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When You Think You See a Good Move, Look for a Better One

In the months leading up to the U.S. Chess Federation National Elementary Championship in May, 13 of my chess students at Success Academy Harlem North West kicked their training into high gear. In addition to taking regular chess classes, they played for an hour each morning with head coach Ryan Goldenberg, spent two hours practicing every Wednesday at after-school chess club and competed nearly every Saturday in Success Academy-hosted training camps or citywide tournaments. Some played regularly at the Marshall Chess Club in Greenwich Village, a famous haunt frequented by the world’s top players.

“I’d say I spend maybe 30 hours a week on chess,” said sixth-grader Ethan Moses, the team captain. “My mom paid like $99 for me to have a Chess.com diamond membership. She told me, when I go to Nationals, I’d better make her money count.”

Like all students at Success Academy, Ethan and his teammates learned chess basics in kindergarten –– bishops move diagonally, knights move in an L-shape, the queen is valuable, shake hands good luck, shake hands good game – and instruction got more advanced as the scholars got older.

This past year, Mr. Goldenberg and I taught the students common checkmating patterns (helper mate, smother mate, Arabian mate, in-your-face mate, back rank mate) and tactical maneuvers (forks, pins, skewers, X-rays). We created lessons and worksheets that developed students’ pattern recognition, and eventually they were able to spot the patterns in their own games. It was relatively straightforward training.

The difficulty came in teaching the more abstract chess concepts, such as when it makes sense to trade a knight for a bishop. For those more nuanced skills, there is no clear procedure to follow. Students have to calculate piece positioning four or five moves ahead for multiple variations. In other words, they have to do something they don’t like to do: be patient and think.

At chess club a few weeks before nationals, Mr. Goldenberg showed the group a game played by our top-ranked player, Trevhon Cox, a skinny sixth-grader who says he’s not himself when he goes more than a day without chess.

“Raise your hand if you’ve found the best move for black in this position,” said Mr. Goldenberg, standing in front of the Smartboard wearing a navy dress shirt and loose red necktie.

Only three hands went up in the room of about 25 students.

“Okay, take more time,” he said, punching a hand timer. Two minutes passed. “Who’s got it now?”

Several more tentative hands rose, but Mr. Goldenberg wasn’t satisfied. “Keep thinking,” he said. After a total of five minutes, the majority of the room seemed to have found the solution: a subtle rook maneuver that added pressure to the opponent’s kingside.

“So tell me, how much time should we take when we get to a difficult position like this?” Mr. Goldenberg asked the group.

“Five minutes?” one kid offered. Mr. Goldenberg said no.

He called on Eliana Asiedu, a Success Academy Harlem Central sixth-grader sitting in the front row. “As much time as we need?”

“As. Much. Time. As. We. Need,” he repeated.

Though we said it often, our students rarely followed the old chess adage: When you think you see a good move, look for a better one.

Read Taylor’s full essay, published by Narratively, here.

Written by Taylor McGraw September 14, 2015

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