Choose chess at hobby-level first. Begin at school-level and club-level. Worldwide, the pro tournament entry level chess age is down to four years.
By Shilpa Mehra
Our Saturday chess class ends at 6 pm. That’s only for the timetable. In reality, by 7 pm, we are begging kids to go home, struggling to gather the chess sets and ignoring endless beggings of “please, five minutes more”. These five minutes quickly turn into 50 if we give in.
The days we announce longer classes from 12 noon to 6 pm, it’s as if the gates to heaven have been opened! It’s not just the kids. Gate-crashing parents wanting a game with the class chess monster lurk around as well. Chess is mad fun, no matter what your birth year!
No video game can match the glee of pulling off a checkmate, calculating a queen sacrifice, saving a pawn and more. There’s a thrill in those 64 squares—every game, every next game. Playing skill doesn’t matter. Losing or winning is momentary. There’s always someone you can beat and always someone you can lose to and learn from. The friends you make in chess class speak a secret language of squares, pieces, and stuff. Television and mobile screens are forgotten.
Then there are the endless requests for club tournaments! No excuse works:
—There are not enough chess clocks: “We will wait for games to complete.”
—Not enough chess sets: “We will bring ours.”
—No food all day: “Who wants to eat in a chess tournament?”
—No electricity for AC: “We will play in the open.”
—Some kids have exams: “Hold tournament for those who are free.”
Eventually, when a chess tournament is organised and the prize distribution is midway, everyone wants to know when the next tournament is going to be held. Chess just became the healthiest addiction in town!
Understanding the tournament process
The governing body FIDE (Federation Internationales de Echecs) assigns a rating to chess players beginning from 1000. Getting your first rating is a milestone. Becoming a Grandmaster (rating 2500) requires years of study. The first rating is obtained by scoring at least half point in tournament games versus at least five rated players. It’s not easy. You may score zero versus rated players, tournament after tournament, unless you’ve put in a certain amount of hard work studying chess. Such is the level of competition.
But there’s plenty to gain apart from the rating points. If you do take your kid to a big FIDE rated tournament, do so for the experience, exposure and learning. Have realistic expectations about game results. Imagine how much a child can imbibe:
– Making their own decisions and being responsible for them in terms of a win or a loss without a parent to turn to “or blame”.
– Being independent in the tournament hall, following the discipline.
– Religion, nationality, culture, gender are no boundaries but one melting pot for new friendships in tournaments.
– Realising the preciousness of time.
– Standing up for themselves in case of an issue.
– Accepting wins and losses in one’s stride.
And, so much more in terms of life skills.
Choosing a tournament
A FIDE-rated tournament does require prep. That may be a burden when added to school work or if not a child’s inclination. Doesn’t matter.
Choose chess at hobby-level first. Begin at school-level and club-level.
Worldwide, the pro tournament entry level chess age is down to 4 years.
Don’t push your kid into playing rated tournaments if they don’t have the inclination or time to do the hard work required. Let them enjoy chess, learn on the go just as a mental and personality development skill.
There’s another alert: Travelling to tournaments because you feel it’s an opportunity to get away from life’s humdrum may prove detrimental to your child if he’s not prepared to face the competition. A tournament can last several days. Parents vent their anger on the coach when the kid does poorly. Meanwhile, the child quits chess under pressure and bad results. No coach has a magic wand and you can’t buy skill.
Choose your chess coach wisely
Each kid has an individual chess pace. Some kids prefer group learning and hobby chess. Some kids want to take a more serious approach with individual one-on-one classes while some kids are keen on preparing like professional sportspersons for a specific tournament.
FIDE trainer, Santanu Lahiri, of Kolkata, says, “In chess, the parents, coach and student form a triangle. All have to come together as a team.” All have to discuss regularly what works.
The coach must also reach out to the kid at levels beyond chess. He must guide the parents about tournaments, home study, and even be sensitive to the individual personality of the kid. Parents must, in return, have faith in the coach they take on. The kid must feel happy with the coach and be inspired to learn.
A coach need not be the best player around. Teaching chess is a distinct ability. Top Grandmasters are known to work with “seconds (other players)” of even 200 points below them in playing strength. Chess is emotional teamwork.
Also, studying chess means your kids will sit in close proximity to an adult for long hours. Choose carefully. Better still, start playing open tournaments with your kids!
Chess is a complete subject by itself. FIDE Arbiter Hemant Sharma of Lucknow says, “Not everyone is going to go for IAS or IIT. Yes, balancing school studies with chess preparation is important. Nevertheless, if a kid has an inclination and focuses upon chess, he can go ahead and make a career in chess. This is a critical choice to make just like choosing, for example, biology because the kid wants to become a doctor.”
“However, once you decide to study chess, do it hard. Formal school studies will somewhat be secondary.”
Chess kids are pretty sharp and don’t finish at the bottom of class. Don’t be obsessed with marks, be obsessed with hard work in the right direction.
For what it’s worth
Not all kids have a flavour for chess. It’s okay. When taken up in a fun way, chess is a tool for helping kids grow in a bias-free, gender-fluid environment, rewiring their personality and analytical skills. Chess is clinically known to enhance memory, focus, confidence and patience in kids.
Girls particularly feel empowered about dealing with boys.
You don’t have to be intelligent to play chess, you become intelligent by playing chess.
Research work has shown improvements in cognitive skills, focus, problem-solving, patience, school test scores and memory in kids who do chess for at least one complete school year.
The European Union has included chess in its school syllabus. The US has evolved a complete scholastic chess calendar, and Armenia is fast becoming a chess superpower with chess in schools.
Travelling to rated tournaments, entry fee, board and lodging along with training can be a huge drain. It feels often like a black hole where you pour in resources only to get disheartened by successive losses. Mostly parents have to take leave from work and household duties to travel to tournaments. It can all become a vicious circle not to forget hours and hours waiting for a single round to complete and the child to come out of the playing hall. It’s worse if he comes out having lost.
The key is to strike a balance. Draw up a separate chess budget for your family.
See what works with you and your kids. Some kids prepare hard all year round and play just one big tournament in twelve months. Some kids travel to tournaments every month. Some kids do rigorous chess then take a year’s sabbatical to study for Board exams. All chess parents must find an individual rhythm. Don’t fall in the trap of taking loans to play a string of tournaments in Europe. Yes, some parents do that. Indian tournaments are top-notch as well.
Find the right coach. Be patient and realistic. Let chess become a family game. Replace screens with the board. Enter tournaments with your kids. Involve yourself in the local chess community. It’s easy to fall in love with chess. Guide your child into becoming passionate about the game first. Then, let destiny take its course.
Chess is magic for life. As a parent, the gift is yours to give.
(The writer is a child psychologist with research interest in developing analytical skills at a young age. As founder-member of Chess Club Black & White in Lucknow, she published India’s first chess features print magazine from 2004 to 2012. Follow her on Facebook at BlackandWhiteChessMagazineIndia)