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...