Monday, January 10, 2011

A top 10 kind of day

The empty tournament room, waiting to be filled with chess players...

  On Saturday, I held the first of my series of chess tournaments in the Des Moines metro area that was open to all scholastic players at the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School cafeteria. My 2 previous tournaments at St. Francis were restricted to Parochial school students only and were attended by 25 and 16 kids. This tournament was open to all players aged 19 and under and I was expecting to have 25 players.

  The tournament was in 3 sections, a rated section for national chess federation members with trophy prizes ($10 entry fee), an unrated section for non-members with medal prizes ($4 entry fee), and a parents and friend section with medal prizes (free but you must be accompanied by a chess player).

  You never know how well or poorly attended a tournament will be, but I was comfortable that I had done my due diligence to promote the event. I sent a letter to all the schools within 3 counties of Des Moines, placed an ad on the state and national chess web sites, and sent emails to all the people that were on the chess mailing list I had assembled 3 years ago. I was worried that some of the parents of the Catholic school players that attended before would not want their kids to play with outsiders so I sent them a separate letter explaining that I knew the new players would be well-behaved and that their children would be competitive. Even though it is the middle of the Catholic school basketball league season, 12 of the parochial school kids were able to attend.

  A week before the event, I had 20 entries. I considered that a good sign since schools were off for Christmas break the past couple of weeks. Then the entries started pouring in this past week and by Friday morning, I had 40 entries. We had our first chess class at St. Francis in 3 weeks and I got even more entries and still more entries waiting in my e-mail when I got home from work. By Friday night I had 49 entries.

  I packed up my car at 6 in the morning on Saturday with my tournament supplies, and at 7 picked up my Thursday night blitz chess rival, high school junior Jaleb Jay, and headed off for the 63 mile drive to West Des Moines. Jaleb was going to help me set up the tournament hall in return for free entry and a ride to the tournament. We got to the school a couple of minutes after 8, the doors were open as promised (I had to wait a half hour to get in at one of the previous tournaments), and set up the tournament hall. We were done setting up by 8:45 and the first of the players started arriving at 9:15. One family came 4 hours from Sioux Center to play. I don’t let anyone mail me their entry fee in advance (that way if they decide not to show up, I don’t have any money or checks to return), so I didn’t think I could get everyone checked in and paid by the 10:00 start time. Normally, I have at least one person who I forgot to check in or put in the wrong section and have to redo the assignments, but at 10:00 I had over 50 players and parents checked in, seated, and ready to play with no hitches. I made my normal starting announcements (going over some basic rules and answering questions) and then I had the kids give their parents a round of applause to thank them for taking them to the tournament. Once everybody got started, I took care of some of the late arriving players and got to talk to some of the first time chess parents about how tournaments work. A lot of parents think that the kids just play until they lose and seem relieved when told that all the players get to play 5 games.

  The head St. Francis chess coach, Jim Mona came just in time for the start of the second round with his son Austin. Jim was coaching Austin’s AAU basketball game and hurried over to the tournament so they could both play.

...and just a few hours later, filled with players of every kind enjoying a day of chess. Jim Mona told me he knew we had a great crowd because I was grinning ear to ear when he came over to play after coaching his son's AAU basketball team in the morning.

  In the end, I had a total of 64 players (25 rated, 27 unrated, and 12 parents) and the day flew by in a whirlwind of activity. While the kids played, I would watch the games and chat with the parents. As each round wound down, I’d keep a close eye on the few remaining games and once they ended, entered the results into my computer and printed out the playing assignments for the next round. Jim brought me a Subway sandwich during the lunch break and I managed to eat half of it over the next 4 hours till the end of the tournament.

  Sometime at tournaments, the parents start getting riled up over their children not winning or accuse opponents of cheating, or get upset at me because their kid had to play someone much older, but there was none of that at this tournament. They all seemed really happy to have their kids be able to play chess for the day. The kids were also very good sports. When the younger ones were done with their tournament games, they were likely to play another game with their opponent. And even the first time tournament players deciphered the pairing assignment sheets and by the second of the 5 rounds were able to seat themselves at the correct chess board (of the 32 that were set up) in front of the pieces they were assigned to play.

  Once the tournament was over, Jim and I relabeled some of the medals and trophies so everyone would get a prize. For example, I had 2 medals for each age from 5 to 19. I had 5 7 year olds and no 18 or 19 year olds, so we relabeled the medals that would not have been given out and gave them to the kids that wouldn’t have otherwise won one. I’ve gotten complaints from parents in the past that I am so generous with my prizes it cheapens the accomplishments of the top players. There is some merit to their point, but for some of these kids, maybe this is the only chess trophy or medal they’ll ever get and if they have one, someday when they are parents whose children are thinking about playing chess, they have something to show their kids and get back into chess along with their children.

  I gave the parents their medals first and the kids got to clap for them. A lot of parents told me afterwards that they wish they had played because it looked like so much fun. Jim won the parents tournament, which was nice to see because without his hard work, we could not have gotten the facility for the tournaments. The kids came up a few at a time, got their medals or trophies and a big round of applause, with the top 5 finishers in each section the last to get their prizes.

  It was around 4 when the tournament was over and the parents left. Jaleb and I put away all the chess sets and took out the garbage, while Jim mopped the cafeteria floor. Here is a guy who runs a company during the week, coached a basketball game in the morning, won a chess tournament in the afternoon, and then was mopping the floors at night. In my tournament write-up, I mentioned how he mopped up at the tournament, since he not only mopped the floor; he also mopped up the competition in the parents section. I didn’t say it quite like that but I hope the readers will catch my double meaning. It is a real treat to work with a guy like Jim, who has a great love for chess, a passion for working with youth, and is happy to mop the floors in a cafeteria when no one is around to look.

Jim Mona (left), mopping up his game before mopping the floor literally

  It was a really, really, busy day, but we showed that chess is a lot of fun and a great activity for the entire family. There have been very few times where I felt this good about something I’d put so much effort in. I posted Jim and my pictures of the tournament on the internet, and sent links to the parents on Sunday. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the parents telling me what a good time their kids had and how they want to play in the parents section next month. And just before I got thinking I was too perfect, I got an email from Jim asking me to change the flyer for the next tournament. It seems I had told the parents to use the northwest entrance, but that was the entrance to the church and the cafeteria entrance was on the northeast side. The father that was on duty had to mention to several parents that there were no chess boards at the altar before pointing them to the correct entrance.

  A couple of months ago, I thought it would take a year to get 50 players to the youth tournaments and we hit that on the first try. I don’t know if that level of attendance is sustainable, but it is a great start.