Sunday, September 11, 2011

Back To School

Half the chess club at St. Francis.

  On Friday I held the first chess class at St. Francis for the 2011-2012 school year. We had 19 signups and I knew some kids would show up without signing up, but I was completely taken by surprise by the tidal wave of 42 young chess players that came to learn and play chess. Some of the parents helped out by supervising the experienced players and I started with the 20 or so beginners by teaching them how pawns moved. With only 45 minutes a week and many of the children arriving late at that, I have settled on using the F.O. Armbruster book “Learn Chess in 3 Hours or Your Money Back”. It is a very short book and goes over a piece at a time, with games to reinforce the lessons. I spent 10 minutes explaining how pawns move and then set the children playing a simple game with 6 pawns apiece and the first player to capture a pawn winning the game. Most of the kids picked up on the game and some of the parents also helped with the beginners. All in all it was a successful day and there are more children still signing up.

  I’m sure I’ll see some shrinkage as the school year goes on, but I expect a substantial increase over last year’s 25 or so players. Last year the club was started with the understanding that there would be a fee in order to pay an assistant chess coach. The chess coach resigned before school started and since I agreed to help the head coach Jim Mona in return for the ability to hold some chess tournaments in the school cafeteria, there was no fee. Jim has moved to another parish and I have agreed to be the head chess coach in return for having monthly tournaments at the cafeteria and so this year the club was advertised as not having a fee from the beginning.

  If my health remains good, I can see being a chess teacher at schools as a part-time job in my retirement. I really enjoy teaching chess to kids and thanks to the chess success of own children, I have an impressive enough resume and seem to have a good rapport with the kids. Maybe they get my passion for chess or my sense of humor or maybe they just think my New Jersey accent is funny, but I’ll take any edge I can get.

  Some of these kids have an immense amount of chess aptitude, but also they have supportive families to provide them a gamut of extra-curricular activities. My goal is not to compete with football, basketball, baseball, tumbling, math club, etc. My goal is just to expose the kids to the game, pique their interest, and get them to play well enough that they can be competitive in a social setting. A few of the club members come to play in my tournaments and I can help them also, but in a class that size, I have limited time for individual instruction and normally recommend that the parents take their child to an adult chess club to play better competition. I’ve put the proposition to the parents that we could take a team to the state K-6 team championships in Ames this coming February, but I’ll need to know well in advance in order to identify the top team members and get them some competitive experience. St. Francis has won a few K-3 and K-6 team state championships but hasn’t brought a team in the last few years. Hard work will be required to restore the club to statewide competitiveness.

Some pretty happy morning players.

  After the chess class ended, I drove across town for a day of work and at 8 the next morning I was back at St. Francis for the first chess tournament of the scholastic year. I had previously written how I was going to change the tournament format from 5 games lasting from 10 to 3:30 to separate morning and afternoon 3 game tournaments. I wasn’t expecting a large crowd since most of the school chess clubs haven’t started yet, but as the week wore on, many of the chess regulars had signed up and I had 21 players for the morning session and 32 play in the afternoon (along with 8 parents and friends between the 2 sessions). 17 players were in both sessions, 4 in the morning session, and 15 in the afternoon session. I’ll have to see how the trends hold up over the next few months, but most of the parents whose kids came for half a day told me they’d have skipped an all day tournament with one parent telling me it was nice that her son didn’t have to miss his morning Tae-kwon-do in order to play chess. The only kids who were upset at only 5 trophies per tournament were the ones who hadn’t won a trophy before. The participation medals were well received and I think most everyone had a fun day of chess.

Many of the afternoon players left as soon as they figured out they weren't winning a trophy, but the ones who remained looked pretty happy.

  The main problem I had was that with 21 and 26 players, a 3 round tournament didn’t allow for all the top players to face each other like a 5 round tournament would have. In both tournaments one of the top 3 seeds got through the 3 rounds without playing the other top seeds. I’d hate to have this keep the stronger players away, but I’m not sure what I can do about it. Most of the players got a game with somebody in their rating class, a game with someone they would be a favorite against, and a game with someone they would be an underdog against, so maybe there isn’t a problem at all.

  One solution to the issue of the top players not playing each other is to divide up the players into groups of 4 or 6 by rating and let them play in mini tournaments. I’ve had plenty of tournaments like that but in my opinion they wouldn’t work here. I’d be facing the possibility of having a player getting stuck in a section with 3 much stronger players because they happened to be the 4th best player in the field and only have a tiny chance at winning their section. Also, a lot of kids that are friends have similar ratings and would have to possibly play each other twice in a day.

Young or old, morning or afternoon, playing for trophies or pride, chess is battle of the mind and a terrific way to while away some time.

  The one thing I found out about having afternoon and morning tournaments is that it is a lot more work for the tournament director. I was beat by the end of the day and was lucky to have Tim McEntee, Jose Gatica, and some of the other parents help clean up and put away the sets after the tournament. In my other tournaments it is chaotic before the first game and busy in the morning, but as the day winds on, I have plenty of time to talk to the players and parents. But in this tournament, by the time everything started to slow down for me, the tournament was over and I needed to give out the prizes. But then the afternoon players started checking in and it started all over again. Extra work is OK by me. A big part of a successful program is making it as easy for the kids to play as possible, and a big part of that is having the tournaments only take 3 hours to complement rather than compete with other sports or academic activities. And if that means I have extra work, so be it.

  My next youth tournament will be on October 8th, which is National Chess Day. I’ve got a sponsor lined up so I can offer a free tournament like last year. I asked some of the IASCA board about having an IASCA adult tournament in Marshalltown like last year, but the folks in Cedar Rapids planned on having a tournament also for National Chess Day. I would need a few players from Cedar Rapids to travel to have a successful tournament in Marshalltown, so I nixed the Marshalltown tournament and will try the free tournament in Des Moines. Since the chess clubs will be started and the tournament is free, my goal is to have a full house of 80 players. It is probably too ambitious of a goal, but one well worth working toward.