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Castle Chess Camp: To Exhaust or Not to Exhaust Your Brain?

By Ricardo Fiorillo

I first heard about Castle Chess Camp in early 2012. Speaking with another parent, she explained that her son was entering just about every local rated tournament in a bid to meet the camp’s minimum rating requirement. Intrigued, I read about the camp and told my boys, Andres and Sergio. The exclusiveness clearly excited them but they did not even have a year of chess under their belts.

For the next two years they participated in the after school Kid Chess program and a camp or two each summer. Both were the stronger kids in the camps and generally received copious trophy hardware and lots of accolades. For example, two weeks prior to Castle they attended a Kid Chess camp. In four days Sergio won 9 trophies and 2 medals while Andres won the top team prize by himself.

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Still, talk of the Castle Chess Camp persisted. I emphasized that this camp was non-stop chess for an entire week and that they would be among the weakest players in the program. I pointed out that I had heard rumors that in their short two-hour after school program kids would get bored and trade Pokemon cards. They both were undeterred. Andres qualified in late 2013 and Sergio was within 16 points. An inquiry to the program made it clear that the minimum rating is strict—no exception would be made. Sergio really wanted to go and he underperformed in subsequent tournaments as he struggled under the pressure. He finally pulled off an impressive 196 point jump at the Jr. Nationals and we were registered just as the last spots were filled!

At the same time, I wanted to share the experience with the boys so I volunteered to help. Unlike most volunteer organizations, Castle Camp’s volunteer positions are even competitive. I feel very fortunate I was selected to assist.

Doubts kept swirling in my head as the date approached. The Camp Director, Jennifer Christianson, told me stories of kids skipping the recreation hour just to play more chess and of the challenges of getting kids to stop playing chess and getting to bed. This did not sound like my kids at all. My boys grab their electronics and play video games at every opportunity. When we arrived the first day I was anxious to see if they would really fit into the camp.

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On the evening of the first day, the boys got oriented with the layout and participated in the instructor simul. Sergio struggled even then–he got bored waiting for the instructor to make it back to his board. Oh boy, I thought, maybe they won’t even make it through the first full day! That Monday my boys were clearly awestruck by everything—they participated in the first round of the Castle Challenge and did the analysis reasonably well.  However, they struggled in the classroom instruction as their previous camp experiences had had virtually no classroom time. My kids’ counselor told me that he had to warn both kids for interruptions—they were having a hard time. Had I made a mistake? Were they not ready for Castle Camp?

The next morning, I awoke to murmurs and the distinctive sound of chess clocks being hit rapidly. I looked at my watch: 6:20 a.m. I poked my head out the door and there were my boys playing bughouse! I could not believe my eyes as almost the entire floor was either playing or watching. The rest of the week it was difficult to get them to stop playing and get to bed, just as Jennifer had described! I was shocked.

One of those kids (a first-timer) told me his coach was not allowing him to play in the post-camp weekend tournament (Grand Prix) saying that after the week of chess his brain would be “exhausted” and unable to compete. As the week moved ahead, sleep in the camp was as rare as scholar’s mate. It was clear it would be hard to play at full strength in the tournament.

At Castle Chess Camp you can be certain no one will verify that everyone got a trophy. Only a few honors are given out (see all of them in the photo below)—top prize in each section of the Castle Challenge tournament, top camper in each group, and winners of the evening competitions (Bughouse, Fischer, Blitz). Just to get a medal, a camper must beat or draw an instructor during one of two simuls. That means dealing with the likes of GMs Serper and Akobian, for example.

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We started the Grand Prix tournament well despite the long week with the Fiorillos scoring 7 points of 9. Sunday, however, we only managed 0.5 points out of 6.

Full brain exhaustion achieved!

The excitement about chess continues in my household and now the boys play actively online with their camper friends across the nation. Most importantly, they have a solid idea of how to study and improve in the game.

Is the Castle Chess Camp right for you?

Minimum Age: 9 for commuter, 10 for resident
Minimum Rating: 1150 (peak)
Daily Activities from 8:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. (excluding breakfast)
Daily Chess Instruction: 4.5 hours
Daily Tournament Play and Analysis: 1.5 hours
Chess Related Evening Activity: 2 hours

For more information or to register go to:



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