If you think digital natives avoid games that lack batteries or power cords, think again. Last year, the BSA awarded nearly twice as many Chess merit badges as Robotics merit badges. In fact, since its introduction in 2011, Chess has consistently ranked among the 25 most popular badges — even beating out Eagle-required badges like Lifesaving.
Here are some teaching tips from Alexey Root, Ph.D., a Chess merit badge counselor in Dallas and the author of seven books on chess, including the Scouting-focused
Prepare With Chess Strategy, out this November from Mongoose Press.
Like all merit badges, Chess requires Scouts to work with a qualified merit badge counselor. And the requirements — full of terms like “scholar’s mate,” “pawn structure” and “zwischenzug” (really!) — make it clear that counselors need to know far more than the difference between a bishop and a rook.
That doesn’t mean counselors need to be grandmasters. Root says a general rule is that a counselor should have a rating of at least 1050 with the United States Chess Federation (USCF) — roughly halfway between novice and expert. Someone with that rating should be able to defeat 90 percent of the players in a scholastic chess tournament.
Where can you find counselors? Root recommends starting on the USCF website, uschess.org, which features a state-by-state club directory. “After you find a chess club near you, you could visit that club and interview the rated players who attend it,” she says.
While you might think Scouts need to be intellectually mature to do well with the badge, Root says emotional maturity is more important. “Losing a game of chess can be tough emotionally, as there is no luck to blame,” she says. “So if a leader notices that a particular Scout cannot handle losing at other sports or games, that Scout probably is not ready for the Chess merit badge.”
Pushing the Pamphlet
Another aspect of readiness is beginning the badge with some basic knowledge. Root strongly recommends Scouts read the Chess merit badge pamphlet before meeting with her or taking one of her workshops. Once they have read the sections on the benefits and history of chess, how to set up a chessboard, how each chessman moves and chess etiquette, they are ready to learn about the finer points of the game. These sections also align with the badge’s first three requirements, so Scouts who have read the pamphlet should be able to complete half the badge in fairly short order.
Strategy, Tactics and Tournaments
The other three requirements focus on strategy, tactics and — most important — actually playing the game. Scouts can play against each other or their counselor, participate in a scholastic tournament or organize a tournament of their own. Whichever option they choose, many players will lose, but that’s OK. Root emphasizes that players who lose learn.
And knowing how to pick up the pieces and start over is one of the best life lessons you can teach.