I had always heard the phrase, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life”, I was fortunate enough to find my passion at a young age. Or maybe it found me?
I was taught how the chess pieces move around the age of five, but chess remained ‘just a game’ for a while, along with all the other board games and sports. It wasn’t until 4th grade that I reconnected with chess through a school program. I had always loved competition, but after being given a coach, a series of tournaments to play, and some goals…I was hooked.
Success came quickly at the scholastic level and soon I began traveling to ‘adult’ tournaments. I use the term loosely because many chess masters are young, including the World Champion who is currently 24 years old. A drastic improvement in technology has made information more available, and since then chessmasters have become increasingly younger. My coach, an International Master (the 2nd highest title in the world behind Grandmaster), was at the time only 16 years old himself! I believe I progressed quickly because of our small age difference, he was more a friend teaching me than the traditional student versus teacher relationship.
In 2001, as Pan-American Co-Champion, I was awarded a full scholarship to attend the University of Texas at Dallas and played for their prestigious chess team. I earned the title of National Master in 2007, graduated from UT Dallas in 2008, and was eager to start my career!
But wait, I wasn’t nearly good enough to make a living playing! You usually have to be in the top 300 players in the world, the same for golf or tennis. After some deliberation I decided to begin teaching children how to improve at the world’s greatest game…to give back, because chess had given me so much. I have always felt teaching has a great and rare quality, you can give your knowledge to a person, but you don’t lose it. So why not give back, why not help others share in that same enjoyment?
Today I run a number of successful afterschool programs, give one-on-one training to high achieving players, and run a chess club in Irving, TX which provides weekly instruction and tournaments for children. A number of students have reached the top 100 ranked players in the USA for their age group. I currently have a student, Benjamin, who has progressed extremely rapidly into the USA Top 100 for 14 year olds. He has been playing under 18 months. His dedication is impressive, and I am very proud of his accomplishments. Talent and hard work are the recipe for success. Chess, like languages, can be quickly understood by children if properly introduced and taught.
For me the most difficult and important part of teaching is getting down to the student’s level, understanding what they understand, and going from there. This is an essential skill for being a teacher in any subject. With chess it is challenging because after many years, some patterns or moves become automatic, but to a novice they are not. A similar example is teaching someone to read, a skill that is relatively simple for adults, but to a child it takes much practice and repetition. If taught at a young age, chess can have a profound positive effect on a child’s development. It has been proven to increase concentration, decision making abilities, confidence, pattern recognition, and critical thinking. However when it is presented in the form of a game or competition, children just want to play!
There are so many decisions to make in chess – infinite possibilities. How can you tell which is the best? I always explain to students that ‘every move should have a reason’. You must not waste your turn or your opponent will obtain an advantage. In life you are not necessarily competing against a person, but do not waste your time or you could be left behind.
Technology plays an enormous role in modern day chess, every tournament player uses a database or chess engine to improve. It was 1996 when an IBM computer created specifically for this event defeated the human world champion, Garry Kasparov, in a 6 game match. It was a turning point in chess history, for the first time humans were forced to admit our inferiority to machines. At present day humans can barely compete with the best computer programs.
Like many other disciplines, the more you learn, the more you can appreciate it. With chess you can always learn more. Even though I have less free time today, I compete in major events, and continue to learn myself.
I will leave you with a story, one of the greatest chess masters and former world champion, Alexander Alekhine, was once asked by a reporter “You are the worlds greatest player, surely you must everything there is to know about chess?” To which he responded, “Oh, no my friend you are mistaken, a lifetime is not enough to learn everything there is to know about chess!”
About Chris Toolin
Link to the chess club that Chris works at: http://www.chessbeeclub.com