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«Psychological Preparation for Children Playing in Chess Tournaments David MacEnulty When I first thought of this ...»

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Playing with the clock. This does not happen so often now that nearly everyone is using the digital clock, but with the old analogue clocks, I have seen children actually reach back and alter the time.

Unethical behavior I’ll give you $20 to let me win.

I recently heard a story of a girl who was easily winning. Her opponent, another girl, said that her mother would beat her if she lost. The girl with the winning position, in an act of naïve altruism, threw the game. When she came out and told her mother what had happened, her mother said she did the right thing. Then her coach heard the story and had a rather different—and angry— reaction. He said the girl was duping her, and she fell for it. The girl was crushed, and didn’t play again for two years.


This is the tough one, and fear of losing is essentially at the bottom of all these other behaviors.

So how do we prepare our children for these events?

We all have to come up with our own systems and ideas that work with who we are and our style of teaching and coaching. What follows are my particular solutions to these problems. If you find anything here useful, please make it your own. As creative individuals, you will all come up with your own variations on these, or come up with your own solutions that may be at complete variance with these suggestions. The only requirements, to my mind, are that they help the child and do not harm others.

So let’s discuss each of these.

Intimidating behaviors.

I tell my students that there is only one reason people do try to intimidate you: they are afraid of you. So when you hear someone tell you they are rated several hundred points higher than you, or that they are the state champion or their father is a grandmaster, or they say you are stupid because you can’t name all the countries and their capitals for sub-Saharan Africa, just smile inside and tell yourself that this person is afraid of you. And they should be. Then tell yourself that you will not let this bully beat you, that you are going to examine every move, look for every weakness, think about the consequences of your intended move before you make it, and not let up for an instant. You will be totally focused throughout the entire game. And when it is over you will shake your opponent’s hand and not say anything nasty or negative. I want you to not just give them a lesson in chess, but also in how a decent human being behaves.

Obnoxious behavior during the game.

This one has an easy solution, but can be difficult to get the children to do. The solution to every instance, whether it is touch move, kicking under the table, trash talking, repeatedly asking for draws, making noises or anything else, is to simply raise your hand and get a tournament director over. Explain calmly and quietly what is wrong and let the TD take care of the problem. If the problem persists, raise your hand again.

And again and again if necessary. If you are not satisfied with what the TD says or does, ask to see your coach. That is your right.

The key to making this work is to convince the children before the games start that the tournament is based on rules, and that there are a lot of adults there to protect you from people who break the rules. When you are in the tournament hall, the first line of protection is the TD. A lot of children are afraid to say anything that might cause trouble, so they are reluctant to bring a TD over to the table. I like to ask what they think the TD or the child will do if they say something about disturbing behavior. It often transpires that they are afraid of the child, or they imagine the TD will not listen to them. I then ask them to look around the room they are in now, where they can see their friends, parents and coaches. I ask if they think there is any way any of us will let anyone hurt them. That generally gets a good giggle, and with a little more affirmation, they usually feel pretty good going into the tournament hall.

The children must know that they have a lot of back-up; even though they are removed from parents and coaches in that huge tournament hall, they are not alone.

Breaking the rules during the game.

Touch move is the one I see most often, and is a difficult one to deal with because the problem here is verification. In a large number of cases, it is impossible to verify that the person touched a piece. The TD will then be in the awful position of trying to determine who is telling the truth, a decidedly difficult proposition. Baring a credible witness, the TD will most often have to rule in favor of the person who denied touching the piece. As I like to point out, this is necessary because if I could make my opponent move a particular piece several times in a game just because I said he touched it, I could beat anyone in the world (those who know my skill level will recognize that this is in fact the only way I could beat any chess professional.) So we have to begin by recognizing that the liar will probably get away with it. Nevertheless, always raise your hand and get the TD over to make the complaint. If you lose the argument—and you probably will— at least you are on record with a complaint against this player. Tell the TD you understand why he had to rule that way, but the fact is the person did touch the piece. Then ask if he can keep an eye on the game.

Raise your hand for every infraction. The second or third time it may stick.

But now what? A rule has been broken, and the malefactor gets off scot free. I like to tell my students that the worst that can happen to them is that their opponent now has the opportunity to make a good move, and that is what we want them to do. We want them to challenge us, to make us think, make us prove we know more about chess than they do.

I then tell stories of great players who were angry when their opponents deprived them of the opportunity to play a great continuation, either through a blunder or resignation. There is no particular glory in beating someone who plays a bunch of bad moves.

The important thing here is to keep them from flying into a selfrighteous rage and not being able to focus on the game at hand.

I think it is also very important here to tell the students that now that you know the touch move rule is often broken with impunity, under no circumstances is anyone on our team to violate this rule. No trophy, no title, is worth your integrity. In this microcosm of the real world, we learn to take responsibility for our actions. If you intentionally touch a piece, you must find the best place you can to move that piece. You may not lie about it, no matter how painful the result. A game won by deceit will never be satisfying.

Not recognizing that the check is not mate or that other units can move so the position is not stalemate are things that young children have to be warned of beforehand so they can take a moment at the board to really assess the position before agreeing to what it is. I tell stories of children this has happened to so they will know that they really have to look at the final positions every time. I once had a student fall victim to this error twice in one tournament.

Unethical behavior.

When you come to a chess tournament, both players sit down with the clear knowledge that, unless the game is a draw, one will win and the other will lose. We came here to play. If you get sick and cannot continue, you lose. If you don’t show up, you lose, it doesn’t matter why. If your opponent starts crying, well, that’s too bad, but he knew the risk when he sat down. It is up to the child’s parent and/or coach to deal with the tears; it is not your job to throw a game to let someone feel better. Then you are the one who loses. If your opponent has a problem of any sort, it is not your problem. We play with good sportsmanship, we adhere to the rules and show respect for the person across the board.

But we have no mercy during the game. We came to win, as did our opponent. We want to win with a checkmate, not a bribe. Agreeing to take money is not only morally reprehensible; you will never see the twenty bucks, and reporting only confirms your complicity. We only lose by a hard-fought checkmate. For everything else, the answer is, no.


This last one can be the most difficult of all, which is too bad because it happens so often.

I like to tell the children that their job is to stay focused every move, do perfect notation, and come back and let us go over the game. They always giggle a little when I say that if you lose, your parents will still love you, your teammates will still respect you, I will continue to help you and you will still get dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow morning.

I frequently stress that failure is not a definition of who you are, it simply shows us what we need to work on. If you lose a game, or even all of them, it is my job to help you. And I will. Your value as a person does not rise and fall with your performance on the chessboard.

I don’t really want to see someone who carries this too far, smiling as they say, “it’s just a game.” Losing should mean something. We’ve all heard the bromide, “show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” However, that also takes things too far. A good loser, to me, is someone who shows respect for the opponent all the way through, maintains outward courtesy with a final handshake and congratulations to the winner, and then comes back with steely determination to learn what went wrong and to never make those mistakes again.

In a team setting, it is very important to stress team camaraderie. I tell the children that whatever is good for anyone is good for everyone, and what is bad for anyone is bad for everyone. If a teammate is having a rough time, it is everyone else’s job to come together to support and encourage that person. If someone is winning and you are not, be glad for them. As long as they are winning, that is good for the whole team.

Children are very hierarchical, and that is the source of many of our problems and also of our successes.

The children who indulge in intimidating, obnoxious or unethical behavior want to be at the top of the pecking order and will do anything to get there. They are under the misguided perception that the way to get to the top is to make sure no one else does. They think they can build themselves up by tearing others down. We see examples of them as adults in every walk of life, and frankly, I think that is appalling. You can climb to the top on merit with much more satisfaction and happiness than by entering the dog eat dog world of tearing at others.

The final issue I want to talk about is the damage the children do to themselves; their attitudes going into the games have a lot to do with how they will perform.

The two big ones are fear and an inflated view of their skills. Those who walk in afraid will often play cowardly chess. Those who think they are a second incarnation of Capablanca have a long way to fall when they are beaten.

I had a young girl once who was afraid of losing. She was actually a strong player for her age, but something happened—I still don’t know what—at a big tournament and she lost her first three games. I had a big team at the time and couldn’t look at everyone’s games. A coach I had hired to help at the tournament came up to me after the third round and said that Lisa was playing the worst chess he had ever seen from her.

He showed me the games and I nearly fell out of my chair they were so bad. We had about fifteen minutes before the next round, so I put a position from one of her games on the board and called her over. I asked her what black should do in this position. She quickly found a good move. I then made the move she played and asked what she thought of it. She stuck out her tongue in disgust and said it was awful.

I asked her why, and she gave a very good analysis. When I told her that was the move she played she just stared blankly.

I asked her if she was afraid of losing. She said yes, with tears beginning to well up in her eyes. I told her it was O.K. She could lose every game in this tournament, and she would still be an important part of the team. “You have my permission to lose. Just not like this! Go out and play Lisa chess. You are a strong player. Now you have a really big advantage for the rest of the tournament: Your next opponent will also have lost three games. There is no way he has a chance against you if you just go play what you know. Now go wash your face, get a drink of water, and do your best.” She won her next four games, and her final point put us in third place at that national tournament.

I had another student who was the darling of his parent’s eye, a smart, spoiled first grader who thought he was the best just because he was who he was. He didn’t have to work or study, he was perfect and indestructible. Chess has a way of proving otherwise. He was totally shattered when he lost his first three games at a local tournament, and eventually gave up chess.

Had I seen this coming I might have been able to prepare him better, but then again, he may have had too much of the superman complex to overcome. I would encourage parents and coaches to stress the value of work and effort over brains and talent. One of my favorite stories is of a famous cellist who said, “I practice eight to ten hours a day, and they call me a genius.” There is a lot more to say on this subject, but I’d like to conclude with these words: Most of the parents, players and coaches are really terrific people. The issues I have described are things to be aware of, they do happen, but don’t go into the tournament hall with a huge chip on your shoulder expecting villainous behavior from everyone else, or miraculous performance from your child without a lot of practice and study.

The more effort you put in, the higher up the mountain you can climb.

You may never reach the top, but the higher you go, the better the view.

Work hard, enjoy the journey, and the destination will take care of itself.

Let’s teach our children to love the game, follow the rules, study hard and often and respect their opponents. Persist with that, and you will get a good result.

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