Tayler Boyke-Darbouze is a senior at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School. She is currently pursuing an associate’s degree in biology with a mathematics concentration at Medgar Evers College. When she graduates high school, she will…
An Interview with Mark Indermaur
On May 17, 2023, Mark Indermaur, a chess coach and the founder of the Indermaur Chess Foundation, based in North Carolina, was announced the winner of the inaugural Lerner Award for Excellence in Chess Education. After the ceremony, CIS alumna Marilyn Lucero met with Mark to talk about what motivates him to run one of the largest non-profit chess organizations in the country.
Marilyn: How did you start playing chess?
Mark Indermaur: I loved playing chess as a child. My father taught me the game when I was in fourth grade. It was the height of the Bobby Fischer era and my teacher started a chess club, so my friends and I played every chance we could get. I bought some chess books to learn more and improved quickly, soon beating my father. He told his friends who then wanted to play me because they didn’t believe it. I won against them, too. It was very rewarding as a child to have early success like that against older opponents.
The next year we moved to North Carolina, and it took a couple of years before we found an informal tournament at a local community center. I did well there, so the organizer recommended that I play in a US Chess Federation tournament at the local university.
ML: Was the tournament free? Or did you have to pay?
MI: While the tournament wasn’t free, it wasn’t that expensive, because they awarded trophies instead of cash prizes. I was the only child competing, and it was exciting to earn a rating. I got to play in a total of six tournaments, but then the organizer moved. After that the closest tournament was too far away, so I had to stop.
ML: What do you think influenced you to get back into playing chess and eventually teaching chess to other kids?
MI: I taught all my kids how to play chess, but it was my youngest who got really interested in it and led me to teaching chess. He was little at the time and wanted to do whatever his older brother was doing. I volunteered with his brother’s Cub Scout Pack, so I brought him along when one of the leaders was teaching the chess belt loop. My youngest loved it, so I kept playing with him and taught chess in Cub Scouts for several years. When my son was in first grade, his school started a chess club, and I started volunteering there, too. Soon I was leading the club. I rediscovered my childhood love of chess.
ML: How did you start volunteering at chess tournaments and later creating your own chess tournaments?
MI: Our club would go to some tournaments, but I noticed very few children participated, either because they were afraid or because the events were too expensive. I learned that I could become a tournament director and run my own. We bought discounted vouchers so everyone in our club would have a US Chess membership, and I started running free tournaments during chess club meetings so that everyone could participate and get over their fear before playing in an outside tournament.
I ran several different kinds of tournaments, like one-round ladder tournaments with rated side games for students who finished early, multi-round events with one round each week, teacher workday tournaments, and even blitz tournaments. I had the idea of running a tournament on an early release day. School dismissed at lunchtime, and the kids could stay to play chess all afternoon. It was very convenient because parents didn’t have to pick up their kids until the end of the day. As many as 130 kids played in these tournaments.
ML: Being that there are some income disparities, how do you keep your students motivated to continue playing chess?
MI: Some kids come to school with advantages. For example, they may have more books at home, or have access to museums or summer camps. They come to school already knowing how to read and maybe already know quite a bit of math and science. Unfortunately, some kids may not have those advantages and may feel like they’re not as smart or confident. The reality is that some kids just have a head start. The cool thing about chess is that it’s intellectually demanding, but very few kids know it before they come to school, so they all have an equal playing field.
When kids play chess a lot, they can get good at it and soon win against an older student or one of the “smart” kids in their grade. They’ve never done anything better than a fourth or fifth grader, yet they just beat them at chess. Some start to cry, because they can’t believe they’ve accomplished this. You can see their self-image start to change as they realize, “If I’m capable of this, what else can I do?” Being a chess coach is really rewarding because you see how much it impacts kids.
ML: What life skills do you think kids have developed while playing chess?
MI: Some kids who join chess club are shy. They’ll complain that their stomach hurts and they can’t play. If it looks like they’re nervous, I will tell them, “That’s okay, you don’t have to play, you can help me set up boards.” They soon calm down and start playing. By the end of the year, these same kids are taking risks, willing to learn from their mistakes, and thinking more before making a move. I had one student who was afraid to play when she joined chess club, and by the end of her second year, she was one of the top 100 girls in her age group in the country. She had overcome her fear to become an eager player and curious learner. Seeing how chess can help so many kids is really gratifying.
ML: How do you help students overcome the fear of losing?
MI: Some students get very upset if they lose. They yell, fall on the floor, or knock all the pieces down. I reassure them that it’s normal to feel bad, as none of us likes to lose. It means that we care. I explain that feeling bad about losing helps us remember our mistakes so we don’t repeat them. I will ask them who they think has lost more tournament games than anyone else in our club, and they’re surprised to learn it’s the strongest player in the club. If we challenge ourselves, we will improve, but we will lose along the way. Losing is part of the learning process.
Some kids want to give up after losing. I ask them what they would do if they fell while playing their favorite sport. They admit that they would get up, brush the dirt off, and keep running. I explain that they just tripped in their last chess game, so they can brush off that loss, and keep playing. I had a student who felt terrible after losing to a lower rated player in round one of Grade Nationals, but he was able to put the loss behind him and focus on his remaining games. His resilience helped him win his next six rounds and become a National Co-Champion.
ML: What sparked your interest in creating a chess foundation?
While my wife and I were running our large chess club, we saw hundreds of children and families benefit from chess, so we wanted to find a way to help even more families experience these benefits. With over 150 members or a quarter of the student body, our club was filling the cafeteria, so we couldn’t expand it much more. We realized that to reach more families we would need to scale to more schools. I had already helped create a NC Youth Chess group on Facebook to provide tips to parents at other schools. We thought that we could build on that experience to create a nonprofit that would provide resources and support to help parents and teachers to start chess clubs at their schools. I researched other chess-related nonprofits, including Chess in the Schools, and then we founded our nonprofit in the summer of 2019. Our initial goal was to start 100 new chess clubs in North Carolina.
ML: What has been your biggest challenge with the Indermaur Chess Foundation since it has launched?
MI: We have had two primary challenges. The first is marketing which is a common challenge for any small organization. Making schools and libraries aware that we provide grants of free chess sets, instructional materials, and support is surprisingly challenging.
The second and more significant challenge is making parents and teachers feels comfortable that they can run a chess club. Many adults falsely assume that you need to be a master to teach chess.
I coached my children’s soccer teams for many years, so we tried to model our nonprofit’s approach after recreational sports leagues. With the support of a league, you don’t have to be a professional soccer player to coach a youth soccer team, so we want parents and teachers to feel confident that they can run a chess club even though they are not grandmasters.
We offer a chess club starter kit with chess sets and Chess-Step instructional materials like a sports league provides balls, cones, and lesson plans to coaches for the season. We create ChessKid Gold accounts for the parents and teachers leading the club, so they have videos demonstrating the lessons. We provide ChessKid basic accounts for students, so they can practice. Finally, we organize online and in-person tournaments for all our clubs like a sports league organizes games for a season.
The challenge that we’ve found is that there seems to be an additional hurdle for an intellectual activity like chess compared to a sport. Even if adults are not good soccer players, they still feel comfortable coaching it while they are more cautious about coaching an intellectual activity like chess.
The reality is that the skills that we already have all the skills that we need to lead a chess club: being comfortable with children, listening, being patient and understanding with them, and managing groups of children.
I would ask the readers of your newsletter to help. Reach out to a school or community chess club near you to see if you can volunteer. You could offer to teach a lesson or two, run a tournament, or review games with some of the more advanced students. Your small gesture will really help the club leader and make a big difference to many children!
ML: I think I know what you mean. When parents come to the idea of chess they understand it at a basic level, but the moment they see their child thriving to a different level they become more intimidated by it and like to back off. How do you motivate, especially young girls, to play chess in a male dominated sport?
MI: Our elementary school chess club, like many, was rebuilding this year. Before we stopped meeting in person in 2020, about 45% of our club members were girls. This year about 35% were girls. Once a chess club has been running for a while and word gets out in the school that it is fun, then lots of kids – boys and girls – sign up. Girls expect to participate.
Girls are more likely to join chess club if their friends have joined. The challenge in the beginning is to get the first few girls to participate and then encourage them to invite their friends. Younger girls in grades K-2 are more likely to join. If they have fun and are learning, then they are more likely to invite their friends and to return next year. This will give you a base of girls to grow from in the higher grades. If a parent contacts me about their daughter potentially joining the club, I let them know which other girls in their daughter’s grade are already members. This usually convinces her to join.
I use special chess club pencils and colorful key chain chess pieces to motivate students. They can earn a pencil when they do their first lesson on ChessKid. It encourages them to log in and try it.
Then they can earn key chain pieces for their effort, courage, and teamwork instead of wins and ratings. They can earn them for completing lesson levels or solving 250 puzzles on ChessKid, playing in their first rated game, teaching someone how to play, or encouraging their parent to play a rated game. Over several years, they can earn an entire set of key chain pieces. Many of the kids hang these pieces on their book bags where the whole school can see them, so they also help recruit more kids to join.
We have chess club t-shirts that we wear to tournaments and free chess car magnets, which a local chess business gives to me to distribute. With a quarter of the school in chess club, you see a lot of chess magnets in carpool or at any school event.
To motivate more girls to play in tournaments, I have helped promote or sponsor the NC Girls Championship for many years. I have scheduled a girls tournament this summer. A few years ago we organized a “Chess Moms Play Chess, Too” tournament which encouraged 18 women to play their first rated tournament. I hired a Women’s Master to teach a lesson for the moms and to review their games. Everyone had a wonderful time, so we plan to run more of these events.
ML: How do you encourage students to participate in tournaments when they feel discouraged?
MI: Most of my tournaments have sections based on ratings, so everyone has a good chance to win a trophy. I also buy additional smaller trophies, so that anyone who ties for a place that would earn a trophy still gets a trophy. If students participate in enough of these events, they will eventually win 1st or 2nd place in their section and earn a trophy engraved with their name.
I encourage students to participate in some team tournaments where they can cheer on their teammates and contribute to their team success even if they do not win all of their own games. Our nonprofit reserves a large shared team room at these events for all the schools we support. We organize shared meals and snacks, so these fun events definitely help motivate students.
I also hold an end of year tournament that is modeled after the national grade championships with a separate section for each grade. After everybody’s rating has been updated, I hold a blitz tournament with quad sections based on the new ratings. So the kids who won trophies in the grade championship are now in tougher sections. The kids who didn’t do as well are in separate sections. I present one trophy in each quad, and a lot of them go to kids who didn’t have a chance to win a trophy before. It’s another way of motivating them.
ML: What do you tell parents who are a bit unmotivated to learn how to play chess?
MI: I encourage parents to learn how to play chess and to play in at least one rated tournament to fully understand what it feels like for their children. You can’t really imagine it until you are actually in that situation. I tell parents about the first tournament I played in with my son. We were in different sections, but he finished his game early and watched me from the edge of the playing area. I had a really challenging game and was struggling a bit, but he looked at me with this supportive, “You got this, Dad” expression. It felt great as a parent and as a player. I realized that this was the ultimate opportunity to model “do what I do, not what I say,” so I was immensely motivated to do my best.
ML: You mentioned that you’ve started your foundation before the pandemic, how did the pandemic affect your ability to teach children?
MI: Our foundation started with school chess clubs, but we learned almost immediately that there was an opportunity with libraries, too. One of the first counties we worked with was in the mountains. It had one high school and three K-8 schools in the entire county. The county library was in the same building as the county’s community college and was next to the high school. The library served both of those schools. We started a test club at that library which soon attracted the inter-generational audience the library wanted with a nice mix of young children, teenagers, parents, and retirees playing together. We promoted that to other rural libraries and quickly signed up several more.
During the pandemic, all the libraries had to close, so the library chess clubs all shut down. Schools canceled all their in-person activities. During the time before school started meeting online, we ran daily ChessKid tournaments to give kids the opportunity to keep playing.
Our nonprofit faced an added challenge once online school started. Teaching virtual school was incredibly challenging for all the school teachers. Trying to convince a teacher to keep running their chess club online after they’ve gone through teaching online all day was too much to ask. Most of the school clubs that we had sponsored had to shut down. Only a few parent-run clubs met online.
I continued to run our elementary and middle school chess clubs online using Zoom and ChessKid. The clubs were smaller since most children wanted to play outside instead of spending more time online after being in online school all day. Each club meeting, I would teach a brief lesson and then hold a ChessKid tournament. When US Chess added online ratings, I began holding online rated tournaments. The meetings gave kids an important opportunity to socialize, especially with children outside of their immediate class. We also helped existing players keep learning and introduced several new children to the game.
During the pandemic, our nonprofit received fewer donations, but we also spent less money, so we still had plenty of resources when the pandemic ended. As we started to help schools and libraries restart their chess clubs, we found that several teachers had retired or switched schools. Fortunately, we were able to help a few of the teachers who changed schools start chess clubs at their new schools.
ML: Do you think growing along with your students is part of your personal teaching philosophy?
MI: Absolutely! Once when I was encouraging kids to set chess goals for themselves, one of the first graders raised his hand and asked me what my goal was. I told him that was a great question and that I wanted to become a senior tournament director so I could run tournaments for more students.
At every large tournament, I try to talk to other coaches and organizers to learn from them and get new ideas. I volunteered as a counselor for several years at the Castle Chess Camp in Atlanta where I got to attend lessons with my students. I learned a lot of chess during those lessons, but I also learned teaching techniques and got introduced to new teaching resources.
I had the same experience at the Lerner Award Ceremony where I was inspired by the other finalists and got several new ideas from the programs that they have implemented.
ML: How do you think that playing chess has influenced your own teaching abilities for style?
MI: I try to prepare to teach a topic the way I would analyze a chess situation. I will think about when a student would need this topic, why it would be important to them, and what challenges they might have in understanding it. If I explain it a certain way, how are they likely to respond? How can I reinforce it so they can remember it? I try to relate the topic to their own game experiences.
When playing chess myself, I really enjoy when I can use something that I recently learned which, in turn, makes what I learned that much more memorable. So when I teach a lesson, I encourage students to try to find opportunities to use it during that day’s games. If they do, I ask them to tell me. It’s fun at the end of the meeting to have kids come up and excitedly tell me “I found four forks today!”
ML: How do you help your students learn from their mistakes, and what teaching strategies do you use in general?
MI: First, I show students examples of games where a famous player made a mistake, so they can see we are all human and even masters make mistakes.
When we are analyzing a mistake, I help them identify what the mistake was and what moves would have been better. If this is an area that they haven’t learned yet, I explain it and give them a ChessKid lesson or other material to study it.
In many cases though, they already know the better moves, so then I try to help them determine why they made the mistake. I ask them to reflect on the game, and what they were thinking at the time. They may have been too focused on their own strategy to notice what their opponent was doing. They may have picked their move too quickly before considering other candidate moves. They may have been dwelling on an earlier misstep. They may have had to move quickly because they were low on time. Helping students find and correct these meta-type of problems will help them improve their game overall.
In terms of teaching strategies in general, I try to use students’ own games in lessons since that makes them more memorable. In our large club, we have the students wear name tags, so I can learn all their names and ask them questions by name during lessons. I try to use a variety of teaching methods using a laptop and large monitor, demo boards, different positions set up on real boards, or even worksheets. I try to give older student volunteers opportunities to teach lessons, too. I like to use a skit to teach students about tournament situations. In the skit, I ask one of our most experienced players to be my opponent and others to be TD’s while I try to break every tournament rule. The kids have fun correcting me, and the whole club learns when to ask a TD for help.
ML: How has winning the Lerner Award impacted you and what do you plan to do next?
MI: I would like to thank Andy Lerner and Chess in the Schools for offering these generous awards for chess educators who are helping students and schools across the country. I am especially honored to receive the inaugural award when so many educators were nominated.
Since 2019 our nonprofit has helped 78 schools, libraries, and community centers in 36 of NC’s 100 counties start chess clubs. We are excited to leverage the Andy Lerner Award to reach the remaining 64 counties in NC! Then we will expand to adjacent states.
I am inspired by the creative ways that my fellow finalists are serving their diverse communities in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC, so, in addition to expanding our geographic reach, I would like to support chess programs in NC’s two school districts for students whose parents serve in the military, our American Indian school district, and our three schools for students who have hearing or vision loss.
Our immediate plans for this summer are to announce the NC elementary schools that will receive free ChessKid Gold accounts for all their students in our partnership with ChessKid.com. We will hold three tournaments that will be free for students, alumni, and parents from the schools we support. One of these will be for girls. We will continue to run weekly tournaments on ChessKid, and we will reach out to more libraries since summer is a great time to start a library club.
Winning this award is incredibly motivating! My wife and I are brainstorming lots of new ideas for the next year like:
- leveraging the surging popularity of chess in middle and high schools to convince more schools to start clubs where students do the chess teaching
- working with the Boys & Girls Club and other youth organizations to create chess clubs
- organizing tournaments in counties that have never had one
- providing chess-related professional development opportunities for teachers who are running clubs
- encouraging more girls to play chess
- partnering with HBCU chess clubs to help start clubs in their surrounding communities
- leveraging foreign language versions of ChessKid to reach immigrant communities
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to help more students, families, schools, and communities experience the benefits of chess!