Chess at 3 was started by Tyler Schwartz and Jon Sieber, as they both shared a passion for chess as well as teaching young children the in and outs of this classical game.
Sawyer sat down with Tyler a couple weeks ago to chat more about the story behind Chess at 3, the reasons why he and his friend Jon started this business and his unique approach to teaching children chess successfully.
Let's start with your passion for chess. Where does it stem from?
I went to college for music and became a little frustrated with it because music is so subjective. You can practice a lot and, just because someone else looks better or plays a song in a way that appeals more to the public, you can be written off as a ‘lesser musician.’ Chess is different in that way. If you practice a lot to become better, you beat your opponents more. The effort lines up with the rewards. Chess is also a playground for your mind, so it works as an outlet to express creativity.
So when did you start getting interested in chess?
I didn't start until I was twenty, actually. I'm very good at intensively practicing and that's what I did with chess. I love understanding what's difficult about something and I love to then try to solve and conquer that difficult thing.
How did you transition into becoming a chess teacher and what is unique about your teaching?
I was playing chess tournaments at night when I got hired to teach chess at a preschool. When I started explaining the rules of chess to children, they would always ask 'why?’ “Why does the king only move one square at a time?” Telling them, “Those are the rules of the game and that's just how chess works,” wasn't cutting it. I heard this question over and over again, so I decided to try something different. One day, I just improvised and answered, “The king only moves one square at a time because he has a huuuuge belly. He has a huge belly because he had ten pancakes for breakfast and twenty sandwiches for lunch.” The kids started laughing and that's how the storytelling approach was born. I had found a fun and engaging way to explain chess to children. Now they would remember the rules, because I made them accessible through the frame of the story’s logic.
What is the biggest challenge in teaching chess to children?
Teaching the first twenty lessons is very focused and we follow a real step-by-step script. Certain points need to be hit every time and it has to be done with a sense of humor too. It’s important to balance that structure with a tailored approach that fits each individual student’s needs. For example, if a child is not competitive or excited about winning, we have to adapt and make the game more about friendship. I present it as something that we are working toward cooperatively, instead of going up against an opponent. I might say, “I lost a chess game yesterday and I don't know why.” Then I ask the child for advice and help so we can figure it out together. This shift in perspective will help the non-competitive child find their own way to play the game and enjoy it.
How did you figure all of this out? There seems to be a lot of psychology behind it all...
Honestly, when I first started teaching (and I've done this for almost ten years now) I just kept my mouth closed and listened. It was all about gathering experience and understanding before coming up with a solution. Observing the children’s behaviors, attitudes and reactions was key.
Do you think there is a perfect time to start?
Yes, three years old is a great time to start because that's when kids are cognitively ready to figure out how all the pieces like to move. Our stories are built to engage that age precisely. It's also a great age because three-year-olds don't have any preconceived ideas about chess. They just accept it as a game and not something only 'nerds' do, which is a stigma that is often attached to chess.
What do you think are the long term benefits for kids playing chess?
Discipline is the main thing. Chess is something you get better at slowly by practicing a little bit every day. Our stories are what make us unique. This approach offers our students increased literacy, vocabulary and the ability to listen in addition to learning chess. Our stories are long enough to stretch kids’ attention spans. They absorb and retain all of the information because we tell the stories in a fun and engaging way.
What are your plans with Chess at 3 for the future?
Our curriculum can currently be licensed by schools and we are already all over the map with tutoring in Chicago, Los Angeles, Grand Rapids, St. Louis and Charlotte. We have big plans for more geographical expansion in the coming months and years. We are also working on translating our chess stories into an illustrated board game, so stay tuned for that!
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