A Parent's Perspective on the Chicago Open
By Mark Schein   
June 2, 2010
The site of the 2010 Chicago Open, Photo Betsy Dynako
I read a book this weekend.  No, I wasn't at the beach on vacation. I was blowing up my Memorial Day Weekend, and potentially my marriage, to play in a chess tournament.  Actually, I didn't play at all. My son, could've, should've been studying for his history and Spanish final exams which were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, but hey, it isn't real chess if you're not sacrificing. That sacrifice doesn't have to be a piece, it can be your future.

The amazing part of the statement that I read a book is that I did the reading while at a chess tournament with my son. Once upon a time, these events were too stressful and required too much attention for me to read anything other than the first paragraph of a book, over and over, all weekend. Every few minutes I used to look up for Aaron. Even if I didn't look up, my mind was in the tournament room with him. I think we have now crossed an important barrier. Even though Aaron was playing the U2100 section for the first time, we were totally relaxed. He has grown into a confident young person (he turned 13 last week) and he loves to play tournaments. We enjoy the environment and the games and our stress level has declined significantly.

We were lucky enough to stay with our close friends the McClanahans, who live in the Chicago area. They are one of the pre-eminent Illinois chess families, with three talented children. It was fun watching Glenn and Sue run like mad to provide food, consultation and recharged Monrois to three kids, instead of just one like I had.

The tournament we played was the Chicago Open in Wheeling, Illinois. It was held at the comfortable and spacious Westin Hotel.  The tournament was chock full of GMs, IMs, FMs (FM can refer to both FIDE Masters and Former Masters who were once top players but now just wander around the venue aimlessly), and up-and-coming youngsters. It was really a great opportunity and thrill for a parent who really loves the game and the people to be able to stroll around the tournament room watching so many great players. Chess provides a great service to its youngsters and fans to allow them to play in the same room as the great professionals. No other sport or game that I'm familiar with allows that. I have to say that everyone seemed so friendly and relaxed. It was a far cry from the frenetic energy of the Scholastic chess world.

MarkAaron.jpgOn day one, I made the mistake of wearing a bright orange shirt. The first round was a few minutes old when a man from the Open section ran up to me and asked, "Are we allowed to eat at our boards?" I thought like a parent for a minute and said, "of course." And he ran off to grab food. I was thinking to myself that I must look like a food service guy, when a player ran up to me and asked "Where's the under 1300 section sitting?" I directed him.  Then I looked down at my shirt and realized that I was dressed like a TD. I was tempted to wander through the playing hall adjudicating disputes and removing pieces from people's boards for made up rules that didn't exist, but I refrained and remained outside answering simpler questions about pairings and bathroom locations.

This tournament, with the long time control, allowed me to talk to other parents. It was fascinating to see that the parents of our country's top juniors have parental worries and concerns just like the rest of us. Some of their worries are about similar issues such as food and travel. Others are concerned about missed school resulting from so many long and remote tournaments.  Some worry about finding the time, money, and opportunity to chase elusive GM and IM norms. In the end, the parents of some top juniors worry that they may be directing their children towards a life in chess that may not be able to provide a stable livelihood. To boil the parental concern down more succinctly, “should an obviously intelligent child, who is in the top of his age group at chess, and probably would be in academics, sacrifice a lot of school time and other things for a game that if it was to become his career might be more difficult than if he or she were to follow a more traditional path?” I'm not going to take a stab at that issue, but this tournament with so many GM's and their families, mingling with chess parents, provided an opportunity to discuss those issues. It was a valuable opportunity.

One parent confided in me that they were very upset that their young child had reached a plateau at the 2200 level. After thinking it through for a moment, I pointed out that the child probably only had a maximum of 300 rating points of improvement left in them for the rest of their life and that it might be fine to pace themselves over the next 88 years.

The Friday night round with a 7:00 p.m. start time led to the first test of the “child falling asleep at the board issue”. It was not my child, but it became quite clear that a boy had crashed, was out cold, drooling, had his hands on the board, and was in danger of losing an eye or a tooth on a Bishop. I have been criticized by chess purists for suggesting that a parent might wake up a sleeping child. Well, I'm happy to report that even though the opponent didn't wake up the sleeper, several players nearby intentionally made a noise and bumped his chair and he awoke to play on.

At these Continental Chess Tournaments, parents are allowed to wander the aisles, analyzing the boards. Is there a bigger waste of time and effort in the modern world? They might as well let us parents roam the local hospital diagnosing illnesses in sleeping patients. After a few days of mis-analyzing positions, most parents stop looking. It used to be that we could count the pieces and if there was one missing, especially a large one, we knew who was winning. But that doesn't happen at the higher levels, and when it does, it's something like a queen for two rooks, and we have no clue who is better. By round five, I would scan boards looking for simple endgames or major time trouble as I searched for the all American "instant gratification" at a sporting event.

Even time trouble means nothing to these players. There should be a sign attached to the Chronos clock which reads "ATTENTION PARENT, PLEASE MOVE ON. EVEN THOUGH THESE PLAYERS HAVE LESS THAN 5 MINUTES ON THEIR CLOCKS, AND ARE ONLY ON MOVE 23, YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN THE ROOM WHO DOESN’T KNOW THAT THEY WILL GET TO MOVE 40 AND RECEIVE THE ADDITIONAL HOUR WITHOUT MUCH PROBLEM, SO KEEP WALKING." Chess parents can only be trusted for one piece of analysis...DOUBLED PAWNS!! I would like to nominate my close friend Dr. Glenn McClanahan as the man outside the tournament hall with a large computer screen to announce to the public that there are doubled pawns on boards 4, 17, 53, and the player on board 211 is clearly losing because he is suffering from 2 sets of doubled pawns. Once we get beyond "doubled pawn" analysis, we're useless.

I have two criticisms for the chess federation and the CCA to consider. I make these comments to be helpful. I do think this tournament was well run and terrific, so don't take these personally.  First, I don't think rounds should be repaired so easily. It is discouraging to get your child seated, encourage him with a few words about why he will win (such as "your opponent looks old and tired") only to get re-paired and find that the new opponent is a young energetic player.  The under 2100 section was repaired twice, once after most of the matches had begun.

My second issue, I feel, is crucial to making these chess tournaments credible events. You cannot have people show up to the board and not have an opponent for them to play and not have them receive anything in return. People at this tournament, and previous ones, have given up a holiday weekend, travelled, missed school, and sacrificed a great deal to be at these events, and some of them received 2 forfeit points. That means that they didn't get to play, they didn't get any rating points, but they received a point so that their next round will be significantly tougher and they are more likely to lose and give up rating points. This matters to some people. It also matters if you're trying to get a norm. It ruins your opportunity. I'm not sure what the solution is, but for starters, the player should receive the victory, not just the point. Second, maybe the player should receive an option of another match or some money back. Third, if the forfeiter doesn't have a legitimate reason for missing the round, he or she should be punished in some way (points or forced withdrawal). Some people actually stayed in Chicago an extra night to play the last round only to find out that their last round opponent didn’t show up.  This type of situation is not common at other tournaments outside the chess world, and most other events don't require the commitment and sacrifice chess does. We need to devise a solution.

Aaron played some terrific games. He drew 4 of his 6 rounds.



Several of those draws he was in a better position. One or two of them were pretty interesting. I haven’t had them analyzed, so as you click through them, rest assured that I had no idea who was winning at any time (although, I thought “up a rook” was pretty safe.)I think that as he gets more experience and confidence at this level, he'll win a few of these types of games.

I now have to tell you the all-time highlight of the weekend. It happened late in round six. I was wandering among the top boards in the Open Section. Watching all the titled and great players. The games were drawing towards a close and the tension was high. I was watching two kids locked in close matches. One was Michael Bodek and another was Darwin Yang. They were on boards next to each other and I was captivated. Then all of a sudden, Bodek's opponent, who I knew was an FM caught in a difficult position with time running down on his clock, popped out of his seat, turned towards me and pushed me on the arm. Was I too close to the board? Had I been talking out loud? I almost passed out from fear. He leaned over to me and asked, "Aren't you the guy who writes those parent's articles on the Internet?" "Yes,” I whispered. He stuck out his hand and said, "I'm Robby Adamson, I love those articles." Wow! I felt the rush of adrenaline as though I had just beaten Nakamura. With that rush, I turned, and walked out of the tournament hall, I hadn’t seen the sun all weekend, I didn’t know if the oil well was capped or if Greece had defaulted on its debt, but I felt like a Grandmaster. 

See the Chicago CLO wrap-up with photos by Betsy Dynako and complete standings and information on the Chicago Open website. Mark Schein is the co-founder of the Schein-Friedman scholarship project and has written numerous articles for CLO in the past, including most recently, Sunday in Dallas: A Chess Dad's Decathalon from the K-12 Nationals.