Reflection of an amateur chess mom

Chess is Forever!

-       Reflection of an amateur chess mom


     5:30 a.m. on Sunday, February 9, 2014, it was still dark outside but I was woke up by my son William.

           “Mom, I’m burning up!” 

         Sure enough, he developed a fever of over 101.  That was totally unexpected as he was as lively as ever the day before, looking forward to the highly anticipated CalNorth Age Level Championship, the largest youth chess event in Northern California. 

         “We have to withdraw from today’s tournament.”  That was my first reaction. 

         “No, I want to go … for the experience.”  His voice was weak but his tone was strong before he passed out after a dose of Advil. 

           Trying to dry his sweaty head in bed, I couldn’t help but worrying.


*          *          *          *          *

          I still remember the first day when William was introduced to chess.  It was his first day of summer break after Kindergarten.  I was busy cleaning up in the kitchen that morning so I showed him the website http://www.chesskid.com  to kill time.  To say that it was “love at the first sight” is an understatement.  William studied the rules and tried them out nonstop in the same chair for over 6 hours until I threatened to cut off the power.


That summer, William played chess with everyone in our neighborhood who was willing to join him. While his friends were complaining “that is so boring – why you like it so much,” his pursuit persisted.  On our 11-hour flight to Germany that month, Dominic and his father got a headache by taking turns playing chess with William on a small magnetic board but he stayed alert and showed no sign of fatigue.  During the three-week vacation with our extended family there, while we enjoyed all the sightseeing, he couldn’t wait to get back each day so he could play chess with his father’s cousin and uncle. 


Dominic was enthusiastically playing with William until he started losing to him by the end of that summer.  Luckily we live in Fremont, one of the hottest chess communities in the country.  Experienced chess parents in our neighborhood directed his way on the journey of learning.  William started with weekly lessons at US Chess Mates that also offers monthly tournaments for beginners where every participant receives a trophy.  Later he had studied at the Success Chess afterschool program at his elementary school.  Then he played at NorCal House of Chess club where more advanced chess camps and group lessons are offered.  William especially loved the Friday program at Weibel Chess where systematic instructions are only matched with a serious game with follow-up analysis in each session.  Coaches there not only pass on chess knowledge but also love for the game, along with sweet Dove chocolate from Coach Shorman.  There was one week in February 2012 when William was absent from school due to side effects of antibiotics.  However, he insisted on attending his Weibel class that Friday afternoon where I had to stay around and remind him to use the bathroom every half an hour to prevent any accident of diarrhea while being too focused on chess.  Coach Shorman was always patient when William argued with him at game analysis.  He told me that William reminded him of himself when he was a child, “wild and stubborn.”  With that caring and supportive chess culture at Weibel, no wonder it has produced many star scholastic players for the country.


            An avid reader since four years of age, William only read chess books during the entire year of first grade.  Watching him burying himself in the thick “How to Reassess Your Chess: 4th Edition” each night, I couldn’t help but wondering how much he understood.  But he was not worried, reading that book from cover to cover several times that year.  Every night was a struggle to negotiate when to turn off his reading light in bed.


William had also loved writing in Kindergarten.  His teacher told me that she had never seen a boy rather giving up recess to write more in journal during her 27 years at work.  What’s more, his writing was always well organized and on topic.  However, all of those were changed in first grade.  No matter what topic the teacher gave, William consistently changed the subject to chess within the first two sentences.  For instance:


My Best Vacation

         This summer I had a great vacation in Germany.  My father’s cousin played chess with me every evening.  He likes to move his pawn to d4 first when he is white and I … (followed by two pages of game notation).  (Conclusion) What a great vacation I had!

(As if the historic castles, horseback riding, picking blueberries in forest and other interesting things on that vacation had never happened.)


My Favorite Person

          My favorite person is my grandpa.  Grandpa plays chess with me every time he visits.  He always smiles and says “good game” even after he loses to me.  Here is what we do at our games … (followed by two pages of game notation).  (Conclusion) That’s why my favorite person is my grandpa.

(All the other nice things that Grandpa does for him, like practicing baseball and swimming with him, cooking his favorite pasta, etc., did not cross his mind.)


 His first grade teacher told me in frustration, “Can he write about anything else other than chess?” 


William often reminded me during that year, “if you are a good mom, please let me play chess every day.”  I asked him why he loves chess so much.  He told me that it was because the learning is endless as one can never exhaust the possibilities on chess board.  That makes the game so intriguing as players need to think, constantly thinking deeply.


He was right.  Based on available data on internet, there are 400 different possible positions after one move each, 72,084 different possible positions after two moves each, over 9 million different possible positions after three moves each and the number grows to 318 billion after four moves each.


I couldn’t help but admiring William when I saw the focus, excitement and passion in his eyes while reading a chess book or playing a game online.  Flow, the mental state of completely focused motivation, as described by one of the most prominent psychologists Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity that many adults are searching for but in vain, William was fully enjoying it in chess at age 6 and 7. 


            To find stronger opponents to play with, William started attending tournaments in fall 2011.  I still remember his first rated tournament at Weibel Quad on November 19, 2011. Huge chess sets outside the tournament hall made the event look like a festival for chess lovers.  Dr. Kirshner and Coach Shorman roamed around with their cannon-sized cameras, looking for memorable moments to catch.  Seeing over two hundred children playing chess under the same roof showered William with a sense of belonging as all of them shared the same excitement in their eyes as he did.  Winning all three matches only made that experience even more joyful.


However, very soon we noticed that William couldn’t win within a few minutes any more as he faced stronger and more experienced opponents at rated tournaments.  What’s more puzzling was that he often lost to players that he’d win during practice games.  Seeing him walking out of the game room with tears in his eyes was frustrating to both him and us.  His initial rating of 1048 dropped and lingered between the 800’s and 900’s for six months.


I consulted with several coaches from William’s group lessons but no one could give me an answer why he performed poorly at games that actually count.  I even regretted for starting him on rated tournaments.  It seemed that the rating took away the joy of the game as we now drove to tournaments with doubts and fear, not excitement as before.


On May 19, 2012, at a Weibel Spring Quad, one of the most prominent Chess Dads, Mr. Moy, father of young Expert Kevin Moy, advised me that it might be a good time to find William a private coach.  He recommended Mr. Bela Evans, the president of Success Chess School.  I called Mr. Evans that afternoon and shared my confusion about William’s lack of progress. Mr. Evans responded that it was a result from too much stress over winning tournament games. 


            That message woke us up like an alarm in a foggy night.  Dominic and I had only wanted to emphasize to William that he should have taken his time looking at his board instead of moving without planning ahead.  We kept on telling him that we did not raise our voice because he had “lost” but because of the way he had “lost.” We had meant for him to remember not to make careless blunders. 


But the fact is, while he enjoys the thinking part of the game, our attitude had dumped in his head the worry for losing.


          What a wrong message for a seven-year old!  “Losing is so unacceptable!” 


            In her best seller, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006), renowned Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck divided people into two kinds, those with Fixed Mindset vs. those with Growth Mindset.  While the former does things to prove how smart they are, the later sees things as ways to grow and develop continuously.  An expert consultant for professional athletes and other fields, Dr. Dweck sees first-hand how people interpret failure directly leads to how much they enjoy the process and how well they perform. 


            It was amazing how William continued to love chess so much under the pressure from us for him to win.  Realizing how our fixed mindset had negatively affected his performance, I apologized to William that evening. I shared that we support his pursuit of chess only because that was his choice of interest.  Winning or losing was also his choice, completely depending on how carefully he studied each board and how well he calculated his moves.  From now on, mom and dad would never yell at lost games any more as they are neither parents’ responsibility nor something that we could control. 


            I saw the sign of relief in his eyes.


            And to be honest, I felt more relieved than he did.  His win or loss is NOT going to define whether I am a good parent any more.


            May 20, 2012, the very next day, William won 4 out of 5 games at Fremont K-6 Championship and his rating finally went back over 1000, ending that six-month drought.  Within 5 other tournaments over the next 3 months, his rating went over 1300.


            What’s more important, taking him to tournaments became a joyful experience again for both him and us over the next few months now that we recognized that it’s not the rating but how we interpret rating that affected our mood and his performance.


            In November 2012, at his first tournament at Mechanics Institute Chess Club, William buried himself in a chess book that he found in the library between his matches. Several experienced chess parents were amazed at his focus.  When I mentioned how much William loved chess, Mr. Zhou, father of one of the strongest scholastic players in the country Anthony Zhou, commented that his interest would change with time.  Anthony used to love chess too.  But when I asked him that day, he said that he is good at chess but does not like it any more.  How did that happen?


           I was still suspicious of Mr. Zhou’s prediction at that time: if anything, I was more worried about how to divert William’s obsession with chess to other fields.  He used to love piano and mental math, which had paled in front of chess.


            However, by the end of that month, William proved that Mr. Zhou was correct.  Chess was not the first thing that he rushed to any more whenever he found free time.  He started reading other books before bedtime and took a new interest in Pokémon.  On January 12, 2013, after losing 4 out of 5 games at the 13th Bob Burger Open at Mechanics Institute Chess Club, William cried to us and said that he would like to give up rated tournaments and only keep chess as a hobby. 


            I do not blame him for that decision.  After 1300, more than half of his opponents at tournaments became people many years older than him.  His experiences and ability to focus were no match for them.  As his sense of competence was diminishing, so was his interest.  Dominic and I respected his choice.  I had thought that was the end of his chapter for chess.


Unexpectedly, two weeks later William received an invitation to join his school chess team for the SuperNational Tournament at Nashville in May 2013.  I’ve documented his experiences over those three and a half months in my previous blog, What Does It Take to Make A National Champion Team?- From an Inexperienced Chess Mom’s Eyes. The rest was history. I am truly grateful that the invitation to the Gomes team reignited William’s passion for chess at the very point when he was ready to quit.


What I also learned from that experience was that what weighs more than the championship trophy is our children’s passion for chess.  Throughout those three days at Nashville, I’ve met so many players and their parents who participated in the SuperNational not for any trophy but for the joy of the game.  There were hundreds of players in the unrated sections.  Several of those parents told me that they take their children to national chess tournaments every year as they enjoy playing with other children around the country.  They don’t care about any rating or winning.  They just love playing the game with fellow chess lovers.  Many became friends who see each other once a year at this event.  I am grateful for those parents who reminded me again how to keep the passion for chess last forever with an emphasis on the joy of the game by reducing the weight on the outcome.


I was also impressed by the 1,200 or so high school participants at this world record event with 5,000+ players.  To me, every one of them is a winner for their persistence.  There is an old saying in China, “only long distance can test a horse’s power and only long time can test a person’s heart.  As I stay in the chess circle longer, I’ve observed many children disappearing from tournaments as they grow older, including several former star players.  With increasing responsibilities at school and other extracurricular activities, it is indeed a struggle to manage those 1- to 4-day tournaments at higher grades. I applaud those high school participants, their parents and coaches for building a supportive environment that successfully kept their flame for chess burning. 


While there are only about 1,300 grandmasters out of the 8 million registered chess players representing over 160 countries in the world, as a game that trains planning and attention while promotes sportsmanship, chess is well loved by the general population. Based on data on the internet, about 70% of the adult population in the U.S has played chess at some point during their lives. There are at least 605 to 700 million people worldwide who play chess, which is about 8.6% out of the 7 billion people on earth. There are as many as 200 million people playing chess on the Internet.  I certainly prayed that William would grow into one of those adults who would use chess to bring joy and relaxation to his busy life in the future.


Since the SuperNational, William continued to enjoy studying and playing chess.  He even started his own club “the-chess-studiers” on chess.com last summer and enjoyed sharing interesting puzzles and games with others. I had no idea how he learned to post diagrams with annotations online.  William has a more balanced take on his extracurricular activities now as chess does not take all of his free time any more.  He took a break from tournaments between the end of July and mid-November 2013 due to time conflicts with Little League activities.   Between the fall and spring baseball seasons, he continued to play at tournaments once or twice a month.  I noticed that his duration of attention has improved as his games grew longer and longer.  Two of his games in January 2014 lasted 4 hours, which was unimaginable comparing with his initial games at a few minutes each just two years ago.  Although it has been a grueling uphill battle to improve after 1500, William does not talk about quitting any more.  What’s more, his enthusiasm has spread to his younger brother David who started taking an interest in chess too over the past year.


*                            *                      *                      *                      *


When I finally woke up William at 8:30 a.m., his fever was under control but his nose became stuffed.  He insisted on going to the Age Level Championship with full knowledge that any loss, which is very likely with his physical condition, would bring down his rating. 


“I’m going for the experience.” He reiterated. 


William, David and I did not arrive at Newark Pavilion until 9:30 a.m. and had to park our car in the dirt after a frantic search as the lot as well as the roadside spots were completely full.  The past two years, without any illness, we did follow the instruction and arrived at 9 a.m., which gave us a more relaxed mood before the first round.  After rushing David to the 6-year old section in Hall 4 and William to the Open 4-9 section in Hall 1, I could finally look around and take the whole event in. 


Weibel Chess Director Dr. Kirshner started the CalNorth Youth Chess Age Level Championship in 2008 to celebrate his 70th birthday as well as his legacy to young chess players in California. This competition remains unique in the State as no other major chess event in California has competition according to age alone. Each year it attracts more than 500 players all over the Bay Area, making it the biggest youth chess event in Northern California. 


Both William and David were excited about this tournament as all the other tournaments that they attend pair players by rating, which inevitably gave them opponents much older than them.  Although it is critical for more serious players to learn from more senior opponents if they want to advance in chess, it could be intimidating for beginners like David who only enjoy it as a hobby.  That’s why David basically skipped to his board with joy as he was surrounded by fellow six-year olds, which made him more comfortable.


William’s first Age Level Championship in 2012 was also with the 6-year old group.  Last year he joined the Open 4-9 section that attracted more advanced scholastic players from all over the Bay Area.  Dr. Kirshner has also waived registration fee for those who made into the USCF Top 100 list for their age group in this section.  They are side by side with older players between age 10 and 13, having a longer time control (45 minutes vs. 30 per round) and quieter tournament hall.  This year, the new organizer, Mr. Moy, made the Open 4-9 competition even more attractive with the inauguration of a special crystal Kirshner Cup to honor Dr. Kirshner.


The signature gigantic white tent is still outside Hall 1.  With young children’s laughter mixed with older players checking various chess books and products while renowned coaches analyzing games between the matches under the same roof, it always reminds me of a joyful wedding with the perfect combination of passion and logic. I remember that last Age Level Championship fell on the same day as Super Bowl.  As our players watched Dr. Kirshner working hard to blow 75 candles on the 75 cupcakes for his birthday, smiles and cheers made that celebration so memorable.


The first round pairing was already online the night before, which helped to keep the beginning of the event as orderly as I ever remembered at Weibel Chess events over the past two and a half years.  Staff and volunteers in blue shirts were friendly and helpful.  Foods and drinks are plenty in the kitchen at a much lower price than hotels where most large chess events are held these days. 


David won his first four rounds at about 10 to 20 minutes each and happily rolled around the yard on his new Heelys.  He bought them with $50 that he had won at an US Chess Mates tournament two weeks ago, which had boosted his confidence in chess to all-time high.  “I want to win the first place!” he announced to me several times this week even though I kept on reminding him that there are 5 players in his section whose ratings are much higher than his. 


I secretly hoped that David would lose his last round because he needs to learn the lesson that achievement only comes with hard work. As Wikipedia summarized, “although the link between performance in chess and general intelligence is often assumed, researchers have largely failed to confirm its existence. For example, a 2006 study found no differences in fluid intelligence between strong adult chess players and regular people.  There is some evidence towards a correlation between performance in chess and intelligence among beginning players. However, performance in chess also relies substantially on one's experience playing the game, and the role of experience may overwhelm the role of intelligence.” Another interesting finding is that “a 2007 study of young chess players in the United Kingdom found that strong players tended to have above-average IQ scores, but, within that group, the correlation between chess skill and IQ was moderately negative, meaning that smarter children tended to achieve a lower level of chess skill. This result was explained by a negative correlation between intelligence and practice in the elite subsample, and by practice having a higher influence on chess skill.


"Geniuses are made, not born," was Grandmaster Susan Polgar’s father, László Polgar's thesis.  He sought to prove that children could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist subject from a very early age.  He and his wife Klara homeschooled their three daughters with chess as the specialist subject.  With intensive practices each day, Susan became the first female to earn the Grandmaster title and broke a number of gender barriers in chess.  Her younger sisters are also very accomplished as Judit is a Grandmaster and Sofia an International Master.  Intelligence may not directly correlate with chess performance but the amount of practices sure does. This was shown through researches on Susan.  What was found was that Susan could remember positions from games within seconds due to the repeated patterns that were drilled into her memory at a young age but her ability to remember random positions of chess pieces on board was no stronger than people who has never played chess.


This is the same message that New York Times bestseller author Daniel Coyle repeated in his book, “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born.  It’s Grown.  After researching top performers in different fields, Mr. Coyle concluded that the formula to create “talent” is the combination of Deep Practice, Ignition of Passion and Master Coaching. 


            As a school psychologist, I have a more reserved take on that belief as I have witnessed many children’s development and progress being restricted by their innate ability over the past 15 years at work.  With that being said, there is no doubt that hard work and achievement has a positive correlation and no “talent” could be fully developed without effort.  William experienced that first hand recently.  He had the time doing 300 online chess tactics each day on our family vacation to Grandpa’s home in Reno during winter break, which had resulted in his best performance at the Bay Area Amateur Championship between January 3 and 5, 2014 and pushed his rating over 1600.  However, since school started again, he only had time to play a couple quick online games between his homework, piano, cub scouts, and regular Faith Formation class at church.  That clearly showed in his more recent tournament results.  We kept on reminding William to adjust his expectations accordingly as there is no need to compare himself with other players who take chess as the priority in their lives.  While he only works with Mr. Evans two hours a month on average, there are other advanced players receiving coaching a few hours per week.  While we highly respect chess as a great hobby, we have no intention to encourage William pursuit it as a profession unless he chooses to do so (which did not seem to be the case after first grade). 


David only enjoys playing online games but rarely practices tactics as we has suggested.  He is lucky to get over 700 with little practice but that’s as far as a little “talent” can carry him.  I was relieved when he lost his last round to a player whom he was able to win a few months back.  I hope that would be the beginning of two important life lessons for him.  One, hard work is the only way to success, no matter what task is in his hand.  Two, never underestimate opponents who had lost to him before.


For William, I was more worried about his health than performance that day.  After winning the first two games, he had to lie down on a bench to rest and had a hard time getting up. He rejected my suggestion to go home and insisted on staying for the last two rounds.  He took some non-drowsy medicine to control his returning fever after winning his third round.


William was exhausted after losing his last round and we needed to take him home right away and missed the award ceremony.  I’m glad that the first Kirshner Cup was won by a member of Weibel Chess that carries on Dr. Kirshner’s legacy.  My only regret was that I had missed seeing Dr. Kirshner in front of the 76 cupcakes that I had baked for his birthday celebration.  Did he announce that “everyone who win their last round will get a cupcake along with their trophy or medal” like last year? To me, everyone who spent the day participating in this chess festival is a winner for their passion!


William had passed out in the car on the way home.  But as soon as we got home, he directly went to check his online chess club. 


“Mom,” he excitedly announced to me, “I got a NM (National Master) joining my club!  And another member posted a puzzle on it!’ 


I looked in his eyes, full of wonder, love and hope.  And I know at that moment, no matter what he decides to do with his life in the future, chess will always be part of it. 


As Dr. Kirshner always reminds everyone at the end of his emails: Chess is Forever! 










仔细阅读了心桥的好文章,感触甚多。我现在也越来越体会到能够陪伴孩子一起成长是做父母的幸运。 是孩子们教会了我们许多许多。


感谢雨林的鼓励。为人父母的过程教给我的,比那11年大学都多。感谢孩子的宽容,让我和 Dominic 有悔改的机会。





问候小哭!最近好吗?William 是很清楚自己要什么不要什么。四岁进图书馆就斩钉截铁:Give me the facts!  故事只读依索寓言,其它都是百科全书类的知识性读物,只看字,ignore 图。对美术,电影等没有任何兴趣。孩子的个性真是有趣,David 则相反,看书最喜欢看图,不喜欢字太多的。从 Susan 的文章中可以看到她对周围的人/事/物思考得很多。孩子真像一本书,期待看 Susan 将来的发展!





感谢阿朵的鼓励。有 William 之前,我都不知道象棋圈的存在。支持一个爱好真不容易啊!所有的大周末都花在棋场上了。只要他喜欢!两周前弟弟连赢8场(初级)棋赛,得了$50, 毫不手软地给自己买了双带轮子的鞋(妈嫌贵一直不给买),现在也雄心勃勃地步哥哥后尘。等兄弟倆可以下一个级别的棋赛,我们就省心了!


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