After a few weeks of increasingly ominous news, the world felt like it stopped spinning. It was scary for everyone, but Adam and I had an additional reason: we teach chess, coding, and robotics after school and at summer camps. Over the years, we’d spent a lot of time planning and budgeting for all sorts of futures, both good and bad, but we’d of course never made a budget for “what if one week in March, all schools and camps are canceled indefinitely.”
It was clear that we needed to run programs online. We hadn’t had a lot of time to prepare, and if you asked in February 2020, we could have given you a pretty long list of reasons why it wasn’t a great fit for Silver Knights. And honestly? They were good reasons! But by the middle of the month we needed to be running programs online, and so we started working on it. Sometimes it felt like we’d been pushed out of a plane with silk, string, and needles, and needed to sew a parachute before we hit the ground.
The Spring and Summer
First, we narrowed our focus to chess. Our company originally started as Silver Knights Chess, and changed names a few years ago after adding STEM programs. We’ve been playing chess our whole lives (see picture!), we’ve taught 100,000 kids to play chess since 2006, and chess works fantastically well online. It’s so good that the world champion didn’t own a physical chessboard until recently.
We started with a bunch of ideas about what might work, and over the course of the spring, we narrowed in on what actually worked. There was immediately a sense of joy with the kids. Chess is so fun and so interesting that it seemed like it would work if we could figure it out... though we definitely pricked our fingers a few times, especially in our first few classes.
This process of improvement from learning from mistakes and iterating and improving mirrored the process of improving at chess itself. We eventually figured out a few keys - small group classes needed to be small (eight seems like our magic number), even big classes needed to be highly participatory, and stories are even more important. At some point things started to feel appropriately exciting, and over the course of the spring our jumble of silk and string started to take shape, even though we could hear a rush of air.
Early on, we chose to offer families a club with a membership rather than a series of one-off classes. We wanted kids to be able to do a lot with us, and for families not to spend too much time on payments and signing up for different things. Since planning ahead has been so hard, we made everything month to month. This way it’s a small initial commitment (it’s only a month, and if you cancel in the first two weeks you get a full refund), but also easy to continue when (not if!) kids like it.
We also made the small group classes that are the core of the program flexibly scheduled, which has been really helpful for families. One big reason to structure it as a club is to include a lot in the membership that kids can do on a drop-in basis (often without much parent involvement), like tournaments and broadcast lessons. Kids are doing a ton of chess with us now. In the last ten months, our students have done:
We’ve also done some experiments with special events. We started with bringing in former students who had won state or national championships. From there, we got ambitious - really, really ambitious. In the summer we brought in Judit Polgar (JUDIT POLGAR!), who’s as close to Beth from The Queen’s Gambit as any real person can be - she’s been one of the top 100 players and the highest rated woman in the world since 1989 when she was 12 years old. She’s beaten ten world champions. And she came and taught a lesson to 250 of our students, and it was great!
The Present and Future
At this point, we not only have a parachute, but we’ve landed safely. Our online programs are working really well. How do we know that it’s working? First, our student count has grown every month since April. Second, our retention rate has been steadily improving, with more than 90% of students now choosing to continue with us each month. Third, after every small group class, we send out a feedback survey to participants, and our average response is better than 9/10.
Last March, we thought there was a decent chance that we’d be back in person by the summer, or for fall programs, but it’s now (checks notes) January of 2021, and it’s unclear if those things will even be back at any point in 2021. In May, we picked numbers that were stretch goals for student count and retention and we hit both numbers in November. We’re still looking forward to returning to in-person classes and camps someday (including coding and robotics!), but we’re not in a hurry. We’re also looking forward to going outside more generally.
We have a ton of ideas for how our new online programs can work as a complement for the in-person ones when they resume. For now though, we’re excited about what’s happening right now. We have a tournament with clubs from Australia, New Zealand, and Costa Rica next week! Judit is coming back in February! Online camps are fun for the kids! More programs for our most advanced students! A new website! And so much more!
We also want to thank our parents, students, and staff. The spring was an incredibly challenging time for families, and the parents were outrageously gracious as we navigated the initial disruption. We had dozens of email exchanges and phone calls with parents that brought tears to our eyes. Our students have continued to bring an incredible amount of curiosity and fun to the classes.
We also want to thank our incredible coaches - all of those compliments above are from kids who had a great experience in a class, and that’s due to the brilliant, patient, kind work of our coaches.