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Chess lessons for tennis

Published: 
Thursday, March 24, 2011

Establish a plan and follow it. Fight for an advantage and hold on to it. Stay on the offensive and do not allow counterplay. These are some of the essential strategies that guide the moves of most experienced chess players. They are also ideas that can help in the successful pursuit of many other sporting objectives, says Jim Edgerton, owner of Chess-Now Ltd, a training organisation he has founded to teach the application of chess principles to other competitive endeavours. While most sports are physical in nature, it is the mental approach to the game that makes the difference between winners and losers. In fact, says Edgerton, learning to make good decisions in life, sports and business is the way to come out ahead. “In chess, there should be no surprises,” he points out. “It’s all there before you, and if you don’t see it, then your opponent is better than you.” Edgerton came to appreciate the benefits of applying chess principles to other sports out of his own experience as a player and certified coach in both chess and tennis. He became so captivated with chess, which he began playing in third grade, that in 1971 he started the chess club at West Laden High School in Northlake, Chicago. That same year he won the Illinois High School chess championship. It was the year before Bobby Fischer won the world title and the country’s interest in chess exploded.

Edgerton, now 55, competes in three national tournaments a year and has a Master’s rating in postal chess. He has been a chess teacher and coach at parks, schools and libraries in Chicago for several years and now teaches 20 to 25 groups a month in various chess enhancement programmes. He has played competitive club tennis for the last 40 years. In 2004, after a 20-year career in global banking and business information technology, he took the plunge with his chess-to-tennis idea. As an experienced coach, he believes children are fascinated with the game because in chess they get to make their own decisions, they get to say “you go there and that’s my final answer”.  Suddenly, he added, the youngsters are the boss but they also discover that when they make a decision they have to stick by it. “There is no taking it back in chess. A bad decision can send your hard work up the chimney just as it can in life,” he noted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Betty Roth, a programme manager for the Naperville Park District, describes Edgerton as “sharp and intuitive, a top-notch teacher” whose programmes are well attended. She said beginner students often return for the advanced sessions.

Roth was so intrigued by Edgerton’s plans to connect chess and tennis that she introduced him to the Park District tennis coordinator Susan Kursur. Now plans are in progress for a summer tennis programme that incorporates chess. “We are trying to develop a class, ‘From the Chess Board to the Tennis Court,” Kursur said. “I think it is a win win for the tennis and chess players. A lot of chess moves are similar to tennis strategies.”Edgerton, in partnership with John Bremmer, Tennis Director at the Wheaton Tennis Centre, has produced a programme called “Checkmate” designed to teach tennis players to build strategies like a chess game. “Checkmate” is being presented at a Hilton symposium organised by the Professional Tennis Registry, the largest tennis teachers organisation in the world.
A big challenge with students of tennis and chess is that they do not know how to close off the match, Bremmer observed. That is just one point where their lessons come in handy. “A lot of my students do not plan their point. They react. You have to think two or three shots ahead to be better prepared,” he added. “There are a lot of decisions to be made in tennis and patience, learning patience is key. Students oftentimes lose patience in a match, tennis or chess.”

As Double Rooks sees it, Edgerton’s idea echoes the sentiments expertly expressed by former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in his book, How Life Imitates Chess. But, in any case, there now exists an overwhelming body of research which clearly indicates the benefits that chess can confer in enhancing the capacity for critical thinking, particularly among young people. One significant study, conducted by Philip Rifner in 1991-1992 among middle school students in the USA, showed that problem solving skills learned in one domain (chess) could be applied in another domain “if teaching for transfer is an instructional goal.” Edgerton’s initiative, then, is clearly on the right track. But the royal game has vital lessons not only for competitors in other sports but for life as a whole. That is why Double Rooks has appealed repeatedly for  a national chess-in-schools programme and why he has supported the T&T Chess Foundation’s efforts to propagate the game among the country’s children.