Chess, Munsters and tournament Ethics

Below is an article that was brought to my attention today concerning inappropriate behaviour by parents/children at chess tournaments in Georgia. Especially school tournaments. I suspect that the problem the author focuses on is not just isolated to Georgia, but is familiar to virtually EVERY chess tournament involving parents and their young children…

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Warning: this article will most likely provoke those who may recognize themselves in its narrative.  Good!  You’re my target audience.


We have a problem.  Not with chess itself – it’s a wonderful game played by all sorts of interesting people of all ages.  The Georgia Chess Association is proud to offer a full calendar of scholastic tournaments for kids in grades K-12 and a variety of events for the entire community, including specialized tournaments just for women and senior citizens.  We’re also pleased to include other chess organizations’ tournaments on our calendar and we encourage our members to participate in as many of these as possible.

The problem goes beyond the game of chess, and unfortunately seems to have become endemic in our society.  Some call it disrespect, thoughtlessness, or just plain rudeness.  Others call it a lack of manners or proper discipline.  The problem is inappropriate behavior and just about everyone would agree that it’s unacceptable at a chess tournament.


We’re not just talking about poor sportsmanship at the board.  Yes, more than a few of us may recall an instance or two in which a player exploded in anger or frustration during a game or interrupted a tournament for personal reasons.  In these cases, the situation either resolved itself very quickly (reflecting badly on the perpetrator) or the tournament organizer or tournament director (TD) stepped in to administer the situation.

The bad behavior referenced here is more along the lines of inconsideration for other players, parental inattention to kids getting out of control, and aggressive defensiveness towards tournament staff who are trying to restore the peace and order that a chess tournament requires.

These issues seem to occur less frequently at a scholastic tournament (one that’s just for kids) or at an Open tournament for adults and experienced, older scholastic players.  These serious middle and high school students are usually intensely focused on their games and know how to conduct themselves between rounds.

Rather, the problem manifests at tournaments when young kids participate alongside adults or play in a separate scholastic competition that shares the same facility as the Open event.  Young elementary school kids can get a little carried away in the excitement of participating in a tournament and forget that they´re not just around playmates.  Unfortunately, the problem is exacerbated by their parents who don´t seem to realize how disruptive their kids have become to those still playing.  Sometimes, when the situation is pointed out to parents, they choose to do nothing to stop it.  And sometimes the parents aren’t even physically at the tournament, having dropped off their kids and leaving them unsupervised for the day.

Here are a few complaints from a recently held tournament:

“The children were running around the hall as though it was recess at the elementary school. They were up-and-down, in and out of their chairs.  As they ran up and down the rows they were constantly bumping, elbowing or kicking the chairs of other players.¨

“Parents (were) doing nothing but tapping on their laptops, cell phones or chatting.”

“Not only was parental lack of supervision a problem, but also lack of TD supervision. There was often not a TD in the playing hall. The TDs and organizers need to set the tone. But mainly the parents need to supervise and control their children.”


So what can be done to remedy the situation?  Let’s look at each of the three parties involved here:  the kids, their parents, and those who organize these tournaments.   We’ll start with the least culpable of the three, the tournament organizers.

First off, no tournament organizer or tournament director holds the title of babysitter, nor should they be expected to be in charge of teaching manners or self-discipline to any child other than their own.  That said, it is still the responsibility of those hosting the tournament to ensure that there is sufficient staff to guide non-participants away from the playing hall and to quickly intervene in any disruptions.

Speaking for the GCA, we know something about hosting lots of kids at a tournament.  Yes, these are primarily scholastic events without adult players, but we’ve found that “feet on the beat” helps tremendously.  Many of our scholastic events attract hundreds of kids, with our largest annual tournament involving over 1100 K-8 players in school vs. school team competition.  We rely heavily on our volunteer ambassadors to keep spectators out of the tournament hall, ensure that the hallways are kept quiet and free of conversation (and electronic noise!), and manage the flow of tournament traffic.  As parents ourselves, we know that young kids are, well, kids who need to vent their excess energies throughout a long tournament day. That’s why we try as often as we can to have a venue with an outside area where kids can run, throw balls, and hang out with their friends between rounds.  Schools work well, especially when they can make their playing fields or courtyards available to our group.  More often, however, we´re restricted to using a hotel or convention center, with only a large ballroom for a Skittles area.  And it’s a constant challenge to keep the noise and distractions far away from the games in progress!


Not every tournament organizer will want or be able to staff enough help to manage unruly kids.  If kids present a continual disruption to adult tournaments, especially if parents do nothing to rein in their children, scholastic players may find as a consequence that there will be far fewer tournaments for them to play in.  An organizer who would traditionally run a one day scholastic tournament during a multi-day Open event may decide that it’s just not worth alienating his adult players, some of whom travel a good distance to play, to keep a separate scholastic event.

When disruptions occur, the main focus will inevitably be on the kids. Some people will say that young kids should not be held responsible for their misbehavior, that it is the failure of their parents to properly teach them good manners and closely supervise them at a tournament.  While I certainly agree with the statement about the parents, I don’t totally absolve the kids

If they are school-age and have the self-discipline to study chess, then they are old enough and smart enough to know when they’re behaving properly and when they’re deliberately getting away with a bit of mayhem.  Even young chess players know that peace and quiet is necessary to concentrate on the game.  If kids can learn to be quiet in a school library, they can learn to be quiet at a chess tournament.  And individually, most of them demonstrate that they know this and usually behave pretty well.  It’s when they join a pack of kids that a group mentality takes hold, and soon they forget where they are and get carried away.  This can happen innocently enough even when the focus is on a chess game.  A group of kids finished with their round may crowd into a room too close to the tournament hall to play blitz chess, and get a little too noisy in their excitement.


Most of the responsibility, though, falls on the parents.  Besides teaching their children basic manners, self-discipline, and responsibility for their actions, parents need to use proper judgment before registering them for any tournament:

–  Is your child mature enough to play in a tournament alongside adults?  Generally, kids under age ten do best in scholastic tournaments.  If they can’t show proper respect to adults and other players, quietly occupy themselves when they’re not playing a game, or restrain themselves from running or talking too loudly, then they should keep to scholastic tournaments until they can.

–  How long can the child sit and concentrate on a game?  If an hour is the limit, stick to scholastic events.

–  Is your child playing in the proper section, based on his or her rating? If a kid is greatly outmatched, then the game will be over that much more quickly and the child will have more time between rounds to possibly get into trouble.  Also, competing in too high a section may even discourage him from wanting to play in a future tournament

–  At what point for your child is a day of chess too long?  Every tournament offers at least one bye, so take advantage of the opportunity and let your child skip a round in favor of a break in the day.

–  Does your child have high reserves of physical energy?  Use the time between rounds for a little physical exercise outside, whether that’s by kicking a ball around or just taking a walk.

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Sometimes parents can become aggressively defensive about their children.  If a TD or other tournament staff member approaches you about your child acting inappropriately, please understand that they are just trying to maintain an orderly tournament. Each round’s pairings are derived from a number of factors, such as USCF ratings and points earned thus far in the tournament, and often determined by a tournament software program.  There will be times when opponents within a section appear mismatched in playing strength, when someone has to play either black or white in two consecutive games (instead of switching sides every round), or when someone has to take a forced “bye” (an uneven number of players in a section causes one to sit out a round, though the person with the “bye” receives a full game point).  Take the time to learn some of the main tournament rules, or gently ask the TD or staff for an explanation if there’s something that doesn’t seem to make sense.   If your child is playing in an Open tournament, remember that the event is intended for both adults and kids to enjoy and that it’s a true competition, not just a learning experience for the kids.

Most importantly, parents need to be there for their kids.  Be physically present or coordinate with other parents to provide shifts of supervision throughout the tournament.  Know where they are and what they are doing outside of the tournament hall.  Make sure that they have something to eat and drink throughout the day – chess is not unlike other sports in that it uses up a lot of energy!  Also, ensure that they have books, homework, or quiet entertainment to keep them occupied between rounds.  Plenty of parents bring in their own work, read books, or catch up with friends while their children are playing.  That’s all well and fine; it can be a long day for the parents, too. Just be sure to keep an eye on the kids – the tournament organizers will be most appreciative!

Proper tournament etiquette can be summed up in one word: respect.  If everyone shows respect for the event and respect for the other people at that event (the tournament organizers and directors, the players, the parents, etc.), then most of the problems go away or are at least greatly mitigated.  And it certainly makes for a much more pleasant tournament experience for everyone.


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