Thursday, May 28, 2015

Movie Review – Max Max : Fury Road

  I went to see 'Mad Max: Fury Road' at the Marshalltown movie theatre with Kathy and Ben, joining 22 other moviegoers for the Sunday matinee. This movie was the fourth installment in the ‘Mad Max’ series and the first new episode in 30 years with a youthful Thomas Hardy taking the place of Mel Gibson in the title role.

  The movie is a part reboot (because of Hardy) and part continuation of the post-apocalyptic society that has evolved in the Australian desert. This meant that there was no time wasted in how Mad Max got that way since it was explained in Max’s flashbacks of his wife and daughter’s death and the visions and conversations he has with his daughter throughout the movie.

  The first part of the movie has a good pace as Max is captured by a society of chalk white warriors and after a failed escape attempt is pressed into service as a human transfusion device called a ‘blood bag’ for one of the sicker warriors. We are then introduced to the realm of ‘Immortan Joe’, who rules the area by virtue of his control of a massive assemblage of chains, pulleys, and levers that pump water out of an underground aquifer which Joe dispenses to the thousands of scavengers that live nearby. Joe has everything his own way – he and his leaders live on top of a mountain that is accessible by a manually operated elevator lift, Joe has a set of young ‘breeder wives’, and he and his crew drink milk that is expressed from a group of lactating female slaves.

  After Max is established as prisoner ‘blood bag’ to one of Immortan Joe’s soldiers, the story’s main plot is revealed. While on a gas for water run to ‘Gastown’ Joe’s commander Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has kidnapped his five breeder wives (two of whom are pregnant). Joe leads his entire army of soldiers and war machine vehicles in a chase across the desert to reclaim his wives.

  The chase has all kinds of wild machines with all kinds of freakish attachments like pole vaults that allow one of the many freakish soldiers to swing over the top of another vehicle and ‘drop in’ for a visit or knives that pop out of the sides of a war machine to slash the tires of the adjoining vehicle or giant spiked platforms that are dropped to flatten the tires of the trailing vehicle. One of the vehicles is nothing but a wall of rock concert speakers that blare out steel guitar noise from the ever-present steel guitarist who performs solos during all the car chases while flames shoot from the guitar during particularly noisy riffs. When the guitarist is on break the chases through the desert are accompanied by operatic music and breathtaking overhead shots that show the vastness of the desert which provide quite a contrast to the immediate violence of the chase.

  After the initial chase Max gets free from his prisoner status and he joins Furiosa in trying to outrun Immortan Joe and his allies in order to deliver the breeder wives to Furiosa’s original home known as ‘The Green Place’. There is a chase through a sand/lightning storm, a chase through a muddy quagmire, and a few more desert chases. In the middle of all the chases, each character gets a small amount of character development – Furiosa reveals that she was kidnapped as a young girl and that is her motivation to free the breeder wives, Max’s blood bag partner defects from Immortan Joe, even Immortan Joe is moved to tears when he recaptures one of his breeder wives who dies along with her unborn child.

  After the climactic desert chase the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and Max disappears into the desert, leaving Furiosa as the presumed keeper of Immortan Joe’s former kingdom. The only things I understood about this post-apocalyptic world as that the most valuable things were water, gasoline, and bullets. I didn’t understand how all these complex war vehicles, water pumps, and elevators could remain functioning or how the hundreds of soldiers and slaves in Immortan Joe’s kingdom were able to not only survive but look pretty well-fed while doing it.

   I liked the first chase through the desert a lot - it looked like a video game come to life. The rest of the chases all seemed kind of the same with weird looking vehicles, the operatic music mixed in with the guy playing the flame shooting guitar, and high overhead shots during the chases mixed with hand to hand combat as Furiosa’s tanker would get periodically ‘boarded’, frenetic violence intermixed with the anxious looking around at pursuers, etc… There were plenty of soap opera aspects to the chases as our heroes had to deal with a fuel trailer getting off its moorings and slowing the vehicle down, various engine failures, getting stuck in a mud pit, etc.., etc… The action was non-stop but it seemed like a loop of the same action. Hardy and Theron were fine as leads in an action movie which is not exactly the most demanding of roles. The movie's minimal plot reminded me a lot of ‘The Outlaw Josie Wales’ with Max Max in the Clint Eastwood role of a stranger in a strange land banding with a group of misfits (as if there is anything but misfits in this post-apocalyptic world) who gain their freedom despite all odds.

  I had a choice of seeing ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ or ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ this past weekend and I think I made the wrong choice. I chose the Mad Max movie because I heard nothing but great things about it. I didn't realize it was a ‘the car chase is the star’ movie and the special effects all seemed the same after a while. Each leg of the adventure brought a few more freaks but after a while they all just looked the same to me. If you like freaky people and freaky vehicles chasing each other over a freaky landscape this is the movie for you but if you have a good TV at home I'd just wait for Redbox.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

NBA Conference Finals Prediction - Game 5

  Just when I thought I was getting the hang of the NBA conference finals I was given a rude awakening in Game 4 when the Warriors and Rockets combined for almost 70 points in the first quarter alone on the way to their combined 243 points in the Rockers 128-113 victory which made my pick of under 213.5 points the biggest loser of the playoffs so far. I picked over 193.5 for last night's Cavaliers-Hawks game which was touch and go with 145 points scored through three quarters with the Cavaliers leading by 25. I was holding my breath as both teams cleared their benches and rooted as hard as I could for scrubs like Joe Harris, Jeff Jenkins, Mike Muscala, and Kendrick Perkins to get some points on the board and make me a winner. Luckily inept defense won the day over inept offense to get the teams over 200 points and get me a game four split. Still, in sports gambling splits are losses and my mythical playoff ledger has shrunk from $65 to $55 with only one series left to go before the NBA Finals. As usual I'll be getting my lines from for entertainment purposes only.

Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors – Game 5
Yes Rocket superstar guard James Harden put up 45 points and the teams obliterated the over/under line of 213.5 but I think that had much more to do with Josh Smith, Trevor Ariza, and Jason Terry starting the game on fire from the three point line. All teams are impossible to stop when everyone is shooting lights out. I don't think this will happen again and I am tempted to pick a Warriors blowout but instead will stick to my strategy of picking the under and will bet $110 to win $100 that less than 216.5 points will be scored in tonight's game.

My last post's video of Robert Parrish punching Bill Laimbeer was so popular (one person told me they liked it) that I thought I'd share another of 'Laimbeer's Greatest Hits!'

Here is the subject handled in more depth...

Monday, May 25, 2015

NBA Conference Final Predictions - Game 4

  I'm either getting the hang of the NBA conference finals or getting lucky since I won both my game three predictions. I picked under 220 points in the Warriors-Rockets matchup. While the Warriors did their best to make me a loser with 115 points the Rockets more than made up for that by being held to a playoff low of 80 points. I predicted the Hawks would try to up the pace and they did play a faster game using Shelvin Mack at guard instead of Dennis Schroder as I had thought. A 60 point third quarter made my prediction of over 190 points a nearly sure thing and that number was hit with 5 minutes left in the game which turned into a Cavaliers overtime win. When I found out Saturday that Hawks' forward Kyle Korver was out for the playoffs with an injured ankle I thought of taking a $10 loss by placing a matching under bet but as I reflected I thought Korver has been shooting so poorly the Hawks would likely score more in his absence.The two wins bring my NBA playoff roller coaster bets to $65 mythical dollars to the plus side. I'm still inclined to stay away from the point spreads and continue playing the over unders heading into the two game four this week. As usual I'll be getting my lines from for entertainment purposes only.

Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets – Game 4 Monday
No one predicted a 35 point blowout for the Warriors in game three. Facing the prospect of getting swept, I imagine the Rockets will give up on their deliberate offense and finally try to outscore the Warriors in an up and down game. I dont think it will work as the Warriors have figured out how to keep Harden from shredding them and will slow the game down until they knock down a few threes to clinch the game. The over/under has moved from Saturday's 215 to 213.5 for game four and I'll take the under for $110 to win $100 since the total points have gone down in each game of this series.

Atlanta Hawks at Cleveland Cavaliers – Game 4 Tuesday
The Hawks were able to speed the game up despite losing center Al Horford to an ejection in the first half. Cavaliers all-star guard Kyrie Irving will probably sit out until a possible game six to rest up as much as possible for a the Finals where he will certainly be needed. The over under like has moved to 193.5 and I will take the over on a $110 bet to win $100. My only concern is that a fight might break out in this game after last night's ejection of Horford for trying to elbow Cavs guard Matthew Dellavedova in the face after Dellavedova tried to roll over Horford's knees in a battle for a loose ball. Dellavedova was the player that rolled over Korver's ankle in game two of this series and in the previous series locked up the Bulls' Taj Gibson's legs in another battle for a loose ball. Like Horford, Gibson got ejected for retaliating in a pivotal game 5. I don't know whether Dellavedova is sloppy in diving for loose balls or just a thug trying to injure players or draw ejections for retaliation but messing with a basketball players knees is messing with millions of dollars and I can't imagine this being put up with for long. If the Hawks are getting blown out tomorrow I wouldn't be surprised if a Hawk throws a punch at Dellavedova. If the Warriors play the Cavaliers in the finals I expect the Warriors to send a message to Dellavedova early in the first game since one way for the Cavaliers to win the series is if Dellavedova were to roll up on Stephen Curry's knees and knock him out of the series - accidentally of course.

Robert Parish vs Bill Laimbeer (1987 ECF Game 5) by kevin-garnett123

The NBA will sell throwback jerseys but this is one throwback they probably don't want to see...

Sunday, May 24, 2015

All the Way near Kansas City

My trip to Missouri started at a impromptu biker convention at the Marshalltown Git-N-Go parking lot.

  Last week I took Thursday and Friday off from work. Normally this would be great for me to take a break from the interminably long 75 minute commute I've had to endure since our company has moved 10 miles of heavily trafficked highway further away to West Des Moines but I’ve been working from home two or three days a week since the move which makes the interminably long commute much less interminable. Unfortunately I spent my two days off driving 120+ miles to Des Moines anyway, taking Kathy to the airport on Thursday (to fly to Idaho and help Ben pack and drive back from college) and heading to St. Francis for Friday’s weekly chess club.

  I got home on both of my days off by 10 and spent the rest of both days beagle-walking and hanging out. Normally the weekend would mean no driving for me, but my niece Lauren graduated from law school on Saturday in Kansas City. Lauren and her folks (my sister in law Becky and her husband Bob) have travelled to Marshalltown for both our son’s high school graduations and I get along great with them so I decided I would take the 500 mile round trip to Kansas City on Saturday to spend a couple of hours at her graduation celebration party.

  I had originally planned to board Daisy and Baxter for the weekend and stay overnight in Kansas City but our preferred boarding place didn’t have any openings. One of Kathy’s friends agreed to look in on the beagles during the day so they wouldn't be stuck for 12 hours without water or a bathroom break. I took Daisy and Baxter on long walks at 5 and 9:30, a shorter walk at 10:15, put them in the kitchen with a full bowl of water and a potty pad, and left for Kansas City at 10:30. My first stop was to get some gas at the local Git-N-Go where an impromptu biker convention was taking place in the parking lot. I filled up my Chevy Spark with gas, got a cup of ice, squeezed one of the lemons I brought with me into the ice, and poured one of the assortment of Dr. Pepper and 7-up sodas I packed with me over the lemon and ice and was on my way to Kansas City.

The strongest coffee in the world may be at this travel stop in southern Iowa...

  In a little over an hour I had reached the exit on Interstate 80 I normally take for work but I passed that exit and continued south on Interstate 35. Another hour later I had reached the Iowa-Missouri border. I was feeling a little tired from the sugary soda so I stopped in a rest area for a tiny 75 cent cup of coffee from a vending machine. Except for oatmeal, rest area vending machine coffee may be the vilest substance known to man and its sheer nastiness made it impossible to feel sleepy as I continued my trip and headed into Missouri.

Welcome to Missouri. I thought the 'ss' in Missouri looked familiar and it turned out to look like the Nazi Schutzstaffel logo.

  Missouri has a large fireworks industry along it’s Iowa border because fireworks are illegal in Iowa and not in Missouri (although that will soon change). I passed a number of fireworks stores as soon as I got to Missouri and none afterwards. I made great time on the 114 mile Missouri trek to Kansas City, only stopping once to get more ice for my sodas with lemons squeezed into them. I reached the Kansas City suburb of Liberty when I had to slam on my brakes as traffic had suddenly screeched to a halt. There was construction on Interstate 35 that had the highway reduced to one lane. The road signs said there would be improvements by Spring of 2017 which means something but I'm not sure what. The merge from two lanes to one shouldn't have been enough to send traffic to a standstill but the police cars and ambulances speeding by on the shoulder informed me that there was some sort of accident.

Could you imagine waiting two years for the road improvements?

  I crawled along at about two miles an hour for 40 minutes looking at the road signs promising improvements in only two years and then I saw an old familiar logo on the sign letting me know what food was available at the upcoming exit. There amongst the omnipresent McDonalds, Culvers, and Perkins logos was the simple sign of the best restaurant chain in America – The Waffle House. When I lived in Florida 30 years ago I was a Waffle House addict, having the gargantuan T-bone steak and eggs with grits and the Waffle House's signature scattered, smothered (with onions), and covered (with cheese) hash browns at least seven times a week. The food was cheap and plentiful and I could sit at the counter and watch the Waffle House workers make waffles, steaks, eggs, hash browns, etc. which I did for many happy hours.

  When I moved back to New Jersey in the spring of 1987 I left the Waffle House goodness behind and hadn't been to one since a trip to visit my father-in-law and his family in South Carolina over 10 years ago. On that visit they thought I was crazy for insisting we eat at the Waffle House but once we were there my in-laws (who are very educated people) had a great time watching the Waffle House staff pump out the food, listening to the previous century's hits on the jukebox, and keeping an eye on their belongings as the local riff-raff filed in and out of the restaurant. Having been to the Waffle House, my father-in-law and his family understand my Waffle House addiction and have gotten me a framed menu and a Waffle House T-Shirt as presents although I don't think they have actually eaten at a Waffle House since. If I wasn't stuck in the Missouri traffic I would have stopped at the Liberty Missouri Waffle House right then but by this point I was late for Lauren’s graduation party and just didn't have time. I eventually got past the traffic snarl which was caused by a car accident right at the spot where the two lanes turned into one and found my way to the graduation party at North Fifth Street in Kansas City by 3:15pm.

Congratulations Lauren Haley, Esquire! She is in all three pictures with her mom Becky (l), my in-laws Shawn & Kathy (c), and with Becky's friends from work (r)

  I had a nice time hanging out with my niece Lauren, Becky, Bob, Kathy and Shawn (my other set of in-laws), and some of Becky’s co-workers. Lauren was celebrating her graduation in tandem with her law school graduate boyfriend Bryce, whose family brought this giant pot of beef brisket. I had a few slices and it was great but I mostly grazed at the fruit and vegetable platters so I would have more room for a Waffle House sized meal.

Before I got to the Waffle House I made a gas-up stop at Snappy's, which had cheap gas and expensive beef sticks.

One of the most beautiful sights in the world! Notice how blue the sky is around the Waffle House sign and the bright heavenly light emanating from behind the restaurant...

  I was having a good time visiting in Kansas City and planned on staying until 5:30 but that was before I realized I was just a few miles away from the Waffle House so at 4:45 I said my goodbyes and headed back north on I-35 towards Liberty. I stopped at the Snappy convenience store to fill up my Chevy Spark with gas (the 9 gallon tank was ¾ empty from the 240 mile trip) and a few miles later took the Liberty exit by the tall scrabble letter Waffle House sign and made a left turn into the Waffle House’s empty parking lot.

Deb was my Waffle House server and keeper of the decor!

  Judging by the amount of food on the tables and crusted waffle stuff coating the waffle irons I must have just missed throngs of customers that had just enjoyed the goodness of a Waffle House meal after a long day of shopping at this strip mall infested street in Liberty Missouri. There were two skateboarder types having waffles at counter and taking up the middle four of the six stools so I sat at the booth nearest the cash register with the best view of the waffle irons and grill. Within a few seconds my server Deb cleared the table, presented me with a freshly wiped off menu and asked me if I knew what I wanted.

If only I was a cow and had four stomachs....

  I really wanted a T-Bone and egg platter with hash browns scattered, smothered, and covered but I still had three and a half hours of driving ahead of me. I was afraid I was going to fall asleep if I had too much dinner so I settled on a cup of coffee and an order of Hash Browns ‘all the way’ (scattered, SMOTHERED with onions, COVERED with cheese, CHUNKED with ham, DICED with tomatoes, PEPPERED with Jalapenos, CAPPED with mushrooms, TOPPED with chili, and COUNTRY covered in sausage gravy. A single serving of Hash Browns ‘all the way’ was only 650 calories and I figured it wouldn't fill me up to the point of sleepiness on the ride home.

  Deb the Waffle House server passed my order to Toby the cook. I noticed Deb’s name badge said ‘Since 2015’ so I asked her how she liked working at the Waffle House. Deb said it was the best job she ever had and she had plenty jobs and that this was the best because she loved all the customers and all of her co-workers. I asked Deb if she could eat for free and she told me that the Waffle House took 4 dollars a day out of her check for meals and she could have anything she wanted. I mentioned that if I had a job at the Waffle House I would have T-Bone and Eggs twice a day. Deb told me that T-Bones and other high priced items cost an extra dollar and she didn't even make minimum wage so she stayed away from the T-Bones but she had lots of waffles and eggs and burgers.

  I felt bad that Deb didn't even make minimum wage and was going to ask her how much she got in tips on a good day when Toby the cook came over to my booth. Toby asked Deb if I wanted ‘chili or gravy’ on my hash browns. Deb told him I wanted both. Toby raised an eyebrow as he grabbed my hash browns and headed to the ladling station where he ladled both chili AND country gravy on my hash browns.

After clearing up some topping confusion with chef Toby my hash browns 'all the way' arrived at my table!

  In no time Deb had my plate of hash browns ‘all the way’ on my table with a fresh cup of coffee. My hash browns ‘all the way’ were steaming hot so I took a dollar out of my pocket and headed over to the Waffle House juke box. There were 100 songs to choose from and I picked out four of the standbys from when I was a Waffle House regular 3 decades ago : Hotel California by the Eagles, Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash, Thriller by Michael Jackson, and Rhiannon by Fleetwood Mac.

Music, anyone?

  I returned to my hash browns ‘all the way’ while Hotel California was starting and proceeded to dig in. The first bite of hash browns ‘all the way’ was incredible with the flavors of potatoes, onions, cheese, ham, and country gravy exploding in my mouth all at once. If I only had some beagles with me I might have thought I was in heaven but I took a sip of coffee instead to cleanse my palate (cucumber sorbet was not available at this Waffle House) for my next bite of hash browns ‘all the way’. Deb came by and asked me if I needed anything.

  I thought it would be nice to have some pictures of me and my hash browns ‘all the way’ so I asked Deb if she could take some pictures of me eating which she happily did. Deb told me she noticed that I was taking pictures and wondered if I was from the Waffle House corporate office. I told her that I was an award winning journalist (leaving out the self-nominated chess journalist award part) and that my trip to the Liberty Missouri Waffle House was going to be prominently featured in a future post on my blog. Deb was suitably impressed and went off to clear some of the tables in the restaurant.

  Each bite of my hash browns ‘all the way’ was like Christmas – a bite of chili, some mushrooms, or a taste of ham mixed in with the awesomeness of hash browns with onions and cheese. The jalapeno peppers were the coal in my Christmas stocking – they were just too spicy for me. Deb brought me a second cup of coffee but I had to surrender and pulled the peppers out of my hash browns ‘all the way’. The next time I order hash browns ‘all the way’ I'll skip the peppers but it was the best meal I've had all year and I've eaten at the best place in Cylinder Iowa among many others so that is saying something in my opinion.

The jalapeno peppers were a little much for me. Other than that I cleaned my plate!

  As I was finishing my meal, a family of four came into the Waffle House and the children started debating what kind of waffles they were going to eat as Hotel California gave way to Folsom Prison Blues. For my part I was super energized by a great meal and ready to get back to Iowa and take Daisy and Baxter outside for a late night walk. Deb gave me the bill which was a little more than seven dollars. I was so fat and happy from my hash browns ‘all the way’ that I gave Deb $30 and told her to keep the change. I thought she was going to cry but I told her she deserved it because she worked at a place that made a lot of people happy and she helped me out a lot with my blog by taking pictures of me and my hash browns ‘all the way’. I was out the door as the opening sounds of Thriller came on the jukebox and was on my way back home by 5:45.

  Most people I told about my trip to the Waffle House thought I would have needed to stop for a restroom break at least three times but I'm happy to report (and apologize if it is too much information) that I drove all the way home without stopping until I got a cup of coffee at the Kwik Star in Marshalltown Iowa. I was home by 9:30 and greeted by a pair of enthusiastic beagles who were sniffing me up and down trying to figure out what I had been eating without them. I drove 7 hours to Kansas City and back for my niece’s graduation party. If it was held in a Waffle House I would have insisted on a weeklong celebration.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

NBA Conference Final Predictions - Game 3

  I split my Game two predictions in the NBA conference finals and in gambling splitting is losing. I Predicted the Warriors would cover the 10.5 point spread but the Rockets covered easily and nearly won the game after being eight points down with two minutes left. The Cavaliers-Hawks game looked to go over the 198 point over /under and make me a double loser until a 26 point 4th quarter left gave me my first round two win. I dropped another 10 mythical dollars to leave myself $135 in the red heading into this weekends games. There's no reason to go crazy in my bets but I'll be staying away from the point spreads for now as I attempt to get back to the plus side using the familiar lines for entertainment purposes only.

Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets – Game 3 Saturday
The Rockets are a one point underdog at home. The Warriors have been barely good enough to win the first two games in taking a 2-0 lead. I don't see the Rockets trying to match the Warriors in a shootout and have noticed that the Warriors have not been scoring at the same pace they have in the regular season. I expect that both teams will make defensive adjustments to keep the ball away from superstars Stephen Curry and James Harden. Even though the over/under line has dropped to 215 from Game two's 220 I'll take the under of 215 and will bet $110 to win $100 on a relatively low scoring game as both sides try to limit the touches of the other team's best player.

Atlanta Hawks at Cleveland Cavaliers – Game 3 Sunday
Despite having all-star guard Kyrie Irving missing for Game 2, the Cavaliers controlled the pace and slowed the game down in a surprisingly easy win. The Hawks offense is out of sync and they seemingly have no way to guard LeBron James. I suspect Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer will try to get his team back into the series by amping up the pace to attempt to wear James out by the fourth quarter. I expect to see a lot of guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder on the court together in an attempt to force more turnovers and get more fast break points. I'll gp for this game to be fairly high scoring and will take the over of 190 for $110 to win $100.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

NBA Conference Finals Predictions - Game 2

  My Game one NBA conference finals predictions had an auspicious debut to say the least. After climbing out of a 16 point first half hole, the Warriors were poised to cover the 10 point spread with a 11 point lead heading at the two minute mark. Unfortunately, the Rockets scored the next 8 points and only lost by four to cost me the bet. The Cavaliers-Hawks game was close until the third quarter when Atlanta got cold and fell into a hole they couldn't climb out of. My Two losses turned my $90 mythical surplus to $125 mythical loss. I'll attempt to make up my losses in my game two predictions once again using the lines for entertainment purposes only.

Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors – Game 2 Thursday
The Warriors are favored by 10.5 points heading into game two of the series, up from game one's ten point spread. I think this is in response to Rocket center Dwight Howard's apparent knee injury. I think the Rockets played over their heads in the first half of the game and the Warriors were uncharacteristically nervous. I doubt these two occurrences will happen two games in a row. I am counting on the Warriors to make the better adjustments and will give the 10.5 points on a $110 wager to make $100.

Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks – Game 2 Friday
As I expected, Cavalier guard Kyrie Irving is still bothered by his leg injuries and Jeff Teague was nearly unstoppable for the Hawks. I didn't expect the Cavaliers J.R. Smith to go off for 28 points (the only bench scoring the team had) in the Cavaliers' eight point win. The Cavaliers are favored by a point and with the knee injury to DeMarre Carroll the line will likely increase. I expect the Hawks to play desperately in what is almost an elimination game for them and I will shy away from picking a team, instead betting $110 to win $100 that the score will be below the over/under of 198 points.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

NBA Conference Finals Predictions - Game 1

  The second round of the NBA playoffs finished on Sunday afternoon with the Houston Rockets completing their comeback from a 3-1 hole to win game seven. That unexpected turn of events turn of events left me 90 mythical dollars to the plus side and 4-3 in my playoff series predictions to go along with my $150 mythical regular season profit.

My second round picks blog post was somehow highly listed on the bing search engine for ‘NBA second round playoff predictions’ last week. This led to increased traffic for this Broken Pawn blog and a sense of responsibility on my part to continue the predictions to the rest of the playoffs instead of writing about my epic trip to the Waffle House in Liberty, Missouri last weekend. .

The series odds favor the Warriors at -750 and the Cavaliers at -230 with the underdog Rockets at +550 and Hawks at +195. I think the Warriors will win the series in 6 but I don't like the 7-1 odds. I like the Cavaliers to win in seven but the series will be razor close and the determining factor will be the health of Cavaliers’ guard Kyrie Irving who has been hampered by knee issues. For the Conference finals I will switch from picking the winners of the series to picking individual games using the lines for entertainment purposes only.

Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors – Game 1 Tuesday
I was not convinced the Warriors were championship material until they came back from trailing the Memphis Grizzlies two games to one to win three straight including two in Memphis. The Warriors dismantled Memphis by being just as if not more physical as the most physical team in the NBA. Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s defensive switch of putting center Andrew Bogut on Grizzlies guard Tony Allen was a masterstroke and has convinced me that he will be able to pinpoint and exploit the weaknesses in the Rockets’ talented but flawed roster. As good as the Rockets have played it seems to me that Rockets all-star guard James Harden doesn’t work well with center Dwight Howard on the offensive end and won’t be able to cover any of the Warriors guards on the defensive side of the court. The Warriors are favored by 10 points and I expect them to cover and win me $100 on a $105 wager.

Cleveland Cavaliers at Atlanta Hawks – Game 1 Wednesday
In LeBron James the Cavaliers have the best player in the series but the Hawks will be able to use a number of different players (Al Horford, Paul Milsap, Kent Bazemore, DeMarre Carroll) to make him work for everything he gets on offense and occupy him on defense. The Cavs were able to get past the Bulls without point guard Kyrie Irving at 100 percent but if Irving is still hobbled I expect Hawk’s all-star point guard Jeff Teague to wreak havoc with his speed against the other Cavalier guards. On defense the Hawks have no one to match up with the Cavalier's massive center Timofey Mozgov but if Irving is still hurt the Hawks will be able to scheme around their lack of size. Irving will play in game one but I don’t see him being in game shape and will go with the home team Hawks giving a point and wager $110 to win $100.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Gambles and Sure Things

  I won two of my three second round NBA series picks to take my mythical NBA playoff bankroll from -10 to +90 heading into the third round. Every series I picked could have gone either way. After an impressive game one win, the Wizards (who I picked to take the Hawks in an upset) lost four of the next five games after all-star guard John Wall missed three games with five non-displaced fractures in his left wrist. I don't know how Wall came back for the last two games since even thinking about five non-displaced fractures in my left wrist makes me want to get the biggest cast I can find. The Cavaliers (who I picked to easily defeat the Bulls) found themselves in a battle of attrition with the Chicago Bulls as Cavs all-star guard Kyrie Irving and Bulls center Pau Gasol sat out large portions of games with injuries before LeBron James asserted his will and the Cavs won the series in six games. The Houston Rockets (who I picked to win in seven games) should have been able to take advantage of Clippers all-star guard Chris Paul’s absence from the first two games with a pulled hamstring but instead were nearly blown out of the series without showing any of the toughness I thought would carry them through. The Rockets righted the ship in game five and won game six in a miraculous comeback before taking game seven on Sunday to complete a historic Clippers collapse and make me look like an astute basketball predictor.

  I’m only gambling mythical dollars on my playoff predictions and giving serious thought to resurrecting my 30 year old regular season prediction program and gambling for real next season. I'll write the 21st century version of my program this August if I'm still motivated. Until then I'll stick to placing my bets on sure things and one of the surest things I know to gamble on is the stock market since it is sure to go up and it is sure to go down.

  I've written about my previous encounters with workplace keepers of the 401K plans in the various companies I've worked for and how 5 years ago I transferred these 401K plans into a Fidelity self-directed IRA and accumulate Intel stock by buying on dips and selling when it goes up enough to allow me to break even on my initial buy while keeping five shares as a profit. A big winner in this is Fidelity since they get $7.95 commission on each buy and sell. I don't begrudge Fidelity their commission – their website is top-notch, they have a great mobile app for my amazing iPod, and whenever I've had a question about the website or how trades work I have gotten timely and correct answers from their online chat service.

  My Intel buys and sells have been working very well. The stock goes up and down around 10 times a year and I've accumulated over 200 shares of their stock in that time solely from the ebb and flow of the markets. When I started this exercise in 2010 Intel was giving a 16 cent dividend which has increased each year and now they provide a 24 cent dividend so not only do I have 200 shares of Intel stock as profit - the company gives me almost $50 every three months just to own it.

  I've dabbled in other stocks. I don’t use a system like I do with Intel - I just follow my gut. I prefer name brand companies that pay a dividend but I will make exceptions. In December 2010 I bought 15 shares of Apple stock that wasn't paying a dividend for $320. When Apple stock went up to $450 in January of 2012, I sold 11 shares to recoup my initial investment and felt very smart indeed. I felt much less smart in August of 2012 when the stock was up to $700. I'm only kidding about feeling less smart – I was happy to have recouped my initial investment and have four shares of Apple risk free. In June of 2014 Apple split their stock 7 to 1 to give me 28 shares which currently sells for about $125 a share and even offers a dividend of .52 cents per share per quarter.

  My stock market adventures include some misadventures as well as the successful outcomes I've detailed as I've continued looking for ways to minimize risks and maximize profits. I had always thought of stock options as a risky idea where you either pay for the option to purchase a stock at a set price until an expiration date or where you collect money to sell the option to purchase a stock that you don’t own at a set price until an expiration date and either grab a quick profit, lose your investment, or take a huge loss as you scramble to buy stock you don't own at a premium price to fulfill your obligation to sell. There are dozens of trading strategies for options (you can see some here). There is the Long Straddle, Long Strangle, Iron Condor, and for ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ fans there is even an Iron Butterfly.

  Last August I read an article about options that explained in detail the ‘covered call’ option. A covered call is selling an option on stock that is already owned. It reminds me a little bit of ‘rent-to-own’ stores where people can have a brand new $1,000 TV now and pay ONLY $50 a week for a year or more. It is a great deal for the rent-to-own stores since they get over $2,600 for a $1,000 TV that probably only cost them $500 in the first place and if a renter doesn't pay the TV can be repossessed and sold at a discount. As applied to stocks investors will pay me today for the option to purchase my stock at an agreed upon price in the future. If the renter doesn't exercise the option, the stock is still mine and if they exercise the option I sell the stock but in either case the rental fee is mine.

  Options in general and covered calls in particular can be pretty confusing. I used Fidelity’s excellent customer service and had a live chat with an agent until I felt like I had all the information I needed. An option (also known as a contract) counts for 100 shares of a stock but the price of the option is listed as a single share. That means if the listed price of an option is .40 cents you get $40 (less commissions) for every option you sell. If the option is exercised then you sell the stock for the agreed on price and have to pay another commission. From my research the only downside to selling options was that if the stock shot up in price I would have to sell the stock at the agreed on lower price and wouldn't make as much profit. This didn't seem like too much of a drawback since I'm more of a bird in the hand guy and wouldn't likely be kicking myself over some opportunity cost just like I don’t kick myself over taking my profit on the Apple stock 2 years ago where I surely could have played it better and I could have also surely played it worse.

  By October I felt informed enough and was ready to make some moves. I bought 300 shares of Intel (INTC) at $32.24 on the 9th while the stock was in the middle of a dip of more than $2 a share. I then sold three options to sell the 300 shares for $33 a share, collecting 64 cents a share for the options. The option expired on the 18th. This put $182 in my account (300 * .64 less the $10 commission to Fidelity.). Intel kept sliding down and was priced at $31.38 at the close of business on October 17th so my option expired and I had the stock and the $182 dollars.

  This revealed a downside of the ‘covered call’ option strategy. The stock price had gone down and the only options I could sell were for low prices that guaranteed a net loss if the option was exercised. Selling an option at a losing price was not an option for me and told me that it was important to use this covered call strategy only with top quality stocks that paid a dividend so if I got stuck holding it there would still be a revenue stream until a price rebound allowed the selling of options at a profitable price. It also told me that while the strategy leads to long-term profits it was a short term gamble so it was perfect for my self-directed 401k that I can’t use until I’m 60.

  On Tuesday the 21st I sold the three options for $33 a share that would expire on the 31st. Since Intel was priced lower than before I only got 15 cents and my net gain was $36.94 (300 * .15 = $45 less commission). Intel performed a major rebound over the next week and a half and when it closed at $34.01 on October 30th the option was exercised and I had to sell my 300 shares for $33.00 (less commission).

  So was I a loser because I sold the stock at a price for a dollar less than the market value? You could make the case but I don’t think so. Let’s look at the numbers:
10/10/2014Buy 300 INTC @ 32.24-9679.92
10/10/2014Sell 3 INTC Options @33 (.48)
Expiring 10/18/2014 (not exercised)
10/18/2014Sell 3 INTC Options @33 (.15)
Expiring 10/31/2014 (exercised)
10/31/2014Sell 300 INTC @ 33+9681.33

  That works out to a 4.45% profit over 21 days which is an annual profit of 77%. I could have made more of a profit by holding the stock and selling at $34.01 but I wasn't trying to buy low and sell high – I was trying to buy low and rent the stock in a low risk fashion and thought it worked quite well. I tried for a similar quick hit in January with AT&T (T) which is a spectacular stock for this exercise because it gives better than a five percent dividend in case options can't be sold at a profitable price and it has frequent up and down swings. On January 14 AT&T stock dropped almost 3 percent in the prior two days. I made a buy at 33.14 and the first thing I did was to collect $36.01 by selling the covered call option at $34 a share to expire on February 20th. AT&T dipped to $32.64 on January 28th and shot up to $35 on February 6th before settling in at $34.08 on February 20th which led to the option I sold being exercised:
1/14/2015Buy 100 T @ 33.13-3320.06
1/14/2015Sell 1 T Option @34 (.44)
Expiring 2/20/2015 (exercised)
2/20/2015Sell 100 T @ 34+3391.98

  Just like the Intel operation, I could have maximized my profits if I had a crystal ball and knew the stock was going to climb to $35 a share but I didn't know that at the time and I didn’t kick myself over it either. I was happy to have made a profit of 3.2% in 5 weeks which is an annualized rate of return of over 29%. Notice how the annual rate of return makes everything sound bigger and better!

  I have been executing this option strategy with Intel on a regular basis since I already have the stock and save on commissions by not having to purchase it. There is definitely an economy of scale involved at this low level since Fidelity charges a $7.95 fee for the first option and 65 cents for each additional option. If I had tripled the AT&T purchase above I would have made a profit of $367 which is 3.6% and not 3.2%. The commissions take a hefty bite when executing options one at a time.

  I've done this strategy with two other high dividend stocks – Exxon (XOM) and Emerson (EMR). Both stocks are highly dependent on oil prices and have gone down over 10 percent since I purchased them months ago which left me on the option sidelines for long periods of time. The saving grace is that both stocks pay at least a 3% dividend so my investment isn't just sitting there like it would be in a non-dividend paying stock. Emerson has rebounded in the past weeks and if I sold it today I’d have a profit even though it is selling for less than I bought it at. I have not been so lucky with Exxon which is still trading more than 8% less than the purchase price but thanks to the dividends and unexercised options I’m down 3% and not 8% (and no I am not going to annualize my loss!).
12/10/2014Buy 100 EMR @ 61.444-6152.35
12/18/2014Sell 1 EMR Option @62.5 (.95)
Expiring 1/27/2015 (not exercised)
3/11/2015Dividend EMR+47.00
5/13/2015Dividend EMR (Payable 6/11/2015)+47.00
5/14/2015Sell 1 EMR Option @62.5 (.65)
Expiring 6/19/2015
Total if sold at 5/15 price of 60.19+96.61+1.57%
Total if 6/19 option is exercised+327.61+5.33%

9/24/2014Buy 100 XOM @ 95-9507.95
10/9/2014Sell 1 XOM Option @97 (.50)
Expiring 10/31/14 (not exercised)
11/7/2014Sell 1 XOM Option @99 (.39)
Expiring 11/22/14 (not exercised)
12/10/2014Dividend XOM+69.00
12/19/2014Sell 1 XOM Option @95 (1.25)
Expiring 1/17/2015 (not exercised)
1/21/2015Sell 1 XOM Option @95 (.47)
Expiring 2/06/2015 (not exercised)
2/13/2015Sell 1 XOM Option @95 (.75)
Expiring 3/13/2015 (not exercised)
3/10/2015Dividend XOM+69.00
5/11/2015Dividend XOM (Payable 6/11/2015)+73.00
Total if sold at 5/15 price of 87.35-273.96-2.88%

  The ‘rent-to-own’ strategy seems perfect for somebody like me with a 401k plan that I can’t touch. I can’t see anything but a minimal risk as long as it is done with quality stocks that can be held if needed. It does require some study although I think it is pretty straight forward and certainly more of a sure thing than picking the winners of basketball or football games. If Exxon or Intel or AT&T or Emerson went out of business I would show a 100% loss. I think if that were to happen I'd have bigger problems than worrying about stock prices. After all, I've never seen the characters in ‘The Walking Dead’ discussing options strategies.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Bill Came Due

  One of my favorite sports commentators lost his job this week when ESPN President John Skinner announced that the network would not be renewing the contract of Bill Simmons. Simmons was the founder and editor of the network’s Grantland sports and pop culture website, the show runner of the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 broadcasts, an NBA commentator, and their most prolific podcaster with ‘The B.S. Report’ and ‘Bill Don’t Lie’ podcasts. Simmons’ contract runs until September but he has not been on the air or on the Internet since Skinner’s announcement. Since he will still be paid it is not a firing per se, but rather a way for ESPN to not give any publicity for a soon to be competitor.

  I didn't care for Simmons’ overt adulation of all things Boston but he didn't talk about the Red Sox too much and gave some of his Yankee-loving friends equal time. What I appreciated about Simmons was his podcasts. Aside from his two or three times a week B.S. Report and weekly NBA recap (‘Bill Don’t Lie’) Grantland puts out between two and five hour long podcasts a week. Skinner stated that Grantland will continue on its own without Simmons and so far that has been true. There have been four podcasts issued since the firing. None have mentioned Simmons.

   On the surface, I found the timing of ESPN’s decision odd. Simmons is mostly known for his NBA takes and was let go in the heart of the NBA playoffs. Negotiations could have been dragged on for another 5 weeks until the end of the NBA season before deciding to pull the plug. I figured there was a reason for the timing of the decision and I believe it was revealed on Monday.

  On Monday, the NFL came down hard and heavy on the New England Patriots for the controversy surrounding the underinflated balls used in the first half of their AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. The team was fined a million dollars and stripped of their first round draft pick next year and their fourth round pick the year after that. Quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of next season. This punishment was ostensibly handed down by Troy Vincent, the NFL executive president but if there is anyone that thinks the penalties were determined by anyone other than NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell they have not come forward with that opinion.

  What does this have to do with Simmons? Simmons is a rabid Patriots fan and is also an antagonist of Commissioner Goodell. Last July Commissioner Goodell suspended Baltimore Ravens running back two games for his arrest for domestic violence against his then fiancée. There was a video of Rice dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator. In September, the suspension was increased to the entire season once a video was released showing Rice knocking his fiancée out in the elevator before dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator. At the time Goodell claimed no one in the NFL had seen the tape (which was released by the entertainment website TMZ). A NFL ‘internal’ investigation came to the same conclusion.

  The NFL has an entire investigative division which is comprised largely of former law enforcement personnel and it is beyond my comprehension that they hadn't seen or heard of the tape. What seems more likely to me was that the NFL was caught unaware by the firestorm of public perception of the NFL as accepting of domestic violence after the tape’s release combined with the two game suspension which is half the suspension levied for substance abuse. Denying that the NFL had seen the tape was Goodell’s version of damage control in the face of withering criticism from sponsors and senators alike.

  It is one thing to say something is likely like I did in the previous paragraph and another thing to say that the Commissioner of the National Football League is a liar, which is what Simmons did on a September podcast of ‘The B.S. Report’. It is one thing to call the Commissioner of the National Football a liar and still another thing to do it on a national podcast broadcast by a company that has a 15.2 BILLION DOLLAR contract with the National Football League running through 2021 for the privilege of broadcasting 17 football games each season which works out to over 100 MILLION DOLLARS per game and then daring your employers to suspend you which is what Simmons did.

  ESPN obliged and suspended Simmons for three weeks. This was three times longer than the suspension given to commentator Stephen A. Smith got for suggesting that Ray Rice’s fiancée had some personal responsibility for her beating. I've always believed that if you want to know what a person or a company is about don’t look at what they say and don’t look at what they intend – look at what they do! Words and intentions can be disguised or reinterpreted but actions are quite hard to disguise. And ESPN’s actions say that calling the head of a corporation that is a 15.2 BILLION DOLLAR business partner a liar is three times worse than suggesting Ray Rice’s fiancée (who does not have a 15.2 BILLION DOLLAR partnership with ESPN) had a hand in her own beating.

  Simmons resumed his duties after the suspension and didn’t say too much about the suspension or Goodell afterwards but he appeared on ‘The Dan Patrick Show’ last week. When the conversation turned to the NFL’s upcoming punishment to the Patriots for the underinflated footballs, Simmons said that Goodell didn't have the ‘testicular fortitude’ to decide the punishment until he gauged the public’s reaction to the NFL’s investigative report which said that the Patriots “more probable than not” deliberately underinflated the footballs and that Brady was likely aware of the situation.

  I didn't think too much of the so-called ‘deflate-gate’ controversy at the time and today (you can see here what I wrote at the time) I don't think it was anything more than a team trying to get an edge if that much. I would expect the head of a multi-billion dollar operation like the NFL to carefully consider the public relations impact of any decision and I can't fault Goodell for that even if I think the punishment is way over the top. I can't imagine how badly Simmons would have ripped Goodell and the NFL on his own podcast but I am pretty sure that ESPN and the NFL didn't want to find out. By removing Simmons from his on the air duties before his contract ended, Simmons can only voice his opinions by risking the remaining four months pay due from his contract and possibly more depending on non-compete or disparagement clauses. It all seems too convenient to me and I wouldn't doubt for a second that the NFL played a large part in the timing of Simmons' ouster.

  I miss Simmons already but I doubt ESPN will. As popular as his podcasts and websites were at ESPN, they are no match for King Football. I can't imagine any sports network that wants to maintain ties with NFL hiring Simmons. I predict that Simmons will have to go independent until he can rehabilitate his relationship with the NFL which I can't see happening until a new commissioner is in place. Simmons took it to the most powerful man in sports. Last week the bill came due and the price was his job.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Missing Column

  I wrote a chess blogging column for The Chess Journalists of America’s magazine ‘The Chess Journalist’ (you can see the archived issues here) from the 2011 fall issue to 2013 triple spring/summer/fall issue. For all I know I may still be writing a column for the magazine but there hasn't been an issue published since that 2013 triple issue. I started out getting two columns ahead and got in the habit of submitting a new column when I got an issue in the mail so the editor always had a column and I had plenty of time to prepare for my next column. I didn't receive an issue from late in 2012 until early in 2014 and was definitely out of the quarterly publishing habit. A burst of CJA activity in early 2014 led to two issues being published in short order and I was left without a column in the hand. I submitted a column on March 6th, 2014 and 14 months later it still is waiting for an issue of ‘The Chess Journalist’ to be published for it to appear in. Since I have doubts whether this column will ever see the light of day I thought I’d use the occasion of my 500th blog post to display another side of my writing.

  I tried to alternate my columns between the technical aspects of blogging with a more refined version of my chess blogging. The best part about writing a column for a national magazine was being able to get many local chess personalities' names and pictures in front of a national audience. The weekend chess playing crowd at Zanzibar's Coffee Adventure or Iowa State Fair chess legend David Skaar didn't need to be in 'The Chess Journalist' but having them made my columns (and the magazine in my opinion) far more entertaining.

  My limited dealings with chess journalists have found them to be a finicky type that I felt wouldn't appreciate my semi-lowbrow writing style so in my column I attempted to use journalistic sounding words like ‘embellish’, ’rife’, and ‘metaphorical’. I hope you'll remember that this column was written for an audience of ‘chess journalists’ and not my regular blog readers. So without further ado (notice the transition to the journalistic word ‘ado’)…

Boots on the Ground

No sooner had I made my affinity for boxing as a metaphor for chess known in this column two issues ago I was made aware of another frequent metaphor for chess: the military.

It’s only natural that a game with origins as a military training tool would have many military expressions associated with it. The brutish attempt to mate opponent on the f2 or f7 square is frequently called the ‘Blitzkrieg’ attack in addition to the more popular term ‘Scholar’s Mate’ and it may well be an optimal strategy in a game of ‘Blitz’ or ‘Bullet’ chess. Seemingly equal middle and endgames are often decided by which side can successfully execute a ‘flanking’ maneuver on their opponent.

Chess literature and chess journalism is rife with military references from the ’64-square battleground’ to calling pawns ‘foot-soldiers’ and rooks and queens ‘heavy artillery’ to Victor Moskaleno’s description of a knight sacrifice on d4 in a completely locked pawn structure as the ‘Trojan Horse’ sacrifice in his book 'Revolutionize Your Chess'.And any discussion of military metaphors for chess must contain a salute to the commander-in-chief of military metaphors in chess: Franklin K. Young, the prolific writer of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s who tried to boil chess down to a series of military principles (“As the salients repel adverse attacks along diagonals, so the supporting parallels oppose radii of offence directed along verticals” –The Minor Tactics of Chess: A Treatise on the Deployment of the Forces in Obedience to Strategic Principle).

My favorite military expression as it relates to chess blogging is ‘boots on the ground’. The military meaning is fairly clear: ground forces engaged in conflict as opposed to troops in reserve, personnel on clerical or KP duty, or programmed drones seeking out their targets in automaton fashion. How does this relate to blogging? When your ‘boots are on the ground’ as an active participant in the chess world you will receive a wealth of material and subjects to write about in return for your participation. In this column I want to provide examples of how my blogging has benefited from having ‘boots on the ground’ in the hope that they will provide inspiration and encouragement to the aspiring chess blogger that may be struggling to find subject matter.

One of the easiest ways to get ‘boots on the ground’ is to compete in a tournament. Any tournament game I notate gets into my blog no matter what the result (See my column in TCJ #142 for information on how to publish chess games in your blog). Some bloggers only show their victories and others just share their defeats but including everything will help connect with readers who will relate to your ups and downs and bumps in the road more than a straight line chronicle of triumphs or tragedies. You can retain interest among your non-chess playing readers by personalizing your opponents (a picture, occupation, mannerisms, etc…) and sharing some details of your trip when travelling to play. Few remember my posts last year about my pedestrian result at the Jackson Super Reserve or my Blue Ribbon performance at the 2013 Iowa State Fair Speed Chess Tournament but many readers took the time to send feedback when I wrote of my discovery that the advertised ‘Regional Breakfast Item’ at the Jackson Minnesota Super 8 Motel consisted of a tray of hard-boiled eggs! While tournaments, playing sites, and games can tend to be indistinguishable over time the amusing clerk at the convenience store, repairing a flat tire on the way to a tournament, or even a tray of hard-boiled eggs have the power to make your chess tournament adventure a unique and memorable article or post.

I also get ‘boots on the ground’ by organizing and directing chess events. In September of 2013, I was approached by Life Master Tim Mc Entee about helping put on a one day three round tournament open to anyone that had ever attained a USCF rating of 2000. Tim had obtained a sponsor to put up over $1000 in prize money so there would be no entry fee. I agreed to direct and my hometown Marshalltown Iowa Salvation Army volunteered to host the tournament at no charge. We named the tournament the $1150 Expert Open and set the date for February 8th. A month later I received permission from Tim to hold a reserve tournament for the non-experts with the idea of enticing the experts and masters to bring their friends along to play in the reserve tournament and share the drive. I decided to name the reserve tournament after my blog and called it the Broken Pawn Reserve.

Everything was proceeding normally when I got an email from my friend Ben Tessman who is also an admin for the ‘Team Iowa’ group on Ben told me the group was looking to have a meet-up and if I knew anywhere they could have one. I suggested that the group have a meet-up tournament as a separate section to go along with the other two tournaments. The offer was accepted and now I had three tournaments scheduled. The day was already promising to be special and ten days before the tournament Tim and I received an email from Will Liang to let us know his son Awonder, the current world ten year old champion (You can see him on the cover of the March 2014 Chess Life) would be playing in the tournament. As a bonus Will was able to bring his other three children to play since we were having the reserve tournament.

A tournament for experts and above and a reserve tournament would be worth a blog post but hosting the group and a world chess champion family turned the day into a chess festival and provided a large amount of chess writing material. The week before the tournament I wrote a post detailing the twists and turns that changed a staid tournament into a much anticipated event. The week after the tournament I focused on 5 participants that had been playing in tournaments I directed for almost 10 years and showing pictures of them from then to now (one of the benefits of having ‘boots on the ground’ for over a decade!). The following week was devoted to a review of the tournament and what it was like for the participants, onlookers, and the tournament director to spend a day with a world champion and his family.

In addition to the blog posts, I submitted a tournament write-up to Chess Life Online that was published on the USCF web site and photographer Cliff Yates created a unique photo montage that can be seen at There was a lot of good fortune involved to find myself in the middle of a memorable tournament that provided so many writing subjects but much of the good fortune was made by being willing to be an active participant in the planning and staging of the event. Blogging about other people’s chess activities (software and book reviews or annotating games for example) is all well and good but by putting your ‘boots on the ground’ you will have a wealth of first person material for your chess blogging and other journalistic efforts.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Good Life

After five straight blogs about my travels to Okoboji and Cylinder its time for a blogging vacation so I have enlisted those most prolific of beagle bloggers, Daisy and Baxter to channel their inner Martha Stewart and share their views on living well...

Hi everyone! It’s Daisy…  and Baxter with another blog post for our loyal readers! I’m sure glad Hank finally stopped writing about Okoboji, Daisy.  I did enjoy reading about Hank’s Pollo Chorizo at El Parian and the Rack Shack Burger and Reuben Bites he had in Cylinder sounded tasty also. I just don’t understand why he didn't bring us any when he came home.  I don’t get it either. When Hank and Kathy go to eat at the Chinese Buffet they always bring us back a big piece of red chicken on a stick. YUM!! I love red chicken on a stick!  That’s right, Baxter. And when Kathy goes to Applebee’s she gets Three Cheese Chicken Penne Pasta but she gets the chicken in a separate plate and brings it home for us. The chicken is grilled and seasoned and very tasty.  Applebee’s chicken is tasty but I like the chicken from the Chinese Buffet slathered in the red stuff. YUM!! I love chicken! YUM!!  When you find a kind of chicken that you don’t like, be sure to let us know, Baxter.

It’s been months since our last blog and Hank hasn't mentioned any of the big beagle news, Daisy!  That’s right Baxter! Miss P the beagle won the Westminster Dog Show in February. It wasn't a surprise to me.  Me neither. All the other finalists were fluffy dogs that had to have their hair styled or shaved. There was a Shih Tzu, a Poodle, an Old English Sheepdog…  An English Springer, a Portuguese Water Dog, and a Skye Terrier. All the other dogs needed their hair brushed before the judging but not the beagle!  All the other trainers had their combs and brushes with them. Beagles are short haired sturdy dogs that don’t need to have their hair teased and shaved!  And beagles are smarter and have a better sense of smell than almost all the other dogs.  Don’t forget that beagles are the most literate of all dogs. This blog is a good example.  This is the second time in eight years that a beagle won the Westminster Dog Show. I can’t imagine why a beagle doesn't win every year.  I can’t either. I guess if they did all those fluffy dog owners would probably protest and break windows with their fluffy dog combs. 

The Jiffy raised the prices of their beef sticks by 29%. Now Hank gets his coffee at the Casey's and gives us Aldi beef sticks. We miss the Jiffy but like the advertising at Casey 's. Donuts! YUM!!!

Don't forget our other big news, Baxter!  You mean how Hank ate at the Rack Shack and didn't bring us anything?  No! I’m talking about how the Jiffy raised the price of their beef sticks from 2 for a dollar to 2 for $1.29. It’s so sad.  That’s right! Two months ago Hank was paying $2.06 for his coffee and our beef sticks. Then the Jiffy raised the price of the coffee and it cost $2.17.  And now that the Jiffy raised the price of the beef sticks the same coffee and beef sticks cost $2.46.  Hank isn't mad at the Jiffy but we haven’t been there since. Now Hank and Kathy take us to the Casey’s on weekend mornings.  Casey’s was the first convenience store to raise the price of their beef sticks but Hank says their coffee is only 74 cents and doesn’t have grounds in it like the Jiffy or the Burger King in West Des Moines.  We don’t get beef sticks from the Casey’s or any convenience store anymore. Kathy gets beef sticks from the Aldi and we get those when we go on our weekend walks.  I miss our Old Wisconsin and Jack Links beef sticks, Daisy. The Jiffy was the last place in town where we could get two beef sticks for a dollar.  I miss them too Baxter but I like the Aldi beef sticks and Hank said we’ll still have our convenience store beef stick taste test so Jiffy, Kum & Go, and Casey’s will have at least one chance to win back our beef stick business. 

Most of the other dogs we see hardly ever get walks, much less beef sticks. How sad...

It’s hard to be too upset about what brand of beef sticks we get on our walks, Daisy. Most other dogs never get beef sticks at all.  A lot of the dogs we see hardly ever get to go on walks, Baxter. There are the two huskies down the block that never get out of their pen.  Mocha and Napolean get to walk around the block once in a while but we never see Spike the big bulldog outside of his yard. We’re pretty lucky dogs.  That’s right, Baxter. Hank and Kathy take us for at least four walks every day. Not only do we get beef stick treats – we get lots of exercise.  All our exercise will help us live a good long time Daisy. At least I think so. 

The weather finally got nice enough for Marilyn, Bill, Becky, and Abby to visit with us on their porch!

I wish all the dogs we meet on our walks could exercise like we do Baxter. But we don’t always walk – sometimes we stop and talk to our neighbors.  That’s right Daisy. Sunday was the first time all year that we got to visit with Bill and Marilyn. They are really old and don’t like the cold weather.  We would see Marilyn sometimes in her living room in the winter and her daughter Becky and Abby the Cairn terrier would invite us in to say hello.  We didn't see Bill all winter long. When I saw him Sunday he rubbed my head and said “Hi Baxter, old boy!” I was glad he made it through the winter.  Me too! He petted my neck and said “How are you Daisy?” Of course he knew that I was just fine.  We hung around for almost a half hour in their yard visiting. Hank fell asleep.  I know! And he started to snore so loudly that he woke himself up. 

The duck pond is so much fun! We get to have some bread and look at Mr. Goose and his friends, and the baby geese too!

On Sunday morning we go to the duck pond at the cemetery. That’s always fun.  Yes it is, Baxter. It’s especially fun when Kathy brings bread for the ducks because she gives us some.  YUM!! I like bread. Not as much as beef sticks but when there’s only bread to eat that’s my favorite food.  Hank takes pictures of the ducks and geese while Kathy feeds everyone bread. We say hi to Mr. Goose and his two friends, the Gray Goose and the funny looking bulb-nose goose.  The Gray Goose was missing for two weeks and we thought something happened to him…  But last week we saw him and we saw him this Sunday too. I’m glad nothing bad happened to the gray goose, Baxter.  Me too, Daisy! The best part of our Sunday trip to the duck pond was the baby geese we got to see.  The baby Canadian geese are tiny and yellow but they are already great swimmers. I’m glad to see the baby geese because Kathy likes them so much.  And because she likes them – she’ll be sure to go see them and bring bread for everyone! YUM!! 

Katie came over this week. She petted us and gave us a giant Slim Jim! YUM!!

We’re really very lucky dogs, Baxter!  That’s right Daisy! We live with a great family that loves us and takes good care of us.  We get lots of exercise and plenty of beef sticks!  And we have lots of friends that we get to visit and some even visit us like Monica and Katie did on Wednesday!  Katie brought us a giant Slim Jim and fed it to us!  YUM!! I love Slim Jims! YUM!!  Don’t forget about our visit with Shirley, Baxter.  We don't have to show anyone any pictures of that, do we?  We used to see Shirley on our way back from the Jiffy but there’s been so much crime in town that she doesn’t leave her house early in the morning when it's dark anymore.  We saw her on our lunchtime walk last week. She was waiting for her sister.  She petted us a lot.  And then she rubbed my tummy. OH BOY!!!  And then…  You don’t have to show the picture Daisy…it’s kinda embarrassing… 

Right at the corner of a busy intersection…I’m surprised there wasn't an accident.  You’re just jealous she didn't kiss your tummy…where's Hank's camera? I think I'll eat it. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Pairings in Black and White

Well worth your time and money!
  After the hectic finish to Saturday night’s games I was one of a group of 20 or so that headed to the El Parian Mexican Restaurant for our annual Saturday night dinner. I sat by Mark Capron, Tim McEntee, Tom Gaul, Sam Smith, Ken Fee, and Frank Whitsell at one end of a long row of tables. I had a great time talking and joking about all things chess and non-chess while chowing down on a giant plate of Pollo Chorizo (chicken, chorizo sausage, and rice). Ken bought my dinner and the staff must have gotten an extra bonus because Eric Bell told me he also paid for my dinner. If I had only known I would have ordered a double portion.

  The guest of honor at the dinner besides our unofficial host Riaz Khan was Grandmaster Mauricio Flores. Aside from being a chess grandmaster, Mauricio is a graduate student in Math at the University of Minnesota and the author of the chess book “Chess Structures – A Grandmaster Guide”. Mauricio brought a few copies of his book to the tournament and they were quickly snapped up and autographed before I even found out they were available. I did get to look at Tom Gaul’s copy and I was quite impressed. The book is less than $25 and over 450 pages explaining in detail many of the common pawn structures in commonsense language that I could understand easily. Mauricio even has a blog where he continues adding to the topics he covers in the book. While the table was talking about chess he mentioned that in his opinion, the Albin Counter Gambit was a great opening choice for below GM players since it is hard for White to keep Black from getting the pawns in the center this opening aims for.

  Mauricio is very quiet but very cool. I took advantage of his mathematics graduate student expertise to ask about my son’s upcoming semester of study in Hungary and winning the Rockefeller award. He knew all about these types of activities and explained these are the type of academic things students need to do in order to get into better graduate schools. We asked Mauricio if he was going to write another book and he said he would like to but he needed a subject. I suggested that he write about what to do when one side has pawns on a7 and b7 vs. pawns on b2 and b3 because whenever I get into one of these positions I always get the worst of it no matter which side I have. Mauricio just laughed and said that could be a page or two in a book but asked how would he fill the rest of it? It was great hanging out with him and other masters like Tim, Dane Mattson, and Okey Iwu along with all the rest of the Okoboji crowd for the night. We closed El Parian down and were back in the Arrowwood Resort by 11 for one more day of chess.

Dinner time at El Parian in Okoboji, Iowa!

  Without any beagles to walk I again woke up as late as I have all year which was a quarter after six. I felt fat and happy after my great evening eating Pollo Chorizo as I headed to the Arrowwood lobby for a free breakfast of coffee, toast, and danish before heading to the tournament room.

  I printed the pairings the night before and as I inspected them in the light of the morning some of them weren't what I would have expected form the computer. I've had this same feeling in years past and even changed some of the final round pairings. I dislike changing the computer pairings because it creates the possibility that I'll miss something and have the same players facing each other twice or having the same colors three times in a row or any other number of organizational no-nos. I’ll be the first to admit I like the comfort of answering any questions with a shrug and pointing a finger at the unfeeling silicon beast. I'll also be the first to admit I want to know what I’m doing and if I’m using the computer I want to know why the computer is doing what it is doing.

  The fourth round was underway on Sunday morning when Mark Capron told me that the pairings in the reserve section seemed off. It was the same thing I noticed in the morning and I said so. Mark is one of the most experienced tournament directors in the state. We both use the Win TD pairing software and when I mentioned I noticed the same anomaly Mark said that I must have the software set to give a high preference to alternating colors. Alternating colors is the practice of giving players the White pieces after a game with the Black pieces and vice versa.

  The morning round of the tournament continued with no problems and very little drama. GM Flores and Jon Reigenborn had already clichéd at least a tie in the open and reserve sections. As I was making the pairings for the last round the only question was which of their pursuers would get the chance to catch up by beating the leader. I paired the reserve section and everything looked as I would have expected with Sam Smith getting a crack at Jon since he was the highest rated player in the group trailing the leader by a point.

  In the open section there were five players a point behind GM Flores : Dane Mattson, Tim McEntee, Bob Keating, Andrew Titus, and James Neal. I would have expected Dane to be paired against the GM since he was the highest rated player of the five (Neal had already played Flores and wouldn't play him again). But the computer spit out Tim as the opponent because that pairing would give the top six players alternating colors. I changed the setting that Mark had told me about and redid the pairings and sure enough it had Dane getting two whites in a row playing Flores. Dane, Bob, and Tim were in the room waiting for the pairings so I decided to ask if they thought I should change the pairings. None of these champion players cared who they were playing or with what color but the consensus was that I should pair the final round the way I paired the previous four so that’s what I did. I have participated and directed other tournaments where players go bonkers over the final round pairings and even seen players withdraw from the tournament if they don’t get their way but Okoboji isn't like that – I'm fond of telling people that this tournament has a shortage of jerks. This shortage is a big part of what makes it a privilege for me to help by directing. I wouldn't be much help if there were a bunch of jerks because while I am many things, one thing I am not is the ‘jerk whisperer’.

  I thought that at next year’s tournament I would change the pairing software to give less preference to alternating colors but after helping at Bethany Carson’s Wellsburg Open tournament this past weekend I’m not so sure. Bethany’s SwissSys pairing software didn't worry about alternating the colors and in the last round there was a weird situation where the top ranked player got three out of four games with the white pieces because the software had given the his last round opponent two games with the white pieces in a row previously (giving a player three games in a row with the same color is very taboo). Clearly this topic is less black and white than the colors of the pieces and I need to spend some time pondering all its arcane aspects before I make a final decision.

  I posted the final round pairings and one player from the open section asked me why he had to play the two lowest rated players in the open section in the final two rounds (he had played the lowest rated player in the next to last round and was scheduled to play the next to last rated player). I looked at the pairings and saw that he had a point – all things being equal he should have been playing a player near his level. I was going to make a new pairing manually when Tim McEntee came walking by so I asked him what he thought. In seconds he saw that the computer made the pairings the way they did because otherwise two players would have had to play each other for a second time (another pairing taboo). This explanation was not acceptable to the player who told me he first had to play two very high rated players and now had to play two very low rated players and couldn't I do anything about this. I said changing the pairings would be too disruptive and I was going to leave them alone. Then this player told me that this was a “deal breaker” and he wouldn't be coming back to this tournament unless maybe he got a refund.

  How about that? A shakedown at a chess tournament! The people in California are probably reading this and hoping their water shortage can be solved as easily as Okoboji's jerk shortage. I've played in a lot of chess tournaments. I've played the best and the worst and I've been the best and the worst. I might not go back to a tournament because it’s noisy or costly or the tournament site is in a sketchy neighborhood or the tournament organizer is a jerk but never because of who I played because who I play is in large part up to me. I would have loved to have played Mauricio Flores or Bob Keating at the Friday Night blitz. I didn't get to because I didn't play well enough to play the top players. Unless I get lucky in my first round pairing I have to earn my way to play the top players or even players at my level and if I don't that’s on me and not on the people running the tournament (which in this case was me sort of but you get my drift). I really didn't know what to make of this guy that wanted a refund because he didn't get to play who he wanted to play. I should have just pawned him off to Jodene but I didn't see her around. I didn't want this guy to go away angry but I did want him to go away so I gave him $30 and told him I respected the fact that he was unhappy and I hoped he respected the fact that there wasn't anything I was going to do about it. 30 dollars is a fairly nice incentive to agree to disagree so we left it at that and I was going to invite him to my next personnel review at work but it was time for the round to start.

  There wasn’t very much drama in the final round. Mauricio beat Tim fairly easily to take first place in the open and Jon got a death grip position against Sam and offered a draw to clinch first place in the reserve. One highlight of the tournament for me was seeing long time Okoboji player Josiah Jorenby have a great tournament. I wrote about Josiah’s sister Destiny last year when she had an excellent Okoboji tournament. Destiny was ill and missed Okoboji this year but Josiah certainly did the Jorenby name proud. He beat a master in the first round, drew another master in the third round, got another draw and a win against players rated over 80 points higher than him and only lost to an expert. I've chatted with Josiah and he seems like a great kid and his family supports Sam and Jodene's tournaments. It was nice to see him perform so well and a pleasure to watch Jodene give him his cash prize. Because he played so well he never had to play any of the lower rated players and never complained about who he had to play either.

  Speaking of complaining, the player who complained about having to play the second lowest rated player in the tournament in the last round won his game and also won a $30 class prize. When Jodene gave him his prize I expected him to give me back the money I had refunded him but he just stuck the cash in his pocket, shook my hand, and walked on by. I think that if I ever see this guy again not only will I invite him to my next performance review at work I'll see if I can't bring him along the next time I have to buy a car.

  I submitted the tournament to get rated by the national office and hung around with Jodene, Dane, and Okey until around nine when I headed for home 60 hours after I left West Des Moines for Okoboji with a cup of Burger King coffee with grounds. I passed by Cylinder around ten and there wasn't a light on in the town. The weather was great and I got home a little after one in the morning. By 4:30 I was walking Daisy and Baxter and resuming my normal day to day routine. It was another tremendous Okoboji weekend for me. I got to meet up with old friends, make new ones, hang out with some incredible people, watch great chess, have the best meal in town (two times!), and I left with a bunch of great stories to tell. I don't mind paying $30 for one of my stories because when I write the book about my travels to Okoboji and Cylinder it will figure prominently in a chapter called “The Okoboji Shakedown” or “Walk On By”.

On the way home from Okoboji, I turned on my amazing iPod's Rhapsody music app.
The first song it played was anthem of Okoboji Shakedown artists everywhere...