“My Happy Place”

by admin on November 3, 2007

Everybody loves Friday, of course, but I have a special reason to look forward to it every week. Friday is the day that I run the Aptos Library Chess Club, a club for kids aged six and up. I’ve been doing this for 11 years, ever since I moved to Santa Cruz. (For anyone in the Santa Cruz area with kids who play chess, please join us! We meet from 3:30 to 4:30.)

The attendance usually varies between eight and twelve kids, but every now and then we will get as many as twenty. Other weeks, especially during the slow summer season, there may be only three or four. One of the odd things about this club is that I can never predict how many people will come, or even who will come. I always seem to have a few regulars, but most of them last for just a year or two, and then kind of disappear. Does anyone out there have any ideas on how to keep kids coming to a chess club, and increase their level of commitment?

For the last year, I have started giving 15-to-20 minute lessons at the beginning of every club meeting. The lessons have really improved the club, but not in the way I expected. Most of my clientele consists of beginners, and it is constantly being replenished with more beginners. So it’s not always apparent that they are actually absorbing the lessons into their play. I think a teacher of kids has to have a lot of faith that yes, the message is getting through somehow.  And one has to be willing to repeat oneself many times.

However, the lessons have made a big difference in the atmosphere of the club. One of the things that amazed me is that some of the kids love the lessons. They are so eager to raise their hands, so eager to get called on, it’s almost like candy to them. There are a few shy ones, of course, and I try to call on them, too, so they won’t feel left out. For everyone — shy and eager alike — I think the message of the lessons is that we take chess seriously in this club. Even more basically, they learn that chess is something that is possible to take seriously. You can actually think about your moves, and as crazy as it sounds, thinking is fun. What a concept!

At present we are gradually working through Murray Chandler’s book, Chess Tactics for Kids. Yesterday we started chapter 8, on deflections. I’m not sure if the beginners in the group grasped the idea at all, but we’ll keep on talking about them for another week or two.

Does anyone have any other favorite chess books for kids?

In this blog entry you might catch just a hint that I wish I had more advanced kids in the club. I’ll leave it at that, just a very faint hint. I’m a little envious of the other chess coaches out there who seem to have a magic formula for getting kids to 1400 level, or 1600, or 2000, or whatever. I’d be thrilled if one of my kids even went to a rated tournament! (Actually, over the years a couple of them have ventured into rated chess, and one of them still plays tournament chess at age 21 and has a rating of around 1700.)

But over time, I have mostly let go of the results-oriented mentality, and come to accept that the main role of this club is just providing kids a fun place to hang out and play chess. The greatest compliment I ever received came a few years ago, when the mother of one of the kids in my club, a girl named Cat, told me how eager her daughter was to come every week.  Why did she like it so much? her mother asked.

“Because it’s my happy place,” Cat replied.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Carina J November 5, 2007 at 10:49 am

While I don’t have experience teaching kids, it’s not so long ago that I was one, so I remember what worked with me and what didn’t. I think the biggest challenge in teaching with a constant flow of new students, is that the ones who have been studying for a longer time stops feeling like they have to work hard to do well in class. Kids probably aren’t aware of this happening, so it’s probably needed to be aware of keeping the older students well challenged. On the other hand, it’s ofcourse also risky to have too high challenges, which did happen for me and in the end I gave up studying because I was used to never being able to get things right andhad to look at solutions all the time. 😀 It’s easier to study as an adult, because I know well what I’m capable of/not capable of, and can seek out material that suits my needs perfectly-not too easy, not too hard, just challenge. I’ve noticed that no matter how beneficial an activity really is for me, I’ll give up on it once I’ve feel I’ve “mastered” it. Perhaps this is what happens to the kids who stop after a year or two (again, especially when there are a new kids coming in, who may be new to the entire game). Also, the new kids are probably more demanding than the ones who have gotten the hang of it, which potentially could be bad, because kids are often not diciplined in whipping themselves to work all the time. In school for example, I always lean back and let my mind wander whenever somethings being explained that I already understand, but this is actually not very good for my skills as a student, haha. I think that being very aware that the advanced kids don’t get too easily through a class, so they still feel they have to push themselves to solve stuff, could be an idea. Another issue might be that it’s difficult to keep kids really focused on their lessons, if it’s only one hour each week, but I guess that can’t be changed unless you give them lots of homework so they work outside of class.. might be a possibility?

I guess it’s a difficult issue, though. Handling so many young students with individual needs is bound to be difficult, and I’m not sure how I would do it myself, if I were a teacher. 😀

But if your classes are as amusing as the chesslectures, which from Cat’s comment it sounds like they are, then it sounds like a great environment for learning has been established, which should and could give kids a positive start in chess.


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