Chess Coach Spotlight: Sydney Busskohl

Coach Spotlight

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Coach Sydney has worked at the The Seattle Chess School for about three years, teaching beginners, and is also helping to manage the website and other technology matters. Look for her chess blog in the near future! 

We “met” in a zoom meeting and since I am doing a “spotlight story” on all the coaches, I told her we of course need to include her story, and mine. I had a great time interviewing Sydney and found that we have quite a lot in common, in addition to being quirky female chess players!

Sydney told me that her Mom says that SHE taught her how to play chess …but she mostly remembers playing chess with her stepdad, who came into her life when she was ten years old. He’s a jokester, and he liked it when she would fall for variations of the “four move checkmate”. As with many men, he loved to win 🙂…and once she was able to beat him, he didn’t want to play with her any more! 

During her own school years Coach Sydney was a good student (AP classes) and was very interested in art and music. She loved to paint using water color and acrylic mediums. 

I was intrigued to learn that Coach Sydney had also been in a band, singing vocals and playing blues harmonica. (I confessed that I sing karaoke and coincidentally, used to play a lot of old-timey songs on harmonica, back when I was a recreation leader in the Yakima parks. I had inherited a “chromonica” from my Grandpa.) I was very impressed to hear that Coach Sydney’s band recorded a CD at the same recording studio as one of my favorite 1990s indie rock bands — “Cake”. I love their version of “I Will Survive.” 

Coach Sydney grew up in Folsom, California — and she got a kick out of me asking “Is that where the prison is?” (One of my favorite musicians being Johnny Cash, and I love his Folsom Prison blues song…) Her high school was pretty large but did not have a chess club or debate team, or other more cerebral clubs. The student-run clubs tended more toward “starting a charity”. Admirable! 

Moving with her mom and stepdad, she spent a few months in Texas after growing up in California, and then the family moved to Seattle when her stepdad got a job here. Coach Sydney found a job downtown as a “leasing consultant” for several years (for people looking to lease apartments), and enjoyed her new “city girl” lifestyle and living on Capitol Hill. 

About three years ago, Coach Sydney got back into chess. She was playing a lot at Westlake — which was a bit of a shock to me, because I have been billing myself as the “lone female chess player at Westlake”! I can’t believe we never met there, possibly because I was playing on weekends and she may have been there on weekdays. 

She told me she called around to several local chess schools, looking for a group to play casual chess with. (I too had been on my own search for the same…and found one in a Pioneer Square Starbucks.) Steve Ryan from The Seattle Chess School was the only one who bothered to call her back, and he told her they didn’t have a casual chess club…but they could form one! Hence their “Thursday Night Chess Club” was started. 

Coach Sydney had quit her big downtown job, and at the time was doing random jobs such as selling on Amazon and eBay. Eventually she asked Steve if he might need some help with The Seattle Chess School. And here she is now, chess coach and jack-of-all-trades. (I myself had emailed the chess school a few months ago, asking about teaching beginning chess — and letting them know I am a chess player, chess writer, and former Chess Mom. And here I am now…writing for the chess school!) 

Coach Sydney watched “The Queen’s Gambit” Netflix series and we compared notes about how accurate all the chess scenes were. (Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini were advisors to the director.) We also appreciated the aesthetics of the sets: the hairstyles, clothing, cars, home furnishings, hotel scenes, etc.  — as well as the tournament scenes.

The most interesting person Coach Sydney has met through chess is Steve Ryan, the director of the chess school. She has watched him teach and heard his lectures. She feels certain the the “little life lessons” he uses in his teaching will stick with kids forever: patience; respecting your opponent; and other lessons built into his talks.

I asked Coach Sydney about a memorable teaching experience, and she told me about a young teenage boy she played one-on-one with. He was smart and self-reflective, but became very frustrated and angry at himself when he blundered or lost. He was very hard on himself and complained, “You just crush me!” Coach Sydney advised him that she could tell he would soon become a good chess player. She encouraged him to use chess as a “form of meditation”: take a moment to breathe and center yourself before each move, and then look at the board. He took her up on it, began breatheing, and making better moves! 

I agree with her assessment that many children and teenagers struggle with pressure, anxiety and self-criticism in these current times. (I know I certainly did! I just recently have come to the realization that I don’t have to be perfect!) 

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