While I’ve been working hard to build up my youth tournament series in Des Moines, my chess club in Marshalltown at the Salvation Army has been going through a malaise. We usually have a group of six to ten players who drift in or out with a couple of new players each year that end up replacing the players that graduate from high school or otherwise leave town.
I had one new player this year and after a few months he stopped coming. I had gotten him a USCF membership so he could play in our weekly tournaments. He had been playing but not having a lot of success and started to not even play in the tournaments if the one player he could always beat didn’t come to club. It surely didn’t help that in his last tournament his game was the last to finish. As so often happens, the last game of a round garners the attention of everyone whose games are over and this time one of the spectators had a ‘gas’ attack. The offender was asked by the new player to go somewhere else but he refused and kept on ‘gassing’. The new player lost the game and I haven’t seen him since.
Where was the tournament director when all this was going on? I was outside talking to my friend and fellow player Jon McCord (who has been coming to the club almost from day one). I only heard about the incident later and verified it independently. The tournaments are supposed to be fun and informal and I never thought I needed to be a ‘tournament director’ at them and watch over everyone like an authority figure.
It would be easy to point to the incident as the reason I stopped having the weekly tournaments but it was just the ‘icing’ on the cake. I had been planning on stopping them after Thanksgiving for at least a month. In the last few years, having out of town players coming to visit gave the talented young high school players a chance for some stronger competition. This year I have no strong high school players, leaving me as the only competition for the out of town players. My other club players haven’t seemed enthused by the tournaments as much this year as in years past and so to me it seemed like a good time to stop the weekly tournaments and concentrate on trying to get more players from town to come to the club.
The first two weeks without a weekly tournament have been encouraging. Some of the players play and the rest join Jon and I in going over games from my ancient ‘Morphy’s Games of Chess’ book. We play over the games using the ‘Purdy’ method of trying to guess Morphy’s moves and then attempting to figure out why Morphy made the move he did.
To try to drum up some new club members, I sent a letter to the local schools to remind them about the club. This is something I haven’t done in a few years. Occasionally I’ll get some players this way but the schools in Marshalltown all have their own after school activities that get funding based on numbers, which makes them less than eager to promote out of school activities like the chess club. But all it takes is one new member to have a good time and bring a friend or two and the club is repopulated. A few years ago when the Marshalltown Schools couldn’t get two thirds of their students to pass the basic skills test, my letter may have mentioned one of the benefits of chess being a lower rate of recidivism among prison inmates, but since the test scores have started to go up I just stuck to my message about how much fun chess is.
The other way I’m trying to drum up some new members for the club is our fourth straight Christmas chess fund raiser at the Marshall Town Center ‘mall’. The first two years, Matt had a simultaneous exhibition where he took on all comers. It was a lot of fun but for the most part no one except the club members took part. With Matt at college, last year I had a speed chess exhibition where I would play all comers at the time odds of one minute vs. ten. I played about 15 separate people over the course of the 4 hours and only a few of those were club members. It was a lot of fun but I only had one new visitor to the club from the exhibition.
We set up this year’s exhibition at the mall and I sent the local paper a press release last week. Normally the paper just prints my press releases verbatim, but this year they sent a reporter to the club to take pictures and interview me.
The article came out on Sunday and was pretty cool. It played up the fact that I finished second at the State Fair speed chess tournament. While this isn’t seen as much of an accomplishment in Iowa chess circles, the number of my coworkers and acquaintances who told me they saw my name on their TV among the prize winners tells me that this is something that gets recognized. This is likely because it is one of the few times that most people see anything about local chess on television.
Will I get more players coming to the chess club because of the letters and exhibition? History says no, but I am eternally optimistic. One of the few things I know about anything is that I don’t really know anything about anything. In any case, since I received a $50 donation to the Salvation Army in the mail yesterday, the fund-raising part of the exhibition is already off to a big time start.