Sunday, December 1, 2013


       Baby's got some crazy big eyes, right?
I definitely never thought I would be a stay-at-home mother. 
       But let's start at the beginning...
I had been thinking to have a drug free childbirth... let me say that was a crazy, ignorant idea. Labor hurts beyond any description/my imagination. I do not know how anyone can choose it. After an hour I was like ok, I give up, I will do anything to make this stop.   I was 1 cm dilated (it goes up to 10 cm, and gets progressively more painful) and I was vomiting violently from the pain. Also throwing myself against the floor, over and over, begging Jonathan to somehow help me. I have a memory of screaming in a cab, and the cab driver trying not to look at me.
     I can only compare it to those immensely painful charley horse cramps in your calf, but in your abdomen. For 24 hours. Or in my case 28.
     Once I got the epidural, I was narcotically happy, the floatingy best I have felt in years. the actual pushing bit was not hard and really quite fun.
     I got the bill/insurance settlement  just for the epidural today... guess how much it cost? They billed $14,500 and insurance paid $2000. unreal.)
     So now I'm at home with baby for -- well, kind of a long, stupid story involving some incorrect paperwork-- but hopefully 2 more months if I can fix it-- possibly 1 more week if I can't. I'm definitely gooey eyed gaga over Noah a lot of the time. Although it's also tough to have a relationship with someone who screams if he's slightly unhappy. I spent last might from 11 to 12:30 am holding him in my arms dancing around the bedroom, which was the only way to keep him quiet. I guess this will help me lose the baby weight.
      Many days go by with a bare minimum accomplished. Basically every 3.5 hours, I spent 1.25 hours in a strict routine of changing his diaper, breast feeding him, changing his diaper, bottle feeding him, changing his diaper, pumping milk, changing his diaper, cleaning the bottles/pump. Then I have an hour and a quarter where he sleeps (and I sleep, eat, do laundry, tidy the house, answer emails, make food, write an endless series of thank you notes for baby gifts) and an hour where I talk to him, rock him, sing to him, read to him, jiggle him up and down, and whatever else I can do to amuse him/stop him crying. It's a weird, lazy-but-exhausting routine. I definitely can feel it affecting my memory: maybe it's hormones or maybe it's lack of sleep, but I feel I'm at about 75% of normal mental processing speed.
     Despite this, I'm becoming more efficient at housewife type things, mostly thanks to Amazon Mom (like Amazon Prime, but with diaper discounts), and, I guess, practice. I can also do many more things with just one hand.
     I only leave the house on average once every three days. I don't know how people live when they have either multiple children or no washing machine. I find myself making time tradeoffs like "I have 60 seconds before he screams: what's more important, putting in my contact lens or getting a glass of water?" "4 minutes: breakfast or shower?"
    It's the first year in maybe 10 that I haven't played in the National Chess Congress and I miss playing chess, although I feel quite incapable of casually going back to it right now. more soon, maybe.

Friday, October 18, 2013

maternity leave, teacher evaluations

      So I'm on maternity leave, which is very relaxing. I'm due Oct 27, so mostly I'm just waiting, waddling around, and paying incessant attention to every small tightening of my stomach. It's very strange being suddenly 30 lbs. heavier than normal. I check this website many times a day. Today I have a 3.3% chance of going into labor.
       I sleep until 10:30 every morning. Then I get up and plan some new units, do CT Art tests, watch one of Greg's videos, or do a little laundry/ household organizing/cake-baking. I watched all of Breaking Bad and a fun series called Sherlock. I read a lot of news. If anyone has a recommendation for a good book, I'm all ears.

      It may amuse you to hear that my all important teacher evaluation this year will be based 60% on classroom evaluation, and 40% on a "value-added data/metric." The latter part makes sense, right? I should be making a positive and measurable impact on my students' performance. If their ratings go up, I'm doing a good job, and if they don't, I'm not. Simple! Thank god for the objective, a priori accurate USCF rating system!
     The classroom evaluation system is not totally unreasonable, but puts a lot of emphasis on having students lead the discussion and (bizarrely) correct each other's misbehavior. I think this approach works a bit better with subjects like English than chess. Of course it's always nice to have a student centered classroom, but when there is a certain amount of technical knowledge that needs teaching, the students have to reach a minimum competency level before their opinions matter. In any case, I've been teaching for a while and I'm not worried about the observation part of the rating.
      If I get a combined score of 64 points or less (=ineffective) two years in a row, I'm automatically fired.
     The problem is that the value added metric they are using for me (and for Jonathan, who teaches art, and for the gym teachers, computer teachers, cooking teacher, etc.) is the growth in math and English scores from other teachers in the building. So even if I score perfectly on the observation part, if the kids do badly on their standardized tests, I'm fired. And so are all the gym teachers.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

things I have learned about being pregnant

I thought I would share with you some of the more unexpected things I have learned so far about pregnancy:

1. Most people seem extremely impressed that I am having a boy, like when people ask how you did at a tournament and you won. I also learned from a recent freakonomics podcast that men are 4% less likely to divorce a woman when their first born child is male, which seems like an enormous effect, given how many other things probably count for more.

2. Certain groups of people are fascinated by pregnant me. The top three are:
   a) teenage girls, who treat me with fascination and respect and think I'm inordinately cute
   b) retarded people on the street/in the subway, who generally point to my stomach and say "There's a BABY in there?" and then sometimes tell me to push
   c) dogs: both mine and other people's. Our dog, who is normally exceptionally sweet-natured, has become extremely protective and tried to bite both our contractor and an elderly Asian granny neighbor.

3. I generally always get a seat on the subway now, except sometimes on the L and the 4, 5, 6 (the fancier lines, where people pretend not to see me in rush hour). The most reliable seat-offers are by far Chinese/ SE Asian men age 16-30. They jump up like it's some kind of reflex.

4. I have never had longer fingernails in my life, I think both because I'm much less anxious / more placid than I was, so I don't bite them anymore, but even more some super-growing effect from hormones and prenatal vitamins. It's actually hard to type.

5. I don't feel much more hungry than before, but I drink like crazy. A liter of water is like nothing to me now. I might be wrong about the hunger though, because I've gained 30 pounds and have two months to go(!). I'm constantly misjudging my size and bumping into things.

6. Pregnancy is boring. I'm tired most of the time, I can't plan interesting trips because they interfere with my nap schedule or they are somehow dangerous, and there are long lists of things I can't do. I wasn't a huge drinker before, but now I constantly see people sitting outside drinking wine and I can't contain my envy. I've also become absolutely paranoid about second hand smoke, to the extent that I hold my breath when I see a smoker approaching on the sidewalk.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

50 lesson beginner curriculum

        I've been working on laying out sequentially what I do in the first year of a beginner "shop class." It's on google docs here. (you have to actually download it, rather than view it, to see more than the first page. You can do this with the download arrow or the shortcut ctrl-s.) It's written for sixth graders who I see 3 periods a week for a school year, although obviously could be speeded up, slowed down, or started in the middle for other situations. I find if I don't have some kind of sequence planned out, then I start the year very enthusiastic rush through a number of topics, but by February, I'm panicking every morning, "omg, what do I teach today?" and then at the end of the year, I kind of realize that the lower 30% of the class doesn't find mate in one when it presents itself in their games. This curriculum is designed to take all the planning out of teaching, kind of a Chess Instruction for Dummies, so that even the laziest and least prepared teacher has a coherent, paced, unit-based study plan. I hope it helps!
      As you already know, I'm obsessed with Jeff Coakley, so references to the green book are to his Winning Chess Strategy for Kids, and to the red and orange book are Winning Chess Puzzles for Kids, Books 1 and 2. I also refer to my 6th Grade Curriculum.
     I'm presenting this at a professional development in about a week and I'm still revising it, so comments please! Also, if I reference anything else that you'd like/like more info about, email me (

Friday, August 2, 2013

my favorite lessons, part 7: trading pieces

    I start by explaining there are really two ways to win a game of chess: you can
1) attack your opponent's king and checkmate him, or you can
2) a. win material (be up pieces),
    b. trade all the pieces off,
    c. get a pawn to the other side of the board,
    d. get your queen back,
    e. do the king and queen checkmate*

I explain that we are going to look at some positions today and practice winning the second way. I then write on the board
Reasons to Trade
1. You are ahead material
and then I ask students if they can think of another reason you might want to trade pieces. I'm looking for answers like "You are being attacked" or "Your opponent's piece is better than yours" and obviously I then write that one the board.

We then look at the following positions. All of them are taken from Coakley's books: some from the green book and some from the blue book.

1. I start by asking what the material is. I then ask a student to find how white can trade off black's remaining big pieces (1. Rd8 essentially forces the exchange of both pairs of rooks). Finally, I ask how white will win after that. I'm look for an answer that involves Na4-c5xb7/a6, centralizing the king, and advancing the queenside pawns.


2. Again, I ask what the material is, then how white can trade queens. (1. Qg3+) Next, we talk about how the black king can't stop the advance of both pawns. Finally, I go back and ask what black is going to try to do if white doesn't trade queens. (Hopefully, you've done the lesson on 5 kinds of draws and perpetual check, so kids will recognize how annoying the black queen can be.)

3. Again, what's the material?
What does that mean white should do here? (1. Qxd5 Rxd5)
What should white do next? (finish development 2. b3 or 2. Bd2, I usually choose b3 to avoid the bishop being attacked after ...Ne4)
How can white try to trade off more pieces? (2. b3 Rc8 3. Bb2 Ne4 4. Rac1):

final position #3

4. We then look at the same position (#3) but with black to move. I say ok, if white's up material and that means she wants to trade pieces, what do you think black wants to do (not trade pieces). I ask students to suggest a move that does this: the best two are 1...Ne4 or 1...Qd7, as other moves hang b7.

5. I always start with asking what the material is. It's very important to get students in the habit of counting the material whenever they first see a position, and it's a great, easy-but-important question to ask struggling students.
   I then ask who wants to trade pieces (black). It's good, incidentally, to vary how you ask this second question slightly: I usually start in the first two positions by saying white wants to trade, then I ask what being up material means you want to do, then I establish who is up material and ask which player wants to trade. Students will understand and be able to apply the idea better if they've thought about it from a couple different perspectives.
    I ask how black can trade pieces (1...Nxc3) and say let's assume white recaptures (2. bxc3). I ask what else black might do (2. Bxb7) and say we will come back and look at that in a minute.
After 1...Nxc3 2. bxc3, how can black continue to trade? (2...Bxg2 3. Kxg2)
I ask how black can try to continue to trade? (3...c5) We talk about why white can't capture on c5 (...Rxd2) and how d4 is now attacked twice and defended once.
I get someone to suggest 4. Nb3 or 4. Nf3, make the moves 4...cxd5 5. cxd5, and ask how black can offer another trade? (...Rac8):

the end of position 5
We finish by talking about what black might do after the trade of rooks (invade with the last rook to c3, win a3, centralize the king, advance the queenside pawns).

Don't forget to go back and talk about what happens if white tries 2. Bxb7: not 2...Rab8 3. Bxa6 but 2...Ne2+! 3. Kf1 Nxc1 4. Bax8 Rax8 and black is up a whole rook.
6. Who's ahead material and how much? (white, the exchange and the a pawn. I talk about what a valuable pawn the a5 pawn is to be up: both passed and advanced)
What does that mean white wants to do? (trade pieces)
What would black do if it were black's turn? (...Qxh2#. This gives white another reason to trade pieces-- refer to reason 2 on the board)
Ask for suggestions of moves for white that trade pieces. You should get 1. Rf2, 1. Re2, and (hopefully) 1. Qc8 Kh7 2. Qf5. Look at them in that order:
1.Rf2 gives black a couple pawns and the chance to annoy white's king a lot: 1...Rxf2 2.Kxf2 Qxh2+ 3.Ke3 Qf4+ 4.Ke2 [4.Kd3 Qxf3+ 5.Kc2 Nf4] 4...Ng3+ 5.Kf2 Qd2+ 6.Kxg3 Qxe1+
1. Re2 allows black to win white's valuable a pawn. Ask if anyone can figure out how (1...Rxe2 2. Qxe2 Qg5+ 4. Qg2/Kh1 Qxa5) and explain that while white is still better in the endgame, it's not so easy to win.
Then look at 1. Qc8 Kh7 2. Qf5+ Qxf5 3. exf5 and ask why the position is easy for white to win. The earlier discussion of the value of the a pawn usually means kids get the right answer: white will continue with Ra1 and queening the a pawn. Make sure you ask how white wins after 3...Rb8 4. a6 Ra8 5. Ra1 Nf4 (6. a7 Ne6 7. Rf1-b1-b8).

7. At this point, I might ask a more general question, like "What's going on here?" I'm hoping for the answer "White is up a rook, but black is threatening mate with Qe1/c1/a1."
Ask how white can stop the mate. Notice that moves like 1. Qe3 or f3 that stop some mates don't stop 1...Qe1#.
   White's only way to stop immediate checkmate is to sacrifice the rook: 1. Rh8+ Kxh8 2. Qd8 Kh7 and then 3. Qd3+ forcing the trade of queens is a much easier win than 3. Qh4+ followed by taking black's h3 pawn but allowing 4...Qxb3. After trading queens, white wins by centralizing the king and advancing the queenside pawns.

8. Again, what's the material and what does that mean white should do? (1. Rd6 Rxd6 2. Nxd6)
What's white's plan after this? (to try to win the a pawn, for example:
1.Rd6 Rxd6 2.Nxd6 Be1 3.f3 Kf6 4.Kc4 Ke6 5.Nb7 Kf5 6.Kb5 Kf4 7.Nxa5 Kg3 8.Nc4 Kxg2 9.a5 Kxh3 10.a6 Bf2 11.Nb6)
And finally, end by asking a kid to summarize what we talked about today.

* obviously, you should have done the king and queen checkmate lesson before this one.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

my favorite lessons 6: bishop takes knight?

Kids love knights. I find myself reminding students 10,000 times a year that bishops are usually better than knights, and they need to have a good reason to trade a bishop for a knight. To overcome their natural tendency to favor the knight, I like to give a lesson directly on the subject.

So what is a good reason to trade bishop for knight? Most of the time, you should either be
1) winning a pawn,
2) opening up a king (in a situation where it's realistic to attack) or
3) creating a real pawn weakness that you can attack.
It's also ok to trade if your bishop is bad and you have no good retreat square for it.

Of course, there are some situations that don't fall into these categories, but I make it clear that students are responsible to me for having a good reason.

I explain to the class that I'm going to give them 8 positions and they have to tell me if white should trade the bishop for the knight, or not. Notice that in most (5/8) positions, the answer is simply no, you should not take the knight.

Here they are: (or here if you'd prefer a cbv file)

1. No

2. No

3. No

4. yes, since white can follow up by taking on e5

5. yes, because white creates a serious weakness: doubled isolated pawns on a half open file. Notice that White needs to continue correctly: 1. Bxc6 bxc6 2. Na4! (otherwise black will get rid of his weakness by playing 2....c5), followed by Rac1 and either Qc2 or doubling rooks on the c file.

6. no


7. Yes, because it opens up black's king. White can follow up by castling queenside or playing Qd2 to attack the weak h6 pawn. Point out that after 1. Bxf6 gxf6 2. Qd2 Kg7 3. 0-0-0, white doesn't have to be afraid of 3...Bxf3, since opening the g- file only makes black's king less safe.
8. No. What white would actually like to do here is play Bg5-h4-g3 and try to trade off black's excellent dark squared bishop.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

my favorite lessons, part 5: attacking and practice in calculating

This position is stolen from Coakley's green book, the chapter "Castles Made of Sand." I use it to talk about how to attack.
    I explain that you normally need one of two things to have a successful attack: either open lines toward the opponent's king, which sometimes happens because you've moved your pawns, and sometimes happens because they've moved their pawns, or more of your pieces attacking the king than enemy pieces defending it. I explain that some players like to attack the king in any position, but it is only a good idea if you have one of these two advantages. This means that if you really want to attack, you have to start by either bringing pieces over towards the kingside, or pushing your pawns to open lines, or somehow getting your opponent to move the pawns in front of their king.
    I ask the class first to brainstorm possible first moves, and ask them to start with forcing moves: moves that are either
1. checks,
2. captures, or
3. threats of checkmate.
After they list all they can (usually 1... Rxh2, 1....Qh5, 1....Qe5/d6, 1...Nxf2), I ask also for any moves that bring more pieces towards the black king. Usually I get two answers to this: 1... Rdg8 and 1...Nf4. This gives us an opportunity to talk about how the former is more effective, as the knight is already participating in the attack, hitting f2 and f4, and preventing the queen from moving along the third rank to defend.

There are a number of wins in this position that you can explore with your students:
  • 1...Rxh2 2. Kxh2 Qh5+ 3.Kg1 Rh8 4. any Qh1/2
  • 1...Rdg8 2.Bxd3 Rxg2+ 3.Kxg2 Qg5+ 4.Kh1 Qh5;
  • 1...Qh5 2.h3 Rdg8 3.Kh2 (3.Bxf7 Qxh3) 3...Rxg2+ 4.Kxg2 Qxh3+ 5.Kg1 Qh2# (5...Rg8#) ;
  • 1...Qe5 2.h3 Rxh3 3.gxh3 Rg8+ 4.Kh1 Qf5 5.Kh2 Qf4+ 6.Kh1 Qf3+ 7.Kh2 Qg2#
    • 2.g3 Qh5 3.h4 Qxh4 4.gxh4 Rdg8+ 5.Kh2 Rxh4#;
    • 2.f4 Qd4+ 3.Kh1 Rxh2+ 4.Kxh2 Rh8+ 5.Kg3 Qg7#)

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

my favorite lessons 4: winning up a pawn

        I stole this from an endgame book, I'm sorry I don't remember which one. The idea is to give students a roadmap for how to win a simple minor piece endgame when they're up a pawn. Obviously, this is not so simple, and so your objective is not that they win 100% of the time, or even 75% or any particular % of the time, but more that they have an idea of the method and get some practice at it.
      I start by showing them a position
having a student tell me the material, and asking who thinks they could win this as white. (it doesn't matter what the answer is). I then ask who can explain to me what the plan is.
The plan is this:
1. Centralize the king (I explain that you activate pieces in the endgame in the order of their power, i.e. queen first, then rook, the king is worth 4, so king next, then bishops and knights, and generally only after these pieces are activated do you start pushing the pawns.)
2. Activate the knight
3. Make a passed pawn by pushing the pawns on the side you have a majority.
4. Once you've done that, the side with the extra pawn usually wins by some combination of:
   a) pushing the passed pawn and invading with the king
   b) trading knights
   c) sacrificing the passed pawn to win the kingside pawns.
Make sure this is written on the board so students can refer to it later while they are playing.
I then ask for a volunteer to start white out by doing #1, centralizing the king. I move for black, and we play through the following moves:
1.Kf1 Ke7
2.Ke2 Kd6
3.Kd3 Kc5
I then ask for another volunteer to take over and activate the knight:
4.Nc2 Nd5
I ask what this threatens (Nf4+ winning a pawn) and how white can stop this:
5.g3 a5
Here I ask which pawn to push first, and if they don't know, remind them of the general rule that you push the potential passed pawn first, in this case the b pawn:
6.b3 f5
7.a3 g6

8.b4+ axb4
At this point, you've completed step three, and I explain that you now try to advanced the pawn and be on the lookout for tactics that allow you to sneak in with your pieces, or trade knights. In general, you calculate as much as you can. Depending on the level of the class, I go faster or slower through the rest of the game: the exact moves don't matter as much as the kids grasping the basic plan in the beginning. You won't be able to teach technique and endgame control in one lecture-lesson, so don't try too hard.
9....Kd6 [9...Nxb4+ This is a nice example of how white wins fairly easily if black allows the knights to be traded. 10.Nxb4 Kxb4 11.Kd4 Kb3 12.f4 Kc2 13.Ke5 Kd3 14.Kf6 Ke3 15.Kg7 Kf3 16.Kxh7 Kg2 17.Kxg6 Kxh2 18.Kxf5 Kxg3 19.Kg5]
10.Kd4 Nc7
11.f4 Nb5+
12.Kc4 Nc7
13.Ne3 [also good is 13.b5 Nxb5 14.Kxb5 Kd5 15.Ne1 Ke4]
14.Kd4 Kd6
15.Nc4+ Kc6 [15...Ke6 16.Kc5 (16.Ne5 Kd6 17.Nf7+ Ke7 18.Ng5 h6 19.Nf3 Kf6 20.Kc5) ]
16.Ke5 Kb5
17.Ne3 Na6 [17...Kxb4 18.Nd5+]
18.Nd5 Kc4
19.Nf6 h5
20.Nd5 Nb8
21.Ne7 Kxb4
At this point, I reset the position and ask a student to repeat the general plan. Then students choose a partner, set up the position on their own boards, and practice playing the position as white and as black. Ideally, they should play twice, once with each color, and should have 10-15 minutes per side, although you can do it with 5 minutes each if you are pressed for time. Do remind them that playing an endgame with 5 minutes is not at all the same as playing a whole game with 5 minutes, and they should play slowly and thoughtfully as the position is tricky.  
the next day....
I follow that lesson with its sister position:
which you will notice is exactly the same, but with bishops instead of knights. I ask students again how many think they would win the position, and hopefully a few more students raise their hands than last time.
     I then ask what the basic plan is, and of course its essentially the same:
1. Centralize the king
2. Activate the bishop
3. Make a passed pawn by pushing the pawns on the side you have a majority.
4. Once you've done that, the side with the extra pawn usually wins by some combination of:
   a) pushing the passed pawn and invading with the king
   b) trading bishops
   c) sacrificing the passed pawn to win the kingside pawns.
I again show students a model game; you can also have them play first and show them the game afterwards, but I find with difficult lessons like this, many classes benefit from as much teacher-modeling as possible before they do it themselves. They play much better and are more likely to be successful if they see exactly how you do it first.
I ask for a volunteer to help me do step 1:
1.Kf1 Kf8
2.Ke2 Ke7
3.Kd3 Kd7
4.Kc4 Kc6

then a new volunteer for step 2:
5.Bc3 g6

and again a different student for step 3:
6.b4 Bb6 7.f3 Bc7 8.a4 Bb6
9.Bd4 Bc7
10.b5+ axb5+
11.axb5+ Kb7

and again, don't get too worried about covering every detail of the rest: like every endgame it gets a little messy and there are many possibilities for each side. What's below are just examples!

12.Kd5 Bb8 [12...Bf4 13.Be5 Be3 14.Kd6 Kb6 15.Ke7]
13.Bf2 [also good are 13.b6 Bg3; and 13.Be5 Ba7 14.Kd6 Bb8+ 15.Kd5 Ba7, which at first looks like repetition, but white invades after 16. Bg7 h5 17. Ke5]
14.g3 h5
15.h4 Bb8
16.b6 Kc8
17.Kc6 Be5
18.b7+ Kb8
19.f4 Bf6
20.Ba7+ Kxa7
21.Kc7 Bd8+

Now again, return to the original position, have a student repeat the basic plan, and send the class off to practice. Circulate and watch: the most important thing is to catch players who aren't following the basic plan. Don't worry too much about showing kids every forced win that they miss: it's a difficult position and you don't want to undermine their confidence. Keep in mind that your goal here is to give students a basic plan to follow, not to police their endgame technique.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

favorite lessons part 3: threats

       The idea and first position for this lesson is taken directly from Jeff Coakley's excellent book "Winning Chess Strategy for Kids." Most of my favorite lessons are stolen from Coakley's books, and let me say now that if you're a chess teacher and you don't have all his books, you should stop reading this right now and order them. They're all you'll ever need, I promise.
    That said, I start the lesson (as he suggests) with a general discussion of what a threat is: how in real life, a threat is bad ("I'm going to beat you up after school," "I'm going to tell," etc.) but in chess, a threat is great ("I'm going to take your piece") because it gives you a chance to be winning next move. The more threats you make, the more chances you give your opponent to make a mistake, and the more chances you will get an advantage.
      In chess, a threat has to be specific, so when I ask "what's the threat?" I am really asking "Where are going going to move next turn?" and you should give me a specific answer, like Qxg7, rather than a vague answer, like "checkmate." For a threat to work in either real life or chess, it has to be something that the other guy is actually scared of. So if I say "I'm going to give you a piece of cake," that isn't a threat, and neither is threatening to play QxP if they can just recapture your queen.
    Here's Coakley's position:

    He talks about the following threats:
  • 1. Be3, threatening to take the black queen.
  • 1. Bd6, threatening to win the exchange
  • 1. Qg2, threatening Qxg7#
  • 1. Qd2, threatening the sacrifice 2. Bxh6
and then more complex threats like
  • 1. Be5, threatening to double black's pawns
  • 1. Qe3, threatening to trade queens, since white is up material 
Obviously, you shouldn't just tell the kids this, you should ask them to find the threats. I like to show this position as an example, and then do a couple more, usually one opening position and one endgame. For example:

Threats include:
  • 1. Bg5, threatening the queen;
  • 1. Qa4, threatening the knight for a second time (a good opportunity to review counting attackers and defenders);
  • 1. d4, threatening both to win the e5 pawn, and to play 2. d5, threatening (also winning) the knight (a good opportunity to review pins)
  • 1. Ng5, threatening to take on f7 with the queen or knight (ask which threat is more dangerous). This can lead to an interesting discussion about how to follow up after 1...Nh6 or 1...Qd7. (2. f4 is a logical idea, as are 2. a5 and 2. Bc4)
  • 1. a5 threatening both 2. a6, winning the knight by attacking the bishop, and to a lesser extent 2. axb6, threatening to make black's queenside pawns into targets.
It's also good to talk here about how it's trickier to make less obvious threats, i.e. everyone will see that 1. Bg5 threatens the queen, but 1. d4 and 1. a5 are harder.

Threats include
  • 1. Rhd1, threatening 2. Rd8 with backrank mate
  • 1. h4, threatening to trap the bishop with 2. h5
  • 1. Nd5, threatening a fork with 2. Ne7+
  • 1. Rd7, threatening to take on b7.
Tell students that in their games, they need to try to make as many threats as possible, and to show you when they make a good one. Write down the position in the best student example and use it as a review at the very end of class or the beginning of the following one.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

my favorite lessons, part two: choosing the best capture

Choosing the Best Capture 
level: absolute beginner
format: large group lesson
time: 15 minutes

     I do this lesson as part of teaching how the pieces move. I normally teach the pawn first, then the rook, bishop, and queen, then the knight, then the king. (this is assuming 43 minute periods and 6th graders). After teaching the pawn, they play the pawn game. After teaching the rook bishop, and queen, they play a capturing game involving those three pieces plus the pawns, starting in their normal positions. I teach piece values simultaneously, and the objective of the game is to take more points than your opponent does.
     If you were going to slow it down, I would teach just the queen in the second lesson, and have the kids play the excellent game Pawns vs Queen, (starting from normal positions, but with the d2 pawn advanced to d3). In this game, the black queen wins if she captures all the pawns; the white pawns win if one gets to the eighth rank, even if the pawn can immediately be captures upon doing so. This fantastic game teaches concepts like the double attack by the queen, advancing the pawns together to defend each other, and how much more dangerous the furthest advanced pawn is.
     But when I teach the three pieces, rook bishop, queen, together, we practice their movement and captures by talking about which captures are best. This is really a bread and butter skill of chess, as capturing your opponent's pieces in the best possible way is 75% of playing well, and like all important skills, it needs to be taught explicitly.
     Consider the following position, removing the kings (chessbase won't let me save a position without them, but of course the kids have not learned the king yet).

The white queen can capture most of the pieces. I ask which black piece can the queen not capture.
I explain that the best capture is the one where you get the most points, and don't get recaptured. I then ask the kids to explain which pieces are protected, and how. I ask which pieces are not protected, and ask them to figure out which capture gets you the most points.
    Often my second lesson takes a little longer than I would like, because I have a lot to do in it (reviewing the pawn, teaching three pieces, piece value, how to set the 4 pieces up, modeling 5 moves practice of the game they are going to play on the demo board, letting the kids play, and then showing them how to figure out who won at the end). If you feel rushed, this lesson also works very well as the review of R, B, Q, P movement at the beginning of lesson 3.
    I do the same kind of thing after teaching the knight, for example:

Again, I ask which piece cannot be captured. Then I ask the students to talk through which pieces are defended and how, as well as how much each is worth. This gives us a chance to talk about how it's worth taking the defended queen over the free rook.
    Finally an example from "real chess"

And here you can compare Rxd8 with Qxa8, and depending on your class and time situation, maybe someone will point out that while Qxa8 looks better in isolation, you could have the best of both worlds by taking on d8 first and then taking on a8.

Friday, June 28, 2013

my (10-15) favorite lessons, part 1

Hello Blog Readers!
    Later this summer, I am doing a professional development for my friend Sean at Success Academy, and possibly also for some school in Canada, and one component I was envisioning was a couple of hours of "My Favorite Lessons" delivered at high speed. Some no-prep, easy-set-up, time-tested, pull-out-when-you-have-no idea-what-to-do-today guaranteed-success lessons.
    So to motivate myself to prepare them ahead of time, I thought I would share them with you.
    Here's the first:

Mate in 5
   This lesson teaches mating patterns, planning, piece coordination, and creativity.  It can be done as a large group lesson, in small groups or pairs, or as homework. It's good for multi-level classrooms, since it exposes beginners to a lot of checkmate practice, while advanced students can be given paper and pencil and asked to list as many solutions as they can find.
    In the position below, explain that white gets 5 moves in a row, while black doesn't get to move. Students are asked to find as many checkmates as possible.

Usually, you get a flood of answers at first, which then slows down. Depending on what they have found/not found, I then ask leading questions like
"You found a lot of checkmates on h7. Can you find some on g7?"
"Can you find a checkmate with a queen and bishop? Queen and knight? Queen and pawn?"
"Can you find a checkmate with two knights?" (This is also the only mate in 4 in the position)
"Can you find a checkmate using a bishop and pawn (or) using a pawn promotion?"

A Swedish visitor, Jesper Hall, showed me that lesson a few years ago, and it always works like a charm.

In other news, the pregnancy is going ok. It's getting a little annoying, lumbering around, having to hold on to stair railings, unable to lift even moderately heavy things or drink wine, but overall it's not so bad.
     I'm endlessly amused by the baby kicking me.
     I'm also having very vivid dreams, which is fun.
     Strangers are all extremely nice to me. People smile at me on the street, and let me go first. Everyone talks to me, wants to know my due date, and seems impressed it's a boy. I always get offered a seat on the subway (the hands-down winner of offering the seat? Chinese males age 18-30. They get up 100% of the time.)
     Here is a funny ultrasound picture (not mine):

see the cat?

   In non baby news, we moved up to the top two floors of our house (unbelievable how much space there is) and are remodeling it. Remodeling is fun, like playing design-your-fantasy-house, only for real. Here is the bathroom floor tile I picked out:
 and here is our kitchen backsplash:
Fun fun fun!

Also, Jonathan bought the largest fridge I have ever seen, and it dispenses water and ice from the door! I live in the lap of luxury! (or I will soon, when it's delivered).

      I've been reading a lot, because I spend a lot of time lying around. In the last month, I finished:
How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America (Otis Brawley)
The Circumcision Decision: An Unbiased Guide for Parents (Lorna Greenberg, Susan Terkel)
A World of Hurt: Fixing Pain Medicine's Biggest Mistake (Barry Meier)
The Norm Chronicles: Stories and Numbers About Danger (Michael Blastland)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver)
Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery (Bill Clegg)
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua)
The Spark: A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius (Kristine Bartlett)
The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed State (Andrei Lankov)
Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey (Blaine Harden)
Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (Pamela Druckerman)

They were all pretty-to-very-good, or I wouldn't have finished them. Except The Norm Chronicles, which was recommended in the Economist, disappointed me.

    That's all I have for you this evening. Hopefully I will blog 10-15 times in the next few weeks with brilliant lesson ideas for you. Also, I'll be attending the upcoming US Chess School and will take photos.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

pictures from girls nationals






Darrian Robinson, once a 318 player and now a freshman at U Chicago, chats with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. Darrian has a White House internship for the summer with Valerie Jarrett. (!)

I woke up at 5, walked through downtown Chicago and took some pictures:
a flower behind a flower


note the NBC peacock