Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Roger That

Roger Gotschall (1938-2016) on the left awarding Tim McEntee his 2008 Iowa Chess Championship trophy and on the right receiving some Italian sausage with me at the Marshalltown Salvation Army in 2011. Even into his 70's Roger had a full head of hair that made me wonder why he ever wore a hat.

  It was a cold Saturday in January of 2002 that warmed up enough to have me make a spur of the moment decision to take my two children (5 year old Ben and 8 year old Matt) 40 miles west to Ames, Iowa so they could play in a chess tournament. It was their 4th tournament. I’d never been to Ames before and had a little trouble finding the school but arrived with a half hour to spare. This was the days before readily available internet and I had my cash and sons’ membership cards in hand. I found the tournament director and handed over the boys’ membership cards and cash. The tournament director asked me why I hadn’t signed up beforehand and before I could say I wasn’t planning on going if it was too cold or snowing this tournament director got real loud and angry, telling me that he was sick of people showing up at his tournaments unannounced and that from now on he wasn’t going to let latecomers play in the first round of his tournaments. I had paid an extra $10 for not pre-registering and the thought crossed my mind that I should punch this guy in the mouth but my kids were there and besides this guy was a lot bigger than me (although I was younger and I suspect faster) so I quickly got me and my kids away to get ready for the tournament. That was my first of many meetings with Roger Gotschall from Ames, Iowa who passed away last week at the age of 77.

  Since Ames was the closest town to Marshalltown that had any chess tournaments and all the chess tournaments in Ames were run by Roger we ran into each other frequently in next few years. I never got yelled at by him again but I also pre-registered for his tournaments if at all possible. One thing that was unique about Roger was that he was and is to the present time the only tournament director in Iowa to regularly hold tournaments on Sunday afternoons which is an outstanding chess tournament time for me personally and any parents or children involved in youth sports or school activities.

  In 2006 I took on the task of reviving the Iowa State’s Chess Association’s disintegrating scholastic program and got to deal with Roger on a more or less equal footing. As the coach of five scholastic chess clubs in Ames Roger rightfully wanted a lot of input into the scholastic process. We didn’t agree on everything and quite often didn’t agree on anything. Roger could be incredibly helpful like when he double checked 20 new membership forms for missing birthdates or addresses (saving me days in getting the tournament rated) and also incredibly infuriating like the time I thought he was going to schedule the high school championship tournament but he wouldn’t answer my emails even though I could see him playing on the Internet Chess Club every night.

While most of the successful scholastic teams I've observed in Iowa rode the strength of a few top talents, Roger's teams tended to rely on a deep roster of competent players that found themselves in the winners circle more often than not.

  By the end of my second year of running the scholastics Roger and I understood each other a little better and got along a lot better as well. Roger was a strict traditionalist and a believer in procedure and the chain of command. This manifested itself in ways I sometimes found silly although it gave his clubs and tournaments a rock-solid structure for decades. What Roger had that I appreciated most was that he was the genuine article. He was who he presented himself to be, an old-school guy of integrity. If I asked Roger a question I could count on a straight answer and if he didn’t want to answer a question he didn’t answer it instead of making up a lie. I suspect Roger didn’t appreciate my unconventional approach to running and publicizing tournaments but he had an appreciation of my work ethic and technical savvy as well as the rising Iowa scholastic attendance after years of decline. Whether one of my unconventional ideas worked out well or poorly Roger would be the first (and many times only) person to let me know his approval or disapproval but always with insight into why he arrived at his decision.

  Roger was an engineer by trade. I later learned when working with dozens of engineers at Fischer Controls that engineers perform their job by following the physical laws. For example, a valve made of a certain metal that has to transport a specific liquid at a particular pressure must have thickness and couplings and screws within certain tolerances or else it won’t function properly without exception. In the engineering world there is little to no room for negotiation of physical law. And Roger was like that in running his chess clubs and tournaments – there was a proper way to do things and little to no room for negotiation. As a self-taught software programmer I have been trained to live in a world of chaos. I can write a great program that does exactly what the user wants it to do but it may stop working because some anti-virus program refuses to let my program write to the hard drive or an operating system change hides the printer information or serial port or the computer just goes haywire and makes my program go haywire also. And I’m like that in running tournaments – I expect chaotic things to happen that I have no control over and just try to be flexible so I can stay afloat if a tidal wave hits.

  Roger and I were such polar opposites that it naturally took us awhile to get each other but I believe we respected each other a lot. I can offer proof of my respect by noting that since 2010 I have played in one Iowa tournament that wasn’t run by me or Roger. I infer Roger’s respect by noting that 7 of the 9 Iowa tournaments since 2010 that Roger played in that he didn’t run were my Thursday Night blitz tournaments. When I came to one of Roger’s CyChess tournaments or Roger came to Marshalltown to play in a blitz tournament I would say ‘Hi Roger’ and Roger would say ‘Hello, Mr. Anzis’ (he did always call me Hank after the initial 'Mr' greeting). Roger had a deep bass voice and he spoke slowly with grave intonations and Pinteresque pauses that made you think we were discussing matters of world importance instead of the Cyclone's shooting guard or whether a pawn belonged on a6 or a5 in a particular position. Roger's voice and cadence was so distinctive I was able to imitate it well enough to be able do a one-man stage performance although I would have needed to manufacture a full head of hair and get some inserts for my shoes to properly play the part.

  There were a couple of ways where Roger and I were alike, but even in our similarities we were dissimilar. I am a die hard Yankee fan (the most successful American League team) while Roger was devoted to the St. Louis Cardinals which is the most successful of all the National League teams and all baseball teams except for the Yankees. Our chess styles were opposites but similar in that they are opposites of our personalities. I accept chaos and unpredictable change as a given but over the chess board I like the simplest positions possible and will go to great lengths to avoid complications. Roger was a traditionalist in every sense of the word but over the board loved to sacrifice material and play for the attack and wild positions where the normal guidelines of chess are almost useless. We played four times in tournament chess: two Marshalltown blitz games, a 45 minute game in Urbandale in 2008, and last July in a chess.com online blitz tournament. By the luck of the draw I had White in all four games. All our games followed a familiar pattern of Roger getting a better position before making a big mistake to allow me a technical win. Roger had a lot of chess knowledge, won his section at the 2004 U.S. Open, and has had a number of very instructive winning middle game attacks and endings. I don’t know if the mistakes were him trying to make something happen against my simplistic play or part of old age since I didn’t play him as a younger man but he was a dangerous opponent who scored a lot of upsets and could beat anyone if he was on.

In his later years Roger's constant companion was Cypher the Boston Terrier. Someday they will be walking together again...

  One thing Roger and I had unconditionally in common was a love of dogs. Roger read my blog and knew all about my beagles Daisy and Baxter. In 2011 Roger showed up to play blitz in Marshalltown on a Thursday night and was beaming like a little kid when he told me he had gotten a dog. He then told me his dog was named Cypher and that Cypher was in his car waiting for the tournament to finish! It wasn't an especially hot or cold day but I told Roger to bring Cypher in to the chess club since the Salvation Army majors had a dog that had run of the facility and dogs were not uncommon in the building. Roger brought Cypher in and I have to say Cypher was the best-behaved dog I’ve ever seen. He sat down at Roger’s side and never made a sound. Cypher came with Roger to Marshalltown two other times and I saw Cyper in Ames whenever I played there.

  Roger and I were more chess friends than friends although more than casual acquaintances. I enjoyed our occasional encounters once I got past our rough beginning. I haven’t seen him since 2012 when he stopped his CyChess Sunday tournaments and I stopped my Thursday night blitz tournaments. I’m glad I got to know Roger and I’m better off for knowing him. Hopefully we’ll have another chance to play chess someday and when we do I imagine it will be his turn to have the White pieces.