Finding a Great Chess Teacher

I was recently solicited by an online company specializing in finding students for private teachers. I told them I’d look at their website before considering a listing. What I found was amazing and appalling at the same time. I have never seen so many listings for chess teachers in my life. I decided to see how many chess teachers were in San Rafael, where I live. The town has a population of rough;y 50,000 and about 200 chess teachers. That sounds great for anyone wanting lessons here but there’s one small problem, the teacher’s qualifications. As with the small print in contracts, most people don’t bother to look at the details. In this case, the important detail is teaching experience. I started reading the profiles of these teachers and was a bit concerned about their actual ability to teach.

Some profiles stated “I have an online rating of 2346” or “I’ve been playing chess since 1982.” To someone with no knowledge regarding chess teachers, this information might be impressive. The first guy has a high rating so he must be good. The second guy’s been playing chess forever, so he must be great. Wrong! While everyone who plays chess has taught the game to others, that doesn’t make them great chess teachers. So what makes a great chess teacher?

There are three qualifications. First, you have to play chess reasonably well. By reasonably well, I mean you have to be able to successfully use what you teach in your own games. If you’re teaching students how to set up a tactical combination, you actually have to know how to create them. Merely showing examples from chess books isn’t good enough. You have to be able to look at a position in one of your student’s games and suggest a tactical option. This only happens if you’re good at tactics. While your chess teacher doesn’t have to be a titled player, they should be a strong club player at the least.

Second, you have to be able to explain complex ideas in the simplest of terms. The best chess teachers aren’t the best chess players in the world. However, they have the unique skill of simple communication. A good chess teacher will take a complex concept and create a simple analogy that easily conveys the idea to the student. This can only be done when the teacher really knows the subject matter. They know the subject matter because they’re good chess players. I’ve been teaching chess for a fair length of time and have built up a repertoire of explanations and analogies because often an explanation that works for one student makes little sense to another. The best teachers have plenty of experience and because of that, they know what works and what doesn’t. Look for teachers that have taught chess in a classroom environment because they tend to have more experience. The best are those teachers who work with kids because their explanations will be easy to understand. I make all my adult students use kid’s chess books when they start for this very reason.

Lastly, you have to be entertaining. That’s right, you have to be an entertainer of sorts. Otherwise, you’ll put your students to sleep. I’m willing to sit through the most boring chess lectures ever because I do this for a living and often pick up great explanations I can use. However, I wouldn’t expect someone learning the game to remain awake during such a lecture. You have to captivate your students to hold their interest. I did a chess lecture once that started with me standing on a table flinging chess pieces out into the audience with a golf club. People paid close attention to my lecture not because they were afraid they’d get hit with a flying chess piece but because I use a bit of humor during the lecture. Humor works wonders. Just keep it within the boundaries of semi-good taste. I once gave a lecture to a chess club and started with the line “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, the games of Bobby Fischer.” During Paul Morphy lessons I sometimes add the line “chess genius and women’s shoe fetishist or should I say, just your run of the mill chess master.” The point is to entertain people listening to me talk about chess. Even hardcore chess nuts like to be entertained.

The first two qualifications should be listed with the chess teacher’s information online. As for how entertaining a chess teacher is, either they throw some clever line in their advertisement or you find out after your fork out money for that first lesson. Speaking of money. Just because one teacher charges more than everyone else doesn’t mean they’re better than the rest. If the guy’s a Grandmaster, yes he’s going to charge more than other chess teachers. However, having a title doesn’t guarantee he’s a great teacher (Nigel being the exception). It only guarantees he’s really really good at chess.

Note how much time you get for your money. I do one or two hour sessions. All the teachers I’ve seen online advertise twenty and thirty minute blocks of time at twenty or thirty dollars each. I suspect they don’t want to tell you they charge sixty to ninety dollars an hour, fooling you with a lower rate instead. Don’t haggle over the price. If someone says “well, how about twenty dollars less per hour?” I reply with “ahhhh…..NO.” A good teacher is worth paying for. However, you have to do the research to find one. It’s like buying a car. You do research rather than buying a vehicle with no prior knowledge. As for the cheapest priced teacher in the group, don’t dismiss them and pick someone in the middle. Check their qualifications. They might charge a lower rate because they’re new teachers trying to get established. They might be the best teacher out there. Do your research.

While I teach my students to be self learners, they use me as a guide. That’s what a good teacher is, a guide who makes an otherwise complicated journey easy. A good teacher will be there for you when you get stuck, explaining what seemed incomprehensible. Speaking of teaching, I have to go teach a class so here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).