Joel on Junior High Chess Dropouts Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
October 21, 2007
 Dear Joel,

My name is Renee Brands and my son Riley has been playing competitive chess for just over a year now.  While he is no "chess prodigy", he has a true love of the game.  As a family we have embraced chess like any other sport or activity.  Participation requires practice, instruction and competitive play to become better.  He trots off to chess club on Thursdays, his lesson with GM Shulman on Saturdays and off to a tournament once a month.  He competes in rated and unrated tournaments alike and I always stress the importance of having fun.  He has made many friends as he often sees many of the same players at tournaments.  Between rounds you can find him playing Nintendo with his buddies.  He is after all still an eight year old.
I believe that the reason that many scholastic players do not become adult members of the USCF is because of the adults in their scholastic experience.  Far too many parents and coaches put too much emphasize on rating and pressure to perform.  Chess no longer becomes fun.  Riley has little understanding what his rating is from month to month because I do not stress its importance.  I tell him that it's only a number that helps the tournament directors do the pairings and that you play the board and the positions, not the player and his/her rating.  If more parents and coaches took this approach, I believe their would be far less burn out among our nation's youth.
Renee Brands
Mother of Riley Brands – 13432875

There is no question that many parents and coaches take winning and losing too seriously and drive children out of the game.  I’m glad to see that you are doing whatever you can to make chess a positive experience for Riley.  I have seen many other supportive parents and plenty of patient instructors, too.  I don’t think we can blame the well-documented membership attrition on hardcore adults in the scholastic community.

Rather, I can think of three main reasons why so many chessplaying children don’t stay in the Federation.

1) Most school programs and curriculum classes are for lower grades.  As kids get older, they are less likely to have classes and teams to play on.  Without those ties, they often leave the game.

2) When kids take up chess, they can often enjoy playing the game without putting much work into it.  Players who persist into middle school learn they have to put more effort into the game (working harder on their games, studying) to remain competitive.  A lot of kids aren’t prepared to make that commitment.

3) Kids develop interests to compete with chess; fifth or sixth grade seems to be a critical time, which coincides with attrition for the USCF.  A lot of kids who take up chess in kindergarten find baseball, soccer, and even karate to be better investments of their time.  I gave up little league baseball to have time for tournaments, but a lot of kids make a different decision.  We know that social pressures often discourage girls at this age, but they can have an impact on boys as well.  Unfortunately, many teenagers still perceive that chess is not “cool.”   The USCF will greatly benefit if it can successfully address this issue.

Ask GM Joel a question of your own.