So there I was, sitting in on a beginner chess class and observing the kids and the instructor, looking for opportunities to point my new employers in the right direction.
Several months removed from winning a championship at the U.S. Open Chess Tournament, I had been hired the week before as the official chess consultant (they dubbed me “The Champ” in their marketing material!) for an afterschool enrichment program that knew all the right moves business-wise to get their program into schools, but seriously lacked the chess skills to deliver on what they promised.
Right away, two things became apparent:
1. The kids were not connecting with the instructor or the material at all, and
2. Even worse, these guys were teaching the kids wrong information!
After just the one class, we had a starting point already for getting things going in the right direction. Eager to discuss the opportunities with my bosses, I scheduled a meeting that weekend to kickstart the company’s transformation.
I came prepared, ready with some solid suggestions that would be easy to implement. We talked about their material and I explained where they had some things wrong. I didn’t even discuss the lack of connection with the kids, many of whom had stared blankly as the instructor went over the lesson. One thing at a time, I told myself.
After another week, they asked me to fill in and teach a class in a pinch, which I thought would be a fun opportunity to see some of the changes they had made first-hand and also spot some other opportunities for improvement.
And that’s when I discovered that, much to my chagrin, nothing I talked about with them or suggested had been put in place. They had even left their wrong information in the workbooks the kids were using!
It was baffling! I was beside myself, wondering why I had been hired to right the ship, only to have my few simple suggestions fall on deaf ears.
I asked about it and was told they just needed some more time to make the changes. More time? Every day that goes by that those changes aren’t made is another day that the students are learning incorrectly!
If a math teacher was teaching students that 1 + 2 = 4, that kind of thing would be quickly corrected! These changes I had suggested were right on par with this level, hence the comparison. They were basic, elementary things that anyone who had an interest in chess (beyond casual play) should know, and certainly a company devoted to teaching chess should be getting right! What was the delay all about?
Several weeks later, after being called upon numerous times to ‘fill in’ as an instructor, those changes still had not been made. There were others that needed to take place as well, but we weren’t there yet!
It turned out the company was just short-staffed with teachers and figured they could use me to plug the gaps. There was apparently never any intent to actually change anything!
Frustrated and confused, I was at my wits’ end. I knew I wanted to teach chess properly — not only in terms of the accuracy of information being taught, but also in the method and approach to teaching it. I had discovered that one of the big reasons the kids glazed over every time an instructor took the front of the room was that none of the material made sense from one week to the next!
Instead of teaching concepts and building on them week after week, logically connecting what was being taught, it was as if they reached into a grab bag with a bunch of slips of paper in it and wrote their ‘curriculum’ based on which one they pulled out next!
Needless to say, that system was not going to produce any true learning or achievement among the students.
I knew what needed to be done, but they just wouldn’t listen!
HITTING A WALL
My disappointment led me to eventually leave that company. I had no choice! I just couldn’t take it anymore!
But this left me wondering, “Now what?!” I wanted a career in chess and I’ve always loved to teach… but now I had nowhere to do it, and what’s more, I had a family to support!
I had bartended my way through college and knew I could make a living doing that, so I went back to being a bartender and gave up on my chess aspirations.
There’s nothing wrong with career in restaurants, and I had been a manager in the past, so I knew I could make a living that way, but I also knew I was meant for more. However, that last chess experience (there had been others as well) left me feeling unsure, nervous about my future, and if I’m being honest here, questioning whether I was worthy of having the kind of career I knew deep down I really wanted and one where I could truly excel.
Most important of all was that I wanted to make an impact in the lives of other people. And not just by knowing how to make a killer dirty martini!
At the recommendation of a book I was reading, I sat down one night and thought about what my life would look like if I could design it. Specifically, I was focused on how I could get back into teaching. I knew that’s where my heart was. I knew it was my calling.
And then it hit me: I can teach chess to kids. I do know what I’m doing.
Then the craziest thought I’ve ever had came to mind:
“I’m going to start my own chess teaching business!”
ME? A BUSINESS OWNER?
Never in my life had I ever had aspirations of being a business owner before. I knew nothing about how to run a business, only how to work at one! But I committed right then and there to learn all about it and do whatever it took to get my lessons out to as many kids and families as I could.
I was suddenly compelled to start my own business!
So I wrote a set of lessons for beginners and contacted some local libraries to see if they’d let me teach a summer enrichment program.
To my delight, I was welcomed with open arms and taught sessions that summer at six different branches! Some of them even had waitlists by the second or third week. I couldn’t believe it! The plan was working and I was having more success than I could have imagined.
But there was still a problem…
Here I was, a one-man show, trying to get a foothold in an industry which I quickly learned had almost 20 competitors in my area, each one bigger than me in reach and infrastructure, and all of them doing the same basic thing I was doing: teaching chess to kids.
I knew I needed to separate myself and be different somehow, or I’d fall by the wayside.
I thought back to my bartending days. What was it that made me successful there?
And that’s when I had my “A-HA!” moment.
Think about it. If you’re a regular at a restaurant or bar, why is that? Why do you go back over and over to the same place, to see the same people, and to have the same person serve you?
Genuine connection is where I decided to make my mark.
I enjoyed having regulars as a bartender tremendously. Meanwhile, the chess companies I had worked for (I highlighted one earlier, but there were several) didn’t secure that type of connection with their students. They taught to the whole class as if it was one kid, which was, frankly, the only way they could do it — some of those classes had 20+ kids in them!
I mentioned my waitlists a moment ago at the libraries. The reason for them was that I capped my classes. Instinctively I knew that getting into double-digit student counts was not a good idea when it came to teaching chess.
It turned out this instinct led me to create a business where above all, I valued personal connection. I knew each of my students, spoke with their parents before and after class, and even went to their houses to teach them! I got to know them all as individuals. And in some cases, as friends.
That approach allowed me to grow Kids & Chess into a brand that parents knew they could trust and where parents and their kids felt valued, appreciated and cared for.
To this day, I am still a one-man show. I personally teach every session of every class, and I still keep my class sizes small, which allows me to give myself to my students and their families completely. Struggling student? Let me know! We’ll sit down together one-on-one and figure out what needs to happen to get the desired result.
As a bonus, I’m now able to reach more kids than ever to ensure that they’re learning chess properly and receiving the brainy benefits chess is famously known to provide: improved critical thinking, logic and planning, focus and attention to detail, and a host of others.
In the end, I’m able to help families bond and kids succeed. I defined my place in the world on my own terms to fulfill what I know is my true purpose. And if I can make a difference in just one kid’s life to help them shape their future, that contribution makes my whole journey worth it.
Thanks for spending some time here with me today. I think it’s important to share my “why,” and I’m happy to have this platform to do it.
I always love hearing from chess enthusiasts, educators and parents alike. You can email me anytime at: firstname.lastname@example.org