Sunday, March 13, 2011

Selling fun, not victory

  Yesterday I held the third monthly youth chess tournament in my 5 month series. There were 52 youngsters and 8 parents for a total of 60 players. I was a little off my game and put a six year old girl in the parents section, but almost all of the players had a great time and I got some casual players from 2 of the local elementary schools to play in the unrated section. This is very important because my experience has shown that my tournaments work best with small groups of players from a lot of different areas, as opposed to trying to cater to the few school clubs that have a large amount of members.

  So far the tournament attendance has been better than I could have hoped for. I was happy to see the number of players go up this month since it went from 64 to 48 last month. I expect a severe drop-off in the next 2 tournament as little league and soccer start, but I think it is important to keep to a consistent tournament schedule and am working on a couple of initiatives to keep the tournaments going through the summer instead of just ending in May as I originally intended.

  The biggest issue I’m seeing is that many of the parents of the beginning players will go to a tournament when it is at their child’s school but won’t travel to another school to play. I had 20 parochial school players in February when the tournament was at St. Francis, but only 5 at yesterday’s tournament at the public school. Yesterday I had 10 players who attended the local Jordan Creek Elementary School yesterday, but only 1 at the St. Francis tournaments. The 2 schools are 5 miles apart. I’m not sure if this is a public/private school thing or the parents think they are supporting their school by attending, or just a coincidence, but it is a barrier I’ll need to break down in order to build a successful chess series in the area.

  At the last tournament, a couple of parents asked me if everyone gets a trophy or medal. I’ve been able to answer yes for every tournament so far, and have even purchased some participation trophies in order to ensure that I can answer yes. If I get questioned further, I break out one of my favorite catch phrases “I’m selling fun, not victory.” It sounds like a pithy little comment, but I really do think that when putting on a youth chess tournament, you are either selling one or the other.

  When I ran the state scholastics for the IASCA, I was running a lot of tournaments to determine the state scholastic champions. I tried to make the tournaments fun, but ultimately I was selling the chance to win a state championship. I was selling victory. I tried to sell fun by adding as many prizes as I could for players for the top scoring girls, or the best scoring new team at a team championship, or prizes for players rated under a certain level, but the bulk of the prizes (and accolades) went to the top players.

  If you have players and parents that are buying fun, you can make them happy by running a fair tournament where everyone has a good time. To me this includes having plenty of prizes on hand. I try to have slightly different medal and trophy prizes at every tournament, but the prizes themselves are of a modest size. If a player doesn’t like playing, winning a trophy or medal at every tournament isn’t going to keep them playing chess, but I think at the beginner/intermediate level of player I’m working with, the prizes are my way showing appreciation for their being willing to spend a day playing chess being willing to win and lose. The top 5 prizes at my tournament are bigger than the other prizes, but only by a little. I think that as the players realize they are all going to get a comparable prize, they stop fretting about what trophy they will win and just enjoy playing. I’ve run tournaments with 130 players and 80 prizes where the players all would tell me their score and ask me what kind of prize they would win. I’ve had none of that at these tournaments.

  Part of selling victory means you need to a steady supply of players for the victors to beat. For the lack of a better word, I’ll call them victims. I’ve always seen a tremendous amount of turnover in scholastics when the tournaments are age based and the prizes go to the top 3 or the top 6. The group of players that don’t win prizes will give up after 2 or 3 tournaments, while the players who consistently finish 3rd or 4th give it a couple of years to see if they can get to the top level. It has always taken me a tremendous amount of work and effort to get a continuing supply of victims. The only way to easily have a constant victim supply is to cater to school clubs with a lot of members so they will bring all their players to tournaments. This was the IASCA scholastic model of the early 2000’s, but when 2 of the large clubs collapsed, attendance nosedived and even the victors stopped coming to the tournaments when the supply of victims was cut off.

  Players and parents who are buying victory tend to take up a lot of time. When I ran the K-6 team tournament, one year I got a lot of pressure from some K-5 schools to allow them to include 6th graders from the middle schools in order to not be at a competitive disadvantage to the K-6 schools. I didn’t allow that, but did set aside a K-5 champion trophy in case a K-6 team won the championship (Naturally, the K-5 schools finished in the top 4 spots.) Another time I exchanged 20 emails from a coach of a Junior High School team who wanted his son to be on the top board even though his rating was lower than another player and he even lost to that player in a tournament earlier that year. I had asked the other senior tournament directors in the state and they all thought it was a bad idea. I asked on the USCF message boards and 2 national tournament directors thought it was a bad idea. But as I was the one getting the 20 emails, I relented and said I was going to do it as a favor to the host school since that is who was making the request. I only got another 10 emails after that still having to explain my decision. The IASCA now has at least 16 pages of rules and regulations concerning the running of scholastic tournaments. I had none and certainly don't have any for my new youth chess series.

  A couple of months ago, I got a long email about new IASCA regulations concerning the K-6 team tournament. At this tournament, championships are awarded to the top scorers for schools only using the scores of the kids in grades K-3. When I ran the tournament, I figured that if a 3rd graders score was good enough to help their team win a top prize in both the K-6 and the K-3, good for him or her and I’d give them 2 trophies as a team member of a top K-3 team AND a top K-6 team (the top 4 scores for each school count towards the team score and in addition to the team trophy the 4 top scorers get a team member trophy.) The 500+ word email I got from the IASCA stated that if a players score counted towards their schools K-6 score, their score could not count towards their schools K-3 score and furthermore, a coach could designate his schools K-3 players as a separate team if they notified the tournament director beforehand, but once the tournament started it would be too late. If you got a headache reading that, so did I. But when you’re selling victory, these are the things you have to deal with. What was the point of all these rules? Was another K-3 school upset that some K-3 players were picking up 2 trophies? Or was it a K-6 school? I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t want to ever deal with stuff like that.

  I was talking to a parent yesterday about this. He liked the idea of all the kids leaving the tournament with a trophy or medal. He told me a story of when he worked on a cruise line. The passengers got ‘cruise bucks’ for participating in various activities that they could redeem for merchandise. A t-shirt could be had for 10 cruise bucks. One lady was complaining to him that when she was getting her t-shirt for 10 cruise bucks, the person in front of her was redeeming only 7 cruise bucks for her shirt. He asked if that was the last shirt and was told it was not. He asked if the lady didn’t get her shirt in her size, but she did. She just couldn’t seem to enjoy her shirt knowing that another passenger got it for less than 10 cruise bucks.

  I’m probably never going to keep the people whose trophy or medal loses its significance if everyone is getting a prize, but that’s OK with me. Like I said, I’m selling fun, not victory. And since I have 5 entries for April’s tournament less than 1 day after my last one, I have to think there’s going to be enough people who want to buy fun.