Saturday, February 20, 2016

Noah gets his first chess lesson

We discussed the names of the pieces and which he likes (he dislikes the knight and likes the "little tiny pawn," consistent with his love of small things). I explained that chess is a game and one of my favorite games, and that you play by moving the pieces around from one square to another. We practiced that. We agreed to take turns. I told him about taking pieces, how to do it, and that you get to keep the piece.

After the lesson, it was nap time, and he took a pawn to bed with him.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Have Respect for Mattresses, Citizens!

A mattress is insatiable.  It demands sacrifices. At night it makes the 
sound of a bouncing  ball. It needs a bookcase. It needs a table with 
thick stupid legs. Creaking its  springs,  it demands drapes, a door 
curtain, and pots and pans for the kitchen. It shoves people and says to them:
     "Goon! Buy a washboard and rolling-pin!"
     "I'm ashamed of you, man. You haven't yet got a carpet."
     "Work! I'll soon give  you children. You need  money for nappies and a pram."
     A mattress remembers and does everything in its own way.
     Not even a poet  can escape the common lot. Here he comes, 
carrying one from the market, hugging it to his soft belly with horror.
     "I'll break  down your resistance,  poet," says the mattress.  "You  no
longer need  to run to the post  office to  write poetry. And, anyway, is 
it worth writing? Work and the balance will always  be  in your  favour. 
Think about your wife and children!"
     "I haven't  a wife," cries the  poet, staggering back  from his sprung
     "You will have! But I don't guarantee she will be the loveliest girl on
earth. I don't even know whether she will be kind. Be prepared for 
anything. You will have children."
     "I don't like children."
     "You will."
     "You frighten me, citizen mattress."
     "Shut up, you fool.  You  don't know  everything.  You'll  also  obtain
credit from the Moscow woodworking factory."
     "I'll kill you, mattress!"
     "Puppy! If you dare to, the neighbours will denounce you to the 
housing authority."

That's an excerpt from a very funny comic Russian novel Twelve Chairs,
which you can read online.

Recently, Jonathan and I attempted to buy a mattress.

It's always been my dream to own a king sized bed. Plus Zoe sleeps with
us and Noah manages to as well sometimes. (i.e. we need it).

In 2001, I bought my sister a Tempurpedic mattress as an engagement
present. She's always loved good bedding. She didn't end up marrying
the guy, who was an inventor and invented the blue ink in American
Express Blue cards and made fake passports for the CIA, and she didn't
like the mattress either (too firm), so she gave it back to me and I'd
been sleeping on it ever since.

Jonathan loved it so we thought we'd buy another Tempurpedic. We 
did, the Contour Supreme (heavenly, firm), but it smelled terrible and 
we started reading frightening articles online about the neurotoxic 
chemicals it's made of. Zoe was just a few weeks old and we were 
afraid for her. We tried to air it out: removing the cover and standing 
it by the window every day for weeks, but when it hadn't stopped 
off-gassing after a month and a half, we returned it. 

After further research on the heath hazards of memory foam we 
decided to splurge and buy an Essentia, which is organic memory 
foam. They are crazy, crazy expensive, but we justified it with 
the idea that we would spend 8 hours a day on it for twenty years. 

Unfortunately, it was not very comfortable. Fortunately, it too was 

By now we are feeling defeated, tired of mattress shopping and unsure 
of what we wanted. So we headed to Sleepys. It's just very confusing, 
buying a mattress. You go to the showroom and lie down on ten or 
twenty of them and by the end you have no idea what you want 
anymore or how comfortable any of them really are. Do we really like 
"firm" mattresses, or have we simply always had one? The salesperson 
talks a lot of mumbo jumbo about coils and latex and alignment. She 
tried to convince me that firm mattresses are for fat people. Then 
later, after we'd bought the mattress, she starts telling me how her 
obstetrician kept harassing her about weight gain and gestational 
diabetes during her first pregnancy so she skipped prenatal care 
entirely for her subsequent children. I didn't even know you could do 

In the end we picked the first one we'd lain down on. And then we 
discovered that you can make an offer for a mattress. Sleepys prices 
are not fixed, you actually bargain with the regional manager via 
the salesperson. The mattress was $2900, on sale for $2600, we 
offered $2200 and that was fine. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

life choices

Hello out there!
I made a big decision recently that I'd like to tell you about. The last year and a half I've been staying home with my now two kids, Noah (2) and Zoe (5 months).

At first I was super-enthusiastic about this project, determined to raise the smartest, most verbal, best-fed, sweetest-natured children ever made. I talked to Noah incessantly, keeping up a running narration of everything I was doing in order to expose him to the absolute maximum language possible.  but after a while it gets very tedious. you get sick of talking, sick of mops and trucks and dinosaurs and garbage or whatever your kid is obsessed by 24 hours a day. also I spend a lot of time doing laundry and changing diapers and picking up toys and cleaning the house. and I don't mind housework per se, I actually have grown to kinda like it, especially the clean warm orderliness of laundry, but I'm SO BORED. I avoid my friends because I know I'm a conversational black hole.  I reread old blog posts and miss myself.

So I made plans to put them both in a local Montessori school next September and return to teaching at 318. I miss 318, at least parts of it: my advanced classes and the Saturday tournaments. Also I miss the long overnight trips. (I'm going to elementary nationals this year with another school and I can't wait-- 5 days of nonstop chess analysis without my children sounds like a dream.) I feel in some way that I belong at 318 and do a lot of good there.

And then Jonathan asked me to stay home another year with Zoe-- to put Noah in preschool 9-3 5 days a week and just take care of her, the house, and Noah after/ before school. He asked me like its a favor.

At first I thought no, I need for myself to be working outside our house for my own mental health. but then the next morning I was pushing the double stroller through the park on an unseasonably warm sunny winter day and we stopped and Noah got out to play chase with a puppy, and amidst the squeals of joy I thought "of course it's glorious to have another year off to spend with my children. How lucky I am." And so I cancelled Zoe's enrollment at the Montessori school, committing myself.

I'm still going back and forth in my mind. On the one hand I think we'd be stretched very thin as a family if we were both working. The house would never be clean and the dog would not get dewormed and no one would eat anything but takeout and toast.

Maybe with just one kid to watch I can blog and go running and maybe even play chess.
and if I was working, I'd be staring through my window, wishing I could be with my kids.

any thoughts, blog readers?

Monday, October 13, 2014

a different way to pay for private lessons

It started when a parent said to me, "My child's rating hasn't gone up in a year. Does that mean he hasn't learned anything from the expensive private lessons I've been paying for?" And I replied, "That's exactly what it means, with the small caveat that your child might have learned something about chess (like an opening) but is not a more skillful player."
Which led me to think about the problem for parents of not knowing if an expensive coach is worthwhile. Which led me to make an offer to a small group of parents that:
 I would teach their child once a week for free
The child would play in a minimum of 2 tournaments a month and one hour a week at chess club or online.
The child would do all my homework and notate all games.
I would be paid every three months the gain (from the beginning of lessons) in the child's rating times a multiplier X.
My question to you is, what's a fair number for x? I would suggest it might be different for different people, or different ages, and definitely for different ratings.
Take as two examples a 9 year old rated 600 who has played chess for a year and a 13 year old rated 1650 who has played chess for 5 years; both students have previously had private and group lessons.

Thank you.

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.