Friday, April 25

Advice for Chess Parents Revised

Daniel Naroditsky and Steven Zierk smile at 2008 CalChess Scholastics.

Editorial Note: I published this article first as an email in 2007 and on this blog in 2008.  The 2014 version has been revised more than in previous years. 

Once again, the week has arrived of the biggest scholastic chess tournament in California: the CalChess Super States in Santa Clara.  Many of the competitors—the children—have spent months preparing for the most challenging weekend of the year.  This article seeks to prepare their parents for the adventures (and stress) of a major chess tournament.  What role do adults have?  And how should a loving parent behave at a chess tournament?

Indeed, a youngster’s confidence and ability to play well reflect (in no small part) the behavior of the parents. I have seen far too many examples of adults (yes, coaches sometimes included) discouraging children, instead of offering emotional support and positive reinforcement. Is it any surprise that many of the same juniors inevitably will quit chess soon?

First and foremost, 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 during the last games at the end of each long day. Of course, the kids need a big and healthy breakfast (very important) plus lunch / snacks between rounds. Those in the older sections who tend to play longer games may wish to take a bottle of water and a small snack (chocolate, candy or chewing gum) with them for each round.

Trophies, trophies and more trophies!
More challenging is to strike a balance between keeping your child focused after their games while not draining all their energy. Refrain from chess activities between rounds, except for briefly reviewing the tournament games with a coach or a computer. Avoid blitz and bughouse; both cause kids to play impulsively instead of carefully thinking about the best move. Older kids may wish to bring a book, iPod or a deck of cards to play with friends. Younger kids may prefer video games. Some children go outside to play ball for a little while—enough to relax, but not as much to drain their energy.

What advice can you give immediately before the round? My suggestion is simple: "Try your best and have fun!” For example, “Try your best” means to take your time and think of different possibilities. As you walk to the board, maintain a positive attitude, but make sure to be respectful to the opponent and parent. While chess is a war game, the battle should take place only on the 64 squares.

The challenge inherent in the motto “Try your best and have fun!” is for parents to stick to it afterwards. If your child honestly tried their best, then you must offer encouragement no matter what the result. Never get angry with your son or daughter simply because they lost, even to a lower rated opponent. Legitimate reasons to become disappointed include moving too fast, lack of focus (e.g. looking at other games) or failure to record the moves. Most children are eager to talk about the game, and even parents who do not play chess will pick up key details. (e.g. “I blundered” or “I had a win, but I lost” or “I didn’t see his piece”) Just remember this maxim: Nobody is perfect.

Neel Apte, Daniel Liu and Fpawn at 2009 CalChess Scholastics.
Up to this point, I have described how you the parent can help your child be happy (and successful) at a chess tournament. In the second half of this essay, I will profile four common 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 the quality of the game or day-to-day fluctuations in the strength of both players. 

Fpawn responds: Chess ratings are based on statistical formulas that predict your winning percentage. For example, a player rated 200 points higher should win about 75% of games; one rated 400 points high should score about 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 have told many people, progress often comes by taking two steps forward and one step backwards.

2. Parent relies on Fritz too much. Many times a parent with modest chess skill reviews a game with Fritz (or another computer program) and determines that the child missed one or more key tactics. The parent typically quotes a computer evaluation. 

Fpawn responds: No human can play like Fritz and even elite Grandmasters sometimes overlook mate in 1 (Vladimir Kramnik) or hang a piece out of the blue. Fritz is merely a training tool, and represents a superhuman standard to measure your performance against. Parents (and even coaches) sometimes forget how much more difficult it is to play with the clock ticking than to review a completed game with the computer.

Daniel Schwarz poses at 2006 CalChess Scholastics.
3. Parent wants to beat the child’s rival(s). Sadly, the parent measures the child strictly against the results of the rival. It becomes important to score more points or achieve a milestone first. Moreover, the child is forbidden to socialize with the rival, only for competitive reasons. 

Fpawn responds: In recent years, the best young players in the Bay Area have benefited from the interaction with their closest rivals. Masters Nicolas Yap, Drake Wang and Daniel Schwarz, who graduated from high school in 2007, competed for the same trophies at the CalChess States for an entire decade, yet forged strong friendships that included dozens of hours of analysis and online blitz. The benefits of chess friends and study partners far outweigh any competitive disadvantage. Set a positive example for your children to follow by meeting your child’s rivals and their parents.

4. Parent lives vicariously through their child’s achievements. Most parents are proud of the success by their son or daughter, but a few take the competition to another level by boasting. And they become resentful when the result does not meet strict expectations. 

Fpawn responds: It is of utmost importance that your child has fun. Juniors who don't truly enjoy chess (independent of goals set by their parents) simply will not improve as rapidly. You can lead a camel to water, but you cannot force it to drink. Unfortunately, kids who are pushed too hard for years become candidates to drop out of chess entirely in teen years.

1 comment:

Chuck Ensey said...

This are very well thought out rules, I hope all parents will take them to heart. A loss is not the end of the world, it happens to the best of us, and usually some important lesson can be gained from each loss, much more than a win can teach oddly enough. Thanks F-Pawn, Chuck Ensey