Wednesday, April 2, 2014

For the Love of the Game (or a Merit Badge)

  If I had to pick my busiest chess month of the year I’d have to pick either April or August. I always have a monthly youth tournament, but the last 5 Aprils (and this April also) I've directed the Okoboji Open and the last two Augusts I've headed up to Jackson, MN to play in Sam’s Jackson Open in addition to 4 consecutive years of attempting to win the elusive blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair (which I finally earned last year, thank you very much!) in August. I don't know what the rest of this year will bring but I think March of 2014 in general and the past week in particular will be hard to top for busy chess weeks and months.

I played Qc4 here instead of Qb3.Oh the horror...
This is covered in Chapter 2 'Why You Lose Material'
...under 'Negligence'
  On Saturday March 22nd, I headed off to Des Moines for my 39th consecutive monthly youth tournament. After 3+ years I think I finally have the right mix of prizes and entry fees to attract the type of players I want to have at my tournaments – players that want to have a good time more than they need to win. The more I run these tournaments the more I’m of the opinion that players (and parents) that only have a good time when they win are like a disease that infect the rest of the players (and parents) and drive away less skilled players before they start to understand the game and show the improvement that most young players eventually do. Maybe that is due to my splitting the tournaments into morning and afternoon sessions that cater to the casual player instead of the hardcore ones. In any event, I have a group of players that enjoy the tournaments, parents that appreciate the tournaments, and almost everyone appreciates my running them.

  The group of parents that I played against in the Parents section of the tournament was especially appreciative of me since my play was in a word, awful. In my first game I managed to win a pawn but allowed my opponent to trade down to a bishop of opposite colors ending for a draw and then when I was a pawn up in the second game I just hung my queen. There was no time for a third game which was a good thing for me because I probably have found a way to swallow a chess piece and literally choke on it since I had already choked twice figuratively.

  On Thursday March 27th, I left work a little early like I always do and headed to the Marshalltown Salvation Army building for our weekly chess club at 5pm as I have for all but two dozen or so Thursdays over the past 13 years. We have a group of 6 to 12 players that get together each week to play. Over the past few months I've had a few new adult players come to the club lured by the publicity generated by the speed chess exhibition I put on in December and the expert tournament in February. Like all but a handful of the adults that have come to club over the last decade plus, they don’t mind losing to adults but when they find that they can’t beat the younger players every single time they don’t come to club anymore.

A typical evening at the Marshalltown Chess Club... chess players having a good time playing chess.

  When I run into these adults in town and ask then why they stopped coming to club, they tell me that they are busy with work and they’ll get to club when they get a chance even though we both know they won't. I wish they understood how good some of these kids that come to my club are, especially Zach and Seth. While they have never gotten hardcode enough about the game to write down the moves or practice on the internet, they both love to play at club and each notched their fair share of scalps against the adult out of town players that would compete in the speed chess tournaments I used to hold. When I have the white pieces against these two I play the King's Gambit to get a wild game and hopefully to get them to play the King’s Gambit themselves (an unfulfilled hope so far). Here a couple of games I’ve played against them over the past two weeks.

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of

  Ten hours after getting home from club I was leaving the house on Friday morning to head to St. Francis of Assisi to help with their weekly chess club, which I do for free in return for the ability to run a monthly chess tournament in their cafeteria. This is my fourth year at St. Francis and third year as the head coach. Normally heading to St. Francis wouldn't be something I’d write about but since there was no school the past two Fridays for spring break it felt weird to be leaving the house at 5:30.

Puzzle time at St. Francis!
  Working with the kids at St. Francis is the best part of my week. Only a dozen or so of the 60 different players that have shown up early have played in my monthly tournaments this year and that’s fine with me. These kids get up early on Friday to play chess and my goal is for them to have fun, not to play in my tournaments. Every year I send a letter to the parents saying if they are interested in my gearing the club to compete in the state scholastic tournaments to let me know because the club will have a lot more teaching and a lot less playing. I rarely receive a response to the letter but when I do it always says not to worry about scholastic competitions and keep the kids having fun, which fits right in with what I like to do.

  Having a fun club doesn't mean that there isn’t any competition. I have a ladder structure set up to encourage higher ranked players to accept challenges from lower ranked players because a loss will only drop them one spot instead of switching places on the ladder (a lower ranked winner moves half way up to the higher rated player). While most players aren't interested in their ranking most of the top 20 players check out their ranking as soon as they arrive. Now that the NCAA tournament is in full swing I divided the players into groups of 16 with each group having their own version of ‘March Madness’. Each week I setup two puzzles on my demo boards for the kids to solve. I know a player is serious when they try to solve the puzzles every week. At the end of the year I’ll have a club only tournament where everyone gets a trophy. The trophies are all the same size but some will say first, second, and third for different grade groups. The two dozen or so competitive kids will happily fight for the slightly different trophies and all the rest of the kids will be happy to play and get a trophy. It is the perfect end of the year tournament since almost everyone leaves happy.

  After chess clubs on Thursday night and Friday morning and no tournament to run on Saturday I would normally have had a day off from chess except that I had volunteered to be the chess merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts Tamaha district (TAma, MArshall, and HArdin counties – get it?). I was the merit badge counselor two years ago (and wrote about it here) so I had a good idea what was expected of me. According to the Boy Scout handbook, “Merit badges exist to encourage Scouts to explore areas that interest them and to teach them valuable skills in Scoutcraft”. I think that a big incentive for the scouts to get merit badges is that 21 of them are a requirement for becoming an Eagle Scout. The requirements for a chess merit badge can be fairly rigid. The scouts must know each piece by name and how they move, understand the history of the game, be able to demonstrate different types of tactical maneuvers, write down the moves of a game, perform a checkmate with two rooks against a king, and solve 5 direct mate puzzles.

NO, that isn't the biker merit badge class on the left - just the Corner Tap crowd in beautiful downtown Marshalltown, Iowa! 4 blocks away at the Racom building is where the Boy Scouts merit badge day was being held. Here are the scouts eating lunch before the chess class.

  My co-coach at St. Francis, Chris, is a Scout leader and I mentioned to him that I thought that to get the merit badge a scout should just have to play in tournaments and get a rating of 1200 (the beginner threshold). Chris said a merit badge should only take between 40 and 60 hours or work and study and that wasn’t nearly enough time for a Scout to get to a 1200 rating. That gave me a different perspective of what I should expect from the 29 scouts that would be trying to get the merit badge on this Saturday afternoon.

  Just like two years ago, the chess merit badge examination was part of the troops Merit Badge day at the Racom building which is one block away from the Salvation Army where we have our chess club. I got to the building a half hour early to set up but the room I was going to be using was full of scouts eating lunch so I had to wait until the 1 o’clock start time to set up the room. I had 2 helpers : Allen, a scout who already had a chess merit badge, and Aaron who was my helper two years ago and had another child getting a merit badge this year. We set up the tables in three rows and laid out the boards and laid a bag of pieces on each board.

  Once the scouts were seated, I introduced myself and asked them to each set up their board. The scouts all set up the board more or less correctly with some of the players mixing up the king and queen. I then went to the demo board and pointed out what the king and queen were on the demo board since that often confuses players that haven’t seen a demonstration board.

  I explained what we were going to do for the next three and a half hours and asked if there were any questions. Three scouts asked when they were going to play chess. I explained that playing was not a large part of the agenda since they were there to demonstrate specific skills and that if they wanted to play they could come to the chess club next door any Thursday which was not much help to the scouts who traveled from Des Moines, Fort Dodge, and Eldora to get their merit badge. Some of the scouts seemed disappointed they wouldn't just play chess for three hours to get their merit badge but they were well behaved and paid attention as we talked about the history of chess.

  Most of the scouts knew that the game originated in India but not one knew Magnus Carlsen was the World Champion. I was stunned that no one knew but it is understandable since it wasn't one of the requirements and not in the guide book like where the game originated. I moved on to have the scouts set up some positions on their boards and demonstrate that they knew how to make legal moves with the pieces. Some of the scouts had trouble with the knight and en passant captures but otherwise they demonstrated they knew how the pieces moved to my satisfaction.

  I then talked a little more about how to develop pieces in the opening and discussed the Scholar’s Mate and the Fool’s Mate (part of the requirements were to know those two) and how not to get checkmated like that. At this point it was a little past 2 and it was time to get the scouts to demonstrate they knew how to checkmate a king with 2 rooks and a king.

This bright young scout set up the puzzles on a board
and was the first to complete the requirement!
  The scouts all set up their boards and Aaron, Allen, and I each took a row and let the scouts try to checkmate us in ‘simul’ fashion going from board to board making a move. I had the back row and it was quickly apparent that not one of the scouts knew how to do the checkmate. I went to the demo board and put up the final mating position to show them what they were aiming for and that helped half the row get the checkmate. I didn't give anyone any moves but I explained the concept of getting the rooks as far away from the king as possible and that was enough to help the rest of the scouts finish the task.

  It was now 2:45 and time for the next task which was for the scouts to demonstrate that they could write down the moves of a game. I asked who already knew how to write down the moves and only two campers said they did (the rest must not have gotten very far in their guide books) so I taught them my two minute method for writing down the moves and had them pair up and play, telling them that when they completed 15 moves to come to me and I’d review their scoresheets. I was pleasantly surprised to see that almost all the scouts were able to record the games using my method and I only had to make a few play another game because they didn't understand that they had to write down the moves for BOTH sides.

  As soon as each scout demonstrated they could write down the moves, I gave them eight checkmate puzzles and told them they had to solve five of them to complete their merit badge requirements. I told them that five of the puzzles were one move checkmates but I didn't tell them which ones. Barely any of the scouts had a clue on how to solve the puzzles. After 15 minutes I told them which five puzzles were the ones with the one move checkmates. A few could solve the puzzles after that but most were still struggling so I gave them one final hint and told them that in a one move checkmate puzzle the answer MUST be a check so they would be well served to examine all their checks. At that point I played games against the players that completed the puzzles, giving some instruction and checking puzzle sheets as they were brought up to me. By the time 4:30 rolled more than half the campers had solved five puzzles and received their merit badges. If the other scouts return the sheets to me or any scout leader they can still get their merit badges. Here are the eight puzzles with White to move and mate in 1, 2, or 3 moves in all of them. You can let me know in the comments if you think I made the puzzles too hard or not.

I gave two of these puzzles to my St. Francis players and almost all the players solved a mate in one puzzle instantaneously while the top dozen players easily solved a mate in three move puzzle.

  I had a great time working with the scouts, they seemed to have a good time, and maybe one or two will come to my chess club but I was struck by how unprepared they were. The players at my tournaments play because they like to compete and the players at the Marshalltown Chess Club and the St. Francis Chess Club play because they like to play, but it seemed to me the scouts were only at the chess board Saturday to get a merit badge with the least amount of work. The scouts were well behaved, enthusiastic, and very quick learners but the fact is that only one or two of them walked in knowing how to write down moves, most didn’t understand how to checkmate with two rooks against a king, and almost half weren't able to solve relatively simple checkmate puzzles. And these were known requirements! Maybe I've been spoiled by the players at my chess clubs and tournaments but if the effort these scouts put into getting this chess merit badge is indicative of all the merit badges I’m thinking there should be a merit badge for getting merit badges.

No comments: