Saturday, July 31, 2004

Catfish 2004

Road Warrior
by Pete Karagianis

This issue’s installment of Road Warrior is brought to you in similar fashion to a Star Wars episode – from a long time ago in a land far, far away.
I was talked into playing into a tournament called the “Catfish Days” by my friend and fellow tournament enthusiast, Ivan, this past summer. At first I had not been too keen on heading up to Minnesota for what appeared, in both name and location, to be more of a backwoods chess hoedown rather than a serious tournament.
“But look, man, you can even send entries in to Farmer James!” Ivan said. I suppose this was some kind of argument in favor of me going, but I did not see how it helped his case.
For the inquisitive among you, Minnesota is that state to the north of Iowa that the Vikings play in. For Chicagoans, think “Canada.” It has a lot of lakes, a couple airports, and one or two cities.
“And they also have a cookout after the first round if you’re hungry! Free food and chess, you can’t pass that up.” Ivan could see I was unimpressed. “They’ve even got the Catfish Days festival, it’s like a tradition. How many people can say they’ve played in the Catfish Days?” He put his arms on his hips and stood as if he’d made a profound point.
“Do you even know what that festival is?”
“No, but I’m sure it has something to do with Catfish.”
“You don’t say.”
“Maybe they go fishing or something in between rounds.”

Franklin, MN, the site of the Catfish Days, was not even a dot on the map. To get there, one must travel (coming up I-35 from Iowa) seventy miles of back-road, small-town highway on US-14, MN-4, and Route 68. The drive itself is actually quite scenic, after you get off the interstate, if you can avoid the typical summer construction and, while en route, do not become hopelessly lost in a maze of detours and dirt roads.
How had I been talked into this tournament - a small, chess “reunion” held, seemingly, in the middle of nowhere? The convincing had not come at the hands of Ivan’s varied arguments concerning nostalgia, experience, or even catfish. What had ultimately changed my mind was a couple sheets of paper Ivan handed me Wednesday, two nights before the tournament.
“Here are the cross tables from the past few years,” he said, “have a look.”
I took the papers. Usually, when I consider playing in tournaments, the first things I look at are the prize fund ratios and the possibility of competition. Particularly in the Midwest, it is difficult to find either of the two aforementioned commodities in large quantities, especially since the former always tends to affect the latter. However, the information Ivan procured struck me and spoke for itself.
The past two annual Catfish Days tournaments had featured a plethora of experts and masters, as well as a guaranteed prize fund, supported not by entry fee, which was a paltry twenty dollars (twenty-five at the door) but by outside sources. Here, I thought, was a man who knows how to organize.
And he goes by the name of Farmer James.
Father of the town’s pageant winner, amiable, picture-friendly, twelve-year organizer of the Catfish Days reunion, and finder of outside, financial support for chess, a sport that is not exactly at its height of popularity, Farmer James gets International Masters, FIDE Masters, National Masters, and various other strong players to travel to the middle of nowhere and fight it out on small, seven-year old sized tables (which my knees banged into quite a bit) in a non-air conditioned elementary school library the size of a small apartment.
I had a blast.
For the past year I had been lobbying in the state I go to school, Iowa, for precisely this type of thing, and now I had found it in a town two-thirds the size of my high school graduating class. In Illinois, the problem is often the same. One is stuck (one might say) between a rock and a hard place – either a very high entry fee with lots of prizes and lots of competition, or a more modest entry fee with equally proportionate prizes and turnout. Recently, organizers in the Chicago area (and elsewhere) have been turning to sponsorship – trying to find outside funding for their efforts. Unfortunately, chess is not college football and this undertaking is not the simplest route available.
At first I was surprised that the Catfish Days tournament could promise so much, but after appending the weekend in Franklin, the answers slowly presented themselves.
I didn’t need to ask Farmer James how he had done it, how he had gotten the support he needed, how he drew the strong class of players year after year, how he could give so many awards to long-time returnees (You get a clock for ten years and a wooden carving for five years straight of playing in the Catfish Tournament). All I had to do to get let in on his “secret” was receive one handshake and a smile.
Here was an organizer, excuse me, a farmer, (for I don’t believe he would appreciate any other title) who realized the importance of respecting the players, of thanking them for coming, of giving them a reason to come not just for chess, but for what chess was meant for: to have a great time.
I remember crowding around the top board (located between the Encyclopedia Brown series and the Hardy Boys collection) during the tournament, watching IM Viktor Adler play, surrounded by chess players from all walks of life, each leaning in to watch quietly, respectfully the master. But my eyes were not on the board or the squares or the pieces, for the moment anyway. I looked instead at the clock trophy in the background reserved for the ten-year Catfish veterans thinking “Nine more years.”
I smirked, because I knew that I would be back. Oh yes, I would.

 You can bet the farm on that.

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