The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

Education October 17, 2012 / By Noah Hutton
The Creativity of Chess: a Conversation with Elizabeth Spiegel

The renowned educator and subject of the new documentary film "Brooklyn Castle" talks about the game of infinite possibilities.

One of the thrills of a good documentary film is what it explores above and beyond the explicit subject at hand: doses of philosophy, delightful idiosyncrasies, a person taking us to an unexpected place through their words or actions.

I had that experience — the thrill of the above and beyond — when I encountered the contagious enthusiasm of Elizabeth Spiegel, one of the subjects in Brooklyn Castle, a new documentary film opening this weekend in Manhattan (and elsewhere in subsequent weeks). The film tells the story of five stellar chess players at I.S. 318, a below-the-poverty-line junior high school in Brooklyn that has won more national championships in chess than any other in the country (here's the trailer). That success is furthered day after day by Spiegel, I.S. 318's indefatigable resident chess teacher, who is also featured in a chapter of the new book How Children Succeed. In Brooklyn Castle, her philosophical insight into the teachings of the game and her unflinching attention to helping her students improve are steady forces at the heart of the film.

I sat down with Elizabeth Spiegel to talk about the educational value and creativity inherent in the game of chess.

NH: In the film, you talk about chess as a game of near-infinite possibilities. How do you help students feel sure of themselves, able to make calculations, in this realm of infinite possibilities?

ES: In chess, there’s this idea of forcing moves. You can force moves with checks, captures, and attacks on valuable pieces, like an attack on the Queen. If you take something, either they’re going to take you back, or you’re going to be ahead by a piece. So some things you can calculate—you’re going to go here, and he’s going to do one of these five things. And then I’m going to go here, and he has these choices. That’s a process that you build up—it’s a skill like being able to lift weights.

You know, in math, there’s always an answer. But in chess, it’s really true that the answer might be twenty-three moves down the road so that even if I am an expert chess teacher and I come to it with knowledge, there’s no answer key I can go and look at and be able to tell them. To some extent, computers have reduced that— they’ve sucked a bit of the mystery and the unknowable nature out of chess. But it’s still there. I think it’s great for kids to know there aren’t clear-cut answers always. That even when you get very good at something, things aren’t so simple.

NH: What is one way that chess asks you to use your mind in a way you don’t usually use it, or to an extent you don’t usually use it?

ES: I think there are lots of great thinking habits that chess demands from kids. One is this practice of double-checking yourself relentlessly. That you can play really well for forty moves, and then you make one miscalculation, and your opponent sees it, and you lose. People don’t often pick their own ideas to shreds, but chess forces you to do that.

NH: So a level of self-awareness?

ES: Yeah, a level of negative thinking, of finding the problems in your thoughts—and not being like, “Oh, I have a great idea, I’m fantastic.” You know, you have an idea, and you’re excited about it, and then you go and try to find every possible thing that might be wrong with it, and make sure it’s really correct. I think that’s a hard thing to teach kids, and I think chess does it really well.

I think it also teaches a certain resilience. No matter how good you get as a chess player, you’re going to get in bad positions. And you have to deal with them, you can’t just give up when you have them. So you have to be optimistic about the position itself and find what goodness there is in it, even when it’s unpleasant to play it and you know that you’re losing in it and you know that it’s your fault that you’re losing in it.

We do some theoretical learning too, and the students have to memorize a certain amount. I have a big library of chess books, and the kids will borrow them and read them. And it’s great because you learn an opening and it sort of provides a framework for you to be creative—like it provides a structure where you have certain ideas, and you have to figure out a different context in which you can apply them. For a lot of kids, I think theoretical and academic stuff can seem really irrelevant to their learning experience. But for a lot of the kids I teach I think chess makes memorizing something and learning what other scholars have done to be a very relevant thing—they know that it will help them win, so they’re willing to make the effort to memorize the variations and remember the ideas. There’s a moment where your creativity and the theoretical knowledge meet, and that’s how they get really good.

NH: So about that— what exactly is creativity in chess? For a chess player, what is the optimal balance of your own creativity and the inherited theory about what other players have done?

ES: One of the things you’re doing when you have a position in chess is you’re thinking, “Where do I want to go from here, and what do I want to accomplish?” In some openings, there are a lot of preset ideas: the themes that come out of the way the pieces are arranged, or the way the pawn structure is shaped. But a lot of the ideas are dependent on very tiny details—one pawn is in a different place, and it affects what is going to work. Creativity in chess is being able to come up with lots of these ideas—to have lots of things going on in your mind that you want to do— to be able to take all the ideas, and to see how one opening might apply in a slightly different position—that’s what I see as creativity in chess.

NH: You mentioned that there is a lot of written theory about openings in chess. Beyond the opening, does the game get more open and creative as it goes on?

ES: Yeah, because it gets more diverse as it goes on. Everyone starts from the same position, so there are maybe five good first moves. In some games, there might be theory through move thirty. But the further you get from the starting position, the more on your own you are.

And then, you know, it’s funny—when it gets to the end game, it also gets to be more about accuracy and less about creativity. When there are fewer pieces on the board, it’s more important to be right—it’s more calculable. Chess with less than five or six pieces is solved, and there’s a right answer. So when you’re on move thirty-five, it’s about what ideas you can find; when you’re on move sixty, there are only five ideas left, and you’ve calculated what the end result of each of them is.

NH: In the film, you talk about how players experience sudden leaps in ability. As an expert player yourself, do you remember experiencing your own leaps in ability? How did it feel?

ES: It’s a bit like when you’re fit and you go running, and you feel powerful. That’s the only feeling I can compare it to. You feel more capable.

NH: What about now—what’s it like to see those leaps in ability from the point of view of teaching?

ES: You can’t give up on kids: they’ll be terrible for a long time, and then all of sudden they’ll be good. And they always do get good, if they stick with it. I have a kid right now who lost his first twenty-one straight games—they were terrible games, week after week. It took him two years, but last year he won first place in his section of nationals. He won it through sheer doggedness—he was losing every game, and he’s just such a hard worker, and things finally clicked. Learning doesn’t happen in a smooth way. People really do wake up one day and they’re better, and it doesn’t necessarily have a linear relationship to yesterday.

NH: You’re featured in a chapter in the new book How Children Succeed, where you’re working with a student who has just lost an important game at a tournament (read the excerpt here). Your approach there seems particularly hard-nosed compared to the way we see you in the film. How do you balance these different teaching methods?

ES: I feel like in the book I’m a very different person than I am in the movie.

NH: How so?

ES: Anytime you’re a character in anybody else’s portrayal of you, you’re a character for a reason, and there’s a narrative and a point behind you. I think that they’re both absolutely true, but I think that the film is trying to portray me as the sensitive and encouraging teacher, and Paul is trying to portray me as the teacher with high expectations that pushes kids. I think the larger thing is that different kids need different things from teachers.

NH: Do you have a way you approach winning all the time, or do you take it case by case?

ES: Kids need less from you when they win. But we always go over the game. The kids write down all their moves, and we go over it together.

Winning is useful educationally for two reasons: one is that kids are less emotionally upset when they’ve won, so they’re more willing to accept that they made mistakes. Sometimes when you lose you just don’t want to face it right then. I try to connect their winning to something that I want them to do, and then hopefully they associate the winning with that behavior you’re encouraging.

NH: In cognitive science, we hear a lot about top-down versus bottom-up thinking—bottom-up being our incoming sensory streams about the world around us, and top-down being the weight of expectations, memory, and emotional experience we bring to every situation. It seems chess might be an interesting meeting point of those bottom-up and top-down systems—how does a player balance their moment-to-moment reactions to each position they're in with all the experience and predictions they have inside them?

ES: I think openings are related to that question. One of the reasons we teach openings is so that the kids have a similar pawn structure every game. They know the qualities of the pawn structures, and they’ve had experience in those positions that they can draw on to make decisions. Their history can help them.

NH: From watching the film, I get the sense you really value your time with each student, and you take their intellectual work seriously. Why is that important to you?

ES: When you play chess, and you put all your effort into trying to win, and you know, chess is so very complicated—it’s helpful to sit down with a teacher and have them take your thoughts seriously, to help you unpack the game so that you understand why you lost and where it came from. It’s a bit like editing someone’s writing—you go through it word by word and you ask them, is this exactly what you want to say? Is there a better way to put it? I think that’s how people get better at things. I think there’s not a lot of room for that in most classrooms, where you see the kids for 45 minutes and there are 30 of them.

You know—you’ve lost, and you’re crying—and what chess teaches is that understanding what just happened does make it easier. And I think that’s an important thing for them to understand in life, as well. Nothing is really so terrible once you figure it out—and that working through something does make it better.

You can see Elizabeth Spiegel in action in the documentary Brooklyn Castle, available from these streaming platforms.

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