I’m going to tell you about Elizabeth Shaughnessy. Exactly 2 years ago, Yinh contacted to Elizabeth to be one of the first guests on her podcast Growth From Failure. Elizabeth has been an inspiration to our family since that first conversation. I have been telling anyone interested in chess, children, education, or simply hope to listen to that interview.
This past weekend I was privileged to meet Elizabeth for lunch in Berkeley.
Nearly 40 years ago, Elizabeth, 83-years-young, volunteered to teach an after-school chess enrichment class at her children’s school. She expected a handful of people to take interest. Instead a diverse group of 72 children showed up. She was stunned. In the eighties, chess was the underground world of nerds. And if you think back to 80s movies, nerds were people jocks stuffed in lockers. (It probably didn’t help that we were in the Cold War — think about it — if Drago was a Grandmaster and Stallone a genius orphan from Brooklyn, Rocky IV would have swept the Oscars).
How times have changed. Today, Elizabeth oversees a chess school that teaches nearly 7,000 kids per year. She estimates the school has provided instruction and community for nearly 250,000 people in the past 40 years!
Her illustrious history can be found here.
The Berkeley Chess School
The chess school is a true Robinhood organization. As a non-profit, they are funded by donations and fees they receive for after-school programs around the Bay Area and private lessons (our son and his friends do group private lessons with BCS instructors). This supports their mission to provide free or low-cost chess instruction to students at poorly sourced Title 1 schools. While they are in over 120 local schools, Covid-19 has been devastating to enrollment as in-person instruction has cratered.
Always the optimist, Elizabeth has pivoted resources. With generous support from philanthropists and organizations working through the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, the Chess School now administers a program to help our most vulnerable neighbors. Her son, Stephen Shaughnessy, a former California State Scholastic Chess Champion and a teacher with more than twenty years of experience, guides cohorts of students struggling with remote learning in a safe setting in the School’s spacious tournament hall. Steven’s gifts and calling has always been to teach children, but this year this mission has been extra special. And challenging.
Coming from low-income neighborhoods in Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond, his 5th graders are from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds. Not one to mince words, Elizabeth says that without intervention, these kids, already struggling academically before the pandemic hit, may suffer an irreparable learning loss that could affect their health and financial well-being far into their adult lives. They are at a critical age, steps from a dark a road without an offramp.
From her experience, Elizabeth is convinced there is hope. BCS is determined to help kids believe in themselves and their own ability to be smart. Many of the kids BCS teaches face long odds in life but chess can offer lessons in foresight, creativity, problem solving, and self-control. It can give these youngsters a chance for better futures far from the disadvantages of their childhoods. The hope is they would have kids of their own one day for whom the sky is the limit. If the realism is off-putting, then you can imagine just how important the work is.
Lessons From A Lifetime Of Teaching Chess
While this lunch was supposed to be nothing more than friends catching up, I found her passion and enthusiasm for her work the only thread I wanted to pull on. She just oozes hard-won insights into children and learning. I immediately regretted not having a notebook. Here is what I can remember from the 90 easiest minutes I ever had of keeping my mouth shut as I tried to absorb the steady stream of wisdom.
Benefits of Chess
As a fan of games and games in learning, I like to believe that the skills acquired in play “transfer” to other domains. This is something I’ve wondered aloud about on Twitter. It is rooted in causality. I specifically asked Elizabeth if she thought a joy of chess was simply a symptom of a more general aptitude or if chess was imparting a more generalized skill that could be applied to other fields.
Elizabeth is a big believer that there is transference.
- Chess asks kids to slow down and be methodical.
Count how many pieces are threatening your pieces. Do this for every piece, on every turn, to find the strengths and weaknesses on the board. Then look at all the checks you can deliver, then the captures, then the attacks. When all this is done, then make your move.
- Consequences matter and compound
Chess teaches you that consequences matter. Make a rash move and you get penalized by your opponent. Mistakes are expensive in chess and life. What scenarios can unfold if you always skip math class? How will this serve your long term objective of being a Wall Street wizard if you’re unable to calculate risk or odds?
- Chess sharpens your focus.
She has repeatedly seen firsthand the power of chess to harness kids’ attention. It’s an effective tool to settle kids so they can get into a better headspace for learning. Kids who start out resistant often do not want to go home after school.
Tips For Learning Chess
Yinh and I are starting to learn chess alongside our 7-year-old who has been getting intermittent instruction since he was 5. Our 4-year-old recently learned how to set up the board and how the peices move (ok, he doesn’t really understand how the “horse” jumps). Learning chess can be a bit overwhelming for good reasons. There are tons of amazing resources out there from software, to YouTube, books, and communities. If you are like me, sometimes you just want to be told “Do this” and be handed a basic recipe from which you branch as you learn.
Here’s the simple recipe.
- At first, focus on tactics.
You can think of tactics as a series of maneuvers to gain an advantage over your opponent. They have cool names like “forks” and “pins”. They are the “fun” part of chess. Most major software and websites provide ample puzzles to teach and reinforce tactics.
- There’s plenty of time to worry about openings later
Don’t worry about studying openings until you have at least a 1200 rating. More has been written about openings than any other aspect of chess and it is a rabbit hole from which the beginning and intermediate chess player might never emerge.
In the meantime, take solace in the idea that beginners’ focus on tactics is not just the best use of time, but conveniently, fun. Strategy including openings and end games come much later (Elizabeth mentioned that endgame chess is especially fascinating to the mathematically inclined). Although I have just started, I find the puzzles extremely engaging. While it’s humbling, the feeling of “seeing” the move is addictingly rewarding.
Chess and Children
- High standards
With a good teacher, many kindergartners can visually play without looking at a board. It is not the realm of genius. In fact, one of the most inspiring feelings you get from spending time with Elizabeth is how bullish she is on children’s abilities. She believes we do not give them enough credit. They are capable of so much. We easily forget how we stunt a plant’s growth when it’s in a small pot.
- Playing chess with children
Do not let them undo bad moves. Remember, consequences matter. If they make a weak or ill-advised move (a blunder in chess parlance), turn the board around and play the weaker position. You can continue to do this and by the end there is a sense that nobody has truly lost which can be useful to keep kids encouraged.
They exist. She has seen her share. There are children out there who can recite every move of the last games they have played. You cannot teach geniuses. They are smarter than the teachers. But you can guide them and help them explore the exponential facets of the game. BCS has had the privilege of coaching three Grandmasters, including Olympiad Gold Medalist and 2018 US Chess Champion GM Sam Shankland. BCS offers Master Classes so the best players can learn from and help one another even as they compete.
- Not pushing too hard
Other than World Champion Magnus Carlsen, the life of a grandmaster is hard. There are few things in the world in which you can be so close to the top and have so little to show for it. Most grandmasters are scraping by, writing books, and being paid to play in tourneys. She does not push the geniuses in that direction. The application of genius to real world problems results in easier, productive, and more prosperous lives.
Chess and Gender
On average, girls in chess are more discouraged by losing than boys and this can lead them to giving up. They were not born like that. But if one child is encouraged towards cooperative play, while another child is encouraged to compete, losing will be a more emotionally significant event to the child who is unfamiliar with it. She has found that girls who play sports do not give up easily, reinforcing the idea that this is learned behavior.
Losing is an important subject. There is a tension in being comfortable with losing. It’s necessary to be able to lose because it’s part of learning. However, Elizabeth has never seen a great player that was not deeply bothered by losing. So we must examine our own values and how they relate to losing. When daughters come off the floor after a chess tournament what does Elizabeth see? Fathers who ask their daughters “Did you have fun?”. To the boys they ask, “Did you win?”.
Elizabeth has lots of views on women in society based on what she has seen at formative ages and observing thousands of families. She believes there is bias and while we were too short on time to get into the vast subject one thing was obvious. We carry tremendous responsibility for the scripts children grow up believing about themselves. It is the single most empowering lesson I grokked from taking in her wisdom.
And by the way, BCS teaches girls to play chess aggressively. They are trying to balance out society’s conditioning.
There are 65 active Grandmasters in the United States. One is female.
When women compete at tournaments they are extremely competitive with one another but away from the table they can become friends. Elizabeth told a story of a tournament she hosted with women coming from all over the world. After the fierce competition ended, the women organized a guided tour of SF Bay and got along like sisters. She noted this was a very different dynamic from the men. There is a balancing energy missing in our world if that story is any indication.
Why we care
Chess has exploded in popularity as nerdiness has become cool and the internet has spread access to high quality chess tools, matches, and education. Elizabeth’s life mission has coincided with a more secular phenomenon. The chess school boasts 3 of the United States’ 65 Grandmasters with the most recent one being just 17 years old (masters are getting younger thanks to online play).
If Elizabeth’s mission were simply to promote the empowering aspects of a beautiful game then she has the right to be satisfied. That baton is securely passed on to wider zeitgeist than she ever imagined. But as the recent pivot to share the school’s resources with our most neglected has shown, the Berkeley Chess School is not just a Kumon For Chess. It is a sustainable model for meaningful impact. It is a model for fostering local community. And through it’s alumni, a model for global community.
It is a place we feel lucky to have discovered and organization we are honored to give to. With enrollment down and the ongoing renovation of the School to improve ADA access, there is a lot of wood to chop. If you are interested in helping, they have several programs that you may make targeted donation to.
You can find the list here.
I’ll conclude by saying, when I met Elizabeth I had high expectations. Yinh talks about her a lot and her interview is one of my absolute favorite all-time pods, not just Yinh’s. When I met her, I was blown away. She is sharp as hell. She cares so much you can feel it. As I listened to her stories, it was clear I was in the the presence of a special individual who has spliced her DNA into the heart of an institution (this is not so figurative…her son Steven manages the day to day operations now).
We are excited for the future of the Berkeley Chess School!
(And if you want to learn she recommends starting with the tutorials on licchess.org. Hope to see you there!)