Caveman Chess


Tips for Parents

Many parents struggle with their child's interest in chess. Sometimes parents not be into chess themselves, and it can be difficult for them to understand the attractions and the pressures for a typical child.

Several years ago I wrote this piece to help parents come to grips with their chess player.

How to Be a Good Chess Parent

If your child is just embarking into the world of competitive chess, if she or he is thinking about playing in that first Saturday tournament, then you, as a parent or a coach, need to prepare yourself as well. For most children, especially those in K-3, a chess tournament will be different than any other sporting event in which they have participated.

Alone. During the game, they are alone. Just them, the opponent, 64 squares, and 32 pieces. No talking. No friends. No physical way to relieve stress. Parents and coaches frequently aren't even allowed in the room. This can be very tough. It can also be very rewarding. As a parent, as a coach, you need to be prepared to offer support and encouragement. Keep the focus on improvement. Don't focus too much on winning, and don't focus on just "survival.” The kids are smart. If you downplay winning, they will know they aren't doing well. Instead, manage their expectations before, during, and after the tournament. Teach them a process of improvement from tournament to tournament, not just from game to game.

A good approach is to have an honest discussion before the tournament about how well the child can do. If they are just learning, focus on keeping accurate chess notation. Explain that there are many good players and a goal of winning one or two games would be VERY good for a first tournament. Create little goals that they can control. Did they get all of their men out in every game? Did they ask themselves before every move what captures or checks there were in the position?

Find, measure, reinforce, and celebrate SMALL, MEASURABLE, and REACHABLE goals for them to work on. Repeat messages consistently: "Our goal (not just their goal!!) is to get better in every tournament. After a while, the winning will come by itself."

Watch the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer with your child. Certainly, some things are exaggerated to help tell a multi-year story in two hours. But remember key points, and, when things get tough in a tournament you can say -- "Hey, remember when Josh had that problem?” Kids get this stuff -- they identify with it, and the examples help them a great deal.

DO NOT tell them what not to do, especially as the last reminder before a game. There isn't a more certain way to make them mess up. Let me illustrate: Don't think about pink elephants. What's the first thing that came to mind? You see, the human brain is wired to think about things, not to avoid thinking about things. So leave them with a positive message. Wrong: "Don't bring your Queen out early.” Right: “Remember, bring all of your men out early, and bring your Queen out last, after all the other pieces are out."

Stress is a big factor. I've had kids that love tournaments that still literally toss their cookies before every game. Find stress relievers. For some kids, a gentle stroke on the back is re-assurance. For others, this lets them know that their parents are nervous about them being nervous -- so it just makes it worse. Learn to re-focus their brain. For one youngster I would make a funny face before every game in the tournament room when no one was looking. It would crack him up, be our secret, and get his mind off the big game.

Reinforce how to correct errors, but believe me, the kids will kick themselves about their mistakes, so you usually don't have to do anything to make this a big point. Tears are o.k. In fact, there are times when, under the right circumstance, I've even encouraged this. Let them know that feeling bad is o.k., and to avoid it next time, here is a positive step that we can take to improve our game. Many kids do very well with this dose of reality so long as you are supportive and they understand that you are there to help them, not to criticize them. Remember, they have no teammates, no bad refs, no weather, nothing else to blame this on. When they lose, they will know it's because they were outplayed, and a realistic approach to improvement offers hope and encouragement for the next game.

Distinguish between stupid moves and the fact that you are not calling the child stupid. We all make mistakes, we all started out as beginners, and it takes time to get better. I will often share a story that as an 11 year old I lost 100 games at Rook odds to a high school friend before I won a single game -- and I became a Master. They can too, but improvement takes time and persistence. Moves can be bad, dumb, stupid, stinky, etc. Children are not.

Most important of all -- have fun. Rejoice and celebrate in your improvements, savor the victories, and have a good time.


Good Things to Know

  • Be real.  Don't over focus or under focus on results.  Don't live vicariously through their results.
  • Manage expectations. Have reasonable, achievable, goals.  (Keep notation, develop pieces, keep the King safe, watch for tactics etc.)  Review these goals during and after the tournament.  Focus on results over a series of tournaments and focus on improvement the same way.
  • Control what you can - and  expect your opponent to play well.  Nuff said.
  • Good/Bay days happen.  When things go well, enjoy it! But remember to help your child understand that improvement is determined over several tournaments not just during one.
  • Getting better means that you often first get worse! When teaching a player new things, it takes time for them to learn and incorporate new information.  This frequently means that results get gradually worse before the pieces of information come together leading to a big jump up.  Help the child to understand this, and to keep trudging ahead to do the things they've learned.  Giving up and taking shortcuts is "the path to the dark side."
  • Getting better often means that you just lose later.  Players often expect that when they improve, they will win.  OOPS!  That's often not so in chess!  For example, if I'm 1200 strength, I should expect to lose to a 1600 (frequently).  If I improve to 1400 strength (quite a jump!) I should still lose 3 out of 4 to a 1600 - but the quality of the games should improve.   Probably I would still lose, but the game will be a longer, more interesting struggle.
  • In the long run, its better to be good than lucky.  Sometimes in chess our opponents make mistakes and we enjoy that good fortune.  But having that happen a couple of times in a day doesn't mean we are suddenly good.  It means we are good enough to take advantage of those errors - nothing more.  In the long run, keep working on improving and doing things the right way.
  • To be lucky, you have to be prepared!  In chess, "luck" means something only if we are sufficiently prepared to realize opportunities when they arise.
  • It's a game!  Yes, we want to do well and to improve, but in the end let's also learn to enjoy the efforts we put in, the experiences we have and the people we meet.  In the end, it IS a game and most of us will not be competing for the world championship in just a few years.