Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fairfield County Chess Camp

I sat in on the first day of Fairfield County Chess Camp taught by NM Dan Lowinger. This camp is clearly just getting off the ground this year so some allowances need to be made, but overall I'm pleased with what I saw for reasons I'll briefly outline.

For balance, however, I'll start out with two minor criticisms. The venue (Just Dance Studios in Norwalk) leaves a lot to be desired compared to other locations I've seen chess classes held (typically schools or public community centers). It's a bit of a run-down building with a warehouse look and the room used for the lessons was an interior room with no natural light. It certainly made me appreciate places like the Norwalk Community College, and the Greenwich Civic Center where Richie has also attended clubs.

The second criticism is probably just a result of being new but there only five students had signed up (and on some days even fewer). I personally don't mind the small classes because it makes for more individualized experience but I think for the kids more is better.

Despite these criticisms, I am pleased with the camp. Based on what I saw, I think Dan is a talented instructor. He came well prepared with a planned curriculum and clear goals in mind for what he wanted the students to get out of each lesson and the week as a whole. On the day I was there he reviewed four games by Greco in the King's Gambit. Dan's approach is sort of standard game review approach where he uses a Socratic method where he uses an example game to pose questions about the position at hand. He's diligent about making sure all the students are participating, and basically polls the students for an answer and then reveals the winning tactic or strong move. Over the course of the four games it became clear that in the first lesson he was striving to convey a couple of key related themes that allowed the hero to win: each game was a clear example of early, purposeful development with tempo, immediate central control, and converting the position to a win through a tactical breakthrough. In some ways this is was really basic stuff that any 1000 rated player should have a firm grip on, but it never hurts to review the basics.

At one point in the lesson, he asked for each person to evaluate a position by giving a numerical rating from 0 to 10 with 10 being completely won for white. I found it interesting that to me the position looked completely won, but Richie only assigned a rating of 7. In the position in question white was just 2 or 3 moves from a decisive material advantage due to threats on both sides of the board, impending breakthrough to an uncastled king through the center, and no immediate counter threat from black. I'm pretty sure if he had said 'white to move and win' Richie would have found one of any number of winning continuations, but posed as an open ended question without any hint that white was on the brink of victory left the students unsure of themselves (answers ranged from 6 to 9).

In a way it's sort of surprising that he's sometimes able to play as well as I can when his "evaluation function" is so fuzzy. I've always been a little curious what he thinks during his games that he loses when he's been in a winning position. I'm not sure if he realizes the extent of his advantage.

Anyway, I really like the fact that there's an overarching theme to the lessons which hopefully provides a context that allows the students to really internalize the material being presented.

Of course, aside from my thoughts on the quality of instruction, Dan scores highly in my book for the simple reason that everyday I ask Richie if he had fun at chess camp and get a cheerful affirmative. I was even told by my wife that she saw Richie moving around pieces on a board by himself at home (apparently trying to figure something out after camp) which is actually something he rarely does, as surprising as that may be.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I like the way kids view chess as a mental competition not physical. True enough, with this game it's going to help them become more logical in life, more reasonable and wiser in many decisions that they will make in life. These are all important in order for one to win the game.

The great thing about it is that the attitude one shows while playing chess can be applied into the classrooms where they need to concentrate on certain things about their subjects.

The same objective comes with which has existed to inspire kids to learn the game and make them better pupils and students in school.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide