Chess is a scholastic tool. (Source: Getty Images)
By Shilpa Mehra
Can India do to chess what Pakistan is doing to Scrabble? A 13-year-old Pakistani recently became the World Junior Scrabble Champion. So? India can claim a big group of Grandmasters, chess prodigies and several world champions in all age categories! There's no comparison with Scrabble in Pakistan. Actually, there is: the dropout rate!
Indian kids who take up chess at age five and start playing Fide tournaments end up living a whirlwind childhood of travel, endless coaching, financial drain, school disruption, stress. Finally, if they don't make it to some level by age 13, they quit, returning to exams and a lost passion for chess.
This is a blueprint repeating quite often across India.
The child gives up and the parents give up after years of no great progress. The thing is, an invitation to a professional tournament offering prizes even in categories of under-7 age group doesn't tell you what it takes to play in such type of tournaments. The jazz surrounding the prize money offered hides the blood poured in training.
The chess dropout rate for every child that makes news in India is now in thousands. Our media and peer group tells us the only measure of chess ability is a professional tournament and Fide rating. No, that's not true.
To make chess a great part of your kid's life you need to let them play it regularly at their level of choosing. Do you take your child out of music class just because they're not singing like Lata Mangeshkar?
The competition is very tough in professional tournaments. And scoring zero after hours and days of struggle is no morale boost. Going there and being disappointed means chess - as a tool for developing analytical skills, mathematical skills and personality - goes out of a child's life.
The worth of chess is NOT measured only by a professional Fide rating performance in professional tournaments or national age-group championships.
After six years of a kid being on the professional chess circuit, suddenly you realise there is little scope for earning a livelihood out of chess. It's a painful reality if you've not known it when you started.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't do chess. It means you should know what is realistically possible for your family and your kid and what the chess professional world is all about.
There is so much more to chess. Like Scrabble, for improving English, chess is a scholastic tool.
How do you measure the fun of seeing your first checkmate, or the joy of beating someone older, or the sheer beauty of tricky traps and combinations... And, so much more. It's just about stretching the limits of a child's mind. The professional circuit must wait.
That's where Scrabble wins in Pakistan. There's hardly any dropout rate.
A Scrabble trainer on a BBC programme said recently the board game is viewed as a tool to improve English. No one is too bothered about competition. So a kid taking up Scrabble will continue to play it as a senior citizen and receive benefits for life.
However, an Indian kid taking up chess is more likely to quit in his teens losing out on all the allied benefits the board game brings just because he didn't get a high enough professional rating!
Here's a quick checklist to build your child's love for chess without getting into the circus of professional tournaments in a cycle of endless frustration.
1 - Stop worrying about your kid being any less if he's not a chess newsmaker. Kids who do chess professionally spend 8-10 hours on the sport just like for any other profession. They have to travel the year round to requisite tournaments sacrificing much.
If your child shows exceptional inclination for chess and you want to get into the competition circuit ask yourself: Do you want your child to skip parties and school and train every day for so many hours?
If any coach or parent tells you that a kid can play at world or national level by training three hours a day and attending all birthday parties and doing school homework, they are lying. Period. Professional chess training is equal to professional training in any sport. It's not that it can't be done. It's about going pro when and if you are ready.
2 - Don't rush to Fide-rated tournaments without having put in at least the minimum proper study and training worth of hard work. Wait even if it takes a couple of years.
3 - Have realistic goals and allow the trainer to guide you. If you don't trust the trainer at your local club, change. A non-chess playing parent reading up the Internet is not comparable to a professional trainer teaching chess. Don't fool yourself into believing otherwise.
4 - Stick to hobby level chess tournaments unless ready to study. Do local school-level tournaments.
5 - Switch off TV at least once a week and start solving chess puzzles or doing group games as a family. Ask your kids to teach chess to his grandparents. It's great for senior citizens to keep the mind active. They can solve puzzles together if not keen on playing.
6 - Don't compare your kid or tell him about how he's wasting time and money going to chess class. If he finds a flavour for chess let him go have fun or otherwise switch to another activity.
7 - There will be some amount of studying and practice involved in chess. Find your kid's unique individual balance with the help of your chess trainer: how much to push the child or how much to let him go at his own pace.
8 - As a parent, see if you find some interest in chess. Look at the very basics. Don't get hyper about it. (Yes, parents do lose control.) Playing endless chess online is no good for anyone but not playing at all is also no great progress. Find a balance. Some parents start looking for a business model in the local circuit when their kids start playing. It's a tricky idea: tread carefully. Chess organisation is a full-time profession in its own right. Know what you're doing before you start so that it doesn't end in your child and you both quitting chess.
9 - Don't push your child into the big league for your own ambitions. Understandably, a chess prodigy is a glamorous idea, but stay grounded.
11 - Steer clear of association politics for your child's benefit. Sports association politics is a sad reality, but unless you're in it professionally don't get involved. You will get more advice from people with agendas than from genuine chess lovers and players.
Let your kid start chess in a way that it stays with him for life. Professional tournaments can wait. If they have to happen, they will. Allow time to show you the way. All success takes sheer hard work and years of commitment. You're only damaging your child's chess if you try to find shortcuts.
On average you need just about a year to play a good game of chess without the stress of studying. There has to be some regularity as well like a music class. Once a week may be too less or seven days a week may be too much. Draw up a schedule based on individual liking and inclination.
Best is to let your kids have fun and find learning with chess - the Pakistani Scrabble way - for life.
(The writer is a child psychologist with research interest in developing analytical skills at a young age. As founder-member of Chess Club Black & White in Lucknow, she published India's first chess features print magazine from 2004 to 2012. She is also the 2002 Uttar Pradesh women's chess champion. Views are personal. Follow her on Facebook at BlackandWhiteChessMagazineIndia)