Friday, May 19, 2017

An American In Moscow


After dropping a pair of confused beagles off at the Happy Tails, 4 hours of flying, and over an hour of driving we arrived in
Moscow, Idaho - home of the University of Idaho Vandals!

  I went with Kathy last week to Idaho to see our son Ben graduate from the University of Idaho. It was not a trip I was looking forward to for a number of reasons. First and foremost even though I’ve probably driven over a million miles in my life most of that has been to and from work so I wouldn’t consider myself much of a traveler and flying gets me sick to my stomach most of the time. Another reason for not wanting to go is that now that I am an independent contractor without benefits like paid holidays and vacation the time I’d take off from work is time I don’t get paid for. Kathy has been to Idaho twice a year to move Ben. During these trips I stayed home with Daisy and Baxter but this time we would have to board them at a kennel which is not something anyone wants to do (including Baxter and Daisy). And did I mention I hate flying!

  These are all great reasons and Ben was certainly going to graduate whether I was there or not but it is important to keep in mind the wise words of the United States Constitution and ‘insure domestic tranquility’ which in my case means Kathy wanted me to go and so last Thursday morning instead of heading to work I went to the airport with Kathy to take my first vacation of the year. Before heading to the airport we took Daisy and Baxter for a long walk with a beef stick treat reward and took them with us when we headed to the airport to drop them off at the Happy Tails kennel. This was the same kennel we were going to leave them at on last years aborted vacation to Chicago, Kathy had been bringing the beagles to Happy Tails for the last two weeks to get them used to being there but the look Daisy gave me as she realized we were leaving her and Baxter was almost enough to make me cancel the trip. Almost.

  We got to the airport and through the very tight security in no time and were on our way to Denver via United Airlines over the Rocky Mountains. I used free internet at the Des Moines and Denver airports. I didn’t want to pay for United’s wireless internet but I broke down on the longer trip from Denver to Spokane and paid $7.99 to use the internet on the plane to play some chess and maybe blog about playing chess on a plane. The internet worked great on my iPod until we took off but after that I couldn’t get email, check stock prices, go on Facebook, and certainly couldn’t play chess. About the only thing I could do was use the united website to make sure the plane was still on the air and possibly headed to the right place.

A side trip to Colfax, Washington - home of Gravy the dog and the Main Street Bookstore.

  We got to Spokane around noon Pacific Time, rented a car, and headed 80 miles south to Pullman, Washington. Pullman is the home of the Cougars of Washington State College and about 10 miles west of the University of Idaho’s campus in Moscow, Idaho which was completely sold out of hotel rooms for the graduation weekend. The highways we took wound through lots of hills and rocky walls of carved out mountains and led us through the small town of Colfax, Washington which had some second hand stores and a used book store. We stopped for Kathy to see if there were any Christmas candles (there weren’t) and for me to see if there were any books I wanted to get at the used bookstore (I did buy “Even Dead Men Play Chess” by Michael Wietz - a murder mystery featuring a chess coach). Even though the side trip was pretty fruitless we did get to meet Gravy the dog who was the bookstore guardian along with three large cats.

  We arrived at the Pullman Holiday Inn Express around three. Ben was still taking exams and we were going to meet him at a hotel in Moscow for a ‘Math Department Reception’ at 7. I didn’t pack a toothbrush so we went to the Pullman, Washington Dollar Tree conveniently located a few blocks from the Holiday Inn Express. The Pullman, Washington Dollar Tree looked very much like the Marshalltown, Iowa Dollar Tree and all the other Dollar Tree’s I’ve frequented with the glaring exception of a lack of a frozen food section. There were a few new items I’ve yet to see in other Dollar Trees and of course there was a travel toothbrush with name brand Crest toothpaste for, you guessed it, a dollar. Kathy got a few items and we were quickly out of the Dollar Tree and after a quick visit to the pet store next door and a longer trip for an awesome Kung Pao chicken dinner at the Mandarin House Restaurant we headed back to our room for a quick nap and then were on to the ‘Math Department Reception’.

While Ben was getting award after award, I was angling towards the mathematically sliced watermelon which was also award-worthy!

  We got to the Reception around 7 and saw Ben for the first time that day. Kathy had met most of his favorite professors before and this was my first time meeting them. They all just raved about Ben’s math ability and work ethic which is always nice to hear. There’s no credit to me in this – Kathy had him reading at 3 years old, Ben has always loved numbers, and has always had a great work ethic. The professors weren’t just kidding me either. Ben had his name engraved on a plaque for being the outstanding math student of the year. I finished the first plate of the exceptional watermelon but every time I got up to get a new plate they gave Ben another award and I had to sit down. Finally, all the awards stopped and I resumed snacking on the watermelon (which seemed very mathematically sliced) until it was time to take Ben, his fiancé, and her mom to Baskin Robbins for ice cream and then we headed back to Pullman for a good night’s sleep.

  We woke up early on Friday and there wasn’t much for us to do since Ben still had finals to take. We headed to the University Bookstore for Kathy to get an Idaho shirt. I wanted to get a souvenir but the cheapest thing I could find was a $2 postcard so I passed. Then we headed to the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores where Kathy found a Christmas candle for her collection and I found a couple of button down shirts which looked great but on closer inspection at home one shirt didn’t come with a pocket which is a must for any button down shirt I wear to work.

  After hitting the second hand stores Kathy took me to a WinCo supermarket. I'd never been to a WinCo which was unlike any supermarket I’ve ever been to. The store had shelving in long rows from floor to ceiling all through the store and the selections of items was truly amazing. Rows of self-serve bins of every kind of candy, nuts, grains, and granolas covered three entire rows. What caught my eye was the giant 25 pound bags of carrots, baby bologna, and Crab Boil Liquid. I didn’t ask whether the liquid was meant to boil crabs in or actually came from crab boils.



Some of the incredible selection of items at the WinCo! Baby Bologna or Turkey Tails, anyone?

  After a great time at the WinCo, it was time for lunch so we went to the nearby mall and settled on lunch at Smoky Mountain Pizzeria Grill. The menu item that caught my eye was the Calzone. “Start with your choice of toppings. We add ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, white cheddar cheese, and tomato sauce, then bake until golden brown”. I ordered an Italian sausage calzone and Kathy had a calzone with peppers, tomatoes, and a little onion.

  And then we waited and waited and a half hour later we finally had our calzones. I cut into my calzone expecting to see gobs of cheese and some sausage only to find there was a doughy mess full of sausage with a trace of cheese and tomato sauce hidden in a corner. Kathy’s calzone was no better and even worse since her calzone had more onion than anything else. When the server asked if everything was OK I said the calzones had no cheese and he said “What do you want me to do about it?” I ate my calzone which was more like a disgusting $10 inside-out maid-rite and Kathy picked through her onion calzone and we left to head back to Pullman Washington for a nap. After our nap we met Ben, his fiancé, and her mom at Gambino’s Restaurant in Moscow for some great Italian food although I was so full of Smokey Mountain’s disgusting calzone that I only felt like eating a chef salad (which was excellent).

  We went back to the hotel but were up early on Saturday to make sure we got to the University of Idaho’s 16,000 seat Kibbe Dome early enough for get a prime seat for Ben’s graduation. We arrived at 7:30 for the 9:30 graduation and did get seats in the front row on the side Ben would be sitting. The Kibbe Dome is the school’s football and basketball stadium and I got to see the banner denoting the school’s 61-50 victory over Colorado State in the 2016 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise.

Finally the graduation at the University Of Idaho's Kibbe Dome!

  Take it from me – no matter how close your seats are to a graduation sitting in football stadium bleachers for 5 hours is a long grind. After a couple of hours the students came in with Ben being recognized as the leading student for the College of Science. After the obligatory speeches and talks the 700+ graduates received their diplomas and the ceremony was over around 12. Ben was headed to another math ceremony to receive more awards and we were all going to join him but his fiancée’s mom lost her car keys right after moving her daughter out of her dorm. Everything had been moved to their house 40 miles away except for some cleaning supplies. Ben went to his ceremony and Kathy and I went back to the Kibbe Dome to get our car to pick up Ben’s fiancée and her mom. We snaked slowly though the cars leaving the ceremony and picked up everything and everyone and then joined Ben’s ceremony which was almost over except for a few leftover ham and cheese wraps.

  Everyone but Ben was hungry so while he took a nap we all headed to the Subway for some American food and then headed to the two used bookstores in town where I got a large book of comics by Robert Crumb and the Indian tribal classic ‘Hanta Yo’ both of which I may even read some day.


Some of the amazing Idaho scenery.

  Ben joined us at the second bookstore and we hung out for a couple more hours looking at books and eating ice cream at a local shop. I was half expecting someone to walk up to Ben and give him more awards but it looked like the awards were over for at least that week. Ben is staying in Idaho for a few more weeks and Kathy and I were staying at a hotel by the airport in Spokane since our flight was leaving the next day at 5:30 am so it was time to say our goodbyes to Moscow, Idaho. We dropped Ben’s fiancée and her mom at their house 40 miles north and continued up the Idaho panhandle on a 2 lane highway until we made our left turn to Spokane. The countryside in Idaho and Washington is amazing with logging camps, mountains full of pine trees, lakes, and deer running all around. We got to the hotel and were out to the airport the next day and back in Marshalltown by 1 in the afternoon and picked up Daisy and Baxter when the Happy Tails kennel opened at 4.

  It was a whirlwind trip to the great northwest and a nice mini-vacation for me. I’m not much for the outdoors so I was happy to have familiar places like the Dollar Tree and the Subway to visit and hang out in. All in all I was happy to have made the trip and the time off work was welcome but my idea of a vacation is staying at home and hanging out with Kathy and the beagles. I guess there is no place like home.

Friday, May 12, 2017

All Good Things...

  I had my last chess club at the Marshalltown Salvation Army last week. I started the Club in 2001 when I asked the Salvation Army if they had a chess club as part of their weekly game night and Major Joan Stoker told me "No. Why don’t you start one?" My kids needed people to play so I started the club on Thursday nights as part of the Army’s Open Gym. Kids would head into the gym to play ball and get a free meal and eventually wander into the chess club, some for a few minutes and others for an hour or two. None of these kids stuck with chess but most had a good time just playing.

  In 2003 AmericInn asked me to run a chess tournament at their Marshalltown hotel where the top three finishers would compete in their national tournament in Minneapolis. I held out for a dozen free USCF memberships which I gave to some of the Salvation Army kids and other local players. I was hoping that the local players would come to the Salvation Army to play which didn’t happen with one notable exception in Jon McCord who took his son Jack to the club and kept coming to the club for the next 14 years.

  The club hit its high note from 2005 to 2007 when Scott Johnson (the teacher advisor for the high school chess club) started routing players to the club and I went to the high school for some exhibitions. The chess club teamed with my sons Matt and Ben and shared three state high school championships. Unfortunately, Scott left Marshalltown and the new advisors of the school club did not have the same interest. And a year later the Salvation Army was undergoing some turnover in leadership and the new majors discontinued the open gym for kids.

  Now the club had more adults than kids and I was having trouble getting the adults to play so in 2009 I decided to have a weekly speed chess tournament with a time limit of game in 10 minutes plus a 2 second delay. It was a pretty successful idea which got the local players back to playing and attracting players from all over the area and even out of state players traveling through Iowa would stop in to play a few games of nationally rated speed chess. The Salvation Army doesn’t have guest internet so I always rated the tournaments when I got home. I was investigating someone who wanted to partner with me in holding some youth tournaments in Des Moines when I found out one of the blitz regulars from out of town was on the sex offender list. I still had some young players and even though this particular sex offender wasn’t barred from being in contact with minors I decided to stop the blitz tournaments in late 2012 since without internet access anyone could show up to play chess and I wouldn’t know whether or not they were on the sex offender list until later on.

  As it turns out this particular player that was on the sex offender list showed up at one of my Time Odds blitz tournaments in the summer of 2013 and got upset when I told him he couldn’t play. He thought he should be allowed because he had no restrictions about being around children. To me it was a no-brainer. Let’s say a parent looks this guy up and sees him on the sex offender list and asks me about it. At that point I have two choices – a) I can pretend I didn’t know or b) I have say I knew and now I’m vouching for someone on the sex offender list. Neither of those choices seemed too good to me so I just said he was not invited and that was that. It’s not a personal thing but I didn’t put this guy on the sex offender list – he did that. I asked a lawyer if I would be liable if there was ever an incident or misunderstanding. The lawyer said that I probably wasn’t liable but it wouldn’t stop me from getting sued and making a lawyer like him a lot of money so I think I made the right choice to not have this guy at my tournaments and stop my Thursday Night speed chess tournaments where I couldn’t check on the participants.

  The club had a brief uptick in 2014 when we hosted Tim McEntee’s Expert Open with world youth champion Awonder Liang in attendance. There were some returning players and some new players but within a few months they all drifted away and for the last few months more often as not the only three players at the club were Jon, Jaleb (who had been coming for 10 years with a college break), and myself.

  I knew for a couple of months I was going to miss this week’s club due to travel and as I got closer to this week the more it seemed like the best time to stop having the club. Having the club for 15+ years is something I was pretty happy with even if the ending left a bit to be desired. It would be easy to blather on about how clubs are passé and most people play online and while there is some truth to that I’d have to say the main reason the club dwindled was because the club hours of Thursdays from 5 to 7 isn’t the best time for workers or school kids like it was 10 years ago. There was some talk about trying to have the club at the library on Sunday afternoons which may be a great idea since there will be more visibility. If it happens that would be great and I’ll probably show up on occasion to play. As the saying goes ‘All Good Things Must Come to an End’. The Marshalltown Chess Club was a good thing and it has come to an end but maybe there will soon be a new beginning.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Denials and Admissions

  People who suddenly change their minds or admit to actions that they repeatedly and vehemently denied in the past have always held a special fascination for me. I say held because eventually I realized that the ‘about-face’ is almost always part of a plan to attain a goal that was not successfully obtained by the previous position. Lance Armstrong consistently denied using steroids during his record setting bicycling career and would sue journalists and authors that dared to accuse him in print. After Armstrong’s career ended the steroid rumors and denials persisted until evidence from the U.S. Ant-Doping Agency led to his being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and his having to leave his Lance Armstrong Foundation (which rebranded itself as LiveStrong). At that point Armstrong admitted on an Oprah Winfrey special that he was using performance enhancing drugs during his amazing climb to the heights of the cycling world after beating cancer. Why did Armstrong finally come clean? I don’t know but I have to think it was an attempt to try to get sympathy from the American public since he had become such a pariah that his own foundation had to run away from his name.

  Pete Rose made an about face on his repeated denials that he never bet on sports during baseball season, never bet on baseball, and never bet for or against the Cincinnati Reds baseball team he managed but not as sudden a turnaround as Lance Armstrong. After accepting a lifetime ban from baseball without an acknowledgement of his gambling on baseball, Rose admitted to betting on football and horse racing in season. In 2004 Rose admitted to betting on baseball and even betting on the Reds ‘to win every night’. Why did Rose finally admit to gambling on sports, baseball, and the Reds? Because he was promoting his new book and finally realized that there was no way he was ever going to live to see himself inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rose is in his mid-70’s and is enjoying a renaissance of sorts as a talking head on Fox Sports. I have no doubt that if Rose finds himself in need of cash in the future there will be yet another book and round of media interviews detailing the ins and outs of how Rose bet against the team he was managing and how he rigged the odds in his favor.

  A recent about face happened in the chess world regarding Grandmaster Tal Baron of Israel. A couple of years ago Baron started a YouTube channel and Twitch stream and has about 6,500 subscribers. Just as playing well-to-do patrons in coffeehouses was the way many chess professionals made a living 150 years ago, live streaming chess channels are rapidly becoming a way for today’s chess professionals to make extra money via donations from patrons and well-wishers.

  Having a chess stream isn’t Baron’s only claim to fame. Baron won $1200 in chess.com’s monthly ‘Titled Tuesday’ tournament in August of 2015, starting with seven straight wins before finishing with two draws. Baron’s amazing result came with many accusations that he was cheating and his account was indeed suspended by chess.com shortly after the tournament. You can see a video of his last five games here and judge for yourself.

The games...

  I’d been watching some of Baron’s videos and never heard of these accusations until I saw an interview with Baron on the Astaneh chess channel where Baron vehemently denied all accusations that he cheated on the chess.com tournament and accused his accusers of “spreading hate” and being “not the most moral people ever created”. This got me to research the accusations. I didn’t find too much except for the KchessK video and the comments in the chess.com article.

...the denial...

  Did I think Tal Baron was cheating? I had no idea and I didn’t really care either. I just wanted to see the accusations. Judging from the number of outright blunders in his over the board blitz games and online blitz matches that he has posted on his channel I wouldn’t find it hard to believe that he had computer assistance in the Titled Tuesday tournament but I also wouldn’t find it hard to believe that he had his best day ever because we all have to have a best day ever, don’t we?

...and the admission

  I didn’t give the matter another thought until Baron posted this video on his YouTube channel in April 9th where he admitted to cheating in the last game of the tournament against a player who he considered to be a computer cheater also. The last player Baron played in the tournament was top 10 player and multiple time US champ Hikaru Nakamura who is widely considered to be the best 1 minute player in the world. Baron said he admitted to chess.com that he cheated and agreed to a lifetime ban from all chess.com money tournament and special events. Baron said “other than this game I did not use any chess engine assistance and for the haters and non-believers of you – you can cite statistics all you want but this is the truth”.

  Is Baron telling the truth about only cheating during the one game? I don’t know but it sure sounds a lot like a Pete Rose piecemeal confessions and his confession on his YouTube channel seemed as honest as his denials in the interview with Astaneh. To me the entire incident is a curiosity rather than a source of moral outrage. The biggest question on my mind is what baron expects to get out of his admission? Maybe he hopes to be reinstated on chess.com or be invited to play in future big money online tournaments. I don’t know but time should give me the answer to that question.

  I’m not a hater or a non-believer (although I wonder what Baron’s ‘believers’ from before his confession think now) but I think Baron should have taken his cue from the greatest cheater of all time and admitted nothing. Barry Bonds is baseball’s home run king and was widely accused of using performance enhancing drugs during the latter half of his career and even admitted to a grand jury in 2003 to using ‘cream and clear’ steroids once and only then by accident. In his first three tries at the Hall of Fame, Bonds received less than 40% of the votes cast (75% is needed to get in the hall). But Bonds has never admitted to any steroid use beyond his grand jury testimony. Bonds received over 40% of the vote last year and over 50% this year. At this pace Bonds will end up being inducted in the Hall of Fame and his detractors can never point to any admission on his part that he used steroids except for his one admission to the federal grand jury. If Pete Rose had foregone his book deal money and never admitted to betting on baseball he may have eventually received a similar turnaround in sentiment. I think Baron would have been better served by following Bonds’ example of admitting nothing instead of embarking down the road of what I think will be continuing piecemeal confessions.

  I could have been accused of cheating or using performance enhancing drugs after this three minute game I played on the Internet Chess Club last week. The way I smoothly headed to a superior endgame and kept a grip of the center may get me in the Hall Of Fame before Barry Bonds!


pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net

  I considered this one of the best games I ever played and denied all contrary points of view as those of 'haters and non-believers'. Well, OK. I have to admit it. I did use computer assistance but only AFTER I played the game and unfortunately after subjecting the game to the cold eye of Mr. Fritz it turns out I missed just as many ideas as I do in most of my games. Let's take another look...



Saturday, April 29, 2017

Another Tool in the Box

  In last week’s post about the progress of the Found Money Fund (FMF) I mentioned that I had dipped into the waters of buying my favorite Intel stock (INTC) and selling options to give someone the right to purchase the stock at an agreed upon price (the strike price) up to an agreed upon time (the expiration date). I also mentioned that since the FMF had finally accumulated 100 shares of one of its pillar stocks AT&T (T) I had sold an option to sell the stock at a price of $46 up to October 21st of this year. In January I wrote a post called 'Born To Lose' about my penchant for using the funds rolled over from previous employer’s 401k plans in my self-directed Fidelity account to purchase stocks and make sell options for less money than the stock was currently worth with the premium received for the option more than compensating for the loss in selling a stock for less than I paid (plus commissions). The idea behind this strategy is to make a quick percent or two on my investment and hopefully have the option exercised so I can execute the same strategy with the same money over and over.

  No one I talk to about investing had heard of this strategy of planning to sell stock at a loss and I knew that I wasn’t the first person to think of this so I went on the internet and found that a related strategy exists called In-The-Money Covered Call’. It is listed in “theoptionsguide” website as “a good strategy to use if the options trader is looking to earn a consistent moderate rate of return.” which certainly fits me to the letter although it doesn't quite fit in that I am buying the stocks specifically to sell the In-The-Money covered call. In ‘Born to Lose’ I wrote about three covered calls (2 for INTC and 1 for EMR that were likely to be exercised in the days after the post was published. All three options were exercised and I immediately went about looking for new buying opportunities. When my January 6th option for 300 shares of Intel was called I bought 300 more shares at 36.70 and sold the option at a strike price of $36 expiring on February 17th. The premium of 1.46 per share I received on the option would leave me a profit of over $200 if the option was exercised five weeks later. The option was exercised on February 17th and as a bonus I got an extra $78 when Intel declared their quarterly dividend of 26 cents a share for stockholders as of February 3rd. The entire transaction netted me $280.76 or 2.55% over 38 days (23.85% annually) which to me was much better than a ‘moderate rate of return’.
  
1/19/2017Buy 300 INTC @36.6959-11016.72
1/19/2017Sell 3 INTC Option @36 (1.46)
Expiring 2/17/2017
+427.67
2/3/2017.26 dividend payable 3/1/2017+78.00
2/17/2017Sell 300 INTC @36.00
(option was exercised)
+10791.81
Total+280.762.55%

  My next option buys was another favorite Emerson (EMR) who I worked for and can personally attest to their commitment to their bottom line. On January 12th I bought 100 shares at 57.15 and received $3.25 a share to sell the option at a strike of $55 expiring March 17th. Two weeks later I made a similar play and on January 26th I bought 100 shares at $60 per share, and collected $3.10 a share to sell the option at a strike of $57.5 also expiring on March 17th. I was counting on collecting the .48 cent dividend on February 15th but the stock hit a huge upswing and with a price of 64.14 both options were exercised the day before the dividend would be mine, leaving me with smallish profits of $85.23 (1.49%) and $37.61 (.63%) over 34 and 20 days respectively which could be described as moderate.
  
1/12/2017Buy 100 EMR @57.15-5722.952
1/12/2017Sell 1 EMR Option @55 (3.25)
Expiring 3/17/2017
316.25
2/15/2017Sell 100 EMR @55.00
(option was exercised)
5491.93
Total+85.231.49%
  
1/26/2017Buy 100 EMR @57.9761-6005.56
1/26/2017Sell 1 EMR Option @57.5 (3.10)
Expiring 3/17/2017
301.25
2/15/2017Sell 100 EMR @57.50
(option was exercised)
5741.92
Total+37.610.63%

  My third option purchase was for Exxon (XOM),another old favorite which has wild fluctuations in prices depending on the various states of unrest in oil producing nations. On February 15th I bought 100 shares of Exxon at $82.925 and collected $223 for the option at a stike of $82.50 expiring April 21st. On March 30th, Exxon had taken a roller coaster dip from $83.87 to $81.84 in one day and the price of my option plummeted so I bought the option back for $1.10 a share and immediately sold another option at the same strike price of $82.50 only expiring a month later on May 19th for $1.80 a share. Less commissions I collected an extra $60 or .71% to extend the option out an extra month and there is the possibility of collecting a 75 cent a share dividend for Exxon in early May.

  
2/15/2017Buy 100 XOM @82.925-8300.45
2/15/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (2.32)
Expiring 4/21/2017
223.25
3/30/2017Buy 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.10)
Expiring 4/21/2017
-115.54
3/30/2017Sell 1 XOM Option @82.5 (1.80)
Expiring 5/19/2017
174.35
5/19/2017Sell 100 XOM @82.5
(if option is exercised)
8244.75
Total+226.362.73%

  All three of the options have something in common – they were for stocks I just bought and the option strike price was less than I paid for the stock with the expectation that the option would be exercised and I will sell the stock and get my money back along with a 1 to 3 percent return over a month or two. I wouldn’t feel awful if the price of Intel, Exxon, or Emerson tanked and I got stuck with the stock because these companies have been around for years, pay healthy dividends, and are bound to be back up at some point but I want the options to be exercised to I can keep cycling through my strategy for a percent or two return.

  There are some stocks that I feel like I have as investments and would like to boost my earnings by selling options but I would rather not have these options exercised. The 100 shares I have in AT&T in the Found Money Fund is an example. When I went looking to sell an option for AT&T I had to think about a) what kind of return I wanted and b) what kind of price would make me OK with selling the stock. I decided that I would want the quarterly dividend payout (.49 cents a share) as a return and I would feel comfortable selling AT&T if they were at their year high. AT&T’s 52 week high was 43.89 on July 5th 2016 and I saw that I could sell an option at a strike of $44 expiring in August and get $40 but I decided to go a little longer in time and a little higher in stike price so I went for an October 21st option for a strike of $46 and collected $45 after commissions for the option. I’m only getting an annual return on the option of a little more than 2% but that’s fine because this time I’m definitely going for a ‘moderate’ return. If AT&T breaks above their year high I’ll sell the stock for $46 and be pretty happy to grab a great profit. In the month since I sold this option AT&T has gone from almost $42 to under $40 and I can buy this option back for $12, banking a profit of $28 after commissions. I am waiting until the price of the option goes to $10 so I can buy it back commission free.

  I felt pretty good about this idea of collecting an extra dividend payment and possibly selling a stock at a year high so I did it again with the 100 shares of EMR stock I’ve owned since late 2014. The initial purchase price was 61.44 and the stock has gone between $50 and $65 in the interim but by collecting a healthy dividend and selling options I currently show a profit of over 13.3% (5.6% annually) on a stock whose price is virtually unchanged (61.22 on April 25th) over the 2 and a half years I’ve owned it. I’m pretty attached to these particular shares so when I decided to make a little extra money on them I went for the same strategy. Emerson’s 52 week high is 64.37 on February 10th. On March 6th I collected $58 to sell an option to sell Emerson for a $65 strike expiring June 16th. At the time Emerson was trading at $60 and last Friday it is selling at $59 with the price of the option dropping to $14. I am following the same strategy as T and will buy the option back if the price goes down to $10 so I can save the $5 commission.

  Since I've brought up the commission a few times I should mention that earlier this year Fidelity lowered their commission for trading stocks on their site from $7.95 a trade to $4.95 a trade. The $3 savings per trade is a significant factor in options as the payouts are smaller and the commission percentage is larger and it is a nice bonus for a small fish like me that only trades an option or two at a time. If I was trading 10 or 20 options at a time the commission would be no issue since it would be less than a penny a share.

  My new option strategy of having some keeper stocks that I am only willing to sell high and will accept less in options premiums along with stocks that I buy in order to collect more money for options that I expect to be exercised makes it seem like I have a bit of a split personality disorder as I read this post a day after writing it. I see it as a process of getting familiar enough with options to use them in different ways. I started out by selling short term options that would guarantee me a profit if exercised as a way of making extra profit on a stock transaction. Then I discovered a way to make a short term profit on cash by buying a stock and selling the option at a lower price than I paid in order to again make a short term profit. Now I am playing more of a long game by squeezing an extra percent or two out of stocks I have as long term investments by selling options for high prices way out in the future. All three strategies have their place in my toolbox and all three fit my profile of wanting to maximize my profits without taking undue risks.


Friday, April 21, 2017

FMF – Go With What You Know

  It has been a tumultuous seven months since I last reported on the Found Money Fund (or FMF). The FMF was started in 2015 as the dropping off point in a Fidelity stock brokerage account for the extra money I get from giving chess lessons, supporting the shoe store software I stopped writing a decade ago, tax returns, side programming jobs, money I find on the ground walking my dogs, and any other unanticipated income. I started using my found money to buy four stocks: Phillip Morris (PM), AT&T (T), Coca-Cola (KO), and mortgage real estate trust company American Capital Agency Corp. (AGNC). All four stocks pay dividends which I reinvest back into the stocks commission free. In September the AGNC stock lowered its dividend from 20 cents a share to 18 cents a share and I was considering selling the stock because I expected the stock price to go from $19.50 a share to $18 a share since I remembered the stock price going from $22 to $20 a share when the dividend was cut from 22 cents a share to 20 cents a share.

  I had placed a sell order for 102 shares of AGNC stock with a stop limit of 50 cents, meaning that the sale would be executed when the price went down 50 cents from the peak price AFTER I placed the sell order. The stock drifted a little over $19.50, reached $19.81 and then took a severe downturn whereupon my sell order was executed for $19.31 on September 9th. The stock drifted between 18.50 and 19.50 over the next couple of months and hit a low of $17.53 on December 15th, leaving me feeling very smart indeed about my decision to sell this mortgage real estate investment trust (mREIT) that I really don’t understand. I am feeling a lot less smart about my decision in the last two months since a rise in interest rates with the prospect of more to come has given the stock a second wind to currently trade over $20.50 a share. I kept 11.443 shares of the stock as my profit and still receive $2 a month in dividends so it’s not a financial disaster but more of an opportunity cost due to not understanding this stock since by simply doing nothing I would have made an extra $300 in profits.

  Aside from the AGNC misfire, the other three pillars of the FMF have been performing nicely with Phillip-Morris my top performer, Coca-Cola bringing up the rear, and AT&T solidly in the middle with massive fluctuations depending on how the investment public views the prospects of their upcoming merger with Time-Warner. At the time of my last post, the FMF had shown an all-time profit of $1347, down from the high of $1615 on July 6th, 2016. The uncertainty surrounding the election and the surprise election of President Trump sent my stocks into a tailspin and the profits had dwindled to under $500 on November 14th. Then stocks took a dramatic turnaround. My profits went back over $1000 on December 9th, again reached the $1500 mark on February 3rd, and hit a new all-time profit of $1659 five days later. In the next two months I hit 18 new profit records with the latest high of $2377 set on April 18th. Meanwhile I had a decent time getting found money and was able to make 8 buys in my preferred purchase amount of $500.

DateTransactionDJIAStock +/-FMF +/-
September 9, 2016SELL 102 AGNC @19.3218,085216.631,037.16
December 5, 2016Buy 12 T @38.806219,216308.56629.82
January 17, 2017Buy 12 KO @41.13619,826-18.081,247.29
February 23, 2017Buy 5 PM @105.466120,810779.431,916.70
February 23, 2017Buy 12 T @41.676120,810629.271,916.70
March 6, 2017Buy 5 PM @110.041920,954912.272,011.67
March 6, 2017Buy 12 KO @42.24520,95482.872,011.67
March 6, 2017Buy 12 T @41.7920,954640.822,011.67
March 17, 2017Buy 12 KO @42.2620,91467.072,242.58

  You may have noticed that even though I sold 100 shares of AGNC on September 9th there were no buys until December and if you did you may have wondered what I did with the proceeds of the sale. I held onto the money and even held out the next three scheduled buys until I had enough cash saved to introduce the FMF to my favorite stock – Intel (INTC) and my favorite strategy of buying 100 shares of a stock and selling a covered call option to sell the stock at a future date for an agreed on price. This is a strategy I’ve been using for three years on my 401k plan and it is a plan that I understand even though it may not be the preferred method of the experts whose strategies I read about every so often.

  On November 30th I bought 100 shares on Intel at the market price of 35.16 and immediately collected $55 to sell someone the right to buy the shares for $35.5 on January 6th 2017. Intel dipped to 33.56 the very next day but rebounded in spectacular fashion, breaking $35 on December 7th, $36 on December 12th, and $37 on December 20th before settling between $36 and $36.5 until January 6th at which time my option was called and I sold the stock as agreed upon for $35.5. My profit for the 37-day investment was $72.42 or 2.05%. The next Monday I bought 101 (using some of my profit for the extra share) shares of Intel at $36.70 and made $132 by selling the option to buy the shares at $36 on February 10th. If the option was exercised I would sell the 100 shares and my profit would be $54 after commissions. In The ensuing 32 days Intel went over $37 again on January 20th and reached $38.45 on January 27th before settling back under $37 on January 31st. On February 2nd the stock closed at $36.68 and I was sure my option would be called early since owners of the stock as of February 3rd receive a dividend of 26 cents a share. I was surprised when my option wasn’t called but maybe the experts know more than me since on February 9th Intel went from $36.50 to $35.46 and stayed well below $36 on the expiration day of February 10th.

  On February 10th I could have let my option expire but I decided to spend $1.04 to buy back the option to sell another option at $36 that would expire on May 19th. I could have saved the $1.04 by letting the option expire but I wanted to get my next option play in the books before the weekend. I didn’t like going three months out on the new option but that seemed to be the best deal at the time. I could have waited for the option prices to go up on Intel’s next big move up but to me that seemed like gambling (there could also have been a big move down) and I don’t want to gamble – I want to ensure a solid return. I received $97 to sell the option which brought my proceeds on this 100 shares of Intel to $219 in options and $26 in dividends for a grand total of $245 or 6.9% of the purchase price and I still own the stock. If the option is called I will mark up a loss of $70 but I may get another dividend of $27.25 (Intel raised their quarterly dividend from 26 cents a share to 27.25 cents) if the option isn’t called before May 3rd. Here is the complete accounting:

  
DateTransactionsAmountShares
November 30, 2016Buy 100 INTC @35.166-3524.55+100
November 30, 2016Sell 1 INTC Option @35.55 (.63)
Expiring 1/6/2017
+55.00
January 6, 2017Sell 100 INTC @35.50
(Option was exercised)
+3541.97-100
January 9, 2017Buy 101 INTC @36.695-3714.15+101
January 9, 2017Sell 1 INTC Option @36.00 (1.40)
Expiring 2/10/2017
+132.00
February 3, 2017Dividend INTC (Payable 3/1/2017)+26.00
February 10, 2017Buy 1 INTC Option @36.00 (.01)
Expiring 2/10/2017
-1.04
February 10, 2017Sell 1 INTC Option @36.00 (1.05)
Expiring 5/19/2017
+97.00
March 1, 2017Reinvested Dividend -26.00+.722
May 19th, 2017Sell 100 INTC @36.00
(if option is exercised)
3594.97-100
Total (If option is exercised)+181.211.722

  So if the option is exercised and I sell 100 shares of Intel at $36 on or before May 19th I will show a profit of $181 which is 4.8% AND I would still own 1.722 shares. If the option is not exercised I will own the 101.722 shares of Intel at a net cost of $3,413 or $33.80 a share which is far less than I paid. Currently Intel is hovering between $35 and $36 a share. I have no idea if the option will be called or not. My best case scenario is that the stock stays right around $36 so if the option is exercised I can start the process all over again and if the option is not exercised I will just sell the option all over again and bank more profit. Practically speaking I would have had better results sticking with AGNC but I just don’t understand why the stock price is so high after the company has reduced its dividend from 22 cents to 20 cents to 18 cents a share. I much prefer to stick with Intel and playing the options carousel since it is something I understand even if I must take a much more active role than I like. For completeness sake I will include the status of the FMF as of April 18th.

StockAverage
Purchase
Price
Profit on
April 18th
Purchased
Shares
Reinvested
Shares
DividendQuarterly
Dividend
PM92.531156.71392.3021.0443.03
KO42.67206.00933.0140.3735.52
AGNC-.01250.38012.0990.186.54
T37.36540.201035.2850.4953.06
INTC33.80224.321010.7720.272527.71
Total
Quarterly
Dividends
165.87
Monthly
Dividends
55.29

  Profits do not include options that are in the money For example when I sell an option to trade Intel at $36 and Intel is trading at $36.25 I have to subtract $25 from the Intel profit since that will belong to the buyer if the option is exercised. My monthly dividend has only gone from $48.60 a month in September to $55.29 a month despite adding 8 buys and every stock except AGNC raising their dividend. This is a consequence of trading out $20 a month of AGNC dividends for $9 a month of Intel. The upside is that I am accumulating cash by playing the options game with Intel (reflecting in the reduced purchase price of the stock) that I am using to make buys of the other three pillars of the FMF. I hit a milestone when I accumulated 100 shares of AT&T. Options trade in lots of 100 shares and I jumped in by trading an option to sell 100 shares of T at a price of $46 on October 21st. Why so far out in the future? That will be the subject of my next post.

Friday, April 14, 2017

21st Century NBA Basketball Prediction Program - The Idea in Practice

  The 2016-2017 NBA regular season ended on Wednesday and the playoffs will start on Saturday. This was the season I put my 30+ year old basketball prediction program to the test of real betting. I spent last summer entering in four seasons worth of scores from basketball-reference.com and betting lines from freeplays.com. Then I used my program to retroactively measure over a thousand formulas against the data. I found a formula that produced a winning margin over the magic break even betting winning percentage of 52.4% (11 wins for every 10 losses) for each year and opened a $500 account on bovada.lv on October 5th. I signed up for a $250 welcome bonus that was paid out in increments between a dollar or two every time I hit one of the bovada milestones towards the $3750 I needed to wager to get the full $250. The season started on October 25th but the program didn’t have enough data for predictions until November 5th. When the betting started my program was a wonder to behold as I won my first five bets and was $50.53 up by November 12th. After that the program tread water and on November 17th was 9-3 and $56 to the plus side. And then things went south. The program went 2-8 over the next week to put me at 11-10 with $1.59 in losses on November 21st Another week of treading water left me at 16-16 on November 26th but a 4 game losing streak left me at 16-20 and $61 in losses at the end of November. December and January weren’t much better and on January 17th I hit my low point of $146.63 in losses and 9 games under .500 at 46-55.

  Then I got an unintended vacation. When I made my $500 deposit to Bovada in October my credit card statement had a charge of $539.95. When I signed up the customer service people at Bovada told me there was no service charge for the initial deposit. I wrote to Bovada asking what the $39.95 charge was for. Bovada said they only received $500 and I would have to ask my credit card company. I asked my credit card company and they immediately credited my account for $39.95. On January 18th I went to log into my Bovada account and was greeted with a screen telling me my account had been suspended for having a credit card chargeback. My email inbox had a note from Bovada telling me my account was suspended and that I should call the customer service number because “any and all uncollected negative balances are subject to a 3rd party collection agency, which we are trying to help you avoid.”

  I called the customer service department who insisted I deposit another $500 using a credit card immediately. No matter how many times I explained that the only chargeback on my credit card account was the $39.95 that Bovada insisted was not their charge the only solution the Bovada customer service department had was for me to give them another $500. This sounded like a scam to me so I stopped calling customer service and kept logging my basketball picks to see if I needed to change my program or if the disastrous record over the past two months were an anomaly. The program went on a winning streak which made me happy to think the program was working but enraged that I was not erasing my losses at Bovada.

  I was resigned to the loss of my balance at Bovada when I got another Bovada email on February 1st asking me to call the customer service line to avoid any collection agency issues. I called and got a different customer service rep who also wanted me to deposit $500 in the account that still had the initial $500 deposit (less my losses). The rep started talking about a collection agency and I mentioned that if I heard about a collection agency again I would call my credit card company and dispute the initial $500 deposit. This changed the tone of the conversation and the rep asked me to send him the credit card transactions from my last three statements. I sent them and my account was restored on February 3rd.

  During my 16-day hiatus my program was 11 games over .500 and the improvement proved to be real as I slowly and steadily chipped away at my losses to even my record at 70-70 on March 9th with a $73 loss.

  After another dip in late March, the program caught fire and went 18-5 from March 24th to April 2nd to trim my losses to $24 with a 98-91 record. The program has always been a proponent of picking road underdogs and I noticed that many of the losses were from very bad teams getting points against very good teams. I decided to reduce the bets on games involving losing teams at winning teams to half the normal $11 wager. I also doubled the wager when the program picked a top level team like the Warriors and Spurs at home. The strategy was reasonable but ultimately pointless as my half bets went 19-17 for a profit of $1.58 and my doubled bets went 2-1 for a profit of $9. I do know I would have been over $50 in the black if I hadn’t had my account suspended by Bovada during one of my program’s hot streaks and possibly over $150 in the black if the suspension had come 2 weeks earlier. In the end the computer and I finished 113-106 with a loss of $27.73 on the bets I did make.

  Going through the season betting real money was very different than picking a game with a mythical bet. I followed the games a lot closer and woke up in the middle of the night a few times when I had a bet on a west coast game that finished well after midnight. I would follow games I had a wager on using the CBS or ESPN apps on my iPod over the last few minutes to see if I had won or lost. I had some terrifically lucky results like the Oklahoma City Thunder at Orlando Magic game on March 29th. I had the Thunder giving 6 points to the Magic. The Thunder were trailing by double digits for most of the game until the amazing Russell Westbrook took over and scored 13 points in the last three minutes including a 3 point shot with eight seconds left to tie the game. The only way I could win the bet was to have the game go to overtime AND have the Thunder cover. I had to sweat out last second missed shots by both teams and the Magic getting the first 3 points of overtime before the Thunder took an eight point lead with 30 seconds left. The game was decided but my bet wasn’t won until the Magic missed a 3 point shot that would have covered the spread and the Thunder ran out the clock, leaving me a winner on a $10 bet.

  Of course, it seemed for every lucky result there were two bad beats like on April 7th. I had 4 computer selected bets. The Hawks beat the defending champion Cavaliers in Cleveland as a double digit underdog for the first game to finish. Then the Knicks were trailing the Grizzlies by 10 points with time running out. I had the Knicks and 13 points and had mentally put the game in the win column when the CBS app flashed the final score as 101-88 Grizzlies. It seems Wade Baldwin IV made his third three-point basket of the season (out of 21 attempts) as time expired to make the game a 13 point spread and a push (no money won or lost). My third game was a winner as the Timberwolves held on for a 7 point loss in Utah against the Jazz (I was getting 11 points). The fourth game of the night was the Kings getting 2.5 points in Los Angeles against the woeful Lakers. The game ended well after midnight and was close throughout. With one second left the and the Kings trailing by four Buddy Hield made a basket to bring the Kings to 2 points and make me a winner except Hield then fouled Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, who made 2 free throws with less than a second left to turn my victory into a loss! There was not much sleep that night as a 4-0 night ended up as 2 wins and a loss and felt more like 0-4!

  Lucky wins and bad beats are all part of the game and I’m looking forward to the playoffs where I’ll be on my own with no computer program to assist me. I learned a lot about my risk tolerance and the difference between betting in theory and betting in practice this year. My biggest problem with Bovada (aside from having my account suspended) was the many times the betting lines came out late in the afternoon., which left me little time to get my bets in when I had an evening appointment or activity. A big difference between betting for real and betting in theory is the point spreads are ever changing on Bovada as opposed to getting point spreads years later from freeplays.com. A late scratch can move a spread by 5 points or more which is something I’ll never know happened in previous years without more research than I’m prepared to do. Something I loved about Bovada was that they gave me $130.39 as a welcome bonus (a prorated portion of the amount I wagered over the first six months I used the site) and a $5 bonus to celebrate their 5th anniversary. In addition, I received $70 in PayPal donations to provide my picks in advance at the rate of $10 a month. This gave my regular season a profit of $172.66 and anyone who made the exact same bets on Bovada that I did would have realized a profit of $102.66 if they took the welcome bonus. When the playoffs are over I will attempt to withdraw my money from the Bovada account and if I can do so successfully I will use them for another year. In either case I will report the result of my attempts as well as my playoff results after the season is over in June.

Friday, April 7, 2017

TV Review - The Walking Dead Season 7 Part 2 (Episodes 11-16)

   WARNING : THE WALKING DEAD SEASON 7 EPISODES 11 through 16 SPOILERS BELOW!!!

The zombie carnival was a highlight of the back half of season 7!

  AMC’s The Walking Dead concluded it’s much anticipated seventh season on Sunday. didn’t care much for the first half of the season but the two month-long mid-season break brought two action-packed episodes that made me as enthusiastic about the show as I have been in a long time.

  I thought a lot about what it is that I like so much about the Walking Dead when I do like it and finally found my answer after watching 13 hours of the mostly angst-filled Iron Fist two weeks ago – I like action and a show set in the zombie apocalypse can provide action in droves by having a horde of zombies or a well-placed instantly appearing zombie or two at the most inconvenient time. I like to see the protagonists in the direst of circumstances and I don’t mind the most improbable of escapes since it is a television show after all and I can see it all over again the next week.

  The action is enhanced if characters I care about are participating and the Walking Dead has always done a good job of getting me acquainted enough with the intrepid cast of zombie apocalypse survivors to make me root for them in their never ending fight against zombies and other apocalypse survivors but around the time the group arrived in Alexandria the show went from mostly action with some character development to almost non-stop character development interrupted by a little action here and there.

  I had high hopes that the show would become more action-oriented after the arrival of the villainous Negan and the Saviors at the end of season six but the first half of season seven was filled with our survivors collective angst at Negan murdering Abraham and Glenn in the season opener as well as their new subservient status to the Saviors. The action was limited to Negan’s random acts of violence which would be inevitably surrounded by Negan’s lengthy monologues.

The Negan-centric episode 11 substituted tension for action...

  The first two episodes of the second half of the season were full of action but the pace slowed to a crawl in the third episode which was mostly concerned with cowardly Eugene’s adjustment to being moved to the Saviors compound. Luckily the action picked back up in episode four with Rick and Michonne battling a zombie carnival full of armed soldier zombies which allowed our heroes to get some of the guns they promised the weirdo trash people in return for their help in fighting Negan.

  Sadly this was the high point in the back half of the season until the finale as the next three episodes featured Sir Richard of the Kingdom conducting some palace intrigue to try to get the Kingdom to fight Negan and a half-baked plot conducted by Rosita and Sasha to kill Negan. Sahsa (who was on kill watch once she was named to be as a star on the new CBS Star Trek show) was promptly captured and spent episode seven being recruited by Negan to join his crew while Rick and company had an encounter with the heavily armed group at Oceanside which could have been filled with action but instead consisted of a few minutes of fighting with an awesome assemblage of barnacle encrusted zombie and an awful lot of discussion about why Rick’s group wants to fight the Saviors and why the leader of Oceanside wants to stay out of the conflict and keep her group hidden.

  And then we get to the finale which was 90 minutes long with the extra 30 minutes used as a Sasha-fest in which we are shown numerous flashbacks to her very brief romance with the departed Abraham and her brief time as Maggie’s BFF at the Hilltop. The first half of the episode was full of tense music as our group in Alexandria made preparations for Negan’s coming visit with their new trash people allies. Negan arrives and it becomes clear that the trash people were in Negan’s camp and turn on our heroes using the very guns that the Alexandrians provided as payment for their help.

  For some bizarre reason, Negan kept Sasha alive in a coffin to threaten Rick and when he opens the coffin out pops zombie Sasha, who has poisoned herself so she could come out as a zombie. Zombie Sasha attacks Negan and in the ensuing chaos the Alexandrians fight back along with some exceptionally timely help from Hilltop and Kingdom forces. The highlight of this fight was the appearance of Shiva the CGI Tiger from the Kingdom who mauled several Saviors. The rest of the CGI this season was lame but these tiger attack scenes more than made up for it. The fight scene was the best one since the prison battle with the Governor in the middle of Season 4. We got to see our heroes in all their glory shooting and stabbing and driving the Saviors and Trash People to a hasty retreat and then it was back to speeches and plans for the all-out war that will hopefully ensue in season 8.

An epic zombie apocalypse fight scene compete with Shiva the CGI tiger!!

  The ratings for seasons seven stabilized at the 10 million mark which while down from the 14 million viewers in season five is still the most watched cable television drama. Judging from the episodes in the back half of season seven I think the showrunners have found out that Negan is better in small doses than featured episodes and that the viewers want more action and zombies and less character development and intrigue. It doesn’t matter how contrived the scenarios our heroes find themselves in if there are plenty of zombies to slaughter and survivors to battle. I would also point out that there is probably nothing to develop or reveal character for our survivors and the lucky ‘red shirts’ that will become cast semi-regulars than to have to fight their way around, over, or through a zombie horde that suddenly appeared just before a commercial break. One part of character development I did like this season was how while Negan’s henchman are goons and Negan is a violent jerk, he is increasingly being portrayed as truly believing he is bringing order to the chaos of the zombie apocalypse. He has succeeded in bringing together the largest group of survivors to date and seems to give the communities that pay his Saviors tribute a large amount of autonomy as long as they follow the rules. Don’t get me wrong – I still think Negan is an unwatchable clown that talks way too much but showing his motivations makes him a little less unwatchable.

  Season eight is set up for a non-stop action packed 16 episodes. There will surely be some slow parts but our group of survivors will have plenty of adversaries to battle and the need for arms and supplies will provide many opportunities to head to new locations and fight loads of zombies. I’m looking forward to the next season more than I have in the past few years. Hopefully the show will be able to deliver on its promise of more action.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Give It A Rest

  

  In 2014, the NBA (National Basketball Association) signed a 9 year television deal with Turner Sports and ABC/ESPN worth 24 BILLION DOLLARS, which represented nearly a tripling of the previous television deal. The ‘raise’ was well-deserved since the NBA is globally popular, televised sports is one of the few ways television networks can separate themselves from new internet competitors like Netflix and Amazon, and the NBA’s 82 game schedule plus playoffs provide plenty of content.

  Last season ABC introduced a Saturday night prime-time game of the week that featured the top teams in the league over the last two months of the season. The broadcast was well received and the games were generally top notch with the highlight being a Warriors-Thunder classic won on MVP Steph Curry’s buzzer beating shot in overtime. The game was the highest rated regular season NBA game not held on Christmas Day.

  This year the Saturday night prime telecasts kicked off in January with the games serving up a heavy dose of the top teams in the league (the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs who have won the last three championships). On February 11th, a highly publicized matchup between the Warriors and Spurs was on the prime time schedule. The Spurs top two players were ruled out when all-star Kawhi Leonard suffered a concussion during the week and former all-star Lamarcus Aldridge was ruled out with a heart arrhythmia. The Warriors were in the middle of a long road trip and had played an overtime game against the Minnesota Timberwolves the night before the game all in the middle of their worst stretch of basketball in three years after losing all-star Kevin Durant to a strained knee. The Warriors decided to rest their other three all-stars Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson for the Spurs game. The game was a prime time nightmare with both teams playing backups while the ABC cameras seemed to feature forlorn San Antonio children wearing Stephen Curry jerseys to a game that their hero was skipping.

  The Warriors were heavily criticized for the decision and rebutted the criticism by stating that if the NBA wanted to have their stars available for a big prime time game they should have arranged for it to not be in the middle of a long road trip and part of back to back games. That seemed to deflect much of the criticism from the team to the league.

  The very next Saturday the prime time game had the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Cavaliers were scheduled to play in Los Angeles on Sunday night against the Lakers and decided to rest their top three players LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love for the prime time game and play them on Sunday against the hapless Lakers. The Cavalier backups were blown out by the Clippers and squeaked by the Lakers the next night. The two spoiled prime time games were a source of embarrassment for the league and ABC.

  Five years ago, the San Antonio Spurs were fined a quarter of a million dollars for resting four of their top players for a game against then champion Miami Heat in a nationally televised Thursday night game (the Spurs came within a few shots of winning the game anyway). Five years later Spurs coach Greg Popovich is viewed as a visionary by being willing to sacrifice a game or two to rest his players and develop his reserves. Today many NBA basketball teams monitor their players for signs of stress and will give a player a night off in the belief that it will prevent injuries. But the money is much greater now – I doubt ESPN/ABC was thrilled with having two marquee Saturday Night games relegated to ‘Must NOT See TV’. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver didn’t fine the teams but instead wrote a letter to the team owners to ask that they have more of a hand in the decisions to rest star players for nationally televised games.

  The Warriors and the Cavaliers had much the same reasons for resting their players: the players were on back to back games and being injury free and rested for the playoffs in April trumps any regular season game. The Warriors know this especially well as they set a league record of 73 wins last year but had that effort expended to set the record questioned when they failed to win the championship. The NBA allows teams to put patches of their uniforms to represent their teams championships and discussions of great players seem to always turn to how many championships a player won to somehow validate their greatness. The culture the NBA has built or allowed to be built clearly values championships over regular season wins and it seems hypocritical to try to override a team’s desire to rest some players anytime they see fit, nationally televised game or not.

  There were quite a few suggestions offered on how to prevent this situation of resting players for prime-time games or on a superstar’s single visit to a city. One suggestion was to ruin resting player’s statistical averages by counting a ‘rest’ game as a game played with no points, rebounds, or assists. Other suggestions ranged from fining the team the amount of the player’s salary to suspending the resting player for a number of games. None of these solutions will ever work because if they are enacted every team will stop using the term rest and simply sit their star players for a ‘tweaked knee’ or a ’24 hour flu’.

  I was disappointed at the ruination of the two prime time games because I wanted to see the games and I wanted to bet on the games. Once the possibility of resting players was raised the games came off the board at the Bovada betting site. The problem of resting players can be eased by making sure teams playing nationally televised games have no games the day before and after the games but teams will still rest players or hold them out of big games. Kevin Durant had one of the better takes on the subject when he told ESPN "The truth about it is, it's only for a couple of players in the league...They don't care if the 13th man on the bench rest. It's only for like LeBron [James], Steph [Curry], [James] Harden, Russell [Westbrook]. It's only for like five players, so you want a rule just for those five players?" Thar's very true - the top players are being targeted because that's who the fans want to see when they tune into a nationally televised game or pay for a ticket to a game. And there are already rules made just for these players to allow them to get higher salaries and longer contracts than the 13th man on the bench. There are benefits of being a star player and one of the drawbacks is that the fans and television executives expect them to be playing.

  Based on Durant's comments I do have sort of a solution to the problem. The NBA collective bargaining agreement with the players slots certain players as ‘max contract’ players meaning these players receive the maximum allowable salary under the current rules. Almost every team has 1 max contract player and most have more than 1. The next collective bargaining agreement should stipulate that ‘max contract’ players cannot play more home games than road games in a season. The ‘max contract’ players are the ones that the fans pay to see and if such a player misses a road game they should be held out of a home game also. This wouldn’t eliminate the problem but I believe it would make teams have to plan their rest for their star players more carefully and possible rest their stars for home games knowing that a road game missed for ‘rest’ will sit the player out for an additional game in front of the home town fans as well.

Friday, March 24, 2017

TV Binge Review - Iron Fist

   WARNING : IRON FIST SPOILERS BELOW!!!

I found Netflix's new Marvel super hero series 'Iron Fist' to have lots of talk with little action...

  Iron Fist is the latest Netflix adaptation of a Marvel Comics super hero. All 13 episodes were made available last weekend. I watched the first episode Friday night, four on Saturday, five on Sunday, and finished early this week with the last three episodes. I have had mixed reviews of the previous four Netflix adaptations, loving the first season of Daredevil, liking Luke Cage and being lukewarm towards Jessica Jones and Daredevil season 2.

  The Iron Fist is Danny Rand, only child of billionaire Wendell Rand. While taking a plane trip to China, the Rand Corporation jet hits turbulence, breaks apart, and crashes over the Himalayan mountains, killing all aboard. All that is except Danny who survived the crash which conveniently occurred at the once every 15 year opening of the interdimensional portal between Earth and the mystical land of K'un-L'un. In the land of K'un-L'un, Danny is trained in the martial arts, taught his mission in life is to destroy the Hand (the source of the never ending supply of ninjas in Daredevil 2), and reaches the height of his training by being chosen as the Living Weapon who can summon his life energy (chi) into his hand (the Iron Fist).

  After 15 years the inter-dimensional portal opens once again and Danny heads to New York to take his life back. The first three episodes are very slow moving, with Danny having no proof of his identity but since his company is under the control of his childhood friends (and children of his father’s late business partner Harold Meachum) he continually tries to convince them of his identity until he is locked away in an insane asylum. At the end of the second episode we finally get to see Iron Fist in action but the first three episodes are full of flashbacks to the plane crash, training in K'un-L'un, and a smattering of action as Ward Meachum sends goons to kill Rand along with a sampling of what must pass for eastern mystic wisdom (“If you want to see the truth then hold no opinions.”)

  In the next three episodes we see Danny convince Joy Meachum of his identity. Joy helps Danny get his company back although no mention is made of how he wasn’t declared legally dead and had his assets distributed many years ago. Danny proves to be a neophyte in business but popular with the masses as he sells a miracle-cure drug at cost and shuts down a factory that is suspected of causing cancer but has met all governmental regulations. He also buys the Hell’s Kitchen building where his girlfriend and fellow martial artist Colleen Wing runs a martial arts school. We also learn the Harold Meachum is alive, having been restored to live by the Hand (personified by the mysterious Madam Gao from past Netflix/Marvel shows) in exchange for them using Rand’s corporation to distribute a new pure form of synthetic heroin. Danny gets wind of the heroin operation and sets about using his powers to destroy the hand.

  I was hoping that the action would heat up in the second half of the 13 episodes but it did not. Finn Jones portrays Danny Rand as the 10 year old who is traumatized by his parent’s plane crash instead of the living weapon that he is. Each episode is full of Danny’s pent up adolescent and teenage angst saved from years of living in the K'un-L'un monastery being trained to be the Iron Fist and when Danny is not on screen we are treated to Ward Meachum’s anxiety attacks leading to a heroin addiction, Harold Meachum’s angst over being owned by the Hand, the ‘drama’ of a hostile takeover of the Rand corporation, Joy Meachum’s angst over her brother and Danny and the takeover of the corporation, and Colleen’s own teenage angst mixed in with pontifications from Claire Temple, the omnipresent nurse who tends to all the Marvel heroes in the Netflix sub universe. Each episode has a few minutes of action and between 40 and 45 minutes of angst. While I understand that angst is part of the territory of all Marvel super heroes Iron Fist was way over the top and closer to a 13 hour long version of Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles than a superhero series. Maybe all this angst is what people find so attractive about the vampire sagas that are so popular - I prefer lots of action.

  Things started picking up slightly in the last two episodes of the series with more action as friends were revealed to be villains and villains revealed to be uneasy allies. At this point I was mostly watching to see how it turned out since I already invested 11 hours in the series. The action scenes were well done and used standard martial arts fighting techniques of statuesque poses with fingers, toes, and limbs frozenly contorted in odd angles just before exploding into action, super-fast punches and kicks transforming into super slow motion as someone narrowly escapes a knockout blow, and a copious amount of swordplay. I would have liked to see the fighting in more dangerous locales than alleys, courtyards, apartments, and office buildings. Martial arts fighting can get pretty repetitive pretty fast and having the fights on the edge of a rooftop or the Brooklyn Bridge or even some subway tracks would have livened things up. There was one fight on a rooftop but no one got very close to the edge. My take on the Iron Fist series was that it was exceptionally slow moving with minimal action. The acting was fine but there was far too much angst on everyone's part. I like my heroes to be heroic and this series seemed to want me to feel sorry for everyone involved instead of giving me someone to root for.

  The ending of the show led to barely any closure with more questions than answers very much like the end of Luke Cage. This was likely done as a set up to the next chapter in the Marvel/Netflix saga which is to team up Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil in a new series called the Defenders. I was wondering how Netflix was going to be able to effectively develop the characters in a 13 hour series but after seeing the lameness of Iron Fist I think that the answer is that there will be little character development and we will spend hours of watching our heroes upset over one circumstance or another with a few minutes of action to liven up the boredom.