Amateur Team North Official Stream Wrap-Up

By National Master Evan Rabin  

Thank you to Chess Weekend Founder Glenn Panner 
for inviting me to be the official streamer for the 2021 United States Amateur Team North. While exhausting, it was a lot of fun providing live commentary from 10:00 AM to 7:30 PM Central Standard Time each day, February 20 and February 21. See all the footage on our Twitch stream.  

Thank you to the 20 amazing guests who joined our stream: 

Grandmaster Susan Polgar, Webster University Chess Coach

Women’s International Master Alexey Root

Phil Rosenberg, Director of Premier Chess School Programs

(Phil is the founder of unphiltered with Phil Rosenberg). 

Brian Wilmeth, Premier Chess Director of Virtual Programs

Brian and I providing commentary during the exciting Stearman-Yu game, which helped determine the tournament winner.
National Master Todd Bryant

Shelby Lohrman, Director of American Chess Equipment

Jacob Fortuna

National Expert Leo Solal

Michael Deutsch, Founder of Hands on Hoops Skills

Jonney Machtig, Los Angeles Instructor and Founder of Reti Chess Club

 

Elena Kamp, Founder of Reflexion Dance 

Candidate Master Danilo Cuellar, Rockland County Instructor and Founder of Danilovich Chess 

Ray Martinez, Founder of Brownsville Royal Knights

Gary Warmerdam

 

Lara Hocheiser, Founder of Flow and Grow Kids Yoga

National Expert John Hendrick, Founder of Foundation Chess

National Expert Eve Litvak, J.D Candidate at Seton Hall School of Law

National Expert Abel Talamantez, Director of Chess at Mechanics Institute

 

Joshua Margolis, Founder of Mind Over Matter Fitness

Kyle Adam, On The Mend Fitness

 Nilcee Schneider, Founder of Reiki & Meditation with Nilcee

Here are some highlights of stream: 

Roundtable with Grandmaster Susan Polgar
Full house with Dean of Scholastic Chess Dewain Barber, Guests from East Coast, West Coast and Central

I am looking forward to being the official streamer for the United States Amateur Team South this upcoming weekend, 10:00 AM to 6:30 PM EST. Consider registering today and make sure to check out our Twitch Stream; the first 15 people that follow us  and email me their address during stream will win complimentary magnetic chess sets.

5 key HR Strategies Derived From Chess

By Dylan Glad, Manager, Sales Performance Improvement at Insperity

The centuries-old game of chess is having a big cultural moment, with chess experts playing on social media and a popular television drama reimagining the world of elite chess of the mid-20th century. As a result, fans are taking a fresh look at how the lessons of chess can apply to other areas of life, including business.

Chess requires strategic planning, an understanding of each piece’s strengths and a vision for how to make those pieces work together.

Whether you’re a chess player or not, the game offers examples of how and why to develop your people, build strong teams and nurture diversity in your organization.

Here are five principles that chess and human resources (HR) strategy have in common:

1. Start with your goal in mind.

In chess, the most successful players imagine the winning scenario they want and work backward from there to plan their early moves.

On the chessboard, this kind of planning involves prepositioning pieces to enact specific strategies. In your organization, it can involve:

  • Identifying skill and diversity gaps
  • Bringing on the right people to fill out your team
  • Helping employees as they work toward your goals

This approach may seem obvious to you. But just as inexperienced chess players get stuck reacting to their opponent’s moves instead of planning a proactive strategy, businesses without a proactive approach to HR can find themselves without all the people they need to reach the goals they’ve set.

When you’re stuck dealing with crises, there is no room for initiative. The chess and HR strategy is to:

  • Have a detailed plan for progress toward your goal.
  • Recognize opportunities and solve problems as they arise.
  • Find the right people to help you.

2. Plan with your competitors’ goals in mind, too.

In chess, it’s very clear that your strategy must consider what your opponent is planning. In business, you can use this mindset to ensure that you understand your competitive differentiators clearly in each scenario.

It’s wise to approach each new prospect, partnership or recruiting effort with the assumption that there’s also someone else who wants to work with them. Then you can plan to win that engagement by analyzing your strengths and gaps compared to your competitors to find a way to make the most compelling offer.

For example, if your organization is competing for data analyst talent and you know you can’t match a competitor’s base salary offer, can you offer more flexible scheduling, a better PTO package or clearer opportunities for career advancement?

3. Leverage each person’s strengths.

Chess can illustrate how important it is to identify and build on each person’s skills and abilities in an organization, regardless of their role.

Consider the chess pawn. These are the most common pieces – each player starts with eight – and they can only move forward, one space at a time unless they are capturing a piece in attack. On their own, they’re vulnerable pieces, but a pawn that advances all the way to the other side of the board can be promoted into any major piece, earning more power and leverage in the game.

Getting across the board is a challenge, though, because pawns are weak pieces on their own. To move forward, they need to be linked together for strength and support.

With that approach, a group of pawns can sometimes outcompete high-level pieces. That can happen when there are no obstacles on the board to stop their potential and their forward momentum can’t be stopped.

The same can be true for employees. They can grow into more influential and versatile roles, but only if they have the proper support along the way, including managers who seek and remove obstacles to their development.

4. Each team needs people with a variety of skills and abilities.

The need for diversity is built into chess because of the way each piece has different strengths and abilities. No single piece aside from the queen can dominate the board. Working together with a well-planned strategy, though, the other pieces can do powerful things.

What’s more, without diverse capabilities, a player may not be able to succeed. For example, each player starts the game with two bishops, each moving diagonally but only on squares of its own color. If one bishop is captured, the player’s ability to cover the board diagonally is reduced by half. If both are captured, an entire mode of attack is out of reach.

Likewise, diverse groups of employees can accomplish more than teams of people who all have the same skills and experiences. For example, a small startup full of dedicated and accomplished software developers may have trouble selling their solution without team members who understand what their target customers need and can communicate the software’s value to them.

5. Different team members may shine at different times.

In chess, certain pieces become more prominent at different phases of the game. For example, rooks are pieces that can move multiple spaces side to side or down the board – as long as there’s nothing in their way.

Early on, your other pieces and your opponent’s usually block rooks’ movements, so they’re not very influential. They may even seem like they’re impeding your progress because they can’t do very much.

But in the last third or so of a game, as other pieces are removed from the board, rooks’ avenues of movement open up. Then their capabilities become extremely important and powerful, so much that players with have two rooks still on the board near the end of their game are well-positioned to win.

The chess and HR strategy is that diversity not only helps your team attack problems from different angles at the same time, but it can also allow different team members’ strengths to emerge at different stages in the process.

For example, a quiet employee who’s calm, empathetic and good at listening may not deliver the most engaging pitch to a prospective client – but their skills are exactly what you might need to work well with that client later on a difficult or high-stakes project.

Summing it all up

Approaching your HR issues like you’re planning to win at chess can help you create a plan to reach your goals, empower your people to work toward those goals, and allow all members of your team to contribute to your overall success.

Want more strategies – like the chess and HR strategies discussed above – for hiring, retaining and developing talent? Download our e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.

Chess and Physical Fitness

By Joshua Margolis, Founder of Mind Over Matter Fitness

How can chess players benefit from physical fitness?

This is not an unusual question in the life of a chess athlete. That is not an oxymoron either. It has more relevance than one might think.

One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a fitness consultant is working with chess players.

Joshua Leading an Exercise Break at our Virtual Winter-Break Camp

As a personal trainer, it is my responsibility to better the physicality of my clients. Sometimes what flies under the radar is that metal sharpness is often congruent with physical.

-Chess players use more core strength than you think. Sitting in a chair most of the day can lead to poor posture and back pain. Good solid core work will help reverse that as well as keep you stable for those long tournaments.

-Do not forget about breathing as well. Establishing proper rhythmic breathing techniques can be an asset to your game. These similar breathing techniques can be learned a learned performing cardiovascular activities.

-When it comes to flexibility, the staggering effect of sitting in a chair for hours can be detrimental. Being cognizant and paying attention to stretching the lower body is paramount to performance.

-Yoga can be one of the best mental and physical disciplines for the body. Not just for chess players but for anyone. The combination of strength and flexibility needed along with sharp mental aptitude is a kin to the mindset of a chess player.

National Master Evan Rabin doing yoga with a student in between rounds at the 2017 Supernationals in Nashville, TN

-Stress from playing in competitions can effect sleep cycles. The one true way to guard against that is to employ regular exercise. That will increase the bodies ability to get regular quality sleep. Who among us doesn’t need more of that.

 

See www.mindovermatternyc.com to learn more about their virtual and in-person fitness classes and 1-1 sessions. 

My Story of Power: Overcoming my Learning Disability Through Chess

By National Master Evan Rabin 

***This post was adapted from a presentation I did as part of Dr. Adena Blickstein‘s Cosmic Dragon Conference“. ***

For preschool, I went to the Jewish Board’s Child Development Center (CDC) and for elementary and middle school I went to the Churchill School and Center to overcome my so called ‘learning disability’. Until this day I have had difficulty explaining my learning disability as it was obvious that I had one but it was not exactly specified what it was. I had difficulty focusing and had issues with my speech and motor skills. At one my point my parents and grandparents thought I was deaf when I would not speak. While my learning disability diagnosis was unclear as to what it exactly it was, I know that CDC and Churchill had huge impacts on me transitioning to ‘mainstream’ school, when I went to the Dwight School for high school, where I ended up graduating with an International Baccalaureate diploma and getting into one of my top college choices, Brandeis University. While there, I graduated Cum Laude with a degree in Business and International Global Studies. However, without chess, who knows where I would be today. The game has helped me gain power by giving me community, critical thinking skills and confidence.

When I was in 2nd grade, my father Keith and brother Alex taught me how to move the pieces on a rainy day at home. I instantly got hooked and few weeks later I joined Women’s International Master Shernaz Kennedy’s chess club at Churchill, where she still has a program today. There were 30+ enthusiastic children in the club and I started gaining confidence thanks to their support. For the first time, I had a lot of good friends at school; most of them were not in my class; they were on the chess team. One week Churchill’s Health Coordinator Pete Halleck, went up to Shernaz and asked “What did you do with Evan? All he talks about now is chess.” In art class, I would only want to make drawings and paintings of chess pieces. Chess instantly became a passion and was the first thing I was ever proud of.

Two months into the joining the program, I decided to play in a tournament and I ended up winning 1st place in my Quad at Shernaz’ tournament at the Browning. A month after that my father faced a dilemma as I wanted to go to the nationals in Peoria, IL. On the one hand, he thought it was little crazy to dedicate a full weekend to chess and spend a lot of money on travel, considering I only started playing a few months ago; on the other, I was already fully dedicated to chess and he knew I would be upset if my fellow Churchill Hawks went and I did not. Sure enough we did go and from that day I have consistently played chess.

For the next several years I would travel with the Churchill team all around the country for the city, state and national championships. We went to places like Dallas, Kansas City, and Milwaukee. While we would focus on chess (one of my biggest claims to fame is being on the Churchill School 2nd place U-900 team at the 2000 Nationals in Dallas, Texas😊), we would also bond and go on team outings. We had lots of fun hanging out in the team room, playing ball between rounds, going out for meals, etc.

It was 2000 when I met my coach National Master Alan Kantor, who has remained a close friend and national championship teammate; here we are on the cover of Chess Life after we were on the Championship team of the United States Amateur Team East in May 2007.

Ever since then, many of my best friends have been through the chess world. In all of the 25 countries I have been to, I have met people through chess; in 11 of them, I have played in tournaments.

Through studying and learning chess, I have drastically improved my critical thinking skills, as exhibited to the thought process we teach our students. When your opponent makes a move, the first thing you need to do is write it down and analyze why he chose the one he did. Just as one would never cross the street without looking both ways, a chess player should never make a move without knowing exactly what his opponent’s motives are. Likewise, when I was at Churchill, there were times I would not choose the proper course of action when I was upset. On many occasions I found myself in the principal’s office for misbehavior. Most often another student would do something I did not like. Rather than come up with candidate moves, like telling the teacher or letting the situation go and moving on and determining which one would be the best, I would let my animal instincts get the best of me and often do terrible actions like hitting anther kid. Over the years, the critical thinking skills I developed in chess has helped me with my behavior, academic work, business decisions and much more.

Most often, the highest rated player in a chess tournament one; it is the one who has the best mindset and is confident. Read about my tips for building confidence in this recent blog post. Since I began playing chess in 1997, I have played in over 950 tournaments, allowing me to get lots of intense competition and learn the elements of chess that you can not learn by reading a book. In doing so, I have learned how to win, lose or draw and constantly improve. When I left Churchill and went to Dwight, I remained enthusiastic about chess and would play 2-3 tournaments on average per week. I wrote my college essay about how organizing the 1st place team at the United States Amateur Team East Championship was like running a business. At Brandeis, I was the co-president of the chess club with my good friend Elechi Kadete. Since then, chess has always been a passion of mine and in July 2017, I founded Premier Chess, which now has partnered with 80+ schools and companies like Kramer Levin and Google.

Not only has chess been a great source of confidence, but it has also been a great source of income. As people often say, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life. I am grateful to say that saying applies to me.

Kantor’s 7 Steps to Evaluate a Position

A few months ago I recorded a podcast episode with Business Coach Sharon Richter. One of the main topics we covered was how in business and in chess, you always need to know the rules of the game. We were not talking about about rules like “the bishop moves diagonally as far it wants” or “you need to file your taxes once per year”. To the contrary,  we meant that every few moves or days, you need to re-evaluate your position and figure out what the best plan is.  On the chess board, if one has a worst position, he should seek complications and if he has a better one, he should try to maintain the status quo. In order to evaluate a position and figure out who has a better position, how much, and why, one could follow my former coach, teammate and podcast guest National Master Alan Kantor‘s magical seven steps:

  1. Material : Who has more pieces on the board? Add up all the points. Assign a color an extra 1/2 point if he has the bishop pair versus his opponent’s knight and bishop or two knights.
  2. Pawn Structure : Look for items like doubled pawns, isolated pawns, pawn islands, holes, etc.
  3. Development: Who has more active pieces?
  4. King Safety : Is one side castled and the other not? Who has a safer king?
  5. Center : Does either side have a pawn in the center? Who controls it better?
  6. Space :Who has more freedom to maneuver his pieces? For instance in the French Defense, black often faces a big space disadvantage as his light squared bishop is stuck on c8.
  7. Attack/Initiative : Who is attacking? Who has more threats than his opponent?

When evaluating the position it is important to consider each step individually and then come up with the overall assessment.

Let’s look at a sample position:

Here is how the evaluate all seven steps:

1) Material: =

2)Pawn Structure: =

3)Development: += (White is slightly better because white has one more minor piece developed and black’s knight on h5 on the side of the board)

4)Center: =

5)Space: += (White has a substantial advantage in space as black has a French-like bad bishop on c8.)

6)King Safety: =+ (Black is slightly better because he is castled and white’s king is still in the center. While white is one move away from castling and that may change, it is important to evaluate the position right now. As he castles, he may lose slight advantage on development).

7) Attack/ Initiative: =+ (Black has a slight initiative as he is threatening to play Nxf4 and double white’s pawns.

Overall, the position is equal as white’s advantage in development and space, balances out black’s slight initiative and lead in king safety. White will quickly castle and try to orchestrate an attack on h7. He will likely retreat his bishop to d3 to create a battery. Black will try to get in an e5 break to open up space for his bishop.

In every game you play moving forward, make sure to evaluate the position as the opening transitions into the middlegame and every 3-4 moves thereafter. Use these steps and you will have a decent idea on what is happening in the positioning and be able to come up with a good plan.

7- Step Thought Process

By CEO National Master Evan Rabin 


Do you often blunder in chess? Are there times that you are stuck and have no clue what to do next? Would you like a scientific method that you can use to come up with the best move in any position? If your answer to any of these questions was “yes”, read on. Here are the seven steps of the Premier thought process:

  1. Write down your opponent’s move. 

  2. Ask yourself why your opponent went there. (Ask two related questions: “If my opponent had another move, what would it be?” and “What changed about this position?”)

  3. Brainstorm and decide on 3-4+ viable candidate moves. 

  4. Analyze each move further and decide what you think is likely the best move. Use Alexander Kotov’s tree method  and see which candidate move has the biggest return on investment.  (Process of elimination.)

  5. As World Champion Emmanuel Lasker used to say, once you see the “best move”, see if you can find a better move. 

  6. Do a blunder check, making sure you did not miss any tactics. Double check your work.

  7. Finally, make the move! Don’t overthink it too much as instincts are key.

The Ins and Outs of Running Virtual Camps

By CEO National Master Evan Rabin

When Premier Chess incorporated in September 2017, we had some quick success as within the first two of the business ( I started prospecting and getting school programs in July 2017), we had 10 instructors and 14 school programs. The problem we faced though was that they were in many different geographic areas and we could not easily run tournaments and camps when school was not in session. For instance, we had Lucca Castrucci teaching at Our Lady of Pompeii in Manhattan, Jehron Bryant teaching at Seton Catholic Central in Binghamton, New York and Curt Brock teaching at Saint Dominic Academy in Lewiston, Maine. This start to our company was of course very different from today’s virtual age during Corona when geography is irrelevant. COVID-19 has allowed us to get 500+ students all around the nation  and beyond to join our camps and virtual classes. One student in our Youth Advanced class joins each week from Melbourne, Australia!

When we did our first virtual camp this past summer, we definitely had some challenges. Nothing could replace an in-person camp with over-the-board chess and lots of banter. That is why our Director of Virtual Programs Brian Wilmeth, other instructors and I have made every effort we could do to make our camps as much as possible like in-person ones. We strongly encourage students to keep their cameras on so we can see them at all times.

In the beginning, we faced some simple logistical questions. We wanted to pair students on Lichess.org but it took a while. Then Brian Wilmeth thought of the simple solution of playing tournaments on Lichess.org as the platform automatically pair students.

We also have lots of students playing in online tournaments as I do myself. These were the results of a Chess in the Schools tournament I won last Saturday. I will be streaming their Bronx Chess Day tournament this Saturday at 10:00 AM EST. Over the last few months, Twitch has been a great way to build community and get kids into our camp, including a  young streamer Neil himself.

When there were multiple instructors, we would at first assign each one into a separate breakout room and a students would would either join late or get disconnected and try to re-enter would not be able to as there was no staff in main room. We then made sure one instructor would teach out of main room.

Since quarantine, I have often found myself having headaches in the evenings. In the beginning, I would not know why that was but it soon after became obvious to me. I was no longer wandering around the city, walking a lot between meetings and getting lots of fresh air. Instead many days from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM, I would find myself on the computer almost day in between Zoom meetings, classes, social media, etc. That is why during camps, we have stretch and exercise breaks to ensure all the kids keep their energy flowing.  We have had the privilege of having our podcast guests Michael Deutsch, CEO of Hands on Hoops, Lara Hocheiser, CEO of Flow and Grow Kids Yoga and Joshua Margolis, CEO of Mind over Matter Fitness lead some of these breaks.

 

 

While there is no doubt that we look forward to running in-person camps and tournaments again one day soon, we will likely continue to run virtual group classes indefinitely. We have developed a strong international community of players of all ages and skill levels that enjoy our group classes that would definitely like to stay together. Consider registering today for our Mid-Winter Break Camp, February 15-19  and/or our Spring Break Camp, March 21-April 1. One could also still register for our winter semester of virtual classes with a pro-rated rate.

Impromptu Snow Day Camp Update

By Sophie Lee, Operations Intern

Old-Fashioned 'Snow Days' Still A Thing In Marblehead | Marblehead, MA PatchKids all along the East coast are rejoicing as a massive snowstorm hits, resulting in a snow day for many. However, snow days aren’t what they used to be as many parents already work from home and must continue to do so despite the inclement weather. Premier Chess CEO, National Master Evan Rabin, made the last-minute decision to offer an impromptu Snow Day Camp for students in PreK-8th grade and we ended up getting 30 registrations so far. Like our winter virtual classes, the camp is taking place over Zoom, making it accessible to students in a variety of locations. The camp offers students an opportunity to learn from coaches, play in tournaments, and socialize with other students. There was a large turnout for the morning session and the afternoon session starts shortly, at 1 pm, and will go until 4 pm.

Today our students a nice exercise break with our podcast guest Joshua Margolis, Founder of Mind Over Matter Fitness.

Stay posted to see which special guests may lead breaks this afternoon and tomorrow.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children can not just go play in the snow with friends like they normally would on a snow day, so the camp offers a way to keep students entertained and mentally stimulated while school isn’t in session. There is still time to sign up for the afternoon session today and second day tomorrow, sign-ups can be found here. We hope everyone is staying warm and safe, and hopefully, everyone can all play a game of chess while snowed in.

Three Ideas for a Race Against Time

By CEO National Master Evan Rabin 

In 2010, Gary Patella and I saw an ACDC show as part of the Black Ice Tour. Anvil opened the show, playing their many great hits, including the famous “Race Against Time”.

Chess players are always in a race against against time as they have to deal with a game’s time control. Time controls range from bullet games which are 1–minute per player for the game to the classical (40 moves in 2 Hours+ 60 minutes for rest of game or something similar). What ever the time control is, here are three ideas that will help you manage your time:

-The divisor of 40 rule.

In 2017, I was helping National Expert Jonathan Corbblah coach his PS 166 and Trinity students at the New York State Championships in Saratoga. The students would constantly rush; we would often see a chess coach’s nightmare- when a student would finish a game and return to team room minutes after the round finishes. While Jon and I would repeatedly tell students to take their time, they would not listen.

I remembered a key pedagogical lesson I learned from my supervisor at Ramapo Country Day Camp . He shared how one summer, several counselors were having difficulty teaching a camper how to hit a baseball with the bat. They all kept telling him him to focus and keep his eye on the ball; however, the child was not making any progress. Then one counselor mentioned he needed to say something different if the kid was going to hit the ball and realized he was not holding the bat properly. After he walked over and adjusted his stance, the child began hitting the ball.

Rather than remind the kids that they needed to slow down, I had a revelation and told Jon an interesting idea in that we would encourage the students to take the time control and divide it by 40, the average number of moves in a chess game. That is roughly the amount of time one should use in a chess game. That tournament had a time control of 60 minutes per player, which means players should budget 1.5 minutes per move. When playing a 5 minute game, you should allocate approximately 7.5 seconds per move.

-The ability to not always search for the cleanest win.

A few weeks Grandmasters Fabiano Caruana and Rustam Kasimdzhanov hosted a fundraiser lesson for Tali Farhadian Weinstein, Candidate for Manhattan District Attorney.

One of the key lessons I learned from the event is when Caruana shared is one of the common mistakes players is make is that they always seek out the cleanest win. While it is important to calculate and find good moves (active rest is important), one does not always necessarily need to come up with the perfect move always. No matter how much a player thinks, even if he is World Champion Magnus Carlsen, he will never see as far ahead as our silicon friends. It is much better to have a position without complications with a computer valuation of +1 than one with lots of risk and a computer valuation of +1.5. Rather than always find the variation that leads to the mathematically highest advantage, it makes more practical sense to to gain an advantage and simply get into a position that is easily convertible to a win.

-Prepare your Openings.


I have a friend who is an expert player that has been trying to come a master for years. His calculation skills, positional understanding and endgame knowledge is about the same level as mine. His biggest challenge is that he will occasionally get into time pressure right after the opening or early middlegame. Just like an adult needs to learn to save a percentage of his salary, a chess player needs to save time for later in the game. While players rated Under 2000 should not spend a lot of time learning openings, they should know about 10 moves deep as white playing either e4 or d4, and as black against both options. While it is extremely important not to rush in the opening, even if you know it well, one should not invest too much time then.

Do not let a lack or surplus of time ruin your chances of winning a chess game. Now matter how much you study (learn about 11 book recommendations here) or practice, lack of time management can be detrimental to your performance. Use the divisor of 40 rule, the ability to not always seek the cleanest win and opening preparation and your time management skills will drastically improve.

 

THE QUEEN’S SPEECH

By Yehudis Fishman

A popular saying contrasts ‘sticks and stones’ with words, but in Jewish thought words ARE like stones. They can either break down or build up. Indeed words can be like chess pieces that can either capture or protect a special piece called a queen, a mystical reference to the soul.

Living in Boulder in these times, I have found two areas of interest besides Covid-19, that stood out this November- One is the second year of Clean Speech Colorado, a program dedicated to teaching proper ways of talking. The second feature of this month is many of my friends’ fascination with the Netflix series, the Queen’s Gambit.

Stirring these topics together in my Covid isolation selfie mind, I have emerged with an interesting cholent of connections. The CSC, as it is called, this year focuses on the prohibition of O’naat Devarim, or hurting the feelings of another through speech, the polar opposite of lifting people up with our words. As I mull over the various effects of both negative and positive speech, I am naturally drawn to the impact that both kinds of speech, affect the characters in The Queen’s Gambit. In particular, the main character so stunningly portrayed by Anya-Taylor Joy, is both aided and thwarted throughout her life by the words of people very close and not so close to her.

Though frustrated by my lack of knowledge about chess, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the dramatic role that speech plays in the fortunes of the both brilliant and troubled young protagonist. The first words of encouragement come from her laconic chess teacher, the handyman at the orphanage, Mr. Shaibel.

Beth, the name she likes to be called, sees him playing chess alone, and even before she has any inkling of how to play, she immediately falls in love with the board and its merry men. When Mr. Shaibel sees how quickly she learns, and wins, when she asks ‘Am I ready?’ his terse reply is: You are….(pregnant pause) astounding!

Unfortunately-her climb to success is handicapped by a growing addiction to tranquilizers, which the orphanage used to give out to the children with their regular vitamins, but then became legally prohibited.

However, like the Jewish idea that within a liability, a talent may be lurking, the tranquilizers help her visualize the chessboard and actual games! As Mr. Shaibel so succinctly puts it: ‘You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs.’

There are other impediments, mainly internal, to her development both professionally and as a functional, mature woman. Her relationship with her adoptive mother has both negative and positive outcomes. The strains of a chronic illness and an unhappy marriage- much like Beth’s birth mother- contribute to Mrs. Wheatley’s heavy drinking and smoking. Given the challenges of her own background, it is no surprise that Beth too holds on to those crutches. At the same time, her relationship with her new mother formed a delicate bond that helps both of them come out of their shells.

Beth might have fallen by the wayside if not for critical words from key figures in her life who facilitated the shaping of her identity, words from both her supporters and detractors. In her early years, after miraculously walking away from the car where her mother took her own life, she ends up in an orphanage where the head matron is not quite the wicked witch, but comes close in a child’s mind. Beth’s first friend is another rebellious young girl who commiserates with her. Jolene is as wild as Beth is restrained, but they both provide a lifeline to each other that is maintained through the years.

When they meet again later in life, Jolene insists ‘you’re no orphan anymore; we are not orphans as long as we have each other.’  They revisit the school after Mr. Shaibel’s funeral and when Beth goes down to the school basement, she sees pictures of her and her chess accomplishments allof two famous rabbis- Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish who were both friends and intellectual opponents, both allies and adversaries- as well as brothers in law. When the latter died, the former wept inconsolably.  People thought it was because Rabbi Yochanan lost his main supporter, but he said it was the opposite- Rabbi Shimon would often challenge him with 24 arguments, and now his colleagues mainly just agreed with him.

In life we can grow from both our supporters and our detractors, just like Beth did. She did not get phased by those who questioned her chess prowess; on the contrary, their questioning and taunts challenged her further, like with the two rabbis. However her self-confidence did depend very much on others. Because she didn’t have a solid basis of support as a child, she was personally vulnerable as she got older. When she loses an important game, she looks in the mirror and calls herself ‘A creepy piece of trash!’ It took a while for her to internalize a better self-image.

We see two things here; sometimes people’s put downs can goad you to further growth, and sometimes they can stunt your progress. It depends, I think, what are your weak areas, and where you know you excel, whatever others say. When her adoptive father, Mr. Wheatley, asked ‘doesn’t she ever change her clothes,’ she became fashion conscious for the rest of her life. But when some chess rivals teased or even mocked her, she became even more determined to succeed. Often the words of both spoken and written reviews contained begrudging praise; after all chess was much more of a man’s game in her times. …’you really are something’, ‘you’re amazing’. ‘You ‘destroy’ everyone you play.’ ‘She’s quiet, well mannered, and out for blood. Is it compulsion, addiction, or birthright?’

Some of her chess friends and admirers realize that she may be too obsessed with the game. They try to tell her to ‘cool it.’ Henry, who really likes her, says ‘my dad drank too much; you smell like him’ But in Russia, strong praise at the right time, hits home. ; an elder chess champion tells her: ‘you are a marvel my dear; I may have played the best chess player of my life.’ The effect of that comment prods her to finally discard her pills.

When I was a teenager, I tried teaching some Torah to a group of teens at a Shabbat club. They responded with heckles and even threw some food at me! But somewhere deep in my soul, I knew that I was meant to teach Torah and even though I didn’t try again for a long time, that negative response strengthened my conviction. Similarly, I once had a college professor who said that my writing would remain at a ‘B-‘level. Again, like a dam holding back a growing force of water, I didn’t write for quite a while after that, but later returned with a vengeance, as the saying goes.

Of course, I have had, thank G-d, many teachers, as well as students and friends, over the course of years, who have nourished me with life-giving waters of support and encouragement. Above all were the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose words of fatherly care and guidance continue to resonate within me.

Since I’m soon approaching my eighties, the clock in a chess match conveys a powerful image of time ticking away; ‘you have 40 moves in 90 minutes.’ The Baal Shem Tov teaches on a verse from Song of Songs: ‘My soul has expired from his word,’ He explains this phrase to mean that we all have a limited amount of words to speak in the span of our lifetime. When our time is up, so are the moves.  In the film, there is a quote from Thomas Huxley: ‘the chess board is the world: the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us….  ‘

 

Most of chess is conducted non-verbally. But, as in the game of life, what we say in between the stillness, can make all the difference in how we play. As I frequently like to remind people, as well as myself, ‘will the next words that come out of your mouth, improve the silence?’ In the game of life, there is also an ‘invisible’ player who responds to our every move, with both justice and mercy. As King David put it, ‘G-d is your Shadow!’ So whenever we speak, it is good to have in mind the One who is always listening.

If you are interested in the above ideas, you can find more about the Jewish message of chess in an article entitled ‘Reshevsky and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.’ You can also Google Clean Speech Colorado to find weekly talks and daily messages throughout November about the importance of ‘keeping it clean.’

This article first appeared in the Boulder Jewish News.