Saturday, February 28, 2009


I have just returned home from a one-day chess tournament, the same venue that was the subject of my February 1st post "The Weekend's Battles." In that post I wrote about a disappointing tournament, and ended the entry with the words, "I'll do better next time."

Alas, my prognostication skills were evidently a bit off. Today was disappointing indeed, partly because my expectations were high: I was the fourth highest rated player in a field of twenty-one, with no one rated much above me. And the day got off to a good start: victories in my first two games against lower-rated players.

Alas, two games and two losses later (against good players, yes, but no one I shouldn't be competitive against), and I'm left wondering where my once proud chess skills have gone. This month has seen a major period of personal self-improvement, and I confess to having had a certain fantasy that such work would magically translate into increased over-the-board chess prowess--into a better, smarter, more powerful castlerook. So far, that does not appear to be the case.

On the other hand, today's tournament was eseentially a warm-up for a much larger tournament that I'll be playing in next weekend. I've had my wake up call--my game is not where it needs to be.

I have a week to figure out why.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


The practice of giving something up for Lent has never really been part of my religious tradition. Once or twice in my life I have attempted some sort of self-denial this time of year, but been generally unsuccessful. The past few months, though, I've become aware of a personal need for greater self-discipline, and I've decided that this Lenten season is as good a time as any to start.

So, here it is: I'm giving up meat.

In truth, for some time now I've been somewhat uncomfortable with eating meat. The life of an animal bred with the purpose of one day being sold at a grocery store is an ugly one indeed. And yet, I really like meat. Especially chicken. And burgers. And so I've usually managed to sweep away those nagging questions in the back of my mind, asking: "Where does your food come from? Do you know? Do you care?"

"How do you feel about the fast-food burger in front you coming at the expense of an animal's life?"

Now, there may be good answers to these questions. But I don't have them, and for years I've avoided listening to these questions precisely because I haven't had an answer.

And so, while the moral questions regarding our relationship with the earth and its other inhabitants are far too complex for me to answer, I'm hoping that my current experiment may help me better understand the dilemma. For now I'm allowing myself fish, though I've never been much of a seafood eater--still, having such an option makes the prospect less intimidating.

In the ensuing weeks, I'll try to better examine my feelings regarding eating meat, and also monitor what effects this dietary change may have on me personally.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself."

Let me tell you about two people I know: "Dave" and "David."

Dave is a charming, fun-loving kind of guy who strives to live life to the fullest. He is a talented singer and actor. He listens to classic rock. At a party, he's usually one of the last to leave. He finds it difficult to settle down and focus on a particular task. He is something of a spiritual mystic, and often attends neopagan rituals.

David is an instrospective, serious-minded individual. He teaches and tutors math. He listens to classical music. Generally shy, he's the sort of person who doesn't get out much. He plays chess and can easily focus on a position for long periods of time. He is religious, and recently became an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

Both Dave and David are, of course, myself. And individually, each of them does pretty well.

The hard part is getting them to communicate with each other.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Substitute Teaching

I pause outside the classroom door before entering and take a deep breath. What will this group of students be like? Eager to learn, or resistant to knowledge of any sort? And what sort of substitute teacher are they expecting?

Whatever the answer to that last question, I'm probably not it. I take a certain pride in this knowledge as I stride into the classroom with my shaggy hair and black leather jacket, maintaining an air of nonchalance even as I can almost hear the students thinking, "Wait . . . he's our substitute?"

The couple of minutes before class officially starts are always the most awkward, and so I pretend to be busy looking over my notes while I secretly gauge the energy of the room. The vibe I get is generally positive. Good. I look up, meeting their now expectant gazes, and flash a brief smile as if to say, "No, I'm not the dreary middle-aged guy you were all probably expecting. Cool, huh?"

I take attendance and start talking about the topic of the day, logarithms, all the while monitoring my connection with the class and striving to maintain it. Am I moving too quickly? Too slowly? If I lose them for a minute, it can be difficult to get them back. It's just like being on stage.

Scratch that. It is being on stage.

The class goes well. Of course, a handful of students never take any notes or show any interest whatsoever, but most do. More importantly, I get the impression that at least some of those who do show interest normally don't.

The class ends, the students leave, and I am left in the classroom, alone. I'm really good at this, I think to myself. A tiny but persistent voice somewhere asks, "so why not do this full-time?"

But I know the answer immediately: because experience has taught me all too well that if I were to do this for an extended period of time, removing the word "substitute" from my current designation, then whatever quality it is that makes me a particularly good teacher would fade away, and I would become that very stereotype which I now happily defy. I know that as soon as it ceases to be a role and becomes a defining feature of my existence, a vital part of myself is lost.

In truth, it's easy to be the cool young teacher when you don't have the responsibility of being available to the students having problems, of grading all of the homeworks and tests, and of ultimately failing those students who don't succeed.

And so I leave the classroom and the building, shedding my "math teacher" persona as I walk to my car, knowing that I can call upon it again when necessary.

In the meantime, I have other roles to play.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How it ends?

The "$0.10 buy-in, turbo No Limit Hold’em tournaments" worked like this: 360 players, first place prize $8.50, 2nd place $6.00, 3rd place $4.00, and so on, down to 27th-36th winning $0.20.

And a new tournament began every few minutes.

I was well aware, of course, that I was "supposed" to play for a while, lose my dollar, but then become so enamored with the experience of playing real money online poker that I'd deposit more money. And if I lost that, well, I could only win it back by depositing more, right?

I had no intention of being one of those people though. If I lost my dollar, so be it.

I had mixed results at first, rather like my attempts at the casino. I'd fail to get in the money in a couple times, then I'd win twenty or thirty cents, then lose some more. In tournaments, as opposed to "standard" poker, most of the time you're going to lose your entry fee. Soon my original dollar was down to thirty cents.

I was frustrated. Only three buy-ins left. I took a break for a couple weeks. I re-read my poker books. When I returned, I felt ready.

I entered a tournament, and lost ten cents. Thanks to some bad cards, I never had much of a chance.

I entered another. Lost again.

Only ten cents left. Well, I said to myself, this is it. If I lose, I'm done--it means this just isn't the game for me.

The next tournament did not begin well. Bad cards after bad cards . . . soon I had only half of my original chips left.

But I didn't give up. Patience, I told myself. Eventually some good cards came, I made a couple key bluffs when I was confident another player had nothing, a good break here and there and . . . I finished third.

Third! I had just turned ten cents into four dollars.

The breakthrough had come. A few tournaments later, I finished first. Suddently my PokerStars account had over ten dollars.

Soon I was moving up from the ten-cent buy-in tournaments to the one-dollar buy-ins, and kept winning.

And winning.

In January, when my account rose over $150, I decided to make sure that I could actually, like, get the money. I "cashed out" for half of my winnings, $75, and sure enough a check came in the mail a few days later.


I kept playing. Kept winning.

However, before you start sending all sorts of congratulatory comments my way, you should know that underneath all of this success, there's a problem, and it's a problem that it's taken me a while to be able to admit.

I have been playing way too much online poker.

As in, several hours a day of online poker.

Last Friday I got a call offering me some substitute teaching opportunities a couple weeks hence. I was, at the time, in the middle of a poker tournament, and I continued to play during the course of the conversation. I accepted the offer but hung up the phone thinking, Damnit. This will give me less time for online poker.


A long-dormant voice (perhaps the "Angel" from two posts ago) awoke in my consciousness, saying, "Dude. Can you, like, hear yourself? I mean, seriously."

To which I could only respond, "Yeah, I hear myself. And no, I don't like it either."

Something was wrong.

I got out my Tarot cards and did a reading, trying to figure out what was going on. Of particular note was that the "crossing card," representing my current challenge, was . . . The Devil.


I logged back onto PokerStars and went to their "Responsible Gaming" menu (a feature I must give PokerStars real props for having) and requested a 7-day self-exclusion from playing.

Since that time, I've felt . . . free.

Which brings us to the present. I'm about to do something, which, quite frankly, has been difficult. I'm logging onto PokerStars and clicking on "Cashier."

I have just over $175 at present. Add that to the $75 I've already cashed, and that's $250, all starting with the single dollar I started with three-and-a-half months ago.

It more than makes up for the money I lost at the casino.

Perhaps it's, well . . . enough.

Deep breath.

"Cash out."


Account Status: $0.00.

Goodbye, PokerStars. Hello, world.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Yep. That's "how it starts."

As will probably come as no surprise, in the previous post's argument between "Angel" and "Devil," Angel never really stood a chance. I was back at the casino a few weeks later, and lost the $100 that I had won. But I still had my original $100, so I went back and . . . won! More specifically, I won about $80. Then I went back and . . . lost.

This back-and-forth continued until soon, after a couple consecutive losses, I was down $120, my original and beloved one-hundred-dollar bill (plus a bit extra) gone forever. At this point, I had the good sense to quit while I was only somewhat behind, deciding that given my lack of full-time employment, poker-playing at the casino was perhaps not the most responsible hobby. I resolved to go to the casino no more, at least until such time as some major chess victory gave me a sufficient "poker budget."

In the meantime, I resolved to try and figure out the secrets of this game, whose siren call has already claimed many talented chessplayers. I purchased a couple poker books and practiced with play money on PokerStars, amassing lots and lots of useless (or so I thought) play money chips.

Then in October I received the following e-mail from

Dear castlerook,

We’ve been watching you win big at the play money Sit N Go Tournaments and we think that you’re ready for real money play.

In fact, we believe it so much that we’re giving you $1 in real money FOR FREE to try our real money tournaments. The cash is already in your account, so you can login and hit the tables right away.

Play in our $0.10 buy-in, turbo No Limit Hold’em tournaments. Go on, test your skills at the real money tables today - it’s a whole new level of excitement!

The $1 is only available for ten days, so we encourage you to take advantage of it before it expires. Once you play with it though, it’s yours to keep forever – no deposit necessary.

To access the $1 you will need to download the enhanced version of our software
If you have any questions or need any assistance, please contact us at

Play well!

The PokerStars Team

Wow. Was this for real? Turns out it was. Soon I was playing online poker for real money, without having to deposit a cent.

What happened then?

Fear not, faithful reader; you'll find out soon enough.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Lucrative Birthday . . . Is this how it starts?

I wrote the following for the (now-defunct) website last June. I'm posting it here primarily to give some context for a future post, to appear sometime in the next couple of days.

Yesterday was my birthday. A few days ago, when my wife asked me what I wanted to do on my birthday, I thought for a bit, and then surprised both myself and her when I answered, "I want to go to the casino and play poker."

This was surprising because, even though for years I have lived fairly close to a prominent Native American casino/resort, I have never before felt the urge to go there and throw away my money.*

*Okay, so there was the one time I quickly blew some cash on one of those evil money-sucking machine things, but that was when I was performing in a show there and so I was already on the premises, and it just sort of, well, happened.

In recent months, though, I've been playing online poker for fun, and amassed a fairly impressive amount of online play money, and so I was curious as to whether I could, like, play real poker. With real people, and real money.

I figured a birthday was a good excuse to do something foolhardy. What's more, I recently won a bit over a hundred dollars at a local chess tournament, so I figured I could take that one-hundred-dollar bill* as my budget, and if I lost it, well, no big.

*I'm not used to having one-hundred-dollar bills. When I won the chess tournament and the tournament director handed me a one-hundred-dollar bill, I was like, wow, a one-hundred-dollar bill. It's, like, got Ben Franklin on it and everything. And he played chess too. Dude.

To make a long story short, I took my one-hundred-dollar bill to the No-Limit Hold 'Em poker tables last night, fully prepared to lose it all and thereby extinguish this strange new gambling urge I seem to have developed.

Except, I didn't lose it. I doubled my money. I now have not one, but two, one-hundred-dollar bills.

Now I'm in trouble.

I went to sleep last night amidst daydreams of various poker hands, envisioning scenarios in which I won lots more money. When I awoke this morning I was still dreaming of poker hands, so presumably my subconscious mind was playing poker all night long. It won lots and lots of poker chips, and now it wants me to do the same.

I have two mythical creatures on my shoulders, and they're having a dialogue.

Devil: Come on, you know you want to go back to the casino. Think of all the money you could win!

Angel: No, that was a one-time, birthday thing. Quit while you're ahead.

Devil: Aw, come on. You're good at this! You're not going to lose.

Angel: Hold on there, pal. Remember that you almost lost your entire hundred and were saved only by a good card on the turn.

Devil: It was your first time out, and you did great! Next time you'll do even better. Keep at it and you'll never have to work a real job again!

Angel: Greed is your enemy. That way leads to the dark side.

Me: My angel is Yoda?

I cannot yet tell which metaphysical force will win this argument. For now, I'll leave them to it and focus on my chess game. The chess World Open is less than two weeks away, and I'm playing.

But, yeah. I won a hundred dollars at the poker tables on my birthday yesterday.

How cool is that?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Weekend's Battles

On Saturday I competed in a one-day chess tournament. Here is a chronicle of the day's events.

I wake up at six-thirty, a half-hour before my alarm is set to go off. I know intellectually that I've slept, but I can't tell based on the way my body feels. Is it really morning already?

After having some breakfast and gathering my chess equipment (set, clock, scorebook for writing down moves, and earplugs), I make the hour-long drive to the tournament site. Tournaments have been held at this location once a month for many years. Unlike large, weekend-long tournaments, in small tournaments such as this one all the players are grouped in one section, from complete beginner to accomplished master. There are four rounds, and prizes to the top two players, as well as two prizes for players in specified ratings groups, the top one of which I am eligible for.

I help myself to some coffee before the first round to try and wake up my mental pathways. As part of the tournament entry fee, coffee and snacks will be provided throughout the day--a good thing, since finding time to eat between games is often difficult. As we await the pairings for the first round, some of us engage in some friendly banter as a way of relaxing our nerves. In a nearby conversation, two chessplayers are talking about another player, and one of them asks, "Can you beat his dragon*?" Another player, who overhears this says, "Wow, that sounded wrong."

*The Dragon--more specifically, the Sicilian Dragon--is a fairly common opening setup for Black.

The pairings for the first round are posted, and we begin.

Round 1: I'm paired against a kid, age 13 or so, rated well below me. Could be an easy first round. I can't afford to be overcondifent though, as some of these kids are tacical geniuses, and their ratings are often wildly inaccurate--they're playing a lot and improving quickly, and it takes some time for their USCF (United States Chess Federation) rating to catch up.

I have Black. My opponent plays a somwhat passive opening for White, allowing me to have my fair share of the Center. My prospects are good. He plays tough in the middlegame though, making no obvious mistakes and forcing me to defend on the queenside, where he has some advantage. However, he commits his pieces rather strongly to that side of the board, and after repelling his attack I launch an offensive on the other side, forcing him to compromise the pawn structure around his king. From there I develop an attack that results in the winning of an important pawn in the center, launch my own central pawns forward and force my opponent's resignation soon thereafter.

A good start.

Round 2: From an easy pairing to a very difficult one: I'm up against a Norwegian master who just got a position teaching at a local university and who is new to our tournaments. I know that I can't afford to let his high chess rating get into my head. I tell myself that all I can do is play my best. I have White this time, and I've been studying a new opening system for White that it's time to try out.

Soon I get a bit confused as to the right move-order for my new opening; I push my e-pawn forward in preparation for a future d-pawn advance but my oppoent's reply, immediately attacking my d-pawn, forces me to make a positional concession. Soon my opponent can claim some advantage in both the center and on the queenside. Still, I manage to trade down into an ending in which I am only a pawn down and the pawn strucuture is locked, making the win a difficult task for my opponent to achieve. But, being a master, he manages to force a favorable trade of pawns that makes my remaining pawns diffult to defend--he soon wins a second pawn and begins to advance them. I, powerless to prevent the coming apocalypse, must concede defeat.

A loss, but a good game nonetheless, and also a personally instructive one.

Round 3: I'm paired against another kid, but this one is considerably more experienced--I'm the higher rated player, but not by much. He's a regular at these tournaments and I've played him several times before, with good success. As a result, I think he's nervous about playing me. Early on in our game he misses a tactic that allows me to win a pawn. From there I'm able to take command of the position's only open file and soon win a second pawn. Yeah, he's rattled. He tries to develop at attack of his own but my position is too strong, and victory seems near.

At about this time I force an exchange of rooks--he takes my rook with his, and I have a choice of how to recapture--with my rook, bishop, or pawn. Originally I'd planned on recapturing with the bishop, but now I look at the board and the rook recapture looks more promising and I confidently take back with the rook. Only then do I notice that this leaves my bishop hanging! Momentary panic ensues, which I do my best to hide. In fact, a second glance reassures me that everything is all right: he can't take the bishop after all, because it would leave his back rank exposed to a quick mating attack. Whew. Perhaps on some level I was aware of this all along, but all the same I silently berate myself for moving too quickly and almost making a major blunder. Why didn't I check my last move more carefully? The answer comes in a sudden realization: I am getting really tired. I help myself to another cup of coffee.

My young opponent does his best to defend a bad situation, but his position is beyod repair, and my rejuvenated mental awareness is not about to give him any more chances. It takes a while, but I win the game.

It's now after 5:00, and I've only eaten the snacks (chex mix, grapes, cookies, thin mints) provided by the tournament organizer. Unfortunately, there's less than fifteen minutes before the last round is scheduled to start, and I'm not sure I have the time for a fast-food run. Besides, I'm running on adrenaline now, and I think if I had a full stomach I'd realize how tired I really am. One more game, then I can relax.

Round 4: My opponent is a veteran tournament chess player ranked just slightly below me. Thanks to my loss in the second round there's no way I can win the tournament, but a win here would at least give me a share of the top class prize. I have White, and employ the same opening I did in Round 2. My opponent proceeds to play the same system as Black as the Norwegian master! After several moves, the position is identical to my earlier game. Now I really wish I'd studied this line more.

A have of exhaustion passes over me and a voice somewhere inside asks me if the effort to keep playing is really worth it. I yell at that voice to be quiet and get one last cup of coffee. Returning to my board, I realize that I can at least avoid making the same mistake that I made in my earlier game. Instead of pushing my e-pawn forward I try to create some play on the queenside, nudging my a-pawn forward in preparation to advance the b-pawn and disrupt my opponent's hold on the center.

It sort of works. I don't get a great position but it's a significant improvement over my second round game. As I'm trying to work out my long-term strategic goals, my opponent makes an unexpected mistake, allowing me to win a pawn! A big break against an opponent of this strength. However, after taking the pawn the game becomes extremely complicated. I may be winning, but my position is hardly safe.

Knowing that if I play passively my opponent will be able to recover, I play sharp, aggressive moves, trying to keep him off balance. But he refuses to die passively, and launches an aggressive attack of his own. He makes a subtle move with his queen, and with horror I see that I am in serious danger of being mated.

How can I stop it? One way would be to give up a piece, but that's a method of last resort. Come on, find another way. I think about the position. And think. And think. Nothing comes. I glance at the chess clock and see I have twenty minutes remaining of the ninety we each began with. Sacrifice a piece it is.

My prospects are bleak, but not hopeless--in return for the piece I have two pawns, and the possibility of advancing my passed pawns in the center. Unfortunately, I'm fighting another disadvantage now: my opponent has a lot more clock time left than me. I defend resiliently for a while, but then miscalculate and launch my pawns forward too soon. He is able to blockade, surround, and ultimately destroy them. My position is now hopeless, and I resign.

After the game another player points out an alternative I had to my piece sacrifice which I totally missed--this makes me feel worse, although my position would still have been very difficult. The truth is that during the game I was too exhausted to play at my best. Note to self: stop staying up late playing online poker. Still, it was a remarkable game, full of unexpected twists and wonderfully complex positions.

And I'll do better next time.