Starting a scholastic chess club

Many schools are reluctant to start a chess club because of unrealistic expectations. So what does it take? Let's take a look::

Requirements for starting a great school chess club

 

Optimal

Reality

Volunteers Grandmasters working full-time giving personalized instruction to each player daily. Parent volunteers having only basic knowledge on how to play chess and limited time due to other commitments
Equipment Plenty of tournament-quality sets, electronic chess clocks, demo boards, computer, and a comprehensive chess library Plastic mismatched sets picked up cheap at garage and clearance sales
Facilities Quiet, carpeted play area with individual mahogany chess tables and small, intimate classrooms Cafeteria or gym (when available)
Funding Billionaire philanthropist with a passion for scholastic chess who has bequeathed a small fortune to fund your club in perpetuity. None.
Students Offspring from grandmasters genetically enhanced for lightning-quick mental calculations Your average bright and fun-loving kids who just enjoy playing the game

If your school falls more in the "Reality" column, then you’re ready to start a chess club!

Many schools feel that they need to have grandmasters and "really smart" kids to start a club. The reality is all you need are kids, a few boards, some space, and an adult willing to donate a little time.

All kids can benefit from chess. Kids may see it as just a game. But research has shown that chess enhances scholastic abilities including test scores. Think of it as "exercise for the mind", a fun way to practice concentration, patience, logic, and mental calculations.

Phases of a club

Start your club simple, then add things as it matures.

  1. Start-up – Stop thinking about it and (as the Nike ad say) Just Do It!
  2. Recreational play – Providing a fun environment for kids to come and play chess with each other.
  3. Instruction for new players – Don’t know how to play chess? Come to club and learn the game?
  4. Club competition – Have mini-tournaments and competitions to stimulate interest.
  5. Tournament competition – Competing with other schools offers a new level of excitement. It also provides incentive for higher instruction.
  6. Instruction for experience players – For the player ready to advance, begin studying tactics and strategies.

 

A. Start-up

The first rule of starting a chess club is: Don’t wait for someone else! If you don’t step up and make it happen, it’s unlikely someone else will. You have the opportunity to enrich the lives of dozens of young people.

Make it a decision right now, even before you reach the end of this sentence, to take a positive step toward making a chess club a reality at your school...heck, I’ll even make this a run-on sentence to give you a few extra moments to firm up your resolve... OK, good, now that you’ve made your decision, I can finally end this grammatically-challenge paragraph.

There are a few thinks you will need to get started.

Planning a start-up

  1. Contact the school to ensure you have their support. Find out what resources they will provide.
  2. Bring it up at your PTO. As with any new idea, expect some skepticism, but also expect some partners who can help you out. Organize your volunteers. Treat them like royalty.
  3. Schedule a regular weekly session.
  4. Send out sign-up sheets so you can anticipate the numbers
  5. Enthusiastically welcome the students.

 

B. Recreational Play

Emphasize the purpose of the club is to play chess and have fun. No other activities should be allowed (unless this is a game club).

Once kids start playing, try to group kids by skill level. If someone is winning more than losing, encourage tougher play.

Always emphasize good sportsmanship.

 

C. Instruction for new players

Make no mistake. Chess can be a complex game, especially for young children. However, experience has shown that any child that can be taught the alphabet can be taught chess. The younger they start, the more they will likely to get good at the game and enjoy it later in life.

For teaching "beginning chess", you do not need a chess expert. What you really need is a good teacher who knows the basic game, is good with kids, and can explain things simply.

Teaching young children

The key to teaching very young children (pre-K and up) is to reduce the concepts and explanations into its simplest elements. Keep it light and entertaining.

Don’t try to teach the entire game at once. Teach it a piece at a time starting with the least complex. Use simple made-up games along the way to reinforce the concept.

The order of complexity for learning the pieces (starting with simplest) is: rook, bishop, queen, king, knight, pawn.

Typical learning game: Rook’s pawn hunt

  1. Have players place their rooks on the proper squares.
  2. Have players place their pawns at random anywhere on the board being careful not to blockade their own rooks.
  3. Rules: Pawns are asleep and cannot move. Object is to take turns capturing pawns. First player to capture all opposing pawns wins.

Unfortunately there are very few chess books aimed at small children. One of the best is "Pawns and Queens" available only through the USCF.

Teaching older kids

Teaching older kids is simpler because you can find more books for the older audience and you can assign homework.

The concepts of keeping it simple and pacing per the child’s ability to absorb still hold true at any age.

D. Club Competition

It can be amazing how introducing a little structured competition can stimulate interest. For small clubs, the adult coordinator can usually administer a structured competition. For large clubs, use techniques that allow kids to do it themselves.

Prizes – Keep prizes cheap, simple, and plentiful. Buy a bag of bulk candy. Give one or two pieces out as a prize. A valuable prize does not significantly increase interest. Just the idea of winning seems to be enough.

Club competition techniques:

Can be self-administered by the kids and gives instant feedback to the coordinator. A small time-card rack can be purchased from office supply store.

Winner is player with most points.

E. Tournament competition

Inevitably, some of your club players will be the best and may get bored by lesser competition. Competing against other schools can stimulate new life into a school chess club. It can be as simple as calling another coach and visiting the school, or making a road trip to a regional tournament.

Focusing on team scoring can also change the culture of your chess club. Kids will not see each other as adversaries but as teammates that can help with team scores. They will be more likely to help each other and share techniques in anticipation of the next tournament.

Be sure to properly set the expectations. As in any activity, an unseasoned team usually does not do well against other players. Let your first tournament be a benchmark that your players will try to beat next time.

F. Advanced Instruction

Introducing advanced instruction can be one of the biggest challenges for a new club. At the advanced level, the intricacies and nuances become more complex and are more difficult for the casual player to fully grasp, let alone teach to others.

Your best bet is to try to obtain the services of a highly experienced chess player. Most cities have adult chess clubs and there are many experienced players who would truly love the opportunity to work with eager young chess players.

If expert instructor is not available, a casual adult player can still provide valuable structured teaching to the students who are ready. Be very honest with the students that you are not a chess expert but are willing to find material and conduct classes. Here are some techniques:

- Basic Tactics: You can learn these easily and discuss them in class. Basic tactics are the foundation for everything else. Basic tactics include things like: forks, pins, skewers, removing the guard, and double-attacks. Buy a book on basic tactics. You can pick up these concepts just fine.


- Basic End-games: It’s important that players know how to finish off an opponent so they can play accordingly. All players should have a full and working understanding of: two-rook checkmate, King-rook checkmate, King-Queen checkmate. They should also be familiar with other common mates like back-rank mate and smothered mate.

- Openings: Find youth-oriented books that have annotated games organized by opening. Choose an opening and go over several games on each, discussing the points with the students. When studying openings, you don’t have to take the game to the end, just to some logical end of the opening sequence.

90% of all scholastic games start off with E4-E5 so focus on those openings first.

 

Handling a very large club

Managing a large club (> 50 players) can be very challenging. The key is organization and volunteers. Here are some tips for successfully managing a large club.