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Scholastic Chess Club Meetings A General Framework
 By Prof. Chester Nuhmentz

 

This article begins with sketches of how scholastic chess meetings are often organized. The various parts of a typical elementary school club meeting are then discussed in greater detail, with an emphasis on activities and materials that can be used with a broad spectrum of chess students.

Sketches of Typical Chess Club Meetings


Here's a meeting outline that can work well for many school chess clubs:

  • Snack (10 minutes)

  • Brief general instruction (10 minutes)

  • Divide students into teams for the day (1 minute)

  • Team quiz (10 minutes)

  • Introduce activities for between-round practice (2 minutes)

  • Round 1 games (25 minutes)

  • Round 2 games (25 minutes)

  • Announcements for prizes, assignments, next meeting

  • Clean-up

Training-oriented meetings for elementary students might look more like this:

  • Snack (10 minutes)

  • Collect and review homework (10 minutes)

  • Full group instructional activity (15 minutes)

  • Introduce activities for between-game practice (5 minutes)

  • Small group lessons / chess games (three 15 minute sessions)

  • Assign new homework (2 minutes)

  • Clean-up

Equipment and materials useful for these meetings:

  • Snack items (often supplied by parent volunteers, following school guidelines)

  • Suitable tables (cafeteria, library, science lab, art room)

  • Chess boards and pieces (quality sets are available in bulk from several vendors; one set for each student is ideal for instructional purposes)

  • Chess score sheets for recording games

  • Demonstration chess board or chess transparencies and an overhead projector

  • Chess clocks or timers

  • Three-ring binders for students

  • Printed chess exercises for between-game and home practice

  • Items for tournament-style play: pairing sheets, team flags, prizes

  • Items for evaluating and recognizing student progress

  • If possible, computers with chess software and Internet access


 

A Closer Look at the Elements of a Chess Club Meeting

How difficult it will be to gather the items listed above and prepare for a meeting will depend on how established a club is, the level of chess expertise possessed by the adult mentors, the size of the club, and other variables. Yet there are preparations that are almost universally helpful. Let's walk through the two hypothetical meeting agendas once more, this time with more detail.

Warm-Up Quizzes
Before handing out the chess sets, having a short verbal quiz at the beginning of a meeting is a good way to transition into chess activities. A quiz also provide an informal opportunity to introduce instructional concepts. (For example, here are two quizzes that each have items about knight moves and forks.)

 

Visualization quizzes can be devised with a minimum of props. For example, the names of the 64 chess squares can be written on the backs of business cards (cheerfully donated by parents) and stored in a box. Any number of quiz questions can then be devised using these cards. For example, for a quiz related to knight moves, a student volunteer could draw two cards from the box. The two squares written on the backs of the cards would be announced. Then students would race to determine the minimum number of moves needed to move a knight from the first square to the second. If forks are being discussed, the task for the students might be to name EVERY square from which a queen could attack both of the drawn squares.

 

Advanced students can be required to observe the speak-move rule of chess instruction. Just like learning to not touch a piece until all calculations are done, students can be asked to withhold giving an answer unless they have the question completely solved. Under this rule, advanced students can answer "How many possible checks does White have?" by stating the grand total, but cannot answer by listing checks as they find them.

Scoring systems for quizzes can be handled in many ways:

  • No points -- simply ask questions and congratulate each student who answers correctly first.

  • Award points based on the amount of time elapsed before the correct answer is given. For example, suppose students are given a maximum of 30 seconds to answer each question. A student who provides the correct answer instantaneously would receive 30 points. Answers given after 10 seconds elapsed would be worth 20 points.

  • Points based on difficulty of the problem -- "hard" problems might be worth twice as much as "easy" ones. On visualization quizzes, students who choose to solve problems with their eyes closed can be made eligible to receive double the points of students who are able to look at or manipulate a chess board.

  • Bonus rounds -- certain questions may be arbitrarily given special value before they are asked. For example, the last three questions might be worth double or triple the points of earlier questions.

The emphasis of contests should, of course, clearly be on developing chess skills. Once students have become engrossed in the inherent intrigue of chess, there's little need to direct their attention to tasks which will help them improve their game. Quizzes and similar games that include simple non-intrusive motivators can help larger groups maintain focus on chess skills -- especially students who tend to be distractable due to maturity or low interest in chess.

 

Organizing Games Between Club Members
Without a system for pushing club members to play against a variety of opponents, the natural tendency is for cliques to form where students repeatedly play within small circles of friends. Once such cliques are established, when a player does seek a game against a new opponent it's often for the wrong reason -- to score an easy win at the expense of a younger, weaker player. For player development and team morale, it's usually best for club directors to frequently take control of pairings for games at meetings.

Besides chess sets, handy items to have for club games are score sheets, pairing forms, and chess clocks. For instructional use, a variety of styles for score sheet are useful:

Pairing sheets can also be basic or enhanced. Extra features make it easier for instructors to set handicaps between players or to specify certain opening moves that the players should use.

 

A lot of chess coaches have a love-hate relationship with chess clocks when working with young students. Beginners inevitably play excessively fast and increase their blunders-per-game ratio when using a clock. Chess clocks and any form of blitz chess are best avoided until students are consistently studying their options throughout their games. If two young players with impulsive styles desparately want to use a clock, have them use it in the opposite manner as usual. Give each player 30 minutes, and instruct each player to hit the OTHER PLAYER'S button after making a move. A player is not eligible to win the game unless he or she has used at least a certain amount of time -- e.g., 5 minutes total or an average of 15 seconds per move.

Once students have demonstrated that they habitually look for threats of captures and checks before touching a piece, chess clocks become an important training tool for promoting accurate calculations that are performed with efficient use of time. Clocks are also invaluable for bringing an orderly finish to games that must be brought to a close so the group can move to the next round or activity.

 

It can add to the excitement of club games to divide players into teams that are approximately equal in playing strength. Players should be grouped differently for each meeting, and along different criteria (e.g., occasionally it might be "4th Grade vs. The World"). Team flags can be a nice option. As games are played during a meeting, both individual and team points are collected using the standard 1, 0.5, 0 point system for wins, draws, and losses. After the games have finished for a meeting, all players on the team with the most points can be given a Championship Team card.  This system can complement one for recognizing individual achievements. New players usually have little hope of doing well in individual rankings but, by also offering team points, everyone can have a chance to win a team card.

 

Many chess instructors either prefer or insist that their students not use club meeting time to play alternative games that use chess sets, such as Bughouse or Siamese chess. Since these variant games don't contribute to the development of chess skills, this seems to be a reasonable position. An alternative way of playing chess that's not only novel but beneficial for chess training is blindfolded chess. Please take a look at these Skittles cards to see a simple way that blindfolded chess can be made accessible to intermediate and advanced students.

 

Instructional Activities for the Entire Club
One of the most alluring features of chess is its ability to fascinate and challenge those who have studied it for a lifetime AND those who have studied it for only an hour. Unlike math problems, many chess positions can pose satisfying challenges for both novice and accomplished players. The arrangement of chessmen at the beginning of a game is a position that invites -- demands -- study by novice and grandmaster alike.

 

With a little creativity, lessons can be developed that beginning students can work on right beside advanced students. For example, please look at this worksheet for finding checkmating patterns.  The student's job is to identify all the ways two chessmen can be placed on the board to put Black in checkmate. Beginners working on this task should proceed slowly and may put actual chessmen on the paper to help them find each solution. Advanced students should solve the problems using only their imaginations. They should be required to work quickly, but not answer until they have found every possible solution.

 

New information can be conveyed in these situations without boring some students and frustrating others. The attention of beginners might be directed to a pin in a position; intermediate students may be interested in a common name for the same position -- "that's the famous Heisman Mate!"; advanced students may be able to see how a certain checkmate is likely to arise from a certain type of middlegame pattern or opening.

 

Questions that require incrementally more visualization are possible for most positions that are not mate-in-one. Beginners may be asked to describe the here-and-now situation on the board (e.g., describing immediate possible captures and checks) and gradually formulate a list of candidate moves. More experienced players can be asked to look deeper into potential sequences of moves to see which candidate moves hold up against tactical and positional considerations.

 

Toward the end of full-group instruction, assignments can be given to enable students to continue the lesson at a level appropriate for their skills. See the section below on "Between-Round and Home Practice" for more discussion about this.

 

Small Group Instruction
Teaching chess in the schools provides a sure-fire way to acquire appreciation, empathy, and respect for educators. In many ways, the situation is ideal -- eager, motivated students with interested, supportive parents. Even with these advantages, the instructional portion of chess clubs is often an exercise in triage, figuring out how to spread limited resources as effectively as possible. Adults in charge of meetings must decide whether to give their attention to novices just learning the game, advanced students who are finding fewer challenges at the club level, or the middle group of players.

 

The pool of potential chess teachers for school clubs is nearly always miniscule. One common response to this problem is to recruit older students who have strong chess and interpersonal skills act as tutors for less advanced students. Other ways that clubs compensate for the lack of adult teachers are using instructional video tapes, computer programs, and books or worksheets.

 

Whatever instructional style is used, elementary-grade students most successfully apply chess theory to their games when lessons are focused on a single clear idea and are followed immediately by an opportunity to apply that concept over the board. The central idea of a lesson can be introduced by an instructor or video; practiced under structured conditions (on the board, computer, or worksheets); then targeted for attention during actual games.

 

Suppose one instructor is available at a club meeting for 18 students. The instructor would like to provide small group lessons at three levels of difficulty. One way to approach this situation would be to first divide the group into two teams of 9 players. The two teams would be reasonably matched according to playing strength. Then each team would be divided into thirds by playing strength. The two teams would play three rounds of games against each other. During the first round, the most advanced third of students from each team would receive a lesson instead of playing a game. During the second round, the intermediate third would receive their lesson. And the weakest third of players from each team would have a group lesson while the stronger players complete the day's mini-tournament. (After finishing their lesson, the advanced students might play one longer round of games rather than two shorter rounds.)

 

Between-Round and Home Practice
In the majority of scholastic chess clubs, we adults facilitate progress rather than directly cause it. Once students develop a fascination for the game, they tend to push their own progress -- often our biggest challenge is to avoid dampening their enthusiasm or growth. Providing material and opportunities for student progress, rather than presenting detailed lessons, is the primary task of most amateur coaches. When students are not receiving direct instruction or playing chess, for example between games at meetings, is the ideal time to create these opportunities.

 

Ideas that have been introduced in formal lessons can be greatly expanded and extended through worksheets that students use while waiting for their next game at club meetings, at home, or anytime they're not expected to be doing something else. For example, suppose that the topic for a club meeting is a review of principles for strong opening play. As follow-up, beginners could be assigned to play chess using KINGO score sheets while more advanced students might be given problems from Crimes and Punishments. All students could be assigned appropriate homework from Twenty Questions.

 

One of the trickiest times to manage a scholastic chess meeting is the point where there are several students who are between games, and are waiting for other games to finish. If a game finishes significantly sooner than the rest of the field is expected to, usually the players involved can switch colors and play again. Some instruction or handicapping may be necessary to prevent a series of lopsided outcomes.

 

Another alternative is to have the players start a new battle from an endgame position. There are many benefits to having students practice from both winning and losing endgame positions. Beginners need to practice forcing a lone king into mate using a king and queen. They also need to learn the importance of trying to keep their king in the middle and to fight for a stalemate if on the losing side. The specific position can be as straightforward or as subtle as appropriate for the players involved. Chess Meets Hangman is a useful tool for adding structure to this type of exercise.

 

Some scholastic chess programs offer a series of skill classifications that students may advance through -- similar to advancing through belt colors in the martial arts. One peripheral advantage of such a system is that is provides another source of chess-oriented activity for students to concentrate on while waiting for games. Criteria for advancing from one level to the next can be summarized by simple checklists, or by a more thorough set of requirements. Upon completion of a level, players might receive a certificate, or a card, or some other tangible symbol that will mark the milestone for both players and parents. The main point here is that a skill checklist provides a great resource when helping to direct student energy between games.

 

To make substantial improvement, students need to work on their chess skills outside of club meetings. Ideally, players should regularly turn in score sheets of outside games. Some students will have difficulty finding a suitable human or computer opponent and will do better with exercise sheets. Having students complete analysis forms about games played during meetings can be an excellent homework exercise.

 

Most of the chess exercises and supplemental material discussed in this article can be downloaded from the author's web site:

 

http://www.professorchess.com.

 


 

Copyright 2003 by Prof. Chester Nuhmentz
All rights reserved

 

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