Last year, the Boy Scouts added Chess to their list of merit badges. Chess and the Boy Scouts have a long history. Bobby Fisher even wrote a chess column for Boys’ Life magazine (the official Boy Scout Magazine) in the 1960’s. I was asked in January to be the chess merit badge counselor for the Marshalltown Merit Badge day yesterday and I quickly agreed since you can never tell where you'll find the next members of the Marshalltown Chess Club!
The Boy Scouts are careful about who they associate with, so I had to take their Youth Protection training and agree to a background check. Their website listed the numerous requirements for the merit. It required the scouts to be able to discuss the history of chess, the rules of the game, how to write down the moves, opening principles, and to be able to solve chess puzzles. The website also had a section for counselors, telling us to make sure the scouts met the requirements and not to just pass them for showing up or making a minimal effort. I took the requirements, added internet links to where the scouts could get all the information they needed and sent it off to Aaron (the scout leader who recruited me to be the counselor) so he could pass it along to the scouts who wanted to try for the chess merit badge. I also let Aaron know about our club was available in case any of the scouts wanted to get some practice in before the examination.
Like I wrote last week, I hadn’t hear from Aaron since February so I wrote to him on Monday to see if anyone was going to try for the chess badge. Aaron wrote back within an hour to let me know he had forgotten to write but there were 17 scouts signed up to attempt to get their badge and that I should be there at noon for the 1 PM start. On Saturday, I put together a giant tub of chess sets, score sheets, clocks, and pens and was at the RACOM building at noon. RACOM is a Midwest telecommunications company that has their headquarters a block away from the Salvation Army building. I’d never been in the building before and can only assume that one of the scout leaders is well connected with the company. I brought my 50 pound tub up 4 flights of stairs until I found the scout leaders only to be told that the chess class would be in the loading dock on the first floor. Luckily there was an elevator so I didn’t have to lug the 50 pound tub back down the stairs! I got to the first floor and started setting up chessboards on the 4 x 8 foot tables that were provided. There were 4 or 5 scouts that helped set up the boards and then they started playing. The scout leaders wanted to get started early but some of the scouts hadn’t shown up early so I just played some games and answered questions until I started at 1 as scheduled with 13 scouts. Aaron’s son was trying for the merit badge and Aaron and some of the other parents stuck around to watch the proceedings.
I think some of the scouts thought they were just going to play chess all afternoon and get an easy merit badge. If they were, they got a rude awakening because I was determined to make sure they net all the requirements set forth by their organization and I had them stop playing and pay attention to me. First we talked about the history of chess, why the scouts think chess is important enough to have a merit badge assigned to it by the Boy Scouts, and some basic chess etiquette. A couple of the scouts weren’t paying much attention so I made sure to call on them to answer any questions I had. Then they finally got to use some of the chessboards I had set up, but only to push all the pieces to the middle of the board and demonstrate to me that they knew how to set the board up. By some coincidence, the 2 scouts that weren’t paying attention before missed putting the king and queen on the proper squares. I corrected them and we went on to the next topic.
The next thing the scouts had to demonstrate was that they knew how the pieces moved. I put up a large demonstration wall board, set up some positions and asked them how many squares a particular piece could move to. The scouts all did very well with this exercise and some of them did better than me when I missed some queen moves. Having the demo board also got me to explain other concepts like how most pieces have more squares to move the closer they are to the center and other concepts like pins, double attacks, the relative value of the pieces and common opening mistakes. We went on to discuss the other topics like castling, the fools mate, and capturing ‘en passant’. I was convinced that the scouts understood the concepts and all 13 were on their way to earning their merit badge.
By this time it was after 2 and the scouts got a chance to play some chess. One of the requirements was to demonstrate how to checkmate with 2 rooks and a king against a king. We set up the position on 17 boards arranged in 2 rows of tables. I took the side with the king and went around the rows of tables like a simul, letting each scout make a move when I got to them and I would make my reply before moving on to the next board. 3 of the scouts checkmated me right away, but the rest had to figure it out on the fly. I encouraged them to look at the boards of the 3 players who completed the challenge, and that helped a lot. At 2:30 I stopped the test and 4 of the scouts (including Aaron’s son) were not able to complete the checkmate. I told them they would get partial badge credit and could come to the chess club on any Thursday to complete the requirement.
The next requirement was for the scouts to demonstrate they knew how to keep score of the game so I set up a mini tournament for them to write down the moves. Some of the scouts didn’t know how to keep score so I showed them the same method I use at St. Francis which only takes 2 minutes to learn. Aaron’s son had already played 3 games with his dad and brother AND kept score so while the other scouts played, he had a chance to retake the checkmate exam (which he passed) and I went over the games with him and Aaron, showing them some things they missed and moves I thought were top notch. As the scouts games finished, I reviewed their score sheets to see how well they kept score. All but 2 players kept excellent score sheets so I started the second round of games and told the 2 players they needed to keep better score if they wanted to meet the requirement (which they did).
The second game finished around 3:30 and it was time for the last requirement, which was to solve some direct mate puzzles. I had printed out a sheet of 6 puzzles and told the players that they needed to solve 4 of them and that one puzzle was harder than the others and would count for solving 2. The puzzles were 4 mate in 2, 1 mate in 3, and a mate in 5 moves (a smothered mate) that counted for solving any of the other 2 puzzles. Aaron and one of the other parents started to try to solve the puzzles and the other scouts congregated in groups of 2 or 3 to work together, which I had no problem with. The scouts had an incredibly hard time solving the puzzles, but I told them it was not supposed to be easy and that they needed to look for checks to force the other sides replay to execute the checkmates. Once each group managed to solve one of the puzzles they got the hang of what to look for and were a lot more enthusiastic about working on them and almost everyone managed to solve them. Here are the puzzles I gave assigned. White to move in all positions. I’ll put the answers in the comments.
In the end, 10 of the 13 scouts passed all the requirements to earn their merit badge and if the other 3 take the time to come to the club on Thursday and finish their checkmates and puzzles, they’ll get their badge also. Their knowledge of how to play was pretty impressive and 2 or 3 of them would be pretty competitive in my youth tournaments. Scouts need 21 badges to become an Eagle Scout and most of these scouts won’t have a lot of time for playing chess, but one scout and his dad told me that they’d be coming to my club on a regular basis. Aaron told me he enjoyed my enthusiasm for chess and thought I made it interesting for the scouts, which made me feel good. I thought being the counselor was a good time and I was happy to meet some young people interested in chess even if some of them were there only to get a merit badge. I thought I did an OK job devising tests to challenge the scouts and objectively determine their chess knowledge. I don’t know if I’ll be invited back for next year’s merit badge examinations but if I am I’ll have a better idea what to expect, how to better tailor the session, and make chess even more interesting for the scouts.