Rules of engagement

A day in the life of chess instructor Nick Kopaloff.

kids play chess 88 (photo credit: )
kids play chess 88
(photo credit: )
When his alarm goes off at 5:45 a.m., Nick Kopaloff reaches out to turn it off as quickly as possible so that his wife Miri and three-month-old baby Liam won't wake up. He aims to be on the road by 6:30 to reach his first job of the day - chess instructor at Or Yehuda Religious High School - and the journey will take about an hour. Leaving the house that early means he avoids sitting in traffic, which he hates, and will leave plenty of time in a nearby caf to have a coffee with the locals, exchange a bit of football gossip and prepare for the long and arduous day ahead. First, however, there are a couple of jobs to do before he leaves his house in Kfar Yona. He and Miri have lived there for about 10 years now, in a pleasant development of cloned semi-detached houses where the yuppies who bought into what was a building site are balding and expanding into middle age, and the incipient plants have long become mighty growths of bougainvillea and oleander threatening to take over the houses. "First of all I take my dog Kishke out for a short walk," says Kopaloff. "Then I feed the fish in the pond I built myself at the end of the garden and check that there aren't going to be any burials today. If they're all alive and well, I'm off. Except that since my son was born I lay tefillin every day - he should see a bit of holiness." And, he might have added, in gratitude to the miracle of the birth since Liam's parents, both 45 years old, had long ago given up hope of ever having a baby. The school is an ugly concrete block in what is euphemistically called a disadvantaged area, and when Kopaloff reaches his first class of the day he discovers, to his horror, that the other teacher - with whom he usually shares the burden of controlling 30 ruffians - is off sick, and he has to take the whole class. He stands at the blackboard, waiting and hoping that the mayhem in front of his eyes will magically disappear. Two eight-year-olds are fighting in a corner, another two are throwing water at each other and several are kicking a football around the classroom. The noise is deafening. He tries a few well-known pedagogical tricks. "I'll count to three and then I want silence," he roars. Later he confides that he could count to a million and it won't help. "In a class like that, it's 99 percent discipline and 1% content," he tells me later. The next class is more rewarding. The children know the rules of chess and take part in the game he is demonstrating on his wall chart. "Okay, so we'll bring out our knight," says Kopaloff. "What is he protecting?" Two kids yell out something unintelligible, perhaps about moving a bishop. "Great idea, I like Yossi's suggestion," says Kopaloff. "It was my suggestion," protests the other kid. "I really like Yossi's and Moshe's suggestion," says Kopaloff. All the time he is teaching and moving the pieces around on the chart he keeps up a constant patter to maintain their interest. He chats about the upcoming tournament, he throws questions at them which they answer eagerly. He teaches them the "hamburger" move, his own variant on the well-known "fried liver" attack. The children lap it up. For the next class, which has some serious looking Ethiopian children and several boys with long peyot, he decides to use his laptop computer to project a game onto the screen. The wallpaper projected onto the screen shows a photo of Liam, but is quickly superseded by chess charts, an animated picture next to a more formal chart where every move is recorded. The program used is a Star Wars version. "We start with a theme - today it's how to beat a chess computer - and then they'll have time to play against each other," explains Kopaloff. The game begins and the boys call out what moves they think should be made and why. In the animated picture, Star Wars characters depicting knights or bishops pick themselves up and lumber across the board. The children watch in fascination. Here there are no rowdies, at least not today. He works with the different classes until three, barely stopping between them to eat an apple or to splash water on his face. Then he packs up all his equipment into the car. He has an hour to get to the next job. Sometimes it's north of Haifa, but today it's a community center in a pleasant small town near Netanya, planets away from Or Yehuda. Kopaloff arrives at the community center with two minutes to spare before the 4 p.m. lesson is due to begin. Judging by the set of scales in one corner, the airy room on the second floor is going to be used later for a Weight Watchers meeting, but for now it is quickly transformed into a chess studio with charts on the walls and the laptop projecting onto a white wall. Nine boys and two girls, all about 10 years old, sit at desks waiting for the lesson to begin. This is a class for children who have learned the basics but are not yet advanced. The Star Wars game appears on the white wall of the room and, as a pawn is taken, violence and shooting erupt on the screen to the fascination of the children. Before the second lesson, for beginners this time, Kopaloff has a moment to grab a quick coffee and indulge in some light exchanges with the mothers bringing their children in. For some of the mothers the encounter with the attractive chess teacher seems like a pleasant break in the tedium of a routine day. Then it's into the lesson for the six and seven year olds. Kopaloff remembers that he has promised to perform a sulha between two children who became involved in a fight the week before. A third tried to intervene, using his judo belt to separate the belligerents and ended up nearly strangling one of them. There had been some explaining to do to angry parents, but Kopaloff pulled it off with his usual charm. Now he explains that in chess we make war, not with belts, but with thoughts, as Ibn-Ezra said in his famous poem. The children shake hands, some medals are distributed and it is time for lesson three - advanced. Finally, at seven, all the chess equipment is packed up and lugged to the waiting car. Luckily this particular matnas is only a 10-minute drive from Kfar Yona, so Kopaloff will soon be home and able to help Miri bathe the baby, play with him and take Kishke for a much longer walk than in the morning. But the work day is still not over - he might do some freelance translating or prepare the next day's lessons. If he has a drop of energy left, he might go on the treadmill and bicycle in his home gym upstairs. And for what's left of the day, a glass of beer and a good football match to watch is all he needs. "Heaven," says Kopaloff contentedly. Personal work history The road to becoming an independent chess teacher has been long and arduous, and not every job Kopaloff has done in his life could be said to have been relevant. But it began, clearly enough, when he began to play at the age of six with his beloved grandfather, who arrived in England from Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the last boat out before the Nazis came in. "I loved it because Papa was a good, patient teacher and used to compliment me a lot. From that I learned how important it was to make a kid feel good about his playing," recalls Kopaloff. "Was my grandfather a good player? At the time I thought he was quite brilliant, but looking back he was just average." In London, he was school champion several times in the only sport that Jews were any good at in those days. "I went to the Hasmonean School and there wasn't one sport we could win at. If we lost to another school 13/nil at football, that was a good result for us," he says. "Oh sorry, we did win one game of football," he adds, "we beat the Lubavitch team." After he made aliya in 1979 with his parents and younger brother, Kopaloff went almost straight into the army - he was a paratrooper - and then completed a degree in sociology, anthropology and international relations at the Hebrew University. "For those six years I didn't play chess at all," he recalls, " and after my mother died I bummed around for a year, cleaning stairwells for a living." Rescued from the life of a bum by no less a savior than The Jerusalem Post, Kopaloff became the Netanya correspondent of Metro, the Tel Aviv and Sharon area supplement, and at the same time took on the management of the Netanya Chess Club, a job he has held for the last 16 years. "It's an after-school chess club run by the municipality for any child who wants to play chess," he explains, "and I helped to develop it from scratch. Today, I manage 15 teams at a national level. The logistics of organizing the teams into different games in the stringent league system we have here are quite demanding, especially for away games. I have to balance the budgets, hire mini-vans to transport the teams and make sure everyone turns up." In the late '80s and early '90s, Kopaloff worked at the British Olim Society as an immigrant consultant, also writing the weekly chess column in The Jerusalem Post magazine for a couple of years. When the huge if short lived start-up computer revolution burst on the scene, he landed a job with - "The CNN of Chess" he calls it, and worked happily there for a year on content management of the Web site until the big crash in the mid-'90s. When asked whether anyone can become a good chess player, Kopaloff quotes the work of Hungarian Laszlo Polgar, who decided, in the nature versus nurture argument, that he could build genius if he started early enough. He turned his three daughters, Sofia, Judith and Susan into the world's best chess players. Sofia in fact worked with Kopaloff for a time at From there it was but a short step to a job with a company dealing with strategic games for children, for whom he still works on a freelance basis. "A few years ago I decided I wanted to try and be self-employed just once before I become a pensioner, and I opened my own chess-training company called Mahalachim, which means 'moves' in Hebrew," says Kopaloff. "I really jumped in at the deep end. The company motto is 'excellence through chess' and this is what I have been doing ever since. It's a one-man business and hard going, but I love what I do."