Sunday, January 22, 2012

Spread the Word

  On Thursday I got an email from the IASCA scholastic director asking me what my plans were for a summer chess camp and would I like him to include them in his broadcast email? The last time the IASCA sent out a broadcast email concerning my chess activities, it was to recommend that people not go to my November tournament, so I curtly declined the invitation to spread the word. This led to another email from the IASCA scholastic director telling me he was trying to do me a favor in November because a lot of chess parents and the IASCA board members were so upset by my having the tournament in Des Moines on the same day as the IASCA Cedar Rapids tournament in November that he felt he had to mention it to stop all the negative talk about me and my tournament, but that it was a mistake to mention my tournament that way.

  I guess I can accept this explanation. After all, nobody’s perfect, especially me. And since one of my little imperfections is to hold onto my grudges like a kid holds on to their first chess trophy, I’ve had as little as possible to do with the IASCA over the last couple of months and that’s not going to change anytime soon. I can't control what other people say or do, but I can take care of the things I can take care of, like making sure I have my own means to spread the word about my chess tournaments and other chess activities. Because of my website, I have a place to post my news articles and upcoming tournaments and thanks to Ben Tessman’s advice, the site is already on the front page of the Google searches for Iowa chess. Sometimes I wish I was the type to just not tell the families who come to my tournaments about the scholastic tournaments the IASCA puts on, but that’s not one of my imperfections.

  Even in this age of the Internet, Google, Twitter, Facebook, etc…, I think email is the best way to let people know about chess tournaments and that word of mouth remains the best way to grow attendance at chess tournaments, especially in Iowa. Maybe in a densely populated area like New Jersey it would pay to advertise in Chess Life, but not in Iowa where there are only a few hundred people who are USCF members and even get the magazine. I like to send out an email a few weeks before each of my tournaments to let the parents know about it and then I wait and see. It’s always kind of depressing the first couple of days after I send out the emails because I get more UNSUBSCRIBE emails than signups, but as the week goes on, I feel better as the signups start to come in.

  Yesterday I had my 13th straight monthly family Des Moines chess tournament at St. Francis. I got the date set up last month and I found out during the first chess club of the year that the local Cub Scout troop was having their pinewood derby at St. Francis on the morning of the tournament. I knew that was going to depress attendance in the morning, but since this was my 5th straight month with the morning and afternoon tournaments, any chess players that participated in the morning pinewood’s derby (or the basketball games being played in the gym next door) were just a minute or two away from the afternoon chess tournament if they cared to play.

  The morning tournament had 23 youth and 6 parents playing, about an average number if a bit on the smallish side. I was on target for another 30 players in the afternoon, but on Friday I picked up another 10 players and when the expected snowstorm didn’t dump the predicted 4 to 6 inches in Des Moines, another half dozen players showed up to play. After recruiting some siblings and parents to give me an even number of players for all the sections, I ended up with 52 players in the afternoon for a total of 81 players with 12 playing all day (including me, because I got to play a game in the parents section!).

  It was a great day of chess and while I was busy, I still had more than enough time to meet a lot of parents who had recently signed up to help with the clubs at their schools. They were asking me about starting chess clubs, instructing beginning players, and how would they know when the kids were ready for unrated tournaments. Some of the parents of the successful players in the unrated tournaments asked me when they should get their players into the rated tournaments. I told them to leave it up to the child and offered my assessment of what their rating would be when they started playing in the rated tournaments. The only big problem I had was with my new additions of trophy prizes for the unrated players. I had been giving them first through fifth place labels to put on their participation medals, but since September I’ve had more unrated players than rated players so I decided to add trophies to the unrated players prizes. A very talented 7-year old from St. Francis had a great morning unrated tournament (winning 3 out of 5 games), but he finished tied for fourth place and missed out on the last trophy by tiebreak. He thought he was going to get the trophy and was really upset when he didn’t. I’ve seen this enough with my kids and plenty of others to know that the bad feelings won't last, but it didn’t make me feel any better to see it yesterday. I had debated whether I should lower the unrated entry fee rather than ramping up the pressure by introducing trophies, but in the end I think the trophies are modest enough that it won’t lead to too many hard feelings.

  This was a unique tournament in that there were only 5 players that came from outside the Des Moines metro area. I had about a dozen new players, who were all told about the tournament by existing players or Jose Gatica, the professional chess teacher who works at all the other Des Moines Catholic schools except St. Francis. One of the new players was Ronaldo Enamorado. The reason I mention Ronaldo is to illustrate the circuitous path by which he ended up playing chess in West Des Moines yesterday.

  Twice a year I send an email to all the schools within 3 counties of Des Moines to let them know about my tournaments. I rarely get any responses, but last January I got an email from Kelly Haase, the chess club advisor at Carlisle Middle School asking about the tournaments. Kelly let her club know about the tournament and her top player, Mathew Hintz, came to play in the unrated tournament last January. In February, Matt brought Sean Urban from the Carlisle Chess Club to play in the tournament. By April, Matt and Sean had both purchased USCF memberships and were playing in the rated tournaments. When I was setting up the chess camp for July, I let the parents know that I needed a nurse at the camp and was offering a discounted camp fee for the child of a nurse who would monitor the camp. Sean’s mom knew the Carlisle school nurse, Julie Reed, whose son Alex liked to play chess. Alex and Sean came to the camp and Alex started playing in the rated tournaments. Alex’s parents told a friend of theirs, Dell Spence, about the chess tournaments and last month Dell brought his 2 sons Seylan and Kylan to play in the unrated section. And this month Dell brought Ronaldo to play in the unrated section. And that is how Ronaldo Enamorado came to play chess in West Des Moines on January 21st, 2012. All because I sent a letter to a school in late 2010 and 4 different players liked the tournaments enough to get a friend to play. Now that’s what I call word of mouth!!

  And if I keep taking care of the things I can take care of, namely providing a positive fun family chess experience, it's only a matter of time before Ronaldo brings a friend, too!