Competition Guide

Scholastic chess is all about the competition experience. For an improving junior player, its helpful to plan out your tournament schedule. It is a good idea to discuss upcoming events as a series of events. It will become clear quickly why this is important. You want to use the next event as a way to make the current event seem less final and take the opportunity to look forward to the next event if the current competition has been difficult. Likewise, if the event has been successful it will be very exciting and motivating to know that another opportunity is coming up.

If your child knows how to play, but has never played in a chess tournament, the School Chess Association (SCA) hosts scholastic chess tournaments that are great way to get started with chess competition. SCA tournaments have new players at every event. You only need to know the basic rules of the game to participate. Start attending these events. Your child will learn the mechanics of tournaments and begin experiencing the fun and excitement of chess competition. The typical SCA event is 5 rounds. Kids play all rounds and byes are available to address schedule conflicts. The SCA has a merit point system which provides great encouragement and goals for the new tournament player. There are other organizations that offer similar events to the SCA and some of these may be convenient for you, but the SCA's merit point system, frequent events and USCF sections make the SCA our first choice.

Once your child has scored 3 points in regular SCA events, it is time to step up to a new circuit of tournaments called USCF rated events. This is the national tournament system and is the same if you live in Hawaii or Minnesota. The SCA provides a USCF section at many of their events. 

It's important to make this switch from regular SCA events to USCF rated events for these main reasons:
In the regular SCA events, most kids do not keep score, they do not use a chess clock in the same way as in USCF events and they allow chatting that often includes chiding your opponent to move quickly. Attempts to counter these effects with coaching tend to fail because the "peer effect" is very strong in the tournament hall.

Fortunately the SCA has started to offer a rated section in all but their grade level events. It's important that your child becomes a USCF member and starts competing in these USCF events. Participating in the USCF sections at the SCA will allow your child to continue their development as a tournament chess player. The SCA rated sections also includes awarding merit points, so your child will continue to have the benefits of the SCA system.

USCF Tournaments

Every USCF event is rated and results in a chess rating. Kids can become overly nervous about chess ratings. Avoid looking up your child's opponents rating before playing to help alleviate this effect. Chess ratings fluctuate up or down. It's important to not focus on your child's rating as an indicator of success or failure. That will take the joy out of the game if it is all about the numbers. Ratings can help guide which competitions to participate in. Chess ratings for starting scholastic players will usually in the 100-500 range.

Once your child approaches a USCF rating of 800-1000, benefits of participating in USCF rated tournaments in the USCF tournament circuit becomes more important. A child can certainly start to play in regular USCF events with ratings below 800, but attention should be given to making sure an appropriate section is available. Once your child is rated 800-1000, participation in MSCA or Minnesota Chess Castle USCF events should be considered an option. It is very exciting when they start to participate in USCF events, because now their chess has no limits. They can continue on to state events that are qualifiers for national events, or even international events. We have had scholastic players in Minnesota play during the year as far away as New York, Florida and California and internationally, even with different International destinations!

Should I skip playing in the SCA? Every kid will be different, but in general the answer is no if your child is rated below 1400. Often times, kids that have switched to USCF events will continue participate in SCA events, just make sure you play in the rated section unless it's a grade level or championship event. Currently the SCA rated events are helpful for kids rated under 1400. If your child is rated over 1400, other USCF events will be more important to continued chess improvement. This could change if the SCA adjusted there events to accommodate stronger players (slower time controls and sections based on rating). If your child is over 1400, the championships events may still be fun to play in.

What if we don't make the switch to USCF? In general, in the first 3 rounds of an SCA event, games are often won or lost by a child making a major mistake, like dropping a piece with no compensation. This limits the instructional value of these games. This limits the more instructive rounds to just 2 rounds, round 4 and 5. Playing in the USCF section will tend to increase the number of instructional rounds in an event, which will help you child's skill progress. If your child only played in regular SCA events, it can become very difficult to increase their chess skill because the peer induced bad habits and too many easy wins. Sometimes they can even become complacent and just be happy when an easy wins comes their way.

Playing Up

Playing up a section can be a useful tool, but it can come with false expectations, particularly in the unrated SCA sections. Because regular SCA events are welcoming to new players in every section, the easy wins will exist in the early rounds in every section. So you might be surprised when your child does equally well or even a little better in the next section, you may think your child is doing significantly better because of playing up. Unfortunately they still experience the same "peer induced" bad habits and the easy early rounds. It may be better, but only slightly better. For chess improvement, it is still better to play in the USCF section.

Playing up is completely different in USCF events. This can be a useful tool, but has different challenges. If your child plays up too much, the scoring expectations might be as low as zero points. In which case the proper expectations need to be set and you have to watch for signs of becoming too conservative in their play. This can happen if they lose so frequently that they start to expect to lose and are only trying to avoid losing instead of playing for a win. This strategy doesn't work, but they sometimes believe this is their only option. Every kid is different and this will effect each kid differently. Playing up for the opposite reason may be needed as well. If you child is getting too many wins too easily, playing up may be important for chess improvement.

Understanding USCF Ratings for the Scholastic Player
An 800 rated adult is a very novice player. That's not true for a scholastic player. Quite often I see parents that judge their child's success based on their USCF rating. There are lot's of children between 100-800. They have epic and exciting chess games and enjoy chess competition. Ratings should only be considered for what section to play in. It's far more important to focus on enjoying playing in tournaments and the effort put into playing and learning between tournaments. If parents or kids are stressed out over ratings when they are 300 rated, chess will seem like it's only about the numbers and it can be a strain of the fun of the game. It is far more important that they are enjoying themselves and spending time on their game between events, the ratings will eventually go up. They can improve just by playing in tournaments, but it is much slower to improve and it's better to make between tournament chess an opportunity to improve and it's own source for enjoyment.

Chess at Play Club Members
To get the most out of our chess club, you should attend tournaments. Our club is structured to be a competitive club that helps kids advance as tournament players. Tournament time is just as valuable for parents as it is for kids. Tournaments give you an opportunity to learn about chess competition from other parents and from your coach and it allows us to collaborate on what to focus on for improvement.