Monday, September 28, 2015

2015 Sioux Falls Open - Part 1

  I took Friday and Monday off last weekend and headed to South Dakota to play in the Sioux Falls Open chess tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Why a chess tournament in South Dakota? I was really happy with my play in August’s Jackson Open and one of the players was passing out flyers for this tournament which looked to be really strong. I was on a ‘runners high’ at the Jackson Open and curious to see if I had made a real step up in my chess or if I just had a good weekend. I asked my friend Sam Smith (the organizer of the Jackson Open and native of Jackson, MN) if he was going and when he said he was I arranged to meet him in Jackson and tag along for the extra hour and a half west to Sioux Falls. I wouldn’t have driven 5 and a half hours for a weekend chess tournament but driving four hours and hitching a ride seemed doable.

  My goals for the tournament were simple and very similar to my goals for Jackson : To play in all the games, take at least one minute for each move after the opening (the time control was 90 minutes per side for each game the same as Jackson), and be aggressive against the stronger players. I had signed up for the open section and expected to play stronger players in every round so I didn’t set any goals like trying to win money or rating points or games or anything like that. I wanted to play well and if that led to wins and rating points and money and fame that would be great but if I didn’t win any games I’ve been there and done that plenty also. Most of all I just wanted to play. Chess is a sport and if you’re good enough (which I’m not) it can be an art but it is primarily a game and games are meant to be played.

  I had more than four hours of driving since it was Friday and I started my day heading to St. Francis in Des Moines for the Friday chess club I run in return for using their cafeteria for my youth chess tournaments. I had everything packed on Thursday night and loaded up my car on 5:30 Friday morning with my St. Francis stuff, my computers, and two days worth of food and clothing and made my way to West Des Moines.

The 'Friends of The Jackson County Libraries Book Sale' at the Jackson American Legion Hall. If you a need an 8-track tape of 'One More Polka' by Marv Herzog you'll have to wait until next year's sale...

  I had a great chess club at St. Francis and at 8:30 headed north to Jackson, Minnesota. I stopped every hour or so to stretch my legs and check my email and made it to Jackson at 1:00. I stopped at the Jackson Library to use their free internet and saw there was a 'Friends of The Jackson County Libraries Book Sale' a few blocks away at the American Legion Hall. I had plenty of time so I decided to check out the sale. There were a lot of books but not many I was interested in. I got a memoir by longtime Minnesota sportswriter Sid Hartman and a book about one of the Denver Broncos Super Bowl seasons in of the 1980’s and two dollars later was off to meet Sam at his sisters Lila’s house.

On the left is Sam, his sister Lila, and her husband Jerry. On the right is the South Dakota speed limit of 80 miles per hour. You can only go legally faster (85 mph) in Texas (click to see the map).

  Sam suggested I leave my car at Lila’s house since it is on acreage and would be safer than parking on the street or in a parking lot. I can’t imagine there is much crime in Jackson but there isn’t any point in taking chances. I hung out with Lila and her husband Jerry for an hour until Sam arrived. We talked a little more and left for Sioux City around 4:30, stopping at the Luverne, Minnesota Pizza Ranch for dinner. The ride was quick and a lot quicker once we got to the South Dakota border where the speed limit was 80 MILES AN HOUR!

  We got to the Sleep Inn in Sioux Falls at 7pm and I logged in the game results from St. Francis, keeping an eye on the Yankees loss to the Chicago White Sox before turning in at 9pm. I wouldn’t have played in this tournament if there was a Friday night game after a long day with no naps but the Sioux Falls Open had three games on Saturday and two games on Sunday.

The Great Plains Zoo, home of the 2015 Sioux Falls Open. On the right, Grandmaster Alex Yermolinsky was the tournament director and he was checking people in at the door!

  After a good night's sleep and a light breakfast in the Sleep Inn’s breakfast nook, Sam and I headed a mile down the road to the tournament site, the Great Plains Zoo. The $20 entry fee included entry to the zoo, with the tournament held in large convention room/meeting hall to the side of the Delbridge Museum of Natural History, a huge display of over 150 mounted animals that mostly belonged to a local big-game hunter/hardware store magnate Henry Brockhouse and eventually made it's way to the zoo. When we got to the zoo we were greeted by the tournament organizer De Knudson and there in the doorway taking the online registrations was none other than Grandmaster Alex Yemolinsky (who was serving as the tournament director). Jodene Kruse, the Okoboji Open organizer was there with her student Riley. Even though the Okoboji Open is more than six months away it is deep in the planning stages and we chitt-chatted a little about it while waiting for the tournament to start.

In between marveling at the mounted animal collection at the Delbridge Museum of Natural History, I played my first round opponent, Samarth Ram.

  When I read the tournament flyer I thought the tournament was in multiple sections with an open section and sections for players rated under 1800, 1600, 1400, and 1200. I had signed up to play in the open section because I wanted to test myself against stronger players but when De greeted us she said that the tournament was in two sections – an open section for players rated over 1400 and a reserve section for players rated under 1400. Alex got the pairings set up a little after 9 and I found myself ranked 14th out of the 32 players in the open section, playing Samarth Ram, a young player rated 1126. I didn't look up Samarth's rating (ratings weren't printed on the pairing sheets) which was just as well since Samarth has been beating players rated 1500 (I’m rated 1700 at the moment) or more in the last month and has gained over 200 rating points in the same period. I didn’t know that at the time and mentally went over my guidelines of how to play against younger players : a) Don’t let them attack - that’s likely what they’re best at, b) Use a lot of time and try to project an attitude of infinite patience because they tend to get fidgety and impatient waiting for their opponent to move, and c) An adult is more likely to outplay the child in the endgame because children tend to win their games with attacks, not endings and will not have the adult’s endgame experience.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net

  I didn’t know Samarth’s rating until I looked it up after the game. I didn’t believe it and was right to not believe it since he has been tearing it up over the last month and beat a player stronger than me in the last round of this tournament. Samarth took his time (he used 75 minutes while I used 59 for the game) and was very patient in developing his position and trying to counter attack. For myself I was very pleased with my game at the time and looking at it with computer help a little later I still think I played well with my only fault not finding that I had a way to take the pawn on c6 with my knight and get it out of danger. It was a very tense game and I was especially pleased that I was the agressor thoughout and didn't go into my normal 'try to pull the game out in the ending' mode. After surviving the first I rewarded myself with an apple for lunch and a nap before round two while Sam headed off to the Wendy’s with Jodene and Riley.

`

Saturday, September 26, 2015

TV Review - Fear The Walking Dead

'Fear The Walking Dead' plays heavily on the fact that we know what's coming while the characters don't.

  Once my favorite TNT post-apocalyptic shows ‘Falling Skies’ and ‘The Last Ship’ finished their summer Sunday night runs, I switched my Sunday night post-apocalyptic television viewing to AMC for the first season of ‘Fear The Walking Dead’.

  ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ (FTWD) is the first spinoff of the fantastically popular AMC show ‘The Walking Dead’ (TWD) and is set in the same zombie apocalypse reality. TWD is set in Georgia and started its story after the zombie apocalypse had laid waste to much of society, while FTWD begins its tale in Los Angeles just before the start of the apocalypse. This allows us to see how society unravels as what first appears to be a few isolated incidents of ill people turning into rabid beasts is slowly revealed to be a pandemic of flesh eating zombies.

Not having seen 'The Walking Dead', no one understands the beginning of the zombie apocalypse.

  FTWD centers around the extended family of high school English teacher Travis Manawa, his guidance counselor girlfriend Madison Clark, Clarks’ model student daughter Alicia and drug addict son Nick. As Travis realizes the scope of the zombie apocalypse, he brings his divorced wife Liza and their son Chris into his and Clark’s household, creating a weird Brady Bunch meets zombie apocalypse dynamic to the show.

  The show had excellent ratings for its debut which I attribute to the popularity of zombies in general and The Walking Dead in particular but the ratings have gone down for each episode. I attribute the declining viewership to the lack of zombies and the emphasis on character development. There was two zombies in the first episode, one which was discovered by Nick in his drug den and verified by the rest of his family over the entire hour and a half to be real and not a heroin induced hallucination. The other zombie was a drug dealer that Nick killed and then ran over repeatedly with his fathers truck, leaving it disabled but moving. Episode #2 showed Madison sneaking into the closed down high school to get some drugs for Nick only to be confronted by the zombified principal who she eventually kills by bashing a fire extinguisher over his head while Travis is trapped in an inner city barber shop as he and Liza are getting his son out of a riot situation. Episode three has one of the neighbors in Madison’s suburban neighborhood turn zombie and attack a neighbor as well as the Clark’s family dog as Travis gets his original family and the barber’s family out of the barbershop, through the riots, and to safely in his and Madison’s house in the suburbs. Everyone is ready to make a break for the desert when the neighborhood is taken over by the military and put under martial law in a zombieless episode four.

  FTWD has more suspense and character development than action. This is understandable because it is a new show with new characters and it is early enough in the zombie apocalypse that there aren’t enough zombies for very much zombie action. The suspense comes from the knowledge that the viewers have of how dangerous the zombies are while the main characters still think they’re sick and try to talk to them and comfort them and touch them, getting unknowingly terrifyingly close to being eaten alive. No one even knows yet that the only way to kill the zombies is to crush their brains.

There's not much action in 'Fear The Walking Dead' so far...

  At the close of episode four the neighborhood seems safe behind their fences under martial law with their rationed food and occasional electricity but there is a sense of foreboding as Madison ventures outside to the city and discovers dead bodies everywhere while the barber’s wife (who suffered a broken ankle) and drug addict Nick are forcibly taken to a military hospital. I expect the last two episodes to feature a showdown between the military and the neighborhood and possibly the neighborhood being overrun by zombies. This would seem to fit the way the parent show cycles its story lines where our group of familiar zombie apocalypse survivors find a save haven for much of a season until having a conflict with another group of survivors until a zombie attack overruns the haven and our group of zombie apocalypse survivors is on the road again until they find a safe haven for much of the next season.

  What makes ‘The Walking Dead’ one of my favorite shows is a partly the zombie action but a whole lot more the action that goes on between the main characters and the groups of survivors they run into. Almost every group that Rick Grimes and crew run encounter has survived by killing before they are killed. From the Governor to Joe and the marauders to the people of Terminus, the conflicts between our heroes of ‘The Walking Dead’ and these groups have been built up over multiple episodes and almost always end in a very violent climax. Another attraction of TWD is the violent acts committed by the ‘good guys’ while battling their adversaries. The upcoming season six starting on October 11th looks to be the best yet with Rick and company helping the soft survivors of the Alexandria settlement battle the ferocious clan of Wolves who rig zombie death traps and seem to live to kill survivors.

  ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ hasn’t had time to develop any adversaries and Travis and company haven’t been through the zombie apocalypse long enough to find their killers within. The performances are decent. Cliff Curtis as Travis and Kim Dickens as Madison are likable enough in their roles as parents of dysfunctional families thrust into the zombie apocalypse. I especially enjoy Frank Dillane's portrayal of Nick as a decent enough kid except when he needs his drug fix and will even stoop to hiding under a makeshift hospital bed to steal a sick person's morphine drip. There hasn’t been a death of one of the main cast members yet although my bet is on Daniel Salazar, the El Savadoran barber whose family is staying with the Clarks and is the most distrustful of the military. I’m finding FTWD to be pretty slow moving so far and I don’t care about any of the main characters very much yet. Having said that, I’m going to give the Los Angeles version of the zombie apocalypse a chance to get going before I make any final judgments. I have to think the showrunners will use ‘The Walking Dead’ as a guide for the new show and follow the same types of story arcs. All the same I’m glad I didn’t skip the last few episodes of ‘The Last Ship’ to watch ‘Fear The Walking Dead’.

Now this is action! Only 16 more days until season six of 'The (REAL) Walking Dead!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Software Process - An Idea In Practice

  In July I wrote about the process of giving users the ability to sign up for my tournaments using my www.centraliowachess.com website. My first tournament using the self sign up process was on Saturday. There were 52 participants in the tournament with 31 signing up via the website and four more that I set up myself via the website.

  The self sign up option was available in July but I formally announced the option in my tournament email of September 5th. I had a few parents create accounts and add their children but weren’t able to sign them up for the tournaments. I looked into the issue and found out that the company that hosts my site (GoDaddy.com) ends user sessions after five minutes of inactivity. Since I store the login information in session variables, when the GoDaddy web server ends the user session my website won’t know who is logged in and doesn’t know who to display when the signup link is clicked or just won’t show the signup link on the tournament page. This meant that anyone spending five minutes reading the tournament announcement or browsing on another tab or being distracted in some other way would have their session ended and get an error when they tried to sign up for the tournament.

  I think five minutes is an awfully short time for a session to be terminated but it’s not my world –I just live in it. To combat this problem I built in a ‘your session has ended’ page and a timer to route the user to it after five minutes of inactivity. That solved most of the issues with the only remaining problem being that I don't have a message on the ‘session has ended page’ to remind the user that they’d have to log in again.

  A couple of people wrote to ask why they couldn’t see the sign up link and were able to register soon after I wrote back to tell them about the ‘not logged in’ problem. Most users were able to set up an account, add their children, and sign up for the tournament without any help from me. When people emailed me to sign their children up for the tournament, I politely but firmly asked that they attempt to use the self sign up option on my website. If anyone was offended they didn’t say so and at the tournament I got a lot of positive comments about how easy the sign up process was.

  As for me, adding the self sign up option made my job as tournament organizer way easier. During the week of past tournaments I'd have a bunch of emails to both of my primary email addresses from parents registering their children. Many of these emails wouldn't say what section (rated) or which sessions (morning or afternoon) so I'd have to send an email asking and wait for a reply to enter the players in my tournament software. It was time consuming and the chance for error good. This past week was completely different. Whenever someone signed up for a tournament my website sent me an email telling who was signed up and the session and section they were signed up for. Each night after work I’d check the emails from my website to see if anyone signed up and put them in the tournament software if they did. I didn’t have to worry about any missed emails – I just went to the website and crosschecked my tournament software’s player list with the tournament signup list. If the counts were off I knew I missed an email – otherwise I was good to go.

  There were a couple of problems. I had some people sign up online and then not show up. This happens at every tournament although I think it is easier to forget when signing up online by clicking a mouse instead of taking the time to send an email. The other problem was that some parents put their children in both the rated and unrated section. It wasn’t a big deal but I had to remember to find out which section the player was in before the tournament started.

  These small problems were outweighed by the benefits. I already outlined how it made it easy for me to keep track of the signups. I don’t know if the ability to see who has signed up helped attract more players. I do know that it helps with the Okoboji Open and I believe it will help attract players once more parents are aware of the feature. The day after the tournament I was able to easily assemble an email list to let the parents know where they could find the cross tables and pictures because I had the email addresses of everyone who used the self sign up option at my fingertips using an SQL query.

  The tournament itself was quite successful from a participation standard with the most players I’ve ever had for a September tournament. From the sporting perspective the tournament was awesome. The kids had a great time playing, there were enough players for the rated sections in both the morning and afternoon, the parents were happy to have my tournaments back after taking the summer off, my energy level was high, and my students all showed improvement. Most chess games have a winner and a loser and there is nothing that can make a group of chess playing kids uncomfortable like having a sore loser that starts crying or accuses their opponent of cheating or pulls some stunts like making illegal moves or knocking the pieces off the board. There was none of that on Saturday.

  In the last game of the tournament Nate from St. Francis was playing Meg (a girl from another parochial school). Both players had two points out of four which meant there were no prizes on the line, just bragging rights. The St. Francis player was down two pawns in a desperate situation when he set up and uncorked a beauty of a move.

Nate was white and played d7!! Not only does the pawn move allow a check from the ninja bishop on b4 which prevents the bishop from capturing it, it covers the e8 square and prevents the king from stopping the pawn from becoming a queen next move. If I could pull off a move like this in one of my games I'd never stop writing about it!

  Because this was the last game going there was a crowd of kids hanging around watching when Nate played his killer move. With the crowd and the tension I would have understood if Meg had gotten upset as she realized there was no way she could stop the pawn but she just smiled, shook Nate’s hand, and congratulated him on a good game. It was an example of how having a great group of kids and parents make for a fun tournament where everyone is playing games of chess instead of a day where there are winners and losers and competition is king.

  Adding the self sign up feature to my software didn’t all of a sudden imbue the participants with a ‘good sport gene’ but it made my job as the organizer a lot easier which helped free my mind to give more thought to how to dial down the competition aspect and make the tournaments more fun. Enough parents found it easy to use which makes me think my design was more right than wrong. My next project on the www.centraliowachess.comwebsite is to redesign it suing a new toolkit that will make the website adjust its display from a smartphone to a desktop browser while providing an easy to use interface. I’ve finished all the pieces except the self-sign up part and expect to be finished the next time I have a vacation.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Taking My Time

   I spent the summer teaching chess to five students and am happy to report that the future is in good hands. My students had blonde and black hair and light and dark skin but they all had one thing in common – they were and are very intelligent. I gave them a two to four pages of tactics homework from the ‘Chess Steps’ workbook for each lesson. Each page contained 12 tactic puzzles and all the students were able to complete every assignment.

  The homework had the giveaway that there were tactics in each puzzle and for the most part told the student what kind of tactic was involved. Even so, the students were all able to correctly identify the undefended pieces, under-defended pieces, knight forks, and checkmates. The other assignment I gave my students was to play at least one 15 minute game every other day on chess.com. That assignment wasn’t completed nearly as successfully as the homework sheets. In the games of the four students there were plenty of opportunities missed and given for the same undefended pieces, underdefended pieces, knight forks, and checkmates that were so easily solved in the tactic puzzles.

  My students missing the tactics in games that they find in their homework was not unexpected and underlines a basic issue with studying tactics as a means of chess improvement – there is no flashing light that suddenly appears when there is a loose piece or two ready to be captured in a real game. I completed the same Steps workbooks that I use for my student’s homework and I still missed two undefended pieces in my game in Jackson against Joe Hall-Reppen. I could have used a flashing light but there wasn’t even the blink of a fluorescent light over my table.

  This is a fairly common problem for most chess players below a certain level (including myself) despite the plethora of tactics books, software, apps, and websites that are readily available. My students and I all understand the most basic of tactics but we forget to look for them in the heat of battle. Luckily to go along with the plethora of tactics books, software, apps, and websites there is also a plethora of similar resources devoted to ‘thinking methods’. A quick google search will uncover books such as ‘Think Like A Grandmaster’, ‘Calculate Like A Grandmaster’, ‘Eliminating Chess Blunders’, ‘How To Calculate Chess Tactics’, etc.., etc…, etc…

  Working with my students this summer taught me that the common cause of these oversights is a lack of attention to detail. I have tried to impress on my students and myself that before every move we must examine ours and our opponent’s checks, captures, and undefended pieces. At my students current level paying attention to these three items will lead to many wins and also provide them a framework for determining their next move. At my level paying attention to checks, captures, and undefended pieces will help keep me from making silly mistakes which is only a start. Years of practice lets me find these items quicker than my students but since I am playing stronger opposition I have to try to look for moves that attack, damage the pawn structure, prevent or enable castling, open lines, and on and on and on. It is like peeling an onion – there is always another layer.

  When I take my time I can find most moves in the position – my problem is I don’t always take my time. That is why on of the goals I set myself in Jackson was to take at least one minute on every move after the opening. Normally I write down the time remaining every fifth move in order to make sure I don’t get into time trouble but in Jackson I wrote down the time remaining after every single move. It was quite a change for me. I play chess games every day where I only have a minute to make all my moves and here I was taking a minute for each individual move. Taking my time started out being boring but I stuck with it and found myself seeing more and more as the weekend went on. The only time I lost my focus was when I drifted into an awful positon against Joe and started moving quicker and quicker.

  It was unsurprising that I played better when I took more time. The trick for me is how to practice taking my time when I have limited time to practice taking my time. I had this rolling around in the back of my mind and then I stumbled on the training section at lichess.org. Lichess is a free chess website that I found out about by watching International Master John Bartholomew’s YouTube channel. Lichess doesn’t have many of the features of the pay or optional pay sites like chess.com or the Internet Chess Club but it does have a clean and responsive interface, a large user base, an assortment of chess variants, and plenty of tournaments to participate in.

  Lichess’s user interface is so responsive that it has become my preferred chess website for one minute games but I am using the training module more and more. Lichess archives all the games and the training module consists of tactic puzzles derived from this large database of games. The lichess tactic puzzles seem different from the other tactic sites in that they require a higher level of exactness in the solution and have solutions that go four or moves much of the time. I’ve played the correct solution for two or three moves, winning a piece, only to fail the puzzle because a sudden mate in two presented itself when the opponent made a substandard move in the puzzle. I’ve also failed puzzles for starting a checkmating variation in three moves instead of the mate in two that was on the board or winning the queen when there was a mate on the board. Here are some examples:

Black can win the queen for a rook with Rg6 with an easy win but that would be incorrect.
The correct answer is Bh2, Qxh3+, and Qh2 checkmate.

A 'simple' mate in four. 1.Re7+ Kg8 2.Nf6+ gf 3.Qxd8 Be8 4.Qxe8#

Another attractive line where White can clean up with 1.Re6+ Kxe6 2.Qxc6 Rd6 3.Qxa8
is incorrect because 1.Qf4+ Kd5 2.c4# wins in two moves.

  It’s frustrating to be told I failed at solving a puzzle when I selected a mate in three instead of a mate in two but in order to solve the puzzles correctly I have to take my time on every move. This dovetails perfectly with the habit I’m working to acquire – taking my time. I don’t know if the idea of doing lichess tactics puzzles to help me take my time will help more than any of the other ideas I've trued to improve my chess over the years but if it doesn't work I'll have plenty of time to try something else.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Where Chess and Tennis Find Common Ground

  The FIDE World Chess Cup is taking place in Baku, Azerbaijan. It is both the fastest and slowest international chess tournament – slow because the tournament lasts 26 days from September 10th to October 5th and fast because the field of 128 play two day matches of two long (four hour) games until the field gets winnowed down to just two players who will play a four game match to determine the champion. If a match is tied after the two long games there is a third day tie break matches at progressively faster time limits until a winner is decided.

  Except for the World Blitz tournament with the participants playing 11 games a day, the knockout mini match format is my favorite for watching chess. In the beginning of the tournament there are dozens of games to watch with 35 of the 44 players rated 2700 or over competing. I always find it interesting to see how the top 20 players are able to grind down grandmasters in an almost effortless fashion and the tension always seems high when a mistake can cost a game and the match at any time. Super grandmasters Wesley So and Fabiano Caruana had relatively poor results in the recently concluded Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis. It is easy to forget how great these players are when they struggle against the very top player in the world and easy to remember when they steamroll lesser opposition like they did in the first round of the World Cup.

Commentators Emil Sutovsky and Evengy Miroshnichenko are professional enough but rely on a cameraman to keep up with the games...

  Like most big-time chess tournaments the World Cup is streamed live this time on Livestream.com on the ChessCast network. The commentators are grandmaster players Emil Sutovsky and Evengy Miroshnichenko who do a professional job but are hamstrung by not having access to the current positions on their computer screens and having to rely on the roving cameramen’s view of the boards. This happened last year at the FIDE rapid and blitz championships. Given that DGT chessboards that are capable of being wired to the internet are in use for the tournament it is pretty embarrassing to have the commentators be two or three moves behind the actual games when they are less than 100 yards away.

  When watching the FIDE World Cup I can’t help but think that the knockout format is the most exciting format for chess and that the tournament takes way too long with the finalists spending over three weeks in Baku battling for the championship. The FIDE World Cup is structured much like the recently concluded U.S. Open Tennis tournament in New York City. Both tournaments have 128 players (the tennis has many tournaments and has 128 players in both the men’s and women’s single events) and single elimination. The main difference is that the U.S. Open takes two weeks while the FIDE World Cup takes twice as long.

  The tennis tour has tournaments all over the world that take one week with the majors taking two weeks while allowing players a day off between most matches. I think professional chess could grow in popularity if the tournaments were modeled after the tennis tour but as it is chess tournaments take far too much time because each individual game takes far too much time. If each knockout match could be done in one day a 64 player knockout tournament could start on Tuesday and be completed on Sunday. More players could be accommodated by having 48 players seeded and let the remaining spots filled in with a Monday qualifying tournament.

  How could a chess match take place in one day? By shortening the time controls! 26 of the 64 first round matches were tied after the first two four hour games and resolved in tiebreak games on Sunday. Sunday’s tie breaks were 2 game mini matches with 25 minutes per player and if the players were tied there would be a mini-match with 10 minutes per player with one further mini-match at 5 minutes per player before a final Armageddon game with the White side having 5 minutes and the Black side 4 minutes and draw odds.

  Sunday’s tie break rounds took five hours and that was only for the one game that went to the Armageddon game. The first tiebreak match took three hours, the second 75 minutes, and the third a half hour – no longer than a long tennis match. Normal chess tournaments require up to five hours of play a day and if the mini-matches would use the FIDE World Cup tiebreak format the players wouldn’t have to play more than five hours a day either.

  The top chess players wouldn’t play in each week’s tournament just like the top tennis players don’t play every week but there would be enough top players to give each week’s tournament appealing match-ups of the top players in the world along with the occasional upset Johnny. Each week on the tennis tour there are great matchups between Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, etc. This years FIDE World Cup will have matchups between Nakamura, Topalov, Krammnik, Caruana, Ding Liren, etc… in a winner take all format.

  I’ve long felt that a chess tour modeled after the tennis tour is the future of professional chess and I believe it will happen in the next 20 years. The hang-up is the tradition of the long time controls but time controls have slowly gotten faster and faster over time and it is only a matter of time before a knockout format speeds up along with it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

TV Review - Falling Skies Series Finale

At it's best, Falling Skies could be more terrifying than The Walking Dead!

  The post-apocalyptic Falling Skies ended its five year series on TNT two weeks ago, ending its five year run detailing the struggles of humanity in general and Tom Mason of the 2nd Mass militia in particular as they fought the alien invasion of the Espheni. This show was one of my favorites when I started watching it in season two but seemed to lose its way in season three as it focused so much on a nation and worldwide fight against the aliens and the political intrigue of starting a new government that the alien fighting action was rushed through with the help of inane plot devices like post-apocalyptic completely functional railroads tracks with locomotives, barges and sailboats traveling undetected through the Atlantic Ocean from South Carolina to Boston, and Mason’s newborn daughter exhibiting strange powers as well as aging at the rate of three years per month.

  Season four was a science fiction version of 'Hogan’s Heroes' as our intrepid heroes found themselves in prison camps and reeducation centers but somehow managed to derail the Espheni plans for world domination by restoring an enemy spaceship and sending it moon-bound on a kamikaze to destroy the Espheni power core with Mason being ‘Lost In Space’ at the end of the season.

  I didn’t have high hopes for season five and I wasn’t disappointed. Tom Mason was rescued from his spaceship and brought back to his family on earth by the last surviving member of the Dornian race who appears to him in the form of his late first wife. Instead of the season being a final battle between the humans and their extra-terrestrial allies against the crippled Espheni forces the season focused on the never ending battle between schoolteacher turned warrior Mason and his biker-felon antitheses John Pope and the love triangle between Mason’s two sons (Ben and Hal) and Maggie the rebel girl. Pope had seemingly become a valued member of the 2nd Mass but became unglued after the death of his girlfriend and decided to take it out on Mason. In one episode Pope shaves his head and kidnaps Mason’s son. In the next episode Pope has a shootout with Mason and is shot and seemingly killed. Two episodes later Pope leads an assault on the 2nd Mass headquarters only to be seemingly blown to bits when Mason explodes a nearby gas truck, etc.., etc… Meanwhile Maggie, Hal, and Ben try to sort out their feelings weekly which is complicated by Maggie being implanted with some of Ben’s extraterrestrial spikes (that give him extra strength and stamina along with the potential of being controlled by the Espheni) to cure her paralysis in season four which gives her a extraterrestrial connection to Ben.

  With all the Pope vs. Mason and love triangle developments there was little time in the ten episode season for very much alien combat and even less when one of the episodes was used to show Mason taken away by an alien hornet and dumped on a nearby farm inhabited by a family that had no knowledge of the alien invasion! Luckily with two episodes left it was the last Dornian to the rescue as she gave Mason a large glow stick containing a biological weapon that would kill the entire Espheni race as long as it was delivered to the Espheni queen who just happened to be heading to Lincoln Memorial. Why would the leader of an alien race head to a war zone planet whose power core had been blown up at the end of the last season? I can only surmise that the Lincoln Memorial is THE place for alien invading queens to be this summer. 20 minutes into the last episode, the 2nd Mass finally makes it to the Lincoln Memorial and search the hidden tunnels under the city for the Espheni queen. With 40 minutes to go in the series we find out that Mason’s current wife Anne is pregnant, and the two season long love triangle is resolved in five seconds when Hal proposes in the tunnels, Maggie accepts, and Hal’s new love interest Isabella (introduced jut 5 episodes prior) is never heard from again.

The long awaited final battle. Good thing Mason took his magic glow stick along.

  After more underground tunnel explorations and some explosions that separate the group, Tom Mason is captured by the Espheni queen who is a giant egg laying spider that looks nothing like any of the other Espheni fish-head creatures that have been shown throughout the five season run. Like all villains who are about to kill the hero of the story seem to do the Espheni Queen gives the inevitable speech to explain her actions. The queen tells Mason through a Vulcan type mind meld how she sent her daughter to capture Earth 1,500 years before but the earthlings beat back the invasion and killed her daughter and she vowed to take revenge with 1,000 times the invasion force.

  So there we have it – the real reason for the alien invasion explained in 40 seconds. This could have been years of stories to uncover how the people of the Dark Ages had beaten back an alien invasion and trying to unearth whatever weapon had been used to score the victory. Since there was only 15 minutes left in the series Mason unleashed his glow stick, the queen exploded, and every Espheni overlord and monster burst into fireworks over Washington.

  With the planet saved, the show then reverted to what it had been for the last season – a showdown between Mason and the often left for dead Pope. Mason gets back to the rest of the 2nd Mass only to discover his current wife Anne has been killed fighting the Espheni. Mason brings his dead wife’s body to the last Dornian in her ship near the ocean. While the Dornian grabs Anne in her tentacles, Pope comes out of nowhere with a gun pointed right at Tom Mason. In a fitting penultimate scene Pope makes a speech about how he doesn’t feel as good as he thought about Tom’s wife dying and offers Mason his gun. Mason declines the offer to shoot his arch enemy and the show closes with a grand party in Washington to celebrate humanity’s new beginning with one lasspeech by Tom Mason and as a bonus his wife is alive and still pregnant. Falling Skies was my favorite TV show after Burn Notice over its first two and a half seasons and much like Burn Notice it staggered to the finish line. I liked the show best when the humans and aliens batted in close quarters for relatively small stakes. My favorite episode was season two’s ‘Molon Labe’ in which the 2nd Mass. captures an Espheni overlord and are confronted by the Espheni from the front and their flesh eating beetles from the rear of the hospital they had been camped out in. Another favorite was season three’s ‘Journey to Xibalba’ where the crew is trapped in an underground mall in Charleston and the season long hunt for the Espheni mole came to a conclusion.

I thought Seasons 1 and 2 of Falling Skies were its best work...

  The humans were never a match for the Espheni invasion and were continuously bailed out by not one but two rival alien races for much of the final three seasons. Having the 2nd Mass as a guerilla force against an overwhelming alien force gave plenty of scope for alien fights, new alien creatures like the mind controlling earworms of season two, the flesh and metal eating bugs of season three, and even the genetically modified human-aliens of subsequent seasons. The larger missions were so out of scope for the group that the writers had to resort to extraterrestrial gimmickry and belief suspending plot devices to make them even barely believable. As the seasons went along the missions got grander and grander which would have been awesome had they been well executed instead of the mish-mash of storylines the series ended up becoming. The series finale was a fitting conclusion indicative of the series – a rushed final battle along with a rush to wrap up as many loose storylines as possible.

  I was happy that humans won the war and the 2nd Mass was relatively unscathed. I won’t miss the show but I can see myself watching some of my favorite episodes on Netflix or Amazon Prime, especially the ones featuring Will Patton as Colonel Dan Weaver. Patton has been one of my favorite actors since his epic performance as Quentin Glass in the 2004 Punisher movie and he played his role as the hard bitten never say die military leader to perfection. I was pleased that one of the many plotlines that was forgotten about was his need for heart medication at the end of season two.

The final speech in a show that had too many of them.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Law Of Numbers

  Despite the oncoming start of the college and professional football seasons the biggest story in the news this past week was the jailing of Rowan County Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis for refusing to issue not just same-sex marriage licenses but any marriage licenses. Davis has a deep seated religious belief that marriage is between one man and one woman and hoped to avoid any charges of discrimination by refusing to issue any marriage licenses. Davis was not charged with a crime by the police or convicted by a jury of her peers. She was placed in jail by Judge David L. Bunning of the United States District Court for contempt by refusing his order to either issue marriage licenses or allow her deputies to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

  Davis is an elected official (making $80,000 a year) and can’t be fired for refusing to issue marriage licenses. Maybe since she has been married four times up to the present time she wishes someone had refused to issue her a marriage license once or twice or possibly three times. I think Judge Bunning thought that Davis would surely bend to his will by threatening jail time instead of a fine but he has misjudged Davis’s resolve and also misjudged the firestorm caused by the viral images of the innocent looking Davis’ mugshot. Davis has instantly become a conservative icon for her refusal to compromise her religious beliefs and I’m sure that there are book deals and speaking engagements in her future.

  The thing I’m noticing about this incident is how partisan the reactions are. Here’s a quote from presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s Facebook page “Having Kim Davis in federal custody removes all doubt of the criminalization of Christianity in our country. We must defend religious liberty and never surrender to judicial tyranny.” A rebuttal comment on Huckabee’s facebook page is “Religious liberty doesn't give someone the power to deny others their basic legal rights. Discrimination is discrimination….Kim Davis isn't in jail because of her values or beliefs but because she broke the law. This isn't persecution; it's justice.

  Many of the comments and commentary are tilted to either one side or the other on this issue with the overriding factor not being the merits of the case but the underlying beliefs. I don't think I've heard what I consider the real reason Davis is spending Labor Day behind bars.

  Could you imagine an entire town not being able to buy pork? What if a religious Muslim was in charge of renewing food licenses and felt it was their religious duty to prevent unclean meat from being sold in town. I suppose he could also be jailed by a judge and hopefully a religious Jain wouldn’t take on the duties because then beef, fish, and chicken would also be off the table since a tenet of Jainism is that vegetarianism is mandatory for everyone. I’d hate to live in the town with an Amish building inspector who refuses to issue occupancy permits for buildings with electricity and running water. The movie industry could be erased if the California Film Commission were ever run by a member of one of the many flavors of religions that has a strict interpretation of idolatry.

  I don’t see how Davis’s religious liberty is being taken away. No one is making her participate in a same-sex marriage or telling her she has worship something or someone she chooses not to. She chose to run for county clerk and if part of the county clerk duties is to issue marriage licenses then she should either do it or take the compromise offered by the judge to let other members of her department issue the licenses. She is exercising her religious liberty by choosing to go to jail over her religious beliefs. Federal law makes allowances for workers to avoid tasks that they have religious objections to as long as the tasks can reasonably be carried out by someone else in the organization. Davis is preventing the tasks she objects to from being carried out at all.

  Davis and the people who are advocating so strenuously on her behalf are not defending religious liberty – they are defending Christian religious liberty and even then they are only defending Christian religious liberty in their flavor of Christian religious liberty (I’m taking the liberty of assuming at least some of the same-sex marriage recipients were married in a church that claims to be Christian in some way, shape, or form). I wonder if her defenders were at the forefront of France’s ban on headscarves in public schools.

  Now that I’ve had my turn at the Davis piƱata, let’s look at things from the other side. It is not unreasonable to assume that there are few if no consequences for breaking laws or court orders? According to Federal Law, possession or use of marijuana is a federal offense. Yet there are four states that allow the sale and use of marijuana for adults 21 and over. In these four states there are tens of thousands of federal crimes being committed every day and every day there are tens of thousands of federal crimes not being investigated or prosecuted. At least 11 million undocumented aliens/illegal immigrants/pick your buzzword live in the United States illegally and instead of making sure that they are deported to the countries where they hold citizenship, lawmakers attempt to provide paths to citizenship and avenues to receive government benefits while business owners are silent as they profit from the use of cheap labor. When I drive to work there is not one car in ten that is obeying the posted speed limits. I’m included in this speeding group and complain for weeks when I get my semiannual speeding ticket but you will never hear a cry from me for stricter traffic enforcement. It shouldn’t be a surprise that no one has ever been held accountable for the economic meltdown of 2008 since so few people are ever held accountable for breaking the laws of the country. In my opinion, Kim Davis is definitely an outlier for being in jail for failing to follow a court order.

  One of the few times I can remember a large group being held accountable for their actions was when the air traffic controllers union went on strike in 1981. The strike was prohibited by a 1955 law. President Reagan gave the union two days to return to work and fired the controllers that didn’t return to work. Reagan also imposed a life time ban on rehiring the strikers. I never hear Republicans bring this up when they complain about President Obama’s executive orders. Even 35 years ago most people were shocked that the air traffic controllers were fired for their actions. Some of the fired air traffic controllers ended up working in the factory where I was working at the time and I remember how numb they seemed to be over losing their careers.

  There is strength in numbers and Davis’s big problem is she doesn’t have the numbers on her side. There were only 11,000 air traffic controllers and they had to pay the consequences of their actions while 11 million undocumented aliens/illegal immigrants/pick your buzzword and four states worth of marijuana users break the laws regularly with little to no consequences while ticketing every speeder would bankrupt the country. If Davis had the public backing she currently enjoys before her court hearing she wouldn't have spent a minute in jail but having none of it beforehand landed her in her current predicament.She was not jailed for her Christianity or her religious beliefs - she was jailed because she is a lone wolf in a country that placates mobs of like minded thought.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

2015 Jackson Open - It Ain't Over Till It's Over But When It's Over It's Over


The new focus staple or the latest fad...
  You many have noticed that all through the past three posts about the Jackson Open I haven’t mentioned one word about AMP Focus Energy, my preferred beverage to meet my energy and hydration needs. That’s because the good folk at AMP Energy drinks redesigned their product line earlier this year and AMP Focus Energy has been discontinued. Taking AMP Focus Energy’s place in the AMP product line were fancy flavors like Strawberry-Limeade and Passion Fruit and zero calorie flavors Blueberry-White Grape and Watermelon. All of these new flavors have Caffeine and B-Vitamins but none of them offer the promise of increased concentration of AMP Focus Energy.

  I drank lots of AMP Focus Energy at last year’s Jackson Open and given my pedestrian play didn’t think it helped me much if at all. After my poor play at the Okoboji Blitz I paid a lot more attention to nutrition and sleep habits at Jackson – I drank water with lemon juice instead of energy drinks, got plenty of naps, ate an apple after each game, and snacked on a few almonds during the games. This was all as planned but I still wanted to have something for a little boost in case I needed it. When I got to the Casey’s at Marshalltown Iowa to fill up my car with $2.64 a gallon gasoline I saw a tiny bottle in a large cardboard container on a rack with the letters ‘FOCUS’ printed on the container in large letters.

  The two and a half ounce bottle was called REFocus. The RE stands for ‘Rushmore Essentials’ which is the parent company and the ingredients were 21 fruit juices that made up the product along with ginseng (and green tea to provide caffeine). There were no other extra sugars, sucralose, or aspartame to add sweetness but there were also no added chemicals like choline, taurine, guanine, or kerosene that went into most of the other energy drinks. The company also makes REVive, REShape, and REBuild and they all are in the same little bottles with green tea and 21 ‘all-natural superfruits’ with REFocus having added protein and ginseng, REShape having added Yacon Syrup and REBuild with added protein. If I owned the company I’d make a product called REIncarnate and watch the money roll in. I doubted the REFocus would help but since I wasn’t likely to find anything better between the Casey’s in Marshalltown Iowa and Jackson, Minnesota I plunked down $7 for two bottles and made my way to Jackson.


Ian Stone
  When I woke up from my nap after my game with Joe there was still one game finishing up on a lower board. Top seed Dan Voje won his game to maintain the only perfect score with three wins and there were four players a half point behind : myself, second seed Josiah Jorenby, Ian Stone (one of Riaz Khan’s traveling companions), and Minneapolis teenager Franklin Zhou. I expected Josiah to play Dan while I would play Franklin with Ian playing someone with in the next score group since he was the lowest rated player of the four. Once again my expectations were wrong but this time it had nothing to do with the pairing software. Franklin decided to go home instead of playing the last round which left me playing Ian Stone on board two in the quiet room reserved for the top players in the tournament.

  Ian is a college student from the University of Minnesota with a distinct Irish accent. I didn’t know anything about him but since he came with Riaz I assumed that he was one of the Chess Castle crowd and therefore as tough as nails over the board as I have found every Chess Castle player to be.

  My tournament situation was dependent on the board one game between Josiah and Dan. If Josiah won or drew I could sneak into a tie for first with a win. If Dan won a draw would assure me of a tie for second place while a win would give me second place and $200 all by myself. I was back in the extra quiet room reserved for the top players in the tournament and had earned the right for the final round instead of merely being a guest as I was in round two. I got myself a large cup of water and squeezed a half a lemon in it. I felt like i needed a little boost so I poured a bottle of REFocus drinkinto my lemon water and started my game with Ian.

Top board tension!! In the super quiet top board room I battle Ian while 10 yards away Josiah and Dan fight for first place. Notice how on each board the player have adopted the same placement of their hands. I don't know whether this is some sort of subliminal one-upmanship, psychic sympathetic stuff, or just my own psycobabble....

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net

  I felt then and I feel now that this was an excellently played game on my part where I outplayed my opponent. Excellent but not perfect. I missed the way to win an extra pawn on move 30 as well as the Nc6 follow-up to winning a pawn on move 18. I was quite impressed with my REFocus drink – I spent plenty of time on the critical moves and although I didn’t come up with the right answers I never thought I was thinking in circles. Once Dan Voje won his game and locked me out of a chance to sneak into a first place tie I saw no reason to try to win this game but if first place was on the line Ian and I might still be playing. Objectively the game might have been a draw but with the extra pawn I would have been happy to keep playing to see if I could trick or exasperate Ian into making another mistake. As it turned out I only had one goal left to attain from the 2015 Jackson Open and that was to finish high enough to cash in which the draw made a reality.

  Slowly and surely the other boards finished up and when the dust settled I finished in a six way tie for second and collected $65 dollars which was half the price of my $131 room at the EconoLodge. Ironically if I had won my last game I would have collected $200 which was $135 more than $65 and just enough to have paid for my $131 room at the EconoLodge. I helped Sam get the tournament rated, Dan Voje and I helped Sam set the church hall for Sunday, and at 9pm Saturday I headed home from Jackson 35 hours after leaving Marshalltown.


I'm not often a winner in this world so it was a special pleasure to take a place with the Jackson Open prize winners!

  I drove through 80 miles of the worst rain I ever drove through on my way home which gave me extra time to reflect on this year’s Jackson Open. I met almost all my goals – I cashed, played aggressively, took my time, had excellent stamina, and as a bonus was undefeated. Part of the reason I had more stamina this year was that my games only lasted five and a half hours compared to nine like last year. I was far from perfect – I missed shots and drifted into a lost position against Joe but overall I was really pleased with my performance and especially how I took my time at critical points in the games.

  The Jackson Open is the only weekend chess tournament I’ve played in since 2012 so I treat it like a big deal to play in which to me it is. Sam ran a great tournament, the new playing hall was tremendous, and just like Okoboji everyone gets along great. I had a great time and played so well that the possibility exists that I may have hit another chess gear even though I’m barreling towards 55 years old. This possibility has me planning on playing in another weekend chess tournament later this month. The one goal I didn't reach was to win the tournament and get my name on the Flores Cup of Jackson Open champions but I’ve been at it just four years and the 2016 Jackson Open is only 50 weeks away!