Sunday, February 19, 2012

Critical Mass

critical mass n The minimum required to start or maintain a venture: "a critical mass of users".

44 players in the morning and 54 players in the afternoon! A big day!

  Yesterday I held my latest monthly youth chess tournament at St. Francis. Last month I had a huge crowd of 52 players in the afternoon after a smallish 29 in the morning. The 81 total entries and the 69 unique players was about the same number as the free tournament I held in October for National Chess Day. Since everyone but the parents were paying last month, I was more encouraged than ever that my vision of having morning/afternoon split tournaments with a low entry fee and minimal prizes (but medals for all) was catching on.

  I was hoping to build on last month’s success but there were a number of factors going against it. In 2011, my January tournament had 64 players and I only topped that with 68 for the free October tournament so there was the possibility that January is the best month to expect people to pay to play chess. Last week there was an unrated youth tournament in Des Moines and an IASCA K-6 tournament 35 miles away in Ames which may have satisfied the need for youth chess in the area for the month.

  There was no question of breaking my string of monthly tournaments at 13, so I decided to ‘beat the bushes’ and sent an email to all the schools letting them know about the upcoming tournament. I got substantial responses from 2 schools. A local high school was going to send 4 players and I got 10 entries from a nearby elementary school, all for the unrated section. Since I don’t have players from the same school play against each other unless necessary, I had visions of these big high school kids pasting cowering 4th and 5th graders round after round and never seeing any of them again, but I tried to put it out of my mind and as I got more entries the entire issue became a non-factor. With a week to go, I had the feeling I was going to have one of my biggest crowds ever and I ordered another batch of 100 blank medals and printed some more inserts so I’d be sure not to run out.

  I was going to take Chandler, the high schooler who plays at the Marshalltown Chess Club to the tournament to help me set up in return for free entry and a ride, but this month I arranged to take his younger brother Dalton along also. Dalton has been playing in our blitz tournaments since last summer and while he doesn’t win very often, he has behaved well enough for me to take him to a bigger tournament. After a 5am walk to the Jiffy with Kathy to get Daisy and Baxter some beef stick treats (and my morning coffee), I loaded up my car with my sets, boards, trophies, medals, and all the other items needed to have a tournament, picked Dalton and Chandler up at their house, and we arrived at St. Francis at 7:45 for the 9am tournament. Dalton and Chandler were so fast at setting up the boards that when Dan Troxell came over to help set up at 8:15, we were already done.

  I had 5 no shows in the morning and 3 walk-ups, a father and daughter who had just moved to Indianola and decided to play chess for the morning, and Danny. Danny never emails to say he is coming; his parents just drop him off and pick him up after the tournament is over and he hangs around with me when he isn’t playing. Danny started in the unrated tournaments, got a USCF membership and has been playing in the rated tournaments, but decided to scale back to the unrated section this month and managed to win it.

  The morning tournament went very smoothly. The 3 high schoolers in the unrated section were good players and one of them tied for second, but I think they were surprised by the craftiness of some of the younger players. Ben, the coach who came with the high school kids is a very strong player who won the parents and friends section, but he was also willing to show the younger players how they could avoid the stalemates that all younger players seem to create in won positions. To put everyone at ease about the age disparity, I played an old trick and had the tallest and shortest players stand up and asked the rest of the players if the taller player got to move twice or if the shorter player had to play without his queen. That got everyone giggling and hopefully it relaxed everyone. I spent most of my free time in the morning monitoring games, talking with parents, hanging out with Danny and Dalton, and going over games with Gabe, who writes his games down and wants as much advice as he can get about what he can do better.

  After the morning tournaments ended, I had an apple and green tea for lunch and played Dan Troxell some 10 minute chess. During our fourth game, I looked up and there was a group of 10 people hanging around my computer. It was 12:40 and people were ready to check in for the afternoon tournament! I got everyone checked in and there were at least 7 players who hadn’t signed up. I charge $5 extra for players who don’t let me know ahead of time that they’re playing. Sometimes this gets the parents upset. It only takes me 10 seconds to check someone in when I’ve already entered them, but it takes a minute or two to put a player in the computer and make sure their name and school is spelled correctly. The problem is that minute or two comes at a time when everyone who pre-registered is trying to check in and now they have to wait and I have to make extra medals to account for the walkups. I have no penalty for players who tell me they’re coming but don’t show, so I feel justified in charging extra for not taking the time to send me an email. I’m not totally unreasonable and will make an exception for someone who plays almost every month or came to my chess camp.

  Flush with his victory, Danny decided to come back and play in the afternoon unrated tournament, finishing fourth. The high schoolers played much more carefully against their younger opponents and took 2 of the top 3 spots. The youngsters didn't seem upset when they had to take on older players, but there were two parents (and their 4 kids) who seemed upset when the kids weren’t winning and one family just left without telling me.

  I was super busy all afternoon. First I played 2 5 –minute games against Ben the high school coach (winning one and tying the other, thank you!), but then I was in scramble mode for the next 2 hours making the pairings, watching the games finish, keeping the 4 or 5 kids who were following me around asking questions satisfied and amused, and trying to make sure everyone had a game. Some kids had to leave for an hour to play in a basketball game, parents wanted to jump in the parents section in the middle of the tournament because they were bored (the reason for the parents section!), and some people just left. Dalton was a huge help as I kept shuffling him around between the rated and unrated sections as needed. There was one parent who had lost both his games and his 3rd round opponent just left, so as his reward I paired him with 3 time Iowa champ Tim Mc Entee, who stopped by to chat with some of the players and parents. Tim was a great sport and after beating his opponent, explained a lot of chess concepts to him and the crowd of players watching.

  All told, I had 79 different players and 98 entries and by the end of the afternoon I was exhausted. As much as I enjoy playing ‘lone wolf’, I won’t be able to grow my tournament series further until I bring in some help. My most pressing need is to get someone to watch the tournament floor and handle the normal issues so I can take care of the pairings, be available to explain tournament stuff to the parents, and handle the trickier problems that arise. I'm not complaining, but I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with this kind of a problem so soon. Just 6 months ago, I had 12 people at my tournament and now I’m pushing 100. After the tournament, Tim and I were talking about this. Tim thinks that I’ll hit a huge downturn once the weather gets warm and school lets out. I agree that there will be some shrinkage, but I think as long as I keep the 3 hour tournament format and don’t cross over lunchtime (my critical mistake in my summer tournaments), I should keep a substantial number of the players. The March and April tournaments will tell a big part of the tale. March will be on one of the spring break weekends which may skew the numbers, but if the players from the two new schools show up at either of the next 2 tournaments, I’ll know that my tournament series has hit critical mass and is ready to be brought to a new level.