Time for parents to be accountable

FEBRUARY 12 — When the FIDE (World Chess Federation) Trainers Commission was first formed at the end of 2008, I was invited to be one of the founding council members. 

I was the only non-Grandmaster and FIDE Senior Trainer on the council but perhaps my more illustrious and professional colleagues found my perspective on training at just below the elite level interesting.

That was also the period I was particularly active as a trainer, having taken up a role with the ASEAN Chess Confederation and its training and development arm, and working with a number of young talents at the 2000 to 2300 level in different countries.

Almost all of them went on to achieve International Master, Woman Grandmaster and Woman International Master titles. A wonderfully exciting time indeed!

As a member of the FIDE Trainers Commission, I also had the privilege and opportunity to both assist in and conduct seminars and workshops for coaches from Iraq to Botswana to India to Vietnam to Bali to Taiwan.

That was an absolutely invaluable experience, giving me the chance to see the similarities and differences in chess cultures in each country.

From the end of 2010, I shifted my focus back to Malaysia and moving one level down, managed to help a number of young players become national champions as well as win medals in Asian youth events.

Most recently I have gone a few levels lower by filling in as a chess teacher at a local chess academy as well as some schools.

I believe that in general a student can only be helped to gain 300 rating points more although this rule does not apply to absolute beginners where the main task is to instill love of the game.

And at the grandmaster level where the student often has the higher rating, the trainer's task is a mixture of research, analytical work, providing ideas, guidance and perspective together with friendship and support.

At many youth events, the participants are so young that they need to be accompanied (even when they are not, they are anyway!) and these parents sit together outside tournament halls waiting for their kids to finish the games and so they talk to each other.

Yes, they are friends in that they exchange information about the place and the conditions and sometimes even shop together but all too often their kids are in competition with each other so there is also misinformation and a reinforcement of their limited understanding of how the game, training and competitions work.

There is a joke amongst trainers as to which country has the worst parents and I am glad to say the winner by a wide margin comes not from the Asean region (even if the countries here are very much in contention) but from a large country in the Indian sub-continent!

I have compared notes with trainers from many countries similar in chess development and aspiration as ours.

All the parents in these countries are very supportive of their children, shuttling them from one activity to another for that little extra advantage. 

Often they pay others to do this because their kids are simply incapable of operating without the enormous support structure built around and for them.

While there is no doubt the excessively young age group in some chess competitions is a huge factor that led to the culture of mediocrity and this opens a door to the "promise a lot but unable to do" local coaches with positions of authority in national or state associations.     

Yet in the end, it is the parents to blame. One parent recently told me that they have many objectives. One is to get some results to secure scholarships and these do not have to be real or valuable but only to seem so. 

Another is to enjoy the trips; the idea is to be able to say their kids are national players. Some others even know that once the kids are 12, their results will go down so they make excuses and exit junior events.

Experienced trainers have seen it all and those who are professional do their best and do not expect anything or be disappointed. We know what parents will do for their kids and with too few exceptions, it is never through hard work. 

They will take every shortcut given to them and paying money is the least of it. I often think, take chess out of the equation and still what they are doing cannot be the best thing if they truly love their kids.

But who am I to judge and what do I know?

I will now share some amazing but not untypical experiences I have had over the years:

* Once a man I worked with on a management consulting project came up to me and handed me a truly excellent chess book and told me he bought it for his son.

The boy was hugely talented but at 13 years of age then, there was no way he was going to read the book. 

He asked me if he could pay me an hourly rate for a maximum of six hours a day, my plane fare, hotel, meals and also other travel expenses to go over the book with his son! I declined and so we are still friends.

* When I agreed to work with the Olympiad team, we organised training for two weeks and just two would regularly show from the five who were supposed to attend. 

When we arrived there, only one had bothered to bring a chess set, three had computers but one was with illegal and buggy software with no database and another had not yet installed anything onto the computer. 

The last, ironically, excelled with a few photocopied pages as her preparation. Well, I brought a chess set, a computer, tablet and smartphone with all the tools and thankfully two great assistants from the men's team.

* One boy I worked with was enormously talented but his father had a much greater love for the game and the curse of having a chess player father was that he had two coaches which soon became three when another was brought in for some additional training I said was unnecessary at that point.

At the height of each success, he was pushed to compete again too quickly without review and eventually the father even decided what was to be taught. It was at that point I decided one coach was best! 

* I once agreed to accompany some students to an international event but one parent was not supportive of her son playing and rather he gave his time to school work.

While it was agreed that I was in charge of all technical matters, administrative powers were exercised to the fullest for his welfare and so I ended up with a holiday as he was never available for pre-game preparation or post-game analysis! 

* Recently a girl I invested unbelievable amounts of time in, against my better judgement, rode on the training (and the raw talent that was always there) to a top ranking.

But once the halo effect was over, bad habits re-emerged. It was painful to sit hour after hour making her do work she could so easily have done at home.

At one point she even told me she understood why I never gave her a book as I already knew she would not read it!

Kids today are spoilt. In chess, a sport, hard work is needed. I am not saying that kids don't try or all do not work hard but it requires day in, day out dedicated effort and that requires special motivation which has to come from within. Not everyone is a champion; we only read the success stories, never about those many who did not make it.

Chess offers many benefits: logical thinking, development of analytical skills, learning discipline, etc. and these should be what parents look for. The rest will come when these qualities are there; if not in chess, at least in life. 

So parents, start doing right for your kids. For their sake, not yours.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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