Dan Heisman's: A Parent's Guide to Chess - A Review

by Chris Kantack

Not Just for Parents!

If aliens, from a distant world, could somehow  peer downward at organized chess in North America, they might very well (erroneously) come to the conclusion that chess is primarily a children's game that a few adult members fail to outgrow.   Such is the phenomena of the growth in scholastic chess.  Today it is not unusual for scholastic events to host hundreds of players and be "fully booked" weeks, even months in advance.   cover of "A Parent's Guide to Chess" - click to see larger view and back cover

Each scholastic tournament truly is an "event".  Not only may you have a couple hundred players attending, but nearly all those players bring along a parent, perhaps both parents, or other guardian.  It is not uncommon to have a brother, sister, or even the whole family tagging along for the event.    My own experience indicates that, in large scholastic tournaments,  for every player in attendance, expect two more to be at the event.   Thus if you have 200 players in your tournament, expect a total attendance of around 600 people.

Such events need good organizers, Tournament Directors (TDs), floor judges,  and a host of other volunteers to assist in registration, concessions, and a myriad of other tasks.  Parents, and other spectators too, need to cooperate in order to make these tournaments the enjoyable and successful events they can be.

Until recently, there was no guidebook or any other work that really addressed the questions or concerns of new players and their parents who were entering into the world of "scholastic chess".   Each child and parent would over time learn "the hard way" of what to expect and how to participate in scholastic chess events.  Fortunately in 2002, Russell Enterprises, home of the superb  ChessCafe.com website, published "A Parent's Guide to Chess" by National Master Dan Heisman.  This unique work provides an excellent guidebook to all who participate in the world of scholastic chess.  

Though primarily written for the parents of new and young chess players, this 153 page book packs in an incredible amount of information and advice that will also be useful to everyone involved in scholastic chess.  Whether you are a Tournament Director, chess teacher or coach, arbiter (floor judge) or other volunteer, and yes--even spectators, there is material in this book for you.   Anyone who frequently works at scholastic or other youth chess events will benefit greatly from reading this book.  


Who I am and Why I'm Writing This Review

About 7 years ago my son expressed in interest in learning chess.  I taught him the moves,  bought him a computer chess program for practice, and later took him to a chess tournament to see what competitive chess was like.   Though my son's interest in chess soon waned, I caught the "chess bug" and continued to learn as much as I could about the game.  It wasn't long before I realized that I would never become a great chess master (or even a very strong player).   However as I love the game, I do what I can to contribute to "the cause" and promote chess to others. 

One way in which I share my "joy of chess" is as a volunteer at local scholastic chess tournaments.  I'll participate in any role I'm assigned.  However I especially enjoy being a floor judge in one of the elementary sections.  (The elementary players are often divided into two groups: K-2 and 3-5 grade sections are quite common.)  At each and every tournament, I have but one goal:  To provide the players and spectators with the most "positive chess experience" possible.   At the end of the day, I'd like to see each and every player (along with their parents), say to each other, "That was a lot of fun!   I'd like to go again!"

My experience in scholastic chess is considerably less than Mr. Heisman's.  I've attended perhaps a dozen large tournaments over the past 4 years.  All of these tournaments have been in the western Washington State/Puget Sound area.  Nevertheless, I've closely studied each chess event  I've attended.   Did the event start on time?  If not, why?  Is the playing hall adequate and properly supervised?  Are the players able to concentrate on their games?  Are the parents and other spectators comfortable?  How's the traffic flow?   Are adequate concessions available?    Are parents' and players' questions being answered promptly and adequately?   I'm always looking for ways of improving an event.  If a parent or child asks me a question that I can't answer, I'll find someone who can.  I'll also make sure that the next time I get that same question, I'll be ready with the right answer

In late November 2003, as I was browsing over the book selections offered at a nearby chess tournament, I came across "A Parent's Guide to Chess".   One quick glance thru this book and I knew that I had found something special.   Here was a book that went a long way toward providing new players and parents a "jumpstart" into the world of scholastic chess.  Here was a book that answered a lot of questions I had as a floor judge.  Here was a book that provided great advice to organizers and spectators alike.  It wasn't long before I purchased this book and read it from cover-to-cover.   To put it briefly:   "I Love This Book!".   It is by no means a perfect book.   I do have a few criticisms that I will share with you.  But overall I highly recommend this book.   I write this review in the hope that many of you will also find this book to be an excellent scholastic chess resource.



"A Parent's Guide to Chess" is an attractive soft-cover book measuring 9 inches tall and 6 inches wide.   The list price is $14.95.  It's not unusual to find it discounted to around $12.00.  I bought my copy from Fred Wilson's Chess & Books.   My total cost was $15 ($12 plus $3 shipping).  Any scholastic or parent groups interested in possibility obtaining a "bulk purchase" discount can contact  Hanon Russell at ChessCafe.com.   Though this book may first appear to be a bit thin to some, don't be fooled.  It's 155 pages pack in a lot of great information.   This book is almost all text with occasional clip art style graphics and an occasional diagram scattered throughout the book.   The pages and text are very well laid out and easy on the eyes. 

The Table of Contents is as follows:

Acknowledgments 3
Introduction 4
Chapter 1: Why Should My Child Play Chess? 10
Chapter 2: Getting Started 11
Chapter 3: Chess and Computers 41
Chapter 4: Tournament Participation 51
Chapter 5: The Road to Improvement 93
Chapter 6: The Personal Side of Chess 111
Appendix A: A Glossary of Chess Terms 121
Appendix B: A Guide for Spectator Conduct 145
Appendix C: Special Issues for Moms 147



I've often seen "post tournament" web postings or similar reports where no mention is given to the many volunteers who helped contribute to the success of a tournament.   Therefore I was very pleased to see that on the "Acknowledgments" page, Dan Heisman was kind enough to provide a special thank you to all the volunteers of scholastic chess.



Here Mr. Heisman comments on the growth of scholastic chess and introduces the USCF and Chess Federation of Canada.  (Note: All the scholastic and youth-related chess links in this book point to U.S. or Canadian sources.)  Dan then goes into defining what scholastic chess is and the various roles that a parent can play in supporting this activity.  He then discusses the audience who will most benefit from this book along with the book's scope.  Mr. Heisman includes a very worthwhile "disclaimer" warning that some information in this book may become quickly outdated and encourages the reader to seek out other sources of chess information and opinion.   Dan includes his email address should the reader have any questions or comments they wish to direct to him. 


Why Should My Child Play Chess?

Dan discusses both the direct and indirect benefits of chess play in chapter 1.  Also discussed is why chess is not as popular in American Culture as say other activities such as music.  


Getting Started

Chapter 2 begins with Mr. Heisman commenting on how you can determine when a child is ready to play chess.  Dan wisely makes the distinction between being ready to play chess at home versus tournament play which is, of course, often of a very competitive nature.  Dan also talks about club play.  He explains the difference between the (sometimes widely chaotic) scholastic clubs vs. the more disciplined "regular" chess clubs.  He then introduces the reader to International Chess Federation (FIDE), and re-introduces the United States Chess Federation (USCF), and the Chess Federation of Canada (CFC).  Also mentioned are a few of the independent organizations that are devoted to scholastic chess.   Chess-in-the-Schools, The Chess Education Association, and the Canadian Chess'n Math Association are all mentioned in this chapter.

Mr. Heisman then provides a much more detailed overview of chess clubs and tournaments.  This is followed by an outline of a youngster's "typical progression" through the chess world.  Dan then lists a number of activities that a child, who really likes the game, might wish to pursue.  I found one item in his list potentially misleading.  He states that such a child might wish to "Join the national federation and start playing in scholastic chess tournaments;".   This implies to me that federation membership is required for scholastic chess.  While this may be true in many locales, this is certainly not the case in Washington State.  You can play in rated scholastic chess tournaments for years in Washington State without ever joining any state or national federation.

 It was interesting to see where Dan acknowledges that it is not unusual for a child to lose interest in chess.  He even provides statistics on the percentage of children (based on their chess starting age) that will "take a break from chess" over the course of their lifetime. 

Mr. Heisman also lists which chess activities will likely require parent oversight (versus those like after school scholastic clubs which likely will not require a parent's presence).  He then briefly mentions chess camps, leagues, and other places where one can learn the game and encounter other opponents to play. 

Mr. Heisman also discusses the equipment a player needs.    Here my experience is quite different from his.  On page 37 he writes. "With the exception of some national events, most tournaments do NOT supply sets and almost none supply clocks, but most do make scoresheets available."   While that is likely the case in many areas, in my own experience, I have rarely been to a scholastic event that did not have all the boards, sets, and clocks already set up prior to the start of the event.  This includes events where a surprisingly strong turnout had arrived.   Indeed I've seen events with 140+ chess sets ready to go, with every single set being supplied by the various school clubs in the area.  At least for the scholastic events I've attended, it is very rare to have to supply your own equipment.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend that you do have your own equipment and very much appreciate Dan Heisman's advice on avoiding the un-weighted "toy store" sets when purchasing your chess set.   I'd like to add that a USCF standard single weighted Staunton piece set and quality vinyl roll-up board can usually be purchased for a total cost of around 15 dollars.   Such a set is far superior to anything you'll find at nearly all mass-market merchandise stores.

On page 39 Dan mentions that for a 3 1/4 inch king set (I believe that should read 3 3/4 inch king set) that 2 inch squares are probably a little too small.  I disagree.  I  consider anything in the range of 2" to 2 1/4 inch squares being perfectly acceptable for the standard king set sizes usually purchased for tournament play.   (These sets typically have a King height  of 3 3/4" or 3 5/8" and a base diameter for the king at around 1 1/2 inches.)     In fact many higher-priced Staunton sets now seem to be standardizing on 2 inch squares.   I have boards representing each of the different squares sizes of 2", 2 1/8", and 2 1/4".  In my experience the boards with 2 inch squares may even be preferable as these boards consume less "real estate" on one's tabletop.

Dan then concludes Chapter 2 with an excellent  discussion about digital and analog chess clocks, scorebooks, scoresheets, and other misc. equipment.


Chess and Computers

Mr. Heisman starts this chapter off talking about the many different internet resources available for chess.   The links that Dan lists are a great start and I commend him for the excellent choices listed in this chapter. 

Chess computer software is described next.   My particular favorite, ChessMaster, is highlighted.  Dan provides some wonderful advice in this section that I feel deserve special mention.  He points out that you are likely to be better off buying one of the higher-rated programs like ChessMaster rather than a more "fun orientated" program like Battlechess.   The reason being that ChessMaster can be more finely tuned to the level of play your child may require.  Battlechess, on the other hand, even at its lowest setting, may still be too strong.  I have seen this characteristic time and time again in many low-end chess programs. 

Also mentioned is how older versions of popular programs are often available at a fraction of the price of the current versions.   (I bought my own version of ChessMaster 6000 for less than $10 at OfficeMax when ChessMaster 7000 first came out.)   Dan also mentions the very inexpensive multiple chess CD packages that are often sold (usually at deep discounts).   For example, the Costco stores in our area are currently selling a bundle of chess programs which includes ChessMaster 7000,  for about $20.

I was pleased to see where Mr. Heisman included a few pages on how to use chess computer programs for maximum benefit.  He then goes into some of the chess instructional software that is currently available.    Dan Heisman is a big fan of using the computer as a tool for chess education and enjoyment.  


Tournament Participation

This chapter, at over 40 pages in length, represents the "core" of this book.   It contains a wealth of information that will be useful to the first time player and chess parent.  It offers great advice regarding pre-registration and registration.  Some great background information regarding how Swiss-system pairings are done is presented here.   Scoring, ratings, and prizes are also discussed.  This chapter is loaded with a lot of practical advice that will greatly enhance your tournament experience.

The most  important advice of all is found in this section.  I quote from page 77:

"During the game, if there is any question at all, teach your child to stop his game and GET THE TOURNAMENT DIRECTOR."

I would add that, in large tournaments, it is often the floor judge or another assistant TD that would first get involved.   If they cannot settle the issue, then the Tournament Director should be called to resolve the dispute.  

This is extremely important advice.   Because as Dan Heisman mentions, often the players will decide amongst themselves how to resolve a conflict.  This is often done incorrectly and most definitely to the detriment of the one of the players.   I've seen cases in the elementary playing sections,  where player A will have checkmated player B.  Player B however will then convince player A that his or her move was illegal and that he (player B) has really won the game. 

By teaching your child to get the Tournament Director (or other arbiter) during the game,  you can avoid situations like the one above.   It is important that your son or daughter know that they cannot raise such a dispute after the game.  (Of course, after the game, if a game result is found to be recorded improperly, that should be brought to the tournament directors attention as soon as possible.)

I commend Mr. Heisman's attention to teaching good player and spectator etiquette throughout this chapter.   Proper player and spectator courtesy can make all the difference between a tournament that is "okay" versus one that is truly an enjoyable experience.

Dan then goes into dispelling several common misconceptions about scholastic chess tournaments.   Once again, much of Mr. Heisman's advice is right on the money.   One of Dan's "misconceptions" however, is becoming more and more of a reality in my area.   That being "You have to pre-register (register before the day of the tournament) to play in a tournament."   In western Washington State, virtually all scholastic tournaments now require pre-registration.   It's also important to register early.   As of mid-December 2003, there were scholastic chess events scheduled in Seattle, for February 2004,  that were already fully booked and closed to new registrants.

This chapter also discusses various state and national scholastic events.   Mr. Heisman states that state scholastic championships are almost always open for anyone to play in.  Here again things are different in Washington State.  Scholastic chess, in Washington State is rated by the Washington High School Chess Association (WHSCA).  This organization runs the Washington State Rating System (WSRS).  For participation in scholastic chess, no membership in any federation is required.     However, to participate in the Washington State Elementary Championships you must have won the majority of your games in a previous qualifying WSRS tournament.   In fact, these must be WSRS rated games.   USCF games do not even count!

I add this because,  even after reading this book, you will wish to carefully check local and regional sources in your area to see what scholastic tournament requirements exist for your state.  No need spending any money joining a state or national federation that may not be applicable to the type of tournaments your child will be participating in.


The Road to Improvement

This chapter is chock full of good advice on how a player can best use his time when wishing to improve in chess.  It also reminds the parents to keep everything in perspective.   Many children never take to chess in a very serious way and there is certainly nothing wrong with that!  For those children who do wish to really improve, several pages are devoted to the process of selecting a good chess instructor or coach.  Mr. Heisman also provides an excellent list of books and other instructional materials that will be helpful in mastering the game.   Finally, this chapter concludes with 15 tips that make great sense for anyone new to chess play.  Dan discusses King Safety, Piece Activity, taking one's time for each move, studying tactics, and many other good chess playing guidelines.

Though not listed in this chapter, I'd also like to add that Dan Heisman has a huge collection of Novice Nook articles archived on his own website: www.danheisman.com.  While these articles are written for improving adult players, many scholastic players will likely benefit from them as well.


The Personal Side of Chess

It's chapters like this one that make "A Parent's Guide to Chess" truly a unique and wonderful book.   This chapter addresses the emotional highs and lows that come during competitive play.  Advice is given on how to cheer up a player who's just suffered a seemingly devastating loss.   Recommendations on how to handle difficult opponents and spectators are also presented here.   Mr. Heisman also provides some specific advice for those parents who feel their child is exceptional and has a natural talent and desire for the game.

Ratings, in my opinion, are the blessing and curse of chess.   I say this because, while chess ratings are essential for proper tournament pairings, many players end up becoming obsessed with their rating.  Ultimately these players eventually end up playing less chess over time.   On page 120,  I was pleased to see Dan reminding parents to instruct their child not to worry about the rating.  Just play as much chess as possible.   As you improve, the rating gains will come naturally and with less stress


A Glossary of Chess Terms

Appendix A contains the best glossary of chess terms I've ever encountered.  Though certainly not the largest glossary I've seen, in these 24 pages you will find virtually every chess term a new parent or player needs to know.   These definitions are extremely well done with a clarity that I find often lacking in many other glossaries. 

Whenever I encounter a new chess glossary, I quickly look up 4 or 5 key terms that I often don't find or often have very questionable definitions.   For example, it always amazes me how many glossaries don't have the term Ply defined.    Not only is it found in this book, but it's the best definition for Ply that I've ever found.  On page 136 I find it defined as:

Ply:  A half-move, or the move of one player.  When both
players move, that is two ply, or one full move.  To calcu-
late "I take, then he takes, then I take,"  is to look 3 ply

Dan Heisman definitely did his "homework" when he put this glossary together.


A Guide for Spectator Conduct

This appendix contains 13 guidelines taken from the USCF National Scholastic Chess Tournament Regulations.  It is a most applicable addition to this book since, in many tournaments, the parents are also able to participate as spectators.


Special Issues for Moms

This appendix, written by Lois Deckelbaum and Barbara Schoener, addresses many issues not covered in the rest of the book.  For example, mention is made of the fact that having a tournament chess-playing son or daughter can be quite a commitment in time, travel, and expense.  Lois and Barbara also offer a great deal of pragmatic advice regarding a number of items that will ensure that you and your chess playing child are comfortable and sufficiently occupied at each chess event. 


What!  No Index?

It is extremely unfortunate (and to me quite surprising) that Russell Enterprises chose not to include an Index in this book.   As Dan Heisman often addresses the same or similar topics in several places throughout this work (necessary due to the several different contexts involved),  this book really screams for an index.  For example, chess clubs are discussed on pages 5, 7-8, 20, 24, 27, 29, 32-35, 98, and 119.  Chess clocks and/or their usage are mentioned on pages 27, 32, 37, 39-40, 54-55, 75, 77, 80, and 81-83.   Yet without an index, you won't know any of this.   Thus this book's value as a "quick reference" is considerably diminished.


A Sin of Omission

My only real criticism of this book (besides not having an Index) is that it is very "USCF-centric".   Dan Heisman does a fine job of discussing scholastic chess within the framework of the USCF.   However, a considerable portion of the scholastic chess world exists outside of the USCF umbrella.  I would have loved to have seen another 20 to 30 pages added outlining how scholastic chess is managed in 2 or 3 different parts of the country or perhaps within 2 or 3 non-USCF scholastic organizations.


Overall: A Superb and Unique Work - Highly Recommended

Despite my few quibbles, "I Love This Book!".   There are many books that teach the basics of chess, various opening strategies,  middlegame techniques, and endgame theory.   But "A Parent's Guide to Chess" is truly a "one of a kind" work.  This is the only book that I'm aware of that directly addresses the needs and concerns of the most important participants in scholastic tournaments:  the players and their parents.

If you are a parent who already has considerable tournament experience, but are otherwise not involved in scholastic chess, then you will not likely find much new information here.  But parents unfamiliar with tournaments, and with children just entering the world of chess,  will benefit greatly from reading this book.  Any scholastic Tournament Director, floor judge, or other scholastic chess volunteer, who truly wants to be at the "top of their game" should also read this book.

It is my hope that Dan Heisman and Russell Enterprises will continue to update and release new editions of this book.  Already a few items referenced in this book, such as the USCF's "School Mates" magazine, no longer exist.  As with the USCF, the scholastic chess world is an ever changing one.   There is no doubt in my mind that this book will have a big impact on improving today's world of scholastic chess.   If it can be kept current, it will continue to be a significant guidebook for years into the future.

With over 3 decades experience in attending and running chess tournaments, Dan Heisman has much wisdom to share with us.   In "A Parent's Guide to Chess", Mr. Heisman does an exemplary job of relaying to his audience great advice that will benefit everyone involved in scholastic chess.


Looking for Another Opinion?

Fred Wilson wrote a great review of this book shortly after it was first released.   You can find it in the book review archives of www.chesscafe.com.  Or go straight to Fred's review by clicking here.


Ready to Buy This Book?

I make no income from the sales of this book.   This review is being written solely for the purpose of "spreading the word" about the existence of what I believe is a superb guidebook to scholastic chess.    For convenience I list a few links below of places where you may wish to purchase this book.  These links represent vendors that I have done business with in the past.  The vendors listed below have proven to be reliable and have provided me with excellent service.  

Fred Wilson Chess

Don't forget to check out Dan Heisman's wonderful website that contains a treasure trove of educational chess information.   Just click on:  www.danheisman.com


Questions or Comments?

If after reading thru this review, you have further questions or comments feel free to drop me a note!  My email address is: chessinfo@kantack.com or click on the envelope icon below.


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