Sunday, February 12, 2012

Take a Note

The best of the initial week of scoresheets at chess club.
Not too shabby!

  One of the things that make chess one of the most popular of board games is the ability of the players to easily write down the moves of a game and play it over again. I’ve seen books on backgammon and poker tournaments, but documenting complete hands and games take too many pages to show more than a sampling of the action. Of all the other games I'm familiar with, only the Asian board game of Go and the card game of contract bridge easily allow their games to be recorded, although I’ve never seen a bridge player writing down their bids and opening hands.

  In most adult chess tournaments it is required to write down the moves of the games. Having the games written down helps the tournament director resolve any disputes that arise from a misplaced piece or an illegal move. When one player has less than 5 minutes left, neither player has to write down the moves. A sure sign that I’m starting to get tired at a chess tournament is when I miss writing down a move (making the moves for white in the column for the black moves and vice versa) or start writing down the wrong squares. When this starts happening, I try to get up and get a walk and drink of water.

  I’ve never insisted that players at my youth tournaments write down the moves. I do encourage it and have scoresheets available, but at the end of the day I’d rather the players concentrate on making good moves than writing down bad ones. At our chess camp last summer, I taught the players how to write down the moves and had them play a few games writing the moves down, but few of them have ever written their moves down at subsequent tournaments.

  Most chess teachers teach their students to write down chess moves exactly as they appear in books. Every square on the chessboard has a name based on a coordinate system. The vertical plane is 1 to 8 and the horizontal plane a to h, giving a range of 64 squares from a1 to h8. Every piece (except the pawn) has a letter (B=Bishop, Q=Queen, R=Rook, K=King, and N=Knight). So when the player moves a Rook to e4, they write down Re4. If that was all there was, it would be simple for kids to pick up. BUT there are a lot of buts. If 2 rooks can go to e4 the player needs to say which rook goes to e4 (R1e4 or Rge4, depending on which plane the rooks are lined up on). When castling, the player has to write down 0-0 or 0-0-0, depending on which side of the board they are castling. When a piece is capturing, an ‘x’ needs to be placed between the pieces and the square (Rxe4), only when a pawn captures there is no piece designation so the letter of the vertical plane it is on is used instead (dxe4). AND when a pawn gets to the other end of the board the piece it turns into is noted at the end of the move (dxe8=Q) Got all that? Great! Now try teaching that to a child in 45 minutes.

When a young player starts to write down the moves, their results may suffer in the short term, but they'll benefit in the long run by being able to have areas of improvement quickly identified at club or by a teacher.

  I teach a different method. Since each piece is moved from a square to a square, I just have the kids write down the square the piece was on, a dash, and the piece the square moved to. There are only 2 exceptions 1) when castling, only use the kings move and 2) when a pawn reaches the other end of the board add the piece it changed to (a1Q). When I compare notes with other teachers, they don’t like the method since it doesn’t help the student read a chess book. But I’m not trying to teach anyone to read a chess book, I'm just showing them how to write down the moves.

  At St. Francis where I teach chess on Fridays, our 50 to 60 players a week have dwindled down to a consistent 40 to 45 players. I still have the 8 to 10 kids that hang out at the round tables on one end of the room, socializing, trying to stack chess pieces as high as they can, and occasionally playing a game of chess. I have taken to calling them the ‘stackers’ because they are getting pretty good at finding new ways to stack the odd shaped chess pieces. They are happy to be at the chess club and I’m happy to have them since they don’t disrupt the more serious players.

  I also have 30+ players at the other end of the room playing in the ladder tournament on the square tables as far away from the ‘stackers’ as I possibly can get them. After only 5 months some of the younger kids in their first year of chess club are really getting it and can compete on equal or better terms with players 3 or 4 grades above them. This makes me feel great because not only are the younger kids learning they don’t have to take a backseat to older kids on the chessboard, the older kids are learning they have to bring their ‘A’ game against everyone and not judge a book by its cover. Many of the players are coming to my weekend tournaments and I have a core group of 8 to 10 that have gotten USCF memberships and are playing rated chess. At last month’s tournament, the St. Francis players had excellent results, but I was so busy running the tournament I had no time to see what was going on with their games AND they weren’t writing the moves down so I can’t see what they need to correct to improve their games.

  I don’t have time during club to monitor the games, so 3 weeks ago I told the ladder players that they would have to start writing down their moves in 2 weeks. I gave them the USCF handout which is the ‘teacher-approved’ way to record games, but I taught anyone who wanted to learn my method. I got a lot of takers once I told them my method only took 2 minutes.

I practice what I preach and write down the moves, but when I have 5 minutes left, I've learned to turn over my sheet so I'm not tempted to waste valuable time recording my moves for posterity!

  On Friday, most of the kids started writing down their games (I ran out of pens so some of them got a reprieve). Since they had 2 weeks warning they were prepared and I was encouraged by the results. The discomfiture they felt at having to write down their moves was more than matched by their delight at my being able to go over their games with them. I told the kids that I knew it wasn’t something they wanted to do, but if they stick with it, it’ll become second nature in a few weeks. I got to look over some of the games after club and see that most of the kids are beyond giving pieces away, but they try to play with only one or two pieces so that will be what I concentrate lessons on for the next few weeks. Yesterday, I travelled to Des Moines for a parochial school only tournament at Holy Trinity Church that some of the club members were playing in. I went over a player’s game that he had written down the day before. He lost in about 35 moves, but I was able to show him 3 or 4 opportunities he had to win a piece and also show him 3 or 4 similar chances that his opponent missed. He felt a lot better about his chess going over the game and even finished second in the tournament. I’d like to take some credit, but he made all the moves on his own. And he didn’t write down any of his tournament games either.