The Pep Talk

Learning how to play good chess can be discouraging for the young beginner. I know that I came close to giving up on this fantastic journey on numerous occasions. What kept me going were words of wisdom and encouragement passed on to me by experienced chess players and teachers. I decided to write this article after witnessing a verbal exchange between a very young member of a rival chess team and his coach. The child in question had a very bad result at a recent tournament. I stood speechless as the coach berated his student in front of the other members of their team. The poor young man was in tears and the coach wouldn’t let up. While others stood and watched, I walked up to the coach and asked to have a word in private. After we walked away from his students, I simply asked him why he felt the need to make a bad situation worse by berating a child. He told me that he used tough love and didn’t pamper his team members the way I did. I suggested he not berate children in my presence and walked away. I was angry but I wasn’t about to get into an old fashion donnybrook in front of a hall full of children.

When children become involved in competitive chess, they face a series of challenges both on and off the chessboard. While children can emotionally bounce back from most problems easily, we still have to remember that their egos can be extremely fragile when under pressure. A lost game can be painful. A lost tournament can be devastating. When a child loses a tournament, they often feel as if they’re letting their teammates, coach and parents down. Young children haven’t developed intellectually enough to put their losses in proper perspective. Some of my students may play chess better than many adults I know but they’re still children. Just because they play chess like an adult doesn’t mean they handle emotional pain with the same level of maturity. One of the things I do early on when working with my newer students is to talk about handling losses and how to overcome them.

The journey towards the mastery of any endeavor, be it music or chess, is never without a few setbacks. These setbacks can be thought about as a test of one’s commitment to the journey. While adults can rationalize this, children cannot. These setbacks can discourage a child which can lead to a complete disinterest in continuing the journey. The journey a child takes along the road to chess mastery has to be exciting and fun. While there will be setbacks, approaching these bumps in the road in the right way can be the difference between a child simply giving up on chess or continuing on with renewed vigor. The first painful setback for chess children comes when they start losing more games than they’re winning. I tell them the following story:

There once was a little boy who couldn’t play chess very well. He took lessons with a local chess teacher as did all of the little boy’s friends. However, as the boy’s friends got better, he made little progress. Soon, all his friends could beat this little boy and even his chess teacher was becoming discouraged. The boy would cry late into the evenings, wondering why he couldn’t play chess like his friends. One summer day, the little boy woke up and had a thought. “Today’s the day that I’m going to turn things around. I’m going to reread that book my chess teacher gave me and practice even more.” The little boy pulled the book from a shelf above his bed, set up his chessboard and started to read. Rather than watch his favorite morning cartoons, the little boy dedicated this time to getting better at chess. He worked at it day after day, month after month. Very soon, he was no longer losing games. In fact, he started winning games and joined his school’s chess club where he became one of their best players. The little boy didn’t give up, instead working harder to improve his game. That little boy was me.

My students are amazed that I had such a hard time learning how to play chess (and still do). They think, since I’m their chess coach, that I must be some sort of chess guru. Some of my young students have said “I bet you’d beat Bobby Fischer if you played him.” When I tell them that Fischer would crush me, they’re surprised. However, this brings up another point I make to my beginning students. There will always be someone who plays better chess but this can serve as a challenge to improve our own game.

The beautiful thing about chess is that, while there are always going to be players who are stronger than you, there are also players who are weaker than you. This means that you’ll have your share of victories. When my students ask if I’ve ever lost a game (remember, these are very young children), I reply “of course I have.” I tell my students that I love chess so much that I don’t mind losing a game if I gave it my best. I also tell them that my greatest lessons which led to improvement came from games I lost. After a loss, I sit down, replay through the game and determine where I went wrong. We learn from our mistakes.

Parents have to be on board with this way of thinking as well. I’ve seen my share of chess parents ruin the game for their children by having unrealistic expectations. When talking to the parents of my new students, I make it very clear that children’s chess can be very stressful and it is critical that both the parents and the child’s coach make that child’s chess experience positive. I interview the parents and ask them how they deal with losses in their child’s life to ensure this. Fortunately, I haven’t had many hardcore chess parents to deal with. I work with the parents to create a monitoring system, helping us to ensure their child is having fun and improving at the same time. As for the chess coach first mentioned in this article, my team took first the last two tournaments we played against his team, so I guess the “pampered” team had the last laugh.

To parents and coaches reading this, remember that chess should be fun and exciting. Children’s feelings can easily be hurt so be kind to them. Help them face their losses in a positive way. Be supportive and proactive. Don’t forget, they may play chess at a seemingly advanced level but they’re still kids. Here’s a game in which a young Bobby Fischer takes on Samuel Reshevsky.

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).