Monday, April 27, 2015

Putting the "O" in Okoboji

"Too weak, too slow" ~ Magnus Carlsen

  I arrived at the Arrowwood Inn (site of the Okoboji Open) on Friday at two in the afternoon, checked in, put my bag in the room, and headed to the playing hall. Unlike past years there was no need for me to rearrange any tables or chairs since they were laid out just the way Jodene wanted them with two chairs at each six foot table with plenty of room in between them. I just hung out, posted my Cylinder pictures on Facebook, and waited for the players to arrive.

  I had a longer wait than in years past. The last four years the tournament was fortunate enough to have International Master (and YouTube star - check out his channel by clicking here) John Bartholomew play in the tournament. John would give a simultaneous exhibition on Friday at 4:30 before the first round. John didn't play in this years’ tournament so the first round was at 6pm as scheduled with this years weekend chess activity being a blitz tournament held after the first round Friday night.

  There were 43 signups on the day of the tournament but the weather was great and several players showed up to play on the day of the tournament, including some of the players that came from Nebraska last year and the Heinisch brothers that come to play in Jackson each year. All in all there were 54 players (not counting 2 parents that helped out by giving the odd numbered player a game) which is comfortably in the upper half of the participation in the history of the Okoboji Open.

  The first round came and went and then it was time for the blitz tournament. I had been planning to play in this blitz tournament since Jodene announced it and prepared for the last month. I stopped playing 1 minute internet chess in favor of 3 minute chess and drank an Amp Focus Energy drink at eight to give it time to work its energy focusing magic on me. I did have a ginormous lunch at the Rack Shack which I took as a good omen since the last time I ate a gut busting lunch was the only time I’ve ever beaten Joe Meyer (AKA Joe from Waterloo) in a tournament game (I wrote about it here). Nonetheless, I did attempt to mitigate the effects of eating 3000+ calories in one sitting by snacking on raspberries and strawberries while the rest of the players were either travelling or playing a three to four hour chess game.

  In years past the first round of the tournament ended between 9 and 9:30. This year there were three games that lasted until 10 o'clock. This caused many of the younger players who signed up for the blitz tournament to cancel in favor of a good night’s sleep. All told we had 12 players sign up including my 2014 Iowa State Fair co-champion Bob Keating and Grandmaster Mauricio Flores and myself. Mauricio was going to start play on Saturday but arrived while the first round was going on with Riaz Khan. Riaz convinced Mauricio to play in the tournament so it would have a headline player. I was the fourth lowest ranked player in the field and by far the oldest player with 10 years on Bob and at least 25 years on all the other players. I would have settled for a 3-2 record in the five round tournamaent but I was hoping for maybe something a little better.

Joseph Wan - 0-1
  In the first round of the blitz tournament I had white against Joseph Wan, the newest super strong Iowa youth player. Joseph is an expert player and he’s not even in high school. Joseph's family came to Okoboji along with him. They seemed like a really nice all-american family and Joseph's dad Huishan even helped out by filling in to play the odd numbered player in the main tournament a couple of times. Of course at the time I sat down to play I wasn't concerned with how young Joseph was or what a nice family he had – I just wanted to play and win. Joseph played an unusual setup against my Queen’s Pawn opening, moving his bishop to b7. I knew if I moved my e4 pawn before I developed I’d lose a rook to the oddly placed bishop but just a few moves later I moved the pawn anyway and lost my rook. I managed to generate a huge attack against Joseph’s king using the open line from where my rook was captured and had my queen, remaining rook, and both knights buzzing all around Joseph’s king. In order to avert a checkmate Joseph gave up his queen for one of my knights but his king was flushed out into the center of the board. I was busy trying to figure out a way to checkmate Joseph and he wasn't moving. I thought he was looking confused and trying to figure out where the game had gone wrong for him. After what seemed like an eternity I looked at the clock to see how much time he had left and then I saw it. On my previous move I FORGOT TO HIT MY CLOCK AND I ONLY HAD A FEW SECONDS LEFT. I managed a couple of half-hearted moves before I lost on time.

  What a shock. I can't remember ever forgetting to hit my clock in a blitz game before. Someone asked me if I thought that Joseph should have told me I forgot to hit my clock and I said there was no way he should remind me – that’s blitz. Before I had time to absorb my mistake and shake it off the round was over and I had another game to play.

Will Osborne - 0-2
  My second game was against Will Osborne from Nebraska, the lowest rated player in the field. I had Black and played my center counter defense and quickly won a pawn. Will organized an attack on the dark squares on my kingside. I was ahead on the clock and thought I had a defense on the long diagonal and grabbed another pawn but Will managed to trade off my dark square bishop and then I let him cut my queen out of the action. I was soon checkmated and had an 0-2 record.

Peyton Smith - 0-3
  My third game was against the fourth lowest ranked player in the field, Minnesota teenager Peyton Smith. Peyton shared the information that he had lost his first two games on time. I can’t remember what opening we played but I remember losing a pawn and getting a minute behind on the clock early in the game. I battled back and even got my pawn back and we had an endgame with a queen and a few pawns each. I had three seconds to Peyton’s five seconds but I was checking him with my queen hoping to run him out of time or for an illegal move that would decide the game in my favor under the tournament rules. I might have pulled it off except I knocked my queen over while moving it twice in a row and lost on time while I fumbled to pick it up.

Steven Cusumano - 0-4
  With three losses under my belt and feeling pretty numb, I sat down for my next game against Steven Cusumano from Nebraska. I again lost a pawn early on and again battled back but found myself down on the clock. I kept on defending and when I was down to about 15 seconds I managed to pull off a trick and win Steven’s queen for my rook. While my clock was running down and moved my queen from h1 to check Steven’s king but couldn't find a safe square to check from and dropped the queen onto the e3 square. My chess playing readers might think a queen can't go from h1 to e3 legally and they would be right. Steven called the illegal move and the penalty for making an illegal move was the loss of the game.

Jon Reigenborn - 0-5
  SO, after four rounds of the five round tournament I was 0-4 and in the last round I played Jon Reigenborn from Nebraska who was the only player with one win I hadn't played yet. I really wanted to win this game and I had the White pieces but Jon just came at me full bore with a Benoni defense and I fell apart. I lost a pawn and then I lost a rook for a bishop and then I lost a whole rook and then I resigned.

  What a disaster! My final mark for the Okoboji Blitz was 0-5. In baseball striking out five times in a game is the 'Platinum Sombrero' - I couldn't find a chess equivalent. I wasn't just the only player not to win one game – I was the only player in the 12 man field to not win two games. I trailed the entire field by at least two points. If I was a NASCAR Driver I’d have been the one that crashes on the first turn of the first lap to finish in 43rd place. As I reflected on the tournament I realized I lost games in every way imaginable – I lost because I forgot to hit my clock, I lost when I ran out of time, I lost when I was checkmated, I lost when I made an illegal move, and I lost when I resigned. I suppose you could say I lost on time when I forgot to hit my clock and if that keeps me out of the trivia books I’m all for it.

  During the weekend I thought that I just went on tilt after my opening round mishap and maybe there’s something to that but the truth was that I just didn't play very well. Except for my second round game I was in early trouble in every game and I’d get behind on the clock and set the stage for every mess I stepped in. I hung around the tournament for around an hour setting up tables for the extra players that had arrived and feeling happy that I’d be directing for the rest of the weekend instead of playing...

Feeling a little down after my terrible blitz performance, I turned on my amazing iPod's Rhapsody music app.
This was the first song it played for me...

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Best Meal in Town

  When I got my coffee from the Casey’s General Store in Garner, Iowa I noticed that I had made excellent time and it was just a little after 11 o’clock in the morning. As I was barreling down the 2 lane stretch of Iowa Highway 18 I thought how ironic it was that I had run into road construction on this highway every year on my annual Okoboji trip except for this year - the year that Iowa politicians of both parties agreed to raise taxes on every gallon of gasoline I buy in order to fund road construction. I felt a bout of road rage coming on just thinking about the extra dime (and 32 cents in total) I now pay the state just to buy a gallon of gasoline. I wanted to be in a positive frame of mind for the Okoboji Open chess tournament so I forced myself to think that perhaps the highway planners and highway administrators were planning their family vacations with the extra money they were taking out of my pocket and how happy their families would be.

Welcome to the Rack Shack in Cylinder, Iowa...
...conveniently located on highway 18 with ample parking on both sides of the street!

  My road rage soon dissipated but my happy thoughts were interrupted when I saw a sign saying ‘Speed Change Ahead’. Then I saw the familiar sign depicting a 90 degree right hand turn with a 15 mile per hour speed limit and I knew I was in one of my favorite places – Cylinder, Iowa. Cylinder is a town of 88 people with a post office, an RV and camper dealership, a restaurant, and a bank. It is most notable for the two 90 degree turns with 15 mile an hour speed limits that are on either side of the tiny and mostly boarded up Main Street. If there was ever a town that could make a fortune from traffic cameras it is Cylinder, Iowa.

Here I am with an actual Cylinderite!
  I crossed an item off my bucket list when I met an actual Cylinderite last year. Jim Micklund (not his real name) is the parent of one of the players that attended my youth tournaments in 2014.When my friend and 4 time Iowa chess champion Tim Mc Entee found out Jim was from Cylinder he couldn’t wait to tell me and I couldn’t wait to meet him. Jim and I talked all things Cylinder for at least two minutes until we exhausted that subject and I was sure to get a picture with him to silence any doubters in case the subject of meeting people from Cylinder ever came up in a conversation which it has not up to the present time.

  It was just a few minutes after noon. In my past travels to Okoboji I’ve always stopped at Mason City for gas and food. I had already gassed up in West Des Moines and thanks to the Burger King hash brown bites I had three hours earlier I didn’t even think to stop for food. Since I was a little hungry and making great time I decided to stop in the only store on the entire Main Street of Cylinder Iowa that had a sign – The Rack Shack.

  I was expecting The Rack Shack to be the worst kind of greasy spoon and my expectations couldn’t have been more wrong. The place was much larger than it looked from outside. It was roomy and spotless with newer wood floors and nice wallpaper. There was deer heads and antlers on the walls with a few video poker type machines spread out between the bar and tables. The kitchen was in full view in back of a small bar with about 20 tables and booths of varying sizes to accommodate different size parties.

Buck and Bill have the inside scoop on all things Cylinder...

  I sat down at the bar and struck up a conversation with Buck the bartender/manager and I presume part owner. Buck said he has been involved with the Rack Shack for 7 years. There was another farmer who I think was named Bill sitting a few bar stools over and a cook wearing a John Wayne t-shirt in the back. I mentioned that I drove through Cylinder every year and that last year I tried to stop in the post office but it was closed. Bill and Buck said the post office closed at noon. I then asked where the people in town get their groceries and was told that they either go to Emmetsburg (12 miles west) or Algona (21 miles east).

  I used to see a bank when I passed through Cylinder and mentioned I didn’t see it this year. Buck told me that the town lost the bank about six months ago, leaving the Rack Shack and Cylinder RV sales as the only two businesses left in town. I tried to turn the subject to something happier and mentioned that I met someone from Cylinder whose son was named Ed Micklund (not his real name). Bill said that he knew Kenny with a son named Ed but didn’t think he had started planting yet. I said I didn’t think he still lived in Cylinder and Bill replied there were a lot of Micklunds in Cylinder.

  I didn’t know what qualified as ‘a lot’ in a town of 88 people since after all at least 3.4% of the Cylinder population was in the Rack Shack with me so I changed the subject and asked what was good to eat. Buck gave me a menu without any advice and I went for the top of the line Rack Shack Burger (a bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg on top), some Reuben Bites (breaded and fried corn beef and swiss cheese balls), and a Mountain Dew since they were the advertisers on the Rack Shack sign outside.

Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner Time!!!

  I got an ice cold Mountain Dew within seconds and could see the cook in the back making my Rack Shack Burger and Reuben Bites. I pulled out my iPod and it found a ‘Rack Shack’ wireless network. I asked Buck if there was a chance I could use the network and he said ‘Sure. The password is taped to that thing over there!’ The ‘thing’ was a router and in a few seconds I was checking my home and work email while sitting at a bar stool at the Rack Shack in Cylinder, Iowa.

  There was nothing of note from my home email but there seemed to be some issues at work with the program I work on that communicates with a government agency. I grabbed my laptop from my car, move to a table near an outlet and was able to remote into my company’s network using the Rack Shack wireless internet.

  As I was taking care of my work problem Buck came by with my Rack Shack Burger and Reuben Bites. I bit into the first Reuben Bite and the hot melted cheese and corned beef exploded into my mouth. I can’t say it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten but it was definitely in the top 10. I gobbled down the rest of the Reuben Bites and washed it down with Mountain Dew while I was solving my work problem which I did quickly thanks to the inspiration of the Reuben Bites.

  With my work problem solved I put away my laptop and returned to my barstool where Buck was ready with a refill of Mountain Dew and I turned my attention to the Rack Shack Burger. And what a burger! The bun was soft, the bacon crispy without being burnt, the fried egg over hard without any of that disgusting runny yolk, and the meat done medium rare just the way I like it. It was like eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner all at once. After so many Reuben Bites I didn’t know if I could finish the Rack Shack Burger so I stopped eating after I worked my way half way through it. Buck and Bill had left without saying good bye but I wasn’t insulted – I’m sure they had some important Cylinder business to attend to. The cook was manning the bar so I struck up a conversation with him and found out his name was Mikey

Here's Mikey the cook. I didn't want anyone to even think I was trying to skip town without paying so I made sure to leave an extra big tip!

  I complimented Mikey on the burger and Reuben Bites. Mikey was pretty self-effacing and said that the burger was ‘just meat on a grill’ and imparted the stunning information that the Reuben Bites came out of a bag! I thought the Rueben Bites were so awesome they must have been homemade and was pretty disappointed until I realized I may be able to get an entire bag of these Reuben Bites in the future. Mikey started telling me how he grew up on a farm and he doesn’t have much and he has this job as a cook and does construction and farm work to make ends meet but he is really happy. I asked Mikey if his wife had a job and Mikey said he didn’t have a wife or a girlfriend and he doesn’t have much and he has this job as a cook and does construction and farm work to make ends meet but he is really happy. I was going to ask Mikey about the education he got in Cylinder but I kind of felt I already knew what he would say. In the meantime, my appetite came back and I ate the rest of my Rack Shack Burger. My bill came to $12.49. I was in such a good mood I gave Mike a $20 bill and told him to keep the change and I left Cylinder for another year (it’s not the same town on the way back on Sunday night) and continued my trek to Okoboji.

  I was so full I could have rolled myself the remaining 55 miles to Okoboji but I took my car instead. I got to the tournament site (the Arrowwood Resort) at two, checked into my room, and raved to anyone who would listen all weekend how I ate lunch in Cylinder, Iowa at the best place in town and showed photographic evidence of my awesome meal to any disbelievers. A few wise guys told me that while I did eat at the BEST place in town I also ate at the ONLY place in town. While that was factually correct I was ready with the retort that it would be the best place in MANY towns and some that were bigger than Cylinder besides. Soon enough six PM arrived and with a full stomach I paired the first round of the tournament and the 2015 Okoboji Open was underway!

And here we go...

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ground to Okoboji

  I went to Okoboji, Iowa for the seventh year in a row last weekend to direct the super strong Okoboji Open chess tournament for my friend Jodene Kruse. Okoboji weekend is by far the most challenging chess weekend of the year for me. In my youth tournaments the players are battling over what color ribbon they are going to get and the most complicated question I get is whether the position on the board is a checkmate or a stalemate (or neither). At Okoboji there’s $2000 in prize money at stake with some of the best players in the region playing. I have to be concerned with which players are paired against each other with what colors and I may have to make decisions at a moment’s notice on any number of arcane topics like how to handle a spectator with a ticking clock in their bag or whether to uphold a claim that a position had occurred on the board three times or what to do when the players are running so low on time that they aren’t writing down the moves but someone has a claim about a ’50 move rule’ or a ‘repetition of position’.

My first stop on my trip to Okoboji took me to this Burger King in West Des Moines Iowa.
The coffee is a bit pricey but the wireless internet is free.

  One thing I expect at the Okoboji Open is the unexpected and if nothing unexpected happens – well that is not something I expect either. Other things I expect about the Okoboji weekend is I will meet friends I see once or twice a year, make new friends, and have a great time. I never went to a family reunion but I imagine if I did it would be a lot like the Okoboji Open tournament. It’s a place I feel like I belong and fit in and that is a feeling I appreciate.

  I arranged to take Friday and Monday off from work and in a perfect world would have left my house at ten to take the leisurely 230 mile trip northwest to Okoboji. Since the world isn’t perfect I got up at four as usual, took Daisy and Baxter for their morning walk at 4:30, packed my car with all my chess directing stuff and a few days’ worth of food (including AMP Focus Energy drinks) and clothes and at 5:30 made a 63 mile trip southwest to St. Francis in West Des Moines for the chess club. I suppose I could have taken the easy way out and left the club in the hands of my capable co-coaches the same way I did when I went to California but that wouldn’t have been the easy way for me. Working with the St. Francis kids is a highlight of my week and if these kids can get up an hour early on a Friday to go to chess club I can drive an hour to run it for them.

  As usual I had a great chess club as long as I discount the child that tripped over a chair and hit his head on another chair and had a knot on his forehead the size of a grapefruit which the school nurse didn’t think needed any attention except a little ice and at 8:30 I was headed to Okoboji. Before I started on the 240 mile trip from West Des Moines to Okoboji I stopped at the closest Kum & Go to fill up my Chevy Spark with gasoline. While I was filling up I checked my iPod to see if there was a wireless internet connection I could use to check my email. The Kum & Go didn’t offer internet access but the Burger King next door did so as soon as I had filled up I drove next door to the Burger King parking lot and went inside.

The hash browns were tasty but there were guests in the coffee...

  I checked my work and home emails and thought it was only right that I buy something from the Burger King since I used their wireless internet. I went to the counter and ordered a medium coffee and a small bag of hash brown bites. The hash browns were great but I was stunned to find out the coffee was $1.69 and my bill was $2.85. I started popping the hash brown bites into my mouth while I looked for some creamers to put into my $1.69 medium coffee. I went to the Burger King counter person and asked for some creamers. She let out a big sigh, disappeared for a second, reappeared with a container of creamers and gave me one single creamer for my coffee. I was going to ask for a second creamer to put in my $1.69 medium cup of coffee but thought the better of it and took the lid off my coffee to put my lone creamer in. As I was pouring the creamer into my coffee I noticed some floating objects in the coffee and stuck on the sides of the cup. My $1.69 coffee was loaded with coffee grounds!

  I would normally be pretty upset at having bought a $1.69 cup of medium sized coffee that was full of grounds but on Okoboji weekend I was almost deliriously happy. Every year I write about my travels to Okoboji and let’s face it – there just isn’t a lot that happens between here and there. It was awesome to have a fascinating topic to write about before I even left West Des Moines and I still had 240 miles of adventure left! I pulled out my camera and started taking pictures of the coffee and hash browns and the receipt for 2.85. The clerk came over, looked at my cup, and said "Oh...there are grounds in the coffee again". I kept on taking pictures. The coffee was steaming hot and clouding my camera lens whenever I tried for a close-up. I was experimenting with distance and exposure when the manager came over.

  The manager asked what I was taking pictures of. I'd seen her coming and had decided to take a self-absorbed artistic stance. I didn’t look up from my photographic experiments and considered asking the manager if she had a spare beret but instead casually mentioned my coffee was full of grounds. The manager offered to make me a new cup and I said not to bother because I’ve had grounds in my coffee plenty of times at the Jiffy in Marshalltown so it was no big deal to me. I did mention that the Burger King coffee had more grounds, less coffee, and cost more than Jiffy coffee.

If you want extra customer attention at the West Des Moines Burger King I recommend you buy a cup of coffee with grounds in it, then wheel out a camera and start taking pictures. I was offered more creamers and a new cup from a freshly made industrial size pot!

  The manager asked again why I was taking pictures and I mentioned that I was the author of an award winning blog (leaving out the part about the self-nominated chess blog award that is four years old) and my $1.69 cup of coffee with grounds was going to be prominently featured. The manager poured herself a cup of coffee, swirled the cup around, took a look, and decided to let the entire contents of this huge coffee dispenser drain out into a garbage can.

  Meanwhile I kept on taking pictures and the manager said she was making more coffee, that it would be done in just a few minutes, and asked me if I wanted a different cup of coffee. I said no thanks but did ask for another creamer which I got in record time and even got to pick my own creamer out of the container. I thanked the manager, put my second creamer in the coffee, and took a sip of my $1.69 coffee with grounds and two creamers, which caused the manager to involuntarily wince and almost gag. I checked my email one last time and headed out of the Burger King towards my car and the road to Okoboji.

I wanted coffee from this truck but eventually settled on a cup from the Garner, Iowa Casey's!

  I really wasn't very thirsty and the $1.69 medium size Burger King coffee with grounds lasted well over 100 miles past my Mason City exit on Route 35. The hash browns didn't see Interstate Route 35 - they were gone in the 20 miles from the Burger King to my exit on Interstate Route 80. I saw a truck that was carrying the best coffee on the interstate (I know because the truck said so!) and followed it until I had to turn off Route 35 at the Mason City exit onto Iowa Highway 18. A little past Mason City I took a sip of my $1.69 medium size Burger King coffee with grounds and finally got more grounds than coffee. I wanted more coffee and less grounds so I stopped at the next convenience store I came to which was the Casey's General Store in Garner, Iowa. I got a 20 ounce refill cup for 74 cents and can report it was ground free as I continued my travels to Okoboji....

This clerk at Casey's was making fresh coffee from the moment I walked in until the moment I left. The price of 74 cents was less than half of the Burger King coffee and didn't have any grounds, either.
I didn't ask if grounds are extra...

Saturday, April 18, 2015

NBA Regular Season Recap

  The NBA regular season ended on Wednesday and with it my regular season NBA picks. I was very close to finishing with a flourish on my last Friday of basketball picks. Unfortunately late baskets by the Knicks, Rockets, and Kings allowed all three teams to cover the point spreads and leave me with a 1-3 mark that was 4-0 with 30 seconds left in each game. My final record was 14-15 against the spread and 18-15 overall for a $150 mythical profit and renewed admiration for the odds makers of the world.

  As I pull out the crystal ball and look ahead to the playoffs I see only four teams that are contenders for the championship. The Warriors had an all-time great season with a 67-15 record, the Spurs closed the season on a 11 game winning streak before losing the season finale to the Pelicans, the Atlanta Hawks won 60 games, and the Cleveland Cavaliers rebounded from a 19-20 first half of the season to go 34-9 the rest of the way. My instincts say to the finals will match up the Warriors against the Cavaliers with the Cavaliers winning but matchups predominate in the playoffs and if the Spurs get past the Warriors I think they would beat the Cavaliers. The only dark horse team I see that could pull off a championship is the Chicago Bulls (who I predicted to win the championship in my 2015 prediction post). The Bulls are as healthy as they have been all year and have the talent to match up with anyone and are the one team to watch. It was an incredible NBA season with five teams in the west having a chance for the second seed and four teams in the east battling for the last two playoff spots into the last weekend of the season.

  There was a legitimate debate for the MVP award between Warriors’ Stephen Curry (the best player on the best team) and the Rockets’ James Harden (the best player on the most surprising team). It would be fitting if the pair could be named Co-MVP but if I had to choose I’d take Curry because in the last week of the season Harden couldn’t lead his team to a victory in either of their two games against the Spurs with the division title and second seed in the west on the line. Those are the games where a most valuable player must prove their worth and the Rockets and Harden came up short. I understand that the Rockets got the second seed anyway thanks to the Spurs loss. Harden’s triple double in the his team’s final game against the Jazz doesn’t impress me and neither does the Rockets 30 point win over a non-playoff team after blowing two chances to earn their playoff seeding by the front door.

  I predicted the Warriors to suffer a first round playoff upset at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans in my 2015 predictions post but that was then and this is now. For the western conference first round I’ll go with three lower seeds and along with picking the favored Warriors to beat the Pelicans in 5 games, I'll go with the Mavericks to beat the Rockets in 6 games (+245), the Spurs to beat the Clippers in 6 games (-170), and the Grizzlies to beat the Trailblazers in 7 games (-190). In the Eastern Conference I’ll take the Hawks in 5 over the Nets, the Cavaliers to sweep the Celtics, the Bulls to beat the Bucks in 7, and the Wizards to upset the Raptors in 6 games (+160). (All odds courtesy of Bovada)

  If I had to pick a team I’m rooting for to do well in the playoffs I’d pick the Boston Celtics even though I just picked them to get swept. As much as I hate to compliment anything Boston, just look at what General Manager Danny Ainge has done in just two years. In 2013, the Celtics were an aging team on the last legs of the Kevin Garnett – Paul Pierce – Rajon Rondo team. The team went 41-40 and were the seventh seed, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the 54 win New York Knicks. The Los Angeles Lakers were the seventh seed in the Western Conference with a 45-37 record and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs. In the summer of 2013 Celtic coach Doc Rivers left the team to join the Clippers and Ainge traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets for draft picks. The 2013-2014 was a disaster for all three teams. Rondo hurt his knee and missed most of the season and the Celtics missed the playoffs with a 25-57 record for new coach Brad Stevens. The Knicks finished 35-47 and missed the playoffs and the Lakers cratered to a 27-55 record. It was the first time in NBA history that all three of these storied franchises missed the playoffs in the same year.

  This year the Lakers and the Knicks both set franchise records for most losses while the Celtics had a 9-14 record on December 19th and traded their most marketable player (Rondo) to the Mavericks for draft picks and three backup players. On January 12th, the Celtics were 13-23 and traded their leading scorer Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies for Tayshaun Prince (who they quickly traded to Detroit) and a draft pick. It looked like the Celtics were giving up on the season.

  After trading their point guard and leading scorer the Celtics played .500 ball for a month. On the trade deadline of February 19th they had a 20-31 record and were a couple of games out of the playoffs. At the deadline the Celtics traded a backup guard and a draft pick for disgruntled Phoenix point guard Isiah Thomas and the team caught fire. The team played .500 ball for another month and were 31-40 on March 26th. Since then the Celtics have caught fire and won 8 of their next 10 games to finish seventh in the Eastern Conference and make the playoffs.

  Clearly Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens have a better vision of what kind of team they want to build and what kind of players they want then either the Knicks or the Lakers and all the other teams who try to lose as many games as they can in order to get top draft picks. If I was a fan of the 76ers I’d be wondering why my team is purposefully losing 60+ games every year to collect top draft picks while the Celtics were able to rebuild their team in less than a year. The Celtics have everything they need to become a championship contender except a superstar. It wasn’t apparent at the time but this was the same formula that Ainge used in 2008 when he added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a solid core and the team went to 2 Finals and won one championship. The NBA salary cap is going to explode thanks to the latest 2 BILLON dollar television contract and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ainge grab another pair of top players and hang yet another championship banner in Boston within the next three years.

Monday, April 13, 2015

So Welcome to America

  I’m heading up to Okoboji, Iowa later this week to direct the super strong Okoboji Open for my friend Jodene Kruse. I’m looking forward to having a great time. This will be the eighth year I’ve directed this tournament. I’ve never had a perfect performance as a director but there were only two controversies of any note. In 2009 an 80+ year old player was sitting at GM Alex Yermolinsky’s board with a loud ticking clock in his bag (You can read about it here). When I tried to ask him to turn the clock off he yelled at me as if I was trying to steal his bag which wasn't optimal for concentration of the players nearby. In 2013 I had a problem with a clock that wasn’t set right. When I made a decision not to forfeit the player who set the clock wrong his opponent goet pretty upset and was ripping me to anyone within earshot. All things considered I'm fortunate to have had only those two controversies. The tournament director of the recently concluded US Championship was not so lucky.

  This year’s US Championship was one of the more compelling in recent years. Top 10 ranked grandmaster Wesley So recently changed federations (but not citizenship) from the Philippines to the US and was competing in this event for the first time ever. Native US Grandmaster and world #3 Hikaru Nakamura was also scheduled to compete in the championship for the first time since 2012. This was the first time two top 10 players would be competing for the US championship.

  Both Nakamura and So won their first two games but then So lost his third round game while Nakamura drew. The pair battled to a draw in round 4 and each won their 5th round game leaving Nakamura a half point ahead. Then So hit some major bumps in the road as he threw away a promising position in round six and then lost for the third time in the tournament in round eight to fall to third place a point and a half behind Nakamura and with no hopes for winning the championship.

  On Friday, So had the white pieces against grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian and wrote a note on a piece of paper to remind him to check his variations and use his time. After So made his sixth move, Akobian went to chief arbiter Tony Rich and informed him that So was writing notes. Rich then went to the board, verified that So was writing notes and forfeited him, leaving Akobian as the winner.

  Commentators Yasser Seirawan and Alejandro Ramirez were stunned at the forfeiture. Maurice Ashley interviewed Tony Rich, who let it be known that So had been warned twice already about writing notes and told he would be forfeited if it happened again. I believe Rich was obligated to carry out the forfeiture after having threatened it but I believe threatening the forfeiture was extreme. If So was threatened with losing some time off his clock the game could have continued and the story would have some interest but the forfeiture has gone viral in the chess world with stories on,, and and mainstream news outlets. Now the story of the 2015 US Chess Championship isn’t Ray Robson’s great performance or Sam Sevian being the youngest player ever to beat a top ten player or Nakamura’s triumph – it is all about Wesley So being forfeited in round 9 and I’m sure that this is not what Rich had in mind when he forfeited So.

  Commentator Ramirez claimed that So was also writing notes during their game in last year’s Millionaire Chess Open. This wasn't mentioned in his review of the tournament for Other players claimed that they had told So that he shouldn’t be writing down notes. Akobian was interviewed by Ashley and said that he likes So and they are friends and teammates and he was ready to fight at the board and he was as stunned as anyone by the forfeit. It made me wonder if Akobian wasn’t protesting too much and feared being made the fall guy for the forfeit. The article quoted So’s chess coach at Webster University, Paul Truong saying "This is exactly what we told Wesley three years ago…He always writes notes to himself. We told him this is against FIDE rules...We discussed this issue at least a dozen times. He had a smile and thought nobody's going to complain about it.”

  I’m surprised this habit of So’s never made it to the press before. So was in the widely covered Millionaire Chess Open (which he won) and the TATA Steel tournaments (where he tied for second) within the last six months. There was no mention of this supposedly annoying habit of writing himself notes in any broadcasts or write-ups. Webster University won collegiate championships with So as its best player and also there is no mention of So writing notes during his games.

  Since there was never any mention of this behavior before the US Championships and no mention of this behavior during the US Championships but now this behavior is being mentioned everywhere I look I think this is a matter of kicking a person when they are down. So had lost three of eight games and was not going to provide any drama by even threatening to win the championship. I believe if he was tied for first or within striking distance there is no way he would have been forfeited and everyone else would have kept silent about this note taking just as they have for the last three or four years.

  The article did more than talk about chess. It grabbed material from an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that delved into So’s private life. The article mentioned that So had strained relations with his mother over the last few years and lives with a family in Minnetonka, MN. The matriarch of the family So lives with is Lotis Key, who told the Star-Tribune that So’s mother came to St. Louis and confronted him outside the championship site to threaten him into returning to college. Key also claimed that So’s mother told her that Webster chess coach Paul Truong helped her get to St. Louis.

  This soap opera didn’t need any more drama but then Paul Truong chimed in with a facebook post that revealed that Wesley So didn’t quit Webster in order to become a chess professional but that his chess scholarship was revoked in October for ‘multiple team rules’ violations. Truong also claimed that Key was promoting a false narrative to blame Truong and So’s mother for his current troubles in the tournament and even included a picture of So with his mother and sister in the blog post.

  Two months ago, So was written about as a great kid with a bright chess future (like in this feature chessbase article). Now So is portrayed as a weird chess player with a note writing habit who has a fractured family life that was thrown out of college and the latest chessbase article on him is titled 'What is wrong with Wesley So?' What is the truth in all this? I don’t know and I don’t care either. So is a great chess player who proved at Tata Steel that he can compete with the best in the world. His personal life doesn’t concern me and I don’t really care if he’s writing notes to himself. All this looks like to me is a bunch of people piling on a celebrity (or as close to celebrity as one can be in the chess world) when they hit a bump in the road. Tiger Woods was hiring ‘traveling companions’ for years but only when he stopped winning majors was it written about. Not one word of So’s note taking or having his scholarship revoked or his family situation saw the light of day until he lost a couple of games and if he was leading the US Championships I bet it would all be under wraps still. So all I can say is welcome to America, Wesley So – the land of fame and adulation as long as you’re a winner.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Losers - Good and Bad

  On Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats’ quest to be the first undefeated men’s college basketball team in 40 years came to an end when they lost 71-64 to the Wisconsin Badgers in the NCAA championship semifinals. Kentucky coach John Calipari came in for a lot of criticism when his team seemed to grind the game to a halt after coming back from a nine-point hole to take a four point lead with over six minutes left in the game. Kentucky failed to score a single point over the next five minutes with three shot clock violations and hardly any touches for Karl-Anthony Towns, their leading scorer in the game.

  John Calipari is no stranger to criticism. He led Memphis and UMass to the NCAA final four and both had their appearances vacated after numerous recruiting violations were discovered long after Calipari had moved on to his next job, At Kentucky Calipari was the first coach to take advantage of the NBA rule that prevented players from jumping directly from high school to the pros by actively recruiting the so-called ‘One and Done’ players, who come to Kentucky for the year they are prevented from playing NBA ball. The strategy of recruiting supremely talented players that have no intention of attending college for more than one year is now widely imitated and it is no coincidence that this year’s college champions Duke Blue Devils were also a freshman laden squad of players who will have a large number of their team leave college and enter the NBA draft.

  For all the things John Calipari is, one thing he is not is a sore loser. Even as his team walked off the court without shaking the hands of their conquerors, Calipari was congratulating the Badgers and made no excuses after the game. In his press conference Calipari’s opening statement was “But we normally execute down the stretch, and we didn’t. They did. They made plays down there and we didn’t. “ When asked if the burden of being undefeated led to the defeat Calipari could have noted that Wisconsin shot 22 free throws to 10 for his team or an obvious shot clock violation late in the game that wasn’t called and led to a Wisconsin basket but instead he said “I think what impacted the game the most was Wisconsin and how they played. I mean, they out-rebounded us by 12 rebounds. That doesn’t happen. You think about this. We had six turnovers for the game. We shot 90% from the free-throw line, 60% from the three, and 48% from the field, and we lost? What does that mean they did?”

  The Wisconsin Badgers played the Duke Blue Devils in the championship game on Monday night. The game was closely contested with 13 lead changes. Just like the Kentucky-Wisconsin game the score was tied at half time and Wisconsin took a lead in the second half. Just like the Kentucky-Wisconsin game Wisconsin’s opponent (this time Duke) came charging back to take a lead. But unlike Kentucky-Wisconsin game, the Badgers couldn’t retake the lead and lost 68-83.

  Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has a reputation as a solid coach who doesn’t have the most talented teams but gets the most out of the talent he has by slowing the game down and recruiting tough players. I searched all over the internet and couldn’t find any examples of him ripping on referees or his opponents, but Ryan did a lot of complaining after the championship game. Ryan said that “there was more body contact in this game than any game we played all year”, “I just felt sorry for my guys that all of a sudden a game was like that”. Ryan also complained that the Badgers only got to shoot 10 free throws as opposed to 20 for Duke. At his postgame press conference Ryan talked about how his team was made up of players that tended to stay in school for four years and took a swipe at the Dukes and Kentuckys of college basketball saying “We don’t do rent a player”.

  Its understandable that Ryan was upset with losing, after all it was a championship game, but I can’t help but wonder at how little publicity Ryan got in the press for his complaining and at the same time I can’t help but contrast it to how I think Calipari would have been pilloried if he had made the same type of comments. After all, there were some close calls that didn’t go Kentucky’s way and Wisconsin did get 22 free throw attempts against Kentucky’s 10. Calipari came off like a gracious loser compared to the poor loser that Ryan appeared to be but at the end of the day everyone except Duke was a loser in the NCAA tournament this year.

  I don't have to wonder whether I'd be a good or bad loser in my Friday NBA picks as I had a winning record for the fourth time in five weeks with the only blemish a 2-2 record two weeks ago and the last I looked 2-2 is not a losing record (although I did lose 20 pretend dollars). My 2-1 record last week boosted my mythical winnings to $380 on a 13-12 record against the spread and a 4-0 mark using the risky moneyline wagers. I don’t know if my picks will continue into playoff season since not many playoff games provide good value bets. There are only marginal betting opportunities this week but I'll pick four games using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only.

Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks
The Bucks have been lackluster over the second half of the season but the Knicks have been the worst team in the league hands down. I can’t imagine anything other than a Bucks blowout to build some much needed confidence for the playoffs and think they will cover the 9 and a half points and make me $100.

San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets
The Spurs are on a roll with nine straight wins including a 12 point home win against the Rockets on Wednesday. The two teams play again in Houston tonight. The Spurs are in playoff mode and I don't think the change of venue will be worth 8 points so I'll bet $100 on the Spurs to neatly handle the Rockets, laying the 4 points on a $100 bet.

Phoenix Suns at New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans couldn’t capitalize on their big home win against the Warriors on Tuesday and loosened their tenuous grip on the Western Conference's final playoff with their Wednesday loss at Memphis. The Suns were eliminated from the playoffs on Wednesday and while I do think they will want to show they were a playoff worthy team I look for the Pelicans to put on a big performance in their last weekend home game of the season and will predict them to take the game, covering the 9 point spread on a $100 bet.

Sacramento Kings at Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder’s dogfight with the Pelicans for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference makes this a must win game. Kings coach George Karl is using the last few games of the season to find out which players he wants to build around for next year. I’ll take the Thunder to take this must win game and give the 14 points on a $100 wager.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Walking Recap - Season 5


  The only ‘must see TV’ I’ve had the past few months was AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’. Last Sunday was the finale of the second half of season 5, leaving me another six months of being ‘deadless’ unless the summer companion series ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ is something I find myself addicted to. I’ll have my Sunday nights free until late June when TNT’s ‘The Last Ship’ and ‘Falling Skies’ resume their yearly summer sagas.

  There was an incredible amount of speculation that at least one of the long time characters would meet their demise in the season finale. The speculation got more intense when it was announced that the season finale was extended to 90 minutes. There were two of the most grisly deaths in the entire series in episode 14 when Aden and Noah both were torn to bits by zombies while on a scavenging expedition to get parts for the electronic grid which led to the thought that the only way the showrunners could top that was to kill off one of the main characters.

The second half of season 5 finds Rick's crew on the road in dire circumstances...

  I didn’t think that any of the mainstays were going to meet their end. There were no deaths in the season 4 finale and there are only five of the original characters left: Rick Grimes, his son Carl, Carol, Darryl, and Glenn. I suppose we can count Morgan as an original cast member but he has only been a guest star in four episodes before seemingly joining the crew at the end of season five. The only character left from season two is Maggie since her sister Beth died in the first half of season and the other notable deaths were season three inductees Bob and Tyreese and newcomers Noah and Aden.

  The showrunners played on this speculation to perfection in the season finale with Glenn being shot in the shoulder and left to fight off zombies while Darryl was caught in a trap set by the nefarious ‘Wolves’ and stuck in a car surrounded by dozens of zombies beating on the windows. Our heroes managed to survive and the only deaths were suffered by newcomers to the show. The second half of the season found our band of survivors on their last legs without food or water and seeking shelter in a barn when they were afforded refuge in a self-sufficient and self-contained community near Alexandria, Virginia. The community has a solar power grid, an aquifer, and 20 foot steel walls for protection. When the group arrives in Alexandria they are in as close to a pre-apocalypse society as they have been since the zombies appeared with running water, electricity, plenty of food, and clean clothes. The main theme of the second half of the season was to show how the characters have changed since the zombie apocalypse by putting them in a normal setting.

Back in civilization, Carol is stealing weapons and telling bedtime stories!

  Rick and Carol made the most effort to outwardly fit in but they conspire to steal guns, planning to take over the town if they don’t think the current residents can keep it safe. Carol has proven to be a real scene stealer. She plays the part of the wide eyed housewife when around the town’s residents, discussing recipes with the women and nodding in assent when the men offer to show her how to handle a rifle. The real Carol that will do whatever it takes to survive surfaces when a youngster catches her stealing weapons and she gives him a choice to either keep his mouth shut in return for cookies or wake up one night tied to a tree outside the compound where no one will be able to hear him scream while the zombies eat him alive. In the season finale she brings a casserole to the town’s only doctor (wife beater Pete) and asks him to look in on an injured member of the group. When Pete refuses, Carol puts a knife to his throat and tells him that if he doesn’t she’ll kill him and tell everyone that he tried to abuse her and asks Pete who does he think the townspeople will believe. She then leaves but not before telling Pete return her casserole after cleaning it.

  Rick seems to fit in and is appointed the town constable but makes friends with Pete’s wife Jessie and gets a haircut and a kiss from her which probably doesn’t help Pete’s mood. When Rick has a confrontation with Pete over his abuse they get into a Wild West brawl in the street and Rick pulls one of his stolen guns and waves it around at the mayor and the rest of the onlookers. When the town leaders schedule a meeting to decide whether to banish Rick, he plots with Carol on taking some of the town leaders hostage in order to take over the town if it looks like he is going to be banished. Rick was interviewed when he got to Alexandria and he told Deanna the mayor that they shouldn’t have let his group in and that in the new world people just look at you to see what they can take from you. It seems to me that is what Rick has become – from the first moment he entered the town he has been plotting to take it over unless everyone agrees with him.

  The rest of the crew seems to be fitting in nicely into Alexandria. Darryl was a delinquent before the apocalypse but his skills as a hunter and tracker have made him a leader. He initially rebelled in Alexandria by gutting his freshly caught possum on the porch of the group’s new house but has bonded with recruiter Aaron and refused Rick’s offer of taking one of the stolen guns. The katana wielding Michonne has repressed her violent side in order to fit in with the rest of the townspeople although she offers to help Rick take over if he thinks it necessary. The cast member that is having the most trouble adapting is Shasha but she was having issues before coming to Alexandria after her lover Bob was bitten by a zombie and had his leg amputated and eaten by the Hunters at the beginning of the season and her brother Tyreese was bitten and died in episode 9.

  The final episode went 85 minutes without a death. There were some character studies as Glenn and Sasha were confronted with the opportunity and motive to kill the traitorous Nicholas and Father Gabriel, respectively. Both retained some of their humanity and didn’t resort to killing the living. Father Gabriel set out to commit suicide by zombie but chickened out at the end and ended up killing a zombie as well as a human the zombie was feasting on. The town meeting wasn’t going well for Rick until he dumped a dead zombie in the middle of it and told the people they were lucky so far but he was going to teach them to survive. Everyone seemed to be calming down when a drunk Pete burst into the meeting holding Michonne’s katana and accidentally slit the throat of mayor Deanna’s husband as he tries to calm him down. As her husband bleeds out, Deanna comes around to Rick’s way of thinking and tells Rick ‘Do It’ at which Rick fires his gun, presumably killing Pete.

Rick Grimes explains his world view and brings Mayor Deanna around to his way of thinking.

  I may be a little prejudiced since this is the first season of the Walking Dead I’ve watched week to week instead of on a binge but I thought it was by far the best season yet. My favorite episodes were the escape from Terminus (episode 1), the killing of the cannibals (episode 3), the kidnapping of the Greely hospital police (episode 7), the death of Tyreese (episode 9), and the failed excursion to the electronics warehouse where Aden and Noah get torn to shreds (episode 14). Season six could begin minutes or months after the end of season five but the featured bad guys are sure to be the ‘Wolves’. The Wolves aren’t in the comics but their reach has extended all the way from Noah’s home to Alexandria with dismembered zombies, zombies with ‘W’’s carved into their heads, and the disconcerting ‘Wolves Not Far’ signs. This group isn’t just after what the other survivors have – they want to kill the other survivors and one of the methods of execution is to tie the victim to a tree to become zombie food, which is what Carol threatened to do to the little boy that caught her stealing guns.

  I’m looking forward for the next season of The Walking Dead but I’ll just have to wait along with everyone else. When 8 o’clock rolled around last Sunday I instinctively turned the TV to AMC but there was some show about 1960 advertising men on. It was hardly the post-apocalyptic drama I’ve come to expect and I turned the TV off…

Friday, April 3, 2015

Pride, Prejudice, and Snacks

A new type of convenience store is moving into the break room.
On the right is Adam the Avanti Market representative.

  Last year I gave up one minute chess for Lent. This year I gave up snacks. For the last five weeks at home I’ve resisted the temptation to grab a handful of peanuts out of a nearby canister, chips or cookies out of the cupboard, or ice cream from the refrigerator. Instead I’ve grabbed healthy snacks like carrots, celery, cheese, strawberries. or my beagle’s favorite pinot grigio infused dry salami from the Aldi grocery store.

  Work was more of a challenge since downtown Des Moines where I work has no handy supply of carrots, celery, berries, or even pinot grigio infused dry salami. What is handy in the office building I work in is a popcorn machine and vending machines in the break room. I’d been a frequent customer of the vending machine in months past, grabbing an 85 cent bag of potato chips of crunchy Cheetos whenever I felt the need for a snack or a distraction. In order to combat my vending machine habit I packed 6 pieces of fruit along with my bologna sandwich every day before I left for work at 7. I’d have the sandwich at 9 and a piece of fruit each hour starting at noon until I went home at five. It was hard getting used to only having my sandwich in the morning but once I did it became easy and I now weigh less than I have at any time this century.

  The company I work for is owned by another company that owns two or three more companies. The parent company has decided to consolidate all the companies it owns. It is in the process of ‘rebranding’ into one new company name and next week we are moving to a new building on the west side of West Des Moines. This is going to make my 50 mile commute a 60 mile commute which would be a bad thing except I’m going to work from home three days a week so my 500 miles of weekly driving is going to become 240 miles instead of 600 miles.

All sorts of snacks, food, and beverages for the taking but not a Cheetos Puff in sight...

  The building I work in will still be occupied for a few months at least. On Monday when I went to the break room to get a glass of ice to go along with my AMP Focus Energy drink the vending machines were gone and in their place were racks of snacks and coolers of sandwiches, sodas, and energy drinks. Instead of vending machines our company is going to have self-service convenience stores run by Avanti Markets where the employees will scan the items they want and pay for them using an Avanti Market card pre-paid debit card.

  On Tuesday, the representative from the Avanti convenience store company was going to be in the building to give out debit cards. In order to get people to start using the debit cards the company decided to use the 'free taste' technique I’ve seen employed by most of the successful drug dealers I’ve encountered and loaded the initial debit card with five dollars. I ambled down to the break room on Tuesday and met Adam the Avanti representative.

  Adam showed me the heart of the Avanti Market system which is a small kiosk computer that looks very much like an ATM. There was much more of a selection than could fit into vending machines but everything was so out in the open a transplanted New Jerseyan like me couldn’t imagine people not just walking off with whatever they wanted so I asked Adam how much shrinkage (In case you didn’t know shrinkage is a polite word for theft!) they encountered at their markets. I was very surprised when Adam said that there was less than one percent shrinkage.

  The Avanti Market touts itself as a way for employees to eat healthier food but I’d have to say the snacks were mostly candy and chips. There was some beef jerky and fiber bar type of stuff and the only reason there were more healthy snacks than the vending machine was because there were more unhealthy snacks – the ratio was about the same.

No beef sticks but there is beef jerky (if the price is right).

  Adam noticed me taking pictures of the food items and scanning them and then taking pictures of the prices and then cancelling the transactions and putting the items back. He told me that the prices were higher than the convenience store and lower than the grocery store. Candy bars cost 94, chips 90 cents, Mrs. Freshley’s baked goods $1.29, and soda $1.39. Avanti Markets is a Pepsi affiliated company and I was delighted to see some AMP energy drinks but disappointed that there was no AMP Focus Energy drinks in the cooler. I asked Adam and he had never heard of AMP Focus Energy but he was very agreeable and said he would stock some if I would buy them. I said no thanks. The AMP drinks were $2.29 at the Avanti markets but 3 for $5 at the Jiffy in Marshalltown and I probably wouldn’t get even one a month for $2.29.

  There was a cooler with sandwiches and I decided to check them out. The priciest items were $4.49 for a giant sandwich or salad. The lowest price was $1.50 for twin chili dogs. I mentioned to Adam that I was happy to see twin chili dogs were still around and that when I was a factory worker over half a lifetime ago the twin chili dogs were the most popular vending item since two people could pool their spare change and each get a chili dog. Adam was as agreeable as ever and said that the twin chili dogs were a favorite in industrial settings but salads and small sandwiches do better in offices.

A large sandwich selection including the timeless Twin Chili Dogs!

  I also noticed that even though there were 30 or 40 different kinds of chips and bagged snacks there were no Cheetos Puffs – just Crunchy and Baked Cheetos. I’d always assumed Puffs weren’t used in vending machines because they would get crushed in the vending slots but there was no reason not to have them here. I asked Adam and he mentioned that this was a smaller store and the store at the new building was much bigger and would certainly have Cheetos Puffs. Once I heard that I decided to put my $5 card in my pocket and wait until we move and Lent is over and get some free Cheetos Puffs.

The secret to Avanti Markets low shrinkage rate revealed!

  At this point one of the human resource people came into the break room and I then realized why there was less than 1% shrinkage from the Avanti Markets. I had feelings of cultural inferiority with the thought that maybe Iowans are just more honest than New Jerseyans. I've never believed that. I think people from Iowa smile more than people from New Jersey but you best watch your wallet in either place. Nonetheless, the newfound information that less than one in a hundred Iowans were helping themselves to free food was starting to make me rethink my assumptions when the human resources person put up a sign asking me to smile because I was being filmed. I looked around and saw that there were indeed two cameras trained on all the Avanti Market's merchandise. I was happy to see the cameras and not have to rethink my prejudices about people from Iowa and New Jersey after all. I also made a mental note to keep a ski mask in my desk in case I ever got hungry with no money in my debit card…

  After last weeks 2-2 record in picking NBA games I have $290 in mythical winnings to show for my 15-11 mark (4-0 on the money line and 11-11 against the spread). With only two weeks to go in the regular season picks become more challenging as winning takes a back seat to keeping players healthy for all but a handful of teams. It is a difficult task to divine which bad teams will close the season with a sudden burst of pride or contract fever and which playoff teams won't mail in the last two weeks of the season. I will stick to my strategy of cherry picking home favorites against bad teams using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only.

Detroit Pistons at Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have played much better since getting Jimmy Butler back from his injured elbow while the Pistons have fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff race. I think this is just the type of meaningless game that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will give extended minutes to his top players. I expect the Bulls to cover the 9 points and win a $100 wager.

Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs
After firing coach Brian Shaw, the Nuggets went on a tear with six wins in eight games. Having proved the coach was the problem all along, the team has proceeded to lose six of eight including an embarrassing home loss to the 76ers. Meanwhile the Spurs have won five in a row by 10 or more points. I'll pick the Spurs to cover the 12 and a half point spread and pick up $100 when they do.

Portland Trailblazers at the Los Angeles Lakers
No team has a bigger incentive to lose their remaining games than the Lakers who have traded next years #1 draft pick but will keep it if the pick is in the top 5. The Lakers are currently the fourth worst team with a two game 'lead' on the Orlando Magic. If the Lakers drop to #5 they are just one ping pong ball away from a team jumping them in the draft lottery and costing them their draft pick. I think the Trailblazers will be fired up after losing a large lead against the Clippers on Wednesday and clobber the Lakers so I'll give the 10 points on a $100 bet.