The annual CalChess State Scholastic Championships take place next weekend. As a chess coach, I spend my time preparing juniors for the most challenging weekend of their lives. What role do the parents have? How should a parent behave at a chess tournament?
To start out, you should prepare your child with the necessary food and rest before and during the weekend. Make sure to get plenty of sleep; an extra hour of sleep will help a lot during the last games at the end of each long day. Of course, the kids need something big and healthy to eat for breakfast (very important) and between each game. Those players in the older sections tend to have longer games and may wish to take a bottle of water and a small snack (chocolate, candy, or gum) with them for each round.
Somewhat more challenging is to strike a balance between keeping your child focused between rounds while not draining all their energy. Refrain from chess activities, except for reviewing the tournament games briefly with a coach or a computer. Avoid blitz and bughouse between rounds because both games cause the children to play impulsively instead of carefully thinking about the best move. Older kids may wish to bring a book or a deck of cards to play with their friends. Younger kids may prefer video games. Another idea may be to bring a ball and go outside for a little while—enough to relax but not too much to drain all of their energy.
What should the parent say right before the round? My advice is simple: try your best and have fun! For example, one big aspect to trying your best is to take your time during the game. Of course, when you get to the board, make sure to be respectful to the opponent and parent. While chess is a war game, the battle should take place only on 64 squares.
The hard part about the motto “try your best and have fun” is to stick to it afterwards. If your child tried their best, then you must encourage them no matter what the result. Never get angry with your son or daughter simply because they lost, even to a lower rated opponent. A few common and legitimate reasons to get upset include moving too fast, lack of focus by looking at other games or failure to record the moves. Most children will be eager to talk about the game afterwards and even parents who aren’t strong chess players may pick up key details (e.g. “I blundered” or “I had a win but I lost” or “I didn’t see his piece”). Be aware that even chess players who try their best might blunder and miss a move that they should have seen.
Let me close by profiling four kinds of parent behaviors that I hope to discourage.
1. Parent measures performance merely by wins, losses and rating points. They become upset when the child draws or loses to a lower rated player, without considering whether the game was well played or the opponent simply had a good day. My response: Chess ratings are based on a statistical formula that predicts your winning percentage. For example, a player rated 200 points higher should win 75% of games and one rated 400 points high should win 90%. We must come to expect an occasional bad result against a lower rated player. Even an improving player may have one bad game or a disappointing tournament. As I’ve told many people, progress typically comes through two steps forward and one step backwards. Look at the big picture instead of every single game.
2. Parent relies on Fritz too much. I have seen many cases where a parent reviews a game with Fritz or another computer program and finds out that the child missed one or more key tactics. The parent will typically quote a computer evaluation, often mentioning scores like +5. My response: No human can play like Fritz and even top Grandmasters sometimes overlook mate in 1 (Kramnik) or hang a piece for no reason at all. Fritz is merely a tool to get better but an impossible standard to measure your performance against. Parents (and even coaches) sometimes forget or never realized how much more difficult it is to play the game with the clock ticking than to review it afterwards with a computer.
3. Parent hates child’s rival(s). Unfortunately, I see all too often when a parent measures his or her own child against the result of the rival. It is important to score more points or achieve a milestone first. The child is often forbidden to socialize with the rival, purely for competitive reasons. My response: In recent years, the best young players in the Bay Area have benefitted from the interaction with their closest rivals. Masters Nicolas Yap, Drake Wang and Daniel Schwarz, who all graduated from High School last year, competed for the same trophies at the CalChess Scholastics for an entire decade, yet also forged strong friendships that included many hours of chess analysis and blitz games. The benefits of having friends in the chess community and someone to study with far outweigh any competitive disadvantage. Take the opportunity this weekend meet your child’s rivals and their parents. Set a positive example for the children to follow.
4. Parent lives for their child’s achievements. Most parents are proud of the success by their son or daughter, but a few take it to another level by bragging. They seek success, often even more than the kids. Those same parents become resentful when the result was not quite as good. My response: It is always of utmost importance that your child has fun. Juniors who don't truly enjoy chess (independent of their parents) simply will not improve as rapidly. You can lead a camel to water, but you cannot force it to drink. Unfortunately, these youngsters, who often have been pushed hard for many years, become prime candidates to drop out of chess entirely as they turn 13 or 14.
For another insightful perspective on competitive chess parents, please read two reports on Chess Life Online written by Mark Schein of New York from Pittsburgh, the venue of the recent Bert Lerner National Elementary School Championships. Mr. Schein writes about years of experience attending national competitions as a father. Click here for the first article and the second article.
Good luck to both the thousand players at the CalChess Scholastics and the many equally pumped up parents!