Monday, April 7, 2008

Home Sweet Home!

I got back home from Dallas on Monday, and I'm still wiped out. I woke up this morning and felt like I'd been hit by a tank. I had all sorts of wonderful plans to do daily updates, but by the time I'd get back to my room I was too tired to post. The wireless service was pretty much non-existent in our team room so I didn't even bother to bring the computer downstairs.

I work with a few different schools, so depending on which team I'm traveling with my responsibilities may be a little different. Last year I attended all three of the spring scholastics with three different teams. I'm not doing that again! It seemed like I spent all last spring holed up in hotels and hanging out in airports. This year I get a break and will not be jumping on a plane to go to Atlanta in two weeks.

For the Dallas trip I'm not the only coach. The main coach is rated around 2400, and can do a lot more with the players then I can, especially since our top player is 1900 and is 11 and 5 against me in tournament play. There's not a whole lot I can tell him in terms of better moves then what he played. Assistant coach doesn't adequately describe my role with this team. I play researcher, cheerleader, therapist, referee, punching bag and interpreter.

The tournament tends to be one gigantic roller coaster ride. One round a player can be on top of the world, and the next round he can feel like he's on a runaway train with no brakes. One of our players whose rated around 1400 beat a 1700 in the first round. On Saturday he lost to a 700. Go figure. However that's the type of thing that happens when you got a bunch of kids from all over the country with different experience gathered in one place to do battle.

As many times as I can tell a kid play the position not the rating, one can not help to expect someone 700 points lower to eventually fold. Everyone at every rating level deals with the psychology of playing somebody way higher or lower. Dana MacKenzie posted an article on his blog called Ratings: Love ‘em, hate ‘em, ruled by ‘em? The last paragraph of the article says it best in terms of what we need to do.

To conclude, let me say that whether you love ratings or hate them, it is best for your development as a chess player to completely put them out of your mind once the game begins. In any given game, it’s just you and your opponent and the chess pieces. The numbers beside your names on the wall chart should not have anything to do with what’s happening on the chess board. Your opponent’s queen does not get extra moves because his rating is higher than yours — unless you allow it to! As soon as you start thinking that he must have some deep plan that you don’t see because he’s better than you, then you are effectively giving his pieces more moves than yours, and then you are going to lose.

The reverse can seem to be true when you're the higher rated player. It's easy to think that just because the lower rated player made a certain move, that it can't possibly be any good. I've been guilty of that more times then I admit. Lately on this blog I've have confessed to that type of thinking. What was that I was saying about 1100 rated kids not being able to play the ending? So when I say to one of the kids "Ignore the rating, and play chess", I'm really saying "Do as I say, not what I do."

As our 1400 was in playing and losing to the 700 his mother was sitting in one of the parents/coaches meetings where the topic of rating discrepancies arose. Many kids come into the nationals with a low USCF rating which is based on very few games. In reality the kids have played many games rated by one of the alternative rating services out there. In Hawaii they use CXR ratings. In Washington state they use Northwest Chess ratings. So a player with a USCF provisional rating of 750 may in reality have an established CXR rating of 1300. Which number reflects the true measure of a player's ability? Should the higher rating be used to rank the player in an event like this?

After that round we starting doing little more research beyond simply checking the USCF MSA for the opponent's most current rating. When a player's mom couldn't find a CXR or northwest rating I suggested she Google the name. What she found when she did that was that her son's next opponent had scored the biggest upset at last year's Junior High Nationals. Armed with that information he was better prepared for putting up with stronger then expected resistance to his attacks. I must say I have often debated whether it's more beneficial to know how much higher rated a player is then the rating used for the event. After this tournament, and knowing how I handle what I know about a player I think for most players it's good to have this information. For some kids it may be better for them not to know, especially if they're easily intimidated by the rating difference. The trick as a coach is to know which kid will be helped or hurt by such information.

Sometimes when a kid comes back from a game he lost and starts complaining about something his opponent did I have to dig a little deeper to find the real story behind the story. One player came back into the team room and complained that his opponent kept walking away from the table with his Mon Roi. The scholastic regulations have a list of 8 rules regarding the handling of the device. Numbers 5 and 6 make it pretty clear that it needs to remain on the table.

5. When recording moves, the player should have the Device on the table in view of the opponent.

6. When not recording moves the player should keep hands off the Device and leave the Device on the table in plain sight until the end of the game.

Number 8 deals with security if someone wants to leave to go to the bathroom.

8. The player may request the TD to provide security for the Device when the player uses the restroom.

At first the player made it sound like his opponent was frequently leaving the room with the device. I asked him if he complained to the tournament director. He gave me a rather unclear answer. After asking him what the TD said, I got the impression that he had not really complained, but had walked over to one of the floor directors to ask about it. I also found out that his opponent had not left the room with the device, but was simply holding it while pacing around next to the board. It also seems like he didn't do it that many times. Even doing that is in violation of #6, but was it really giving the opponent any sort of edge?

That's a case where if the opponent's actions are really bothering a player he needs to raise his hand and get the TD to come over to the table. That way the opponent can be made aware of the issue, and an official warning can be made if needed. If I'm working on the floor as a TD and a player comes up and asks me a general question such as "Can a player hold his Mon Roi while standing near the board?" I'm more likely to treat it as someone wanting information, not filing a complaint. I've often had players come up to me and ask rules questions without making a specific complaint. If I ask them if there's a problem usually they say "No, I was just wondering."

Some rounds can be totally brutal for a team. In round 6 everyone on the team lost. What does one say to the kids and the parents? I reminded the parents that this was the first year we were playing in the championship section. In past spring nationals we've been in the under 1250 or under 1500 sections. The competition is tougher and we don't have the benefit of our 1200 to 1300 rated players getting paired down a lot. The kids look at what happened in their games, and know that there is another round to come back. They did bounce back and all of them won pulling the team back up to sixth place.

After the last round everyone can relax. It's at that point pizza and bughouse are the main interests. "Can't we just skip the awards and stay here and play blitz and bughouse?" No it doesn't work that way. Get the trophy, take the pictures and then all the blitz and bughouse the players want. Usually I want in on the fun, but I was just too tired. I decided a nice dinner with adults was more my speed this time.

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