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Master Chess Summer Camp Instructor: Elizabeth Spiegel

Today, I am going to tell you about another one of the incredible coaches teaching at Master Chess Summer Camp: Elizabeth Spiegel.

If you have seen the movie Brooklyn Castle, you already know all about Elizabeth Spiegel. (Her maiden name, which she used at the time, is Vicary). She is the permanent coach of the all-conquering IS318k chess team. Under her guidance, the Bedford-Stuyvesant middle school has won every single thing there is to win in scholastic chess: K-8 Nationals, K-9 Nationals, 6th Grade Nationals, 7th Grade Nationals, 8th Grade Nationals. . . and the High School National Championship. And every rating limited section you care to mention.

I had the absurd good fortune for Elizabeth to be my first mentor as a chess teacher. When my now-wife and I moved to New York City, Elizabeth and her future husband generously invited us to their housewarming party. At the time, I was starting graduate school in education. Elizabeth suggested that I do some of my student teaching at IS318k, and visit the chess class when I wasn’t busy with American History.

My cooperating teacher, Mr. Elliot, may have realized my future was in chess teaching. Whenever I had finished my teaching or observations for the day, he told me I was welcome to spend time in the chess room. I can now say that was one of the best things I ever did: I learned from Elizabeth what it meant to be a chess teacher.

When I started teaching, I didn’t have any particular understanding of how chess players improve — just my own scattershot experiences. Elizabeth immediately showed me a few things:

  1. If a motivated young player learns an opening properly, they will improve. A lot.

This is strangely controversial — classic chess literature is filled with advice against learning opening theory. All I will say is that this advice works best if your opponents agree to follow it as well. Just like children should learn some middlegame and endgame ideas, they should learn some opening ideas! I remember seeing Elizabeth’s opening handouts, and the IS318k opening book. It had each opening that her students played, distilled down to the absolutely most important ideas. For example, an Italian Game handout showed the Nbd1-f1-g3 plan in action, followed by the slow burn kingside attack. I lost count of how many games kids won by following the plan. The Colle-Zukertort handout showed the kingside attack with a double bishop sacrifice — many students got to play that one as well! Part of the key was that Elizabeth didn’t start from a view that X or Y is the right opening — she just taught the kids lines that she thought would work well for them. And that meant different lines for different kids.

2. Intermediate tournament players absolutely can and should learn strategy.

Prior to meeting Elizabeth, I thought all games between scholastic tournament players would be decided purely by tactics. And there is of course a grain of truth to this. But kids who are carefully taught fundamental plans will most definitely be able to execute them in games. I saw Elizabeth teaching intermediate tournament players about open files, the bishop pair, the minority attack, how to play with and against an isolated pawn, how to handle different forms of material balance, etc. All of these things would come up in her students’ games. It turns out scholastic chess is not just a tactical minefield waiting to explode. If kids know what to do, it makes a huge difference in their games.

3. Whatever you are teaching is the most important thing in the world at that moment.

Maybe this sounds self-evident, but I didn’t exactly get it until I saw Elizabeth teaching at the front of the room. She is so intense, so focused on each individual student and on the content, that it sends a clear message to the kids. What you are doing is the most important thing in the world right now. Her students would lock in and take after their teacher.

Let’s see what your child can learn from Elizabeth this summer!