My days as a teenage chess teacher

I’ve already blogged my earlier job working in the supermarket, so I thought I would add a few remarks on my very first job as chess teacher, which I did at ages 14-15.

I had three regular students, two adults (about 50 and late 20s) and one a younger chess prodigy himself, maybe 10 or 11, plus some other occasional students.  I would have had more students if they (or the parents) did not have to pick me up and drive me to the lesson site.  By the way, at that time no one thought it was strange that relative strangers would simply come and pick me up in their cars and take me away.

From this job, I learned a few things rather quickly:

1. At the time a 14-year-old paid chess teacher seemed odd.  But if you just did something, the world might accept it.  Make other people tell you no, don’t do that preemptively yourself.

2. Chess teaching isn’t mainly about chess.  A chess teacher has to have a certain mystique above all, while at the same time being approachable.  Even at 14 this is possible.  Your students are hiring you at least as much for your mystique as for the content of your lessons.

3. Not everyone taking chess lessons wanted to be a better chess player.  For some, taking the lesson was a substitute for hard work on chess, not a complement to it.  The lesson for them was a fun social experience, and it kept the game of chess salient in their minds.  They became “the kind of person who takes chess lessons.”  I understood this well at the time.  Some of the students wanted to show you their chess games, so that someone else would be sharing in their triumphs and tragedies.  That is an OK enough way to proceed with a chess lesson, but often the students were more interested in “showing” than in listening and learning and hearing the hard truths about their play.

4. Students are too interested in asking your opinion of particular openings.  At lower-tier amateur levels of chess, the opening just doesn’t matter that much, provided you don’t get into an untenable position too quickly.  Nonetheless openings are a fun thing to learn about, and discussing openings can give people the illusion of learning something important, if only because you can share opening moves with the top players and thereby affiliate with them.

5. What I really had to teach was methods for hard work to improve your game consistently over time.  That might include for instance annotating a game or position “blind,” and then comparing your work to the published analysis of a world-class player, a’ la Alexander Kotov’s Think Like a Grandmaster.  I did try to teach that, but the demand for this service was not always so high.

6. The younger chess prodigy I taught was quite bright and also likable.  But he had no real interest in improving his chess game.  Instead, hanging out with me was more fun for him than either doing homework or watching TV, and I suspect his parents understood that.  In any case, early on I was thinking keenly about talent and the determinants of ultimate success, and obsessiveness seemed quite important.  All of the really good chess players had it, and without it you couldn’t get far above expert level.

7. I don’t remember exactly how much I was paid, but it felt like a lot of money at the time.  But when I stopped playing chess, I also stopped giving chess lessons.  I felt I had learned — and earned — from it what I could.

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