term of 60 months was silly on my part. I travel over 100 miles a day to and from work. After three years my car is looking at 90,000 miles and it’s time to think about getting a new car so a five year loan leaves me with two years to pay for a car with 90,000 miles on it. I’ve taken three year loans on all my other work cars and still don’t understand why I set up a five year loan this time around. I set up my payments to be automatically made online with the first payment on July 8, 2013.

  By September 8th 2013, I'd made three car payments and wasn’t seeing much of a dent in how much I owed to pay off my car. A couple of weeks later I got some checks for helping people who still use the shoe store software I wrote years ago and instead of buying a new TV or some chess books or anything else I deposited the checks in the bank and made an online payment towards my car. That made a small but visible dent in my car loan so whenever I got paid for supporting the legacy shoe store software I put it towards paying off my car.

  In December of 2013 I set a goal to pay off my car by May of 2016 (three years from when I took out the loan). To that end I increased the automatic monthly payment from $249 to $325 and I started putting all my extra money towards the car. I got a check from my father in law as a Christmas gift and it went towards my car. I put in some extra time at work (I don’t get paid overtime or even straight time but I do get some time) and I put that towards my car.

  Once 2014 started it was more of the same and more. At work we got a profit sharing bonus and it went to my car along with my shoe store money. Then I was assigned to work at a bank on the other side of Des Moines for most of the year. I got a few dollars a day in mileage reimbursement for driving across town. The reimbursement would get deposited in my bank account once a week and once a week I forwarded it towards my car loan. Even though it was just a few dollars at a time I took a lot of enjoyment in watching the loan balance go down and each time I erased a month’s payment from the end of the loan was like a mini-celebration. Just a week before the 2014 elections, I got a $79 check from Iowa’s incumbent attorney general Tom Miller for a class action lawsuit for some distress I apparently suffered during some telemarketing calls. It was a win-win situation since Miller won re-election and I got to put another $79 towards my car loan.

  Slowly but surely every little bit added up and by March of 2014 I was on pace to meet my goal by just making my automatic payment but I was on a roll. Each night I put my change in a giant jar. Once a year I cash in my change jar but this year I put my change jar towards my car. I kept on putting my gas and shoe store support money towards my car and by the end of 2014 I was on pace to be finished by September of 2015. Then in March I got another profit sharing bonus from work and combined with some of my tax return I made the last payment on my Chevy Spark 22 months after I bought the car and 20 months after my first payment in July of 2013.

  What did I learn from my 18 month quest to pay off my car loan early? I learned a lot about discipline. I could easily have taken a few dollars of my found money and bought a book or had a nice lunch but I didn’t. And I didn't miss the found money since it was found and not something I ever counted on. I’ve known a lot of people that would spend their found money two or three times and be worse off than if they hadn’t any found money in the first place. I’ve been there myself but for the last year and a half I was able to take my found money and put it to a single goal. The other thing I learned is that between occasional gas reimbursements, tax refunds, bonuses, change jars, and supporting my old shoe store software I get a lot more ‘found money’ than I thought I did. Now that my car is paid for the big question to my mind is will I let my found money drip through my fingers or be able to find another good use for it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

My Inner Ripken

  On September 20, 1998 Cal Ripken didn’t play in the Baltimore Orioles home game against the New York Yankees. Normally a player sitting out a game wouldn’t cause a ripple but this was the first game in the Orioles' last 2,633 games that Ripken hadn’t played in. It was the longest consecutive games streak in baseball history. The funny thing was that most of the fans and even many of the Yankee players didn’t know the streak was going to end until the game was underway although it because the top story on the ESPN news crawl once it was realized that the streak was ending. I never thought too much of the Orioles – they seemed too perfect with the ‘Oriole Way’ and manager Earl Weaver’s tantrums and boasting about how his style of waiting for three run homers was the only winning strategy and star pitcher Jim Palmer and his jockey shorts commercials but I loved watching Brooks and Frank Robinson and thought Paul Blair was the greatest defensive center fielder I ever saw. I never feared Ripken when the Yankees played the Orioles and certainly wouldn’t take him over Derek Jeter despite his 2 MVP awards which included the 1991 award as a member of the 67-95 Orioles over Cecil Fielder and his 44 home runs for the second place 84-78 Tigers. I’m not bashing Ripken’s award but in 1990 Fielder became the first person in 13 years to hit 50 homers for the 79-83 third place Tigers yet finished second in the MVP voting to Rickey Henderson because Henderson played on a winning team. I’m not saying Ripken didn’t deserve the MVP award – I’m saying he didn’t deserve it as much as Fielder given the standards of the time.

  To much less fanfare than the end of Cal Ripken’s streak I didn’t have a youth chess tournament in the Des Moines area in February so my streak of 49 straight months with a tournament is over. Attendance at my tournaments has been very uneven this school year. I had the most participants I ever had for a September tournament, the least ever for an October tournament, then the most ever for November and December tournaments.

  I thought I had an upswing going but then I had the lowest January number ever and as icing on the cake I only had two players in the rated (or advanced) section in the afternoon. And the little icing flower on the icing on the cake was that one of the players that was playing in the rated section was Seth from Marshalltown who came with me to help me set up and play for free. I had Seth play the other player in a match but the parents who drove their child down to the tournament were disappointed and I don't blame them since I was not able to deliver the tournament that I advertised.

  My work trip to California in February was a small factor but not a major one in skipping the month. I figured that since my January tournament was late in the month and poorly attended there was no point in rushing a tournament in three or four weeks just to say that I have a tournament every month. I spend about six hours in a month preparing for each tournament and another 13 hours on the tournament day and while I’m sure I put those 20 hours to good use I can’t point to anything that I did with the extra time. In fact, I didn’t notice any measurable extra free time in February.

  I didn’t announce that I wasn’t having a February tournament. I wondered if anyone would notice and I got two emails late in the month asking when my next tournament was. When I set up the March tournament I wanted to avoid parents bringing their children for a rated tournament that I might or might not be able to provide. I made the tournament unrated only with the mention that if enough players wanted a rated tournament I’d offer one. I did have five players for a rated tournament in the morning but in the afternoon I had one player who wanted to play in a rated tournament so I had him play Chandler (who I brought from Marshalltown to help me set up) a two game match. It was again a bummer not to have many players for a rated tournament but at least this month I didn’t advertise something I couldn’t deliver.

  Even without many rated players the attendance in March was just three off the best March attendance I’ve ever had. I don’t understand the exodus of rated players but I don’t have to understand it. I’m getting more unrated players than ever before at the tournaments which means to me that the are still performing a useful function for a large group of players. I have some sadness at the ending of my streak but at the same time it is liberating in a way I couldn’t have predicted. I’m heading to Okoboji to direct the super Okoboji Open tournament for my friends Jodene Kruse and Sam Smith next month and don’t have to set up an April youth tournament just for the sake of a streak or to uphold a tradition. It might be the same feeling Sarah Connor had at the end of the iconic film ‘Terminator 2’ when she said “The unknown future rolls toward us.”

  One streak I hope will never end is my current streak of basketball predictions. After a stellar 4-0 mark last week I have gone 7-1 over the last two weeks and find myself rounding into playoff form with 20 mythical dollars on the plus side. As usual I'll be making my picks using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only. Tonight's games feature three quality matchups (Hawks vs. Thunder, Grizzlies vs. Mavericks, and Raptors vs. Bulls) but I am going to plumb the depths of the NBA and pick four playoff teams to cover against non-playoff opponents and also pick against the league-worst Knicks who make any team look like a playoff contender.

New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers
The league-worst Knicks were on cloud 9 after beating the defending champion Spurs on Tuesday but after a disheartening loss to the league second-worst Timberwolves last night won't be able to cope with the athletic and rested 76ers team on a short road trip to Philly. I'll lay the 6 and a half points and put $100 on the 76ers.

Denver Nuggets at Miami Heat
The Nuggets are travelling from a game in Houston last night to the east coast for a game in Miami against the rested Heat. I look for the Heat to build on their big win against Portland Wednesday and cement their precarious playoff position and will give the 7 points on a $100 bet.

Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets
I don't like picking road teams but will make an exception for the Bucks as they will be desperate to break their four game losing streak against the disintegrating Nets. It doesn't hurt that Bucks coach Jason Kidd really likes sticking it to the Nets team he coached last year until he lost a power struggle with GM Billy King. I'll give the Nets 2 and a half points and take the Bucks on a $100 wager.

Washington Wizards at Los Angeles Clippers
Despite the Wizards road win over the red hot Utah Jazz on Wednesday I don't think they'll be able to match up with the Clippers now that Blake Griffin has returned from his staph infection to provide some front court help for DeAndre Jordan and will lay the 6 and a half points on a $100 bet.

Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs
After their embarrassing loss at the hands of the league worst Knick on Tuesday the defending champion Spurs beat the Milwaukee Bucks by 11 on the road on Wednesday and return home to meet the resurgent Celtics. I think the Spurs will put be buoyed by their fanatical home crowd and win this game in a blowout so I'll lay the 9 points to win $100.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gas Attack

  From the Republican Governors Association website circa 2013 (here is the link):
“This tax day, Iowans will get to keep more of their hard-earned money thanks to Governor Terry Branstad, who signed the state’s largest tax cut in history. Governor Branstad’s tax cut is expected to provide Iowans with $4 billion in property tax relief over the next decade. Branstad’s opponent, Jack Hatch, wants to raise taxes on Iowans and proposed increasing the state’s gas tax. It’s clear Iowa should stick with the governor who has a record of putting Iowans’ hard-earned money back in their own pockets.” – RGA Communications Director Gail Gitcho

  Like it says above in June of 2013 Iowa’s Republican Governor Terry Branstad signed a 4 BILLION DOLLAR property tax relief bill into law. I’m normally in favor of reducing my taxes and I am a property owner but my property taxes went up and not down. Maybe I don't own the right kind of property since there was no relief for me. In 2014 Branstad was running for governor and his opponent Jack Hatch was in favor of a 10 cent gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge improvements. Branstad easily won his reelection and proving my long held belief that there is no such thing as more than one political party proceeded to champion and sign a 10 cent gas tax increase to pay for road and bridge improvements. The bill was signed two weeks ago and the new tax is expected to raise 215 million dollars annually.

  While I still haven’t seen any of my 4 BILLION DOLLAR property tax relief, I saw the 10 cent increase in gas prices within a week after Branstad signed the bill. In defending the bill Branstad called the tax hike a ‘true user fee’. State Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville voted for the tax increase saying in finest policitalese “The question is, is critical infrastructure needed, and is it needed right now.”. The new tax passed with largely bipartisan support and I could have quoted lots of comments but I'll restrict myself to these two.

  I’m sure the recent low gas prices emboldened Republicans and Democrats alike to take ‘more of their hard-earned money’ from the pockets of Iowans and Governor Branstad likely won’t be running for another term as governor and won’t have to defend this money grab. Personally I’m pretty fired up about the rationale for raising the price of gasoline in order to pay for a crumbling infrastructure.

  Iowa has been collecting 22 cents per gallon of gas sold in the state for the last 25 years. Where has that money been going? Did Iowa’s infrastructure situation get critical overnight or over the past year? Of course is hasn’t but the elected officials have found some other uses for the 400 million dollars a year they currently collect. How could Governor Branstad and the rest of Iowa’s elected officials pass a so called 4 billion dollar property tax cut when the state’s infrastructure is in such critical condition that a 200 million dollar tax hike is needed? Wouldn’t cutting taxes by only 2 billion dollars leave enough money to fix the infrastructure without having to raise taxes?

  I understand Governor Branstad’s comment about the new tax being a ‘true user fee’ but just because I understand it doesn’t mean it makes any sense to me. Yes I use the roads but what about people with electric cars? Where is their user fee? Is there a waiver for people buying gasoline for lawnmowers or snowmobiles that don’t use the infrastructure? The entire state benefits from having good roads not just people that buy gasoline. When counties across the state exercised their option to raise their local sales taxes the most vociferous arguments I heard for its adoption was that communities would be big winners because there were so many people from other areas that would make purchases and leave their sales tax money behind (the local option tax has since been usurped by the state and pooled among participating communities). Any community that is getting extra sales tax money from incoming travelers would benefit from any infrastructure improvements but don’t have to pay for the improvements.

  I would expect a ‘true user fee’ to apply the extra gas tax revenues on where the most traffic is. A likely candidate would be the Des Moines mixmaster which is by far the most traveled roads in the state - but NO. The first major road improvement is to make 30 miles of Highway 20 in northwest Iowa a four lane road. I haven’t been able to find out exactly how much the completion costs but I did find an article saying that converting an 11 mile stretch of route 20 to a four lane road will cost 82 million dollars and that 29 more miles will remain 2 lanes which leads me to an estimate of nearly 300 million dollars to finish the road. That’s over a year of the increased revenues going to a part of the state where less than 15 percent of the people live. It doesn’t sound like a ‘true user fee’ to me.

  And as long as I’m talking about ‘true user fees’ or user fees in general since when does the government run on user fees? Are school costs covered by taxes on people with school age children? No, but money from the Iowa Lottery is used to build schools. Marshalltown is going to have a vote on whether or not to raise property taxes to fund a bond issue for the library. If it passes I’ll have to pay for the bond issue. Why isn’t the library funded by user fees? If true user fees were important I would expect grocery stores to pay more taxes for food stamps ... I mean Electronic Benefit Transfer cards since they reap the profits from the food being sold and government workers to pay their fair share of all the rules and regulations that give them their jobs in the first place. And while I'm at it, shouldn't handicapped people be made to pay for any costs incurred by the Americans With Disabilities Act? OK I know I'm being a bit absurd but there is very little in the government that is paid for by 'user fees'.

  Having good roads and bridges in the state and more specifically a four lane highway in a desolate stretch of western Iowa isn’t seen as a benefit to the people of the state in general but only as a benefit to the ‘users’ that must be paid for in the form of gasoline fees. No one can explain why a state that spends 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year on its road system (it really does - you can read it here) has 27 percent of its urban roads in disrepair and I don’t have any confidence that and extra 200 million dollars is going to change anything. Now that the bill is passed and the price of gasoline has increased the big winners will be the people who own road construction companies that will probably eat up the extra revenue with their own price increases and the next time gas hits a decade low the Iowa legislature will hike the gas tax again and cite the reason for the hike as the deteriorating conditions of the state’s roads and bridges.

  I was discussing the new gas tax with a coworker and they said ‘There’s nothing you can do about it but pay.’ That’s true for the most part and I’ll be paying an extra 80 dollars or so to the State of Iowa instead of spending it in the State of Iowa. But there is a couple of things I can do. I don’t normally vote for any candidates from the major parties. I’ve never voted for Governor Branstad and probably won’t be able to ever vote against him but I will vote for the Democratic candidate for Governor from now on. My local Democratic representative is a Democrat and I have voted for him in the past because he has pointed people to my chess club but from now on I’ll be sure to vote for his opponent. Not that voting for either party really makes a difference but I’ll treat it as my Tums or Rolaids gas attack remedy.

  As if paying extra for gasoline in order to expand roads in Northwest Iowa wasn't enough, I got to contribute even more money when I was tagged for a speeding ticket this week. I was clocked at 76 in a 65 mile per hour zone on route 65 north where going 75 miles an hour will get you passed by every other car on the road. I was going to suggest to the trooper that was writing my ticket that he could follow our elected officials and raise highway money that way but then I remembered the last person who tried to give Governor Branstad a speeding ticket got fired for his trouble (you can read about it here).

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Great Meal on any Day

  Almost every Saturday I go with Kathy on a round trip to the Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift stores where she looks for additions to her Christmas Candle collection and lunch at the local Taco John’s and in between we stop at the Hy-Vee Drug Store. When I first moved to Marshalltown the store was simply called ‘Drug Town’ which was short and catchy but probably not a name you would want to have parents tell their children they are going to. We stop at the Hy-Vee Drug Store to check lottery tickets, buy popcorn from the Lions Club popcorn stand, and to check on what bargains are on sale. Most of the time there aren’t any special bargains but in the past I’ve gotten 15 stick packs of Wrigley Gum for 44 cents, packs of 24 beef sticks for 11 dollars, and apple juice for $1.16 a half gallon. Two years ago I had the chance to buy instant oatmeal for 25 cents a box although I passed since I consider oatmeal the vilest food in the universe but that’s a topic for another day.

  I didn’t have to wait long to find a bargain last Saturday at the Hy-Vee Drug Store. The entrance aisle had cases and cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac on sale at the low price of three for a dollar. Kathy and I waked around the store and got the popcorn and walked past the cases and cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac. We were almost out the door when I turned around, grabbed three boxes of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac, paid my dollar at the register, and rejoined Kathy and headed to Taco John’s where I paid $5 for a Taco Salad which is good but just a couple of unshelled tacos dumped in a big taco shell bowl when you get right down to it.

  I spent the rest of Saturday afternoon wondering why the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac was so inexpensive. Normally the Hy-Vee Drug Store has items like this on sale for at least a dollar. I considered that perhaps there was a negative connotation with the word ‘Velveeta’ which is a ‘Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product’ and not real cheese and that this sale was a way of Kraft to get rid of a failed product. I also considered that Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac might taste really awful. I decided I would have a bowl of the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac for dinner and see for myself.

The 2013 Chevy Spark mistook my Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac for a passenger...

  After Daisy and Baxter’s 6pm walk I took one of my three Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac boxes, read the instructions, and pulled the self-contained bowl out of the box. I detached the pouch of ‘Liquid Gold’ (Velveeta) and attempted to carefully peel some of the plastic cover off of the bowl. I soon discovered why the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac was on sale – the plastic cover was glued on so tight that neither Kathy nor I could peel it off. After a few minutes I took out my handy pocket knife and cut off a piece of the plastic cover. I popped the bowl in the microwave for one minute, opened the pouch of Velveeta and squeezed it into the bowl, and mixed the ‘pasteurized prepared cheese product’ into the noodles, red beans, and tiny pieces of chicken that occupied the bowl.

  I wouldn’t say the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac was the best meal I’ve ever had but it was pretty good. While the only ‘chili’ was a few red beans and there wasn’t very much chicken there was enough chicken to give the macaroni and cheese some flavor and the Velveeta wasn’t overpowering the rest of the bowl as Velveeta tends to do. The package weighed 9 ounces and I was full after I ate it and didn’t feel overstuffed. I’d have to say I enjoyed the Taco John’s Taco Salad I had for lunch more but I didn’t enjoy the taco salad twice as much and I paid 15 times more for the Taco Salad then the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac!

Trying to divine the secret to Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac's low price.

  On Sunday I only had two boxes of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac left so I headed back to the Hy-Vee Drug Store to get some more while I was mailing my Iowa Tax return at their postal station. After mailing my return, I grabbed 4 cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac (each containing six boxes) , headed to the counter, and $8 later was packing four cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac into the passenger seat of my Chevy Spark. The four cases fooled my Spark into thinking I had a passenger and tripped the passenger seat belt warning so I pulled over and put a seat belt on my four cases of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac and we all safely made it home.

  Once home, I carried the four cases into the house and began a more detailed inspection to find out why the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac was so inexpensive aside from the superglued plastic bowl cover. I looked at the case and noticed that while it was inspected for wholesomeness by the USDA there was no mention of it passing the inspection. Then I saw the outside of the box said to not reuse the tray and the cheese pouch was made from ‘real cheese’ while the ingredients clearly showed there was more canola oil than cheese in the sauce.

Upon further review the low price is a dating issue!

  I had made up my mind that I was going to have to pass on the 26 boxes of Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac since it hadn’t been deemed wholesome by the USDA inspection, the tray was so toxic it couldn’t be reused, and the cheese sauce wasn’t made from real cheese when Kathy looked at one of the cases and said ‘You can’t use them in three weeks.’ Sure enough the case clearly said ‘Use by 26 Mar 2015’ so I was OK as long as I made sure to eat at least one a day and two every other day.

  I was just about to get started when I saw that the boxes inside the case said ‘Best if used by 26 Mar 2015’ so I put the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac away and had one for dinner Sunday and took one to work on Wednesday to eat.

Three steps to a 33 cent lunch!

  I don’t especially care if my Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac is at their best when I eat them. After all, they only cost 33 cents and at that price I’m sure it would taste great in March of 2016 or 2017. I attracted a lot of attention when I cooked my Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac at the company break room on Wednesday. I’m not sure if it was because of the Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac or the fact that I was taking pictures of the process.

  I might have had to make Kraft Velveeta Chicken Chili Cheese Mac a permanent dietary staple if I had continued to tank in my basketball picks but after beating the odds on all three of my money line picks last week I'm at a manageable $380 mythical dollars in the red heading into tonight's rather lackluster slate of nine game of which only one features two likely playoff teams. As usual I'll be making my picks using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only.

Los Angeles Clippers at Dallas Mavericks
The Clippers looked great in their 20 point beatdown of the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday but I think they will be looking past the struggling Mavericks towards Sunday's nationally televised home game against the Houston Rockets and will pick the Mavericks taking the 2 and a half points to the tune of $100.

Sacramento Kings at Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers have looked competitive on their recent home stand while the Kings are in the midst of an 8 game road trip. I expect the 76ers to win outright but will take the four points as insurance with a $100 bet.

Detroit Pistons at Portland Trailblazers
The Pistons are on an 8 game losing skid and I look for the Trailblazers to give them a ninth straight loss after their impressive win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. I don't want to lay the 8 and half points so I'll put $325 on the moneyline to pick up $100 if the pistons lose.

Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets
The Warriors are 'resting' all stars Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as well as center Andrew Bogut and sixth man Andre Iguodala while the Nuggets have won four of six since firing head coach Brian Shaw. The Nuggets are 1 and a half point favorite and I expect them to continue the 'dead cat bounce' and win a game the Warriors are treating as an exhibition and bet $100 that they win and cover.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

One Minute Legends

  Last week I wrote about my enjoyment of one minute chess on the Internet Chess Club (ICC) and mentioned that there are many ‘playground legends’ of one minute chess. At any given moment some of the best players in the world are playing one minute chess on the ICC or one of their many competitors in online chess like,, or

  The best one minute chess player on the planet is likely American Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. He has even co-authored a book on one-minute chess called ‘Bullet Chess – One Minute to Mate’ in which he provides commentary on one minute chess games and dispenses helpful advice on how to stay ahead on the clock, create swindling chances in losing positions, and what type of cheap tricks work best on one-minute chess. Nakamura used to be a regular on the ICC where he goes by the handle ‘CaplianoBridge’. He has gravitated towards and goes by the simple handle of ‘Hikaru’ where is the number one ranked player. His games draw hundreds of viewers who cheer for him when he plays online.

  There are plenty of grandmasters that play on ICC but don’t disclose their identities. National Master Jerry from ‘Chess Network’ video fame is rumored to play on ICC under the name of ‘HypnoticSpecter’ but that player’s profile notes doesn’t say who it is which makes me wonder if it really is ‘Chess Network’ since he seems to be too much of a promoter for his YouTube channel to not mention it on ICC.

  I like to watch one minute games on the ICC when I get the chance. On Sunday morning super GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (Mateus) was logged in and played six one-minute games, winning all of them. Mateus’ last two games were against VerdeNotte who is British GM Gawain Jones. I’ll pick out whatever grandmaster or international master is playing and follow their games and if I get interrupted I can see the end of the game in a few seconds and deal with the interruption later.

  One player I never follow when I’m on line is International Master John Bartholomew. That’s not because his games aren’t interesting – it’s because he commentates his games and publishes them to his YouTube channel which is where I watch them. I’ve gotten to meet John at the Okoboji Open and watch the videos of his one minute chess sessions each morning because his commentary is excellent and I learn a lot about chess in general and one minute chess in particular by watching them. As an added bonus John and I both play the Center Counter (or Scandinavian) Defense and I’ve picked up valuable tips just watching John’s aggressiveness in playing the defense and his specific move orders to bypass some tricks his opponents throw at him.

  John also records daily videos of his three, five, and fifteen minute battles where he provides post game in depth analysis. I prefer the one minute sessions because I can see up to a dozen games in one sitting with commentary. I’m in awe of how he bounces back from losses, keeps fighting in desperate situations, and never gets panicky even when down to a few seconds on his clock. And he’s doing all this while playing some of the best players in the world. John has so much fun in these videos that I fail to see how anyone watching them wouldn’t get the itch to play some one-minute chess themselves.

A sample of International Master John Bartholomew's one minute chess commentary and prowess.

  John is normally in the top 10 to 20 players on the ICC one minute rankings. Two weeks ago he went on a huge run and got his rating to #3 in the rankings. The top rated player is an anonymous untitled player called ‘Multicast’ whose one minute rating is astronomical. Multicast sometimes lets his (or her) opponent win in a few moves by leaving his king open for the ‘Fools Mate’ and other times gives away material in the beginning of the game but then completely outplays the opponent and wins easily. It seems obvious that Multicast is either a super strong player or a clever computer programmed to allow its opponents chances in the opening. There is rampant speculation that Multicast is none other than World Champion Magnus Carlsen which was fueled by a reddit article and comment on John’s video listing Multicast’s IP address as coming from Carlsen’s home country of Norway.

  I don’t know if multicast is Magnus Carlsen or not. It wouldn’t surprise me if the world champ wanted to play bullet chess for recreation and also remain anonymous since every loss using his own name would be plastered all over the internet. In any event it makes for a great story and fun speculation.

  If Carlsen is playing anonymously on the ICC he wouldn’t be the first world champion to do so. Former champion Garry Kasparov admitted to playing chess anonymously on the internet. An ICC insider wrote up his recollections of Kasparov’s online adventures here.

  15 years ago former world champion challenger Nigel Short claimed to have played former world chess champion and all time champion nut case Bobby Fischer in a series of three minute games on the server. As with all things Fischer, this led to near universal speculation about Fischer’s playing strength and whether he was planning another comeback in addition to the discussion of whether it was really Fischer at all. The talk petered out when Fischer did not make an online reappearance. Since Fischer’s passing in 2008, there has been no talk of him returning from the dead to play online chess but I think chess players everywhere understand that the prospect is only one unfounded rumor away from going viral.

  Once I got to writing about one minute chess I naturally felt the insatiable need to play some one minute chess myself. I have been slowly approaching my all-time high ICC one minute rating of 1606 that I set in January 2013 (and chronicled in this post). Monday morning saw me 41 points short of my goal after this nice game against lisa1.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  Lisa1 consistently runs me out of time and has a 55% score against me so when I turned the tables I knew I could be on the road to something special. I worked myself up to 1586 with this game before I had to leave for work.

  When I got home from work I went with Kathy, Daisy, and Baxter on our evening walk and resumed my quest after dinner. After a messy and undeserved win on the clock in a game where I won on time after my opponent missed a mate in two and my hanging queen I found myself nine points away from a personal best with only a player named souledge in my way.


What was my secret to my new all-time high one minute chess rating? Aside from learning from John's videos I think my new profile picture may have had a distracting effect on my opponents...

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Quick Rebuttal

  There are quite a few things I don’t like about President Obama’s job performance. I like the idea of universal health care but his implementation of it has left the insurance companies with guaranteed profits and individuals on the hook for massive premiums, deductibles, and co-pays. I don’t think much of the idea of providing people who have come to this country illegally a ‘path to citizenship’ - I believe that only incentivizes people to come into the country illegally since if they can just hang around long enough they will also gain a ‘path to citizenship’.

  Speaking of immigration, I really dislike the idea of this President or any President deciding which laws to prosecute and which ones not to prosecute. President Obama’s decision not to prosecute illegal aliens is lauded by many but will a future president decide not to prosecute hate crimes, human trafficking, or murdering people you disagree with? It sounds silly today but gay marriage being a constitutional right sounded silly 15 years ago to, didn’t it?

  There are also some things I really like about President Obama’s job performance. When he took office in 2008 I was working at a place where people were getting laid off or taking pay cuts and 6 years later if I lose my job I could get a new one as quick as I could snap my fingers. In 2008 I was paying for my own health insurance and was told by Blue Cross/Blue Shield that because I had a knee operation in 2006 none of my joints would be covered by my insurance. I asked if I would be covered if I were to slam a car door on my hand and break my thumb and was told that I would NOT be covered because my thumb as well as all my fingers, toes, wrists, shoulders, elbows, and ankles were classified as joints. I don’t think that coverage could be denied me anymore but since the economy is way better than it was in 2008 I probably won’t have to test that assumption for a few years.

  Another thing I like about President Obama is that he doesn’t have a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ mentality when it comes to foreign policy. Yes, Russia is invading Ukraine, Iran is trying to get a nuclear bomb, and people in the Middle East are killing each other. As minimal as our involvement is I think it is too much involvement, especially in the Middle East where burning the American Flag is a regional pastime. In answer to the people who wish we were more involved I would say that Ukraine has been getting invaded for the last thousand years, people in the Middle East have been killing each other for longer than that, and we haven’t made any progress in keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons except for the Stuxnet software attack on Iranian centrifuges. The major offensive this administration undertook in the Middle East was the use of NATO air strikes to effect a regime change in Libya and how did that work out?

  Now having said all that my wife got this email earlier this week:
Subj: FW: Breaking News - Bruce Jenner Transition Fires New Speculation
What do you think?
Wash. DC - Over the past year a rash of news stories surfaced speculating whether gold-medal winning Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner was undergoing a gender transition from male to female. Though Jenner has yet to publicly confirm the story, members of his extended family, including the Kardashian clan, have recently approached various news outlets confirming Jenner's intention.
Now it appears a number of world leaders have picked up on the story and are wondering aloud "What will happen to Jenner's balls if he completes the transition?" Sources this week quoted Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu as suggesting it would be a monumental step if Jenner were to donate his balls to U.S. President Barack Obama. Netanyahu stated "Everyone knows Obama has no balls and it would be damn nice if he suddenly had Olympic sized balls. It would be a huge step forward for world peace. ”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked " I don't even have any balls, but everyone tells me I have a bigger set than Obama. I think it would be a great idea. ”
On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Syrian President Bashar Assad in proclaiming that Obama's lack of balls has finally enabled a number of regimes worldwide a fair chance to consolidate their power. Putin, on a shirtless fly fishing expedition in Kanchatka, said "The days of U.S. Presidents with big balls like Reagan are over. Now it's our turn. “ Iranian President Hassan Rouhani remarked earlier in the week that "It's been great the last six years. It's like playing soccer against the U.S. with no goalie in their net. ”
While world leaders debate the issue, closer to home New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady stepped forward to say they would each donate one ball to the President if Jenner does not come through. Belichick, however, cautioned that "The President would have to understand, our balls would be underinflated, but still probably an improvement over what he seems to be working with."

  I know this was meant as a funny kind of email and it was sent by someone I really like who is the parent of a veteran and one of the biggest believers in Jesus Christ that I know. This person also was a big supporter of George W. Bush and absolutely hated these goofy emails that would make fun of the previous president’s perceived lack of brain power or being in the pocket of Dick Cheney or etc…. It’s kind of sad to see even normal people get caught up in partisan stupidity like this kind of emails. Don’t forget that in 2001 then President Bush said of Putin "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul." What do you think Putin is saying about Bush today? Whatever he is saying I'm sure it is with a snicker.

  I don’t understand is why anyone would think President Obama lacks fortitude (I’ll use that word instead of the spherical description). Is Osama Bin Laden dead or not? When’s the last time the pirates from Somalia made the news? President Obama was mocked for making his ‘Red Line’ comment about Syria using chemical weapons because he asked Congress to give him approval for air strikes, but Russia was quite quick to broker an out for Syria to acknowledge it had chemical weapons and offer turn them over. Does that sound like Putin thinks President Obama lacks fortitude? It sounds to me like Putin thinks the President is slow to use force but deadly when he decides to use it.

  Like I said, I agree with the President on very little and I’m not na├»ve enough to think he is not just another politician that is any different than any other politician but this email (as jokingly stupid as it was) made me wonder what the person who wrote it and the people who forwarded it were thinking.

  I am going to show my fortitude by continuing to make my basketball picks despite a 2-7 record leaving me $570 mythical dollars in the hole with six weeks before the end of the regular season. And to show how much fortitude I have I'm going to switch to the moneyline and risk some large bets on the favorites using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only.

Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks
I was treated to the game of the year on Sunday when the Houston Rockets eeked out a two point overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers that featured physical play, kicks to the groin, and a near fight. Even though the Cavaliers lost they are looking more and more like a championship team that can play with finesse or physicality so I will pick them to make a statement and beat the league-leading Hawks on the road and give the 2 points.

Detroit Pistons at Houston Rockets
The Rockets beat the Cavaliers last Sunday and nearly beat the Hawks on the road Wednesday without all-world guard James Harden while the Pistons have lost four games in a row. The Pistons beat the Rockets at home on January 31st and I expect them to hang close so I'll wager $290 on the money line for a Rockets victory.

Dallas Mavericks at Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are finally back at home after a six game road trip that saw them go 3-3 with embarrassing losses to the Nets and Pacers. The Mavericks are on the second night of back to back road games and were blown out by the Trailblazers last night. I don't care for the line of 10 points so I'll pick the money line and bet $600 to win $100 that the Warriors will win.

Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies
In this matchup of one of the worst teams in the league against one of the best, I'll give the 8-1 odds and put $800 on the Grizzlies to win $100 (assuming a Grizzlies win).

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My Addiction, My Playground

  I’m addicted to one minute chess. I’ll play a few games every morning before I go to work and sometimes I’ll play for an hour or more when I get home. My preferred platform to play on is the Internet Chess Club (ICC). I use their Dasher desktop interface which I find comfortable to use and very reliable.

  One-minute chess isn’t the same as chess at longer time controls. Sometimes the result of a game comes down to making random moves or throwing away pieces as long as it costs the other player precious fractions of a second to take them. It’s not the same game as a three hour chess game and shouldn’t be played the same way. The best explanation I’ve seen about quick chess is from International Master Greg Shahade in the video I’ve linked to below this paragraph. In this five minute game, Shahade gets an early time advantage over GM Simen Agdestein and declares his intention to play solidly, maintain his time advantage, and win the game on time. Shahade says at the 10:50 mark “I might end up losing on the board. All I care about is the win, though. That’s the point of chess is to win whatever the rules are.”

Even though this is a five minute game instead of a one minute contest, International Master Greg Shahade demonstrates the importance of time management in this video form his YouTube channel.

  On the ICC I can always find a game and there are a wide variety of players to match up against in the one minute pool but I also get to see the same opponents enough to get familiar with them. My favorite opponent is ‘butte’ who is always close enough in rating to me that we are paired up quite a bit. Butte plays the Staunton Gambit against my Dutch defense and the Albin Counter-Gambit against my Queens Gambit. We generally have the same position for the first 15 to 20 moves but I'm much quicker in making them and end up with a large time advantage. This accounts for much of my stellar 173-66 record against butte even though he normally has an objectively winning position when his time runs out. Here’s a pair of recent games we played in our series that illustrate my point:

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  On the flip side of butte is the ‘ClumsyQueen’, who I’ve played 134 times over the years. ClumsyQueen always gives away a pawn and then another and then maybe a piece and I’m always winning but in trying to win on the board I frequently forget the game is a one-muinute scramble and lose on time which has led me to a pedestrian 76-58 (57%) record when I feel I should score closer to 75% against this particular player. I can't understand why I don't win against ClumsyQueen more and I’m sure butte feels the same way about me.

  Another one of my more frequent opponents is Serg2008, who I’ve played 180 times, winning 93. Serg2008 is constantly outplaying me but takes too long to make his moves and lets me win on time far too often. What’s interesting about Serg2008 is that he is listed on ICC as International Master Sergii Pryyomov. Serg2008's ICC one-minute rating is quite low for an IM. That’s likely because he is 78 years old. I’d have no chance against him at a slower time control and for all I know when I do win it’s because he’s letting his grandson (or maybe his grandmother) use his account but I’ll take what I can get since there are plenty of other familiar faces I have little to no success against like Lumpus (14-29), Chigato (27-74), and Brawny (22-46). Even though our ratings are all pretty similar, these characters put their pieces in weird places that throw me off my game and make me use too much time. A good example is my last game against Chigato:

  I don’t know any of these players personally and couldn’t tell you who they are in real life so I avoided using the pronouns him, her, he, or she. Is Brawny a man? Is ClumsyQueen a woman? You might think so from their profiles and little avatar pictures but who really knows? Maybe someday I’ll experiment by putting pictures of different people on my profile and see what kinds of comments I get or if my opponents seem distracted.

  I’ve played one minute chess on and it is quite a different animal than the ICC. ICC is a paid membership site and a free site that allows you to pay for features. This gives has a wider pool of players to draw from but there isn’t the familiarity of playing ‘the usual suspects.’ In the ICC one minute pool you play whoever the computer matches you up against and when the game is over you need to go back into the pool for another game but on there is no ‘pool’. I can request a game and when it is over I can ask for or give a rematch to my opponent. This is good when I can catch a ‘fish’ to help me boost my rating but not so good when I am the ‘fish’ and lose game after game to the same opponent. All things considered I like the ICC pool concept.

  A problem I have with is that their platform is completely browser based and if something doesn’t load properly things get screwy. I’ve had situations where a blank square is where one of my pieces should be. If I was just missing a piece or couldn’t move the piece that would be bad enough but I can’t put any piece on or through that square until my opponent takes whatever the browser thought was there. A more frequent problem is when the sound disappears from the browser. I rely on the sound of my opponent’s move as much as visually seeing it and when there is no sound my timing is thrown off and my game soon follows my timing - off. These are trifling things and easily fixed as soon as I restart my browser but they make me prefer my one minute chess on the ICC.

  The other problem I have with is that when I replay the games I play on their server the time left isn’t saved. In December I set my personal best on in one minute chess but I don’t remember how much time my opponent and I had at any spot in the game so if I tried to show it here on my blog it would just look like a mistake-ridden game between two bad players instead of an exciting race against the clock and an opponent.

  I’ve played almost 40,000 one minute games on the ICC and am hoping to get my rating past its all-time high of 1606 that I reached over two years ago. I got up to 1521 last week on my trip to Sacramento where I had blazingly fast internet but when I got back to Marshalltown Iowa I also got back to the bane of my one minute chess life: Mediacom’s terrible internet service. I’ll be playing a game. My opponent and I are banging out moves within a second or two when all of a sudden my opponent will stop for a 10 second think. I wonder what he is thinking about and then I see it – the little red X in the corner of my screen to let me know my internet has disconnected. Then I’ll see the little gold star to let me know it’s connecting and when my attention is drawn back to the board I see my opponent has moved and I either have but a few seconds left or I have lost because I ran out of time. Sometimes this happens when I'm losing and sometimes this happens when I am a move away from a checkmate! This has happened multiple times a day for the last few months despite numerous calls to Mediacom. I searched the internet (when it wasn’t disconnecting) and found many of the same complaints I had. When my wife is watching Netflix or I’m watching YouTube videos a momentary internet disconnect doesn’t affect anything because the videos have a few extra minutes downloaded but when I’m connected to my work computer or playing one minute chess the disconnect has immediate consequences. After numerous calls to Mediacom the issue seems to be fixed (for now) and my assault on my personal best continues.

  Internet connection aside, playing one minute chess is my number one activity for fun and relaxation. It requires no commitment beyond a few minutes of my time. I am addicted to it whether I play a game like this:

  Or this:

   To compare chess to basketball, the top chess players in the world competing in big time tournaments like the London Chess Classic or the Zurich Chess Challenge is the NBA of chess; big time regional tournaments like the Okoboji Open are the NBDL developmental league; and one minute chess on the internet is playground basketball where you just show up and play whoever is there. And just as playground basketball has its ‘street legends’, one minute chess has its own legends that I will write about in a future post.