Monday, August 31, 2015

2015 Jackson Open - If You Can't Be Good It's Good To Be Lucky

  After Josiah and I had finished going over our game and before my nap I hung out with Okoboji Open organizer Jodene Kruse and Joe Hall-Reppen for a little while. Jodene organizes the Okoboji Open each year and I see Joe at Okoboji and Jackson almost every year. Joe is in his 20s, works at a radio station, and is a volunteer chess teacher in Algona which is 20 miles east of Cylinder and 70 miles southwest of Jackson. Joe is a reader of my blog and when we get to Okoboji we generally talk about basketball but on this day we talked about who we thought we would be playing in the next round.

Joe Hall-Reppen
  Joe thought that we would play against each other. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to my next opponent but then I started thinking about it. Joe was one of the eight players who took a half point bye instead of playing Friday night. There were no draws Friday night so the players who took half point byes played each other on Saturday morning. Joe played the lowest rated player of the group and won his game. There were three players with two points and seven players with 1 and a half points including Joe and myself. I assumed that as highest rated player with a point and a half Josiah Jorenby would play one of the players with two points. That would leave six players in our score group and as the third highest rated player in that group I expected to play the lowest rated player among us who would have been Amir. Amir had the half point from the first round and collected a point in round two when his opponent failed to show up. The computer did not agree with my expectations. It kept Josiah from playing one of the 2-0 players because of color considerations and then did some more color magic to give him sixth seed Amir while making Joe’s prediction come true by pairing him with me.

  Sam asked me to look over the pairings which put me in a tough situation since competitively speaking playing the lowest seed would give me a chance at a very easy game and the chance for another nap heading into the last round. The thought crossed my mind because I thought that was the correct pairing but I didn’t want to write in my blog how I gamed the pairings in my favor. I did notice that Sam had put the results from the forfeits in the prior rounds as if they were played. That may have affected the color considerations the computer was using so I suggested he correct the results and do the pairings over. After all that was done nothing changed in the pairings so I sat down on board 5 to play Joe with the Black pieces. After playing my second round game in the quiet of the special room reserved for the top two boards, the main playing hall seemed like a blur of activity and noise. Actually the playing hall was quieter than most libraries but after spending my last game in the quietest room I ever played in every sharp inhale after a blunder, rustle of clothing as a player walked past my board to see the nearby crosstable, and gurgle of sipped water seemed louder than the music blaring from the passing cars during my daily walks with Daisy and Baxter.

  I’ve seen Joe play at Jackson and Okoboji every year but didn’t remember any of his games. I did remember that he used to play in the open section at Okoboji and pull off some early upsets but couldn’t maintain his momentum. When I researched Joe’s chess tournaments for this post I saw that he had one of his best tournament results a few weeks ago when he finished second in the Missouri Class Championships, and gained almost 150 rating points. I also found out we were both in Skokie, Illinois for the US Game 60 and US Game 30 championship in 2008 which was years before we ever met. Before we started our game I reminded myself to be aggressive and take a minute before every move after the opening but my mind had a mind of its own.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  Joe was disgusted with himself after this game. He completely outplayed me over the first 17 moves and just fell apart. I could relate because I’ve been there and done that plenty myself over the years and I’ll try to remember this game the next time I fall apart. For my part in this game I was awful and awfully lucky. I started off taking my time but as my position got worse and worse I lost my discipline and started moving really fast. I’ve been working with my students on a method of thought to help them decide what move to play. My mantra has been for them to look for ‘checks, captures, and undefended pieces’ but in this game I missed a simple double attack on two undefended pieces. Not only did I miss it during the game Joe and I both missed it again when we went over the game. I gave lessons on Saturday and showed the position to my students and they all found the double attack effortlessly.

  Our game took a little over an hour which meant that I had spent about as much time on the middle two games of the tournament combined than I did in my first round game. Depending on how the other games finished I would be no worse than a half point out of the lead heading into the final round. So far the tournament had broken perfectly for me. When I needed to grind out a win against Mark in the first round I was a grinder, when I needed to be at the top of my game against Josiah I was at the top of my game, and when I needed to be lucky against Joe I was lucky. I had been focused on trying to play good moves up to now and not thinking about winning and losing but as I found my way back to the recliner in the back of the church for another nap I knew that I could tie for first if I could find one more win in the last round.

Friday, August 28, 2015

2015 Jackson Open - Diary of a Wimpy Chess Player

  I had a great night sleep in my $131 room at the Econo(NOT)Lodge in Jackson, Minnesota after my round one victory against Mark Hansen on Friday night at the Jackson Open. I woke up refreshed and relaxed but it was only 4am – my normal wake up time. I didn’t have any beagles to walk and I had the potential of nine hours of chess ahead of me so I went back to sleep and refused to get out of bed until 7:30 which was the latest I’ve woken up in over 10 years.

John, Edna, and their 3D globe puzzle
  After waking up I headed to the EconoLodge’s complimentary breakfast but before I could get there this elderly couple called me over. The husband was named John and the wife Edna which I knew because they were wearing nametags that said so and I didn’t think they were identity thieves. Edna wasn’t much of a talker but John wanted to know where I was from and what roads I used to get to Jackson. I excused myself to get a small cup of coffee, two slices of toast, and some apple juice. When I returned a few minutes later I told John and Edna that I was from Marshalltown Iowa by way of New Jersey and mentioned in detail all three highways I took to travel to Jackson (Iowa 30 west, Interstate 35 north, and Interstate 90 west). Edna said that Marshalltown sounded familiar and wondered if she had heard about it in the news. I casually mentioned she likely had since Marshalltown is the corpse abuse capital of Iowa (you can read about it here) and made the national headlines last week yet again when a former resident was killed after an exchange of gunfire at a North Carolina Church (If you don't believe me, click here!).

  Edna’s eyes started to get a little glassy so John changed the subject by asking me what I thought of the 3D globe puzzle on the table. I mentioned that I prefer flat puzzles and John agreed with me, telling me ‘I was his kind of guy’. Then Edna squinted at me and asked who I came to the reunion with. I’ve never seen ‘Wedding Crashers’ or ‘Catch Me If You Can’ and told Edna and John I was in town to play in a chess tournament. They weren’t very impressed and I saw Edna reach into her purse for her pepper spray. I quickly mentioned that the tournament was at the Jackson United Methodist Church. Edna took her finger off the pepper spray trigger and they both warmed up a bit since they were quite religious. John told me that there were over 150 people in town for their every three year family reunion and that there were relatives from Florida, Nevada, California, and even Iowa but none from New Jersey. The reason they held the reunion in Jackson was because their genealogy goes back to a young girl that survived an Indian massacre of the 1800’s by hiding in a corn field in what is now Jackson County Minnesota.

  I wish I could have heard more about John and Edna’s family history (and they had a lot of their own history since they are married 64 years and counting) but it was almost 8:30 and I had to get to the tournament so I said my goodbyes, checked out of my room, and headed back to the Jackson United Methodist Church for a full day of chess.

  I drove the mile and a half to the church, arriving just a little past 8:30. Sam and some of the other players were there. Sam was still waiting to see if any new players would arrive and hadn’t printed the pairings. Since I was the sixth ranked of the 10 first round winners I knew I’d be playing either top seed Dan Voje or second seed Josiah Jorenby depending on who had what color in the first round. Dan mentioned to me that if we played I could get revenge for my defeat to him at last year’s Jackson Open. I like Dan and really enjoy chatting with him. I said revenge wasn’t on my mind since I couldn’t do anything about last year but I wouldn’t mind another crack at him. Dan said that was very philosophical of me and I said it was just the truth. I was there on this Saturday to play chess and not think about what happened last year, last month, yesterday, or tomorrow. I just wanted to play a good game, make 40 or so good moves, and if I did happen to play Dan I would want to win for this year and this day.

Josiah Jorenby
  Dan and I both had the black pieces in the first round so I was paired against Josiah Jorenby on board 2 in the special room reserved for the top boards. I wrote about how Josiah scored 3.5 out of five in Okoboji this past April, scoring a win and a draw in his two games against masters. As if that wasn’t intimidating enough we’ve played six blitz games on and I haven’t beaten Josiah yet, scoring two draws to go along with four losses. I think Josiah is a great young man and I like him, his dad, and his sister Destiny but I wasn’t looking forward to playing this South Dakota State University student that was rated 200 points higher than me, had clearly found another gear, beat me like a drum when we played online, and was less than half my age! In my opinion there’s only one way to approach a game like this when you are outmatched and that is to not play like you are outmatched. Everyone is human and not above making a mistake or two. If you are an attacking player then attack. If you like to play for the endgame then by all means play for the endgame. I think players play better by playing to their strengths. If your opponent is better then make him or her prove it by playing your best instead of resorting to gimmickry. I was determined to stick to the goals I laid out by taking my time and being aggressive against the stronger player. If I played like the best me I can currently play like I would be happy to take my chances against Josiah and accept whatever result came my way.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  This was one of the weirdest and wildest games I ever played. I’ve never played against the Dzindzi-Indian defense in a tournament but I’ve seen John Bartholomew play with and against it on his excellent YouTube channel so I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with it. I understood the e4 line better than any of the other white systems and as much as I hated being down a pawn it was an excellent practical decision to keep the initiative and try to bust Josiah up the middle of the board instead of meekly defending my weak queen side pawns. If I had gone on the defensive I would have been giving the superior player a no-risk position where he could try to outplay me. My moves seemed logical at the time and even though I spent over a minute a move after the opening I took only 20 minutes for the game (Josiah took 30 minutes for his moves). My longest think was when I spent four minutes deciding to trade knights on move 12. I spend two minutes deciding on 17. Bd3. I chose that move because I was worried about Rf5 but perhaps if I’d spent more time there I would have seen the strength of f4.

  Josiah and I spent an hour going over this game afterwards which was longer than the game itself lasted. We found 17.Bf1 for me and 11…Ne5 and 14…Qg7 for Josiah in our post-mortem. There were a lot of tricks that we both sidestepped. I thought it was a well-played game at the time and Mr. Fritz didn’t find much to quibble with when I got home.

  Despite the title of this blog post (which I couldn't resist using) I believe this was one of the best games I’ve played in years and despite its shortish nature one of the more intense games I ever played. I didn’t back down, stayed on the attack, and made no serious errors. The only thing I didn’t do was win the game which Josiah had quite a lot to do with. I would have liked to played on in the roughly equal endgame to see how I matched up against a top flight player like Josiah but in the larger context of my goals for the tournament a win wouldn't have helped nearly as much as a loss would have hurt my chances so if taking the draw was a wimpy move, call me wimpy! The draw meant that if I wanted to win a cash prize I needed to get at least a win and draw in my last two games and I’d have to go 2-0 to have any chance of winning the tournament (Dan Voje and two other players were perfect at at 2-0) but at least I still had chances which I wouldn't have had if I'd lost. The Jorenbys left for lunch and I ate an apple and took a nap on a recliner in the church’s kiddie room to rest up for the second half of the tournament.

Monday, August 24, 2015

2015 Jackson Open - The Econo-NOT-Lodge

  I headed to Minnesota last Friday to play in Sam Smith’s Jackson Open Super Reserve. This was the fourth year in a row I’ve played in this tournament which is only open to non-experts. I don’t drive 240 miles to Jackson for a chess tournament every year because I have a better chance of winning a top prize with no experts around. I come to Jackson every year because I get to hang out with Sam, Jodene Kruse, Riaz Khan and the rest of the crowd I only get to see once or twice a year and because I feel welcomed. And the fact that I have a better chance of winning a top prize because there are no experts around doesn’t hurt either!

  In my previous three attempts to win the Jackson Open and get my name inscribed on the Flores Cup I’ve won five games, lost three games, and had two draws. Every year the pattern was similar – I’d play lower ranked players in the first two rounds to be among the leaders and then lose to one of the top seeds in round three. In my first two Jackson attempts I was so exhausted after my third round game I withdrew from the tournament and took a nap before heading home. I broke that string last year when I played in the fourth and final round after losing to a top seed in round three.

  Last year at Jackson I had only one goal - to play in all four rounds of the tournament. I had slightly more ambitious goals this year:
  1. Play all four rounds It's good have an attainable goal and keeping it in mind would help remind me to conserve my energy for the long haul.
  2. Be aggressive against the stronger players Last year I had cramped positions in my games against Sam and top seed Dan Voje. This year I wanted to make sure I had active positions.
  3. Take at least one minute on each move after my opening knowledge was exhausted I wanted to avoid playing in the too fast fashion that led to a blunder that cost me second place last year.
  4. Win a cash prize I’ve never won a cash prize at Jackson which requires finishing in the top three. Winning three out of four games has historically been good enough for a top three finish.
  5. Win the tournament and get my name on the Flores Cup A long term goal but well within my capabilities any year with good form and the right breaks.

On the left is $2.64 Casey's gas in Marshalltown, Iowa - home to a Republican Governor that accused his opponent of plotting to raise the gasoline tax during his last election and then raising the tax himself months after his reelection. One the right is $2.59 gasoline at a Casey's in Jackson, Minnesota - a state that elected profession wrestler Jesse 'The Body' Ventura as Governor and Saturday Night Live writer Al Franken as Senator. Is it any wonder that Donald Trump is so popular with Republicans?

  I woke up at 4am as usual and after going on walks with Daisy and Baxter at 4:30 and 9:00 left for Jackson shortly after 10am. I didn’t want to get loaded up on coffee too early in the day so I stopped at the Casey’s General Store on my way out of town to fill my Chevy Spark with $2.64 a gallon gasoline (THANK YOU GOVERNOR TERRY BRANSTAD, REPRESENTATIVE MARK SMITH AND ALL OF THE OTHER LEGISLATORS WHO RAISED THE GASOLINE TAX BY ANOTHER 10 CENTS A GALLON THIS YEAR!) and got a Naked Juice Blue Machine drink which I sipped all the way to Mason City. I didn’t want to load up on a bunch of food like I did in April by wolfing down a fried egg cheeseburger and plate of rueben bites at Cylinder Iowa's famous Rack Shack like I did before going 0-5 at the Okoboji Blitz. Instead of stopping at some diner or restaurant to load up on more calories than I can burn in a month I packed a bologna sandwich along with apples, lemons, grapes, and almonds. I munched on the almonds until I got to Mason City and then stopped at a rest station and ate my bologna sandwich.

  After eating my sandwich I drove the additional 100 miles to Jackson non-stop and arrived at the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota at 2:30. I’ve stayed at the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota twice before and found it to be a clean, quiet, inexpensive motel. I made the reservation last week over the phone and didn’t think to ask about the price. This was a big mistake since the room for one night in 2015 cost $131! I asked if there was some sort of mistake and the owner/clerk said I could have gotten 3% off if I asked for the AAA discount when I made my reservation. I checked my credit card bill from last year and the same room at the same time of the year for the same Friday night cost $93!

Rusty refrigerators and water in place of juice at the breakfast bar - and all for $131 a night at the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota

  I got to my room which was #23 of the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota. I saw nothing worth an additional $38 except the racks on the refrigerator were all rusted out and the toilet barely flushed. I did notice at the complimentary breakfast the next day that there was no bowl of watermelon in the little refrigerator and that the cranberry and grapefruit juice slots in the juice dispenser had been replaced by handwritten signs that simply said ‘water’.

  I didn’t really care as much about the rusted refrigerator racks or watermelon or cranberry juice in the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota as I cared about the extra $38 dollars I had to pay for the same room as last year. I made a mental note to make mention of the 'EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota' in my blog post as much as possible so it will get on all the Google searches and took a nap at 3. In April I didn’t take a nap before the Okoboji Blitz which (in addition to my 3,000+ calorie lunch) contributed to my Olympic ring (5 zeroes) performance.

  I woke up from a great nap at 5:30 and headed over to the playing site. In past years, the tournament was held in the Senior Center and Library with the courtyard in between the two buildings serving as a skittles area. The library is undergoing construction this summer so Sam held this year's edition at the Jackson United Methodist Church. When I got to the church, Sam was setting up and I was the first player to arrive. I liked the playing hall a lot. In prior years the top five boards would play in the library and the bottom boards would play in the Senior Center. The church hall had enough room for all the players with the top two boards having their own large quiet room with glass walls that allowed for the other players to admire their top two board-ness and view the games without disturbing them.

  Sam was excited and rightly so; the tournament had 24 players signed up which would make it the second biggest Jackson Open ever. Sam doesn’t put the tournament on to make money – he puts the tournament on because he loves chess and wants to show off his town to the chess players and vice versa. Sam showed me the entry list and it looked to be a pretty strong crowd despite the absence of three time defending champion Eric Bell due to his passing the 2000 rating mark and being no longer eligible.

  There were five players rated higher than myself and two more that were among the eight players that were arriving Saturday and taking a half point for the Friday night round. Then players started arriving for Friday night’s round one, including Riaz Khan. Riaz is a big supporter of the Jackson Open and brought two other players from Minneapolis’ Chess Castle crowd with him. Riaz asked me where I was staying and I recounted my tale of the unexpected $131 bill from the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota. Riaz had a laughing fit and told me that he paid $150 total at the Earth Inn for three separate rooms (one for him and one each for his two traveling companions). Riaz was really enjoying my unsavvy consumerism and called me Hank Moneybags or Hank the Bank – I forget which. I was making a mental note to call the Earth Inn next year and when my facebook and friends Destiny and Josiah Jorenby showed up to register on site. I excused myself and chatted with the Jorenbys and their dad, being careful not to mention anything about lodging or the $131 I paid for a room at the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota.

On the left is the church hall at the Jackson United Methodist Church. On the right is my round one opponent Mark Hansen.

  Sam waited to make sure all the players had arrived and we had the final pairings at 7:10. With Josiah’s arrival I became the 7th seed in the evening session and was scheduled to have the black pieces against Mark Hansen. Mark is a short muscular guy in his 40s who moved and talked slowly like he maybe had suffered a stroke. Mark was rated 1435, 250 points below me and likely more than capable of beating me if I wasn’t on my game. Two years ago I gave up a first round draw and was still able to play the top seed for the third round but with so many higher rated players this year I had to win this game to have a chance to cash in the tournament. A must win game fit nicely with my goal to be aggressive. Mark and I shook hands and my 2015 Jackson Open was underway.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of
  Mark used 53 minutes and I used 60. I felt like I pushed the action for the most part and except for my soft Be7 move was fairly aggressive throughout. Mark played well but was unfocused about where to put his pieces in the beginning of the game and wasted time with h3 and f3. I spend the bulk of my time deciding to take on g2 and got it mostly right. I missed the timing and nearly got my knight trapped but in the end a pawn is a pawn and the extra pawn ended up winning the game for me.

There's no better treat than an Old Trapper beef stick from SuperAmerica (Home of $2.59 gas)!

  All the top seeds except one made it through the first round with a win and I was happy to have my first point. In my previous Jackson Opens I started as the fifth seed. The difference between being the fifth seed and the seventh seed was that instead of playing a lower rated player in the second round I’d be playing one of the top seeds. I played the top seed in the third round in my three previous trips to Jackson with a 0-3 record so I thought it might help to play the top player first thing in the morning. None of that mattered until the next day so I headed back to my $131 room at the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota to get a good night’s sleep. I felt like I deserved a reward for my victory so I stopped at the SuperAmerica convenience store for a snack. The BrokenPawnophiles amongs my readership will remember that last year I was able to purchase two Old Trapper beef sticks for a dollar from the Jackson, Minnesota SuperAmerica convenience store and that Daisy and Baxter were soon hoping we’d all move to Minnesota. The SuperAmerica still had the Old Trapper beef sticks but at a 38% price increase of 69 cents apiece. I bought one Old Trapper Beef Stick and ate it while sitting in my $131 room at the EconoLodge in Jackson, Minnesota. The Old Trapper beef stick was as awesome as the two I had last year and I was soon fast asleep with the prospect of three long games of chess on Saturday.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Understanding Participation and Winning

  After a summer off from running youth chess tournaments the school year has started and I am slowly getting my fall schedule of tournaments set up. I didn’t run summer tournaments for a number of reasons. There was the (unfulfilled) possibility that I would have to make trips to California for the project I was working on, the ever increasing cost of renting the outdoor shelter I had been using for my summer tournaments, and the poor attendance of my summer tournaments last year at a church on the south side of Des Moines.

  I was talking with a sponsor about my lack of summer tournaments and they offered me the use of their company board room. The board room was a great playing site with leather chairs and rectangular wood tables that were perfect for chess boards. There was only room for about a dozen players and parents so I had a free invitational tournament that gave eight former champions of my youth tournaments the chance to play a one day tournament in really nice conditions.

  The tournament was a success. The players and their parents all appreciated the great playing conditions and everyone got along before, during, and after the games. As a bonus the company bought Subway sandwiches for all the players and parents. I didn’t offer any prizes for this tournament – not even the participation medals I give to everyone who attends my regular youth tournaments. Before the tournament started one of the players asked about prizes and I told them that the Subway sandwich was their prize which got a good laugh from the players.

  I didn’t give too much thought to not having prizes for the invitational tournament and I didn’t give too much thought to having trophy prizes and participation medals for my fall tournaments until I saw this story in USA Today sports section about how NFL football player James Harrison is returning the participation trophies his 6 and 8 year old sons received for a summer youth activity.

  Harrison wrote "I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best...cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better...not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues".

  I especially liked the reference to ‘#harrisonfamilyvalues’ which I hope doesn’t include his 2008 arrest for domestic violence. It probably doesn’t since the charges were reduced to simple assault and criminal mischief after Harrison agreed to undergo domestic abuse counseling. What Harrison does in his spare time is no business of mine – I was just letting my mind wander and wouldn’t have brought it up until I saw the ‘family values’ phrase.

  Two years ago I wrote about the Keller Youth Association Football League’s decision to do away with their participation trophies and the reaction to that decision. The decision didn’t bother me as much as the derision that accompanied the entire concept of participation trophies. This year’s reactions were no exception. USA Today columnist Nancy Armour wrote about Harrison’s decision this week and came down hard against giving out participation awards saying “If we're honest with ourselves, the trophies, ribbons and medals we hand out so willingly are more about us than the children getting them. It's affirmation that our kids are as wonderful as we think they are. It's also a way to fool ourselves into thinking that we're sheltering them, at least temporarily, from the cold, cruel world.The accompanying rebuttal piece quoted trophy manufacturers asking that they not be blamed for fostering an 'entitlement mentality' along with a HBO Real Sports video showcasing how much money is in the trophy business.

  Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves to compare participation trophies to 'Political Correctness', saying “There are no starters and there are no bench players because everybody plays. You get trophies for simply showing up. We are never allowed to crown champions because not everybody can be one and to do so humiliates those who lose, and we will not do that… Look! It's a perfect example of what I'm saying! Here you have a series of leftists all over the media agreeing? You would think they would back up the PC version. You would think these are the people that would rake Harrison over the coals for being insensitive and not understanding the plight of children, how they all can't be champions and so forth, and yet everybody falls in line.

  I have to admit the trophies Harrison’s kids received were pretty nice and far beyond what I would expect of a participation award. Its even called a 'student-athlete award' which sounds like more than a participation award. Since Harrison references that kids shouldn’t ‘cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy’ I wonder if his kids cried and whined until someone gave them these trophies to shut them up. If that’s the case then I’m with Harrison – he should have taken those trophies away. But perhaps these are merely participation trophies which were earned by participating. They don’t say ‘WINNER’ or ‘CHAMPION’ or ‘FIRST PLACE’.

  When I first wrote about this topic I saw no reason to stop giving out participation medals at my tournaments and two years later I still see no reason to stop. I don’t know if Nancy Armour has ever given anyone anything but I have given out almost two thousand participation medals at my youth chess tournaments over the past five years and I am not trying to fool myself or shelter children from the cold cruel world – I’m just giving participants a memento of a tournament. A chess tournament where winning and losing can turn on the smallest of oversights or a tiny lapse of attention is plenty cold and cruel with or without a participation medal or trophy. I admit that Armour is a little right when she says the participation medals I give out are about me. They are about me in the sense that I design a different medal for each tournament and assemble them myself. It is my way of thanking the participants for participating.

  Rush Limbaugh equates participation awards with not being allowed to crown champions because the losers are humiliated. I still crown champions and kids know who the best and worst of them are at any activity before any championship awards are given out, The kids that are going to get upset by losing are not going to feel better by receiving a participation award and the kids that don’t worry about losing aren’t going to get upset because they don’t receive an award. They are just kids playing a game and recognizing their participation is not a life changing event one way or the other.

  I believe that you should get what you earn and if a participation trophy or medal is earned by participating that sounds reasonable to me. The South Snohomish, Washington softball team earned a playoff spot in the softball Little League World Series by winning their first three games in pool play, including a win over the Central Iowa Little League team. The South Snohomish team then lost 8-0 in the final pool play game to North Carolina. The win created a three way tie between North Carolina, South Snohomish, and Iowa with Iowa losing out on one of the two playoff spots by tiebreak.

  The Iowa team filed a protest, saying the South Snohomish team did not use their best players and bunted on every at bat in order to lose the game and deny Iowa a playoff spot because they did not want to meet Iowa in the playoffs. The protest was upheld and a playoff game was ordered between South Snohomish and Iowa. Iowa won the playoff game to get into the Little League World Series in which they were promptly eliminated.

  The same USA Today newspapers and other media pundits that lauded James Harrison’s decision to return his children’s participation trophies with proclamations that you must earn what you get in life and only winners should be rewarded are silent when it comes to the losing Iowa softball team getting another crack at the Little League World Series by complaining and protesting about a game that they weren’t even competing in. Silence also accompanied the South Snohomish softball team being penalized for clinching their spot in the playoffs so early that they could choose to not compete in their last game and influence the competition they had to play.

  I don’t understand South Snohomish purposely losing a game because I think it’s better to maintain momentum just like I don’t understand NFL teams with 13-0 records resting their players instead of trying to go undefeated but I believe they earned the right to conduct their final pool play game however they wanted by virtue of their dominant play in the first three games. I don’t understand why James Harrison would have his children participate in an activity that gives out participation trophies if he doesn’t want his children to get participation trophies. And the thing I really don’t understand is why so many feel so much anger towards participation awards.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

End of the Caucus?

  The Iowa caucuses are less than five months away and the every four year descent has begun by politicians to the state with less than one percent of the US population that has a supposedly outsized influence on the presidential primaries by virtue of their caucuses being first in the nation. Prospective candidates are visiting the Iowa State Fair this week in their attempt to make a good impression on the local population and get their face on the local and national news.

  The caucuses bring lots of money to Iowa and the state guards its first in the nation status zealously. Iowa received a boost in 2008 when Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic caucus. The win gave Obama’s fledgling campaign legitimacy and gave furthered Iowa's reputation as a state that could boost little known candidates to national prominence with a good performance.

  I think the 2008 Democratic caucuses were the high point of Iowa’s outsized influence in national primary politics and within the next 20 years the Iowa caucuses won’t garner more than a blip on the national radar. Some of this influence loss is due to the times we live in and some is self-inflicted.

  In 2012 the Iowa Republican Party declared eventual nominee Mitt Romney the winner of the Iowa caucuses on the morning of January 4th by eight votes over Rick Santorum. The media headlines were about how Romney ‘survived’ his first primary test. Santorum got some credit for his close finish in the stories while the headlines and pictures told the tale of Romney as the winner (see this New York Times story as an example). Two weeks later after Romney had won the New Hampshire primary Santorum was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses by 34 votes.

  I don’t know if Santorum would have won the nomination if his victory hadn’t taken two weeks to confirm. I believe that Santorum’s picture and name would have headlined the media reports on January 4th instead of Romney’s which couldn’t have helped but boost his chances. Was the wrong winner reported due to incompetence or impropriety? No one can say for sure. I tend to lean on the side of impropriety with the revelations of so many Iowa politicians on the payrolls of caucus campaigns. It wouldn’t surprise me if moneyed candidates can rig or delay party controlled primary elections or the reporting of results. A similar situation happened in the 2012 Maine caucuses when Romney was quickly declared the winner when results of towns that were suspected of voting for Ron Paul were discarded. When the process is suspected of being corrupt politicians without influence tend to shy away from the process. It is no surprise to me that after 30 years the summer Republican Iowa Straw Poll fundraiser was cancelled due to lack of interest by the candidates.

  Aside from the incompetence or fraud exhibited in the last Iowa Caucuses making it look like a less than reliable indicator of Middle America the nationally televised Republican Party getting record viewership thanks to the participation of billionaire Donald Trump may pose more of a problem for the Iowa caucuses. These pre-primary debates have been held for the last few elections but never to viewership or anticipation that Trump’s participation brought. How does this increased attention affect the Iowa caucuses? By the time the campaigning for the caucuses begins in earnest the lesser polling candidates will have already been winnowed out and the remaining candidates will have had so much media exposure that the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primaries won’t bring much if anything new to light.

  As buffoonish as Trump has been made to appear by the media (If being a billionaire was so easy that any buffoon could be one there would be a lot more billionaires), he has managed to cash in on his celebrity and dominated the headlines like very few politicians. If he manages to win the Iowa caucuses it will show that mass media counts more than heading to hundreds of small town Iowa diners.

  Republican and Democratic candidates alike are campaigning in Iowa this year but are spreading their money among the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (Click to see Jeb Bush and Rick Perry's SuperPACs' plans). The so-called ‘SuperPACs’ are raising many times more money than any campaign that accepts federal funds is allowed to accept but can’t coordinate their actions with their chosen candidate. The SuperPACs main function as I see it is to blanket the county with mailings and media ads. A long shot candidate like Rick Perry has $1 million for his campaign while his SuperPAC has $17 million. Jeb Bush’s SuperPAC has over $100 million to spend. I can’t imagine how much Hillary Clinton;s SuperPAC is going to have available to spend.

  Much of the SuperPAC funding comes from unlimited contributions of the very wealthy. Why would a wealthy patron give huge amounts of money to a candidate’s SuperPAC only to see them stumble out of the gate with poor showings in tiny states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (population 4.5 million)? Especially when the results of these states can be manipulated of misreported by incompetence or malfeasance? Just as the lack of participation has sent the Iowa Straw Poll to the dumpster I think it’s only a matter of time before larger states like Florida, Texas, or Ohio move their primaries up to the first few weeks to let the candidates and their SuperPACs spend their time and money there to pile up delegate leads and leave the poorer candidates to toil in the tiny states.

Friday, August 14, 2015

21st Century NBA Basketball Prediction Program - An Unexpected Detour

  Last month I wrote about the start I had made in recreating the 21st century version of my basketball prediction program. Having entered all the scores and betting lines for the 2014-2015 season, I fleshed out my data views to show season to date point differential averages for all games, all home games, and all road games as well as the last three to ten games for the same three categories. I then added the data fields to indicate whether a team was beginning or ending a series of back to back games, how many days off a team had, and whether a team was playing four games in five days.

  I finished these tasks last week. I was going to start writing a program to test these variables and see how my predictions compared against the official betting lines. The more I thought about the program the more I realized I could write a SQL (Structured Query Language) stored procedure to run against my data. A stored procedure is nothing more than a program that works with data without any user interface considerations. My stored procedure takes parameters to determine the weighting of the different variables that determine my version of ‘power rankings’ to create my own betting line and compare my betting line in each game to the official betting line. My stored procedure ‘picks’ a team depending on how my line compares to the official betting line. If I have a team favored by more than the official line I pick the favorite and when I have the underdog winning or getting fewer points than the official line I pick the underdog. My betting line, the betting line difference, point spread winner, and my pick is appended to a fresh copy of the data for that season and returned from my stored procedure.

  I then wrote a second stored procedure to analyze the results from my first stored procedure. I take the results and summarize it by the difference between my power rankings and the betting lines along with my betting record. In a perfect world there will be a correlation between the difference between the two betting lines and the winning percentage of my bets. There are 1,230 games in a season and my betting line is with three points of the official line over 65% of the time and within five points in more than 90% of the games. The bookmakers betting lines are usually pretty close to the actual game result and when my betting lines are normally close to the bookmakers I take that as a sign that my formulas are on the right track. When my lines are very different I hope it is because I’ve uncovered some bias on the public’s or bookmaker’s part and not found a flaw in my formula.

  I changed my ‘analysis’ stored procedure to read the parameters from a table, call the data gathering stored procedure, and save the parameters, raw results, and summarized results in new table so I can look for any common patterns as to what games I’m missing or getting right and have the results handy.

  I created 30 sets of parameters and fired up my procedures. Within a few minutes I had a renewed appreciation of the power of Structured Query Language and weeks of data for me to peruse. Looking at the results I saw that the worst percentages belonged to the tests that gave the preference to the most recent results and the best results contained a 50-50 mix of season to date and most recent games with a 40% preference given to the home game point differential for the home team and the away game differential when playing on the road.

  Two of the result sets gave me a 63% and 64% winning percentage when my point spread differed from the betting line by more than five points and a 50% winning percentage when my point spread was within five points or less of the betting line. In the world of sports predictions 50% is losing big time because of the 10 percent penalty (or vigorish) on losing bets. It takes 11 winning bets to offset 10 losing bets which makes the betting break-even percentage 52.4%. I could expect a 50% success on basketball games by flipping a coin. Getting 63% on the subset of my picks where my point spread is 5 or more point greater than the established line is as likely as finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

  The only disturbing feature of my 63% winning predictions was that I was at 50 percent or slightly below when my point spreads differed by 7 to 9 points. This was offset by the higher percentages when the difference was 5 to 7 points and a stellar 80%+ percentage when my point spread was greater than 9 points from the official line. I looked at the games in question and didn’t see anything obvious that would make me doubt the formula but the discrepancy still makes me wonder if I am just experiencing random luck in my predictions.

  I expected to find a working formula sometime in September and have October and November to verify but here I am in the middle of August with not just a working formula but two spectacularly working formulas. Is this a stroke of good fortune or a promising start to a dead end? I can’t say is if the winning formulas are only good for the 2014-2015 season or if the success rate would carry on into other seasons. There is only one way to make this determination and that is to enter another season or two in the database and run the same test over again. I wasn't planning on entering data for different seasons but promise of having a super formula makes it worth the time investment. If I can get a formula that is consistent over a different seasons I’ll feel comfortable with using my program for the 2015-2016 NBA season that is still 10 weeks away.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Review - Keep the Change by Steve Dublanica

  I got the book ‘Keep The Change’ a month ago at the Goodwill store in Marshalltown, IA for $1.69 and just finished it. I never heard of the writer Steve Dublanica or his blog or his bestselling book ‘Waiter Rant’. The cover proclaims the book to be ‘A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of Gratuity’ which didn’t interest me in the slightest. So what possessed me to buy this book much less read it when I have boxes and boxes of books I've paid for and haven’t read?

  As a born and bred New Jerseyan I could relate to the author when I happened to open the book to Chapter four and read about how the author got a flat tire driving through a seedy New Jersey neighborhood and limped along one more mile to a nicer neighborhood where he felt comfortable abandoning his car for the night. The next morning he brought the car to his regular mechanic and got the car fixed right away even though there was a long line of cars ahead of him. What was Steve Dublanica’s secret? Did he bribe the mechanic? No. He regularly tipped him $10 and $20 at Christmas. Dublanica called this an advance bribe. The thought occurred to me that maybe the reason I get such awful car service is that I’ve never tipped the mechanics or service advisors and that convinced me to look a little more into the book.

  I skipped to Chapter 8 where our author is in Las Vegas playing Blackjack. I’ve been to Las Vegas once for a job and spent the one off night we had playing blackjack when I wasn’t having a gun pointed at me on a bus. That’s a story for another time but I wanted to point out that my blackjack foray was quite profitable. The dealer kept on showing a low card which caused the table to mostly hold and the dealer would oblige our conservatism by busting and making us winners. I didn’t pay much attention to the rest of the table but whenever I won two or three hands in a row I gave the dealer a dollar chip (we were at a $2 minimum table). I ended the session far north of a $100 profit not including the $20+ I tipped the dealer. As I was skimming the chapter there was an interview with a Las Vegas blackjack dealer who mentioned that he would rather the customer made a bet for him instead of giving him a tip. I wouldn’t have spent the time or money on the book if it was a tipping guide but a book of interviews with people who get tips piqued my interest.

  In the introduction Dublanica says the book is a journal of his quest to become an expert on tipping and he is embarrassed that as a former waiter who has written a best seller and been on Oprah he doesn’t know more about tipping. He spends a couple of chapters going over the history of tipping and how it is a fairly American custom that was encouraged by cheap employers to avoid paying a fair wage. There have been movements in the past to abolish tipping but currently it is estimated that over 60 billion dollars are given out as tips in America every year.

  Dublanica interviews doormen, coffee baristas, Las Vegas dealers, furniture movers, cab drivers, parking attendants, sex workers, strippers, and even bathroom attendants to get their take on tips. I was almost insulted that there weren’t any newspaper delivery people in the book. I had a paper route with the Newark Star-Ledger for a year when I was younger. I bought the papers from the Star-Ledger and collected the money from the customers so I was sort of an independent contractor. This worked out pretty good for the Star-Ledger. I was told I had to order two extra papers in case a customer claimed they didn’t get a paper which boosted the Star Ledger’s profits out of my pocket. The Star Ledger also had a convenient supply of rubber bands and plastic bags for me to purchase and I’m sure I wasn’t getting them at cost. The paper cost 10 cents a day except for Sunday when the paper was 15 cents. I made 3 cents profit on a daily paper and 5 cents on a Sunday paper. I had 40 daily and 60 Sunday papers so this amounted to about $12 dollars a week for at least 14 hours of work and that was only if no one stiffed me and doesn’t account for the extra papers and supplies I was encouraged to purchase.

  When I collected my 75 cents a week from the people I delivered to most would give me a dollar and tell me to keep the change. This boosted my earnings considerably until the Star-Ledger raised the price of the Sunday paper to 25 cents (I still only made a nickel on each Sunday paper I delivered). When I went to collect the 85 cents from my customers they would still give me the same dollar and tell me to keep the change which was now 15 cents instead of 25 cents. It seemed like the Star-Ledger’s 10 cent price boost for the Sunday paper came straight out of my pocket. I made it a few more months after the price change so I could get the Christmas tips (at least $5 a house) and left the paper route business for the fast food world and their guaranteed hourly wage albeit no tips. Since then I've received the occasional present or gift card at my programming jobs and lots of gift cards and presents from the St. Francis Chess Club parents. I even received a couple of tips from my chess students this summer. There are all appreciated but I never considered them as essential as when I was delivering newspapers. I program and teach chess at an agreed upon price while delivering newspaper for three cents a day to a subscriber who paid the same amount as they would at the newsstand seems to scream 'GIVE THE PAPER BOY A TIP!'.

  I’m not much of a tipper. I gave Clayton the paper delivery person a Jackson in December and I’ll leave a five on the table when we eat at the Chinese Buffet and maybe if I'm in a fantastic mood I'll drop my spare change in the tip jar that seems to be at the counter of every store. I did give Mikey at Cylinder's 'Rack Shack' and Deb at the Waffle House near Kansas City large tips which were so out of character I wrote about giving them. Other than that I rarely go anywhere that I’m expected to tip. At least that’s what I thought before I read this book. Now I think that maybe I'm supposed to tip at a lot more places than I thought. Apparently when I stay in a hotel I should be tipping everyone from the front desk to the housekeepers a dollar or two. I haven’t paid for a haircut in years but I’m supposed to tip the stylist and the receptionist. When I go to the airport and take the shuttle a buck or two for the driver is something that is possibly expected. And maybe I need to have a few extra bucks on hand when I take my car in for servicing.

  All the interviews with all the service people made one big point to me: most people who get tips are treated very poorly by their employers. According to federal law, the minimum wage for any employee that customarily receives more than $30 is $2.13 an hour! That is a staggeringly low number. How would you like to make $2.50 an hour waiting tables or working as a bathroom attendant and not get any tips? Even if a waitress or casino dealer provides superior service and gets a large tip it is normally shared with everyone that is working the shift and sometimes pooled for an entire week and shared with hard workers and slackers alike.

  Apartment building doormen and hotel concierge seem to do the best of all the people in book (the sex workers and strippers seem to make the most money but the word 'better' may be dependent on the readers’ morality). It seems that many concierge and doormen get kickbacks from the grateful vendors they guide business to. One Las Vegas cab drivers told a similar tale of kickbacks from nightclubs and sex workers. On the flip side there are plenty of tipped workers that have to pay kickbacks to get assigned the best tables, customers, or shifts. The only tip workers that had the benefits of a real wage and tips were the baristas in the Portland, Oregon coffee shop that Dublanica worked in see in action how and why baristas get tipped.

  I didn’t care too much for the ‘history of tipping’ part of the book and thankfully it was short and hardly revisited after the introduction. The book was more about the people who survive on their tips as opposed to Dublanica's 'quest' to me a master tipper. I really liked how Dublanica tells the stories of the different tip workers. It gave me a good feeling for how their work lives and their tips (or lack thereof) fit in. There were plenty of funny stories with the parking and bathroom attendants tales of poor tippers being my favorites. I give ‘Keep The Change’ high marks as a funny and informative book and will get ‘Waiter Rant’ without waiting for it to show up at Goodwill or The Salvation Army.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

At The Zoo

  Works been slow and I have some time off coming so I took the afternoon off Wednesday and went with Kathy to Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines where we met Matt and his girlfriend. I hadn’t been to any zoo since the kids were little. I don’t know where Blank Park Zoo ranks among nationwide zoos. I found a site called ‘’ that rated it 123 out of 251 zoos in the country. It seems like a small zoo and probably doesn’t have the widest variety of animals but the people who work there seem to care about the animals, it is undoubtedly the best zoo in the area, and it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

The animals were sluggish at the Blank Park Zoo...

  Even though it wasn’t especially hot most of the animals seem sort of sluggish. There was a big netted pen of Japanese macaques (or snow monkeys). The little macaques bounced around while the adults just sat around grooming themselves and each other. In another pen a pair of lions slept through the afternoon close to the nearby snow leopards. The featured attraction was a pair of rhinoceroses that were also sleeping. The giraffes and camels would probably have been lying around except they spend most of their lives standing up. There were many different exhibits of birds, monkeys, and fish that were fairly active with the activity prize going to the seals and otters that continually swam and splashed in their water.

...but things perked up at feeding time!

  I’m hardly unfamiliar with the animal kingdom with my own little household zoo consisting of two beagles, a cat, rabbit, cockatiel, pleco, and a turtle. One thing that always perks up our animals is feeding time and when it got to be feeding time at the zoo the ‘wild’ animals perked up. The first animals we saw get fed were the tortoises. There are four that patrol a grassy area including 70+ year old tortoise Barnaby. Barnaby weighs 500 pounds and was shambling slowly around the pen but when the zookeeper came out with some romaine lettuce Barnaby stood up, stretched out, and followed the zookeeper all around his yard as fast as his legs could carry him to get some of the lettuce.

  After Barnaby and the rest of the tortoises had eaten we went to watch the penguins. There were about two dozen penguins swimming and hanging around. The zookeeper came over to the penguins with a bucket of fish and a bucket of water and sat down to feed the penguins. There were a couple of dozen penguins and they crowded around the zookeeper, who started throwing fish at the penguins. The penguins eating the fish reminded me a lot of Daisy and Baxter getting their beef stick treats. They would try to maneuver the fish down their throats and work it down without even a swallow. If a penguin dropped a fish it would head back to the zookeeper to get more fish instead of picking the fish up. The zookeeper would pick up the discarded fish and wash them in his bucket of water before finding a willing throat for them.

Snow leopards like milk and Sea lions like fish!

  After watching the penguins it was time to watch the sea lions. They were swimming laps but it was still a few minutes until feeding time so Kathy and I looked at the snow leopards one more time. While we were there a zookeeper came by with a squirt bottle and the snow leopards shook off their lethargy and started prancing by their fence to get the attention of the zookeeper. The zookeeper told us the squirt bottle contained milk which was the snow leopards favorite treat. The female snow leopard wanted that milk so bad she banged against the fence, forcing her snout through the fence so hard she cut her mouth.

  Soon enough it was time to see the sea lions get fed. The zookeepers came out with a bucket of fish and started making a clicking noise with a device. The sea lions swam over and started flopping around doing tricks to the clicking noise. It seems the clicking noise is praise for the animals (the zookeepers also made the noises by the tortoises) and the food is an extra reward. The animals learn tricks and to let the zookeepers examine them so any health problems can be found out as soon as possible. The sea lions performed some simple tricks, ate some fish, and we were on to finish our trip to the zoo.

There is a herd of Wallaby in the Australian exhibit and giant red parrots are in the Amazon Rain Forest walk-through.

  We saw wallabies, lemurs, an aquarium, a flock of pink flamingos, and a mockup of the Amazon rain forest. In the center of everything was a troop of prairie dogs in their own raised area. The prairie dogs were nonplussed by all the people milling around them. Their coolness made then my zoo favorites next to the tortoises.

Finishing up with the pink flamingos and the very cool prairie dogs...

  After a quick bite to eat Kathy and I headed home to our own zoo. There were dogs and turtles to feed and dogs to walk. I had a great time at the Zoo and it was interesting to see how food motivates all these animals. The only thing I didn't like was how hard it was to get pictures through the fencing and netting but after seeing Jurassic Park I didn't even think of complaining. I thought most of the animals seemed bored but if it was me I’d rather be bored and well fed than have a full live fighting for survival.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Steps in Teaching

  With no youth tournaments or chess camp to spend my time on this summer, I advertised my services as a chess coach and took on five students. One student is a top Iowa scholastic player. This young man is almost as good a player as me will certainly be way better in another year or so. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t teach him a thing or two. We mainly spent our lessons going over the ABC’s of rook and pawn endgames and a little bit of time to smoothing out his openings.

  My other four students are beginners at various stages of ‘beginnerness’. I am not as good a teacher as my wife (a professional teacher) but when it comes to helping someone improve their chess I know what worked for my two sons which was a steady diet of slow games on the internet and then going over the games. Notice I said diet and not binge – I think playing one half hour game (15 minutes for both sides) every other day is the perfect amount of game play. The game is long enough to allow for some thought and short enough to not become drudgery. Playing a game every other day seems right for players who want to improve their chess and for parents who don’t want chess to become their child’s addiction but I’m OK with playing a game every day also. The important thing is to only play one game before looking it over. I want a quick loss to stick with the student for a day so they will remember to take their time in the next game instead of just clicking the convenient new game button and forgetting about the last game in favor of getting on with another game. I think that playing only the one game also gives the student a better feeling of satisfaction after a good game because they are forced to stop and take note of their improvement.

  I think playing a long game every other day and reviewing it will make any beginner better quickly all by itself and I tell this to any chess parent including my student’s parents. Every beginning student that has done this one simple step has shown noticeable improvement before ever working with me. The problem is playing one game every day or every other day seems to be really hard to do. Most of the students I’ve had either play one game and forget about playing until their lesson, play one game and forget about it until the day before their lesson when they play three or four games to catch up, or they just play and play and play without stopping to look at their games. That’s where I come in.

  I take a look at the games as a whole and try find out what the student is missing in their games. Most beginners either move all their pawns, move one piece until it gets captured and then start moving another piece, or get checkmated in four or five moves. I make some quick notes on the games to highlight what I liked and didn’t like about the games and then we go over the games during the lessons. I feel it’s important to point out as many good moves in the students games as I can to help build confidence and stress that what’s going wrong in the student games is a result of something they haven’t learned yet as opposed to some inherent inferiority. The student will eventually figure all this out – my goal is to accelerate the process. All my students are showing improvement. Whether another teacher could get them better faster is unknown. I'm pleased with their progress and think it in line with the amount of work they put in.

  Once the beginning students learn to bring out their pieces and not get checkmated at the start of the game the next thing that normally needs improvement is their tactics. An hour every week or every other week is enough time to show some tactics but not to teach tactics. I used to point students to tactics websites like or These sites are great but limited in that I can’t use them to target a specific tactic or idea a student may be having trouble with.

  This spring I ran across the Chess Steps workbooks on I had heard of them before but had no reason to think I had any use for them. With a summer full of students looming I decided to take a closer look. The workbooks seemed like they would be useful and I ordered the workbooks and teacher manuals for the first two steps in order to evaluate them.

  The Chess Steps method is designed to be used in a classroom setting. There are six ‘steps’ or levels that are recommended for USCF ratings from the beginners to experts. Each step comes with a teaching manual and three to five exercise workbooks. The workbooks cost $7 apiece ($14 for step 6) and the teacher manual $15. The teaching manuals delve extensively into the process of learning chess. I’ve seen kids lose a game but be quite proud of all the pieces they captured. I have to admit I thought it was strange but the Step 1 manual explained that while beginners struggle with the concept of checkmate the idea of capturing is universal and so beginners equate their success in the game with the number of pieces they captures as opposed to the arcane concept of checkmate. Each set of workbook exercises is explained with a guide on how to help students progress past a concept they may be struggling with.

  Many of the exercises in the workbooks are fairly simple tactics but also contain plenty of challenging and unique exercise pages mixed in that stress visualization skills. Some pages require the student to map a safe route for a piece across a landmine of enemy pieces, while others challenge the student to mentally place the king on all the squares where he would be stalemated or place two pieces on an open board to make a checkmate. I have to think anyone working through the steps would see a massive improvement. I am using the workbooks to assign homework in between lessons. The varied nature of the exercises allows me to pick and choose exactly what I’d like the student to work on.

  I am so impressed with the Chess Steps workbooks I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate them into the chess club I run at St. Francis in West Des Moines. I’ve given out medals and trophies the last four years for learning basic checkmates. The checkmates are important but I had many of my second-tier students struggle last year at my youth tournaments and lose their games well before their knowledge of checkmates came into play. I may expand my ‘bribes’ this school year to include completing homework assignments from the Chess Steps workbooks. I don’t have the time or the inclination to turn the St. Francis chess club into a chess classroom or chess laboratory but the chess steps books will provide a structure for improvement for those students that want to get improve beyond what I can offer at the club.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Three Minute Madness

  The USCF (United States Chess Federation) has joined up with the Internet Chess Club and to offer USCF rated on line tournaments in the past year. Many years ago the USCF offered rated quick chess tournaments on the US Chess Live platform but when US Chess Live was sold to the Internet Chess Club the tournaments disappeared.

  The Internet Chess Club offers a 3 minute (with a two second delay) tournament on Mondays at 6pm and a 12 minute (with a three second delay) tournament on Saturdays at 4pm. I’m a paid ICC member but neither of those times works out for me to play. is a free site with the ability to pay for extras like computer analysis of games, more than standard month of their huge games archive, unlimited tactical puzzles, etc… In March offered USCF tournaments free of charge to any member with a USCF membership. started with tournaments on Wednesday night at 7pm (3 minutes with a two second delay) and Friday night (15 minutes with a 10 second delay). They have since added two Monday night tournaments with a five minute time limit starting at 5pm and 10pm which are too early and too late for me respectively.

  The Wednesday night tournament fit right in my schedule after work, dinner, and walking Daisy and Baxter. I linked my USCF account to my account and played in the second ever Wednesday tournament on April 1st. Three minutes is plenty of time for a game of chess and the two extra seconds added after each move made running out time unlikely as well as rendering a strategy of winning on time equally unlikely to be successful. I had a pedestrian score of two wins, three losses, and two draws. I had two awful games where I threw away pieces, two games where I was ahead in material that yielded a draw and a loss, and two games against low rated players where I easily won to go along with a short draw. The tournament was over in around 80 minutes and I had a great time despite my results.

  The USCF has added two new rating categories specifically for online chess. My tournament was rated in the online blitz section. I played again on April 8th and got three games in before being called away for other duties. One thing I dislike about the tournaments is that there is no late entry and there is no easy way to take a round off. I missed the next two Wednesday tournaments because I didn’t sign up in time. I got to play in the April 29th tournament and had a very good result with four wins, two losses, and a draw against the top seed.

  After starting the tournament with a win and a loss, I was paired against Z-N4tion. The and ICC tournaments don’t show you the real name of the people you are playing or their USCF ratings. On my username is HankAnzis. It’s no mystery to my opponents who I am if they care to google me. On ICC my username is 'InstantKarma' which sounds mysterious but since I have mentioned it in my blog many times any competent search engine user can divine my true identity. When the tournaments are rated by the USCF the users real names are listed and it is child’s play to place each player with their handle.

  After 25 moves Z-N4tion and I had traded off all the pieces except for my knight and his light square bishop. We had six pawns apiece. My pawns were compact in two pawn islands that my opponents’ bishop couldn’t attack while Z-N4tion had three pawns stuck on light squares, one of which was an isolated queen pawn that severely restricted his bishop's movements. This was a great position for me. It would be very hard to lose this game and while I didn’t know if I was winning or not I could probe for weaknesses and try to trick Z-N4tion into making more weaknesses. All Z-N4tion could do was sit back and try to prove he could hold the draw.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  We each had sixty or so seconds left and with two seconds extra added after each move there was no question of either of us running out of time. Z-N4tion offered me a draw after his 25th move and I declined. After another move Z-N4tion again offered me a draw and I declined again. We made two more moves and Z-N4tion yet again offered me a draw and I declined yet again. At this point the comment ‘wtf?’ appeared in the chat window! After another move Z-4Ntion said ‘you’re just trying to win on time’. This told me two things – 1) Z-4Ntion doesn’t know much about endgames and 2) Z-4Ntion was getting all bothered by my insistence on playing which told me he was losing his patience. I just kept on probing the position and Z-4Ntion kept on spending time insulting my sportsmanship instead of trying to hold a draw. As you can see, Z-4Ntion gave himself more and more weaknesses by bringing his pawns forward and I eventually won a pawn and the game.

  After the game was over Z-4Ntion disparaged my sportsmanship, chess ability, and manhood until I closed the chat window. That wasn’t enough for our intrepid friend. The next day I found the following message in my inbox:

  I was tempted to reply to Z-4Ntion that my conduct couldn’t have been too detrimental to my play because I won my next two games in the exact same style by getting a small edge in an equal endgame and probing my opponent’s weaknesses until I found a path to a win.

  Thanks to this very fine three game run I found myself a half point out of the lead and playing the top seed, FIDE Master Dalton Perrine.

  A game like that is why I love to play chess. What a fight! Unlike Z-4Ntion, Perrine simply said ‘gg’ in the chat window. The draw gave me no chance to win the tournament but I did have a shot at second place until I played this awful game in the last round:

  I’ve played in a few Wednesday tournaments. They’ve all been fun and so far this April 29th one is far and away my favorite. It’s not my favorite because I drew the top seed – it’s my favorite because of the three smooth games I played in the middle rounds, my great Z-4Ntion story, and it helped my wash off the 'shame' of my 0-5 performance at the Okoboji Blitz the week before. When the tournament was rated the next day I found that Z-4Ntion’s real name is Andrew (you can find his last name by clicking here) and he is a junior player from Pennsylvania. I’ll be generous and write off his dogmatic attitude about playing on in equal positions to his youthful idealism but it should be noted that after our game he played one more game (a loss) in the tournament before withdrawing, never played another tournament, and has closed his account. I would have felt bad if I had caused Andrew to give up chess but he did play another game in the tournament and has played in an over the board tournament since our April 29th encounter. I can’t remember if I was ever that idealistic about draws in equal positions but I know I've had to prove my ability to hold a draw enough times that I can't imagine I was that idealistic for very long if I ever was.