Monday, June 1, 2015

Dollars at Zanzibar's

Zanzibar's Coffee Adventures in Des Moines, IA - Home of fine coffees including Saturday's special New Guinean blend!

  Instead of having youth chess tournaments this summer I offered private chess lessons and have four students I’ll be working with. Last Saturday I had lessons scheduled in the Des Moines suburbs in the afternoon so I took advantage of the fact that I had the morning free to head to my favorite coffeehouse chess site, Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure in Des Moines.

  I hadn't been to Zanzibar’s since last December and was looking forward to meeting up with my friends Mike Jeter and Dan Troxell. I arrived at 9:30 and Mike and Dan were in the middle of a heated game. I knew it was a serious game because they were using a clock. Dan had an extra piece but Mike dragged the game out to the bitter end as if there was money on the line.

While Dan and Mike finished their game, I had some New Guinea coffee and an everything bagel.

  Zanzibar’s was pretty empty and if there were any celebrities getting their morning cup of coffee I didn't recognize them. I went up to the counter and ordered a big mug of New Guinea coffee to go along with an everything bagel and cream cheese. A few minutes and $5.25 later I was back at the chess table watching Dan finally beat Mike. When the game ended I noticed that both players had a dollar bill tucked under the corner of their side of the board. Dan took his dollar and put it back in his pocket and then took Mike’s dollar also! I asked what the dollar was all about. Dan and Mike told me they were playing for a dollar a game.

  I can always use a dollar so I asked if I could play for a dollar too. Dan and Mike changed the subject by asking me about my speed chess exhibition at the mall last December. On my last visit to Zanzibar’s I tried to get them to head to Marshalltown for the exhibition and played four games with Mike at ten minute to one minute time odds (we each won two games). We talked about playing at time odds and Mike said he'd play me for a dollar at that same handicap.

  35 years ago I used to play speed chess for money in New York City’s Washington Square Park on a regular basis and I have some of my best chess memories from those days. It's not so much winning the money I find so appealing - it's taking money from someone that wants to take mine. I readily agreed to play with the handicap even though almost any tournament player can beat me at 10-1 odds if they just take their time. We drew for colors and I had black. Mike arranged his knight and queen to checkmate my king but I had a knight guarding against his checkmate threat so I organized a counter attack. Things were heating up when I decided I needed to bring my knight into the attack and moved it to the center. BUT I FORGOT ABOUT THE CHECKMATE THREAT!!! Mike didn’t forget and checkmated me and what was MY dollar became MIKE’S dollar!

Mike was too busy showing off what used to be MY dollar to give me a rematch so I played Steve instead.

  Mike’s gotten better but I felt like I lost because I made a mistake and I wanted to get what was now HIS dollar back in MY pocket so I offered a rematch but Dan wanted to play me first. As we set up the pieces Dan said he didn't want to play a clock game so we played a longer game without clocks and not for a dollar either.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  While Dan and I were playing Mike told me how I was never going to get what used to be MY dollar back and that he was going to frame HIS dollar and put it up on his wall. I returned the banter but Dan said he was getting distracted by all the chatter and that’s why he lost. At this point Steve showed up. Steve said he only had 20 minutes before he had to go and didn't have time for a game so we talked Steve into playing a 10-1 game against me and the game would only take 11 minutes. Steve didn't want to play for a dollar but we played anyway. Steve played good for about 25 moves but then he hung his queen and I crashed through to his king and won with about 15 seconds left on my clock.

Mr. Buffett, I presume?
  During my game with Steve I noticed a well-dressed older gentleman walking through Zanzibar’s. He went into the office a couple of times, sat at a counter for a bit, and wandered back to where the workers make the coffee and food. He looked pretty familiar and I assumed he was someone I've seen at Zanzibar’s until I realized it was Warren Buffett! I went over to Warren to see if he had perhaps read my blog post on options trading from earlier this month and wanted me to expound further on the topic. Warren pretended that I had mistaken him for someone else. It dawned on me that perhaps Warren Buffett was going to buy Zanzibar’s and add it to his portfolio of companies and that was why he was looking over the operation. Armed with this piece of insider information, I made a mental note to buy Zanzibar stock if they ever went public and went back to the chess table.

  Steve’s good showing convinced Dan to try his luck for a dollar so we went at it. Dan played white and pushed his pawn to e5 against my Center Counter defense which made the game one of siege warfare instead of a lightning attack. I tried every trick in the book except one to get Dan to give me a bishop fork that would win his queen but Dan kept on parrying my threats with his only issue being that he was spending minutes while I was spending seconds so I played my last trick which was to finally get ahead on the clock and win when Dan ran out of time and what was HIS dollar was now MY dollar. Dan wanted a rematch and I wanted another dollar so we went at it with me having the white pieces.

Dan showing off HIS dollar!
  I won a pawn quickly and then fell into an old bugaboo of mine and tried to grind out the win with the extra pawn. When you only have a minute this is not optimal strategy. Dan took less time than he did in the previous game and we went into a knight and queen ending with me having seven pawns to his six. I got down to 20 seconds and tried to make an attack out of nowhere but Dan saw my crude attempt and completely outplayed me. I ran out of time in a losing position. Dan had two minutes left but more importantly had reclaimed HIS dollar.

  I think Mike thought I might be a little tired and wanted to try to get another one of MY dollars. I had the white pieces and got a nice center against Mike’s defense. I broke open the center with 45 seconds left and then Mike hung his queen and I won the game and got MY dollar back with more than 30 seconds left.

  Dan had to go and wanted to try me one more time. He had the whites and I thought he would push his pawn like the last game. Instead he opened the game up quickly and started an attack. He sacrificed a piece but I was able to defend accurately and the game was soon over and I had HIS dollar back in MY pocket!

  Dan had to go and I had a half hour before I needed to head off to start giving lessons so Mike and I played two more games. Mike battled me to a drawn endgame in the first one but he ran out of time before I did. In the second game I had a great attack going when I fell asleep at the switch and used fifteen seconds on one move. I woke up in time and checkmated Mike with 1 second left on my clock. That gave me two dollars from Mike and one dollar from Dan for two and a half hours of chess which paid for a little more than half of my New Guinea coffee and everything bagel with cream cheese.

While the most interesting man in the world was holding court,
Jonny Lee Miller from 'Elementary' fame waited patiently in line for some coffee.

  I had a great time playing speed chess for dollars but it was time to get on with my lessons. It was a shame because Zanzibar’s had just started filling up with the a-list celebrities I'm used to seeing. In addition to Buffett (who made it a point to ignore me the rest of the morning), the most interesting man in the world from the Dos Equis commercials was holding court at a nearby table and I also spotted Jonny Lee Miller who plays Sherlock Holmes in the television show ‘Elementary’ waiting in line for his coffee. There were plenty of other celebrities but I didn't have time to take pictures of them all. Hopefully they'll be at Zanzibar’s the next time I visit.

This is a great song to get in a proper frame of mind to play chess for a dollar!