Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Give the kid a prize!

Eleven months evolution of participation buttons and medals. What will December bring?

  I’m spending this week preparing for my first youth chess tournament in 6 weeks. I’d rather not have such a long gap between tournaments but the cafeteria at St. Francis is booked solid with other events and I was lucky to be able to get the large meeting room for this week’s tournament. I only have room for 24 boards on the supplied tables, but there are a few smaller long tables and I’ve adjusted to the new surroundings by using the profits from the last tournament that I was going to use for chess clocks to get some smaller tournaments boards and pieces instead in case I have over 50 players.

  Having a tournament so close to Christmas is a double edged sword. On the plus side, many of the competing sports activities will be shut down for the month, but the reason for that is because so many parents are traveling, attending Christmas functions, and holiday shopping. This will keep many kids from playing team sports, but I’m hopeful that there will be plenty of players and parents who want to spend a morning or afternoon playing chess.

  This will be the 12th month in a row that I’ve held an open youth tournament in the Des Moines area (14 if you count 2 parochial school only tournaments in 2010). I am a big believer in consistency and I consider this an accomplishment to be quite proud of. As the IASCA scholastic director, I wrote a website column for the chess parents each month for the 30 months I served except the first August (2006). It’s always bothered me that because I didn’t take the time to type out a few paragraphs I lost the ability to say I did something every month for 30 months.

  I’ve had over 250 different players at my chess tournaments over the first 11 months, with a high of 67 at the free tournament in October and a low of 14 at the August outdoor tournament. A lot of players come almost every month and I’ve struggled to come up with different looking trophies and medals. There are only a few trophy companies that have chess items and they have 4 or 5 different tops and a dozen or so different columns. I came up with the idea of giving out buttons with a different world chess champion as participation awards, but most of the kids have no idea who these champions of the past are and a few asked me if I put the old guy on the button because it was his birthday.

The graveyard of tournaments past,
a cousin of the 'Island of Misfit Toys'.

  I could make a different chess trophy every month for 5 years by combining the different tops and columns, but the medals posed a different challenge because there are only 7 or 8 different kinds of chess medals. When it came time to rehash the same medal design, I tried using different color ribbons (there are at least 40 different color combinations of ribbons), but the kids caught on immediately that they already had the same medal as before. And aside from all that, I kept on having left over medals and trophies after each tournament. I have trophies and medals that are 3 or 4 years old sitting in my basement. I tried to reuse the medals by putting some handmade labels on the backs so I wouldn’t have to pay an extra $1 a pop for new labels, but they looked unprofessional. I tried to order custom inserts on the medals, but the price and minimum print runs made it even more expensive and would guarantee that I’d have even more unusable medals left over.

  My medal problem was heightened when I decided to drastically reduce the number of trophies in order to halve the entry fee and give everyone a medal for participating. The new prize structure made it even more important than ever to not give out the same medals. I did a lot of research over the summer and came up with the idea of buying medals without any inserts and printing and applying the inserts myself. It worked great the first month, but by the second month I had a mostly black insert and the kids discovered they could easily scrape the ink off of them. This led me to find plastic medal covers I could stick over the inserts. It works great. I give out unique medals for every tournament I run, and the cost is less than I would pay for medals from a trophy store. I could lower the cost of the medals even more by buying thousands at a time from the Chinese wholesaler, but I’ll pass on laying out that kind of money for now.

  It is a lot of work to design a new medal insert every month, print the inserts, and assemble the medals, but it is worth it to me to be able to offer a low cost chess tournament where no one walks away empty handed and everyone has a unique memento of their chess tournament. I saw firsthand from watching the kids at my son’s chess tournaments that nothing will make a child quit playing in chess tournaments faster than watching other kids get prizes while they get nothing. I tried to forestall this day of reckoning in the larger tournaments I ran by giving out medals for first time players, prizes for lower rated players, and even custom participation ribbons. I hit on the ribbon idea when I noticed that Matt would put every ribbon he got from his Junior High cross-country meets on our refrigerator. I thought the chess participation ribbons were the best received of all the ideas, but I can’t print the ribbons myself and would lose a lot of the customization I get with the medals.

  I can’t say for sure, but I think giving out the participation medals helps to keep players coming to my tournaments. I thought by cutting down from 22 trophies to 5 trophies I’d be losing lower rated players who were missing out but instead it is the higher rated players that seem to stay away after winning a trophy or 2. Maybe it’s the risk of getting upset to hungry lower rated players or the younger players make it too noisy to play their best or maybe the trophies just aren’t big enough to justify spending a morning or afternoon playing chess. I know from my experiences and the talks I’ve had with many chess parents that after a while their children’s chess trophies all start looking alike, but I’m not about to start playing ‘Can You Top This?’ with myself and have bigger and bigger trophies.

  The absence of the higher rated players is probably due to a little of all the reasons I mentioned with a bigger dose of just being too busy. In the January and February tournaments this year, I had a pair of brothers playing in the unrated tournament that were quite talented. The younger 7 year old brother won half his games and the 11 year old won 75% of his games. And then I didn’t see them again until I got an email this week from their mom saying they were busy all year but finally had the morning of a chess tournament free to play. I am constantly tempted to write to the parents of players that seem to disappear to see if it was something about the tournaments that are driving them away, but so far I’ve resisted. Fretting about the people who don’t come to my tournaments will keep me from doing the best job I can for the people who do attend.

  While I was ordering the trophies for the December tournament and getting ready to put Boris Spassky on this month’s medal, I came across a unique trophy top. I’ve been staying away from the chess piece trophy tops and using victory figures as much as I can, but the top I saw filled me with a sense of whimsy and I decided to theme my trophies and medals with a decidedly un-chess theme. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be running monthly youth tournaments but I’ve got December trophy and medals set for every one of them.

If Santa Claus was a chess piece, would he be the king with his reindeer as the 8 pawns or perhaps a long range knight able to hop all across the chessboard?