Teaching Group Classes

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For starters, sorry for the hold–up on the posts. This past week, I’ve been directing Dragon Chess Camp (see teachmechess.com) as a fundraiser for my school. Between my school friends and I, we helped teach 40 campers (double that of last year) how to play better chess.

Yesterday, as we were running our end of camp tournament (see results here), a highly rated player from a nearby high school asked me how I prepared a curriculum for my class. I thought that I would share my answers to you all in this post.

In my class, I taught five students rated 820–1280, and had to prepare nine and a half hours of curriculum to fill the blocks of the camp. As I developed my lesson plans, I made a couple observations that made it both easier for me to teach, but also made the material more accessible for the students.

1) Use your own games as exemplars

Stay away from the Grandmaster games. Yes, they are high quality, and yes, the tactics are spectacular, but for a class rated 1000 on average, its asking a lot for them to grasp your points. Mistakes made by Grandmasters are generally really subtle.

By using your own games, you don’t need to calculate every move before the lesson because you are already familiar with the position. Also, if you’ve gone over the game with your opponent, you might be able to talk about what your opponent was thinking, and whether it was good or bad. You can’t do that by picking up games on ChessBase. Furthermore, the blunders that you and your opponent make are far more easy to understand.

2) Explain Basic Themes

For kids rated about 1000, the biggest problem is generally hanging pieces. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can dedicate a week’s course to not hanging pieces, but you can at least show them how to get in positions where they won’t lose material.

For this week, my main theme was optimization, putting pieces on their best possible squares in the opening, so they don’t have to be rerouted later. One issue I’ve noticed with scholastic players is that they love developing their bishops to e2 or d2, even though there is no plan with that piece. Furthermore, they usually box in this bishop with their center pawns and play practically down a bishop with limited space. So in my first lesson, I showed a game where I optimized my pieces, and where my opponent played the aforementioned passive structure. By talking about optimization, I was able to teach the concepts of space, pawn structure, and thematic opening ideas for the rest of week.

The key is, have one major theme, and all the sub–themes should connect back to it. More connections will help the kids learn.

3) Ask questions

If you lecture, your students will sleep. Try to let the students collectively talk as much as you are. This is hard to do, but if you can make the kids feel like they are beating the 1800+ rated player and not you, it will be a lot more exciting for them.

4) Assign Homework

This past week I assigned some pawn endings and interesting studies to get the kids thinking as a warm–up. Even if the homework is really hard. Having a crazy tactic to start the day might impress upon the kids. The critical point is to talk about the ideas behind the right move and show the students why it works and other variations don’t.

5) Practice Games

Get the kids to play practice games against each other, in tournament–like conditions. This will not only help you gauge the talent of your players, but also give you an opportunity to work one–on–one during game analysis. While it is critical to show them the best moves throughout the game, it is even better if you can connect the moves back to your lesson.

With those five tips you can be well on your way towards teaching a group lesson!

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment!

 

Why Having a Team Can Make You Better

Nationals

If you are a chess player from the Greater Richmond Area, you may know that I’m a team guy when it comes to chess at my school, MLWGS. I think that during my three years in the program, my perspective on why I played chess and how well I played changed as result of being on a team.

In middle school, I kind of hit a dry spell, and my rating stayed between 1250 and 1450 for three to four years. There weren’t many serious tournaments in Richmond, and frankly because of that, I didn’t have a reason to feel like I needed to be any better to improve at the scholastic level. A lot of coaches say that you have to give up scholastic chess to get beyond 1200, but honestly, I don’t think that’s entirely true.

In my three years at MLWGS, I have been a captain, a tournament director, and a coach to try to help my teammates get better. Most of the players on the team have hit the 1000 rating mark since I started coaching, some of whom have only been playing competitively for a year or less! This year, those guys won the U1200 National High School Chess Championships in San Diego, CA.

So how is that experience beneficial for any 1700+ rated player? In truth, I’ve gotten as much out of the program as anyone else has this year, and here’s the secret: coaching. By being a coach, you are forcing yourself to articulate why some ideas are good while others are bad in such a way that a lower rated player can understand.  It sounds silly, but honestly, by hearing yourself repeating the same ideas over and over again, you actually begin to hear yourself. Let me explain:

On a piece of paper, write down three concepts that you think are the most critical to playing a solid opening and three more for planning during the middle game (for example, one of mine is optimization, which is developing your pieces to their best possible squares so they are ready to use in the middle game). Now look over all the games that you have lost against higher rated players over the past year, and bookmark it if you lost as a result of failing to adhere to your three most valued opening principles or middle game stratagems. Surprisingly many, right?

When I started coaching my team, I was rated in the mid–1700s, and as I coached more, I quickly broke 1900 (October 2013). Though I did have to do a fair amount of bookwork on the side, coaching really helped me identify my gray areas as a chess player. Another crucial reason of how coaching a team is beneficial for highly rated players is that it makes you more competitive. As my school team became stronger and stronger this year, I also became more motivated to find my own ways to excel and improve (my team was winning tournament after tournament, shouldn’t I try too?). While my team was busy winning the U1200 National High School Chess Championships, I was meeting my goal of finishing in the Top 100 of the Championship section with a score of 4.5/7 (I placed 76th).

Playing at the scholastic level after breaking 1300 seldom reaps rewards, but sometimes it isn’t the playing that always matters. As long as you save time for yourself to study, coaching helps you improve as both a teacher and a player.

 

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to leave a comment below!

A Little More Background

Chess Coach

Though I have played chess for over 10 years, I think its only fair to say that I started taking the game seriously back in 9th grade when I finally broke 1700 USCF. I think a big part of my re–discovery for my passion for chess has been a result of being the chess club President at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School (MLWGS). Between my sophomore and junior years, I coached my team to make them more competitive at the scholastic level. As a result of their dedication to chess and their determination to get better, I have also had a lot of opportunities to organize scholastic chess tournaments, free chess clinics, and summer chess programs through my school to help teach up and coming scholastic players in the Greater Richmond Area. Last summer, our school ran a one week summer program, Dragon Chess Camp, as a fundraiser for our team to attend the USCF National High School Chess Championships in San Diego last spring.  While I did not get to compete in their section (U1200), I helped lead our team to our first national championship as a coach. In the U1200 section, our top four players finished 4th, 9th, 12th, and 53rd. In the open (top) section, I finished 76th nationally with a score of 4.5/7.