Thursday, November 20, 2008

Remember to Look Down in Amman

Recently I sat down for a dual interview with rival New York blogger, Elizabeth Vicary. After she interviewed me about blogging for the US Chess League, I interviewed her. Here is our conversation.

JR: I understand you have a job teaching chess. Really? How do you get paid? Are you a regular teacher on salary or like a tutor?

EV: I’m a regular teacher; I work for the NYC Board of Education. I’ve been teaching at IS 318, a public junior high school in Brooklyn for ten years now. When I started there I was working for Chess in the Schools, but after a while it became clear to me that if I wanted to teach chess as a career, it made sense to get my teaching license and work directly for the school system. Much better pay, fantastic benefits, plus the administration at 318 shares my vision for its chess program much more closely than CIS did. So that was a very positive development in my life a year and a bit ago.

JR: To those of us outside of New York City, IS 318 (and the public school system, for that matter) is a bit confusing. Does that mean a specific school?

EV: Yes, IS = Intermediate school, i.e. 6-8. JHS = junior high school = grades 7-9. CES = community elementary school = k-5, PS = elementary, k-5 or k-6 I think. There are so many public schools in NY that they get identified by prefix, number, and borough. For example, there is quite possibly an IS 318 in Manhattan and the Bronx and Queens etc. Each school is also officially named after someone, so my school is subtitled the Eugenio Maria de Hostos school. I think this guy was a revolutionary Chilean poet, maybe I’m just thinking about Victor Frias, who I actually think I had this conversation with. But de Hostos is never mentioned at school, I think probably he’s a little too far left for their taste.

JR: Do you have tenure? That is a big topic right now. On the “National Scene” as it were.

EV: In NYC you get tenure after 3 years of positive reviews. This is my second year
But I don't have any worries about job security I think. How are they going to fire classroom teachers? Who’s going to watch the kids then?

JR: What is your educational background that got you into teaching in general?

EV: I did my undergraduate in Columbia in English Lit and a masters in education at City College.

JR: So you wanted to be a teacher from the beginning, and teaching chess specifically was a fortunate twist?

EV: No, no. I never wanted to be a teacher. I'm very impatient-- I thought it would be boring and I would be completely unsuitable. But it turned out that being a chess teacher is a lot of fun and I’ve become quite interested in teaching and learning in general, in the ways people acquire new information or skills.

Basically, it's fun; it's a steady job; I'm good at it; and I feel like I'm doing positive work.

JR: So did you do chess in the schools as a way to combine community outreach with your chess hobby, and a regular teaching gig fell out of it?

EV: Exactly. Before that, I worked a few weird jobs after college—I wrote encyclopedia articles for American National Biography—a 20 volume biographical dictionary of every famous dead American. I wasn’t very good at it—I’m not really a details type of person, but it was fun being in the library all day and spending my time searching through old newspapers on microfiche. And I learned surprising fact that reference material is incredibly error-filled. Then after about a year the encyclopedia was ready to be published, and so I became the personal assistant to a Jordanian princess. The mother of a friend of mine was her hairdresser if you’re wondering how that happened.

JR: A random question about the princess. What did that involve exactly? Dressing her? Screening her suitors?

EV: Oh she was in her 50s. She was going back to school at Columbia, mostly just out of vanity I think, and I did her schoolwork for her. There was an occasional adventure, like I helped choose the sisal carpeting for the royal palace in Amman. circa 1945.

JR: That is amazing! That carpet probably cost more than I’ve made in a decade.

EV: Sometimes when I returned things for her people would think I was her and call me Your Majesty. Which was awesome—it’s hard to be in a bad mood when strangers are calling you Your Majesty. I did other, business/chore type things: balanced her check book, sorted her mail, wrote her social emails. She was the source of most of my conversational stories when I worked for her—she was always doing something I found absolutely incredible. Mostly involving spending money. For instance, in one two month period, she spent $12,000 on drycleaning. She had a Picasso of herself, but I think she sold it.

JR: Back to chess teaching. Do you think teaching chess improves your chess, or does it make it worse? Or neutral?

EV: um... depends. Explaining chess to beginners requires you to over-simplify, and that's not good for your chess. For me though, a lot of my kids become good enough that they help my chess a great deal. Preparing lessons helps; constantly having to look at their games keeps me sharp; our group analysis sessions teach me a lot.

JR: Have you been playing much lately? I don't see any of your games on the blog lately.

EV: I played a lot in the summer-- three big tournaments and a few little ones. It's much harder for me to play in the school year because I work a lot-- pretty much 7-4:30 Mon-Sat. and then Sunday I plan lessons, grade papers, etc. So I'm usually tired and it's hard to muster the energy to play. I also found that my rating/strength tends to decline during the school year and that makes me really sad, so maybe it’s better if I play mostly in the summer.

JR: Do you hope to make master? (Pardon me if you had). Do you think it is important to you?

EV: I would love to. It would make me very happy, but I don't think it will happen without a period of sustained work by me. Maybe next summer. I really want to play chess regularly all my life, but it’s very hard for me to find a balance, to not let my obsession with chess take over my life, but also not feel like I'm constantly falling behind. It's a problem. Chess is a real time-sink.

But it’s also a very nice complement for me to teaching because in teaching I talk a lot and explain simple things. In chess I don’t talk and think about complicated things.

JR: Let’s back up a bit: Saturday? Classes on Saturday?

EV: I meet the kids at school every Saturday, usually 45-50 of them, and we go to play in a Chess in the Schools tournament. Or they play; I analyze their games. The CIS tournaments are incredible events: one every week, free, 500 kids, 4 rounds g/30, a lunch break and an awards ceremony in 6 hours. Shaun Smith runs them, and he does a superhuman job. I mean that literally.

JR: 50! How many are boys and how many are girls?

EV: Of the 50, I guess 7 or 8 are girls. But I taught an advanced sixth grade class today of 33 boys and no girls. It’s always a struggle.

JR: I ask because I feel obliged to bring up a question about chess and gender. Probably too much ink is spilt on the subject, but you wrote a series of very insightful articles/interviews about it, and I was wondering if you had any new insights to share.

EV: Insights? One thought occurred to me a few days ago that the girls in chess club were more mature than the boys and this sometimes extended to level-headedness in playing as well. The thought was triggered by this girl rolling her eyes at how her opponent acted stupid and played stupid and was stupid all in the same gesture of “why do I have to deal with this dumbass” dismissal. I think it is true that most of my strong female players were relatively unlikely to blunder or collapse midgame. For whatever that’s worth.
I don’t know what else to say, except I think it’s pretty hard being a teenage girl at this moment in time.

JR: I was once told by a professor in college that he wouldn't let his daughter play chess because he thought it was too much of a boy's culture. First, isn't that a terrible thing to disallow if they really like it? Second, is it really a boy's culture? Third, do you think this "boy's culture" is what turns off girls somehow?

EV: It seems to me like a very male culture.

JR: Is that because there are mostly males in it? Or because of something inherent in the game?

EV: It's hard for me to say... we first probably have to pin down exactly what we mean by lots of these terms, like ‘culture,’ or ‘male culture’ or even ‘inherent.’

But also I don’t have many interactions with adult men outside of the chess world. I’ve noticed that a lot recently. Most of my colleagues are women. Most of my friends are women. And that might make chess seem more like a male culture. So you shouldn’t necessarily listen to me. My impressions are probably totally off.

JR: Let's switch over to the blog. Many people ask me why I would bother to write for a few 10s of people. What is your motivation to blog?

EV: It started as a favor to Greg.

JR: Ah, is that why your blog is called “USCL News and Gossip”, even though that is a small part of it, in the end?

EV: Yeah, Greg named it. Also the lizzyknowsall bit. He and I are often involved in each other’s projects: I go to his US chess schools and write about them, and about the USCL. He volunteers his time to help me coach at Nationals and Grade Nationals every year. I think we both think the other person does important work and is highly competent, so it’s nice to help out.

JR: But you blog for more reasons then just to help Greg out, yes?

EV: Yeah, that’s just how it started, but then I realized I enjoyed it. I like writing. I like trying to be funny. I got a lot of comments, which was encouraging.

JR: Do you specifically blog-write just because it is there and easy to use? Do you like the informality of it? For example, you could write in other formats, but does blogging have any particular appeal?

EV: Yeah, that’s a good question. Actually, someone offered to publish a chess book if I wanted to write one, which was obviously a very tempting offer. But I said no, mostly because I don’t have a book’s worth of stuff to say, but also because I really like blogging. I like the informality of it. I think it’s easier to be funny informally, for example.
I also think I find it a reassuring genre. There’s no pretense that you need something to say in a post. Really, just one nice picture and you have complete justification for being. When I first started writing for Chess Life, I was extremely reluctant to annotate games, just because I felt I wasn't strong enough. Like who the hell am I to talk about this position? And blogging counteracts that feeling, again because of the informality. Plus, my readers came to me, so I feel like it’s inherently a friendly crowd.
So it’s a nice space for me to write.

JR: What books are you reading now?

EV: Douglas Coupland's, The Gum Thief. It’s about two Staples employees and the melodramatic novel one of them is writing about life and relationships in upper class academia. I’m also reading The Chess Instructor 2009, a collection of articles about chess teaching. And I’ve recently become addicted to The Economist.

JR: Let's turn to the US Chess League for a few moments. What do you like about the USCL? What do you dislike?

EV: I like that it's chess with drama. It's very watchable and talk-about-able. I think chess in inherently hard to write about and talk about because it's so technical, but the USCL has sort of enlightened me as to the fun of being a sports fan.

JR: Chess with drama-- yes. What have been your favorite matchups?

EV: Of course the New York matches are great. I’m interested in all moments where people's personalities come through-- Nakamura's blitzing, people trying to win a drawn game because their team needs to, clashes of styles, like Tate-Lenderman.

JR: My favorite non-matchup was Esserman-Lenderman in the Boston-Queens Quarterfinals. I thought they would play twice in a row, and they even had just played a tough game in CT the weekend before the match. Marc was upset because Lenderman used a digital clock without the delay. That is pretty sneaky/rude, when you don't tell the person. People just assume a digital clock will have delay. Marc had a great position, but flagged. So I thought that one had a lot of drama that got denied.

EV: I also love Greg's recaps.

JR: Do you go to the New York games regularly, or watch on-line?

EV: I mostly watch online. They don't have projector screens in NY, so it’s not as spectator friendly.

JR: How successful has the USCL been, in your opinion? By any measure of success you’d like.

EV: Incredibly. What criteria could we use? Strong players? He has those. Cross country interest? Definitely. Non chess media? Yes. Large audiences? Yes. Sponsorship? Yes.

Really all of Greg's projects-- the US Chess School, the NY masters, the USCL are models of success.

JR: I agree. Greg has been thinking smartly about innovating chess promotion
This has been very fun. I think we should wrap it up now. I have to go tend to my fish. Seriously.

EV: Thanks for your time! It was interesting.

JR: I agree. Both halves of our double interview were fun for me. I'll be seeing you. Maybe next summer at a tournament. I also make it a point to play in New York when I am in town. Thanks much. Ciao.

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