In 2006 Chess4Life founder and national master Elliott Neff began teaching lessons in the Charles Wright Academy Lower School Chess Club. We spoke with Mr. Neff about his love of chess and memories as a coach and mentor to Tarriers, including 2015 Washington state champion Noah Fields ’18. To learn more about the Chess Club and Noah, click here.
As a “mostly self-taught” chess player, what sparked your interest in chess?
I played chess since I can remember—my dad taught me the moves early on. I can remember playing over the moves from the Fisher-Spassky 1972 world championships and being completely puzzled as to why Fisher resigned when he did in his first game—I couldn’t understand at that time why! My first tournament was when I was 8 years old. I had never used a chess clock or chess timer before, and that tournament was what really sparked my keen interest in pursuing chess. That tournament, followed by a few more tournaments over the next few years, solidified my sense that I really could become very good in chess. I wanted to be champion and pursued it avidly from that time on through high school.
What has kept you so motivated to succeed?
I am somewhat competitive, and I worked hard to try to become the high school state champion—and succeeded while a junior in high school. Then I kept setting additional stretch goals to improve my chess, mostly focusing on what effort I needed to put in. Hence, I felt successful no matter how I did in tournaments because I was committed to putting in the study necessary to improve. I learned early on the concept of, “Win, Draw, Learn!” that we teach today in Chess4Life—the concept of seeing failures and losses as learning opportunities.
What do you enjoy most about teaching chess? Why is chess such a valuable game for children to learn?
I love seeing the light bulb go on as students understand and grasp new concepts and then apply them. What motivates me for the long haul is seeing students apply the lessons we teach to their life as a whole, not just in chess. Chess is uniquely valuable because of intrinsic benefits that come from learning, studying, and practicing the game—skills including memory, concentration, strategic planning, and many more that fit with STEM education initiatives. Additionally, our focus at Chess4Life is to help the students improve in their character, cognitive, cooperative, and leadership skills. I see them improving in decision making and goal setting that tells me they are learning the skills necessary to succeed and flourish in life, not just get by. I love to see them progress; I don’t worry about them being perfect.
What do you recall from your time at CWA in terms of the school’s chess culture? What do you think makes CWA’s Chess Club unique?
I have loved coaching personally at CWA for multiple years as well as continuing to work with CWA to provide what CWA is looking for. I love the inclusiveness and team spirit at CWA as well as the culture of mentoring others—those students who are more advanced regularly help others who are not so far advanced. What makes CWA’s Chess Club unique in my opinion really goes back to the leadership at CWA who have striven to, and I believe succeeded in, developing a culture of “can-do” attitude versus an attitude of “we” versus “me” and an attitude of excellence both personally and academically.
What do you admire most about Noah and his approach to chess?
While I was involved only a little bit with coaching Noah in class early on at CWA, I’ve observed more from a distance. Noah has always appeared to me to be a student who focuses, strives hard, does not do things halfway, sets goals, and does his best.
What’s your favorite chess memory—as a player, a teacher, or an observer?
That’s a question that is hard to answer because of so many memories: winning for the first time against my great uncle while just 8 years old, winning my first time attempting to play chess blindfolded (against my dad), and defeating my first grandmaster in the U.S. Open Chess Championships are high up there, as is drawing against the world chess champion Anand in a simul in 2012. However, I think my most rewarding memories come as a teacher, when I had a student who for three years played in tournaments and attended classes faithfully and never won a single game, even in practice—and didn’t even manage a draw! If he had a winning game, he somehow managed to get checkmated. I thought he would give up but worked really hard to keep encouraging him, and one day in a chess tournament where he was always losing all five games, he managed to get a stalemate (a draw in chess). You would have thought he had just won the tournament! That was the turning point for him. The very next tournament, he won three out of five, qualified for the state championships, and competed well there also! Seeing that breakthrough was just awesome, as I saw him come to realize that he really could achieve if he simply persisted and never gave up!