Pay to Play (Chess)

It is summer break, so it is time to figure out how to keep the kids busy. This challenge has changed over the years. When they were younger, we’d rely on the summer programs offered by local daycare providers, and that would usually cover us for most of the day. Now it is a complicated, expensive patchwork work of camps. These schedules are all over the place, which usually means there are days or sometimes a whole week of downtime.

Downtime is good. The kids need to learn to entertain themselves. But summer break is different from what I remember, mostly outside and with friends. Now it seems like most of the kids’ friends are in their camps, traveling, or just… inside. Stuff has to be arranged, children shuttled here and there, and this is not fun to integrate into two working parents’ schedules. So the inevitable backstop of more screen time is hit.

Chess Link to heading

Screen time is a whole topic unto itself, but in this post, I’m covering a specific incentive plan: if you play chess, I will pay you. First, chess. Both kids know how to play and are decent beginners. They also enjoy it somewhat, but it can’t compete with video games. So now to the money. They’re at the age where they’re being asked to buy more of their stuff, so money has become a useful lever. So my experiment this summer is to see if cash actually gets them practicing chess.

The Plan Link to heading

The forum for this was definitely going to be ChessKid. I’m a Lichess user, which has the advantage of being free, but it doesn’t compare to ChessKid for this endeavor. Some of the best parts of ChessKid:

  • Safety. Highly private, anonymous, no chatting.
  • Great collection of lessons and puzzles.
  • Way more fun for kids. It’s colorful, the bots have personalities, and there are lots of level-ups, stars, awards, etc. And the video tutorials are excellent and targeted toward kids.
  • I can be the parent/coach, “managing” the kids and observing their work.

But what exactly would they be doing to earn money? I decided early that this would be based on effort rather than achievement (mainly). I also needed something that wasn’t a pain to track. ChessKid awards stars for lots of things, so that seems like the easiest currency. I then needed to tie them to money, but all stars aren’t created equally. You and blast through puzzles much quicker than lessons or games, for example. So after some time estimates and math, I published the rate sheet and hung it in the kitchen:

  • Puzzles — 3.3¢ / ⭐️
  • Games — 7.7¢ / ⭐️
  • Lessons — 50¢

For stuff like lessons, they can grind through to earn money. But on both puzzles and games, there is an incentive to improve. You don’t get any stars if you fail the puzzle. And a won game nets you 10 stars vs. 3 for a loss. This seems like the right level of “achievement” factor in this thing.

Oh, one last factor. There is a $20/week cap. That is quite a bit of money for them, but reaching that would result in over 6 hours of chess for the week, which is commendable dedication of summer break.

Results Link to heading

We’ve only been at it a couple of weeks, so I’ll update this in the future. But so far, I’m seeing:

  • Way more chess on their iPads
  • A lot of puzzles, but rarely games

That second point is interesting, and they’re clearly a bit hesitant to compete with others (even though they’ll be paired at their level). Maybe I’ll turn up the dial on the games stars to incentivize more play. But for now, I’ll see what patterns emerge.