Parenting a chess player may be harder than playing the game

Soccer moms get all the attention. But what about the chess moms and dads who can't shrug off their outside voice outbursts when inside at a silent chess tournament? With an event that demands self-discipline, parenting a chess player is no easy task. 

Lisa Suhay
Chess dad Grady Dunn of Norfolk, Va., attends sessions at the Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) where he focuses on positive parent coaching tactics with his daughters Gianna, 8, facing the camera, and Pria,10.

This weekend at Super Nationals in Nashville, Tenn., the biggest event of the year for scholastic chess competitors, parents there will be offered something that’s never been discussed at the event before: how to be good sport parents and coaches. The free seminar will not only address the ins and outs of raising a good competitor, but also how to choose a coach that’s best for your child.

Super Nationals, a quadrennial event like the Olympics, will host more than 5,000 kids from 47 states plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico, coming from a total of 1,541 schools, according to Robert McLellan, a spokesman for the US Chess Federation based in Nashville. Those children will attend with either an anxiety-ridden parent or professional chess coach by their side.

Even Alexandra Kosteniuk, the 12th Women’s World Chess Champion who herself began a chess career at age 5 admits that parenting her daughter Francesca, 6, through the process is very daunting.

“It’s a rollercoaster to see her play,” Ms. Kosteniuk said during a phone conversation from Nashville as she prepared her little girl to compete in what will be the child’s first Super Nationals. “It’s very hard for me to stop myself, not to intervene because at that age children don’t always play pieces correctly or remember all the rules.”

I now have this wonderful mental picture of the absolutely runway model-worthy Women’s World Champion pacing a few yards away from the tables, destroying her manicure, much in the way I do when one of my own sons compete at anything.

That makes me feel better as a sport parent because it tells me that becoming a parent levels the playing field between the famous and the average sport parent. Technically, chess is classified as a sport, covered by ESPN, and subject to the same kind of governance as other sporting bodies because it’s played in teams. Chess has coaches both good and atrocious, too.

The Chess in the Olympics Campaign says that there are at least 605 to 700 million people worldwide who play chess — that's more than the entire population of US, Russia, Mexico, and Japan combined, or 8.6 percent of all humans inhabiting the Earth. There are 8 million registered chess players representing over 160 countries. On the Internet, there are as many as 200 million people playing chess.

The thing that’s really important with chess is not the trophy but the win-win educationally for a child. 

“I run a school in Russian and I can say without hesitation that you take a child, any child, and teach them chess and I promise you one year later this is a completely different child in many ways,” Kosteniuk says. “You see a child learn critical thinking, better overall life judgments, and confidence. It is that prize we should want as parents for our children most of all.”

Speaking of what sports parents want, Chess parents are just as notorious for outbursts as those in soccer, Pee Wee football, and any other sports where the worst in us emerges as the parental protective mechanism kicks in and merges with the thrill of battle haze.

“In seven years of Super Nationals we have had three physical fights break out,” says Bill Hall, executive director of the US Chess Federation. Only one was between children, the others were parent on parent. “Sometimes parents live a bit vicariously through children, and of course there’s a certain level of emotion when someone is talking about your child. Parents reach a heightened emotional state, to say the least.”

Mr. Hall himself was a chess player and is the parent of players as well and said he’s very glad to see the seminar that’s being given for the first time in the event’s history by Daniel Rensch of Tonto Village, Ariz. Mr. Rensch is a parent, former Individual National Scholastic Chess Champion twice over, and creator of the world’s most highly trafficked chess websites: and According to Rensch, “ has just shy of 7 million members and is ranked No. 1 in the world for traffic by Google and Wikipedia.”

“I am going to talk about the importance of focusing on the student and getting results versus being results-oriented,” he explains of his seminar approach. “In chess it’s common for a child’s coach to be their parent, but whether you are the coach or are choosing one, you’re looking for the same basic approach.”

The same theme emerges when speaking with Kosteniuk, Hall, and Rensch, and that is that a child needs a coach who doesn’t tear the child down emotionally, berate, verbally, and in so doing kill their confidence and passion for the game.

“Choose a coach or choose to be the coach who finds tools that make a great player,” Rensch says. “Don’t focus on game results because we can’t change results.”

Rensch offers chess parents and coaches the same basic points:

  • No more “Winning is everything” because it isn’t.
  • Don’t replay a lost game immediately afterward or at the tournament.
  • No critical growth teaching while a child/player is in an emotionally charged state. It may be taken as criticism even if it isn’t intended that way.
  • Do focus on making sure the child has eaten, rested and is focused.

When it comes to tips on choosing the best chess coach for your child, Rensch’s rule of thumb is: For players with a rating under 1,300 or 1,400, find someone who will simply stimulate a child’s love of the game. For higher ranked players he says it’s a harder call, “There are people who know the game and people who can teach the game. Finding one who can teach chess can be difficult.”

Hall adds, “I recommend you go and observe a coach teaching a child who is relatively the same age and level as you child. See the interaction for yourself because ultimately, you will know who you feel good about for your child.”

Ultimately, Rensh says parents should review the relationship between child and any sports coach via regular discussions between parent and child about how that coach makes them feel.

“If you start early and get your child into the habit of talking regularly about the coach and how they feel then as they get older it will become natural for the child to share feelings and concerns with you,” Rensch says.

So when you’re out there in the chess field the moral is play nice and your kids will too. It’s not about us, but them — and no matter who we hire to coach them in a game, we are their life coaches leading by example.

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