Under Pressure

Over the last few days I’ve been reading with interest the reports of the English contingent’s progress at the European Schools Championship in Montenegro.

The reports are written by Malcolm Birks, whose son Joe is taking part in the Under 9 section. After Round 5 he wrote “The tension is palpable and not all of it is fun”.

After Round 7 Malcolm went into more detail:

Being strong, even extra strong, is important in these competitions, because the lurking feeling that hangs around in the corners of the playing hall is fear.

Some of the children participating are undoubtedly fearful which is sad and worrying. Fearful of their parents’ reaction, fearful of their coaches and fearful of the great expectations upon their small shoulders.

I’m glad to say that I don’t think that this applies to the England players in our team, who all seem to have a healthy attitude and supportive parents and coaches. Indeed, a friendly parent from the Israeli delegation kindly observed: “I knew it must be players from the England team because they were smiling”.

It’s disturbing, but not altogether surprising, to read this, although good to be reassured that the English parents and coaches have been supporting their children in a healthy and positive way.

By and large, most English chess parents, in my experience, are great. We’ve been very lucky in the parents we’ve had at Richmond Junior Club over the years. However, I’ve witnessed parents shouting at children who have lost games, and heard reports of parents physically abusing children. I’m not sure that the whole concept of children having to score well in one tournament to qualify for the next tournament, or for the England squad, is helpful in this respect. The last time I visited the London Junior Championships I witnessed several children in tears because they hadn’t scored enough points to obtain a norm for the England Junior Squad.

Of course competitive chess, like any competitive activity, is, by its nature, tense and pressurised, and, because it’s a solo activity you can’t blame anyone other than yourself if you make a careless mistake and lose the game. Some people thrive on that sort of pressure, but there are others, including me, who don’t enjoy it.

Malcolm’s report poses a lot of questions, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. When Luke McShane was selected for the World Under 10 Championship in 1992 at the age of eight, there were those in the English junior chess establishment who were opposed to his selection, believing that Luke would be too young to cope with that sort of pressure, and citing a boy who had had a bad experience in this event in the past. But those of us who knew Luke and his father well were confident that he had the maturity to take part, and, as we know, he went on to win the tournament.

These days anyone who works with children has to be aware of child abuse, and aware of the long-term damage that physical and emotional abuse, as well as sexual abuse, can do to children. While many children gain a lot of benefit from taking part in junior international chess tournaments of this nature, they do create an environment in which abuse can occur. In events like this, especially when they involve very young children (the World Schools Championship includes U7 and U7 Girls sections), organisers need to be sensitive to the potential for abuse, and national chess federations need to provide guidelines for parents and coaches with regard to appropriate conduct.

There’s one more point. This is a relatively low profile event, much smaller and weaker than the World and European Youth Championships. A large proportion of the competitors are from Russia, with significant participation also from Turkey and Israel. There are 13 English players (plus a member of Richmond Junior Club representing Russia in the U7 section), five Spanish players and one Swedish player. Other West European countries, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps they’ve decided their players will get more benefit, or better value for money, by playing in open Swiss events against players of all ages. I understand this, but we have very few suitable tournaments in this country. Perhaps they know something we don’t. Perhaps we should ask them and find out.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.