Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Log Jam

Could these little trophies cause a problem? Maybe...

  I’ll hold my 24th consecutive monthly youth chess tournament in the Des Moines area in December. I consider this an achievment in consistency and imagination (qualities that rarely go hand in hand). In creating this tournament series, I have constantly been challenged to think outside the box from having an outdoor playing site in the summer to keeping costs down by making my own medals to creating a website with statistics and pictures to devising my own custom rating system. Looking back after two years, these tournaments are a signature piece of work that I am exceedingly proud of, especially considering the state of disrepair the area's youth chess scene was in when I started them.

  From 2006 to 2008, I did the scholastic program for the state chess association and continued their tradition of having 2 of the major tournaments in Des Moines. I also had 3 other youth tournaments a year at the Golden Teapot Chinese Tea House in West Des Moines. When I gave up the state scholastics, the first thing my replacements did was to remove one of the big state tournaments from the Des Moines area and then a local chess teacher went to the Golden Teapot owners and convinced them to let him run chess tournaments there instead of me, but ended up only running 3 adult tournaments and no youth tournaments. Without local tournaments, the remaining state scholastic tournament had poor attendance. The state tournament in February 2010 ended up being the only youth chess tournament in Des Moines in 2010 and was not rescheduled for 2011.

  At that point I started teaching chess at the St. Francis Chess Club in return for the ability to be able to run youth chess tournaments in the cafeteria and decided that I would run monthly youth tournaments. I started this incarnation in January 2011 from scratch with the same format as my Golden Teapot tournaments: 21 trophies in the nationally rated section for a $10 entry fee and medals in the unrated section meant for beginners for a $3 entry fee. I never like to have anyone leave my tournaments empty-handed so I gave out a different participation button at each tournament. I had good attendance and broke even moneywise. As the weather got warmer my attendance shrunk, so for the summer months I rented an outdoor shelter and had quick chess tournaments that lasted from 11 to 1:30 with a $3 entry fee and medal prizes.

  The quick chess tournaments weren’t well attended, but the idea of having a tournament in three hours instead of five or six hours made a lot of sense to me. When I started back at St. Francis in September of 2011, I had separate morning and afternoon three hour tournaments that I called ‘Youth Chess Doubleheaders’.

  The doubleheader idea was and is very popular with the parents of Des Moines chess players. For most of these kids, chess is a hobby. As an all-day activity, it comes behind sports, scouts, and academic pursuits, but is the perfect complement for any of those activities and even if the child is free for the entire day, a half a day of chess is just about the right amount. Only one out of six players stays all day at my tournaments.

  For my doubleheader tournaments, I charged $5 for half a day and $8 for a whole day and everyone got a custom made participation medal (no more buttons). I only gave trophies to the top 5 scoring players in the rated section while the top 5 unrated players would get a printed plate for the back of their medal to show their place. The attendance was outstanding for the entire school year but I was getting more unrated players than rated players so in 2012 I decided to give out trophies for the unrated players as well as the rated players.

  In 2011, the top unrated players would more often than not get a USCF membership and try their luck against the better players. Almost all would struggle at first against stiffer competition. Many would rise to the challenge and take an occasional turn among the rated trophy winners while the very few players that could not compete in the new level of competition would go back to playing in the unrated section. That is the scenario I envisioned when I decided on the format of an experienced and beginner section – beginning players having a place to compete in tournaments, have success, and then move on to the next level. In the summer I went back outdoors for medal prizes and a minimal entry fee and was back at St. Francis in September.

  Adding the trophies for the beginning players has led to an unintended consequence. In my last 3 indoor tournaments I still have many more players competing in the beginner section than the experienced section and I’ve only had a couple of unrated prize winners move up to the rated section. The rest of the beginner prize winners are content to stay in their section and have an easier path to a trophy. The pool of experienced players is shrinking. The real beginner players are getting discouraged in their first few tournaments because they have to take on experienced players that haven’t moved into a higher section because they’re gunning for a trophy. And the players that are winning the beginner trophies aren’t improving as quickly as they could because they’re not playing stronger competition.

  Even though the attendance at my last 3 tournaments has been comparable to last years, I can see signs of decay and discouragement due to the log jam of players in the beginner section that are not only flooding my beginner tournaments but also drying out the experienced section.

  I was thinking that once new players found some success in the beginner section they would naturally want to test themselves against stronger competition. It hasn’t been the case. I’m not sure whether it’s the security of knowing they’ll be one of the better players in their section, the insecurity of facing the possibility of stepping up in class and losing a lot, not being able to afford the USCF membership, or just wanting to win a trophy keeping the players from moving up. The coolness of my trophies this fall is likely a contributing factor. Instead of getting trophies with chess pieces on top, I got Halloween Trophies in October with a witch & pumpkin on top and Thanksgiving trophies for November with a turkey on top and next month I’ll be having Santa trophies like last year!

  I’d been noodling around with a number of possible solutions to encourage or enforce a migration. I could stop giving out trophies in the beginner section and lower their entry fees; give the winner a USCF membership and not allow them to play in the beginner section for a few months; make the rated section trophies more attractive than the beginner trophies, etc… I’ve also toyed with the idea of getting rid of the trophies for everybody and try to guide the tournaments back into the realm of fun (playing for the enjoyment of it) instead of the realm of victory (winning the trophy). I know that you can never completely eliminate victory from a competition, but reducing the spoils to a sticker on a medal will diminish it severely.

  I consider this a pretty big decision as far as running youth chess tournaments go (although not on the order of choosing which Harvard educated millionaire will lead the country). I asked one of my youth players who wins the occasional trophy in the rated tournaments and he told me that he thought it was cool to have a chance at a trophy. I’ve asked a couple of non-chess people that work with kids and they told me that they don’t see a problem. I don’t have to make any decisions until next month, so I’ll be able to gather more opinions and think it through. I agree that it is cool to have a chance at a trophy but I disagree that there isn’t a problem. I’ve seen so many players give up playing when they see the prizes for the select few out of their reach and I think I have a whole group of players near that tipping point.