Reflections of a Scholastic Director
John Rummel (July, 1997)
Kids love to play competitive chess. Have a clinic and they'll come. They'll sit through the instruction, answer questions, do the studies. But what they'll remember and talk about later is the spontaneous 4 round swiss action that you put together before lunch. Or the chance to play a local expert in a simul before we stacked the chairs and put the tables away.
Our most recent event, the Madtown Spring Scholastic, attracted nearly 50 Madison area kids. I made the mistake of running it in four sections: younger unrated, older unrated, younger rated and older rated. This year the older rated kids were only 5 in number, so I seeded them into a 5 round Round Robin and put them in their own room. That was a breeze. The other sections all had between 12 and 18 kids. Simultaneously keeping track of three separate swiss tournaments is a surefire way to generate a headache. The game/30 pace keeps things moving along smartly, and the only delays are as I try to get results tabulated and the next round posted promptly. Having done it a few times now, I'm getting the kinks worked out, and there are always plenty of parents and friends to help.
Swiss pairings are mostly unique to chess. The system pairs winners with winners and losers with losers round by round. So for example, going into round 3, players with 2 wins will play other players with 2 wins, kids who are 1 and 1 will play others who are 1 and 1, etc. This system helps produce a clear winner in a limited number of rounds. The first couple of events I ran, I used old fashioned pairing cards to keep track of each kid; making sure kids get two chances at each color, making sure nobody plays the same kid twice, etc. I now use a software program on my laptop to do this (including neatly printed wallcharts and round pairings) so it's not as bad as it used to be. TDs who run multiple sections the old way use color coded pairing cards, and age about ten years per tournament (trust me on this).
There is no way to adequately describe the anxiety I feel in the hour before a tournament starts. Even with help in taking registrations and answering questions, I sweat over making sure I have kids entered into the proper section. I worry that I've mistakenly left a registered player out, or placed one kid in two sections (this really happened, and he wanted to play both!). And then, 10 minutes before I post the round one pairings, a parent or two approaches me and says, "My son wants to switch to the rated (or unrated) section, is it too late?" No, of course I'll switch you over. More sweat.
Finally the pairings go up, and my associates and I help all the kids find their boards, get them seated at the correct color, get clocks distributed, scoresheets, pencils, etc. Several kids start to play as soon as they sit down. My assistants are ready for this and swoop down on their boards to reset the pieces and tell them to wait for the opening comments and rules.
I explain the rules to a room full of eager children and anxious parents. Touch move means that if you touch a piece you must move it. Keep your hands away from the chess pieces until you are ready to move. "Think with your eyes, not with your hands" is a favorite saying of mine. Scores must be kept in all rated games. If you have any questions or concerns, get a director. Mark the wallchart after your games. Keep the playing hall quiet. Etc.
Yes, there are always questions. No, there will be no blitz playoffs to settle ties. All tiebreaks will be done via individual results or a standard USCF tiebreak system. No, you may not play other games at your board after your tournament game is over. We have a skittles room for that. No, there is no such thing as a 12 move rule (Kids universally seem to think that there is some rule that you have to checkmate a lone King in 12 moves or less. I take this opportunity to briefly explain what the 50-move rule is, and why it can only be applied if there is an accurate scoresheet).
Shake hands and start your clocks.
And then there are the conflicts and dilemmas. I stand by quietly and watch two 6 year olds slug it out. The kid with the white pieces is ripping black to shreds. The queen comes off, then both Rooks. Finally black is left with just his King and a few pawns while white has nearly his entire army. Then the chase begins. Round and round the black King runs, chased by seemingly random checks. White's army is undeveloped and uncoordinated and it is clear that he doesn't have a clue how to proceed. Oops, he just hung a Rook, but that's OK, he's still got plenty of material left. I charge a lieutenant to watch for stalemates and I wander off to attend to other things. Later I learn that the game was declared a draw when it reached lone King vs. King. And yet both kids seemed perfectly happy with the result. Ah, to be young and innocent.
On another (thankfully unrated) board, a hand goes up and I respond to a young man of about 10. He and his opponent, a girl of 9, have just discovered that her King is in check, and neither of them knows for how long. This is what scholastic directors laughingly call "discovered check." It's his move and he wants to know if he can just capture and win. As a group of parents gather, I quietly try to determine the past few moves (they're not scoring the game). When reconstructing the previous moves prove impossible, I order them to reset the pieces and start over. Thankfully material is even and neither player shows a clear advantage.
One of the more heart-rending scenes occurred in a tournament last year shortly after the end of round 2. A 7-year old named Justin approached me and said that his opponent had recorded the result of their game on the pairings chart as a draw when in fact it was a win for him. I asked him to explain and he said that he had checkmated his opponent, but the opponent went and recorded a draw on the wall. I quickly gathered both boys up to the director's table to get both sides. Hovering around the periphery was the father of the first boy. Justin's opponent articulately explained to me that it was not in fact checkmate on the board, but stalemate. Asked by me to explain, he said that his King was trapped - but not in check - and could not move, but there were no other legal moves he could make, thus stalemate.
Satisfied that he seemed to understand what he was talking about, I turned to Justin and asked how he was sure it was checkmate. With tears now welling in his eyes, Justin explained that the other boy's King *was* in check, checkmated by Justin's Rook and Queen. I explained to both boys that since their board had been reset and I had no chance to examine the position, I had no choice but to leave the game as it had been recorded - a draw.
Justin's tears exploded in force now, and heaving, he told me that he *knew* he was right, and he then went back to his father. The opponent walked away satisfied. The dad paused after it was all over to tell me that his son definitely does know the difference between checkmate and stalemate, but said that he understood why I had to rule as I did. This incident prompted a new tournament rule, explained carefully in the introductory comments of all future tournaments, that all players must raise their hands when a game ends to have a tournament director verify that it is really checkmate, stalemate, etc. Doing this has saved us some heartache in subsequent events.
The skittles room
I've found that scholastic players do very little post mortem analysis of their games. To the young player, once it's over, it's past and let's move on to the future. To many of our young players, the skittles room means Bughouse. Loud, fast and furious Bughouse. Take no prisoners Bughouse. For the uninitiated, Bughouse chess is partner chess. You and a partner each play a game against an opponent and their partner. Two games side by side, with partners playing different colors. The crux of Bughouse is that when you capture a piece from your opponent, you give it to your partner, who can then place it on his board in lieu of a move. The games are all blitz mode so it's fast and full of kibitzing ("Give me a piece! Sac something, I need a piece!!).
Kids who play Bughouse are fanatics about it, and many of the adults in our group have been affected as well. If you ever get a chance, follow some of the newer players and watch their faces the first time they observe a Bughouse game. It's like they've discovered chocolate ice cream for the first time. My favorite line overhead in a heated Bughouse game, one player to his embattled partner, "You lost your Queen AGAIN?"
As the final round begins, the kids are all crowding around the wall chart arguing about who's in the lead, who needs to win, etc. "If I win my last game, I have a chance at a tie for first place, but Steven and Maggie both have to lose," are typical comments. They divide their time evenly three ways just before this final round: at the wall chart, at the trophy table, and at the snack bar. For the past 2.5 hours the room has had an ambiance of quite murmurs, the click of pieces and punching of clocks, and the rustle and crunch of potato chips.
Games are always more interesting in the last round. The top boards have the best kids jockying for the biggest trophies, and the bottom boards have the lower kids finally meeting even matches. Everyone has enjoyed themselves and as the final game ends, I hustle back to the computer to print out the final standings.
The awards ceremony is always my favorite part. Partially because my work is done and I can rest easy now, but more so because the kids are so appreciative. They genuinely applaud the top finishers in each section, and all kids get recognized with certificates, ribbons, etc. Everybody walks away with something. The parents beam, kids come up and ask if they can get their picture taken with me, and parents want to shake my hand and clap me on the back. And they always ask, "when is the next tournament?" My post tournament feeling is always that this is the last time I'm going to do this, but I know I'm wrong. I can't stay away from kids and chess. They love it too much and I love seeing them love it. I tell them to check in at the clubs and watch for announcements of our next event.
Of course I'll do it again.
(note: I'm no longer "doing it again." As of 1998, I've retired from active tournament play and directing.)
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