Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

September 24, 2009

Nobody's Pawn

Over the past 30 years, Eliot Weiss has patiently built one of the greatest chess programs in the country

Nick Matros

It was two and half two years ago that sportswriter Michael Weinreb published The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Genuises Who Make Up America's Top HighSchool Chess Team. In creating a book-length narrative on a board game—a task hailed by one reviewer as "something once thought impossible" —Weinreb proved high drama and enveloping glory are by no means exclusive to the sports clichés that have so typically (and so boringly) defined competition in the American high school.

Set at Edward R. Murrow High School, a Brooklyn public school consistently ranked as one of the country's best, The Kings of New York (renamed Game of Kings for paperback) follows the school's venerable chess team—consistently ranked the best—as it tries for yet another championship. While the story is about the oddballs and geniuses, their success is inevitably a function of their coach, a 50-something math teacher at Murrow named Eliot Weiss. Weiss's program began humbly some 30 years ago as a chess club. As of current writing, his juggernaut of a chess team has won 10 straight New York State chess championships and seven national championships, four of them consecutive.

Eliot Weiss
“If you don't know what to do when there are two pieces on the board, how do you know what to do when you have 32 pieces on the board?"

Eliot Weiss

In the following interview, which was conducted by telephone and edited for clarity, Weiss discusses the experience of being shadowed by a sportswriter, the role of chess in academics, and Murrow's first all-female chess team.

Gelf Magazine: What was it like having Michael Weinreb tail you for those, what was it, two years?

Eliot Weiss: From '04 to '07 when the book came out, so it was about three years. More than three years, really. It was fun in a way. I wasn't really sure Michael was going to do the book; I mean, I knew he was given the opportunity to do it, but all along I was a bit skeptical about the book coming out. I thought it was just going to be some big newspaper article or magazine feature, but then when it kept coming closer and closer, he said, "Yeah, it's going to be a book." Then it was reviewed in the New York Times, and I was in shock.

Gelf Magazine: It's kind of exactly what you wanted, wasn't it? Weren't you sending out all kinds of press releases and things like that?

Eliot Weiss: Well, I would send out press releases just to get the team publicity, notoriety. I was doing this all throughout the '90s, trying to get money from people. I'd get an article published, and at the very end of the article it stated that we needed money to attend a state or a national tournament. If the article was in a high-circulation paper like the New York Post or the Times, I'd get a phone call from someone the next day. That was what motivated me, really. Then I just started sending press releases out all the time to politicians. We got to meet just about every New York politician, the senators, and the governor, and eventually the president, so it was a lot of fun doing that.

Gelf Magazine: Did you have experience with competitive chess, or high-school chess, before you took on coaching?

Eliot Weiss: Not much, really, but I knew a great deal about chess, and I knew a great deal about teaching chess, and coaching chess, so, you know, "Those who can't do, teach."

Gelf Magazine: There's a large distinction there between being excellent at chess and being able to teach chess.

Eliot Weiss: Oh, there is. You don't have to be a grandmaster to teach kids enough to make it up to a master-level chess player. There are many grandmasters and there are many master-level players who have difficulty teaching, just as there are many brilliant mathematicians who can't teach the times table. So, there is a skill in the education part of chess.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think some of those skills would be? Why do you feel you were so successful as a coach?

Eliot Weiss: Well, I think it's the same skill set used in teaching anything. It's analyzing and breaking down, and looking at the order of operations and how to go about making a series of lessons into a unit. For example, one of the most important things that you teach in chess is the endgame, many times first. You don't just go right to openings. Then, of course there are tactics, and strategies, and all different methods of teaching, and the way you come across to your students. It's the rapport that you have with them, how you speak to them. That's all involved in the education process.

Gelf Magazine: Why is learning the endgame first so important?

Eliot Weiss: It's like they say: "If you don't know what to do when there are only two or three pieces on the board, how do you know what to do when you have 32 pieces on the board?"

Gelf Magazine: When you have international masters and future international masters on a team, what's your role as coach? Do you just sit back and let them play, or is there still some exchange?

Eliot Weiss: There's still some exchange. If they're an international master, there's not a whole lot of advice I can give them, just in terms of telling them they should calm down, or relax, take your time. I mean, it's like a coach trying to coach Wayne Gretzky. Then there are certain issues within a tournament: Explaining the situation if we need a win, or we need a draw, or whatever.

Gelf Magazine: Are you ever asked to teach other chess teachers, for professional development or anything like that?

Eliot Weiss: I have been asked by several middle schools to come and do their chess program. I just haven't had the time. I always refuse. A lot of schools in Murrow's neighborhood or in Brooklyn have called me and asked how to set up a chess club or a chess team, and I give them advice, but that's about it. I never really wanted to, or had the time to do it anymore. I'm teaching during the day fulltime, and at Brooklyn College at night (I'm an adjunct lecturer). Just doing the chess team is enough for me.

Gelf Magazine: Is there something specific about Murrow that is conducive to such a successful chess program, or do you think one could be created almost anywhere you go?

Eliot Weiss: Well, I mean, you have to have a large student body. We have 4,100 students attending our school, so with 4,100 students you can find a couple of good chess players at least, if not more, and I started this off almost 30 years ago as a club. It's becoming more and more popular—both with kids who play chess and with kids who don't play chess, but find it fascinating and attractive so they want to learn, and within a few years they become very good chess players if they keep at it, if they keep coming to tournaments, if they come to the after-school club for instruction, and if they keep practicing online or in person over the board. So, it was a process over 30 years. It wasn't until we started competing in tournaments in 1989 that I felt we were good enough to go places.

Gelf Magazine: You keep referring to Murrow as an excellent school, and it's talked about quite a bit in the book. It's not like other schools. Can you talk a little bit about how it's structured?

Eliot Weiss: Murrow has always had an excellent reputation. It's a relatively new school—it just opened in 1976—with the idea that students have what are called "educational options" aside from the standard neighborhood schools in the surrounding area, which have been around forever. So, we have a lot of things that could attract students as well: psychology, law, a planetarium in the school, a greenhouse, a tremendous theater department that puts on three plays a year, a music department that puts on five concerts a year, and an art program that requires interviews for admittance. So we offer a great deal. We get about 10 or 11 applications for every admission so, luckily, we're that good.

Gelf Magazine: You recently started a girls' chess team. In a game where no physical skill is involved, why is that necessary?

Eliot Weiss: Well, the thinking is, when a girl plays another girl instead of a guy, she may be less intimidated by playing over the board. She may have more confidence, and she may better show what she knows in the game this way. Of course, it doesn't matter, really, if you play a boy or a girl, if you play somebody older or younger; it's who knows what to do. It's a nice thing, though, for the girls to be able to do.
There is a separate tournament for women grandmasters and the US championship. There have been a lot of strong female chess players, but some do look down on those tournaments. They're weaker, and are not as prestigious as the U.S. Open or the U.S. Championship, or just being a "women's grandmaster" and not a grandmaster. There's always good, though, in encouraging girls to play.

Gelf Magazine: So the goal is always transitioning into coed competitive chess?

Eliot Weiss: Eventually, of course. There aren't a lot of girls who play chess, so it's very difficult to even get an all-girls tournament at a national level. We can only get a couple of hundred girls at a time. Like last year, we went to Dallas, and nine girls from my school came and played against about 250 girls from all over the country. Still, that's not too many if you think about the whole country. We started out having a few girls who made it to master level, but we only had one or two at a time. Then, in about 2002 or 2003, girls started becoming more interested, so there's room to build. We now have nine girls, and I always encourage them to play in all the tournaments at the state and the local level. They love the game. There's something about the game that kids just enjoy, whether they're male or female.

Gelf Magazine: In his book, and in his interview with Gelf, Michael Weinreb cites schools such as IS 318 to draw a direct correlation between the introduction of chess into the school curriculum, and an improvement in academic performance. Do you believe that chess should be a part of every school's curriculum?

Eliot Weiss: I do. It is part of all second-grade curricula in Idaho. Every second grader in Idaho is learning how to play chess. That's wonderful. Chess is a game unlike any other game. Those people who are chess players, and who know the game very well, they know what it does to a person's mind and the students' thinking skills. It's so much more than Tiddlywinks, or Blackjack, or any game at all. There's a learning process that students who learn to play well can apply to any other subject area in their schools.

Gelf Magazine: When baseball or football announcers refer to coaches and managers making strategic moves as a "chess game," do you ever find yourself yelling, "No, it's not chess; it's baseball!"?

Eliot Weiss: No, they're using the word "chess" to mean it's a thinking game. It just means the managers and the coaches are trying to outthink each other, just as you do in a chess game.

Gelf Magazine: Does that imply that there's no thinking in the sport otherwise?

Eliot Weiss: Well, there's no thinking when the ball is coming at you at 95 miles per hour, but the manager's always got to be thinking of what to do in terms of moving players around. I have no problem with that being referred to as a "chess game."

Related in Gelf:

Author Michael Weinreb discusses his book Game of Kings.

Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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- Sports
- posted on Sep 22, 09
Eliot Weiss

Good interview. Well done. Thanks Nick.

Article by Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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