Pathways to Chess Mastery (Part 1: Children)
One of the things that makes chess so appealing is the extraordinary diversity of people that form the chess community. People from all walks of life can, and do, play chess. But once you get hooked on the game, whether as a child or an adult, by a teacher at your school or a friend, how can you take your chess to the next level?
In this fortnight’s article, I’ll explore the different roads chess players take on their journey to progress through the ranks. As one gets better in chess, there are stepping-stones that virtually all ambitious players go through along on their way to the summit. Pathways for adults will be explored in the next fortnight’s article.
For most children in South-East Queensland, the starting-point for chess is their school. More and more schools on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane have chess programs of some sort, whether it’s a structured after school class, a lunch club, or some chess sets in the library. Some kids are taught the rules by their parents, but even then, school chess is the path that extends their chess further.
Once kids learn the basics, there is some sort of a natural sifting process at work: the more competitive kids perform better than their peers, pay keen attention to chess lessons, and eventually participate in some sort of a structured tournament. This could be at their school, or an Inter-School event.
Inter-School tournaments (or intra-school, if the school has strong enough competitions), added with some regular group coaching, can take kids to a reasonably competent level (up to 600-800 rating). But unless a child is extended further, they are likely to stagnate and not progress much past this level.
Private coaching, although not essential for kids to learn on their own, greatly accelerates the learning process. Many kids receive a quick boost when their parents hire a coach for regular lessons.
A chess coach uses their experience to tailor the material into easily digestible bites for the child, and give sound guidance about resources the child can use on their own. I still remember vividly many lessons from my first coach, and even today the early coaching still affects my patterns of thinking and my approach to chess.
Kids that receive private coaching still need to play regular tournaments, in order to continuously apply what they learn. Learning from peers is also a very important ingredient, and kids learn a surprising amount from each other, when they watch how the stronger kids play at tournaments.
Tournaments Outside of School
If your child consistently performs well at their school, or displays outstanding results at Inter-School tournaments, you should at least consider taking them to weekend tournaments and other competitions.
If your child wants to get better, the general rule about what tournaments your child should play is simple: give them as much competition as they can handle! This means, more competitive tournaments are better than the ones where they don’t feel challenged. Just be mindful that they don’t get discouraged if they have a bad tournament.
In particular, playing at a first big tournament, or progressing to higher level competition, can be a daunting experience for kids. Keep their morale up, and remind them that winning is not what chess is all about. Chess tournaments, can give invaluable life lessons to kids about sportsmanship and handling losses. There is no referee or teammates you can blame when you lose: only yourself.
Tournaments like the recent One Day (Under 800) Challenge (https://gardinerchess.com.au/event_result/2017-one-day-t1/) are a perfect first tournament outside of school. Out of the 55 that participated, I’d estimate about 15 played chess outside of school for the first time, and the majority have only played in a few of such events before. Many of the current top kids on the Gold Coast have been in precisely this situation several years ago: sitting for the first time across from older, more experienced kids.
The holiday Chess Camp is another great event for children that should be extended from their school lessons. We run a mix of lessons, tournaments and fun activities during the day. The Chess Camp is coming up on 3-5 April: https://gardinerchess.com.au/event/2017-gc-easter-chess-camp/
As the kids improve further, they need stronger competition to keep them challenged. Let’s imagine that by this stage, a boy in Year 6 has been playing for about 3-4 years, and for the last year has received private coaching. His current rating is 850. Where to now?
The next step is an event like the Junior Masters (recently concluded Term 1 results here https://gardinerchess.com.au/event_result/2017-junior-masters-t1/), which runs alongside the One Day Challenge.
By this stage, the child should be encouraged to play in weekend events where they can challenge other strong kids and adults, seasoned veterans of the chess world. This would be another daunting, new experience, but the fruits would be plentiful. After a tough battle, there is opportunity to analyse the game with the veterans, and receive tips for future improvement.
Once kids pass the 1000 rating barrier, they should orient their goals more broadly. I’d highly recommend the weekly adult chess clubs (e.g. Gold Coast Chess Club, Brisbane Chess Club, The Gap Chess Club, Logan City Chess Club) and other Junior (under 18) events, such as the upcoming Gold Coast Junior Championship. https://gardinerchess.com.au/event/2017-gold-coast-junior-championships-u10-18/
Another major upcoming event is the Doeberl Cup http://doeberlcup.com.au/, one of Australia’s most prestigious annual competitions. Many of the Gold Coast’s top juniors are making their trip to Canberra for that event, played over the Easter long weekend.
By this stage, the kids that last this long in the chess world would be one of the few best Juniors in Queensland. They may be invited to join the Junior Elite Training Squad, or even represent Australia internationally.
As the group of kids continues to funnel, many will drop out of chess during high school, and our hypothetical group of talented juniors will be smaller still. The Juniors that survive this attrition will be battle-hardened enough to compete in the adult chess scene. The pathways for adults seeking to improve their chess will be explored in the next article.