Wall Street Journal: chess culture shock

4/29/2015 – The Wall Street Journal carries a number of interesting sections on their website that share articles on a variety of slightly offbeat topics. One of these is called “Expat”, and is self-captioned as ‘for global nomads everywhere’. Yuanling Yuan, a top Canadian chess player who recently moved to the US to study at Yale described her astonishment at chess in the USA.

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Top 10 Chess Culture shocks

By Yuanling Yuan

In the last decade, the U.S. has seen a surge in the number of foreign chess players attending American universities and settling in the country after graduation. Today, expat chess players dominate about 90% of the top collegiate playing fields, by my count. An increasing number of universities are starting to treat chess like a varsity sport. The University of Texas in Dallas, for example, recruits top chess talent from across the world by offering full scholarships and an annual stipend. It is also said that the cheerleaders at UTD cheer louder for the chess team than the football team.

A thoughtful and interesting article on how chess is perceived and played around the world

Three years ago I crossed the Canadian border to settle in New Haven, Conn., where I began my undergraduate studies at Yale University. Though Yale is not a typical “chess school,” school breaks gave me the opportunity to travel the country and play in many U.S. chess tournaments. Having played chess semi-professionally in Canada for more than 10 years, I was shocked to see the U.S. chess system at work. I interviewed a few other expat chess players currently studying in the U.S. to hear their “chess shock” stories. Ever wondered how chess could be so different globally? Read on to find out:

1.   Chess is NOT Checkers

Chess became much more popular in the U.S. after Bobby Fischer became World Champion in 1972. Yet, chess in the U.S. is nowhere near as popular as it is in many European countries, such as Russia and Georgia. “Every family in Georgia owns a chess set and knows how to play. Everyone in the country knows the names and faces of the top Georgian chess players,” says International Master Nazí Paikidze, a Georgia-born student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus. “When I came to the U.S. and told my classmates at UMBC that I play professional chess, they thought I meant checkers. I was speechless.” To a chess player, the greatest sin you can commit is mistaking chess for checkers.

2.   BYOC – Bring Your Own Chess

We’ve all heard of BYOB but what about BYOC? The idea that chess players have to bring their own equipment to even the largest tournaments in the U.S. is hands down the biggest shock for expat chess players. Every major tournament in the world provides chess sets and clocks except for those in this country. BYOC can be stressful to professional expat players who are used to standard, wooden sets with brown and beige squares. As Grandmaster Niclas Huschenbeth, a German international student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, puts it, “You can be playing on green squares one game, purple the next and then blue the game after!”

Yuanling Yuan on Canada's first board at the 2014 Tromso Olympiad

3.   Play Chess. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

Another huge shock to expat players is the intensity level of U.S. chess tournaments. An average chess game at the professional level can last four to five hours and here in the U.S., players are expected to play two games a day. In India, Russia, Georgia and the rest of Europe chess tournaments are structured so players only play one game a day, with an occasional “rest day” after several days of hard-fought mental battles. A nine-day tournament in Europe would finish in only five days in the U.S., leaving the players no choice but to play chess, eat, sleep and wake up the next morning to do it all over again. The U.S. is certainly known for its efficiency!

4.   Expertise is Relative

Being a Chess Master is not a prerequisite to teach chess in the U.S. There are chess coaches across the country at all levels, ranging from individuals rated 1600 (intermediate player) to 2600 (Super Grandmaster). International Master Priyadharshan Kannappan, an Indian student at Lindenwood University, notes, “In India you need to be an International Master and rated at least 2400 to teach chess. All young chess players in India want to become the next World Champion like Vishy (Viswanathan) Anand. Their fathers would fire you immediately if you weren’t capable of coaching a World Champion. Here, the 1600s train the 1300s, the 1900s train the 1600s and the Masters train the 1900s.” Coming from an environment of high expectations for coaches, expat Chess Masters are taken aback by the competition in the coaching market from players of much lower strength.

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hpaul hpaul 5/2/2015 06:36
I am an American amateur player (1800), and I also play regularly in Europe.
I frankly love the American system. (Though it shouldn't really be called a "system".) It's relatively informal and welcoming to newcomers. There are more amateur tournaments than in Europe, and the cost of participating is lower. The emphasis is not on high prizes, but on the pleasure of playing chess.
I'm looking at USCF's tournament announcements for Northern California, and see 21 tournaments in the next 21 days of May. You can always find a nearby tournament to play in.
The typical U.S. "open" week-end tournament is unsponsored. The tournament organizer risks his own funds to arrange the tournament, and hopes enough players show up. The fact that the players bring their own equipment (just like golfers and tennis players) cuts the costs dramatically. Why should organizers stock an expensive supply of hundreds of clocks and sets, when all the players already have their own equipment? And who cares if the boards and sets are all identical, as long as they conform to normal but flexible standards of size and appearance?
The week-end amateur "open" or "class" tournament was really developed in the U.S. With an innovative rating system (first "Harkness", then "Elo" - which was later incorporated by the world), and class prizes for lower-rated players, this "system" has been very successful in encouraging participation by players of all skill levels.
While it's fun to see the greatest players in world battle it out, that's not where the essence of chess lies. It lies in the games of amateurs who play for the love of the game, of the millions for whom the game is a hobby, and who play in clubs, in homes, in the park, or in week-end tournaments.
I hope even foreign master players can occasionally lower themselves to writing their own results on the wallboard. You'll see how good it feels to stand in the crowd, to be among players who have fun playing chess.
Brian Richardson Brian Richardson 5/1/2015 01:34
I understand #4 perfectly! There are "coaches" in the United States who are at best class D players. One time I sat down with one of his students privately, and the poor fellow couldn't even execute a K+Q vs K checkmate. I was stupefied.
ff2017 ff2017 4/30/2015 07:55
@johnmk I think you better re-read the article, the author actually offers only positive experiences of her own . All of the 10 points in the main body are distilllations from other chess players, not the author's!

You got hoodwinked!
johnmk johnmk 4/30/2015 06:23
No question the author has a bit of a snooty attitude. Almost as if she expected that the USCF would roll out a red carpet for her. At a 2200 something rating she is not exactly a Wesley So, but I guess she believes that having a FIDE 2200 means that she is qualified to teach chess, while someone below that level is not qualified? Odd. Another thing, she should understand that in Europe chess is often sponsored by corporations. Not so much here.
idratherplay960 idratherplay960 4/30/2015 04:45
Serena Williams was coached by her dad, Tiger Woods by his dad, Nakamura by his stepdad and so on... A talented youngster has a better chance of thriving under the care of someone willing to sacrifice their own ambitions for the sake of their student. This is why, at least early on, parents often make good coaches. In this same way I would rather have my kid instructed by a relative amateur who is not simultaneously trying to pursue their own career in chess. Instead a coach who is motivated being exactly that, the best coach he can be.

The same is true at the upper echelon where Magnus and Caruana indeed have teams or coaches composed of players they themselves could easily beat over the board.
ramkrishna ramkrishna 4/30/2015 09:08
It's a misnomer that India has only IMs coaching chess players. Just as explained for the US, India too has a wide market for chess coaching with unrated players teaching novices, 1800s teaching 1200s and so on. In a way, that's a good system, since you don't really need an IM teaching how a rook moves or what's scholar's mate. At the same time, this has provided meaningful employment to a number of youths who spent their important years pursuing chess careers, but couldn't make it to the top echelons
Miguel Ararat Miguel Ararat 4/30/2015 06:52
The article highlights some interesting points about chess in the US. For example, the coaching chess market is very different than other markets in the world. If a chess player comes to the US thinking that a 2400+ rating will put him/her ahead of the other lower rated players/coaches a reality shock will be store for him/her. The reason is not that difficult to figure it out. As mentioned in the article, in other countries like India the kids/parents wants a coach that help them to become a world chess champion. In contrast, in the US, parents want to use chess as a tool to help their kids to develop/nurture their kid’s mental potential and encourage self-development skills such as using failure as a stepping stone to future success.

In most cases a chess coach in the US must pass the “well rounded test”. Families are looking for a chess coach that brings to the table more than a chess rating, they are looking for a good role model. A low rated chess coach will get a good pay job in the US if

1. He/she has a college degree, a graduate degree is even better because it shows that chess is not incompatible with excellence in academy/school work.

2. Chess is not the main activity/interest in the coach life. A chess coach that is successful in several fields other than chess such a sports, science or community service is highly appreciate by parents. Parents are afraid of coaches that are 24/7 in chess.

3. The coach adjust to his/her trainee’s skill level and prepare material that is tailored to trainee’s preferences. In other words, the coach must be flexible and understand that the families are in most case no expecting their kid to become a world chess champion, but have a positive, life experience through chess.

Finally, after reading the following fragment of the article I did some research at the FIDE website:
International Master Priyadharshan Kannappan, an Indian student at Lindenwood University, notes, “In India you need to be an International Master and rated at least 2400 to teach chess. All young chess players in India want to become the next World Champion like Vishy (Viswanathan) Anand. Their fathers would fire you immediately if you weren’t capable of coaching a World Champion. Here, the 1600s train the 1300s, the 1900s train the 1600s and the Masters train the 1900s.”

I founded that at least three chess teachers under the India federation are by a long shot far from the 2400 + rating requirement mentioned by International Master Priyadharshan Kannappan in the article.

1. Ajeetkumar Verma FIDE ID 5013780 – National Instructor- peak rating 2074
2. Bhardwaj, Vipnesh FIDE ID 504-4480 – National instructor rating 1520
3.Ankit, Dalal, FIDE ID 5024714- National Instructor- UNRATED
HarryHaller HarryHaller 4/30/2015 05:41
The model for chess in the US is definitely NOT making chess enjoyable and NOT something to be copied in the rest of the world. Making income unrelated to one's chess level (and this goes not just for teaching, but also for tournaments, due to the class prizes) is completely counterproductive for growing chess or encouraging participation and excellence, and is a slap in the face to the best players.
The tournament conditions there are incredibly bad, with children running everywhere and shrieking like animals even in the biggest tournaments. This is what you get when you constantly sell your standards and dignity for a few dollars.
sco-ish sco-ish 4/30/2015 05:35
It's a little bit like that in Asia as well (double rounds), save for the bringing your own board and clock kind of stuff. I also don't understand the different time controls? These delays ones are in my opinion far less logical and inferior to the FIDE international time controls.
thlai80 thlai80 4/30/2015 04:53
idratherplay960 ... I occasionally had my comments censored too. I do not know why, as they didn't seem to violate the rules. One instance, I commented about Anand not yet being world #2 during Shamkir Rd 7, and that got censored. Technically, Anand was #2 after Rd 8 in the live rating. I guess pointing out reporting error is a violation! Another time, Chessbase referred Hou Yifan as "he", I pointed that out and got censored too. Will see how long this particular comment manage to survive before being censored.
idratherplay960 idratherplay960 4/30/2015 04:19
Wow my earlier comment/joke about this article making the rest of the world essentially sound soft and coddled got censored?! Come on that is extreme North Korean style censorship.

To your typical American reader the above grievances would seem like silly little pittances. No wonder the rest of the world thinks American's ratings are lower. Their's are earned while being fanned and fed grapes...
Karbuncle Karbuncle 4/30/2015 01:40
#3 is because there's no money in chess in the USA unless you are a top player, so tournaments are run based on single day rentals of room space for the venue. Otherwise the organizers would end up losing money paying all the costs. Same thing goes for bringing your own chess gear.
Niima Niima 4/30/2015 12:51
What else would one expect from the USA when it comes to chess? Fischer tried his hardest to lift the standards, but there is so much one man can do. No wonder they try to import chess talents from abroad. It is hard to develop homegrown talents with such an approach.
genem genem 4/29/2015 07:27
I have known stress during my chess tournament participations, but never due to the color variations of the light and dark squares (from one game to the next).
Years ago I heard that Humpy Koneru has her father as her coach, even though his chess skills are far below hers (I could have heard or remembered wrong).