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My Story: Matan Prilleltensky

After finishing my master’s degree in teaching, I became a classroom chess teacher at a NEST+m, a public school for gifted and talented students. I really wanted to help my young students learn and improve. I also wanted to put my training as a chess master and educator into practice.

Teaching young beginners - some as young as 5 years old - was a huge challenge. I taught the sequence of lessons in the Steps Method, but didn’t know how to integrate all the pieces: Instruction, Practice, HW, and Feedback. My students learned chess, but I felt like they could be learning more deeply.

By this time, I was a successful coach of tournament players. I knew how to help the chess team win national championships, but coaching and teaching are different: I lacked expertise with the kindergarten kids. I felt uncomfortable receiving praise because I hadn’t mastered a core element of my job. I even declined when a parent wanted to nominate me for a teaching award!

I distinctly remember walking around the classroom being unsure how to prevent the constant mistakes kids were making. I left NEST+m after three years. We won National Championships, I received excellent performance reviews, the principal tried to convince me to stay. . . but I knew I hadn’t reached my potential as an elementary school teacher.

Stepping out of the rhythm of the school week gave me a chance to re-examine how young children learn chess. Soon afterwards, I was approached by the director of chess at Speyer, an independent school in Manhattan for gifted students. He knew me as a player and coach and asked me to accept a position teaching elementary school, including kindergarten classes. I was introduced as one of the top coaches around, and I intended to do more than exceed their expectations as a coach – I wanted to do it as a teacher.

That's when I delved deeper into the Steps Method. I used to sit in the school library and copy lessons from the teacher’s manual, determined to internalize everything. With a lighter teaching schedule and smaller classes, it was a perfect environment to apply my growing skills. I wasn’t applying the method completely – at the time Speyer’s chess program did not use workbooks – but I still saw the excellent progress my students made. It was very rewarding. I remember feeling like I had become a “real teacher.”

After that, I received an email that changed my life completely.

A group of families in Scarsdale, NY wanted to start a chess program. They were looking for a National Master who was a qualified teacher to come teach group and private lessons on weekends, including classes to absolute beginners. They called the Marshall Chess Club in New York City, and spoke to the manager on duty – who happened to be my best friend since 10th grade. He recommended me, and the plan was set. I was ready to use my years of study, triumphs and frustrations, trial and error, to build my own program. 

At Speyer, I had realized I was capable of becoming an amazing teacher for beginners. In Scarsdale, I used the full complement of Steps activities for the first time. I delivered effective lessons, using the plans I had carefully written out in the library. I supervised games, giving the targeted feedback I had read about in the manuals. I assigned weekly HW from the workbooks, checking difficult problems together and giving students 1-1 feedback.

By now, I understood that typical American approaches to teaching beginners are incorrect, moving so quickly through the basics that most students never master them. I knew how to help a young beginner develop their vision of the board, building up their chess as if constructing a castle.

The program thrived. My Step 1 graduates moved entered the world of tournament chess, many of them only 5 or 6 years old. They would constantly sweep local events: Very often all of the top performers in a Westchester County tournament would be my students. By now I had won over 5 national titles as a coach, but I got a special feeling of mastery from successfully pushing so many beginners into the chess world and seeing them take flight. I had become the teacher I always knew I could be.

As the program grew, there were new challenges. Individual students progressed at different rates, and it wasn’t  clear how to meet everyone’s needs. I started teaching higher level material, moving faster than, deep down, I suspected was correct. My suspicion was confirmed when one student observed that he was not able to apply all of his learning in tournament games. I remember my internal reaction vividly: “That’s because what we are learning is too hard. We have to go back to the fundamentals”.

Soon after that, I attended the National Championship as a coach. My friend convinced me to meet Victor Hendriks, a representative from the Steps Method, who had traveled from Holland to spread the word in the United States. I was convinced: The best student learning comes from skilled, consistent application of the Method. Not from freestyling.

I asked Victor to come with me to Scarsdale, to explain the philosophy behind the method to the families. I told them the most advanced class would be changing tack, focusing on depth and mastery rather than speed and acceleration. To their credit, they understood and trusted my judgment.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Our classes started to address student weaknesses in a new way, building up their vision of the board to prevent mistakes and support mastery. By studying the fundamentals at increasing levels of difficulty, students increased their knowledge and skills while laying the foundation for even faster improvement.    

Our program made another huge step forward. One student won the New York City Championship for Kindergarten and 1st Grade. Another won the NY State Championship for Kindergarten and 1st Grade. Another qualified to represent the United States at the World Youth Championship in China. These were mostly kids who started in Step 1 as 5 year olds, not knowing how to move the pieces.

I had implemented a system where students master the key ideas of chess through instruction, play, homework, repetition, and feedback. I now know that every single student who attends class consistently, completes the HW, and plays chess in between classes will be 100% transformed as a chess player. With the foundation my courses give them, they have the background to take their chess journey as far as they want.

After mastering the Steps, I was not only able to fulfill my potential as an educator, I’ve been able to stop wondering how to help young children learn and grow. I can now push every single student forward with a proven system.

And in the end, all this means my students make enormous progress as chess players and as thinkers. That’s why I created https://masterchess.org/.