Master Chess Summer Camp: Curriculum and Instruction!

A big part of what makes Master Chess unique is our passion for pedagogy. I got part of this from my mentors: Elizabeth Spiegel, my cooperating teacher in graduate school, and Grandmaster Alex Stripunsky, my coach. Both of them approach every single lesson with tremendous energy and focus, making sure their students make the correct conclusions and are able to incorporate the lesson’s ideas into their games. I also picked up a lot of ideas the ‘traditional’ way: A graduate degree in teaching. Bank Street College of Education, where I studied, paid a great deal of attention to the environment of a real classroom. Professors frequently modeled best practices in their own teaching, showing us how to work effectively with groups of school-age children.

When I started teaching at NEST+m, the school gave all of us a handbook. It was exceptionally (excessively?) detailed, containing, among other things, a lesson evaluation rubric and examples of what constituted a successful or unsuccessful lesson. Between student teaching, graduate school, and entering the ‘real world’, I got an idea of what good teaching - really, I should say good learning - is meant to look like.

The core of any chess lesson, inevitably, is the instructor’s plan. In order to teach chess well, you need excellent material. Insufficient preparation is an insurmountable obstacle to successful teaching. I have always considered myself fortunate to teach chess, where I am always motivated to find interesting and instructive teaching material. Last year, in preparation for Master Chess Camp, I studied large chunks of the orange “Fundamentals” books by Artur Yusupov and added them to my teaching files. (I had made extensive use of the first book for years, but the second and third not as much). 

Elizabeth Spiegel suggested a way to use the material that was both educational and fun for our students: In the morning, during my mini-lesson, I would teach a strategic or positional concept from the books. (Elizabeth of course came with her own rich material, collected from a huge variety of sources over the years). Then students would individually solve the corresponding ‘test’ from a Kahoot. (Incidentally, part of why I love our platform, chesslang, is its kahoot-style functionality). In the afternoon, I showed a couple memorable examples from one of the tactics/calculation lessons. Then Elizabeth broke the students into groups of two - a different group each day - for puzzle solving, to practice the topic. We had uploaded tests accompanying the lessons in PDF form, allowing students to work together in breakout rooms. I have to admit I had been skeptical beforehand, but it was the biggest hit of the week. It was a thrill to see kids completely engaged in the exercises, carefully debating the merits of different candidate moves.

Incidentally, I once had the privilege of attending an online camp with GM Artur Yusupov - the author of the aforementioned orange books - along with a current and former student, who had both become US Chess rated experts. That was a cool landmark in my teaching career.

Almost every camp I’ve taught is strongly connected in my memory with the material I studied beforehand. I remember teaching at Speyer Summer Chess Camp, not long after ‘Training with Moska”, by Viktor Moskalenko, was published. In the mornings, we studied positional and strategic concepts from the book. In the afternoons, I loaded tactical exercises onto all the school laptops so students could progress through the problems at their own pace. I noticed something interesting while watching them work: The ability to solve tactical exercises quickly and accurately is an incredibly good predictor of OTB playing strength.

One more camp story: Before coaching a group of strong tournament players (1600-2000, although normally I pass students at the upper end of that range on to Alex) at my Scarsdale studio, I studied chunks of “The 300 Most Important Chess Positions”, by Thomas Enqvist. We had really interesting sessions - I thought my students especially benefited from his discussion of development in the opening and his instructive endgame studies. Later, I attended a FIDE Trainer Seminar when International Master John Donaldson was one of the presenters. When he showed a tricky rook endgame, I raised my hand right away. I felt like I had to be honest - rather than instantly solving it, I recognized it from the book!

The superb preparation of all our coaches is a huge part of why your children will learn so much this August. Alex is constantly collecting new material, sorting it and adding the best positions to his existing lessons. Many of the lessons have stories that go with them - student A suggested this, student B thought for only 5 minutes, Grandmaster C played this in the game - that make the positions more memorable. But their real strength is sheer instructive value. Alex is constantly making connections between positions and topics, helping his students understand how the material fits together.

Elizabeth is another big collector. She has amazing lessons for every format: Online, whole group instruction, private lessons, small group work, etc. More than any teacher I’ve ever met, Elizabeth seems to know in advance exactly what will work with which group. She also has a passion for preparation that can’t be faked - the same way active tournament players love to obsess over their opening repertoires, Elizabeth is always thinking about her next teaching project.

Nolan brings his academic mindset to lesson preparation: He has a ton of PDF lessons, with printed chessbase diagrams, he has prepared throughout his time as a chess teacher. His own creativity is also a terrific resource: Nolan manually creates exercises that go with every topic he teaches. If the lesson is about capturing towards the center, there will be accompanying puzzles that remind the student to capture towards the center! This mindset is part of what makes him such a successful private coach.

Mubassar Uddin teaches from an interesting mix of books: The ones he learned from as a student, and the ones he discovered as a coach. Mubassar studied the instructional classic My System after becoming a chess coach, and loves Nimzowitsch’s examples and explanations for their instructive value. “It’s so useful for my students, and honestly I also learn quite a bit when I review chapters before lessons. . . it’s so simple, but so deep at the same time.” He also has heavily used Jeff Coakley’s famous oversized paperbacks - containing many of the same lessons he learned from Elizabeth as a student at IS318k!

I’m getting myself excited just writing this. We are going to have an amazing camp in August, packed with rich instructional material taught by instructors who will keep your children completely engaged!