A first chess tournament is a big deal and something to celebrate. Take a moment to observe what is happening on tournament day—a bunch of kids have decided to spend the day (usually a Saturday) practicing their thinking and strategy skills. How amazing is that? To make the day a successful one, coaches must help prepare both their students and parents.
Part 1: Preparing Students
When students play in their first tournament, it can be quite intimidating. In addition to teaching the fundamentals of chess during practice, I assign every new player an experienced player on our team to be a tournament buddy. This person will answer questions, offer moral support, warm up before the tournament begins, and help go over games in between rounds. The week before the tournament, the new player and the tournament buddy will practice together so they can get to know each other.
This is a great opportunity for experienced players to share knowledge, think of someone other than themselves, and be leaders. It is a truism that to really understand something, one should teach it to others. Younger kids especially enjoy having an older kid act as a mentor, and some are more receptive to advice from their peers rather than adults.
If your club is relatively new, and you do not have many experienced tournament players, then enlist the help of parents, grandparents, or other experienced adults as assistant coaches. If your team is of any significant size, the coach probably cannot work with every child during a tournament.
The Most Common Trick: Scholar’s Mate
Probably the most common trick that will be played on an inexperienced player at a first tournament is the scholar’s mate. Here is a very good two-part video explaining the attack and how to defend against it.
Even after going over this in class and practicing, it never fails—someone will get surprised by this trick in a tournament. The students are good about defending when you tell them you are pulling the scholar’s mate, and you ask them how to defend against it. Trouble occurs when they don't see it coming.
Here is something I tried recently to help my first-time competitors prepare for their first tournament. I scheduled a practice with the first-time competitors and their tournament buddies the week before their first tournament. I told the tournament buddies in advance that for the first game, I wanted them to play White and to pull the scholar’s mate but not let on that this was about to happen.
Wow! A lot of them were caught by surprise and didn’t see it coming (even though we had gone over this more than once!). I told them, “Better that this happened now than in their first tournament.” They were much better prepared, and gleeful during their first tournament when they would come out of games letting me know how they successfully defended the scholar’s mate!
Part 2: Preparing Parents
Communication is key.
Communication is such a simple thing, but often forgotten. It is very important to help your parents prepare for their first chess tournament—it is unlike any other experience they will ever have. As the coach, you set the tone for the team. If you value learning and good sportsmanship, they will too.
I send out an email to parents explaining what will happen during the tournament and give them guidance on how they can help their child have a successful experience. I also schedule a parent meeting for all first-time competitors so they will all understand what to expect and can ask follow-up questions. Some of the things I tell them are:
- The tournament will last all day, and your child will play all five rounds. This will surprise most parents who are accustomed to round-robin or single or double elimination tournaments in other sports.
- Bring a lawn chair for your comfort and pack healthy snacks for your kids. Most tournament rounds begin as soon as the last one is over, so time for lunch can be somewhat unpredictable.
- The goal of a first tournament is to endure—not necessarily win. A child’s first chess tournament can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. Set reasonable expectations (ex., try to win one game) and celebrate the experience of enduring every round of the tournament. A chess tournament teaches kids more than how to win—it teaches good sportsmanship.
- Your child will learn more from losing a game than winning every game. Your child will improve and grow as a chess player by learning from his or her mistakes. Mistakes are powerful teaching tools. Let your child know it’s ok to make mistakes—just learn from them.
- Your job as a parent is to offer lots of encouragement and lots of hugs in between rounds. Although this is last on my list, it is the most important piece of advice I provide to parents. I have been to numerous local, state and national tournaments, and I see lots of tears shed by kids who feel enormous pressure to win. Undue pressure will be counter-productive and can discourage your child from competitive chess. Chess can teach your kids how to persevere and get back up and fight again, but parents need to be supportive.
Go to the movies—well, sort of.
Parents, if you haven’t seen the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” rent it and watch it with your child. It is a fictionalized account of an American chess champion, Josh Waitzkin, and his legendary coach Bruce Pandolfini.
Josh Waitzkin reports that in the movie “the emotions are true. They’re exactly what happened.” While some of the tournament scenes take liberties with the application of United States Chess Federation rules (e.g. players do not banter during a game and they notate their games), the movie does a good job of showing what can happen when parents put too much pressure on their kids to win.
“Brooklyn Castle” is a 2012 documentary about the storied junior high chess team at Brooklyn IS318, a New York public school serving mostly students who live below the poverty line, as it competes in a number of national chess tournaments. This documentary is a current and true depiction of team tournament play at its highest level in the United States.
Both of these movies are also available through various streaming services, and they offer a glimpse into the world of competitive chess for young students. They are worth the time to watch.