Friday, May 13, 2016


...It's a game
Sometimes you're cool, sometimes you're lame
Ah yeah it's somewhere
And if you don't know where you're going
Any road will take you there

Any Road by George Harrison

  The first round of the Okoboji Open went smoothly enough with no problems for the tournament director due to an even number of people in each section. The only upset of note was life master Tim Mc Entee held to a draw by Jim Ellis who was rated 400 points below him. It actually wasn’t that big of an upset since Ellis is also a life master who petitioned the governing chess body USCF to lower his rating after he had a stroke. Ellis held International Master John Bartholomew to a draw in 2014 and is capable of beating anyone if he is on his game which he certainly was against Tim.

  The blitz tournament was going to start after the first round ended but there were a couple of long-lasting games which led to two of the younger players dropping out of the blitz in favor of an early bedtime. I was feeling pretty tired around 9 having been up since four in the morning and was only planning on playing if there was an odd number of players in the blitz. I took a walk to Minerva’s bar and restaurant (located in the Arrowwood Resort) and got a $2.00 cup of coffee to go. I started sipping from the 20 oz. Styrofoam cup of coffee and within five minutes felt the heaviness lifting from my eyelids, in 15 minutes I was fully awake, and 30 minutes later I felt like I was back in college taking a pill or two or ten to get me through a day of classes, a stint at the college radio station, an overnight shift at the Bristol-Myers factory, and back to college for a full day of classes! It’s possible that Minerva’s coffee was extra caffeinated but more likely that I had only had the one cup of Burger King groundless coffee 12 hours before and my body was reacting to a sudden infusion of caffeine after going cold turkey for half a day as if I had mainlined it like a heroin addict.

  At 10:15 we were finally ready to start the blitz tournament but there were only three players signed up after the two withdrawals. Sam and the younger sister of one of the players were going to play if there was an odd number of players which was also my idea. I told Sam that he was going to play since there was an odd number of players so now we had four players. Then I said I had decided to play and since we now had an odd number of players again the younger sister should play so we would have an even number of players. Almost everyone seemed satisfied and since the tournament had five rounds I set up my computer for a round-robin (all play all) tournament and printed the pairings for each round.

  The only person who was unsatisfied was Jodene the tournament organizer. She charged $10 per player for the blitz and offered $200 in prizes based on 20 players. She assumed that she would only have to pay prizes in proportion of the number of players to the amount the prizes had been based on until I told her that national tournament rules require at least a 50% payout of the advertised prize fund. The rule exists to prevent organizers from fraudulently offering huge prizes based on unrealistic participation. There were 12 players in last year’s blitz and I’m sure Jodene expected at least that many players and wasn’t expecting to lose $40 on a side event. It’s pretty uncomfortable to be around someone who is losing money on a tournament and is upset about it especially if it is someone you like. I eventually offered Jodene $50 so she wouldn’t lose any money on the blitz tournament. She refused the money so I assumed she just wanted to be upset and left it at that.

  Having made what I consider my best effort to resolve the money situation I stopped worrying about who was or wasn’t upset and put the pairings up so the blitz tournament could get started The six contestants were Sam and I, expert James Neal, Des Moines attorney Tom Gaul, up and coming young player Anish Lodh, and Anish’s sister Anjali. I was in the middle of the pack in this crowd with James, Tom, and Anish having higher blitz ratings than me, Anjali rated below me, and Sam having the same rating as me with his regular rating being used since he had never played a rated blitz game before. At 5 minutes a side the tournament was going to be over within an hour. The Minerva’s coffee was still flowing though my veins and I felt hyper-awake as I sat down for my first game.

James Neal - 0-1
  As the random parings would have it I started with the black pieces against the top seed James Neal. I played James in the first round of a 2002 tournament in Ames. James was in high school playing in his 4th tournament and I was playing in my third tournament in Iowa after a 15 year hiatus. In that game I outrated James by around 400 points, had the black pieces, played the Center Counter opening, was completely outplayed, and lost in a big upset. It proved not ot be much of an upset since James proved to be a really good player. I ran into James and his brother Spencer in a number of tournaments I took my kids to in succeeding years. James dropped off the chess radar after high school but returned with a vengeance a few years ago and is playing at a master level. In our rematch 14 years later, I once again played my Center Counter opening, was once again outplayed, and once again lost, taking little comfort in the fact that 14 years later it wasn’t an upset since James now outrates me by 400 points. I didn’t really make any mistakes in the game but James didn’t either and slowly took over the center and broke into my queen side castled position. It was just a case of how better players like James beat worse players like me.

Anish Lodh - 1-1
  With my personal Okoboji Blitz losing streak now at six games over two years I had the White pieces against the talented 5th grader Anish Lodh. Anish pulled off a 200 point upset in the Friday night game of the Open against an adult who was a prize winner at last year's tournament. I noticed that game was pretty complicated with Anish outplaying his opponent tactically. Even though I was pretty jacked up from the Minerva’s coffee I knew I would probably meet the same fate against Anish if I tried to mix it up so I tried to play the way I always play youngsters which is to dull the game down and try to win in the ending. I played the exchange variation against Anish’s Slav Defense which kept the opportunities for tactical adventures to a minimum. The game went into an ending where we each had a knight, rook, and 7 pawns and around 2 and a half minutes on the clock when Anish finally lost his patience and tried to invade with his rook. I caught him in a trick and won his rook for my knight and then won a couple of pawns. I was queening a pawn when I heard some gasps from a couple of spectators and saw Anish’s eyes get as wide as flying saucers. I looked at my hand and saw that instead of grabbing a White Queen I was holding a Black Queen! Luckily I hadn’t let go of the piece since that would have been an illegal move and cost me the game which would have been an even worse loss than when I forgot to hit my clock in a great position in last year’s blitz tournament. I put the black queen away and put a white queen down and quickly checkmated Anish to score my first ever Okoboji Blitz win and put an end to being 0 for Okoboji!

Tom Gaul - 2-1
  After my first win my next game was against Tom Gaul. Tom and I played blitz 6 or 7 years ago when he was stationed in Marshalltown and came to our chess club although we’ve never met in a rated game. Tom outrates me by 300 points (200 points is one rating class) but I remember being able to hold my own against him in those games in Marshalltown many years ago. Tom is a tactical player and when he played a sideline against my Queens Gambit I slow played it, keeping my dark square bishop on the long diagonal behind my pawns for a solid structure instead of trying to prove there was something wrong with his setup. Tom broke open the center and I used my bishop and queen to threaten a checkmate against his king. Tom blocked the mate threat with his queen and we continued maneuvering until Tom threw his queen deep into my territory. My eyes followed his queen which was attacking my unprotected bishop on its long diagonal and as I considered my options I heard Tom utter a loud groan which reminded me that his queen was the only thing preventing me from checkmating him, which I did. I’ve been in that situation myself a few times and I remember keeping a poker face and trying to focus my attention on a different part of the board in the hopes my opponent wouldn’t notice my mistake which happens every once in a while. Would I have noticed I had a mate in one had Tom kept his poker face? I’d like to think so since I had plenty of time but I’ll never know. The one thing I do know is the first thing I thought of was how I was going to defend against his queen’s invasion and not that he removed the queen from his defense.

Anjali Lodh - 3-1
  In any event I had two wins out of three games played against the highest rated players, was still super alert from the Minerva’s coffee, and was feeling great about being in second place with a chance to tie for first should someone find a way to upset James. My fourth game was against Anjali, the lowest rated player in the field who was only playing because there were an odd number of players and her brother was playing. I had black and got to play my Center Counter defense. I thought Anjali was a pretty good player. She had the same idea most strong players have against the Center Counter which is to slowly take advantage of my early queen moves with superior development. I was equally patient in rearranging my pieces. When it was time to launch her attack, Anjali instead made some weakening pawn moves on her queen side which allowed me to attack a loose piece combined with a queen sacrifice that would lead to a mate in two moves. Anjali saved her piece but fell for the queen sacrifice and I had my third win to clinch at least a tie for second place in the tournament.

Sam Smith 4-1
  For my last game I was playing my friend Sam Smith for the third time in a tournament and had the white pieces for the third time. I watched Sam play Anish in the previous round. Sam had a good game going but seemed to tire noticeably in time pressure and made some mistakes in the ending. This wasn’t too surprising since at 62 Sam was the oldest competitor by far in the tournament (Tom was the second oldest, a year and a half older than me) and wasn’t filling his veins with Minerva’s coffee like I was. The previous times I played Sam were three hour games in the Jackson Open. Both times I avoided Sam’s favored Budapest Gambit. Since I had at least a tie for second place clinched I decided to try playing against Sam’s pet opening. Sam played his gambit and I allowed him to reclaim his pawn so I could catch up in development. I felt like I had a nagging pressure in the center of the board and we slowly boiled the game down to a rook ending which was objectively drawn but still had a lot of play. My hyper-caffeinated state led to me winning a pawn and I proceeded to put the pressure on Sam for the remainder of the game until he made a mistake and allowed me to trade rooks into a winning king and pawn ending for my fourth straight blitz win to follow my six straight Okoboji blitz losses.

Here's to the winners!
  To say I felt pretty good about the blitz tournament would be an understatement. I beat two higher rated players, held serve against the two lower and equal rated players, lost only to James like everyone else did, and didn’t let my opening round loss or my near blunder in the second round affect me. Best of all, I felt like I played well with no over the board blunders. I never was in time trouble but I never felt I was moving too fast and felt like I even pushed the action for the most part. Some people say second place is great and others say second place is the first loser but I just say I finished second and that's all right by me. Maybe I won't feel the same about finishing second next year but if I go 0-5 next year like I did last year I know second place will look pretty good in two years. I felt a sense of redemption after my tank job the year before and I was happy to get my $25 winnings. James took $50 for first, and as the only player rated lower than 1200 Anjali got $12.50 which paid for her entry fee and a couple of candy bars besides. Once the tournament was over I thought I would go straight to bed but the Minerva’s coffee was still pumping me up and I was still pumped up by my second place finish so I hung around the hotel lobby talking to Sam till after midnight and finally rolled into bed at 1 in the morning, 21 hours after I started my day.

If you think finishing second in the Okoboji Blitz is a good result, I'm with Smokey Robinson...

And if you don't please follow Mick Jagger's advice and...

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