Starting a Chess Club

I am often asked about starting chess clubs outside of my own chess classes by parents and teachers. I also receive frantic emails from teachers and parents who have started chess clubs and are having trouble maintaining them. Therefore, I thought I’d offer some advice on how to start a chess club for parents and teachers who may not have a great deal of experience with the game.

The first step in starting a chess club is finding a suitable location. Because chess requires concentration, the club should meet in a location that offers the least amount of external distractions. If meeting at a school, use the library or a classroom. Usually, a classroom will be assigned. Ask the person assigning the classroom if there is a classroom available that doesn’t have computers or musical instruments (both distractions). I recommend trying to use a classroom designated for Kindergarten aged students because the items found in this type of classroom won’t appeal to older kids. If using a library, ask if they have a smaller meeting room the chess club can use. Larger rooms make it more difficult to maintain control.

Invest in some basic equipment. This equipment includes boards, chess pieces, a few chess clocks and a demonstration board. Use non-weighted pieces because weighted pieces have a metal slug in them that can come loose and become a choking hazard. Chess pieces are based on King height and the height you want is 3 ¾ inches which is the tournament standard. Use vinyl chess boards with 2 ¼ inch squares. Start with five to eight complete sets of boards and pieces. As for clocks, invest in two to start. Most of your club’s members will be beginners and will not need to use a chess clock until they develop some real chess skills. Young beginners play too fast as it is, not thinking about their moves, and chess clocks seem to inspire them to play faster. The use of a chess clock should be earned through slow, good play. Use the use of a chess clock as a reward for hard work.

As for the demo or demonstration board, I recommend the old fashioned slotted pocket type. It’s old school but it doesn’t need batteries and won’t suddenly crash on you. Even though I have a laptop that can plug into my school’s projection system, I rely on my old demo board because it will not break down in the middle of a lecture.

The question that I’m most often asked regarding chess clubs is how to determine who in the club is a beginner and who is more advanced. If you’re a seasoned chess coach, you could have everyone start playing chess and be able to see who plays at what level. However, if you’re a parent or teacher who plays only a little chess, making such a determination can be difficult. The solution? A simple written quiz. This quiz should ask questions about piece movement, pawn and piece values, castling, opening principles as well as having some basic chess problems to solve. Have the club members take the quiz and sort those club members into two groups, beginners and intermediate players. I suggest two groups because most club members will fall into one of those two categories. What should you do if you get an advanced player into your club who might play chess as well as you? Make them your assistant coach and have them help fellow students.

What about the parent or teacher who isn’t a strong chess player? Well, you’ll have to put some work into your game. Use books to improve, such as the many books written by Bruce Pandolfini. You’ll get better and you can pass that knowledge on to your club members. Before you grumble, remember this; you signed on to start a chess club so you must have some interest in chess. If you have an interest in the game, you’ll enjoy improving along with your students. Here’s how I look at teaching and coaching: Wow, I get a chance to get better at the game I love and pass it along to others. That’s a win win situation!

Chess clubs are not a babysitting service. There are some parents who might look at an after school chess club as a cost effective alternative to paying a nanny. However, as the head of the chess club you cannot take this view. You have to be proactive. You have to make it an environment in which club members want to learn rather than simply pass the time. This brings us to the structure on the club itself.

Ideally you’ll want to meet once a week. Working with youngsters is different than working with adults. For one thing, young minds tend to lose concentration easily. Therefore, meet for one hour to start. You can give a lesson for the first twenty minutes, leaving forty minutes to play chess. Warning: Dull chess lessons can be comparable to watching paint dry. Keep the lessons simple. Trying to explain twenty different principles using a Bobby Fischer game that is sixty moves long will crush any enthusiasm your club members might have. Stick to the basics such as a lesson on checkmating with a King and Queen against a lone King or a lesson on the three basic opening principles (putting a pawn in the board’s center, developing the minor pieces and castling). Teach one concept at a time. Read anything written by Richard James for lesson ideas.

Regarding the opening principles, don’t teach specific openings until the opening principles are fully understood. Too often, the club leader will teach a specific opening which the club members memorize. Those club members will suffer on the board if they don’t know why they’re making those moves.

Have patience because you’ll need it! When you’re new to chess, which many of your club members will be, concepts can be difficult to grasp. The explanation you provide may not make sense to a ten year old. I tell my students that if I fail to explain a concept to their satisfaction then they have the absolute right to ask for another explanation of that concept. Encourage questions. Questions keep club members engaged and engaged minds are focused minds! My classroom lectures are a Socratic adventure in which the back and forth dialog reinforces my student’s comprehension of the subject matter.

Maintain discipline. You’re the adult so you have to keep order. While the majority of your club members will be focused, there is always one member who is troublesome. When I identify that individual, I say to them, “you’re my new assistant so I need you to give me a hand.” Even if its just to set stuff up, that individual will more often than not, feel a sense of purpose.

If you have trouble getting club members focused at the start of a lesson, try this: I’ll walk into the classroom, not say a word and set up the demonstration board. Then I’ll start playing through a game, making comments such as “that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” Of course, my students will suddenly start looking at the demonstration board and asking me what is so amazing. I then proceed with the lesson which actually started the minute I starting playing through the game and making comments. Be creative!

Play against your students but make it a reward for hard work. In other words, play only those students who pay attention to the lessons. Maintain quiet when club members are playing one another. I use a Judge’s gavel to bring order to the room and when students hear it banging against the desk, they know it’s too loud.

As for homework, I seem to be one of the few instructors that get student’s to do homework on a regular basis. 85% of my students have been with me for one to three years and know that improvement comes with hard work (homework). However, you cannot do this with new students. I suggest no assignment of homework, at least at first. Students have enough homework as it is. The lesson you give and club members subsequently trying out their new found knowledge on the chessboard will be enough for basic improvement. Encourage club members to play with their parents, etc.

Take it slow, take is easy and be patient. Make your lessons entertaining (I have pulled out a guitar and sung “The e pawn blues” to my classes) and engaging. Know your topic. If you don’t understand it how can you expect anyone else to understand it? Maintain a structured disciplined environment, otherwise you’ll be the ring leader of the circus of madness. Teach good sportsmanship. Above all else, have fun. Here’s a game to ponder until next week.

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).