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Chess Journalists of America (2016)

  Published July 2004 in the Oklahoma Chess Quarterly

Scholastics and the Soul of Chess

Is Scholastic Chess Killing Tournament Chess, or Saving It?
Life Chess Master Tom Braulich

Author's Note:     This article, that I wrote and published in 2004 in the Oklahoma Chess Quarterly, achieved its goal of raising the issue of whether the USCF’s emphasis on scholastic chess has ultimately been good for the actual sport of chess (traditional “adult” chess tournaments at classic time controls) in the U.S. It discussed several ways that scholastic chess might be hurting adult USCF membership and activity, and the attitude of young players toward the “adult” sport. I was vilified by many pro-scholastic people for even raising these issues, but now more than 10 years later the criticisms still are relevant. The situation remains basically the same, as still it is a fact that only a very small percentage of young players go on to participate in adult chess, even those kids who reach a high (2000+) rating in their school years. The main conclusion of the article – that more needs to be done to encourage scholastic chess educators to encourage kids to view chess as a real sport and treat it as an ongoing lifetime hobby, as opposed to something you do in school only – still seems to hold true despite recent changes in U.S. Chess.

     The OCF still occasionally receives requests for copies of the article, so they asked my permission to archive it here for access.

     GM Joel Benjamin criticized the article by pointing out that in the NY metro area there is that kind of encouragement and cooperation between scholastic and traditional chess, and the two intermix fine. That is true for them, in a place where chess has a long history, but it is the exception from a national perspective, where in most states the two camps are separate and there is little bridge between them. In some states the kids are not even required to join the USCF and never even really learn what it is or what traditional tournaments are all about. It is like kids playing little league baseball who have little idea about what the Major Leagues are like.

     In a recent article (August 2015), USCF President Ruth Haring discussed this same issue of the extremely low retention of young players into adult sport chess participation and asked for ideas on how to help the situation; so it is clear the problem still persists and in some ways has become worse in many areas of the country, although there remains lots of debate about causes and remedies (and there are claims that adult membership has grown slightly the last few years).

     Worth noting is that the USCF still continues to emphasize scholastic chess, especially since winning official non-profit status for the organization. It recently changed its Mission Statement to: “Empowering people through chess one move at a time.” and changed its Vision Statement to: “Our vision is to enrich the lives of all persons and communities through increasing the play, study, and appreciation of the game of chess.” As you can see, no longer is there any emphasis, or even mention, of chess as a sport, as there once was in the USCF. Instead, we are a charitable foundation trying to “empower” people.

     Chess indeed does have the ability to empower the people who study it. That has always been true. But what happens when the youngsters leave the scholastic chess world, where everything was made easy for them, and can find “nowhere to go” as an adult player except small expensive tournaments that have suffered from decades of USCF neglect and lack of development? Where prizes don’t even cover a player’s expenses? The answer is clear. They give up chess in traditional tournament play, and drop their USCF membership. They may still play some on the Internet, but it is not the same, and will not sustain the USCF in the future when the Fischer-boom players retire. I hope you find that this 2004 article raises some interesting points and questions worth considering.

"NOTE:     This information about Pittsburgh appeared in the original article but had many important facts wrong.  A correction and further discussion of it is in the attached "Responses and Corrections" follow-up article updating this main article."

     The debate about the nature of chess used to be whether it is a sport, an art, or a science. Now a powerful new group has a different idea: chess is a tool. An educational tool. This influential group surprisingly now makes up the majority of USCF members and a large part of the USCF governance, affecting traditional chess in many ways. The USCF is even now seriously considering an offer by one educational organization to merge with the USCF. The ramifications of these changes for the average adult player are revolutionary, and not necessarily welcome.

     The scholastic chess movement has been wonderfully educational for thousands of kids, but it also holds the future of adult tournament chess in its hands and a growing number of players are questioning whether scholastics is doing more harm than good, with concerns in four areas:

  • Scholastics and “Competitiveness”
  • Scholastics and “Talent”
  • Scholastics and “Money”
  • Scholastics and “Politics”

     Until I began to research this article I, like most other adult players, didn’t really understand what “scholastic chess” was. I naively thought it was the same thing as “junior chess,” just better organized than it used to be back when I was a junior in the ‘70s. Boy was I wrong!

To understand the state of chess in America today you must understand the true nature of scholastic chess.

NOTE: I spent months researching this article on the internet scouring websites and newsgroups, and talking to many prominent scholastic and adult chess organizers and politicians around the country (many of whom are quoted here). The emphasis is upon scholastics from a national perspective, not on the particular issues we have had recently with scholastics in Oklahoma, although I will sometimes refer to those by way of example.


To understand the subject we must first quickly discuss some important history and terminology.

     It was not so long ago that “scholastic” chess didn’t exist. Prior to the mid-1970s young players were considered “juniors ” — essentially just precocious young “raw” versions of adult players. Juniors came to chess on their own initiative. They already had a love for chess and strong interest in the game, and they were looking for ways to express it. They also typically had ambitions in chess (to be a master, or the next Bobby Fischer). Their enthusiasm was so strong that they sought out serious chess competition in their community – which often was difficult to find in those days. Adult players considered it their duty to mentor each junior, welcoming them into clubs and immediately introducing them to formal chess tournaments.

     Schools were not involved in this process. Each state had a Junior Championship once a year hosted by the adults. There were some school team tournaments, but only if the juniors themselves organized it (except in large cities where some traditional events were held annually by tournament directors (TDs)). The USCF defined junior as under age 21 and held the U.S. Junior Open and Junior Invitational Championship. All these events were extremely competitive. It seems there has always been this regular “inflow” of enthusiastic juniors at a fairly small but constant rate. Juniors are recognizable by their talent, ambitions, competitiveness, and love of chess.

     By contrast, the new category of “scholastic chess” players are recruited into chess. These kids have no particular pre-existing knowledge or special interest in chess, although a small number of them might develop it later. They are brought into the game by scholastic organizers for the stated purpose of exposing the kids to the educational benefits that can be derived from chess.

The key thing to realize is that scholastic chess is the creation of educators.

     “For their part, educators couldn’t care less about chess per se. They were interested in education, in teaching kids. The game of chess mattered only insofar as it appeared to be a useful tool for those purposes. As they ventured into the world of organized chess, educators found unlikely soul mates: the chess organizers themselves.” (FM Macon Shibut, Editor of quarterly Virginia Chess).

     The beginning of the scholastic chess educational movement is difficult to pinpoint, but can generally be assigned to the late 1970s. (Prior to this Bill Goichberg organized the National High School Championship, starting in 1969, but this tournament was perhaps really more like a variation on his World Open, a big open limited to juniors under 18, not the education-oriented “scholastic chess” we are about to discuss. It eventually was taken over by USCF and made into the pinnacle of the scholastic program. See its history on the web at: http://www.nystar.com/chesscenter/hsstory.htm).

     One reason for the emergence of scholastic chess was new scientific research about educational benefits deriving from chess for kids (discussed below). Another was the defection to the U.S. of several prominent Soviet grandmasters, such as GM Lev Alburt, who knew about the benefits of chess for society and began to push for formal “scholastic” efforts within the USCF.

     The first breakthrough came in 1979, when Carver Middle School, a black inner-city school, won a national championship (see photo). This event was hyped and got major national publicity, inspiring many attempts to duplicate their success in large cities across the country.

     Scholastic chess trickled out of the cities and into educational groups of many kinds during the 1980s. The next phase began in 1986 with the creation of the Chess- in-the- Schools program in New York pioneered by Fan Adams and Bruce Pandolfini (of Searching for Bobby Fischer fame).

     “The change that came in 1986 represented a different approach in this country — the systematic cultivation of chess as a social good.”

— Dr. Tim Redman, former USCF President, Chairman of the Chess in Education Committee.

     Since then scholastic chess has grown steadily until now the national scholastic championships regularly draw 2000 or more participants.

The Many Forms of Scholastic Chess

     There are two main types of Scholastic Chess Organizations:

(1)     Chess-in-Schools— These groups aim to get chess taught in schools directly. The NY “Chess-in-the-Schools” program reported over $7 million in assets in 2002, and has been successful for years, with spin-offs in other major cities. They now teach 38,000 kids a year in NYC, visiting classrooms once a week with sixteen lessons a semester in 160 different schools with 45 instructors and 20 permanent staff members. The New Jersey-based Kasparov Chess Foundation, with $2 million in assets in 2002, also partners with school districts to offer in-class chess instruction.

     “Officials with the Seattle-based America's Foundation for Chess (“AF4C”), which has provided in-class chess instruction at 15 elementary schools in Western Washington, say the foundation aims to branch out to California in 2005 and eventually become the nation's largest supporter of in-class chess education. Its target market is 9.2 million second- and third-graders in regular education programs nationwide.” (Seattle Times, 2004).

     The AF4C may have a big role in USCF’s future, as we will see in the final section.

(2)     Chess-After-School— My name for the groups which seek to get chess into education by presenting it as an extracurricular activity for those kids whom can be persuaded to participate. These organizations, which include the scholastic wing of the USCF itself, plus many other smaller entities at a state level such as OSCO (Oklahoma Scholastic Chess Organization), expand their activities by trying to “seed” volunteer-run chess clubs at schools in their area. They focus on elementary school kids. They present the educational benefits of chess to teachers and persuade them to voluntarily organize a chess club at their school. They then provide materials and services to those clubs (including even such things as free chess sets and boards in budget-tight cases).

     These organizations provide lesson plans and coaching ideas to the local volunteer teacher, who usually knows little about the game. The teacher recruits kids into the club by enticing them with the beauties of chess and also the “cool factor” that chess has acquired ever since the release of the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer.

(There is a third kind of organization involved in scholastic chess, which you might call Chess Between Schools— This increasingly rare type of scholastic organizer, found only in the larger cities, is a holdover from the “junior chess” days. They organize school chess team leagues. They are typically experienced regular TDs or professional chess coaches. They also are often hired by the main scholastic groups to help them run tournaments, etc. Their motivations are altruistic, but focus on the sporting aspects of serious chess competition, rather than the use of chess for education. So I consider them a “junior chess” organization, under the terminology we are using here, and don’t count them as scholastic groups for the purposes of this article.)

State Scholastics

     To complicate matters further, scholastic organizations vary by state, often with rival ones within each state. For example in Oklahoma, the six-month old OSCO managed to get declared the official scholastic organization of OCA in 2003, effectively squeezing out the Heartland Scholastic Chess Association (that had been building scholastic chess here since the early 1990s) as well as Green Country Chess, which hosts a premier annual chess camp and organized the 2001 U.S. Junior Invitational and Junior Open.

     Most other states, however, allow rival scholastic organizers and manage to share or even coordinate their efforts. In Texas, for example, the state is divided into 8 regions, and within each region there are different scholastic organizations.

The Benefits of Scholastic Chess

     Before discussing criticisms of scholastic chess and the ramifications its growth has for adult chess players, we must also understand its strength and attraction to educators. There is no question that the study of chess is beneficial. Although scientific “proof” is still elusive, chess has been linked in studies to improving pattern recognition, logic, analytical skills, problem solving, visualization, memory, observation, concentration, self-confidence, social skills, test scores, reading and math scores, and even IQ. One could go on and on. There are also some less obvious advantages:

(1)     “Interest in chess education in schools is growing as a way to build community across ethnic and class lines, raise the academic achievement of low-performing students, and offer families a social way to bond outside of school.” (Seattle Times, 2004)

(2)     Chess provides focus: "It is not enough to `just say no,' We have to provide our youth with something they can say yes to. Chess does that … Chess offers the dual advantage of promoting intellectual growth, similar to but more durable than the so-called ‘Mozart effect,’ as well as developing increased self-esteem." (Phil Inness)

(3)     Educators consider that chess even makes a good pacifier: “For parents who still aren't convinced, consider that a child who's playing chess is sitting quietly and concentrating, not needing to be entertained by anything loud, violent, or silly.” (Child Magazine, 2001)

     For more information, see Dr. Robert C. Ferguson’s The Use and Impact of Chess (available online at: amchess.org), which collects not only research info but also many interesting testimonials, such as:

     “Chess has taught my students more than any other subject.”

— Dr. Fred Loveland, Superintendent of the Panama City schools.

     “Chess is one of the most powerful educational tools available to strengthen a child’s mind.”

— Dr. Peter Dauvergne in “The Case for Chess as a Tool to Develop Our Children’s Minds”,
University of Sydney, 2000.

     With experiences like this, it is understandable why scholastic chess supporters often generate highly enthusiastic dedication to chess in education. Some educators even appear to go a tad overboard with their ambitions for chess. Dr. Tim Redman, for example, recently said in a report to the USCF, “Chess in prisons, chess for talented and gifted students, chess for economically disadvantaged children in inner cities, and the use of chess to combat teenage pregnancies, drug use, and after-school crime, all of these represent promising or proven uses of chess to address the many ills of contemporary society.”

     I’m surprised he didn’t include the cure for cancer in there! But the point is made. Chess is good for you.

     Scholastic chess also deserves praise for the hard work of its numerous local organizers, many of whom are volunteers and just want to be helpful to kids. They do a wonderful job and are certainly a positive force. Also, scholastic chess has generated coaching work for many chess masters, helping them struggle through an otherwise lean era for chess.

Scholastic Growth

May 2004

  Adult Players
  Players Under 19

     Scholastic players (under age 14) and “youth” scholastic players (under age 19) are now over 50% of the USCF membership and growing. The majority of scholastic members are elementary-school kids with an average rating of 627. A scholastic player’s USCF dues cost his/her parents $19, ($13 for the economy rate with no Chess Life subscription, although this may be discontinued in 2004), compared to $49 for adults.

     However, scholastic membership has more turnover than a Texas tornado.

     Statistics are scarce, but USCF Vice President Stephen Shutt has used the figure of 70% turnover per year – 70% of these kids don’t renew their membership. Thus, the dropouts are constantly being replaced by new members and so scholastic organizers always must focus on new recruiting.

     Furthermore, other stats I’ve seen indicate that less than 10% of elementary school players maintain their membership consistently into upper grades. The high school ranks are much smaller than elementary, and the large majority of them drop out when they reach college and their USCF dues go up.

     So who is it that is left over? I would argue that the remaining avid chess players who join the ranks of serious players are none other than what we used to call the “junior” players — the regular flow of enthusiastic youngsters chess always has attracted.

     In other words, all this scholastic chess effort is reaching a lot of kids with “the brainy benefits of chess,” (as Child magazine called it) but it is only a temporary infatuation with the game for them.

     As FM Macon Shibut says, “As for the ‘seeding the future’ argument, it was a reasonable-sounding hypothesis (when the USCF decided to delve into scholastics) but time has proven it untrue. There is virtually no transfer of scholastic memberships to adult memberships.”

     Dan Heisman, author of A Parent’s Guide to Chess, believes that among those who dropout of chess for college, “some will eventually come back, perhaps in their thirties when career and family pressures settle down, and we might have a boom in adult membership in 10 or 20 years.” (Perhaps. However there is no evidence of that yet, although the biggest part of the scholastic boom began in 1993 and thus, as Heisman points out, we might not expect to see any adult comeback for another 10 years or more, and even then it might show up in internet chess rather than over-the-board chess, if it shows up at all.)

Criticisms of Scholastic Chess

     There has been little published criticism of scholastic chess. What few critics I’ve seen apparently have had the damaging label “anti-children” or “anti-scholastic” quickly attached to them, thus tending to silence debate. At the risk of that, I’d like to point out what seem to be four growing concerns about the scholastic chess system, partly from the viewpoint of scholastics itself (how good a job it is doing), but mainly from the viewpoint of a chess sportsman (how scholastic chess impacts serious adult tournament chess and the future of the USCF). My intention is to be constructive. Perhaps these concerns can be addressed positively. The four points are listed in ascending order of importance.

1) Scholastic Chess Has Difficulty With “Competition”

     On the one hand, scholastic chess organizers use the tournament aspects of chess (prizes, ratings, glory, etc.) as a major draw to generate enthusiasm among kids, inspiring them to devote the time to chess necessary to receive those life lessons. But on the other hand, educators find it difficult to deal with “competition” in an educational setting – it tends to cause hurt feelings and get out of control with the kids, not to mention with overbearing parents (as in Searching for Bobby Fischer – the cautionary tale that all scholastic organizers and parents have lurking at the back of their minds).

     This dissonance between the need to cultivate yet control competition has proven very difficult for educators and organizers. Most programs choose a “feel good” approach:

     “Already the teaching approach to chess that is gaining acceptance de-emphasizes the competitive nature of the game and emphasizes its problem-solving aspect. Teachers will tell you that some children are put off by being forced into a win- lose contest though they can become very engaged with chess intellectually and benefit from it. I know that my godson (age six) likes to play chess but doesn't like the game to proceed to a victory or loss because he isn't comfortable with that aspect of the game.” (Dr. Tim Redman)

     The natural competition of playing the game is fun for some kids, but since that leads inevitably to most other kids getting discouraged, especially at tender ages under 10, educators suppress it. This forces them to find other ways to “make chess fun.” “Children have to want to play to derive the benefits,” one educator said.

     “The key to making chess fun, say the instructors, is how you teach the game. Dalton's Jovanovic spices his lessons with all kinds of cultural and literary references as well as dramatic battles between chess pieces. At P.S. 194, Church's students take breaks from learning game strategy to design their own chess pieces with crayons and paper. They get up from their seats to perform dances that help them remember moves: In the Rook Dance, for example, kids move up, down, and side to side …” (Child.com).

     But at times the competition contradiction seems downright schizophrenic, particularly when it comes to tournaments where the “feel good” attitude is extended to USCF events:

     “At our nationals, we try to emphasize the importance of participation and making a good effort. Before the awards ceremony, I usually announce that everyone who came to the tournament is a winner and the only losers are the people who stayed home and watched television. We give a medal to every player who completes the tournament without a forfeit. Before the beginning of every round, the director of our Kindergarten section always announces the names of both of the players who played the longest game in the previous round, and everybody claps for them to recognize their effort.” (Tom Brownscombe, former USCF Scholastic Coordinator)

     But notice the contradiction —he is talking about the “National Scholastic Championship” here! They want the excitement and prestige of competition and championships (in fact they rely upon it to draw the big numbers – remember thousands of kids are coming from all over the country to this very event), and yet at the same time they deny it.

In what other sport do novices who can’t handle losing and barely know what they are doing go to the national championship?

     And there is some hypocrisy too. Despite all the talk about non-competition, the schools crow like roosters when their kids actually do win! Shutt tells this story: “A school team won the under-800 section and received newspaper headlines billing them as National Champions. A team from another school in the same city finished first in the Open Section but received no publicity from the city’s newspaper, which was reluctant to recognize a second National Champion after providing so much publicity to the first school for being The National Champion.” This is just one of many “crowing” examples.

     These big scholastic events have sections not only broken down by age group, but also by rating within age groups, sometimes with sections for players as low as “under 750”. These lower sections have the most participants. The supposed reason for having so many sections is that without it the tournament would be too big to determine a clear winner in a weekend Swiss System of limited rounds (even with them there are so many players that they use accelerated pairings and a single drawn game can remove a player from first place contention).

     Officially the USCF has ruled that only the winners in the top section are the entitled “National Champion” player or team. But you can bet that is not how the kids see it — as one organizer remarked, a kid would rather win 3rd place in the lowest section than 10th place in the highest section.

     “So what?” you might say. What’s the problem with de-emphasizing winning while still allowing the kids some fun?

     Well, for starters, learning about competition and how to deal with it can be educational too. Consider for example this testimony from Dr. Daaim Ahmad Shabazz:

     “I remember my scholastic days as a player at an all-Black public high school in Chicago. The competition was fierce at ‘CVS’ and you learned that you had to improve, or languish at the bottom of the club's rating list. With 100 players at my school's club, you had to fight through a maze of determined players who were trying to make the top five positions! Grudge matche s were carried into the lunchrooms and trash-talking was rampant. … Between my junior and senior years, I studied six hours a day during the summer and went from 6th position to 1st! Although my parents sometimes worried, this single-minded focus later helped me focus on my Ph.D. research for long, long hours. I attribute much of my academic success to my earlier chess activities … it's been an important aspect of my intellectual development.”

     But the scholastic educators want to focus on grades K-6 (where few kids have matured enough for this kind of healthy sportsmanlike attitude) because they believe this is where the greatest educational benefits from chess can be derived. “Because of the overwhelming research demonstrating the benefits of chess and because of the brain research theorizing the growth of dendrites, chess should be integrated into the school curriculum at the primary level.” (Dr. Robert C. Ferguson). Thus, even though the natural competition in chess makes it more suitable for teenage students, the educators choose to focus on ages 5-10 and suppress a key aspect of the nature of the game instead.


     But avid players who believe that chess is a serious sport have a more important concern: What is the non-competitive approach of scholastic chess doing to those few kids in the scholastic chess world who actually do love chess, have talent, and want to pursue their chess ambitions? To do so, they must cultivate a winning attitude to fuel their excellence. Listen to the grandmasters themselves:

"Chess is above all a fight."

— Emanuel LASKER.

"During a chess competition a chess master should be a combination of a beast of prey and a monk."

— Alexander ALEKHINE.

"… this impressed on me that 'wanting to win' was perhaps more important than 'playing good moves'."

— GM Ray KEENE (In Becoming a Grandmaster).

“In chess, at least, the brave inherit the earth.”

— GM Edmar MEDNIS, commenting on the games of Mikhail Tal.

     Are those few kids who wish to excel being done a disservice by much of scholastic chess? Are they being “wimpified?” This concern is not just limited to feel-good platitudes spoken by organizers for general consumption. It also extends into the coaching and advice the kids are actually given.

For example, on the NSCF (National Scholastic Chess Foundation) website, this position was given as their featured game, a last-round encounter, with black to move. Both players are in time trouble (3 minutes left) and white offered a draw.

     Black can play 1…Qxa4 but then after the obvious 2. Rb7+, Kd8 3. Rb8+, Kd7 4. Rxh8 there arises a complicated Queen vs. Two Rooks endgame. Black, the “reserve section grand prix champion,” decided to take the draw. The commentator analyzes this position at length and concludes it leads to a draw by perpetual check with best play, although this is far from clear. He then praised the decision to accept the draw, telling the kids, “With less than 3 minutes left on his clock, George had to evaluate the draw offer by relying on his instincts and intuitio n. They told him to accept the draw rather than play a dangerous position that he might not be able to win even given a lot of time. And so he did!”

     WRONG! I can guarantee you that Nakamura or Fischer or any top player would never agree to a draw in such a dynamic unbalanced position! Although it is risky to play on, a kid needs to have a will to win and a confidence that he can outplay his opponent in the nitty-gritty. That is the fun of chess – playing out positions like this with your heart hammering! Black should not be scared! Play on in this position; especially since White’s open king guarantees Black will always have good chances for perpetual check if he gets into trouble. White should not have offered the draw either! The coach should have pointed this out and encouraged the kids not to offer or take draws just because they are fearful they might lose. Play for the win!

As Karpov said, “Don’t be afraid!”

     But what do the educators and scholastic organizers care? They don’t. As chess politician Sam Sloan remarked recently, “Scholastic chess is not about churning out grandmasters. It is about teaching kids the importance of learning and study.”

     Shibut remarks, “It seems to me that your charge of ‘wimpfication’ in itself is not really a fair criticism of scholastic chess. The educators are free to use whatever game they want to pursue their education goals. But we should then be clear that the wimpified version of chess that they choose to use is not 'real' chess — chess being, at its core, a very coldblooded, solitary, goal-driven competitive endeavor.”

     That’s a little harsh about chess, but the point is a good one. Perhaps the USCF should consider drawing such a clear dividing line — call the Nationals a “Scholastic Chess Festival” rather than a “Championship”?

     Even so, the fact remains that it is these scholastic educators who control the crucial early developing years of many of our talented players. For those of us who view chess as a serious sport, and who wish to see the talented kids grow up to enrich our ranks, might not we be justified in wondering if “feel good” scholastics is actually detrimental to the future of the sport of chess?

     Perhaps scholastic educators should reconsider their view of competition in chess — at the national championship level at least. Perhaps the Nationals should be returned to a real “scary” competitive open event, and to the winner the glory. Those kids who can’t handle the pressure can stay with the non-competitive fun-chess at local and practice events, allowing the nationals to reacquire the mystique of awesome skill and competitiveness it once had. They should consider doing away with the bloated under-800 sections where kids who barely remember how a knight moves pretend that they are playing for a national championship.

2) Scholastic Chess Neglects Talented Players

"Chess is a sea in which a gnat may drink and an elephant may bathe."


     Unfortunately, to put it bluntly, scholastic chess today can only be described as a giant swarm of gnats. And the scholastic chess educators like it that way. They don’t know what to do with the few elephants that do wander in.

     They have little interest in talented players that reach a certain level above the rest, because their goal is to focus on the mass of children, to hook their interest in chess long enough to teach them those life lessons. Tournaments are only used to set the hook. Chess ratings are used like gold stars – rewards to the kids (with all the accompanying obsession about them by kids and parents). The children are encouraged and coached to improve their game because this results in the educational benefits, not because they care whether or not the kid actually achieves real chess proficiency.

     The result is that those kids who do show a real aptitude for the game soon outgrow the scholastic organization, and no longer derive anything from it. Although they are still counted as part of the system, their future progress is pretty much left up to them. If they don’t make their way into “junio r chess”, they tend to lose interest in chess. Let’s take some examples from the scholastic experience in Oklahoma to illustrate this point:

     In Oklahoma, OSCO has an interesting metaphor on their website of the “Pyramid of Success” in chess for kids, featuring 8 steps from casual play to “high national ranking.” OSCO says their efforts cover steps 2-4, ending at small local rated tournaments, only “providing information” about levels above.

     OSCO does not make any special effort to aid attendance for its star players at national events. (I’m not talking about financial support, such as for the Denker Prize, I’m talking about just asking if they need help finding a ride.) The most recent National High School Championship was in nearby Dallas, Texas. A few Oklahoma school clubs arranged for a group to attend – but only one of our top eight rated kids played. I talked with several of the others. They wanted to go but could not manage to put together the logistics of it. OSCO didn’t offer any help. Compare this to the days of “junior chess,” when sympathetic adult players would have somehow tried to help put together a carpool so that the state’s promising youngsters wouldn’t miss an opportunity.

     Similarly, only three of Oklahoma’s top eight rated kids played in the 2004 state scholastic championship, three others preferring to play in a small adult tournaments instead, where the competition challenged them. Several of them told me they don’t participate in OSCO events anymore because the level of play is so low they don’t think they get much out of it. Thus OSCO’s “Grand Prix” schedule of six tournaments, with which star players could theoretically earn a few hundred dollars in stipends, is ignored by them and dominated by lower-rated players who are still within the fold.

     I’ve heard similar tales from other states. On the other hand, some organizers I’ve talked to, such as Dan Heisman, say it depends on the scholastic organization. Some of them do have programs for top players – putting them in touch with real chess coaches, or organizing invitational chess tournaments, etc. But I think if you examine this closely most of these efforts aimed at the star players are actually being organized by people outside the scholastic chess realm — by chess players, not scho lastic educators — as they were in the old days of “junior chess”. For example, here in Oklahoma the OCF organizers Jim and Frank Berry sponsored and generously funded an invitational round robin in 2003 for the top six rated kids, with good cash prizes for every player.

     A possible exception is the "Alumni Program" of the Chess-in-the-Schools (CIS) system in New York, which provides weekly chess lessons from two strong masters for high school CIS students "who have demonstrated a serious commitment to the game" but are now outside the program. "The club allows for talented, motivated students to further their chess careers while receiving structured support for their evolving needs." This sounds good but that last phrase reveals the "educational" emphasis even here. The student at this point only stays in the Alumni Program if he/she commits to academic success. They apparently spend most time in the program working in job internship programs or college preparation programs, (SAT prep, college application and financial aid help, academic tutoring, etc.), and the student is required to do social service, which many do by assisting the CIS instructors in schools.

3) Show Me the Scholastic Money!

     We’ve seen that scholastic chess organizations focus on the mass of novice players because their mission is to spread the gospel of the scholastic chess creed and its educational benefits to the greatest number of people – Chess as a Social Good. But a more cynical observer might point out that their focus on the masses might have another motive: Money.

     There is BIG money in scholastic chess, even on the state level. The USCF and most states allow the organizers who put together national and state scholastic championships to keep profits. The organizer not only is investing time and effort, but also has considerable risk (if the tournament is canceled due to bad weather, for instance).

     Texas has a good scholastic reputation and is a good example. “The profits are typically quite high from our State Scholastic;” George John of the TCA told me, “although, an organization one year reportedly lost money on the event. An experienced organizer, especially one who is very good with negotiating hotel contracts, can do very well; although, there is considerable work and risk (the downsize could be as much as $100,000) involved in these events, and very few people can pull it off.”

     “The plum is the state scholastic,” he continues. “That event has grown so large (1750 players plus their parents and siblings) that it takes an exceptional organizer or team to pull it off. … Our Bylaws and written guidelines impose fairness. We have a Scholastic Committee which has done an outstanding job of awarding bids based on merit alone, and have never played favorites.”

     Oklahoma is one exception to this entrepreneurial attitude. OSCO insists upon allvolunteer service. Which makes one wonder in cases like this where its event profits go. OSCO, like the USCF, as of this writing has not published a financial statement showing how they use profits. But that is very small potatoes compared to the Nationals — where the profits are shared between the USCF and organizers.

Examining the Big-Money Scholastic Events

     Just ponder these numbers to get an idea of the huge money amounts in play at the national scholastic events:

     The National K-6 Championships in Nashville, 2003, is typical. It had 2,437 players, with an average entry fee of roughly $35. That’s a gross income over $85,000. Expenses? There are no prizes — only trophies, which as any TD will tell you are cheap. They give away a lot of them — at least 25 in each section, with another 20 plaques for teams; plus various medals and certificates to keep every one of the non-competitive kids happy.

“Trophy Inflation”

     Please allow me to express a pet peeve here as a brief aside. When I won 3rd place in the 1977 U.S. Junior Open I got a simple little trophy of which I was very proud because only a few trophies were given out. But I wonder how a kid today feels about winning a big trophy for 23rd place in the under 1000 section of a scholastic national? Is he proud of it? Many chess players would consider it a symbol of mediocrity and chuck it! I’m no educator, but I can’t help but wonder if it is really good for them to reward mediocrity so strongly.

     Even with all these trophies, scholastic organizers I’ve talked to say they should cost no more than $10,000.

     Add in other expenses you can think of — fees for tournament directors, advertising, flyers and programs, rating fees, insurance, travel expenses for TDs and workers, etc. Remember that the tournament hall is likely to be at least free — the hotel will gladly give a free venue to fill all its rooms and restaurants for a weekend, and in fact some hotels bid for the privilege. I have not yet been able to find a proper accounting report for any of these tournaments and thus have no data to say what the profit margin actually is. But as one who has organized large tournaments myself I can guess that, even with generous allowances for all these expenses, it is hard to see how they can amount to even half of the event’s entry fee income — leaving a substantial profit.

     But that is just for starters. These large events also bring in money for the Blitz ($15/player) and Bughouse ($20/team) tournaments they hold, and they sell equipment and mementos to the kids and their parents at top rates. According to Shutt, the USCF Books and Equipment sales averaged a gross sales income of $50,000 at these events in 2002. The USCF recently chose to franchise-out the book sales to an independent vendor. I’ve been told that the winning vendor bid was $20 per player (!) for the rights to handle the sales. That is $20 times about 2,000 kids = $40,000. The vendor has to make a profit of well over that just to break even — you know they wouldn’t agree to that if it weren’t lucrative.

     In addition the organizers sell souvenirs of all kinds. A photographer with mychessphotos.com is allowed to take candid photos of the kids during play. They sell photo packages to the parents (ranging in price from $14.95 to $95 for the deluxe version). Others have sold “Participation Trophies”— pet peeve again! — trophies parents can buy for the child who didn’t win a trophy. (300 sold at SuperNationals II for $20 each, cost of $12). One eve nt successfully sold Commemorative Books for $39.95 with a black leatherette hard cover, silver embossed with the tournament logo and the kid’s name. When you sell stuff like that you know there is money to be made!

     T-shirts. Hats. Get the picture? Want more? Two words: “food concessions.”

     Now ponder this: that is only ONE of FOUR such events the USCF sponsors ever year! And many individual states are equally strong: Texas had 1750 players at its state scholastic championship. Northern California had 1400. Other powerhouses are New York, Florida, Washington and Arizona.

     “It’s a cash cow, no question about it,” says Bob Holliman, noted Missouri scholastic organizer.

     So how much is the USCF making off of these scholastic events? That’s the problem … Nobody knows. They don’t report it. They don’t even seem to know themselves.

     Stan Booz, head of the USCF Finance Committee recently (in May 2004) agreed it is fair to say, “The USCF has no idea whether it makes money on the national scholastics nor any idea how much it loses annually on the US Open.”

     When I asked him why, he said “The USCF does not do a very good job of segregating the costs. Also, most scholastics are run by volunteers but in the case of the USCF, many paid employees are involved. They are further reimbursed for all travel expenses by the USCF.”

     Thus, under the current situation, the USCF mixes scholastic spending and income with other spending/income as if there were no important difference between them, making it impossible for adult members to evaluate the amount of USCF money, time, and resources being allocated to scholastics. Nor can we evaluate how worthwhile it is for “many paid employees” to travel to these events and be involved in this work as opposed to work they might instead do for the general membership, or how good a “deal” the USCF has made with organizers, or for that matter whether money is being siphoned off in scams or kickbacks, as has been alleged by some.

     Show us the scholastic money!

4) Scholastic Chess and Politics: A Deal with the Devil?

     We’ve seen a few cases where the approach of the educators who see chess as a tool can be in conflict with the avid tournament chess player’s desires for chess as a sport. But there may be much more.

     Unlike scholastics, adult membership has been steadily declining in the USCF for years.

     The chart shows the USCF membership trends 1952-2004. You can discern four trend phases in the adult membership: 1952-1970 —steady growth, 1971-1974 — the Fischer Boom, 1975-1993 — a rough plateau, 1993-2004 — a steady downward trend. One event coincides with the unprecedented down trend since 1993— the amazingly rapid rise of scholastic chess membership. Are these two events only coincidence?

     “(The) demographic analysis is alarming,” John McCrary, former president of USCF, said recently. “I graphed data provided by Mike Nolan in 1999, and was shocked to see that the major part of adult USCF membership is over 40.” Note also that among these adult members are over 10,000 long-time “life members,” nearly a third of adult regular members.

     There are probably many reasons for adult membership decline. A big one certainly is the internet — which also has arisen and grown since 1993 — where adults can play cheaply and easily, fitting in their chess between other activities in their busy lives, rather than having to plan a whole weekend around it.

     “The USCF is oriented toward over-the-board (OTB) play,” says Heisman. “But the longterm trend in chess is toward the internet … Until the USCF finds a model that works, making itself meaningful to the internet player, adult members will (diminish) until we stabilize at a lower-than-previous number that want only OTB play …. (We lose the) players who formerly HAD to join USCF to play seriously and who can now get their fix on the internet.” Certainly the effects of the internet are a big challenge for the USCF, which so far has only spun its wheels in this direction.

     Yet another factor in the deterioration of USCF adult membership, even for those adults who want only OTB play, is the effect of scholastics on what the USCF is and does. When scholastic players were 7% of USCF, it was no problem for adults to underwrite programs for kids.

     But now that these children have risen to over 50% of the membership — has the amount of time and resources put into scholastics by USCF raised proportionally? Again, hard information from the USCF is completely lacking. One rough measure, admittedly flawed, is to judge by the USCF 2003-04 Committee List. Here scholastic chess appears to take the biggest chunk of human resources (beyond the usual bureaucratic committees like Bylaws, Finance, Ethics, etc.). There are five scholastic committees — the Scholastic Committee, the Scholastic Council, the Chess in Education Committee, the College Chess Committee, and the Denker Championship Committee. They have 60 members, are very active, and the member roster reads like a Who’s Who of USCF politics.

     Committees working for adult players are not nearly so active and include only special interest groups: Seniors, Correspondence Chess, Women’s Chess, and Military Chess. Meanwhile the average adult member still gets only the same old basic services: ratings, Chess Life.

     Macon Shibut calls it the marginalization of adult players: “There’s no question that scholastic chess is indirectly hurting adult membership in the USCF ... Adult dues are used to subsidize the reduced rate paid by scholastic members. Then, pages of Chess Life are filled with the exploits of those same scholastic players at massive junior events – reports that hold little interest for the typical adult reader.”

     “USCF has been in a negative feedback cycle for some years,” McCrary has said, “because of the steady loss of adult regular members. As a result, there are fewer members in the highest-paying category to support the fixed costs associated with providing services, so that each remaining member must provide more toward those fixed costs.”

     At least three membership drives have been attempted since 1999, but none has been successful. Since educator-based scholastic chess came in, adult burden has grown. Dues for adults rose from $40 to $49 in 2002. Regular Adult Memberships promptly dropped by more than 10% between November 2002 and November 2003. Meanwhile scholastic supporters bitterly resented smaller dues increases in their categories.

     Some scholastic supporters see it the other way — that USCF makes money on scholastics (even though we don’t know how much) and that it is now scholastic chess that is “keeping the adult organization afloat” (Richard Peterson)!

Whatever the truth here, many traditional chess players are starting to wonder if the USCF isn’t slowly turning into a scholastic organization. Alarmist? There are several precedents …

Remember the ACF?

     For many decades the American Chess Foundation funded major adult events like the U.S. Championship, supported the travel of our top players to international tournaments and Olympiads, and even granted yearly financial support for struggling American grandmasters like Sammy Reshevsky. But in recent years the ACF leadership became heavily influenced by scholastic sympathizers, changed the organization’s name to “Chess-in-the Schools” and focused its efforts on scholastics almost entirely.

     What’s so bad about that, you ask? Besides the huge loss to adult chess, much of the foundation’s money, derived from donations, was not intended for this purpose.

     According to former USCF President Don Schultz, “The Cramer Awards for Excellence in Chess Journalism are not the only victim of the Chess- in-the-Schools new policy. An example is the income from over a million dollars of Thomas Emery donations. Emery was a close friend of many of our finest players, including Frank Marshall and Al Horowitz. He helped support master chess. He also was a member of the Marine Corps during World War I and as a result had an enduring interest in armed forces chess. He sponsored the first Armed Forces Championship in 1960, and continued to sponsor it during his lifetime. He had every expectation that income from his donations would continue to be used for master and armed forces chess promotions. But it is not. All of it is now being used for the Chess-in-the Schools New York City inner city school programs.” (Read much more about this at: Honor the Intent)

Remember the Manhattan Chess Club?

     Here is a similarly disturbing story about Chess-in-the-Schools: Its founder, Fan Adams, died in 1999. He was a former senior executive with the Mobil Oil Corporation and former ACF president. According to Adams’ will, quoted in part on www.shamema.com, he bequeathed a donation to Chess- in-the-Schools, with the proviso that 20% of it go to support the Manhattan Chess Club (of which Adams was treasurer and a strong supporter through the ACF). The will stated that if the chess club ever goes defunct, this 20% reverts back to Chess- in-the-Schools for their general use. One year after Adams’ death, Chess- in-the-Schools evicted the Manhattan Chess Club from its building. The prestigious 124- year-old club had a long history: host of the 1890 world championship match, the favorite stomping grounds of such immortals as Fischer, Pillsbury, and Capablanca (and the club where Capa died of a stroke in 1942), and the site of hundreds of strong master tournaments and matches. The club had a predictably difficult time finding alternative low-cost space in NYC, and soon went defunct after the eviction. Chess- in-the-Schools presumably now ge ts that additional 20% of Adams’ bequest, to support scholastic chess.

The loss of the American Chess Foundation was a travesty for adult chess in America, but a huge boon for scholastic chess.

     Might the same thing be happen to the USCF? Well, current USCF President Beatriz Marinello is the former USCF Scholastic Director (1997-2000), member of the USCF Scholastic Chess Council and noted scholastic chess teacher (she is also a WIM). Scholastic chess is also represented by a couple of others on the board, not to mention the influential scholastic committees. However, current Executive Director, Bill Goichberg, is a strong supporter of serious tournament chess, along with others; so one might hope the danger is not immediate. But changes in focus can happen slowly in an organization, and in subtle ways. (See sidebar).

Mission Creep

     “The best indication of what has happened over the last few decades can be gleaned from the USCF’s own mission statement, which is printed near the front of every issue of Chess Life.

     When I first joined in the early 70s it read: ‘USCF is a non-profit democratic organization, the official governing body and FIDE unit for chess in the USA. Anyone interested in advancing American chess is eligible for membership, with benefits which include a Chess Life & Review subscription and eligibility for USCF rating.’

     Today’s statement reads: ‘USCF is a not-for-profit membership organization devoted to extending the role of chess in American society. Founded in 1939, USCF promotes the study and knowledge of the game of chess, for its own sake as an art and enjoyment, but also as a means for the improvement of society.’

     Does that not say it all? Instead of being about services to members – note how the 1970s MISSION statement even noted a couple of them explicitly – the modern USCF sees itself as leading its members on an educational crusade, whether the members are particularly interested in The Cause or not.”

— FM Macon Shibut

     What is an “enjoyment”? Is that a warm and fuzzy way to avoid calling it a sport?

     Shibut’s point is not that pro-scholastic conspirators rewrote the mission statement with the conscious intention of pushing a switch to social chess — but rather that the organization appears to be undergoing a metamorphosis as scholastic chess becomes an increasingly higher priority. Evidence like the mission statement changes are alarming symptoms of this transformation that is happening within the USCF.

The Deal with the Devil

     That’s why some adult players fear the decision of the USCF in the 1980s to enter the educational realm of scholastic chess was a “deal with the devil.” It seemed lucrative. But it is slowly transforming chess in the U.S.

     Time will tell what happens to the USCF, or if it even avoids bankruptcy following its years of mismanagement. If the USCF flounders, the danger is that educators like Peterson may come to perceive it as a hindrance to their cause.

     We in Oklahoma have seen what can sometimes happen when scholastic chess organizers come to that conclusion — takeover. As Ralph Bowman, Chairman of the USCF Scholastic Council said in his report to the USCF on the recent “rift” in Oklahoma Chess: "History of the division: The current OCA officers felt that those persons on the OCA Board prior to the June meeting were not living up to a verbal agreement made in March 2003, to allow the scholastic people (i.e. OSCO) to have a voice in the organizing/scheduling of scholastic tournaments. Therefore, the scholastic people (i.e. OSCO) felt they needed to control the vote in the annual meeting and get people elected who were friendly to scholastics."

     A fluke you say? In addition to the important case of the ACF, takeovers have happened elsewhere too.

     At the prestigious Pittsburgh Chess Club, a scholastic organizer apparently arranged to have a crowd of supporters join the PCC just prior to its 2001 elections. He was elected president and several supporters gained key positions. This group then was accused by opponents of using club “assets” for their for-profit activities, including such things as the bulk postal permit and the club’s non-profit status (allowing use of sites for free which would charge a for-profit group), etc. There was also some concern voiced about possible mixing of for-profit and non-profit funds. The president admirably stepped down (one month later) due to these conflict of interest charges, but stayed on the 15-member board; which remains heavily influenced by the scholastic group. Many previous members left the club, and now say that the more than 100- year-old club is in financial trouble. “Scholastic organizers are bad news for chess.” (Neil Brennan, Editor of the Pennswoodpusher).

     A more bizarre example was the “Nevada Affair” of 1997-1998. There a rogue scholastic organizer in Las Vegas, infamous for holding his own scholastic “SuperNationals” in 1997 on the same weekend as the USCF’s SuperNationals in Knoxville, put a clever move on the Nevada State Chess Association. Allegedly he formed a new corporation called the "Nevada State Chess Association, Inc." supplanting the name of the long established state affiliate, which had been only an un-incorporated association, and claimed that this corporation was the official body of Nevada chess. Obviously this caused a lot of consternation. When the USCF stepped in and ruled on the dispute, the whole thing ended up in court. The USCF won the ruling on August 7, 1998, but at considerable legal expense (estimated to be $70,000 by one unconfirmed account).

The Future of USCF Chess: Takeover, Merger, Co-Existence, or Split?

     Is the switch from “sport” to “tool” what you want for USCF chess? “Most adult players just want to play chess,” says Shibut. “We want the USCF to make playing chess somehow better, easier, more fun — otherwise, what use is it?” On the other hand, most scholastic chess supporters want to see the USCF help integrate chess deeply into American society as a tool for use in the educational system.

     These are both worthy goals. Can any single organization effectively pursue both goals at once? (Especially the USCF, which, we must admit, has always had trouble achieving even one mission.) If not, is a “takeover” of the USCF inevitable? Here are some of the possibilities to ponder:

(1)     Co-Existence: Separate But Equal

     Some still believe in the ability of the USCF to satisfactorily handle both of these different chess realms. Dan Heisman says, “I don't buy into the exclusive argument that ‘scholastic chess’ cannot live together with ‘Junior chess’ any more than I think ‘USCF adult chess’ cannot live with ‘internet adult chess’. With wise leadership and foresight it should be possible to have synergism and support for all. Splintering the groups into incompatible entities seems more wasteful than helpful, in my opinion. The chess world has room for all, or should.”

     This would, however, require a change in the USCF to admit that scholastic chess and traditional “adult” chess have different souls, and to find a way to successfully keep them independent without favor or cross funding. Considering all the challenges the USCF faces, this kind of re-thinking the basic design of the organization would be an enormous task — even the highly-admired ACF was unable to keep the two interests separate, and they faced far fewer problems than the USCF. Furthermore, a difficult problem like this can only be solved if the organization first admits that there actually is a problem and sets to work on it. So far, the USCF is not even discussing these issues at all.

(2)     Takeover: Chess Becomes ‘Soccer’

     With evidence such as that discussed above, Shibut and others think the takeover of the USCF has essentially already happened, or is at least on an unstoppable course, despite the remaining traditional influences like Goichberg. “Unless concrete events occur to reverse it, adult chess as we know it will basically die off with the present generation of adult players. After that, chess in America will be like soccer: played by legions of kids, played by adults in Europe, but few or no opportunities for adults to play here.”

(3)     Merger: USCF Aligns with Scholastic Organization to form a New Entity—

     This very scenario is right now being seriously considered by the USCF.


     Former USCF President John McCrary has proposed a merger of the USCF with the AF4C (America’s Foundation for Chess), the well- funded scholastic organization formerly known as the Seattle Chess Foundation headed by Erik Anderson (and co-founded by Yasser Seirawan), and which has generously sponsored the U.S. Championship the last three years.

     As of this writing, the proposed merger is still in its preliminary stages, and hasn’t been put in a final form, yet it has been discussed in the last few meetings of the USCF Executive Board. According to a synopsis by McCrary and Anderson recently posted on the internet, the basic principles of the merger would be as follows:

  1. The USCF remains the overall membership organization for any arrangement, the governing body for chess in the US. In case of a merger, the organization continues as the US Chess Federation.
  2. Very large donations are arranged by AF4C to stabilize USCF's current condition. ($500,000 has been mentioned — TB.)
  3. In return for these very substantial donations and future contributions of resources, a new model for the USCF Board will be established. That model will allow certain positions to be provided to large donors, while others will be elected by USCF.
  4. A clear mission statement would be written and would serve as the definition of the USCF's purposes which any partnership would be expected to meet. The Board would be responsible for meeting the services and expectations of that mission statement.” Presumably it would require approval by the USCF delegates, and it is sure to be a big topic of discussion at the 2004 delegate meetings.

     McCrary supports the idea with these comments: “AF4C presents a major opportunity for US chess to address these overwhelming challenges by adding substantial new financial resources to the eroding revenue base of dues and fees. As a result, USCF could then deliver and promote new and more efficient services for both old players and new (i.e., adult and scholastic—TB). AF4C is associated with men who are in a class by themselves for their personal resources. For example, Scott Oki is one of America's 385 richest men according to the Internet, with a net worth of $750,000,000. He is retired and devoted to philanthropy. I understand that another person associated with AF4C may be even richer. The USCF has never before been approached by such a substantial group. Their track record with the US Championship is outstanding, and they have carried that event to historic highs well beyond their contractual obligations.”

     I expect most adult players would find this proposal appealing. The AF4C has a good reputation with adult events. Most American chess players have faith in Seirawan’s involvement, and certainly it would be encouraging to have professional leadership of our organization after years of mismanagement by “enthusiastic amateurs” as Beatriz Marinello put it. “Our operations are now too large, complicated, and far- flung to be managed by amateurs, no matter how enthusiastic and well meaning,” Marinello wrote in Chess Life. “We need a high-quality board of experienced and successful people.” This reasonable point of view resonates well with the USCF+AF4C proposal.

     On the other hand, merging the USCF+AF4C entails concerns for the average adult player. Despite all its apparently good intentions, the AF4C’s primary interest is in primary education. It is reasonable to assume one of their main reasons in offering to help the USCF is that they see a strong USCF as important to their long-term educational goals. To agree to the merger would be to take a risk that AF4C would be able to separate what is good for schola stics from what is good for adult chess — a task at which the also well-funded and well- respected American Chess Foundation failed. It would be very easy for the AF4C to often come to the conclusion that what’s good for scholastics is what’s good for adult chess, (which we’ve seen here is not true) and to allocate funds and delegate effort accordingly. If this merger were to work, the division between scholastic and serious adult chess would need to be clearly understood and defined in that “mission statement.” Unfortunately, it’s unclear if those involved in the merger discussions are even aware of the distinction.

(4)     Split: Chess Divides Into Two Entities

     Alternatively, it may be time to admit that scholastic chess and adult tournament chess do not really belong together.

The great GM David Bronstein once said, “The essence of chess is thinking about what chess is.”

The Baseball Analogy

     The USCF organizing scholastic chess in schools is much like Major League Baseball attempting to organize all the myriad Little League Baseball organizations in schools around America. Yes, the two groups are related to each other, but they are also very different and have dissimilar goals. Trying to run them from und er one roof would inevitably lead to dissatisfaction — especially for baseball fans if, as in chess, the little league organizers grew in membership so fast that they began to dominate the MLB! Here it is easy to see that the different groups are better left separate, with tendrils of cooperation between them.

Proposal: A Separate Organization for Scholastic Chess

     There is a significant faction within the scholastic chess community that would like to break away from the USCF. So far this movement has had difficulty getting traction, because educators perceive the need for some elements of “stature” that they think only the USCF can provide. The prestige of the USCF as a legitimate organization lends an official air to scholastic events that USCF sanctions. Also, many scholastic people have remarked that the USCF’s rating system is indispensable to them.

     But both of these elements could be duplicated by a separate organization if the major scholastic groups were solidly behind it — i.e., if it was formed by a broad-based coalition. Founded by educators (Ph.D.s) with impeccable credentials, and endorsed by highly regarded organizations like Chess- in-the-Schools, a “National Chess-in-Education Foundation” might soon acquire sufficient status for the needs of the group.

     The rating system at first appears daunting. It requires expertise in programming, national reporting and data-entry systems, computer equipment, etc. But actually the organization could simply employ the services of a company that already provides this capability, such as Chess-Express.Com, which not only calculates ratings but also tracks 20 statistics for each player (win percentages, winning streaks, peak rating, and other personal stats). They claim to do it cheaper and faster than the USCF, and already do ratings for some schools and chess clubs. Such a group might be easy to work with for a national scholastic organization to provide this key service they need.

     Similar organizations already exist for comparable school-based activities, such as Debate teams, Science Fair competitions, and Cheerleading; as well as numerous sports. This is nothing new. With such an organization in place for chess it would be they who organize and sanction events, including national championships; under their own terms, and without the strained relationship with tournament chess. And there would of course still exist levels of cooperation between the USCF and the new scholastic organization, which could still employee chess TDs to run its tournament events, and hire coaches from among USCF masters and experts.

     But would this hurt the USCF? I would argue no, not in the long run. The USCF would appear to lose out on a lucrative number of members and money from its association with scholastics. But as we’ve seen, it’s unclear whether the USCF really profits from this. Even if significant current income is lost, being freed of the scholastic burden would enable USCF to re-focus its work back on basics — some might say back where it belongs — providing services for people who love chess, rather than services for those who love education. The USCF would be able to tackle its other challenges like Internet chess without the constant distraction from the kids.

However, chess players would require two things for a Split to work:

  1. A Pipeline for Scholastic Stars into Adult Competition.
    Since, as we’ve seen, the scholastic groups have some “elephants” in their midst, we would need a system in place to identify star young players and get them out of scholastics and into “juniorchess” where they can enrich the chess world. By recognizing that scholastic chess is only interested in developing players so far, cooperation with them can allow players with additional talent to be “passed on” to the USCF where they can benefit most. The USCF might even develop coaching systems to help those kids, perhaps using all those ex-Soviet grandmasters here who know what real coaching systems are like.
  2. Scholastics Should Recognize and Make Clear to All that their Approach to Chess is Something Apart from “Real” Tournament Chess.
    For example, it would not be acceptable for the scholastic organization to start awarding titles like “expert” and “master” within their own rating and tournament system. Those titles are sacred and belong to the USCF — any scholastic players who happen to reach that level should have to earn such titles within USCF tournaments. (Educators can instead develop their own feel-good non-competitive warm fuzzy skill titles!)

     This issue of scholastic chess and what to do with it will soon be coming to a key crisis point. All adult USCF members need to look into these issues and voice their opinions and concerns. It may be that, unless an acceptable “white knight” like the AF4C can be found, all players who love chess sho uld push for the split with scholastics. Let’s encourage them to break away, even help them to do so if necessary. Perhaps only in this way will we be freed of our deal with the devil.

  Published December 2004 in the Oklahoma Chess Quarterly

Scholastics and the Soul of Chess

Responses and Corrections
Life Chess Master Tom Braulich

Author's Note:     Last issue’s critique of scholastic chess resulted in a wide variety of responses, from all over the country. It was reprinted or featured in several state chess newsletters and online publications. It got people talking, which was its purpose. Here we will take a brief look at some interesting responses, examine an error in the article, and mention an aspect that was overlooked.

Comments on the Article

     “I enjoyed your article in the OCQ. I play junior golf. They encourage participation, of course, but they don't hand out awards or applaud for those who don't finish near the top of the leader board. Scholastic chess, like America itself, is being dragged into the 'we can't play to win because somebody might get their feelings hurt' stage, which is not something I particularly care to see...” (John Cope, 1800-rated Oklahoma junior)

     “For my own interest, I am currently working with some partners on an international model for chess education, both inside and outside of FIDE and I think your critique of affairs here in the USA is a very useful document; both to inform possibilities in Distance Learning [DL] programs, as well as on the teaching of teachers.” (Phil Innes, at chessville.com)

     “I Read Braunlich's article and it confirms a lot of my worst fears. I don't think people realize how bad the situation is.” (Victor McBee)

     “… I read your article in the last issue of the Oklahoma newsletter, and really enjoyed it. It was very thought provoking. I will use your letter in the "Letters to the Editor" section of the next Colorado Chess Informant in October, if you don't mind, so people can go and check out the article.” (Tim Brennan, editor, Colorado Chess Informant)

     Here is a typical testimonial response, from a man whose son represented the U.S. in Crete at a FIDE “World Youth” championship: “The primary reason I'm writing to you is to thank you for the article on scholastic chess in the July OCQ. I think it should be required reading for anyone serious about the future of chess in the United States…. My son, Alex, went to a private school in Berkeley that had no chess program. I taught him the moves when he was 5 after he exhausted any redeeming qualities of computer games. He worked by himself on learning the game from the beginning. When his thirst for learning overcame my abilities ... a retired-from-chess master, took Alex under his wing and showed him how to play and how to approach the game. I can go on with the history of Alex, but the point is, I think an exclusive diet of scholastic chess would have killed off any desire Alex had for the game by the time he was in the 2nd grade. When asked about playing in adult tournaments, a local scholastics promoter (very successful from the business standpoint), told me she didn't believe in kids playing in adult tournaments. This was about 8 years ago. Fortunately, we didn't take her advice. It was anti-learning.” (Alvin 'Budd' Setzepfandt, California)

Official Responses

     Unfortunately, the article has not yet generated any feedback by high-ranking members of the USCF leadership. I’m told it was widely distributed at the recent USCF delegate meetings, where scholastic supporters called it “scandalous.” Perhaps they have at least become more aware of the issues. NOTE that the proposed AF4C Merger with USCF, detailed in the article, was hotly discussed but eventually “withdrawn” at the delegates meetings last month.

     Some organizers in other states responded in support of scholastics. Many wrote to say that my comments were too general – applying to scholastics in many areas of the country, but not all. This is a good point, I should have made it more clear there are “pockets” of healthy scholastic chess, (usually run by chessplayers, not educators).

     The internet site chessville.com ran the article and archived many long responses. (You can read them at http://www.chessville.com/Editorials/AlekhinesParrot/TheParrotSquaawks_ScholasticReplies.htm)

Regarding Scholastic Money

     “… I can tell you that in Texas scholastic chess is a huge boost. The scholastic events make many of the non-scholastic events possible where they otherwise would not be. The TCA can keep the cost of our annual memberships down because we take in so many $1.00 single event memberships at our state and regional events. The bottom line is scholastics subsidize, significantly, non-scholastic chess in Texas. While this may seem lopsided, the more serious students significantly benefit from the non-scholastic events, which tend to attract a stronger caliber of competition.” (George John, of the TCA)

     A couple of notes: (1) It’s hard to keep a lopsided position balanced. Texas seems to be successful with this approach by maintaining some separation between the two spheres. What would happen, however, if their many rival scholastic orgs got together and started to pressure for more say in TCA politics? (2) It is worth noting that in Oklahoma, OSCO strenuously objected to any money from scholastics going to the OCA whatsoever, (unlike the practice in Texas, California, and elsewhere) and this was one of their main justifications in their June 2003 takeover of the OCA.

Competition Controversy

     A reader found the following quote on the CalChess (Northern California Chess Association) scholastic webpage and publicized it:

     "Scholastic chess has a different goal and purpose from adult chess in that chess is developmental at the scholastic level and recreational at the adult level. CalChess therefore urges scholastic coaches and instructors to emphasize the developmental aspects of chess, such as good sportsmanship, team spirit, generous in winning and gracious in losing and to de-emphasize by word and by example the competitive aspect of the game."

     This generated its own mini-controversy when it was repeated in other publications like IM John Donaldson’s newsletter for the Mechanic’s Institute chess club in California. FM Bill Schill, a scholastic coach in the Seattle area, responded, "This sort of nonsense is so frustrating. Why not de-emphasize winning and losing at team sports?? They are supposed to build character right? I think that this sort of sophistry just begins the move to eliminate chess masters from chess instruction." Good point. But this is par for the course in scholastic organizations.

Pittsburgh CC Corrections

     My article included a paragraph on the Pittsburgh Chess Club takeover. The leader of that takeover wrote to tell me I had it all wrong, and pointed out errors in my account of the allegations being made against the leaders of the club. Let’s go through his points one-by-one, (in italics) to set the record straight. It’s an interesting case that has parallels to the “Rift” in Oklahoma.

     “I believe Braunlich's article, Scholastics and the Soul of Chess, is very misleading. … As it happens, I am the Scholastic organizer who became President of the Pittsburgh Chess Club in 2001. Despite the author's claims that my group has "been ousted", I have been on the club's Board of Directors continuously, as have most of my supporters.”

     I was wrong. I had seen in researching the back issues of En Passant, their newsletter, that this president had stepped down shortly after the elections due to charges of conflict of interest, which matched what I had been told by my main source. I failed to see that he had retained a lower seat on the board, as had many of his supporters. New information is that the 15-member PCC board is now about evenly divided between scholastic and nonscholastic supporters, with some neutrals.

     “Braunlich claims that the Pittsburgh Chess Club is in serious trouble and may close its doors. Well, as it happens, the Pittsburgh Chess Club recently acquired a large number of new chess sets, digital clocks, a new computer, a new laptop, a new laser printer, and upgraded its chairs. Our finances are better than ever, and scholastics played a big part in this. We are certainly not planning to close our doors any time soon. Moreover, Braunlich implies the scholastic group abused the club's non-profit mailing privileges. Well, the Pittsburgh Chess Club does not now have, nor ever had, a non-profit mailing permit. This is more shoddy reporting on Braunlich's part.”

     Apparently I erroneously said “non-profit postal permit” instead of “bulk postal permit” as one of the allegations made by opposing members in the club. There is legitimate dispute over these issues, which I should have made more clear. According to Tom Martinak, longtime and well-respected Pittsburgh organizer and club leader who was an officer when this occurred, “In general, I would say that you had the general situation correct, but some of the details incorrect. In particular, there wasn't a ‘non-profit postal permit’ (which really wouldn't involve much money anyway), but instead use of club ‘assets’ (including the bulk postal permit that it paid for), non-profit status (allowing use of sites for free which would charge a for-profit group), USCF affiliation (and affiliate commissions), etc …. The main conflict is still the (alleged ) use of club facilities for forprofit (i.e., scholastic) activities. And the (alleged) mixture of for-profit and non-profit funds.” I should have been more precise about what the charges were.

     Martinak, who along with other longtime leaders left the club soon after the takeover, believes that the club is indeed under financial pressure. “The club has had long-term problems. Roughly losing @$1500 yearly in operating funds. Before the market downtrend in 2000 this was balanced by investment increases, and by equipment and book sales. Since the ‘takeover’ the tournament income has dropped from $1800/year to 0 or negative. And membership has dropped. That has been balanced by the scholastic people being forced to work more and starting additional food concessions for the club. Overall, I would estimate operating losses increased to around $2000/year. That has been masked this year by the 2004 National Elementary (one of the highly profitable scholastic mega-events discussed in the article – TB). The USCF paid about $3000 for the PCC to provide volunteers to help at the event.”

     “Right now things are still in balance,” Martinak continues, “but it is hard to know what will happen. The for-profit people have a minority, but self-interest makes them more dedicated than the general volunteers who govern the club. The PCC can continue in the current mode for about 5 years and then will run out of savings. What will happen then is the question.”

     “If Martinak, who can get along with anybody, decides to leave the PCC Board, that's a sign something is wrong,” said Neil Brennan, editor of the state chess news journal.

     “Braunlich claims the Pittsburgh Chess Club has been brought to the brink of disaster by scholastics. He tries to use this as an example of how scholastic are bad for chess. However, he should get his facts straight before engaging in such shoddy reporting ….”

     Actually, the point of even bringing up the PCC was that it was another example of a scholastic takeover – a scholastic organization apparently “packed” an election at an old adult chess club. He does not dispute this main claim in the article, indeed in his “Message from the New President” in En Passant just after the election he admitted it, “… If our club is going to attract and retain new members from the youth movement, it will have to create more programming that matches these interests. At our recent elections, a large number of new families joined the club in support of these goals. One of my top priorities as President will be to create programming that gives them value for their membership dollars and a reason to stay with the club.” In other words, for the good of the club it needs to attract more scholastic/young players, so a “large number of families” saw fit to join the club on election day and vote themselves into power to achieve this scholastic-oriented “programming”.

     So, the analogy between the PCC and the USCF that formed the reason for citing this example is clear. The PCC, like the USCF, was an old organization that was having difficulties, so a scholastic faction suddenly organized, took it over, and started to “create programming” toward scholastics, all for the supposed good of the club. That’s the point — the same thing could conceivably happen to the USCF.

     The PCC case exemplifies how scholastic supporters can do something like this and still be well intentioned. This organizer is not a “bad guy”, but just an enthusiastic organizer who is under the belief that what is good for scholastics is good for chess, or the belief that the way to grow adult chess is by concentrating on scholastics. It is this attitude that leads many like Neil Brennan and me to the conclusion that “scholastic organizers are bad news for chess.”

Girls In Scholastic Chess

     Finally, one aspect of scholastics that the article neglected was the issue of girl players. Jeff Wiewel, an Illinois scholastic organizer, had these interesting observations: “I've noticed that the K-2 players are about evenly split between boys and girls with a slight edge towards boys in 3rd grade. In 4th and 5th, the greater percentage of boys becomes noticeable, and by 8th grade the percentage of girls is in the 5-10% range. By the time the senior year of high school arrives the percentage of girls is more in the 1-2% range.”

      Apparently this is another area where scholastics can do a lot better, as can adult chess. It is an issue that came to the forefront last month thanks to GM Susan Polgar, whose Polgar Invitational tournament for girls was apparently a huge success. Girls who had become reconciled to almost always playing boys suddenly had a new experience of real female camaraderie here, and their accounts afterward viewed the event as a real and significant breakthrough. Expect to see reverberations back down the chain to state-level events in scholastics.

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