Joel Salman drifts about a cozy, tucked-away room in the Jericho Public Library, monitoring, observing, overlooking members of the newly rejuvenated Jericho Chess Club. The players silently contemplate their next strategic moves of the pawns, knights and bishops. One of the younger members, sitting at a table with other kids, is about to make his decision. Salman stops him, corrects his thinking and reinvents his pupil's strategy.
Joel Salman (back, right) offers strategic advice to a young chess player.
Salman, a lifelong player and an official Chess Master from Oceanside, is one of Long Island's 10 best players, and a full-time chess instructor. Patty Binns, coordinator of special events at the library, was looking for someone of such skill and renown to head up the club, which was founded one year ago but went on hiatus. Its first new meeting, with Salman at the helm, took place last Tuesday, February 2.
"He sounded like he had a good personality for the community [and] he has a good reputation," said Binns of Salman.
Not surprisingly, since most highly-ranked chess players first learn the game in their early childhood, Salman first picked up chess at about age 5. However, he only began truly pursuing chess seriously in high school, when he began following a friend of his to various tournaments and clubs. He then started organizing his own tournaments in college, at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, from which he graduated in 1987.
He refined his skills, learning from those more advanced than he, playing in tournaments for about a decade before he finally earned a good enough rating to garner the titles of National Master and Life Master from the United States Chess Federation in 1992 and 1993, respectively, and FIDE Master in 1994 from France's Federation Internationale des Echecs. To become a Master, your rating must be at least 2,200.
"To give you some idea of what that means, the average among people who play tournaments in this country is probably about 1,400, and when you get to be 2,200, you're better than about 99 percent of the people who play chess."
However, Salman continued, "You're also worse than the one percent of people who really matter, which are the top professionals, Grand Masters and so on. So, you're always looking up. Sort of like mountain climbing."
Salman said that if he gave up teaching or concentrated intently on honing his gaming skills, he could probably make it to International Master, a step just below Grand Master. "But to be a Grandmaster I think I would have needed to...[start] playing tournaments at 7 or 8." Maybe so, but Salman defeated a Grand Master for the first time in July 1998 at the U.S. Masters in Hawaii.
In fact, Salman has traveled all around the 50 States, and beyond, to compete in chess, and has preliminary plans to compete this year at tournaments in Bermuda and perhaps in Holland. According to Salman, one can find a diverse, unique mix of people at these tournaments, who share the bond of being a chess-phile.
"As far as playing in tournaments and meeting people, you tend to meet people from all walks of life," said Salman. "It's more than just having a common interest. You meet people who do all sorts of interesting professions - doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers. Really, just the whole run of the mill."
Just as diverse as the lives and occupations of fellow players whom Salman has met, were the ages of those occupying the Jericho Library chess club room that Tuesday, as young and old competed. Typically, though, it is the younger generation that Salman tutors in his professional career.
While there are certainly plenty of youngsters who, usually because of fear of boredom, eschew the sport of chess, Salman said that there are enormous benefits to picking up this game during one's childhood.
"A number of educational studies have shown that children who get involved in chess tend to have improvements in areas such as critical thinking, logical problem-solving [and] spatial relationships."
"But also they find some improvements in areas you wouldn't expect; for instance, reading scores," continued Salman, who offered a theory on why this is so. "You're reading several pages. You have to remember what came before in order to see where the story is going, or where the argument is going. And chess is very much like that."
Teaching children these skills, which Salman, 33, has been doing for the past six years, requires certain qualities from the instructor. "You can learn a lot about how someone is playing by just looking at one or two of their games, especially if you ask them questions," he said. "And then you get a good idea of what they need to know, what they're stumbling on.
"Patience is helpful too, because it's not always easy to express the mistake." This is especially true when the challenges of the game have reached an advanced and intricate level. Explained Salman, "As you work with better players, the mistakes become more subtle and [it becomes] much harder to try and refine their game. And that's the same problem I face if I try to work on my game...It's diminishing returns. It takes a lot more work for a little bit of gain. But when you make that jump, or you sort of manage to understand something new, it's really a nice feeling."
The next meeting of the chess club will take place on March 9, from 7 to 8 p.m. Salman will play multiple students at once in what is called a simultaneous exhibition on March 25.