An Interview with Andy Lerner
Andy Lerner is a Chess Master and member of the Board of Directors at Chess in the Schools. He is the Managing Partner of IA Capital Group, a venture capital firm. With his generous support,…
Andy Lerner is a Chess Master and member of the Board of Directors at Chess in the Schools. He is the Managing Partner of IA Capital Group, a venture capital firm. With his generous support, Chess in the Schools recently launched the Andy Lerner Award for Excellence in Chess Education, to recognize the efforts and achievements of chess educators across the United States.
Let’s start with the Lerner Award. Can you tell me about its origins?
There’s a bit of a history there. I’ve been a chess player for 50 years. I started when I was 7 years old, and I was very active. I won the National Elementary School Championship. I tied for first in the US Junior Open, so I was very much a part of the New York City chess scene.
I was fortunate to have great chess teachers, and to benefit from a lot of organizers and volunteers and chess educators who coordinated tournaments and trips—we took a lot of trips as a chess team. I look back at my chess-playing days as a child, and I benefited so much from all these volunteers and educators, who did it for the benefit of the children. It made a huge impact in my life.
When I was a young chess player, my father became involved as a volunteer, and he was on the Board of the American Chess Foundation, which started Chess in the Schools. So when I joined the Board a few years ago, I was thinking about the great work these educators do. There are thousands of chess educators around the country who don’t get much recognition, and I thought we could start an award to call out their great work.
Since the award launched, it’s been incredible to see these names come in from around the country. You really hit on how chess serves the youth. What do you think about chess and its potential across generations?
When I was younger, I was an extremely active player. Back then, there was no online chess, so you had to physically be at tournaments or clubs if you wanted to play. When I became an adult and went to college I made the determination that chess was not going to be my career—I’m an investor, today. But I’ve always stayed active in chess, and then online chess emerged, and that’s really how I stay active now. But I have all these great memories of my father taking me to tournaments every weekend.
It was the whole community I really benefited from, and there’s so many positive aspects of playing chess. It made me a better analytical thinker, it made me appreciate the aspects of preparation, and I think these things become true in life. Like how one mistake can be fatal—that’s why you look both ways before you cross the street. I think I really owe it to the behind-the-scenes people that organized chess events. They did all the things that Chess in the Schools is a leader in doing today, for the New York City populations that need it.
That’s totally reflected in the award, not just in the New York community, but more broadly across the country too. You mentioned online chess—has it surprised you, as someone who’s been invested for so long, to see online chess become such a huge, vibrant community?
It has. Online chess has been a real revolution, and then it just accelerated during the pandemic. And now I understand that platforms like Chess.com are breaking records on membership, and it’s exploding more than I ever thought. But still, around the country, communities still need help to access chess teachers, to access the clubs or chess facilities, and it still takes money to reach less-privileged populations. Chess just isn’t as widely accessible as sports, or some other extracurricular activities, are for children. And there’s tremendous benefit for the children that play, and I think schools want to make it accessible for those who want to learn the game.
I guess at first thought, it wouldn’t seem like there are many barriers to entry for something like chess, but having the time and the instruction for it seems like it makes such a difference.
It’s not the easiest game to learn. You do need a player on the other side, or you can play versus a computer online, but it’s so much more fun to play a person. You need a little bit of organization to get it going and then to improve. You really, really do need instruction.
When I think about these online platforms and I see CIS instructors work with the students, I’m seeing chess being made more fun, you know? There’s these really colorful personalities leading these platforms, making it super engaging and fun to follow.
There’s something special about being in the classroom, teaching the kids in person. There’s some magic to that, that you don’t necessarily get when you’re online. And so, again, the idea of this new award is to recognize outstanding chess educators. We know that there’s so many people out there who deserve recognition, and this award is meant to thank the entire chess education community. It’s really to recognize everybody and what they’re doing, not just in New York City, but around the country. And we’re hoping in future years that this award gives more attention to what’s happening out there. We hope it will grow, we hope we can honor more people in the future. So we’re just getting started, and my hope is that it gets more prominent as time goes on.