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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Vermont Chess Camp Celebrates 10th Anniversary

chessJohn Balch
Tiny, rural Vermont is best known for maple syrup and ice cream, but inside its idyllic borders live hundreds of avid young chess players.

Many of the players simply expect to play chess at school. They are too young to know that twenty years ago, a quiet gentleman by the name of John Balch first seeded the love of chess in Vermont's schools. Retired from business, John took to the road, organizing chess programs in more than 60 of the state's schools. He became known as Vermont's "Johnny Appleseed of Chess."

John Balch was not a snatch-and-grab kind of guy. He took chess seriously as a model of life's endless challenges, opportunities, plans, defeats, and victories. And he approached chess joyfully, laughing and tossing his hands in the air at brilliant moves and unexpected turns of fate. His admonition could be heard everywhere. "Think hard. Think twice," he would urge his students as their hands reached too soon to move a piece.

"Think hard, think twice" became the motto of the Vermont Chess Camp, which he founded and directed during the tranquil summers that gave pause to his mad dash from school to school.

chessThe first camp saw fourteen campers in 1996. Now celebrating its tenth year, the Vermont Chess Camp continues to follow his advice, though "Johnny Appleseed of Chess" passed on in 2004. His wife Barbara and her children expect to welcome 40 or more campers this summer for a week at St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont.

The days are filled with the fun of chess and swimming and food, but the camp has also produced more than its share of competitive graduates. At the state's premier John Balch Memorial Vermont Scholastic Chess Championships, Vermont Chess Campers have traditionally placed in the top five in all grades -- in 2004, they were the Vermont State Champions in grades one, three, six and middle/high school.

But simply winning chess tournaments is not the camp's true goal. The Vermont Chess Camp balances each child's needs and skills. "No camper is pressured, but each is challenged and encouraged to achieve," says director Barbara Balch. Campers study notation, basic principles, tactics and strategy along with respect and admiration for history's great chess players. She says, "They soon learn that the most important thing about chess is not winning, but in doing their very best to develop problem-solving skills and a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem."

John Balch's "think hard, think twice" admonition is also immortalized alongside the camp's tongue-in-cheek motto, "Home of the Hasty Hat" -- worn by campers whose hasty moves bring them trouble.

The tenth anniversary year is celebrated by its staff. Matt Noble, Game 60 National Champion, is the chief instructor and has been with the camp since its inception. National Expert Allyn Kahn is in his fourth year with the Camp, as is well-known chess teacher and coach Bob Clawson. Dave Carter, Vermont's highest-rated player and a National Master, has been a guest instructor every year, giving lessons and playing a simul with the entire camp.

Bill McGrath. coach of the Burlington High School national chess champions and a National Expert, has been a guest instructor for eight years. Two former campers, Tyler Hartshorn, teacher/coach of several Vermont after-school chess programs, and Jonathan Wong, a camp C.I.T. and now an Assistant Instructor, have been with the camp for two years. Aidan Farnum-Rendino, a five-year camper, is the newest C.I.T. Siblings Stevie and Chris Balch act as Camp Coordinators and Counselors and Stevie's husband Dennis Bathory-Kitsz is camp documentarian.

This year the Vermont Chess Camp, which is coed for ages six to fourteen, will be held at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, from July 31st through August 4th, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. A typical day at camp consists of participatory instruction for the first hour, a mid-morning snack, followed by USCF-rated games and a noon swim in the Olympic-size pool. Lunch is in the "all-you-can-eat" cafeteria, followed by guest instruction, a simul, and an end-of-day swim. On Wednesday, campers enjoy a ferry ride to Port Kent, New York, with a pizza picnic, sandcastle-building contest, volleyball and, of course, chess -- including blitz and bughouse games, favorites of all chess campers.

When six-year-old Jonathan Wong, one of only fourteen original campers, had his picture taken in the pool, floating on a red plastic ring emblazoned with the words "Vermont Chess Camp 1996," it was impossible to foresee what the future of this innovative camp would be. Yet today, with 40 campers and the red plastic ring having been replaced many times, Vermont Chess Camp has graduated over four hundred children, all of whose minds have been challenged and improved by learning the beauty and complexity of the Game of Kings. That was the dream, and is the legacy, of John Balch.

For more information about Vermont Chess Camp: 802-229-1110 or


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