I had my chess camp in Des Moines two weeks ago. It was the fourth straight year I've conducted one. I started the camp when a few of the chess parents at my youth tournaments asked me if I knew of a lower cost chess camp than the $400+ USA chess camp that was then held in Des Moines. I got together with professional chess teacher (and 2012 Iowa chess champion) José Gatica and we designed a two-day chess camp in the summer of 2011. My son Matt (an expert player) helped us and we had 17 campers who paid $75 each for two days of camp, a T-shirt, some chess merchandise (scorebooks, pens, certificate, etc…), and as much Sunny D, apple juice, cheese crackers, fruit cups, and pudding cups as they could consume. We all had a great time and the camp was considered a success by all concerned. The camp was held at the West Des Moines Learning Resource Center which provided a huge room that we could split in two sections for $75 a day. The facility manager was delighted to have us and promised that next year we could have the camp there again so we did.
I learned a lot in the first camp. I learned that kids prefer Sunny D to apple juice by a 2 to 1 margin, will never eat pepper jack cheese crackers when plain cheese crackers are available, any kind of pudding trumps any kind of fruit cup, and it's impossible to eat a fruit cup without the syrupy stuff in the fruit cups spilling all over the place. I also learned that while young players can concentrate three hours during my youth chess tournaments, 90 minutes is the upper limit of their attention watching or participating in a group chess lesson or activity. José knew that but I didn’t and ever since I've scheduled outside or activity time to keep the kids from getting bored.
The 2012 camp had a few changes in addition to snack selections and scheduling play time. I decided to not have t-shirts and chess giveaway stuff and lowered the cost of the camp to $50 for anyone who came to my tournaments or went to José’s clubs. Matt took a job as an instructor at one of the other week long chess camps in the state so I needed a new instructor. Luckily I got Bethany Carson to agree to be an instructor. As a multiple state scholastic champion, Bethany had the chess credentials and has turned out to be as great a teacher as I suspected she would be. She's also a great role model and close enough in age to the campers that they relate to her better than José or me. I got more help when Jingyang Li volunteered the services of his son Frank to work at the camp. Frank was a talented 6th grade chess player and much stronger than any of the campers. Frank helped me drag out the snacks in the morning and clean up at night and he helped with some of the lessons. I didn’t know Frank was going to be helping until two months before the camp and I’d never seen him give a lesson so I didn’t assign him anything more to do which was a mistake. Without any specific tasks during the camp Frank acted like more one of the campers and would participate in the lectures. He was so much more advanced than the other campers that they had trouble understanding his questions and since he is about as strong a player as me I didn’t have ready answers to some of the tricky variations he would come up with when I was showing what I thought were simple examples to the campers.
There were over 30 campers and the camp was a creative and financial success but when I went to book the Learning Resource Center for 2013 the facility manager had retired and his replacement told me that the building was under renovation and I could rent a cafeteria at a West Des Moines school as long as I would pay $25 an hour for a ‘custodian’ to be on the premises. When I rented school cafeterias for tournaments I paid for ‘custodians’,whose duties were to lock and unlock the doors and hand me a broom so I could sweep up when the tournament was over. That’s not 100% true - once a ‘custodian’ looked for an extension cord and another time one gave me some empty garbage bags to put in the trash cans after I emptied the trash. On the bright side, I found the ‘custodians’ exceptionally well read citizens who could discuss current events from ‘People’ magazine and the ‘Weekly World News’ verbatim. I was OK with the ‘custodian’ cost but then I was told I needed event insurance. While I was getting event insurance I was told I had to order my snacks through the school catering service. I was going to ask if the school would have air conditioning on but I was afraid I'd be told air (conditioned or not) would cost extra. This led me to look for a new site for the camp in 2013.
In 2013 I was helping the Des Moines YMCA get a chess club started and they offered me 2 rooms for the chess camp. There was the room that would hold about 2 dozen campers where we had the chess club meetings and a room next door that was even larger. The day I accepted the offer to have the camp at the YMCA I received an invitation to have the camp at the parish hall at St. Mary in Des Moines but I had already accepted the YMCA offer. The YMCA was in what is considered a bad neighborhood in Des Moines (although it would be considered a fine neighborhood in my hometown of Hillside, New Jersey) which concerned some of the parents. Some were especially concerned when there was a shooting a few blocks away from the YMCA early on a Sunday morning but once it was understood that I went there every week for a chess club and that the camp wasn’t going to be held early on a Sunday morning the concerns melted away.
I had over 35 campers signed up and had invited the players that attended the YMCA club to participate without a fee. I was looking at a full house. I’m the paranoid sort so almost every week I checked with the YMCA coordinators to make sure about using the rooms for the camp and almost every week I was assured there was no problem until the day before the camp when I was told that there was a problem and large room was unavailable. In addition to the small room I had a choice of two even smaller rooms: a nice board room on the second floor with no way for the campers to play chess facing each other or a tiny room in the back of the building that was used for computer testing and filled with computers. I chose the small room in the back and got to the Y early the next day and spent two hours taking apart the computer equipment and stacking it up in an orderly fashion and laying out the tables for what turned out to be a ‘Des Moines Chess Cramp’.
Bethany and José and I all did lessons and lectures like the year before and Frank did a lecture on the Sicilian defense. The camp went well in a technical sense but everything was so cramped it was uncomfortable. When we put everyone into one room for the bughouse tournament there was barely any room to breathe. I brought some rectangular tables from home but even so there weren’t enough square tables and some of the campers had to use round or oval tables. I was pretty upset that I didn’t get the rooms I expected but since then I’ve seen other events at the YMCA that use the meeting rooms and they all had a fraction of the people they expected. I came to understand that it was the norm for the event plans to be much bigger than the event reality at this YMCA and when I said I was having over forty people (including parents) their experience led them to believe I would have closer to four. The people at the YMCA were sheepish when it turned out that as many campers attended as I told them would but by that point it was too late to arrange for me to use the large room. We muddled through and the camp was hardly a disaster but it wasn’t nearly as much fun for the campers and I was stressed out from start to finish.
I hadn’t planned on doing the camp this year but I don’t plan on doing the camp any year until parents start asking me when the camp will be and then I start arranging it. That happened around February this year. I expected that I wouldn’t have as big a crowd as I had last year due to the problems of last year’s camp. In retail past experiences affect future sales and even if I was going to have the 2014 camp at the Taj Majal or Trump Towers there were going to be parents that were not going to have their children attend. A chess parent arranged for me to us the same St. Mary parish hall that I passed up last year and when I checked it out I was kicking myself for not looking at it in 2013. It is a spectacular location with plenty of rectangular tables, a large room that could be subdivided in any number of ways, and plenty of grassy areas for the kids to run around in. I did my normal advertising and ended up with 26 campers (not including 3 that signed up and didn’t attend).
This year’s camp was smooth from start to finish. We made a number of small changes that I thought helped and helped a lot. At last year’s camp I had scheduled myself to teach a lesson at the beginning of the first day but there were so many late arriving campers that I was constantly being interrupted getting people settled in, collecting money, etc… I got smart this year and didn’t schedule myself to start the camp with a lesson and that gave me a chance to properly get the late arriving campers acclimated. I gave Frank extra responsibility this year by having him give two lessons and he embraced the responsibility. One lesson was a repeat of a lesson from three years ago and Frank could have just given it but he completely rewrote it and came up with some new twists.
In previous years I had the students divided into an advanced and intermediate section but this year José wanted to call them the ‘serious’ and ‘fun’ group which made a lot of sense. What I called the ‘advanced’ group were the stronger campers who would go over complete games and harder concepts while the ‘intermediate’ group would go over basic concepts. Splitting the groups by ability was a good idea but calling a group advanced put pressure on some of the campers to be in the advanced group so they wouldn’t feel ‘unadvanced’. José’s idea to have serious and fun groups made perfect sense. It clearly delineated what the groups were about and was easily explainable: the serious group would spend more time thinking about complicated positions and the fun group would go over things lightly and have a few more activities. There was no pressure on anyone to be ‘advanced’ and some of the campers went back and forth as the mood suited them.
My other little change happened the day before the camp when I went to the Staples to get my certificates printed and wandered over to the nearby Dollar Tree once I was done. I have always had a fascination with Dollar Stores where a dollar can get you anything in the store! Even with a dollar price tag some merchandise is overpriced but there are plenty of bargains. The Dollar Tree in West Des Moines even has a refrigerated and frozen food section. I saw a number of items that I thought would be good gag gifts for the campers. I got some straw hats, air filled squishy balls that lit up when you threw then, tiny wind-up toys that would walk or roll, and giant eyeglasses.
I wanted to test the reaction to the Dollar Tree items so as soon as all the campers arrived and were settled down I sat in on Frank’s lecture to the ‘fun’ group. As soon as someone raised their hand and answered a question correctly I said ‘Hey, you’re on the ball!’ and threw them a squishy ball. As soon as I did that most of the kids started raising their hands so they could get something also but on the first camp day I was frugal and gave very few items away. One camper was talking all the time so I told him he was ‘wound up’ and gave him a wind-up fish that would scoot across the desk. That was probably a mistake because while he did stop talking the whirring noise of the wind-up fish was an able auditory replacement and he got his dollars’ worth out of the toy. On my way home I picked up more fine ‘Dollar Tree’ items and was very generous about giving them out on the second day of the camp.
Of the four camps I've done this year's was the most fun. José, Bethany, Frank, Julie (camp nurse), and I are in our third year together and operated like a well-oiled machine. Frank has grown into his role as instructor and gave the campers another role model close to their age they can relate to. The facility was awesome, the kids bright and well behaved, the lessons worked well together, and the dollar store items added a welcome goofiness missing from previous camps. I got more positive feedback from the parents than ever but I did get a number of complaints from kids who got a hat but wanted a wind-up toy or got a giant pair of glasses but wanted a hat, etc..., etc..., etc... I told them all the same thing – “don’t complain – you got the most expensive thing in the store!” I don't know if it was a perfect chess camp but it was excellent and while perfection is a fools errand, excellence is a worthy goal.