A Parent's Perspective on Chess Camps
By Mark Schein   
July 6, 2010
A lot of parents send their kids to camp for the summer.  These camps are often near lakes and pine trees.  The kids play lots of sports, boat and sit by camp fires.  Those kids come back refreshed and relaxed.  We all know that those kids are very lucky.  My son, Aaron, was sent to chess camp for two weeks at the International Chess Academy in New Jersey.  This article is a little story about how a father, a son, and a desire to keep improving at chess (the father’s desire for the son) led them to stumble upon a great chess experience.

The story really starts several years ago when I was trolling the internet for chess camps in the New York City area.  Aaron had already spent a good deal of time as a camper at chess camps run by the fantastic coach IM Saudin Robovic at NYchesskids.com , and several run by his own coach GM Miron Sher.  Both were great programs.  However, I was looking for something even more immersive.  How much can you learn in only 6 hours, five days a week? I happened upon the website for the ICA sleep-away camp run by Diana Tulman.

 The ICA already had a great reputation as a teaching program with great coaches, but what could it offer as a summer sleep-away camp.  Well, back then, they had a sample daily schedule on the website of what my child could expect in his day.  I was not surprised to see several intensive chess lessons scheduled for each day.  I was mildly surprised to see tennis lessons and soccer games scheduled for each day.  And I was absolutely astonished to see things such as “8:00 pm dinner”, “9:30 pm showers” and 10 pm free play (blitz?). In short it led me to wonder whether the kids would be on some sort of international schedule.  Could my little guy survive this type of itinerary?  We’d never know because I was never going to send my son to that type of program. 

Flash forward a couple of years. Last summer, we were hunting for rating points.  Actually, we were hunting for the improvement that would lead to rating points.  So what’s a midnight shower, followed by a blitz game and dinner, when you’re looking to get that sixth point at the Nationals?  While I was ready to give it a shot, I was aware that my son was too level headed to jump at this opportunity.  So I called another chess dad who also suffered from what Aaron refers to as “this chess dad thing”.  This dad lived in Chicago and wasn’t very enthused by my description of the program.  He told me that his boys would not be attending; but that he would do some research of his own. 

Several weeks later, I received an email from him informing me that he would not be sending his kids to the camp for the two weeks I had suggested.  He would be sending his kids to the camp for four (yes, four!!) weeks.  My first reaction was “you’re kidding?”  My second reaction was “that’s why Aaron’s at 1700 and his son is at 1900.”  My third reaction was to delete all my emails so that my wife would not discover evidence of this insanity.  Finally, I congratulated myself on having found friends for Aaron to head off to camp with.

It turned out that the camp was filled with approximately 15 to 20 kids from the ages of 10 to 18 who all had the love of chess in common.  Many of the kids knew each other from years on the chess circuit.  It was a great opportunity for them to study together and be kids together away from the boards.  Even if they weren’t away from the boards, they were away from the pressure of the tournaments.  They were also away from their parents.  Aaron’s two weeks were filled with fun and interesting events.  Since he was twelve, I didn’t get a wealth of detail from him.  However, since I’m a 21st Century Helicopter Parent (hovering over my child) I was able to cull together some of the more memorable moments.
Aaron (center) in the classroom at the 2009 camp

First off, Diana Tulman is a very well respected chess teacher and organizer.  She has been running this camp for 11 years.  Her strategy is to bring in top tier coaches to work with the kids.  Last summer, Aaron’s coaches were Artur Yusupov and Alexander Stripunsky.  The kids work hard during lessons which last approximately 2 ½ hours at a time.  However, they really enjoy the work. My theory is that they don’t miss being outside if there are no windows in the room and they don’t realize it’s a beautiful summer day out there.

Aaron enjoyed the lessons and really enjoyed the tennis in the afternoons and the soccer in the evenings.  My first experience with Diana’s no-nonsense focus occurred on Aaron’s second day of camp.  I called Diana’s cell phone around 7:00 pm to see how things were going. 

David Adelberg and Aaron Schein during an afternoon soccer game at the 2009 camp
She informed me that she was available to talk, but that she was in the process of coaching one of the teams in a soccer game.  As she described what the kids had been doing in chess, she asked me to “Hold on”, at which time she put down the phone and yelled at her players on the field in the sternest coaching voice, “I said I want to see a combination in mid-field!” She punctuated it with some instructions in Russian as well.  I knew that if Aaron was getting this type of exhortation in the soccer game at 7:00 pm, he was certainly learning combinations on the chess board as well.

The kids lived with Diana at her home.  They really enjoyed it.  One night, at 9:30 pm, Aaron texted me to inform me that they were all heading to the grocery store to pick out their food for the week.  This might seem unconventional, but as chess players, they really liked being involved in the decision making.  Diana’s home is very nice and spacious.  What happens when “spacious home” takes in 15 kids for a month?  I’ll never know.  But I do know that when I dropped in to pick up Aaron, there were chess kids rolling out of rooms wherever you looked.  The sun was blazing outside, but the kids were just awaking in the quiet house.  My eyes, still adjusting, could barely make out the young masters and future Grand Masters emerging from their slumbers with bed head and pajamas.  It reminded me of some of the adults at the Saturday night round of the Chicago Open.  The house gave the concept of “chess immersion” a new meaning.

Aaron had lots of stories of ping pong matches, soccer games, tennis clinics, and bowling contests.  The kids enrolled were a veritable Who’s Who of the junior chess world, but at heart they were just children at summer camp.  They may have studied a lot of chess, but they were able to relax and have fun. 

And by the way, I think Aaron improved.  He seemed to learn a lot.  His results improved.  Each week his coaches would send him a file of the positions he studied.  Interestingly, the camp won’t send it unless the child asks for it and really wants it.  The desire has to come from within.

In the end, Aaron thought enough of the experience to sign up for another two weeks this summer.  He’s looking forward to a lot of fun plans for this summer.  One of those plans is the ICA Chess Camp.  Who would’ve imagined?

See chess camp listings on the Scholastic/College section of uschess.org.

Also read Mark Schein's latest article, A Parent's Perspective on the Chicago Open.