Chess Coaches Should Stop Taking Credit for Their Students Achievements 

It happens almost every time an American kid does well in anything:

1. There are Facebook posts by one or many coaches who have been part of this child’s chess life, always making it clear in some way, perhaps with just a passing sentence, that they coached them.

2. An article gets written on USChess

3. One or two coaches aren’t mentioned, or aren’t mentioned as the “main coach” and they start freaking out and sending annoying emails and making comments at the kids parents or other places online.

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The whole situation is weirder given that so many of the top kids literally have five or more coaches that they work with from time to time.

Here is my advice on what to do when one of your students wins anything:

Congratulate them privately for sure, and even publicly if you want. It’s natural to be excited about the success of one of your students! But when you congratulate them don’t mention that you had even the slightest role in their successes by coaching them. If you are truly such a great coach, they will tell everyone for you.

Famed author and coach, Grandmaster Jacob Aagaard said this about the subject:

“I personally don’t take credit for the success of my students, but I also understand that people have families and need to get more students”.

I don’t want coaches to cost themselves business by being “too polite”, although I don’t think publicly declaring that you are someone’s coach has any effect on whether you will get more students. At the same time I’m not saying that you never have to mention to anyone that you coached some strong and accomplished players. What I’m saying is right at the moment when they’ve had one of their greatest triumphs, don’t do anything to draw attention away from them, and don’t use their success as a prop to build your name.

I’d suggest posting something like “Congratulations to XXX, an amazingly hard worker who deserves all of her success!” Don’t write “Congratulations to my student XXX! We have been studying hard for the last year, he totally deserves this victory, and I’m honored to be part of this journey”. In one case you are praising only the student. In the other case, you are praising yourself and the student and it comes off as incredibly tacky.

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I have coached a lot of kids and run a program called the US Chess School, in which hundreds of top American kids have come through the program.

I admit that when kids who have attended the school do well, I publicize their achievements on our Instagram page, as we are loyal to our campers and want to make sure their successes are heard far and wide. It’s an added bonus that while we never specifically mention our program in these congratulatory posts, it still makes us look good.

But my honest opinion is that my efforts coaching at the US Chess School have had a relatively small effect on any individual student. Sometimes they win something right after a camp and their parents send us an email thanking us, perhaps thinking that our camp was to reason for their success.

It wasn’t. Kids don’t magically get better during a one week chess camp. The kids who come to our camp are already extremely strong and very capable of winning major titles without us. It’s not hard to just pick out the top rated kids, invite them to a camp, and then start taking credit when they do well. Of course they did well, they are the top rated kids in the United States! I’m not going to say it’s completely impossible that something stuck with a kid that happened during one of our camps and indirectly led to a win here or there, but most of the time it’s just a total coincidence.

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An example lesson from the U.S. Chess School

A longtime personal coach is likely to have more influence than a coach at a one week training session, but I still believe that almost all of the credit should go to the student. When a kid wins something it’s the hard work that this kid has put into chess for so many years of their life. It’s the energy and nerves that they expended during the tournament. It takes a strong character and work ethic to win a major chess championship.

In most cases these kids were probably going to be really good with or without their coach. Maybe the coach helped a little and maybe in some cases they even helped a lot, but who really knows? The only thing we do know is that the kid worked very hard for their achievements and that a great coach lets their student take all the glory.

At this time I would like to thank the following coaches who I believe directly helped my chess development and for whom I remembered various lessons they taught me decades later:

Grandmaster Sergey Kudrin: He taught me the Dragon, which I played for a large part of my career. He also guided me towards the Tarrasch French which is probably the reason why my favorite move to face when I play 1.e4 is 1…e6. I was only about 1700-1800 when we worked together, but I believe he helped me to form a good foundation for the future.

Steve Shutt: “Mr. Shutt” was the coach at Masterman high school and his major sacrifices allowed me to play in many tournaments and matches that I may not have been able to otherwise. He would literally drive us home from matches at 10-11pm on school nights. His chess program also allowed me to spend time on chess during school every day, which was obviously very useful.

International Master John Donaldson: I had only a few lessons with him but he taught me a lot of really useful opening ideas that I still use today and used a lot when I was younger. Most memorable are the ideas in the Panov Botvinnik. He also is the main driving force behind the Mechanics Institute, where I have played many memorable events.

GM Mark Dvoretsky: I’ve learned a ton from him and have had one or two lessons with him in person, but in reality I learned the most from his books. I love his scientific approach to chess that leaves room for psychological factors as well. In my opinion his chess books are the absolute best ever written. I’d be remiss to not mention his weakness of taking too much credit for the success of his students.

GM Gregory Kaidanov: He taught me lots about practical chess which I still think about today. For instance the idea that you should never spend more than 15 minutes on a single move. He also taught me some lesser known rules of thumb that I find very useful, but they are top secret so I can’t share them here.

And of course I have to mention the best coach of all, FM Michael Shahade. Without the various lessons he sprinkled throughout my childhood, I would never have been close to as strong as I am today.

I probably forgot someone, so please send your angry letters about how you didn’t get the credit you deserve in the form of a comment on this blog.

2 thoughts on “Chess Coaches Should Stop Taking Credit for Their Students Achievements 

  1. Pingback: An Interview with Coach Jay - US Chess

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