Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conflicts In Coaching

  I have two weeks off from teaching chess at the St. Francis Chess Club since there is no school next Friday and the week after is spring break. Attendance at the club is down a little from last year. We regularly had between 40 and 50 players last year and this year 30 to 40 players is the norm. A quick eyeball analysis shows me that the missing players are the seventh graders who go to the high school for advanced math in the mornings and the very casual players who came to the club last year to hang out with their friends and stack the pieces up. Having 30 to 40 kids willing to wake up early to come to chess club is an indicator not only of what a fun game chess is, but also a sign that the way the club is set up is on the right track. The players receive buttons for demonstrating basic skills, get a tricky puzzle to solve each week, and a ladder tournament to provide a ranking to compete for. I would love to have a 15 minute lesson to begin the club but with an early morning club that has the members arrive anytime between 7:15 and 7:45 a structured lesson would be too prone to distractions. Besides, since these kids will be in class all day I see no reason to make them have to sit around and listen to me to start their day.

  I help run the chess club in return for being able to run a monthly tournament during the school year, and many of the Saint Francis club players have been competing in the tournaments. A few of the players compete in the rated section, but the unrated (or beginner section) is perfect for most of the players to get a few games in and not be overmatched. Having a Saint Francis player make the top five in the rated or unrated tournaments used to be a rarity, but this school year we’ve had four winners of the unrated section and one rated section champion. The parents like to give me and my co-coaches Tim (the 3 time state champ and life master) and Chris credit for this, but I know it’s mostly due to natural improvement as players and getting the hang of competitive chess where every game is important to the final standing.

  I like to say I teach by not teaching. It sounds very Zen and Yoda like, but there is more than a kernel of truth to it. I don’t have any philosophy for teaching chess except to try to understand what the motivation is for the student to improve and to figure out what kind of person they are (conservative, aggressive, reckless, shy, etc…). Most of the kids at St. Francis just want to enjoy playing so I try to teach them how not to lose in the beginning of the game and how to checkmate with an extra queen because I’ve found players are more likely to get discouraged when they lose quickly or they fail to win even when they get a queen or two ahead. If a player is more serious about getting better I try to get them to write down the games so I can look them over and see what they’re trying to do and how they're trying to do it. Very few players write down their moves, but when they do I know they are serious about improving. One of the Saint Francis players who always wrote his moves down is Zack. I was able to get a good feel for his style, which to put it mildly is an extreme caveman style. Zack used to always go for the four move checkmate and if his opponent blocked it, sacrifice a piece or two or more until he either checkmated his opponent or had nothing left to fight with. I tried to show Zack that by getting more pieces involved before he went caveman he’d develop better attacks and beat better players without changing his style and gave him some opening ideas to give away pawns to get his pieces out. Zack hasn’t been able to come to chess club this year because he is one of the unlucky seventh graders who gets to go to the high school for advanced math class, but he still plays in tournaments, still writes down the moves, was the first Saint Francis player to win one of my monthly youth tournaments (in February), and beat me in a casual game at a parochial school tournament.

  Not only am I helping teach the kids at St. Francis, I also have a ‘private student’, Alex. I gave Alex some lessons last summer in return for his mom helping at my chess camp and found I enjoyed it so we have continued the lessons through the fall and winter. Alex plays a few games a week on the internet and every other week I review his games and go over them with him. When I started working with Alex, he would retreat or trade pieces whenever given a chance and would hardly ever go on the offensive. Alex is very smart and is good at calculating variations so I showed him in his games how he could be a little more aggressive about getting his pieces out and pointed out key spots in his games where he or his opponent missed a tactic and asked him to find it. He would almost always find the tactic and helped me get him to realize that if he got his pieces out and looked for tactics he should be confident in his ability to out calculate his opponent and if he saw something that he thought would work to go for it. He had a setback ironically enough by winning a tournament in August. I think he felt a lot of pressure to win every tournament after that and went 4-9 the rest of 2012. I made it a point in our lessons that I saw a lot of improvement in his online games and that what happens on any particular tournament day has a large element of randomness. Alex has found a new level this year. He has gone 9-5 so far in 2013, but the thing that has most impressed me is that he is constantly on the lookout for tactics in his game and doesn’t get discouraged by a loss – he just keeps on fighting.

  My son Matt is quickly becoming one of Iowa’s premiere chess teachers. He coaches one 3 elementary schools in Ames (including this year’s K-6 and K-3 state team champions) and has a number of paying students. I’m very proud that he has found so much success and at the same time admit to taking a special delight when one of my students beats one of his in a tournament, but I’m very conflicted when players I like square off at one of my tournaments. Aside from Alex, Zack and the other St. Francis players, there are all the other players that are regulars at my monthly tournaments and chess camps that I have gotten to talk chess to over the past 2 and a half years. I just do my best to remain impartial, let the game play itself out, and be happy for the winner and sympathetic to the loser of the individual contest.

  At the February afternoon tournament, Zack and Alex were both playing. In the second round, Zack lost to Daniel, a very talented second grader from Ames who won the morning tournament and in the third round it was Alex’s turn to play Daniel. Daniel got a good game out of the opening, but Alex found a tactical shot to win a piece. Daniel posed a lot of problems even a piece down but Alex kept a cool head and won the best game I ever saw him play. Then in the fourth round Alex and Zack squared off. If Alex won he would guarantee first place and if Zack won he would set up a 3 way tie for first.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  Alex and Zack both played well above their rating. It was a wild game and I would have been happy to see them draw. We had time for one more round and since the three leaders already played each other, they got to play some lower ranked opponents. Zack and Daniel won their games but Alex was spent from his efforts and lost his last round game. It was a shame he didn’t get a share of the championship but I tried to impress on him that he played his best game ever and the improvement was the important thing. He was upset with the last round loss but has started playing more chess on the internet than ever before and the quality of the games has taken another leap. I can see these two pushing each other for years to come.