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Chess Coach . . . The Beginning of the Journey

posted October 16, 2014

Written by guest author Erik Czerwin for Wholesale Chess.

So you’ve been named Chess Team Coach. Awesome! Right?! Or was that a dubious move? It seemed like such a great idea at first, but now what? When I first started a chess club at the school, it was easy. All I had to do was ask, and I was allowed to let a bunch of kids hang out, play chess, and listen to bad techno. We had fun that first year; I never knew that 90s techno could strike such a chord with such a diverse group of kids. Then again, there were only ten of them. And we weren’t a team; we were just a bunch of guys hanging out.

And just when I started thinking this was a nice, easy way to end each Tuesday and Thursday, my principal tells me that next year they want me to make it competitive, and that we should go to the state tournament! Woops. Me and my big Polish mouth. You’d think I would’ve learned over the last several years of teaching to hunker down and shut up…

Of course, not every chess coach has the same experience getting started. Some scenarios are far worse. Some coaches have never played chess in their lives and they get the position forced on them by less than fortunate circumstances. No one wants to coach a team they know nothing about. Of course, I’d had a similar experience before when I was told to coach basketball. Ha! Me, coach basketball? But I guess I faked my way through that one all right. No one got killed anyway. And we did win 3 games. Out of 25. But who’s counting?

I had no idea where to begin. All I knew was that I had to start somewhere, and getting chess supplies seemed the most logical step. Can’t play chess without chess sets. Looking over the rag-tag chess sets in my classroom closet was utterly depressing. Surely competitive chess players used something a bit more attractive. So the research began.

I started clicking on link after endless link and quickly realized that I was in way over my head. Those chess pieces were wooden and gorgeous. No way I could afford those. Luckily, I stumbled on a picture of a high school chess team at some random city somewhere. They weren’t playing with those handcrafted pieces of gorgeousness. They were using plastic chess pieces; maybe I could afford those. But how many sets would I use? Figure two kids per set ought to do it, right? But how many kids would I have? Crapola. I hadn’t the slightest idea. I mean, I loved chess, but I only had ten kids showing up to a hang-out club. How many would show up to play competitively?

After asking about funds, I was told none would be forthcoming, so I had to do this out of my own pocket. After clicking link after link after link after link, I found the cheapest prices on the net. I was sure of it. My Polish/Czech heritage wouldn’t let me spend a nickel more than I had to. But after realizing that I could get ten vinyl chess boards and ten of the cheapest sets of chess pieces for around $50, I was much happier. I could afford that with only a one-to-two day argument with my wife. And hey, once I get the pieces, I’ve got them forever, right? It’s not like chess pieces wear out.

And so that was it, I ordered the chess pieces and chess boards, what else could I need? I knew how the pieces moved, and some basic tactics, maybe some basic strategies. And I’m a teacher, so I should be able to pass all that on to my students without too much difficulty.

Of course, looking back, I could have done a little more. For only a few bucks more, slightly better pieces wouldn’t have broken so easily. I could’ve ordered chess clocks right away. It wasn’t until long after I had the sets that I realized the team needed chess clocks, too. Luckily, I caught that error before we made it to our first competition. Maybe I could’ve invested in a couple of chess books to pass out. Of course, those just kind of trickle in over the years. For some reason, the kids and parents really start donating once they’re in love with chess. So maybe chess books weren’t absolutely necessary at first.

One thing I did, I’m convinced, was just the right thing at the right moment. After hearing that I would be heading up a competitive chess team, I decided it was time to get involved with some real competition. How could I coach a team if I had never felt the thump-thump of my heart in my ears as I peered over a chessboard? And heck, beating these kids was pretty easy, how hard could it be to play chess against some adult? So I searched for local chess clubs, and it turns out that one met every Monday at my local bookstore café. Awesome.

I packed up my little wooden chess set that I’d had since I was 12 and dropped in. I’d seen this before, but only in cheesy chess movies about fathers and sons. Here were a bunch of crooked-backed old men and a handful of nerdy-looking kids moving pieces and slapping clocks. Maybe 20 people in all. I felt pretty confident. I asked around about who ran the show and was introduced to Gary. He politely offered to play a game with me.

Without too much embarrassing detail, 15 minutes later, I felt crushed as I stared across the chess board at this graying gentleman having lost two games without the slightest idea why it had ended so quickly. Next year was going to be the longest school year of my career. But Gary smiled at me and immediately had me pegged. “New to the game?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve been playing for……” I petered out as I realized that telling him how long I had been playing might only make the embarrassment worse.

Over the next hour, Gary talked about how he had been a coach for 25 years and now he ran the chess club. He hosted scholastic tournaments from time to time. Most importantly, he told me not to worry; chess will happen. It’s the coaching part that counts. Since then, I’ve met a lot of other chess coaches, and I’ve realized that the only genuine support I have is other coaches. Without their encouragement, I never would have made it. Well, I would’ve had a team, but it would’ve been pure torture. Getting the right chess supplies is a requirement. Meeting the right people and becoming familiar with the heart of the game is indispensable. After all, it’s the connections we make in life that actually matter anyway.

Erik Czerwin is a self-taught chess player and also a self-taught chess coach. He founded the current Marengo Community High School Chess team, founded the Marengo Chess Club, plays at the Rockford Chess Club, and occasionally volunteers as a chess teacher at the Rockford Public Library, all in Northern Illinois. In his spare time, he's also a full-time high school language arts teacher, part-time graduate student, part-time tutor, and full-time father of two and husband to a very understanding wife.


Chess Starts With The Basics

posted Friday, September 19, 2014

Written by Laura Sherman of YourChessCoach.com and Bill Kilpatrick

Chess is taught by starting with the basics and building from there. It has to be done step by step. It is a big mistake to skip ahead too quickly with new strategies or techniques, when the more basic concepts are not well understood by a young chess player.

Teaching “checkmate” is a perfect example.

Coaches quickly learn it’s a big challenge to teach children the concept of checkmate.

We have found that many beginners have trouble checkmating their opponents despite having an overwhelming advantage of pieces on the chess board. So how do you teach this seemingly basic concept?

Break it down! Simplify it! Pull checkmate apart into little pieces that can be learned, one at a time.

The first step is to drill easier concepts with your students. How do you attack a chess piece? When is a piece in danger? How do you trap a piece? There are dozens of such exercises that are needed in order to fully prepare the student to understand and apply the concept of checkmate.

Once they have these components down, they must be able to recognize when the king is in check and understand that concept fully. Quiz them on the number of escape squares the king has. This usually requires a bit of drilling, but there will come a point where the student knows it, really knows it.

Being able to recognize when a student has a concept and is able to move on is also important. The last thing you want to do is rehash something over and over that they already understand. There’s a certain look that a student gets when they fully understand something. Watch for that look, that confident gleam in their eye.

Now they will have an easier time grasping checkmate. Show them many examples. Stick with exercises that are checkmate in one move, starting with extremely easy and basic positions. The more you drill these with your student the faster they will pick up the themes and be able to recognize reoccurring patterns.

Checkmate needs to be drilled regularly and often. The result will be that your students will take advantage of more opportunities on the board and you will have a strong foundation from which to move forward.

Laura Sherman founded Your Chess Coach (YourChessCoach.com) with her husband, Dan Sherman. Together they teach children to play chess through various schools in Pinellas County, Florida, as well as privately in students’ homes and online. Your Chess Coach is devoted to teaching chess to children of all ages, giving them the many life skills that the game offers. Bill Kilpatrick, founder of several professional specialty schools, brings an entrepreneurial spirit to chess coaching. Together they provide consulting around the globe helping improve the ability of coaches, parents and educators to teach chess to children.


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