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Back to School special: Dr. Root interview Print E-mail
By Jennifer Shahade   
September 16, 2006

Dr.Alexey Root, senior lecturer at University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), is at the forefront of chess education in America. From 1999-2003, she was a recruiter for UTD, helping to shape the three-time Pan-American championship team. She abandoned that role to focus on spreading the value of chess in education. Root authored Children and Chess: A Guide for Educators (2006) and teaches an online class (part of UTD's TeleCampus program) for educators aiming to use chess as a learning tool. Although she's not active anymore, Alexey has also earned credentials as a competitive player. She became an expert at just fifteen years old, and was first in the 1989 U.S. Women's Championship. She tells CLO about the benefits of online chess education classes, the thrills of recruiting IMs as far as Zambia and India and why she supports separate women's tournaments.

Chess Life Online-Who can take your class "Using Chess in the Classroom"?

Dr. Alexey Root-It's an online class part of telecampus.edu. It is open to interested people all over the country not just UTD students, provided their academic transcripts are approved. Ed note: There are separate sections for undergrads and graduate students.

CLO-Is knowledge of chess a prerequisite or do you teach students how to play chess as part of the course?

AR-We provide lessons in chess. In my class, one of my regular books is Chess for Dummies. Students also use Your First Lessons in Chess ©, a CD that is part of the Think Like a King® School Chess Software System. The idea is for the students to learn enough chess to be able to meet educational goals.

CLO-How good is that?

AR-It depends on the lesson and the goal. If the goal is to teach coordination via a lesson plan I included in my book "Chess Board Bingo", knowledge of algebraic notation is all that's necessary.

CLO-What is the audience for your classes and your book Children and Chess?

AR- Student teachers, practicing teachers, teacher educators. It's also good for chess coaches and active chessplayers who are looking for work as teachers to read the book, because being able to talk fluently about multiple intelligences and different educational theories makes chess teachers more presentable to principals and employers.

CLO-There are lots of programs like Chess in the Schools in New York, AF4c in Seattle or ASAP in Philadelphia that recruit chess teachers, often active USCF rated players to go into schools to teach chess. How is your online class different?

AR- The idea is for classroom educators to be confident with chess to teach their own lessons through it in class rather than bring people in from outside the school. Most programs that you are talking about are located in big metropolitan areas, like San Francisco, Dallas, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. But not all communities have that pool of chessplayers to draw from.

In Children and Chess, you write about how frequent crying in chess is, and the various reasons for it. What do you do if a student in your class cries?

I wrote about crying in chess because I wanted educators to come to chess with open eyes... in one of my classes, a girl was practicing the Two Rook mate with a boy. She was not successful, and he was making mean remarks.When such things happen, I like to teach my next lesson on etiquette and chess. I have a lesson plan in Children and Chess that focuses on how to be a supportive training partner. It's important to teach children two modes of chess behavior; the supportive, in class mode, and the competitive but polite tournament mode. Sometimes, you go to a tournament and you see kids mix it up, telling their opponents: "You have a good move here! You can take my queen."

CLO-In the July "Women's chess" issue of Chess Life, Susan Polgar and Marcy Soltis debated the pros and cons of separate women's tournaments. Where do you stand on that?

AR-There are so many ways to promote chess and so many specialized tournaments to organize, from blitz to speed to armed forces to Texas to women/girls. Most tournaments are Opens so I don't see a problem in having occasional restricted events where girls, seniors or any restricted category can have fun with each other and network. This can also provide the media with another angle to promote chess. There will be different winners in tournaments restricted by age, gender or region, while in Opens, you'll see most of the same names at the top of the crosstables.

I think it's important to remember that girls and women play mostly against men- we're talking about such a small portion of the tournament schedule.

CLO-Your book, like Jonathon Rowson's Chess for Zebras and Maurice Ashley's Chess for Success, frequently quotes the psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, author ofFlow.Csik argues that flow-like experiences result from immersing yourself in a challenging activity, and that this contributes more to our elusive goal of happiness than the pursuit of pleasure. (If Csikzentmihalyi's book gets made into a movie, Hollywood will definitely make his name easier to pronounce!). How'd you get interested in his work?

AR-I was first interested in his work at UCLA as a grad student. Csikzentmihalyi writes that optimal flow experiences come when a challenge isn't too easy (producing boredom) or too hard (leading to anxiety), and I've found this to be true in my experiences as a chessplayer. I want to have a chance of understanding the position, where I might be able to find the truth, but I'm not a rook ahead. One of the most exciting things about the process of writing Children and Chess is that I asked his permission to use certain passages from his book, and he wrote me back saying I was welcome to use it, adding: "Glad to see my work is being put to such good use." However, when I became a recruiter, it became harder and harder to find a flow experience at the board, because whenever someone passed by who I thought might be a good match for UTD, I'd want to make a move, and get up from the board to talk to him or her.

CLO- Did you ever consider a pro-chess career?

Before 1993, I was very active, usually playing 65-80 games a year. Then my daughter Clarissa was born. I wasn't going to leave my kids to go to a tourney. I never considered chess my career. Academic studies were always the priority. One influence is whether or not you can make a good living at it. I would have had to study a lot harder, and make IM to win opens that are bread and butter for chess pros. Both my parents have advanced degrees and the expectation that all us girls would also get them. When I became a recruiter for UTD, I became so busy, I actually played less chess.

IM Amon Simutowe

CLO-Who were your proudest recruits?

AR-IM Amon Simutowe from Zambia was one memorable recruit. When I started recruiting at UTD in 1999, we e-mailed back and forth; he had to take the SATs and it took a couple years to get all the paperwork in order. Magesh Panchanathan was another one. Magesh had been admitted to UTD, but when he went to the Indian Embassy for the final visa, the Indian Embassy denied him, worried about "brain drain" of Indian talents to America. They didn’t want to lose such a bright young student to America. I had to get the dean of UTD to call the Indian Embassy…. On Christmas Eve! The dean did make the call, and Magesh got his visa and made his plane on time to participate in the Pan-Ams. Amon and Magesh had great experiences at UTD and I felt that they were grateful. They both gave me presents upon arriving in UTD for their first semesters.

CLO-What did they give you?

AR-Amon gave me a black wooden basket with hand carved fruit (not edible!) Magesh gave me a gold-framed picture of Jesus.

Magesh Panchanathan entered UTD as an IM; now he is a GM

CLO-Why did you give up recruiting?

AR-It was a wonderful experience, but very time-consuming. There were losses in recruiting too. You'd spend a lot of time e-mailing back and forth with a prospective student, but they'd go to another school. You can't win them all! For instance, that happened with Pascal Charbonneau, who had personal reasons for staying on the East Coast. But my philosophy was that if a student came away from our communications with a positive impression of UTD, it was a success.

CLO-Do you think that the number of U.S. colleges offering chess scholarships and fielding competitive chess teams will continue to grow?

AR-Yes, it already is. What's really exciting about college chess is to see other schools get stronger teams, like Miami-Dade, or Texas Tech University, which recently gave some scholarships at the Polgar Invitational for Girls. The more teams, the more excitement. It's like what Greg is doing with the U.S. Chess league, adding two teams each year. At UTD and UMBC, chessplayers can start to feel like football stars.