I had been directing local Pittsburgh tournaments on-and-off for a year and a half when Boyd Reed asked if I’d be interested in directing the 2018 National Elementary in Nashville. Now, this was after he’d told me all the “fun” tournament director stories… but to be honest, I was pretty interested in seeing what the tournament was like, having never been to any national scholastics as a kid. Since I had nothing to do in between finals and graduation, I was all for it.
It seemed a bit strange to go in barely knowing anything about national scholastics, and more generally tournaments of that size. My home state of Indiana has never been big on the national scholastic scene, so for a long time I barely knew anyone who had been to any of those. And the largest tournament I’d played in was the U.S. Amateur Team East, which features at most half of the number of players of the National Elementary – factoring in all the potential parents, coaches, and kids running around shows how overwhelming the thought of the event was to me. But Boyd, who is basically the most experienced TD you can find (in addition to being the USCF Director of Events), was on board, which was good enough for me. In that line of work, surprises are a necessary part of the experience.
Not everything was a surprise. Friday (the first day of the tournament) was, as expected, not the most relaxing day ever. Having my my last exam Thursday evening meant scrambling to Nashville in the early morning, unlike most TDs who arrived Thursday. I ended up staying up till 3:30 a.m. (in solidarity with a few other friends cramming for their exams) before heading out for my 5 a.m. flight and getting a solid 2(!) hours of sleep along the way.
The enormous staff and the general nature of directing was also pretty much what I expected. There were slightly more than 40 floor TDs (including me) and one chief TD for each section, in addition to the backroom/overall chief TDs. The mechanics of tournament directing are not that exciting, although that is obviously not the purpose of the job. It is often said that it is better if a tournament director is invisible, usually indicating that there are no major problems or disputes created for or by the TDs. Most of the job of a floor TD is to be alert for questions, of which there are more than you’d expect at a normal large tournament (kids being kids), or in the case of national scholastics, taking results. However, it’s a mostly quiet endeavor, and is probably best left that way.
However, over the weekend I truly realized (for the first time) that that playing chess makes me feel very old, but directing makes me feel rather young. There is a pretty obvious explanation for this – wealth of organizing/directing experience is much more tied to age than chess skill (which, if anything, is considered to be stronger in young players). Most of the other TDs had clearly been around for a long time, if not at the national level.
The Gaylord Opryland Resort, where the National Elementary is often held, is a unique experience in itself, and pretty iconic to many players growing up (including most of my fellow authors here). I had been duly warned how huge the place was, and how chaotic it would be with thousands of kids and their parents, but it’s impossible to describe the magnificence of the Gaylord complex without being there. The challenge of walking outside into the high-80s heat and the abundance of rivers, islands, sunlit domes, and (typical resort-level expensive) food ensured I didn’t need to set foot outside throughout the weekend. As a tournament director mostly running around trying to squeeze in a meal between rounds or get some much needed sleep, the perspective is a bit different than it would have been a few years ago, but I assume that as a kid the place would have been a lot of fun.
But ultimately, the two biggest surprises were the walking and the eagerness of the players with rules.
The walking is probably something I could have seen in advance; walking around anywhere for 3 straight hours (per round!) has to have some effect. Apparently, Isaac warned me about this before, but I wasn’t really listening at the time. In any case, I knew it was going to be a tough weekend when I discovered in the middle of Round 1 that’d I’d already walked 4 miles (it took another day before I felt like never walking again). One of the chief TDs (hopefully in jest) claimed 30 miles, having been awake from 7 am to 10 pm.
Most of the disputes between players seemed to be, as I predicted, touch-move disputes. Those are never smooth, because the case almost always relies on player testimony, and kids at the elementary school age often don’t understand what it takes to convince someone impartial (e.g. a tournament director) of much. The usual instinct of a TD is to deny the touch-move claim (and warn both players to be clear to avoid future ambiguities) because forcing someone to move a piece in the face of shoddy evidence is far more damaging than the other way around. Unfortunately, this isn’t always accepted by the players in question (yes, there was crying).
Touch-move aside, the players seemed to be very eager to apply their knowledge of tournament rules. Even in the K-5 Under 1200 section where I spent most of my time, there were many questions about rules that are, if I’m not mistaken, not discussed widely in the traditional chess curriculum. Given the misunderstandings, I’d have to say that it’s probably a distraction from what’s really important, but I can’t say that I (or many of my peers) would have acted differently as a scholastic player – everyone wants to feel in control of the game and its procedures, whatever they might include. However, for instance, quite a few players called me over to claim a three-move repetition because they had moved the same piece back and forth three times. The explanation (that the same position has to occur three times) is relatively simple and usually accepted, but it does seem like the kids have rushed into learning these rules.
By all accounts, the Elementary Nationals stayed alive and well throughout the weekend. It takes an enormous effort from the top down to keep a 2000+ player event (especially one with as many auxiliaries as the National Elementary), and both players and directors owe a lot of thanks to Chief TD Jeff Wiewel, as well as organizer/Director of Events Boyd Reed, for their continued support throughout the event. Thanks to the rest of the staff for making the 2018 National Elementary such a big success!