Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Competition’s Edge

Is getting a medal for participating and winning a ribbon enough to keep kids playing chess?

  On Saturday I held my first youth chess tournament at St. Francis since I made the decision not to have trophy prizes. As has been the case this school year, I had very few entries until the day before the tournament when I got a flood of entries to give me a total of 56 players (48 youth and eight parents). As a way of comparison, last January I had 69 players (54 youth and 15 parents). So it was a small drop off in players and a large drop off in parents.

  My performance as the tournament director was on the south side of competent. I wasn’t at the top of my game and made two major mistakes. One was something I did wrong and the other was something I didn’t do right. My sin of commission came when I entered a wrong result but it was caught by one of the players before the next round and no harm was done. The other mistake I made was one of omission. I didn’t notice that the only rated game left in a morning round until 11:10 didn’t have a clock (I bought new clocks and thought I’d given them to all the rated players). The game was going to last another 15 minutes and I really wanted the other players to get one more game in so I adjourned the game and had the players play it after the final round. It was uncomfortable but everyone understood and was happy to get the extra game in.

  Whatever my shortcomings as a tournament director were on Saturday, they were overcome by what I consider a stellar performance as the tournament organizer. For starters, I remembered everyone’s name except 2 players. When a game ended in a stalemate, I would sit the players down and explain how the stronger side could have gotten a checkmate. When I had an odd number of players in the afternoon session, I’d play a game with the odd person and go over some basic points of chess like developing pieces, controlling the center, and explaining simple tactics. This invariably drew a crowd of beginner players and their parents who got a lesson equal to any I gave at my chess camp last summer. When Tim McEntee (the life master and three time state chess champion from Ankeny) stopped by, I was able to introduce him to three first time tournament players from Ankeny. When kids learn chess in addition to playing and also make connections to other chess resources in the area, I like to think I’ve not only put on a tournament, I’ve raised awareness of chess in the area and that is an A+ job in my book.

No matter the prize,
checkmate is still checkmate!
  On the financial side, I had 36 players pay $3 for the morning or afternoon, 12 players pay $5 for both tournaments, and a $5 donation for a net of $173. I printed 56 medals at an estimated cost of $1.75 (including ink), $20 for ribbons, $13 to the national office for rating the tournament, and another $13 for a membership I bought a player to even out the sections for $144 in expenses. So without charging anyone more than $5, I paid for my gas and my lunch to boot.

  Not having trophies led to some disappointment on the part of the kids, but without the incentive some players moved from the unrated to the rated section and once the tournament started everyone forgot about the prizes and got to the business of chess. Instead of being asked by the players if their score was going to be good enough to win a trophy, I got asked which place ribbon the players would get if they won their last game. It was the same question and the players still wanted a ribbon with a higher place but I noticed a distinct lessening of the disappointment on the part of the players who finished outside the top ten for a ribbon as opposed to the players who just missed winning a trophy in prior months. The competition was still there but not nearly as edgy as before.

  One thing I’ll never know is how many people skipped my tournament because I didn’t offer any trophies this month. I was very upfront in my broadcast email so there wouldn’t be any surprises and I didn’t receive any feedback one way or the other. My son Matt teaches chess at three schools in Ames and he told me that not having the trophies was a risky move because many of the parents he talked to this week told him they preferred to drive 100 miles to play in a tournament in Cedar Rapids that had over 40 trophies instead of driving 30 miles to Des Moines for a tournament with no trophies.

  That’s all fine with me. I know quite a bit about the allure of chess trophies and I also know a little about selling victory as opposed to selling fun. I’ve also seen too many kids give up chess when they just miss out on a trophy one too many times. It comes down to a matter of values. I got an email on a Wednesday in October about a youth tournament that was to be held that Saturday. It was a tournament where the players competed against other players in their own grade. The email said that there were trophies and medals guaranteed down to sixth place and that no grade had more than 6 entrants. The email went on to say (and I quote) “This is a great opportunity to pick up a trophy or medal”. The value of that tournament was clearly placed on winning. Since the tournament ended up with as many as 14 participants in some grades, I wonder what a parent who read that email and took their child to the tournament but didn’t finish sixth or better to earn a prize will think about going to future chess tournaments.

  I value participation and I give each participant a custom medal. Some of the parents told me that their children have started collecting the medals and look forward to seeing what I’ll come up with next. I would hope that by valuing participation over victory I will attract players and parents who will value participating more than they value winning. The players who value victory above participation will eventually either move on to tournaments with even bigger and Bigger and BIGGER trophies or be overtaken by other players for trophies and stop playing chess when the trophy river runs dry anyway. And despite saying all that, I’m still planning on having trophies in the fall because the Halloween witch, Thanksgiving turkey, and Christmas Santa trophies are just too cool not to give out.

The prize winners seem happy enough, but time will tell...

  Getting rid of the trophies is not the same as getting rid of the competition. I’m just trying to blur the line between victory and defeat. Where there are people there will always be competition. Last Friday at the St. Francis Chess Club, I put a puzzle on the board and the players tried to solve it. As each player solved the puzzle, Tim or I would write their name on the board. The first person to solve the puzzle was first grader Jake. I wrote his name on the board with a ‘happy face’ next to it. I happened to draw Jake’s happy face with circles for eyes and the next few with dots for eyes. When someone asked why, I joked that Jake’s happy face had circles for eyes because he was the first to solve the puzzle. Tim and I kept writing down names and happy faces and then Jake came up to me and he was not happy. I asked him what was wrong and he took me to the board, stabbed his finger to a name way at the bottom of the board whose happy face had circles for eyes and said ‘You said I was the only one that would have circles for eyes!!!’

  Speaking of competition, if last weekend’s NFL playoff games were only 59 minutes and 30 seconds long instead of the full 60 minutes, I’d have gone 4-0 and been ahead an extra $710. Instead, the Falcons and Ravens dramatic wins left me $10 down for the week and $90 ahead for the playoffs. As usual, I’m betting the money line using the odds at from the Yahoo odds page and as always, this is not real gambling and don’t try this at home using real money.

49ers (-215) at Falcons (-185)
Which 49er team will show up in Atlanta on Sunday? The team that gave up 21 points to the Packers in the first half last week or the team that only gave up a field goal and a meaningless last minute touchdown in the second half? And which Falcon team will show up? The juggernaut that burst to a 27-7 lead against the Seahawks? The team that gave that lead away in the fourth quarter in what could have been one of the all-time classic chokes? Or the team that put together a game winning drive in the last 30 seconds to pull the game out? I think now that the Falcons have won their playoff game, they won’t have the same intensity to muster the effort needed to beat a San Francisco team that has been driven to get to the Super Bowl after falling just short last year. I’ll bet $215 to win $100 that the 49ers win in Atlanta to get to the Super Bowl.

Ravens (+325) at Patriots (-395)
Raven’s quarterback Joe Flacco looked like an All-Pro against the Broncos last weekend. He made good decisions and made great passes in the clutch. The Raven’s defense also looked good in holding Peyton Manning’s Broncos to 21 points in Denver (Denver got 14 points on kick returns). The Patriots looked less than impressive in beating the Texans, but did play mistake free football. My gut says to take the Ravens with the odds, but my head says that Patriot coach Bill Belichick will be able to slow down the Ravens suddenly high powered just offense enough to win the game and I’ll bet $395 on the Patriots to win $100.