Parental Warning

This is more of a cautionary warning directed at chess parents and potential chess parents. I had an article written about the Scotch Opening all ready to submit, but a posting on Nigel’s Facebook page this weekend derailed my plans. What kind of social media posting could yield such power? A posting about a young chess player (eight years old) who was hit on the head for losing a junior level tournament. This absolutely caused my blood to boil. I told a friend of mine, who’s a former bank robber having made the FBI’s big time wanted list (he’s a college professor now, teaching writing not robbing) what he thought. He thought this to be a worse crime than armed robbery. Saying I was extremely angry regarding this issue was an understatement. So once again I am writing one of my open letters to the parents of young chess players. Think of it as a public service announcement regarding adults behaving badly, which alarmingly is becoming the norm at junior chess tournaments rather than the exception.

I suspect the root of this problem, parents and/or coaches verbally or physically belittling chess children, has to do with the adult in question’s shortcomings. In my experience as a coach who has spent a great deal of time in tournament halls watching my students/ teams play, I’ve noticed that one of the worst offenders is the parent who played chess in their youth. Typically, the adult in question was a decent junior player back in the day. They played many junior tournaments, laying claim to many a trophy. However, when they finally made it to the big regional tournament they went down in flames or worse yet, earned second or third place rather than first. For them, it was a matter of coming close but not close enough to take home the big prize. No matter though because they now have a son or daughter who can restore their family honor by making it to the regional tournament and grab that first place trophy. Yes, dear parent, you couldn’t do it so you’re now going to get your child to do it at all costs! Of course, you could substitute the parent who didn’t get first place in their elementary school’s finger painting competition with the parent who didn’t win the chess tournament as well. The point here is that some parents live vicariously through their children, forcing their children to right some silly wrong from their childhood. The result is the same, humiliation and suffering on the part of the child so the parent can rewrite their own history. This is how we lose potentially good players early on!

I’ve seen some adult behavior at tournaments that was borderline abuse and it angers me like nothing else. In my mind, it’s on par with beating an animal. Real adults simply don’t act this way. Case in point: I was at a junior tournament with one of my teams and had the opportunity to watch a parent as well as a coach have a complete meltdown when their team ended up in third place. Just placing at a large tournament is grounds for celebration but not for the team in question. Both the parent, who was acting as assistant coach, and the coach himself preceded to scream at the third place team. “You know why you’re losers? Because real winners come in first place, not third.” That was one of many memorable comments made by adults to a group of children ranging between nine and twelve years of age. Of course, there were lots of tears to be had by the third place team and not one of the other parents said anything to defend their children. Yes, I had something to say to say to the coach and parent in question (something I cannot repeat here due to rather colorful language, but not said within earshot of the children). Essentially, I told the two adult miscreants that they aught to be ashamed of themselves and they probably wouldn’t try the same tirade with other adults for fear of getting punched in the face. This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding things I’ve seen at junior tournaments.

Here’s the deal parents. You are not your children and should not try to rewrite your own competitive history by using your children as personal pawns so to speak. Let them find out about winning and losing in their own way. Belittling a child does absolutely nothing to support their interest in chess, in fact, just the opposite. A fair number of potentially good junior players learn to hate the game of chess thanks to their parents and coaches. Just because you lost the regional junior chess championship doesn’t mean you get behave like an insane dictator out for revenge. You lost so you have to accept it. Give your son or daughter a chance to win or lose on their own. They might not win this year but there’s always next year. Kindness and understanding will go a lot farther towards fostering a life long interest for chess.

Then there’s the parent who plays a little chess at their local chess club and insists on doing your job for you. This, coincidentally, is usually the same parent who lost the junior regional championship in their youth. When your car breaks down, you take it to the mechanic to be repaired. The mechanic is the expert at fixing cars which is why you pay him. You don’t stand around and tell him how to go about his business (if you do I guarantee he’ll charge you more). Therefore, if you’re a parent and you’re paying a professional chess coach to provide lessons, don’t tell the coach how he or she should teach. I have this problem from time to time.

The biggest problem with the “I’m going to help you teach chess” parent are the bad habits they’ve instilled in their children. I had a student whose father made a career of winning games against weaker players by employing tricks and traps in the opening. This translated to my student only being able to spring dubious traps on unsuspecting opponents in order to win. When the young man faced off against stronger players he lost because he was more interested in being a trickster rather than learning principled play. Many of my student’s bad habits come from well meaning family members. I probably spend just as much time breaking my student’s bad habits as I do teaching them good chess habits. It’s much easier to develop good habits than it is to break bad habits. Parents should leave the chess teaching to the professional. Seriously parents, you wouldn’t tell your surgeon how to take your appendix out during an emergency appendectomy so don’t do your chess teacher’s job.

Parents, you are the immediate role model that sets the standard for your children. When you act like a uncouth Barbarian your child thinks it acceptable. Don’t be that parent! Of course, the majority of my chess parents are wonderful, always being supportive of their children, win, lose or draw! They let their children learn life’s lessons on their own. To those winning is everything parents I say this: Your son or daughter might have what it takes to become a Grandmaster. However, you’ll never know if your behavior drives them away from the game. Treating your children badly because they don’t take home the first place trophy only makes you look bad. You had your chance now give your child a chance. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week when I’ll post my Scotch Opening article!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).