Sunday, July 17, 2011

Camping out

  Jose Gatica, my son Matt, and I held a chess camp in West Des Moines last Thursday and Friday. I’ve never held a chess camp before but so many parents had asked me if I knew of one in the area during my tournaments this year I thought it would be worth the effort to set it up. Chess camps tend to be a series of chess lessons held over multiple days to give players a sort of ‘chess immersion’. Most chess camps have a headline instructor and I was lucky to have Matt agree to participate. As the 4 time state high school champion, he was someone the campers could look up to as a product of Iowa chess. With Matt on board, I asked Jose if he was interested. Jose teaches at a number of the area catholic schools and has also taught at chess camps. I’ve met Jose a few times and Tim McEntee is our mutual friend. Jose agreed to work on the camp, I rented some space to at the West Des Moines Learning Center, and we were off.

  Organizing the camp played to all of my weaknesses. When I organize and direct a chess tournament, it’s something I’ve done many times before and the only help I need is to set up the tables and boards at the start and cleaning up at the end. I know what I need to do, when I need to do it, and after having at least one tournament a month for the last 8 months, getting the tournament to come together is almost an effortless affair.

Matt Anzis is an Iowa scholastic legend to most of these kids. He went over some his best games and captivated the advanced players.

  Since I’ve never organized anything like the chess camp I was flying blind and wasn’t even sure about when to order supplies, snacks, t-shirts, etc.. Since I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to have the maximum 35 campers, I decided to wait as long as possible to get all the things I needed so I wouldn’t be stuck with a lot of extra t-shirts and awards that would just be money down the drain.

  Also, tournaments I organize tend to be a solo act. I’ve had some great helpers with the 100+ participant scholastic tournaments I’ve run, but normally I like to have my fingerprints all over the events I’m associated with so I’m aware of even the smallest problem or issue and if a parent or player has a question they know that I’m the person to come to. With the camp, I needed a lot of input from Jose from everything from the course content to the schedule to the positions we were going to use to explain concepts to the kids. Not only didn’t I have my usual ‘iron fist’ control of the event, Jose was in the process of moving and I’ve been super busy at work so our opportunities for communications to finalize our decisions were minimal.

  My comfort level wasn’t helped any with the massive storm that swept through Marshalltown on Monday, leaving most of the town without power. I was able to check my emails from work but wasn't nearly as responsive as I normally am. The company that was making the camp t-shirts was local and also had no power, so I had no t-shirts for the campers. And Matt was planning on printing his lesson plans during the week, so he had to make do with writing out his notes longhand.

Jose Gatica not only can get youth interested in chess, he also has a good sense for their mood.

  None of that mattered at the camp on Thursday. We all arrived around 9, got everything set up for the 10 o’clock start and the campers started arriving. There were a few fits and starts with late arrivals, but by 10:30 we were well underway.

  We had 17 campers that we divided into 5 advanced players and 12 intermediate players (Matt moved 2 players into the advanced section for day 2). Jose worked with the intermediate players and Matt worked with the advanced players in the morning, while I helped Jose out and served up snacks and drinks to the kids. During the planning, Jose was insistent that we set up time for the kids to get outside and play. I figured when the kids needed a break, I’d just dish out some snacks, but the kids were having snacks during the class sessions and when they got bored, they needed to get outside and run around at the nearby playground. Jose’s experience really paid off since not only did he insist on having some recess time, he also had me bring some footballs and soccer balls, and had me ask around for a nurse to be on call in return for a reduced entry fee to the camp.

  Matt was going over positions and games with the advanced players and they were getting along great, while Jose was getting along good with the intermediate players. After lunch, it was my turn to go over endings with the intermediate players. The lesson started off well, but after an hour, the kids started zoning me out and I couldn’t finish the lesson without getting outside for a touch football and playground session. I was kind of bummed but Jose reminded me that the kids don’t have the attention span to sit still for all that long. After playtime, I gave a short lesson on writing down the moves that went much better and day one finished up on a high note.

When the advanced players got a little bored, I split them into 2 teams of 3 players and made them play, but alternating moves between players and no talking. Everyone enjoyed the different kind of chess until a teammate would make a mistake.

  Day 2 went even better than day one. I got to work with the advanced kids in the morning and the beginners in the afternoon. A lot of these kids only know me from running tournaments, so it was nice for me to interact with them talking about chess in a give and take atmosphere instead of just giving them a prize or telling them who they are playing next. In the afternoon, I was much more cognizant of Jose’s advice and as soon as I saw the kids zoning out, we got them outside for more playtime. We finished the camp with a short tournament, gave everyone some chess related merchandise, and took some pictures. While we were cleaning up after the camp, the building director came in and told us he was so impressed with the camp that he would let us have it there next year at a reduced rate.

  I think the kids all had a great time and I hope they learned some valuable chess lessons. I got a lesson in relaxing and letting events unfold, and I learned that Jose is someone I can count on to be prepared and also someone I can learn a lot from about how kids relate to chess. I also learned that when buying snacks, kids prefer Sunny D to apple juice by a 2 to 1 margin and that cheddar cheese crackers and mixed fruit cups win hands down over pepper jack crackers and tropical fruit cups. The camp turned out to be a chess and financial success and gave me a big dose of enthusiasm as I gear up for another school year of scholastic chess tournaments after the inevitable dwindling attendance of the summer tournaments. And having gone through the planning process, I will be much better prepared for next year’s camp.