Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Elementary Nationals Wrap Up and Rant

All over but the cleaning up

I survived another scholastic nationals! Sunday was a great day for the kids. Being a group of inexperienced kids, we didn't have tremendous expectations in terms of bringing back hardware. Saturday night I had looked at the team standings. The K-3 under 800 team was in about 50th place, and the K-5 under 900 team was around 37th place. After a good sixth round for the K-5 team, I looked at the standings again. We were 31st, and only 1.5 points out of 25th. With another good round we had a reasonable chance at moving up. I hadn't even said anything to the kids before the round, except to keep playing slowly and give it their best shot.

I take a very laid back approach when coaching a group like this. I don't have a bunch of parents going on to the USCF MSA to check the real ratings of their child's opponent. I'm not sure any of these kids' parents would even know where to look for ratings. I'm more concerned with the kids having fun, and learning something. Winning a trophy with a group like this is icing on the cake. After the seventh round was done we headed out for dinner. The restaurant was about half way between the convention center and our hotel. There was debate as to whether we should go back to the convention center or not. I was able to contact the coach of the team that we shared the team room with. He sent one of his players off to find out our place. He called back and told me we came in 25th. YES! We had a reason to go back.

It's nice to work with a group like this because then I don't have to deal with the type of crap referred to below. This came off the USCF Issues Forum (One must be USCF member and registered to view) and is written by one of my regular readers whose daughter plays for the team that won the K-5 championship.

Actually, this was my 6th scholastic national tournament and maybe I wasn't aware of it previously but there seemed to be a lot more whispers about cheating than in any previous tournament. I didn't see or observe anything (but I try to stay in the cocoon of our team room most of the time because my kids and I are much happier without the hovering parent thing going on) but I did hear things from several parents from several different schools. Things ranging from kids entering moves on their mon roi before they made them, kids leaving the tournament hall in the middle of games to talk to their parents, kids with notes in their notation books, kids who circled "won" when they lost. I think the playing hall which had an observation area one floor up where parents were perched with binoculars (!) to watch their kids' games may have fed into an overall feeling of paranoia. I overheard someone talking about one family, where one parent was watching the game through binoculars and calling the other parent who was down on the tournament floor with moves on a cell phone, etc. Again, I have no personal knowledge of any actual cheating but the spectre of cheating was in the air like never before and I think it is something that needs to be addressed firmly at future scholastics.

Then in the USCF Chess Tournaments Forum there was this post from a coach.

Well, for the first time in my life I've been accused of cheating. My K-5 U900 team in Pittsburgh was the object of a cheating accusation last weekend. The problem started when, to encourage the kids to play slow, I told them to get up, get water, go to the bathroom, and look at teammates games (always from behind their teammate and never making eye contact) during their games. This way they would not be glued to their chairs and could relax and play slow. Our bright tied-dyed team shirts made it clear in the first round than many of our players listened and did look over teammate's games [ many players did set records for the longest games they'd played in their lifetimes]. Late in the first round one parent of one of my kids opponents was quite upset that teammates were looking at his daughter's game. He also didn't like that other teammates were in the spectator area trying to see what the position was. He confronted me with quotes of "she is playing your whole team" and that I should be ashamed of teaching kids to cheat. Well, I didn't really know how to respond. I knew they were not cheating and when I told him that he didn't believe me.

After the first round I instructed the kids to not look at any teammates games and to take the long way to the bathroom to avoid walking behind a teammate's board. I thought this would be the end of it. When I asked them later they said that they did not look at teamate's boards.

Then during Sunday's morning games I was confronted with another accusation of cheating by the coach for a group of schools and we went to see the floor TD. Then we spent 45 minutes hearing about how a surveillance program had been set up and that one of my kids had gone to the bathroom three times in the last hour. The basic accusation is that my kids were meeting in the bathroom to exchange ideas. The floor TD was very patient but since they could not provide proof (which was impossible since there was no cheating!) and he would not punish us right then, they became very frustrated.

I got to talk for about a minute but it doesn't do any good once some is sure you are guilty. I admitted to telling the kids they could look at the teammate's games. I also said that I told them not to any more but they claimed that we were still doing it. We did have quite visible shirts but there were other similar tie-dyed shirts that a couple of other teams had. I also found out that they had instructed their players to follow our players to the bathroom! When I tried to apologize to the coach of the teams, he said he didn't want to talk to me an walked away.

In the end, I told the kids for the last round to go to the bathroom before the round, limit water intake, and not look at teammate's games. All these are things that are within the rules but I thought that it was better to be extra clean. We had the floor chief TD come to our room and talk to the team for 20 minute before the last round. He said that they could look at teammate's games but I still told them not to. I'm not sure if all the distractions affected the play of our kids in the last round. We did a little worse than I had hoped in the last round and finished 19th.

A lot of this is due to parents who were able to continuously observe their kids play. They then interpret anything out of the ordinary as suspicious. From there it all just feeds on itself to become clear cheating. Once they had set up the surveillance program, only sitting in the chair for three hours would have removed their fears. It is just a real shame to place this level of distrust in the kids. I could have watched my son's games easily from the crosswalk but I could not take the tension of sitting a watching. Overall, it was one of the most depressing and frustrating things in my life! To have people be 100% sure you are cheating without proof is surreal. I was barely able to hold it together when I talked to the team before the last round. I now have 13 schools sure that I've taught my kids to cheat. Personal integrity is important to me but there is not a thing in the world I can do to convince them that they are wrong.

Though I disagree with encouraging kids to go watch teammates' games, there wasn't anything wrong with what these kids did. I tell my kids to stay away from each others games, and stay focused on their own. Somehow I seriously doubt players under 900 could give their teammates any useful information in a trip to the bathroom. This team scored 1 point more then my team. Somehow I don't think it was because their kids were talking about their positions while hanging out by the the water cooler or in the bathroom. Having looked at over 70 games from that section, I seriously doubt cheating was an issue. I think some parents and coaches seriously need to get a life.

Before I got involved with teaching and coaching I used to be a tournament director at many of these scholastic nationals. Being on the floor at events like these is very challenging at times. Often one needs to make decisions that may not be based on normal rules. One needs the wisdom of Solomon when trying to decide where a piece is when there is no scoresheet and the placement of that piece is the difference between winning and losing. One also must be gentle but firm when dealing with a crying child that one is having to rule against. Sometimes we screw up and make the wrong decision at first. We can only hope that when everything is said and done that we get it right in the end.

I remember one elementary nationals where I think there must have been a full moon. The parents and coaches were just going nuts. In between rounds I had gone out for a run with one of my friends who was coaching a small NYC school. We got talking about the nutty parents and we got joking about how to solve the problem. Hold the nationals at an undisclosed location. Tell the parents their kids will be met at the airport and taken to the tournament. They will be taken care of by the directing staff for the entire weekend. When the tournament is over, the kids will be flown back home. No parents to second guess the tournament directors or accuse other children of cheating. Wouldn't that be nice.

I am kidding about the solution, but often when a decision is made on the floor the tournament director and the players involved are able to work everything out. It's when the players go back to mommy and daddy that sometimes the story gets distorted and now the tournament director has a pissed off parent on his back. The parent innocently asks "How was your game?" and now the kid gets all emotional and starts crying. Naturally the parent is going to get upset because he/she thinks their kid has been screwed. Then the tournament director has to go through the whole process over again in order to make the parent understand what happened and why a particular ruling was made. Damn! I don't miss directing at these things anymore!

Monday we had nice train ride back to New York. Any train buffs out there recognize this scene? My little point and shoot doesn't do it justice. This is the horseshoe curve on the old Pennsylvania Rail Road route near Altoona.

What do you when you got 100+ hungry kids from various schools on a long train ride? You call ahead for pizza in Harrisburg. No offense to the good folks in Harrisburg, but nothing tastes like New York pizza. It must be the water.

Good to be home, though I caught a nasty cold. Nasty enough that I was very happy when my opponent in the club championship had too much homework and couldn't make it until next week's make up round. Nasty enough to keep me away from my weekly cracktion fix for another week. This means I'll go for over a week with no rated games. No chess this weekend either!


Anonymous said...

This was my first Elementary Nationals and both my son and I enjoyed it greatly even though he didn't do as well as hoped.

Sorry to hear about those cheating accusations. Those coaches or parents can accuse all they want but they seem to be deluding themselves that a reasonable TD is going to take punitive action without real proof. Perhaps all they really wanted to do was to rattle your school....

If they put as much effort into training their chess team as they do accusing others and whatnot, perhaps they would get better results.

Polly said...

They didn't rattle my school. I don't think my kids were even aware of the crap going on. In fact I didn't even realize that a team in my division had been accused of cheating.

I continually remind my kids that if they're bothered by something the opponent is doing, raise your hand and let the TD handle it. I also spent several sessions at school going over the type of stuff that can possibly come up, and how to handle it. Outside a few crushing losses, my players had a good time. When a kid came back after a bad game I'd remind them about things to do to improve, and remind them that there were a lot of kids from the chess club that did not get to go.

wang said...

Great report Polly. And of course nothing is as good as NY Pizza! I thought everyone knew that!?

transformation said...

plly, nice photo. i LOVE pizza! then again, who doesnt?

i remember once, after driving all over Coos Bay Oregon once, looking for a 'suitable' hotel (in 1995 there were none that i could find!),

then embarked on similar for pizza, and after great search, found ONE sad place but forced myself to stop driving and eat 'the' longed for pizza.

when it came, i was certain that they used cardboard of paper mache. went to college in new york, so, why yes, its 'not the same'!

Anonymous said...

The train looks like fun. More fun than our tiny plane that was whipped around by the wind as it was landing at LaGuardia on Sunday night . . . As I noted in a comment on Elizabeth Vicary's blog, the contrast between Pittsburgh with the rumblings about cheating and parents with binoculars watching every move of their kids' games and Dallas where we went for JHS Nationals was stark. In Dallas, everyone was much more relaxed, parents, coaches, kids. One coach at another school who I chatted with a lot in Dallas barely spoke to me in Pittsburgh. I think handling the high intensity parents with their high expectations does take its toll. Cheers, Maddie's Mom

BlunderProne said...

Man, it just goes to show you how naivity of the parents can create extra stress on everyone else.
Helicoptering, a parental style that is more prevalent than letting a child learn through natural consequences, has advanced to "black hawk" helicoptering in full attack mode.
These kids are being robbed of the right to learn through thier own actions. Mom and Dad could still be supportive but need to trust in the difficult and thankless process of the directors. Instead they treat the TD's and the whole process that they don't understand like it were some crooked lawyer or tax accountant cooking the books. The simple question those parents should ask ( who accuse TD's of wrong doings) is " What benefit is it they are receiving by cheating a 10 year old out of a ruling?"

I know my daughter well enough to have the philiosphy of " I will not believe any story my daughter tells me until I hear the other side and have a chance to process the entire situation." ( to her teachers we say something like: "We won't beleive anything she tell us about you if you do the same for us" ...because she's a kid looking for adults to feel sorry for her when SHE messes up. She's flat out lied to the school. At tournaments, she tends to be a little less oppositional... but she does know how to annoy the TD's... which I discourage)

I can see how you caught the cold, the stress that these events cause breaks your immune system down.

Anonymous said...

The whole deal with the overzealous adults is so disheartening. And that there are real cheats, which doesn't help with the paranoia.

Well, these were excellent reads, but it's hard to determine whether I'm jealous of your deep involvement in scholastic chess or not.

And whoever said that you were a gem was right.

Polly said...

I find at the JH and HS championships even though the competition is just as fierce the parents aren't quite as nuts. Maybe by the time their children have gotten to that age, they've learned to let go some. Actually at the HS championship there are less parents and more groups of kids accompanied by teachers and coaches.

The caged parents scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. I guess it's every scholastic director's fantasy to literally through them all in cage. That scene was on an exaggerated basis of an incident at a tournament that one of my colleagues was organizing.

Anonymous said...

The first scholastic tournament we ever went to was at one of the NYC public schools where the kids play chess in the big, airy, high ceiling gym and the parents wait in the cramped, low ceilinged cafeteria next door. There were mostly novice players. The tournament director said that he would let parents stay in the gymnasium as long as they stayed on the sides of the room, behind a white line and as long as they didn't interfere with the games by motioning or talking, etc. It lasted for about 3 minutes and there were so many parents who were unable to keep themselves from interfering with the games that the parents were all kicked out and have never been allowed back in.

Polly said...

Anon: That sounds familiar. Give the parents an inch, and they'll take a foot. For the younger players I think it's important for them to be able to play in peace, and not having mom or dad pacing around in view. It also makes it easier for the tournament directors to do their jobs. They don't need little Johnny's dad flagging them down to point out that Johnny's opponent is making funny faces or spent 10 minutes in the bathroom.