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Your daughter or son has an interest in chess and may already play in tournaments, but he or she wants to have other kids in their school play with them on the same team. There's no one to organize this so you, gulp, volunteer to be the chess coach. My experience was similar - my son had played in tournaments for a little over two years, and when he entered a new school for third grade, he wondered whether there would be other kids at the school who even played chess, and wanted to enter tournaments with him. I told him that if he wanted, I could coach a chess team for other kids that might want to play competitively. He jumped at the idea.
Chess Coach vs. Chess Teacher
Being a coach for your child's team may not necessarily mean that you are also giving chess lessons. At my son's school, there are after school chess lessons that are completely separate from the chess team. Not to step on anyone's toes, I contacted the chess teacher well in advance and told him what my plans were in order to get his understanding and support. Indeed, he ended up being a valuable ally at the end of the year.
Launching any new program at a school may meet resistance, and it may be difficult to procure any funds for a new endeavor. Therefore, you will likely have to purchase some of the equipment yourself, at least at first. Many schools do not have tournament quality chess sets, but it is imperative for morale (and for practicing with tournament equipment) to get something that looks official. Generally you will want to purchase two sets of plastic chess pieces and vinyl chess boards for every three kids on the chess team. While that may seem like overkill, chess pieces will get lost, misplaced, not put back properly, and having a few extra sets will save you in a chess emergency. You will also want to buy several chess clocks, one for every three kids or so. Finally, buy one demonstration chess board (with pieces) for team activities done as a group.
Recruiting for Your Team
Recruiting for the chess team is no different from recruiting for any other activity - flyers, talking with the teachers, posters, etc. The biggest recruiting tool, however, will be word-of-mouth. Once one child gets talking, he or she will bring other kids along naturally.
Planning Your Meetings
Picking a time and frequency for the team practices is also important. Older kids may view chess in the same vein as other sports, and want to meet four times per week. For elementary school kids, once a week is probably a good thing to start with, and then you may want to change to less frequent as the kids get comfortable and in a rhythm.
The key is to build up some momentum at the beginning, and less than once per week may cause kids to lose interest. As for time of day, after school seems natural, but we opted for an hour before school, as my work schedule wouldn't allow after school. Before school worked out excellently, as the kids who came showed their commitment and dedication (as did their parents) by waking up an hour earlier to get their kids to school.
The First Few Meetings
The first few meetings for the chess team are the key to success. Have a specific plan of what you want to accomplish each meeting. For example, I covered the following topics in this order: (1) sportsmanship (shaking hands, not slamming or grinding pieces, winning and losing graciously), (2) the clock and how it counts down to zero, (3) tournament atmosphere and directors (scoring system, touch move rules, raising your hand for a director if there's a problem), (4) chess notation, saying ""check"" in not necessary, and illegal moves.
After the first or second meeting, you need to get a message to the childrens' parents explaining the purpose of the chess team. I emphasized that this was a team, not instruction, and that tournament chess can be a brutal experience for a child that is not ready for it. Yet, I emphasized that for most kids, the benefits of playing in tournaments (self-reliance, patience, planning, and hopefully fun) outweigh the anxiety that accompany playing in them.
This is Part One of Starting a Chess Team at You Child's School. Part 2: Taking Your Chess Team to the Next Level will be published later.
Robert N. Bernard is the manager of the New Jersey Knockouts of the United States Chess League, where he started three years ago as the Knockouts' blogger. For the USCL, he also compiles an unofficial rating list and weekly power rankings. Frequently, he can be found on the Internet Chess Club, where he has a weird tendency to win a lot of their trivia contests. He is also a member of the United State Chess Federation's Ratings Committee and coaches his son's chess team. He has a very nice plaque from the 1982 US Amateur Team Championship, where he captained the team that won the Under 1400 prize."
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