Sunday, May 27, 2012

School's Out

  Friday was the last day for the St. Francis Chess Club for this school year. There were 32 meetings and I was there for all 32. This is the second year in a row I had ‘perfect attendance’. I was very fortunate that the weather cooperated in letting me get to club throughout the winter in light of the 63 mile drive. There was only one day that I had to drive in the snow to get to class and none where ice was a factor. I’ve driven back and forth from Marshalltown to Des Moines to work for 16 of the past 18 years and when the road between the two towns was one lane in each direction, driving in the snow and ice was pretty scary, but once they made the highway 2 lanes in each direction it is a lot easier to drive because there is no oncoming traffic to worry about sliding into me (and me into them) and since there is 2 lanes I can go as slow as I feel like going because there is a passing lane for the more adventuresome drivers.

My co-coach Chris is fantastic with kids and shares my view that chess is great for them!

  I enjoyed teaching the kids this year. They had a lot of enthusiasm for chess and were very well behaved. I only had to raise my voice twice all year and that is when somebody broke the only rule I have which is to not keep anyone else from playing chess. Most of the time I just kept everyone focused with humor. Once 8 children were playing with their Rubik’s Cubes and I just went over to them and told them it was Chess Club and not Rubik’s Cube Club and that I was sure the Rubik’s Cube Club wouldn’t like it if they started playing chess during their meetings. I got a lot of giggles and a few off looks but I also got the Cubes put away without any trouble.

  Kathy taught my sons chess and I’ve never had any formal training as a teacher so I just tried to use my experiences to guide me in teaching chess and my experience with my kids and at the Salvation Army tells me that the best thing I can do is to get young people to enjoy playing chess and not worry about winning and losing. Then the players who just want to play for fun will be able to play without being bored by openings, pawn structures, opposite colored bishops, etc… and I can show the players who have a desire to get better and play in tournaments how to improve their game without also having to keep the attention of the casual players. If I was charging the parents for their children to attend the club I may have tried to move toward more structured lessons, but since I didn’t charge I saw no reason to force the issue.

  I used the F.O. Armbruster pamphlet as a guide to quickly teach the new players and bribed the club with pins to learn how to win with a queen and king against a king, and a pawn and king against a king, but other than that I just had the kids play in a ladder tournament or casual games and let them show me if they were serious about getting better. I strongly believe the best thing a beginning player can do to get better at chess is to play one game a day at a slow time limit and replay it and find their good and bad moves. This led me to making a rule in February that the players had to write down their games. When we had 3 weeks off in March they got lazy in writing the games down and I got lazy in enforcing the rule, but some players still wrote down the games and I put all the games I had (including my own) into the Internet with my comments. What I found from reviewing the games was that most of the players like to only play with one or two pieces and that they hang pieces and don’t take pieces their opponents leave hanging. These will be 2 of the themes in the summer chess camp and I was able to touch on these points in my games with the club members to show how easy chess can be when one side is playing with 6 pieces and their opponent is only using 2.

  For our last meeting, I thought of bringing treats and juice, but a month ago we had a wellness lunch at work where a nutritionist talked about how much sugar there is in everything we eat. As an example, he showed us the food that a health conscious person would eat in a morning. There was a bowl of Cheerios, a pint of OJ, a Special K snack bar, and a bottle of Vitamin Water. The nutritionist told us how much sugar was in each of these items and as he did so, he took out a baggie full of that amount of sugar and poured in a jar. When he was done, he had a jar full of sugar. I thought I was eating healthy by drinking a big glass of cranberry juice in the morning, 2 bottles of Lipton green tea at work, and a liter of Lipton Iced Tea on the way home but the demonstration got me to look at the sugar content and I was having nearly a pound of sugar a day! I swapped out the cranberry juice for tomato juice and water with a half a lemon for the green and ice tea and I lost over 10 pounds in a month. This convinced me to not bring in treats and snacks for the last club meeting, but when my co-coach Chris came to club with his son, he brought 5 dozen Krispy Kremes and Sunny D and Lemonade!

Left and Right: "mmm Donuts" - Homer Simpson
Center: If a player pulls off a slick checkmate, I snap a picture of it and email it to them.

  Chris was a real blessing to have as my co-coach this year. He is great with kids and is very in tune to how they think since he is also active in the Cub Scouts and Little League, so if he thought it was a good idea to bring in treats for the last meeting I’d have to say he’s more right than me. I didn’t notice any of the kids bouncing around all sugared up and that proved it to me and I’ll have to think harder on how to mix in snacks next year. We had a great last day of club playing chess and everything is now all put away for this school year. I got a few letters and gift cards from the kids and their parents which I appreciated. The gift cards will come and go, but the letters from the kids telling me how much fun they had at club and how much they enjoy chess now will last me a lifetime.

  I don’t push the club members to come to my tournaments since that would go against my core goal of getting them to enjoy chess but I do let them know about the tournaments. I had about 20 of the 58 different club members try their hands at my Saturday youth tournaments. Some only played in the free National Chess Day tournament and some didn’t have the results they expected and didn’t come to another tournament and one even stopped coming to club. That was disappointing, but the top 3 players in the club all placed in the top 5 in the rated tournaments at some point and 4 of the very young players more than held their own in the unrated section. The club members really shone in the Catholic School tournaments, where they won 2 K-6 and 1 K-4 team titles. All these kids have a host of other activities in addition to chess and my goal is to get them to be able to enjoy chess and have a proper foundation of chess knowledge to build on if they decide to take the game up again later, but part of me takes a lot of satisfaction when I see them have success in tournament play.

  It wasn’t always easy dragging myself out of the house at 5:30 to get to St. Francis by 6:45 and spending an hour setting up and taking down the tables, sets, boards, etc. but it was almost always the best part of my week. I’ve already signed to lead next year’s club and I’m already looking forward to September!