Tyler Schwartz played saxophone in the Academy Music Department and graduated in 2003. He later went to The New School in New York to study Jazz Performance, and began playing chess as a hobby with his saxophone teacher. Later while working at a chess shop in Greenwich Village and playing competitive chess at nights, he got a call from someone who asked if he could teach the game to 3-5 year olds at her preschool. Tyler is now the founder and CEO of Chess at Three, a leading company in early childhood chess education!
“I did a little bit of research, and there wasn’t really a chess curriculum for that age. So when I began my lesson, I started by telling the kids what I believed was the most relatable part of the game—the king. I said ‘This is the King and he moves one square at a time.’ One child asked ‘Why?,’ to which I replied that it was simply a rule of chess and they should follow it. This kept happening with all of the classes throughout the day. Kids kept asking ‘Why?’ and they weren’t having any fun. Finally, by the seventh class, I said ‘This is the king and he moves one square at a time’, and sure enough, one kid asked ‘Why?’. For no reason besides frustration, I said it was because the king has a huge belly. He was King Chompers and he had 10 pancakes for breakfast. All the kids laughed. I continued with the story. For lunch he had 20 sandwiches and for dinner he had 30 pizzas. The kids kept laughing. At that point, I gave the king to one of the kids and asked him to show me how he thought the piece should move. He sluggishly moved the king one space across the board because he imagined he had a big belly. That was the ‘ah-ha!’ moment. I realized that if I can tell stories to kids that explain how each chess piece moves, they’ll never even have to hear the rules.”
Tyler’s idea began to grow as he found more teaching opportunities around New York. He soon found that this approach had additional benefits for young children.
“The kids begin to really like chess, because these stories are written for them. You and I already have perceptions of chess, and we have in some ways branded what it is to be a chess player. These children are introduced to chess in a different way. They just look at it as a fun game. But we are also finding that the Chess at Three curriculum is helping to improve literacy, listening, memory, and calculation. In addition, we have stories that teach concepts like why it is important to shake your opponent’s hand after the game. So, we are finding that while the stories and game are fun, they are having greater benefits on the children.”
“The next big moment was when my best friend moved to New York. He wasn’t a chess player, but was looking for work, and was really good with kids. I thought about how I wasn’t using my advanced chess skills in these lessons. I was really just telling stories. He tried teaching my chess curriculum, and sure enough, he became one of the most popular chess teachers in the city. This showed us that anyone can teach this. Schools now license the Chess at Three curriculum and anyone there can teach it.”
In Chicago, Chess at Three is taught at the Goddard School. However, they also employ teachers in the area that are available for in-person private lessons and video chat instruction.
When asked about his time at The Academy, Tyler had great memories of the Music Department and former department chair (now Head of School) Jason Patera.
“We did these exercises called Jazz Mechanics quizzes. Everyone had to perform them in front of the whole department. Usually it was something like playing scales two octaves up and two octaves down, in every key, with the metronome set to 2 and 4. The fun part was that if you made one mistake, you failed. That really helped me get comfortable with practice and hard work. Even though there may have been some people in the class who were better at jazz performance, I was able to get further in Jazz Mechanics quizzes because I was a great practicer. I think this mindset also helped me get very good at chess quickly. It taught me about doing things that are inhuman. Music is sometimes about doing something very difficult perfectly for an extended period of time. That is an inherently inhuman thing to ask. The Academy is the first place where I learned how to approach those tasks. It’s something I’ve replicated in a lot of different fields that weren’t necessarily musical.”