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What Does Chess Teach You with Elliott Neff

George Grombacher October 7, 2022

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What Does Chess Teach You with Elliott Neff

LifeBlood: We answer the question what does chess teach you, the benefits to kids of learning how to play, what it takes to get good at chess, and how to get started, with Elliott Neff, National Chess Master, Founder and CEO of Chess4Life and author. 

Listen to learn why you don’t need a great memory to be a great chess player! 

You can learn more about Elliott at, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.

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Our Guests

George Grombacher


Elliott Neff

Episode Transcript

left with this is George G and A time is right. welcome today’s guest strong and powerful. Elliot Neff. Elliot, are you ready to do this?

Unknown Speaker 0:22
I’m ready. Let’s go.

george grombacher 0:23
Let’s go. Elliot is the founder and CEO of chess for life. It’s a platform that teaches kids critical thinking skills, problem solving, emotional intelligence and other important life lessons through chess. He’s also the author of a pond journey, transforming lives, one move at a time. So excited to have you on tell us a little about your personal life, some more about your work, why you do what you do

Unknown Speaker 0:47
that Thank you, George, it’s a pleasure to be here and do that. And yes, personally, mid 40s. At the moment with a handful of kids, ages 11 turned 12. Today, actually, my oldest nice shot is on down to two months old. So we got a busy home busy household. And we do homeschool our kids love to give them different interesting engaging educational opportunities. So it’s really fun to be able to craft different directions there. And some really fun stuff, which we could talk about to no end most likely. In terms of what I do, or my background, I am a national master in the game of chess, grew up loving to play the game of chess in Washington State. And as a kid had a dream to become a master to become the high school state chess champion, and ended up achieving both of those. I so I represented Washington State twice at the tournament of National High School champions. And never imagined I would do chess full time as my life calling that happened. And through a light bulb moment, which led to my recognizing that it was more than just chess, I loved coaching kids I loved working with kids loved making a difference. And when parents said to me, you know, thanks for coaching chess to our kids, they’re doing well, they’re improving in school, their grades are going up. This is awesome. They said, but here’s what we’ve noticed, they are able to focus on their homework for an hour, even at a time without a problem. Whereas a year before 10 minutes was pulling teeth. They they noticed things like our kids are willing to fail, they’re willing to try to get better to embrace that growth mindset. They didn’t use that term growth mindset back then when I first heard it, but it was the same concept. And they said at the end of the day, they’re also even being nicer to eaten other. You’ve been a role model and a mentor to these kids. And suddenly the light bulb went on. And here I am 20 years later, Coach Dean chess with a mission to impact a million kids per week with life skills through the game of chess. So that is what I get to do. I have not had a job that I don’t like and over 20 years, not that I ever had a job it didn’t like Come to think about it. Because I love learning. And so I’ve done a number of things over over the years. And maybe one tiny tidbit that most people don’t know about me. They didn’t think I mean the chess world and then coaching chess and doing these things. What they didn’t know is that ice ice skate also, or at least used to. And I did it both ways, both ice hockey and figure skating if you can believe it. So there’s a little bit about myself personal and professional. And at this point, just having fun making a difference in a lot of kids lives through the game of chess.

george grombacher 3:54
I love it. You know, I’ve never thought about how many folks out there were actually ice skaters and figure skaters part of me says, you know, they’re both wonderful, but never should those worlds meet.

Unknown Speaker 4:10
Ice hockey and figure skating rarely crosses over. Rarely, but for me, I loved playing and you know, street hockey, floor hockey. In fact, my brothers and I even invented something really kind of cool, which was hockey on bicycles. That’s like, very dangerous, especially when the younger brother gets upset and throws a stick through your front spokes, you know, you take a tumble, right? But anyway, ice hockey was one of my favorite sports and then in my early 20s I had always enjoyed figure skating watching and I enjoyed music, I play some music. I just trained a little bit with classical music and, and just always enjoyed the fluidity and the beauty of skating with music. And I and at that point, I thought you know what, why don’t I do it now, if I don’t do it now No, and I wait, I’m going to get a fear of falling. I’ll probably never do it. So I did in my early 20s. Before I turned 25. I picked up figure skating and learn how to do jumps, spins, number of different things. And had I had a blast with it for a few years. Good for you.

george grombacher 5:20
And it jumped into my mind that there was an awesomely terrible 80s movie that married or combined figure skating and hockey, if you remember that one. But you know, I did hear that title, we can, we can Google that. It’s an obvious title, when when you and I are done with our call and look up the title of that you should show it to your kids, they would actually probably hate you. So all right. So all the things you laid out the ability to focus, be willing to fail that growth mindset, be nicer to other kids. And you’re in your evidence of that in your in your early 20s. Or just past being a kid picking up figure skating is absolute evidence of that. So I think that those are incredible. And I’m sure that every parent that’s listening, myself included, that sounds pretty good. Those those things, do you have to be an intelligent person to be a good chess person or good chess player.

Unknown Speaker 6:17
So you know, this is probably one of the best kept secrets about chess, is when you think of chess, and for those who don’t play much chess, maybe don’t even know how the pieces move or have barely been introduced to the game. What I see across the board is people have this perception of chess, there’s aura almost around it, that you got to be smart to be able to play this game. And yet, in my experience, anybody can learn how to play chess, have fun with the game. It just has this perception about it. Now, it’s true. It’s very complicated. If you want to say what are the possibilities in a chess game, in fact, it’s mind blowing the number of possibilities. For example, in the first three turns of the game, three moves for me three moves for the opponent, you know how many unique positions there are any wild guess, 5 million, it’s almost double that. There proximately, 9 million possible positions in just the first three turns, and you go to move number four for each side. And that explodes up to 280 billion. It’s just mind blowing, though number of possibilities. And yet it does not take a smart person to be able to play chess. As long as you don’t have a physical, you know, mental handicap of some kind. Anyone can do it. And I have the proof of that. If you if you look at things like you know, what Headstart is, you know, this low income adu preschool program, we have developed using the game of chess tools that allow Headstart programs to develop kindergarten readiness using chess moves and concepts. And it’s statewide in Washington State over 1500 Headstart kids this year, had chess in the classroom at age four.

Unknown Speaker 8:29
And it’s like, Whoa, how did it how does that connect? Right? Well, the key is simply how you go about doing it. You know, what you do with your work? 401 K’s is complicated to me. I’ll bet it’s not so complicated to you anymore. Sure. Someone who does math and enjoys it. They grasp it. Others are like, there’s no way I can do that. It’s a matter of how you learn. And so learning the game of chess The right way is the key. If you sit someone down with the 32 chess pieces, of which there are six different types, and you quickly explain how they all move, and then you have to checkmate. And you can do this and this but not here, and it’s it’s complex. But that’s not how we learn things. If instead I sit you down and we go, let’s have a fun game here. Do you see this board? It looks like a checkerboard. Great. How many squares are there on this board? How many light and dark ones? Awesome. Excellent. We have names for squares. Let’s drop a piece on the square and see who can name that square fastest. Okay, the king moves one square any direction. But to play a little game who can find the shortest path to the edge? How many turns does it take to visit all edges? Okay, now let’s put drop six pawns anywhere you like on the board, that King will move and capture them all? Who can find the shortest path and we play these mini games with one concept at a time. We’re having fun the whole time winning these mini games. As we work together with a partner, not I beat you up me, but we work together to problem solve. And we’re having a blast. And before you know it, we’re playing a whole game of chess. Because it’s incremental learning. And what we incorporate when we do these things, is this concept of is not about me against you. Even though of course, there’s that competition aspect at a certain point. But it’s problem solving together. It’s having fun together, it’s collaborating. And for young kids, it’s developing additional things like impulse control. Wait, it’s not my turn, let me wait for them to move. Oh, we’re not sure what to do here. Let’s talk it through. Let’s collaborate, let’s figure out how to solve this. And so the kids just learn together and work together. And so the young kids don’t think chess is complicated. It’s only the ones who are grown up, who don’t know how to play that have this perception because of perhaps the Bobby Fischer era of 1972 against Bobby Fischer against the cold war Boris Spassky in the in the, you know, these, these concepts of the grandmasters in the world champions. And at that level, it is deep and complex. But if someone wants to have fun and get the benefits of playing the game of chess, anyone can do it. In fact, my favorite story about how fast someone can learn in a fun way, was one time sitting on an airplane. reboarded next to there was this lady sitting there she was in her early 40s. Also headed back to Seattle. We had both pre board and early and we’re sitting there chatting, and whenever we talk about what we’re doing, she goes, you know, chess, that’s one of the things I always thought it will be fun to learn, at some point have never learned I’m not sure you know, it’s like what do you want to learn now? Long story short is before we took off, she knew how to play nice. It’s just, you know. So anyway, the long winded answer to this point, though, about chess, really, anyone can learn. And it’s amazing to see the stories of kids from poverty level from slums in Africa, that we have supported where kids learn these life lessons through the game. And that’s really what my enjoyment comes from, I enjoy the game. But the real rewarding piece is seeing how people’s thinking changes. Yeah, I mean, think about this.

Unknown Speaker 12:33
If a person is afraid to fail, they will likely not try in many circumstances. If they don’t try 100% of those times, they will not win, or make progress. So the willingness to lose and go, Hey, I lost here I made a mistake. It didn’t feel good. But what can I learn from it and take that learning forward into my next attempt is a huge skill to develop. And in chess, that’s a very easy one to develop, because it’s you with your pieces against someone else. There’s no dice, there’s no luck. And there’s no team member who dropped the ball. It’s all you. So if you will embrace that personal aspect of I made this choice and last, but what can I learn from it to get better next time, you’ve developed the habit, the growth mindset. And so we do that through the fun game of chess. And then to see where these kids have gone. I just interviewed someone on my own podcast, the church for life spotlight, who has brought these benefits to the slum in Uganda, Africa. And it’s amazing to see how it’s impacted so many lives from one of the least likely areas to succeed, they now have 29 college degrees, nice, all through the game of chess, because of the mindset shift, and the growth, so I talked way longer than you know, out there, but I love I love what I do, obviously.

george grombacher 14:10
Yeah, it it is clear. And those are clear benefits that that that make a ton of sense. And I you you laid it out perfectly. How long have think you already told me? How long have you had the business of chess for life?

Unknown Speaker 14:29
Great question, actually, because it ties it ties back Chesbro life itself, I incorporated in 2005. That’s what 17 years ago. I was doing it full time a couple years before that. So almost basically 20 years. And prior to then through my high school years and early 20s. I was coaching chess part time, even since I was 12 1314 years old, never imagining It was going to be this full time piece, just enjoying it, helping people. And the full time aspect came because of that light bulb moment, then incorporated chest for life. And we grew. And we just grew and serve the community throughout Northwest Washington. Until just over seven years ago, came this other inflection point where it all begins with the end of mind. It’s like goal setting one of the life skills we teach at chess for life, we have 10 life skills. And in order to play chess, well, as a master, it’s important not to just calculate forward, but it’s critical to be clear about where you’re headed. Have that vision, have that goal, and then determine what moves now will lead you towards that goal, and at the same time, have the flexibility to know that every move, there’s new information and things shift, so you need to be able to adapt. So with that in mind seven plus years ago, came the new goal of instead of just how can I help kids anywhere anyway, do the best I can. It became what would it take to literally impact a million kids. And that has therefore led to the moves over the last seven years, streamlining, reducing complexity, developing tools and training to support schools, educators, parents, and others who might not know a thing about the game of chess and might even be intimidated about learning. We’ve empowered educators to be able to use tools to then bring the benefits to their kids. And that has been a key step in this path towards impacting a million youth. Our tools right now are reaching are in front of close to 300,000 kids, we’re not there yet, we got a lot more work to do. Are they all engaging with it? No, not yet. But there are pieces in the pipeline and things in in progress, that I fully believe we’re going to hit that number and go beyond. And so it’s been quite a journey seven years and COVID disruption, in some ways, has accelerated our potential to reach that goal. Why? Because technology has become commonplace in every single school. That’s been teaching.

george grombacher 17:19
So powerful.

Unknown Speaker 17:20
With technology, we can get in there, they can access our tools, whereas before, it might have been like, Wait, I’ve got to access some tools online and then deliver it in person. That’s scary. Wait, technology. Now we all do it. And it’s just the norm.

george grombacher 17:36
So I imagined the Queen’s gambit is great show, I actually watched that one from start to finish, I was captivated by it. I imagine that that’s probably increased interest in chess, which is nothing but a good thing from everybody’s perspective. In watching it, it struck me that it’s really, really important to know, different sequences. And you were just talking about you need to have a plan. And so I have no idea. There’s probably countless numbers of sequences that professionals have developed over time that that they try to start with and then respond with. In in a lot of ways, it’s like martial arts, except just on a board where you have your plan and but how you respond when somebody makes their move. What are your thoughts on that?

Unknown Speaker 18:26
I can actually take that forward a little bit, because another common perception about chess is you got to have a great memory, that you’re going to have to memorize all these patterns. And then at the same time be able to adapt when someone doesn’t follow the pattern. So I’m going to correct that perception a little bit, please. The key is once again back to those number of moves. In the first four moves, there’s 280 billion possibilities. And opening patterns can go 20 moves deep in known opening patterns. So what is the capability for me for sure, I don’t have the memory to get anywhere close to the memorization necessary if you were going to go on brute force memory. The key for myself and I don’t have a photographic memory. A great memory helps in chess, just as it helps in almost every part of life. Right? But if you don’t have it, it doesn’t mean you’re lost or stuck or anything else. It’s what do you do with what you do have? My goal when I set out to learn the game of chess, and I was mostly a self taught master was simply this. If I saw patterns, I went well if I memorize the pattern of this variation of moves, the odds of this happening in my games is maybe once in my life I don’t see a lot of value in that memorization and this following these patterns makes that’s what if someone if I develop this or if pieces are in this certain pattern, here’s a strategy that can be successful. And here’s why. So now you have a way of looking at something that you can use in hundreds of games. For example, I’ll just give you one simple example of this. If you have three pieces, two or three pieces in the same line on a chessboard file rank or even diagonal, frequently, there’s an opportunity to use what’s called a pin or a skewer. What that means is you pin one to the other. So if the one was out of the way, you get the one behind it, or a fork, if you go in between the two, now you can attack both directions and hit two at once. That is a concept that I use in pretty much every single game I play. So the value that I’ve discovered, and what we use is teaching and understanding concepts and patterns, so that you can apply them throughout all your games. Easy. So opening patterns, and yes, there’s tremendous opening study at the highest levels. For the other 99% of us, it’s really great to develop a tremendous understanding of strategic concepts, so that you can think in any position. And that’s really what we boil down. One of the other life skills we try to teach in our to our youth is we have our six levels pawn through King, we named them after the pieces on beginning knight, bishop or queen, king. And as kids go through that, they go through the pond level with learning the basic rules, and then the knight level and they learn these tactics I was just talking about Bishop level, they start putting them together into a bit of a strategy. And at the rook level, the fourth level, we start teaching what’s called these imbalances in this foundational deeper concepts, which, when you master those, you can basically apply SWOT analysis to any chest position, what are my strengths? strategically? What are my weaknesses? What are my opportunities based upon these? What are the threats from my opponent? And once you greatly understand those, the ideal plan will oftentimes just pop out and go, Oh, this is the path I should follow. Now, what are the moves to get there? And so I find myself thinking about two or three choices in a in a position instead of the potentially hundreds of choices, because they need to align with those strategic concepts. It will be the similar to saying in life, so you want to achieve what level of retirement? Well, if you know what that is, what are the vehicles that would get you there based upon your unique giftings? Education, talents, jobs? Well, now you have a minimal number of paths that would make sense to try to achieve that outcome. Same thing on the chess board. So hopefully that makes sense to you, George.

george grombacher 23:07
Totally does. And you cleared that up. For me, it was sort of my perception.

Unknown Speaker 23:11
That I appreciate you asking that question, because so many people, that is the common, right? Oh my gosh,

george grombacher 23:20
I don’t have time to like, literally, that’s what I’m like I had like we were talking about yesterday, if I played chess, I’m like, oh, you know what? I don’t but maybe when I’m a little more free time, but I thought well, how in the world? Am I ever going to memorize all those sequences to actually be good at it? But turns out, turns out that’s not necessary. So sorry, no, need to. Thank thank you so much for coming on. Where can people learn more about you? Where can they pick up a copy of the book upon journey, transforming lives one move at a time? And how can we get ourselves and our kids involved with chess for life,

Unknown Speaker 23:55
love, love to share first on the book. This book is a novel. It’s inspired by the many true life stories of my students. So anybody would enjoy this book. If you don’t know chess, you’ll still enjoy it. Because it’s a story made up, but yet incorporating dozens of real life stories into it. So it’s basically 80% true life stories with 20% woven into this novel, and it’s called a pawns journey, transforming lives one move at a time, you can find it on my website, Elliot, my personal website, you can also find it in major book retailers. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, a bunch of different places have carried the book. So it’s pretty easy to find if you just Google it. Secondly, for chess for life, that is our website in business name, the word chess, the number four, and the word life because it’s about life through the game of chess, and chess for You can find us with our YouTube channel, we have a new episode where I interview people, interesting people from around the world where Chess has impacted their life and Some way, or how chess helps with STEM education and career, right all these kinds of things and so our YouTube channel just for life, our Facebook or social media were pretty easy to find once you hit the Google button there.

george grombacher 25:13
Excellent. Well if you enjoyed as much as I did, show your appreciation and share today’s show with a friend who also appreciates good ideas pick up a copy of a Pons journey. Wherever you buy your books or go to Elliott, Neff, Eliott, and E. F And then check out just for life. Ch e s s the number four li F E on YouTube and all the other channels in the chest for life spotlight podcast as well and get your kids involved. There’s gonna Elliott Final

Unknown Speaker 25:43
Word, Final word if I could please, for everybody out there. Just remember you can always win. You can always draw and you can always learn. Have fun. Thanks for having me on George.

george grombacher 25:57
I love it. And until next time, remember, do your part by doing your best

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