EvolvEd intern Annie Wang sits down for a conversation with expert Loraine Salinas, co-founder and director of the New York Chess Academy. Read about her chess journey, life skills, course offerings, and what chess piece she is!
AW: When did you learn to play chess and how?
LS: I learned chess when I was 11 years old. I got an introduction in school, and it really caught my interest. After that, I played high school, college, up til now.
AW: Who did you learn from?
LS: I don’t think it’s usually taught in school, like in P.E., I don’t know why it was taught in physical education for us. It was introduced in physical education; it’s not physical though.
AW: At what point do you think someone could consider themselves a chess master?
LS: In chess, there is a rating. Whenever you play in chess tournaments–I think here in the U.S. once you reach the rating of 2000-2200 then you are considered “master.” But for you to actually get that title, then you have to play in usually international events to achieve that rating. So you just have to keep playing in chess tournaments. A lot of good players are not considered chess masters because they are not playing in those tournaments.
AW: So, to become a chess master, there’s a formal way to do it that’s different than playing but not for competitive purposes.
LS: Yes, but I’ve seen a lot of good players who are very good who are just not interested in that formal way.
AW: Do you think there are misconceptions about chess or people who play chess?
LS: A lot of chess players, including myself, consider chess to be a sport, but since it is a non-physical game, people have different views whether it is or not. Some people also think that chess is a waste of time, or that you have to be smart to play chess.
AW: I was thinking about how diverse your team seems to be. So I was curious about how your different team members came on board or were recruited to teach chess?
LS: Before we started this New York Chess Academy, we worked in different organizations. We worked together and met different people. With previous companies that we worked for, they were not only doing chess but also other programs. Since my husband and I were both chess players, we wanted to make it just chess and not just for kids, but also for adults. Because most of them are focused on kids. And we met different people there and they were interested in joining us.
AW: Are most of the coaches from outside the U.S. or is there a mix of both?
LS: It’s both. Most of them are from [the U.S.], but when this pandemic happened, we started online programs. And now our online programs are mostly handled by coaches from the Philippines. We think it also works better having some coaches outside the U.S. since we can offer lower prices. It will also help some parents who lost their jobs. At this point, we decided maybe we can have other key members outside the U.S.
AW: I think that’s really important to be able to diversify chess. For me, I typically picture older men playing chess in the park. So, I think it’s really interesting to deliberately be recruiting coaches from around the world or different places.
LS: What’s also good about that is we can easily handle different time zones. We are in New York, but when we started doing these online programs we got more kids from California. Just recently, we had a parent who wanted to have a lesson at 8:30 PM. It’s too late if our coaches are from here, but it works well for the coaches who are outside [the U.S.].
AW: What would you say is the NYCA’s main distinguishing factor?
LS: It’s hard to say because I was surprised that here in the U.S. there are so many different chess organizations. We just want to make sure that courses are affordable and that the quality is there.
AW: Do you think other organizations have coaches from other areas of the world as well or are they mostly based in the U.S.?
LS: They’re based in the U.S. With the current circumstances and everything being online, that actually became good for us. Our main objective is to also help our fellow Filipinos, and we actually weren’t expecting to receive a lot of registrations. And of course, if our coaches are here we can offer them the same rate, so I think that’s something that might distinguish us.
AW: Your mission statement indicates that the New York Chess Academy prioritizes self-confidence, decision-making skills, friendship, and sportsmanship. Why do you think chess serves as a good means to develop those skills?
LS: I personally had no confidence before, I really wanted to stay in the shadow. But after I started participating in chess tournaments and meeting a lot of people, it boosted my confidence, and I became more a part of the community. And patience, it also boosts patience–one game will sometimes be six hours. So you really have to keep your focus and there are also some advanced tournaments. You have to not only look at your score, but you have to consider the scores of the others. It’s a team event–also teamwork. After the game what usually happens is you will help each other analyze the games which is part of the teamwork.
It’s a really good experience. Just last February, we participated in a team tournament. We had a kids’ team and an adult team and you can really feel the pressure. It’s teamwork, and a lot of players participated in that event. After each event, you can see that they’re boosting the morale of each other, you can see the score…it was really fun.
AW: What advice do you have for new chess players?
LS: I think so many new chess players are so worried about winning or losing the game, but losing is a part of the game. If you’re losing and you’re playing against a stronger player, that’s good experience. In order for you to be a good chess player or improve, then you have to learn from your mistakes. Just play; play and have fun. So don’t worry about losing or winning–you’ll eventually get there.
AW: Is there some sort of matching process at the NYCA where you pair prospective clients with certain coaches based on compatibility? How does that work?
LS: Usually when someone signs up, especially for private lessons, they have some requests. We’ll reach out to them to check which type of coach or ask about the student. Some of them prefer a much stricter coach, they want the lessons to be more competitive, so we will match a coach that is like that. They want their child to feel the pressure, so we’re going to match a much more serious coach. Sometimes they want a very patient coach and want to take it easy and they just want their kids to have fun while learning. Most of the time [the clients] have requests, so we’ll do our best to match those requests.
One problem we sometimes face is we have fewer female coaches. We only have a few female coaches and sometimes they request a female coach which we can’t always accommodate.
AW: I’m not too familiar with the chess landscape. Would you say there’s a gender imbalance where it’s mostly men playing?
LS: There’s a lot of female chess players as well. The problem is I don’t think there are a lot of female coaches. There are more male coaches.
AW: Something I thought was interesting about your website is that the NYCA has a saying “from pawns to kings,” and I saw your different course progressions based on this where you start off as a pawn before eventually progressing into a queen. Do you think there’s a chess piece that would describe you as a person?
LS: A pawn. I actually like the pawn and the idea that it’s the weakest but eventually, once you reach the end then you can promote into a stronger piece–whatever piece you like. I feel like if I’m the pawn, it’s really up to me on what I want to be.
AW: Is there a typical structure for a session depending on if you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced player?
LS: In the session of coaching, the first few minutes is usually the assessment. If it is physical programs, we have multiple coaches there anyway so the first few minutes will be assessment and then we’ll group students based on their levels. But for online programs, since we can only do one class at a time, it’s going to be different classes. It’s the same thing, we’re still doing the assessment. Let’s say the class is too easy or too hard for them, then we’ll switch out the players if we need to move them up or to their corresponding groups. In our current sessions, what’s happening is that they are starting as pawns, but some of them after a few sessions are ready to be promoted to the knights’ group. Our coach is usually leading the discussion [depending on] the participants, so we limit the groups to only a few participants so we can keep the quality and it’s more interactive. So the topic for each session is based on the students, so we’re not following a specific script for each program.
AW: Do you think that’s how a session would translate to EvolvEd as well, with first assessing where a student is at before coaching them?
LS: For EvolvEd, we set up private coaching. We’re setting up more private lessons because it’ll also benefit the coaches because it works better for them compared to classes. For classes, it’s good for us, but for private coaching, it’s better for the coaches, so we’re really pushing to get more private students. For EvolvEd, we have different levels depending on the coach. We have the Standard [lesson] that is for beginners for those who don’t know how to move the pieces, then we have the Plus package for intermediate and the Pro which is the chess master coaches. Usually, the parent or the student will decide which plan [to opt for]. Because some of the beginners want to have a chess master coach and the first lesson will usually be the assessment, so the lesson specifically will be practice for just that student since it’s 1:1.
AW: What is a superpower you would want to have?
LS: I would want to be able to read minds. That way if a client was thinking something like “It would be better if they were doing this or not doing that,” that would give me an honest opinion about what to improve upon. Because not all of them will provide us feedback, and I really appreciate the feedback.
AW: I thought you were going to say because you could read minds in terms of being able to predict your opponent’s next move.
LS: Oh that would be better! That would really benefit me. I hadn’t thought of that. I would really love to have that when playing chess.