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Wearing Two Hats and one Apron: a Volunteer's Perspective on the K-12 Print E-mail
By Melinda J. Matthews   
December 17, 2009
Ever since my son, Nicky, began playing chess, I’ve worn numerous parental hats in support of his tournament play.  I’ve been his food and drink delivery service, his chauffeur, his dreaded sleep enforcer, his social coordinator.  I’ve been his biggest, brashest, most ardent champion and fan.  I’ve been that parent pacing nervously outside many a tournament hall, cheering every win energetically and consoling painful losses sympathetically.  And I’ll sheepishly admit I’ve been that crazed, hysterical parent who strikes fear in the hearts of scholastic tournament directors everywhere (twice, tops, I swear...and it was justified, honest!).

What I’ve never been is a volunteer.

Nicky turned 13 this year and, wonder of wonders, he no longer needs me at tournaments – at least, not in such a substantial way.  In fact, much to my chagrin, I’ve noticed he now plays better when I’m not hovering.  He finds his own pairing, keeps his own room key, and manages his own snacks, all very ably.  When he’s not playing his ever-longer tournament round, he’s off socializing with the many friends he’s made over the years.  Lately, I’ve been feeling much less necessary and more and more like a hanger-on.  I’m still his biggest fan, but he doesn’t need or want it demonstrated as frequently.

So I volunteered for this tournament.  I sent an email to our local chess club coordinator (and NTD) Jon Haskel, who forwarded my email to USCF.  I received a prompt reply from volunteer coordinator, Tom Nelson ([email protected]), who was more than happy to find a slot for me.  I already knew Tom, an energetically sunny, upbeat man, from a tournament in which my older son, Ben, worked as a runner. 

Bughouse and Blitz Day

We arrived in Dallas early Thursday morning, barely in time for bughouse.  Nicky and I were booked on the same flight with Rachel Gologorsky, a sixth-grade participant, and her mom, Angela.  Nicky and Rachel immediately bonded over the laptop, playing games, talking chess and solving puzzles for the entire flight.  Since neither of them had bug partners yet, it seemed fitting that they pair up.  So we registered them for the tournament and then I checked in with Tom.

My first volunteer duty proved an easy segue into the back room: setting up boards and placing programs on each.  Tom and another volunteer, Meri Fineman, whipped through the process, placing the pieces quickly and efficiently (unlike me, slower and far clumsier).  We finished all three rooms by 1:30 p.m. and adjourned for a few hours.

Right before our break, Nicky and Rachel called with the news: 7 out of 10 in the bughouse tournament and a shot at 4th or 5th place.  Naturally, I quickly morphed from volunteer to proud parent.  Hearty hugs and congratulations all around! (note: they did, indeed, finish 4th.)
Nicky and Rachel receiving their bughouse trophies from arbiter Carol Jarecki

Back to wearing the volunteer hat, post-break: Tom continued his usual whirlwind pace, barely stopping to catch his breath.  Hard-pressed to keep up with him, my contributions felt minimal: He gave me a tour and explained my upcoming duties; we distributed more brochures and inspected the rooms, making calls to hotel staff if needed.

I’m astounded at the behind-the-scenes precision and attention to detail, none of which the tournament participants, parents or coaches notice unless something’s awry or missing.  Room flow has to be considered.  Safety is of utmost importance; so is maintaining fairness and integrity.  Crowd control is a concern, bathroom locations are vital.  Signs have to be posted clearly, correctly and timely.  Pages go up, pages come down.  Timing is everything.  No task seems particularly difficult on its own, but the sheer coordination of multiple mini-tasks is impressive and massive.

My head was spinning with what to do and remember to do...and the main event hadn’t even begun.  I mean...geez, there’s even an art to stapling the pages onto the pairings and standings boards.

Speaking of which: Tom mentioned I might be posting pairings and standings.  I’m not sure if he caught my terrified deer-in-the-headlight look when he said this.  Too often I’ve been on the other side of the stampede...the one where kids, parents and coaches run roughshod, mobbing the poor poster.  I wondered if there was an art to fending off raging crowds with a loaded stapler, especially toward the final rounds.

I ran off to feed Nicky and settle him into the blitz tournament. Then back to Tom, where we hung banners, took care of a few loose ends and called it a night, with instructions to appear at 9 a.m. the following day.  Around 9:30 p.m., as I was writing, Nicky bounced into the room announcing he’d finished blitz with 9.5 out of 12 points, which was good enough for a 5-way tie for 3rd, 6th on tiebreaks.

And so our first day closed on an upbeat note.  Given the smooth events of the day, I had faith Nicky and I would manage the main tournament with very few bumps: Nicky sporting his newfound independence and me careening through my multiple roles.

Oh...before we parted for the night, Tom told me I would be in charge of the K-1 room for the majority of the tournament.  He said it would be my choice whether or not to wear the blue apron.

Of course, I intended to wear the apron. I hoped to do the apron proud.

The Main Event

The main tournament officially began Friday at 1:00 p.m., but my day started earlier.  Tom and I met at 9:00 a.m. to finalize room details and distribute extra copies of Chess Life for Kids.  We finished relatively quickly, in time for me to meet Nicky for an early lunch.

An unexpected benefit of chess has been the blossoming of friendships throughout the country and even the world.  Nicky was particularly excited about this tournament because he was finally meeting his closest ICC friend in the flesh, a perpetually-smiling, reed-thin boy named Daniil Fedenov.  When I caught up with Nicky in the atrium, he and Daniil were already engaged in blitz battle, laughing as the pieces flew, cheered on by Nicky’s Florida friends from University School.  Chess...the great unifier.

Daniil and Nicky

Nicky, Daniil, his adult guardian, Lena Dmitriev, and I grabbed an early lunch in the hotel, after which I met Tom to begin posting pairings (and no, the mobs of my nightmares did not materialize).  We held a brief meeting with new volunteers and then I trotted off: first, to make sure Nicky was at his board ready to play; then, on to the K-1 room for my blue apron baptism.

Nicky began playing chess in the 4th grade, so I never was immersed into the K-1 experience.  Two words: Holy cow.  The drama, the tears, the anguish, the willful disregard!  And I’m talking about the adults.

Let me backtrack: most of the parents and coaches were kind, concerned, considerate, thoughtful and loving.  But an unfortunate few seemed far too competitive; they soured the experience, most especially for their children.  These excruciating episodes became what stood out in my mind.  Meri and I witnessed at least two painfully heartbreaking incidents, which I won’t detail, but which twisted our stomachs into knots. 

Round 1 was a flurry of activity as all of us adjusted to our roles.  As soon as the clocks started, it seemed games finished at an alarming rate.  Hands shot up instantly; our tournament directors moved quickly and purposefully to sign result sheets and resolve issues.  Within 45 minutes, the room was empty save for a few boards, but those 45 minutes were hectic indeed.  Fortunately, our incredibly astute and able volunteers handled the rush with aplomb.  Rob Isacoff, Linda Hansen, and Meri served as my core K-1 group throughout the tournament; their tireless service actually made me look good and rendered my role effortless.

Back row (L to R): Rob Isacoff, Meri Fineman, Tom Nelson Front row (L to R): Melinda Matthews, Linda Hansen
Day 1 also ended on a personal high note: Nicky won both games! The end of the day also found me subsisting on the good-grief-food-here-is-so-expensive diet: Instead of eating dinner, I munched on Nicky’s stash of Welch’s Fruit Snacks and drank a bottle of water stolen from the executive lounge the night before. Fortunately, a perk of volunteering included $10 food vouchers, which I tried to use judiciously for the rest of the tournament.

Subsequent K-1 rounds sailed along in much smoother fashion, with far fewer incidents as small players (and adults) became more comfortable with the process.  The mood changed subtly with each passing round: tears flowed more copiously, little ones became progressively more jittery, parents and coaches pressed ever closer to the stanchions, and bathroom breaks became increasingly frequent as tiny bladders reacted to heightened nerves.  And of course, what K-1 tournament would be complete without an impressive bout of sickness?

In true dramatic fashion, at least one game in each upper division slugged it out until the bitter end.  Tom had asked me to arrive about an hour before each round to help with that dreaded task: posting pairings.  However, due to the length of the final games, I had to report to my K-1 post before the last-minute pairings were ready.  Whew!  Talk about dodging a bullet (or a well-aimed staple).

Nicky managed the entire tournament well, with little effort on my part.  I fulfilled the obvious parent roles: making sure he was rested and fed and sitting at his board on time.  We found Denny’s about a block away, which made providing sustenance for both of us far more affordable (yes, I expanded my food horizons beyond fruit snacks).  But outside of performing the nuts-and-bolts parenting, I tended to leave Nicky happily playing with Daniil and his other friends.

On Day 2, Nicky won Round 3 and drew Round 4 (sitting at Board 1), with both games lasting the full three hours.  Here’s his Round 3 game:


The winning streak ended: Nicky lost Round 5, but he took the loss  well.  He was simply happy the long, tiring day was over so he could relax and check up on his Fantasy Hockey teams.  Day 3 was nerve-wracking for both of us, because we knew he had a shot at a place trophy (I try to be a non-competitive parent, but of course, I feel the tension).  So as I worked the tournament rounds, I kept my phone in my apron pocket – on vibrate – anxiously awaiting the news. 

Fortunately the stars aligned: Nicky pulled out wins for the final two rounds, finishing the tournament tied for second place and taking sixth on tiebreaks. 

Nicky with his three trophies: 4th place Bughouse, 6th place K-12 blitz (tied for 3rd); 6th place, 8th grade (tied for 2nd)
Final Thoughts
In retrospect it seems every tournament ends on a positive note, despite the results.  That’s what makes the effort worthwhile.  For all the expenses, for all the nail-biting and heart-stopping moments, for all the lumpy beds and pricey mediocre hotel food, for all the delayed flights and squabbles...there’s a distinct payoff that overcomes the mental and physical discomforts.  The thrill of a hard-fought victory, the boisterous, rollicking group bughouse matches juxtaposed with thoughtful game analyses, and especially, the intense over-the-board competitions that morph into lasting bonds of friendship post-game: these are what keep National tournaments addictive, indelible, exciting and ever-rewarding.
And I’ve learned volunteering is rewarding, too: sometimes overwhelmingly hectic, often tiring and definitely eye-opening.  It’s a lot of fun when the other volunteers are engaging and when your “boss” is delightful company.  But full-time volunteering is unquestionably tough without an extra pair of adult hands to ensure your tournament player is well-fed and rested.  So let me include a gigantic, grateful, enormous shout-out to my good friends, old and new, who jumped in to feed Nicky and to keep a watchful eye on him: Gail Lassner, Lena Dmitriev, Brian Goldstein and Angela Gologorsky.  Thanks, my friends.  You rock! 

I doubt I’ve earned full rights to the blue apron – not yet, anyway – but I sure had fun wearing it and I enjoyed actively participating in a tournament.  So I’ll see you next time, hopefully in Minneapolis.  I’ll be the blue-aproned one holding the loaded stapler.

If you want to be a volunteer at a National scholastic, contact our volunteer coordinator Tom Nelson at [email protected].

Read more from the K-12 National Scholastics:Todd on the K-12s: The View from Coach's Corner and Sunday in Dallas: A Chess Dad's Decathlon.


December - Chess Life Online 2009

University of Maryland Balitmore County Wins Pan-Ams! Justus Williams Takes Empire State Five Tie in Vegas; Akobian Top on Tiebreaks Pan-Ams Heat Up with GM vs. GM Action Akobian Leads Going into Vegas's Final DayIppolito Leads Eastern Open Naroditsky Still Perfect in Vegas Three Lead in Vegas after Three RoundsPan-Ams Kick Off in South Padre IslandKosteniuk Spreads Holiday Cheer in Tucson Upsets, Miniatures and Muzak at the North American OpenDan Heisman on the Improving Chess Thinker Holiday Trivia Contest for ICC MembershipsThe Home Team's Perspective on the Pan-Ams Play Up at the Eastern Open USCF News: Update on Email Capabilities Lenderman Dominates the Marshall Chess Club Championship GM Joel on the K-12s: Hail ColumbiaThe Grandmaster House Cheers in Chicago for Gelfand Wearing Two Hats and one Apron: a Volunteer's Perspective on the K-12Todd on the K-12s: The View from Coach's CornerLenderman on Fire at the Marshall! GM Rogers on London: Carlsen Wins; Nakamura Mid-Field Sunday in Dallas: A Chess Dad's DecathlonThe Final Stretch in London: Kramnik or Carlsen Gelfand Captures World Cup Clear Winners and a Women's World Champion at the K-12!All Draws in the World Cup Final; Gelfand and Ponomariov Head to PlayoffNakamura in London: A Loss To McShane GM Rogers on London: Nakamura's Greatest Test A Parent's Perspective on the Way to DallasChampions by a Heartbeat: Krush on the Knights James Black and Raven Sturt Take Blitz Champs Abby Marshall Reflects on the World YouthRound Three in London: Another Draw for NakamuraLondon Round 2: Nakamura Scores Tough Draw vs. AdamsWorld Cup Final Set: Ponomariov vs. GelfandNakamura Close but no Point in London, Round 1 Knights Capture US Chess League Championship! US Chess League Championship Final Tonight! Pairings Set for London Chess ClassicKrush on the Congress: From Worst to FirstGM Joel on the USCL: New Jersey Knocked Out AgainRobert Snyder Captured in Belize Shankland Searches Europe for Third Norm The Scoop on the National Chess Congress: Part II Khachiyan Wins American Open on Tiebreak; Troff Breaks 2200Women's World Champion Kosteniuk on Endgames, Blitz and Coming to DallasThe December Check is in the Mail The Scoop on the National Chess Congress: Part I