The Perfect Toddler Toy No One Uses

My toddler is weird. She is 1.5 years old and she is always fascinated by the ‘wrong part’ things. T-Bird was 6 months old on her first Christmas, do you want to know what her favorite present was? The wrapping paper. The paper that wrapped the presents, not any of the actual presents. Let me say this: If you are spending more than $20 on your 6-month-old’s present then you my friend are a damn fool! The best present you can give a 6-month-old is a ball of wrapping paper wrapped in wrapping paper (you can then wrap that paper in yet another layer of wrapping paper if you’re into the whole ‘inception-russian-doll’ school of present giving).Screen Shot 2017-01-28 at 10.29.20 AM

My daughter’s first birthday shall is referred to as the “Great Manufacturer’s Tab Obsession of 2016.” We had a Birthday Party for our daughter, we told everyone not to bring toys, and everyone brought toys anyways. For my next birthday I should have a “don’t bring me $1,000 in unmarked $20 bills” and invite the same people.  My daughter had piles and piles of toys: books, backpacks, age-inappropriate “Frozen” paraphernalia to give you an idea. But what was her favorite? Did unavoidable “Frozen” allure fall upon my daughter at the ungodly age of 1? What about the animal blocks? Maybe the small library of books would win her favor?

The group of presents she liked the most were the presents with manufacturer’s tags. That little white tag on the bottom of the stuffed animals, that is the apple of my daughter’s eye. Think of the man hours that went into conceiving, crafting, and designing, the Mt. Kilimanjaro of toys in our living room. They were all wasted. My daughter preferred to experiment with the government mandated, black and white tag. Sisphyus all of them!

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Daddy’s Hobby Spreads

I go through hobbies like shoes. Some last longer than others. Clash of Clans, that was a long one I played everyday for 2 years then abruptly stopped. Remote Control Helicopters, that hobby lasted about as long as a pair of thong sandals you get while on vacation. I’m on a magic/slight of hand hobby right now. How long before this hobby vanishes? No one can ever know, I just enjoy the wave of interest while it lasts. I’m practicing a card trick that destroys cards as you do the trick several times. So I have random playing cards strewn around my apartment. Waking to the bathroom in the middle of the night will probably get the seven of spades stuck to your foot. When we clean our couch a couple of years from now I’m sure we will collect enough errant cards to build a house of cards taller than our actual apartment.

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It is in the middle of the “Great Card Obsession of 2016” we discovered our daughter’s favorite thing. A deck of cards. My wife and I were trying to find safe objects for our daughter to decorate our Christmas Tree with. 90% of the ornaments were either breakable or sharp or both. That’s when I noticed the queen of hearts stuck to my wife’s slipper. Could our daughter could just decorate our tree with playing cards?

If you think about it, playing cards are the perfect toddler activity. They’re cheap, the opposite of fragile, it’s not end of the world if they put them in their mouth, easily replaceable, widely available,  and cards have lots of distinguishing qualities for toddlers to explore. Taking the cards out of their box requires a lot of acute physical manipulation. When the cards are out of their box it’s fun to spread them out, then try to gather them back in a stack, and even more difficult to put back in their box. Cards are numbered! When children get older they can begin to learn sequencing! Not to mention all the magic you can do with cards to ignite your child’s imagination and stretch their reality.

To the people who think cards are inappropriate for children: I am so sorry your second cousin lost his families mortgage payment on a poker game, I know, I know the river screwed him. I would say your second cousin’s real problem lies in cash management, expected value assessment, and mitigating the volatility of poker through long sessions of mistake free play. It wasn’t the card’s fault it was your cousin’s fault. But if cards are still a trigger for you and send a shiver down your spine, fine. Your kids don’t have to play with cards. But mine will.giphy

Expectations for Child Card Play

Card Pro Tip #1- Just get a normal deck of cards and leave it where your kids can find it. Don’t get cards made for kids (they exist), or make a big ceremony of giving them the cards. Instead leave the deck on the edge of a table, or the arm of your couch. Somewhere where they’ll genuinely discover them. Also don’t use your late Grandfather’s antique bicycles that he carried with him on his tour of north Africa and Italy in 1943, he played gin with Patton with those cards. Just buy a regular deck of cards that you have no problem letting your child(ren) destroy.

Phase #1- Ages 1-1.5 years. Your child discovers the deck of cards, you’ll probably have to show them how to open in and take out the cards. As soon as your child handles the cards they’ll probably just flop over the floor. That’s it! I just sat with my daughter and just picked up different amount of cards. Maybe I would gather some cards and assimilate them back into a uniform pile, just to show her. Let your child explore!

Going in the car or subway? Grab the cards!


Even at this early phase have your child help you clean up even if they can do little to nothing to practically help you. What’s important is your child gets in the habit of cleaning up an activity after they’re done.

Phase #1.5 When you choose the set of cards that you will let your child explore, write your child’s name on one of the cards with your child. That will be your child’s card. As they continue to explore the cards the might come across the unique card with writing on it and bring it to show you. Or maybe you can make an activity out of dumping the cards on the floor and asking your child to find their card.

Phase #2- 2 months after your child’s first interaction cards: Separating the cards into face-up and face-down piles. After playing with the cards for a couple of months I noticed my daughter doing this on her own. She would have a small pile of cards in her hand and place them in the floor all face-down or face-up. The only thing I did say “down” when a card was put face-down, and “up” when face-up. Currently my daughter is shouting “DOWN” when she places cards down.

That’s it for now! This is months of daily activity for a toddler. What are the next steps? I don’t know! Maybe finding all four cards of a certain value when she gets a little older. Maybe separating all the red and black cards? Those seem like the next steps, but I have not reached them yet. I would love to hear other ideas in the comments!

Extra Credit!

If you’re interested in learning some elementary sleight of hand, learning to make a card vanish is fun for your child to see. You can teach them to say “gone” when you make the card disappear into thin air. Another fun trick to work on is the “ninja flip”. Basically you take your dominant hand face up, and put the deck of cards facedown in your palm. You thumb should be on one long side, and your four fingers on the other. Now use your thumb to edge the top card into your other four fingers. Put your pointer and pinky above the card, while your middle and ring finger tucked under. Now if you push down with your pointer and pinky the card will bend. Now release the pressure in your pointer finger and flick out with your middle and ringer finger, this will send the card flying through the air (please practice this without your children around before showing it to them, and gain some control over where the cards will fly when you do this trick. We don’t want any cards hitting your children in the eye). On of my daughter’s favorite activities is sitting on a chair watching me flick cards off the top of the deck and exclaiming “AHH” every time a card pops into the air, like I didn’t know it was going to happen.


My Magnus Theory Pt. 2: Magnus’ Big Problem

Magnus Carlsen is the 3-Time World Chess Champion, he’s 26 years old, he’s probably the most talented chess player on earth, and I think he has a big problem.

Here is my “Magnus Theory Pt 1.” The TLDR version is: Carlsen transformed his style from a Tal-like swashbuckler, to a extremely conservative positional player that relied on stamina to wear down his opponents (who were usually older).

What do Carlsen and Tal have in common?

Both relied on sub-optimal moves to become World Chess Champion.

Tal loved to sacrifice material, even when he admitted it wasn’t ‘correct’. The most famous example is Game 6 of the 1960 World Chess Championship against Botvinnik. On his 24th move Tal sacrificed a knight for the initiative, activation of pieces with no immediate material compensation, and went on to win the game.

24...Nf4!? is marked as an inaccuracy by stockfish, recommended was Nf6

24…Nf4!? is marked as an inaccuracy by stockfish, recommended was Nf6

From what I’ve read in books, this knight sacrifice really frustrated some because if Botvinnik hadn’t blundered 2 moves later, the move would have gone down in the history books as a blunder instead of a brilliancy. Whether brilliant or a blunder, this move isn’t optimal!

Now what you probably think I’m going to say is: Carlsen won the 2016 WCC by sacrificing his queen in Game 4 of tie-breaks.Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 2.29.04 PM

This is not one of the sacrifices I’m talking about. And to connect Tal and Carlsen because they both have sacrificed material in a WCC would be lame and a waste of everyone’s time.

The sacrifice Carlsen made on move 10 of game 3 of his 2016 match vs Karjakin is much more interesting to me.Screen Shot 2017-01-24 at 2.37.54 PM

Most people, who am I kidding, no one but me, will classify 10.Re2 as a sacrifice. When chess players think of a sacrifice they usually think of Tal trading a rook for a pawn, or a bishop sacrifice on f7, or h2, or a move that loses material for some greater gain. Carlsen isn’t losing material with Re2, so why do I call it a sacrifice? I look at Re2 as a sacrifice because Carlsen is losing something: the advantages of playing the optimal move. What is Carlsen gaining? A fresh position where he can try to outplay his opponent.

I don’t want to get caught up on semantics, you can call Re2 whatever you want: a sacrifice, a transaction, a strategy, whatever. The main point is: Carlsen is playing sub-optimal moves in exchange for fresh positions. Think of how similar this is to Tal: Tal played “non-correct” moves to create chaos. Tal’s assumption is I am better at chaotic positions, so I will pay material to create them. Carlsen is playing “sub-optimal” moves to create a new position, which is essentially chaos. Carlsen’s assumption is I am better at simply playing chess, so I will make sub-optimal moves to create fresh positions. Both Carlsen and Tal are willing to play “sub optimal moves” to steer the game into something their opponent could not expect. Both used this tactic at the highest possible level of competition, the World Chess Championship, and both won. Brilliant and Magical.

Carlsen uses this strategy often. Here are some recent examples. On his 6th move of the 5th 2016 WCC Game Carlsen plays the 10th most popular move 6.a4. Carlsen repeated the strange opening on the 2nd Tie-Break game of the 2016 WCC. In the 4th Tie-Break Game Carlsen played 5.f3 in the Sicilian. Here is a screenshot from the lichess opening explorer to give you an idea of how popular that move is.
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If you don’t agree that Carlsen uses sub-optimal moves to create fresh positions go ahead and take a look at this game, then come back and we can talk.

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Why is this strategy a problem?

Before I tell you why I think this strategy will pose long-term problems for Carlsen let me say, I am a Magnus Carlsen fan. I’ve been following his career for over 10 years, I think he’s great for chess, and I am in no way a ‘hater.’ The way that Magnus transformed his game to utilize this strategy is remarkable and brilliant, and rightly earned him the title of World Champion. It was a brilliant choice in 2013, but now I think this strategy will become a liability.

Reason #1– Playing sub-optimal moves is a strategy that can’t grow and mature the way other styles can.

Former WC Viswanathand Anand has the most notorious opening repertoire in chess. My favorite Anand game is his 2013 game against Aronian where Anand uses ‘left-over’ preparation from his WC match against Gelfand. Bear with me, if Anand’s opening repertoire was a tree, I think the tree would look like this.Screen Shot 2017-01-25 at 12.25.35 PM

Beautiful, wild, mysterious, deep, fecund, growing, ancient.

I’ve heard Carlsen lecture, his memory is unparalleled. I 100% believe Carlsen could play openings like Anand, but chooses to put his efforts into more effective areas of his chess game. No one knows what Carlsen has in his head but Carlsen. All we know is what he has shown us so far.

If Carlsen’s opening style was a tree I think it would look like this:

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Tiny, mysterious, well pruned, and the work of a master.

But here’s the thing about this tree: you can only prune a tree for so long. Tree pruning, hair cutting and laundry are all tasks that have pre-determined ends.

Carlsen makes sub-optimal opening moves. What can he to do mature that style? Make his opening moves more sub-optimal? Bring an 8-sided die to every game with white, and before the game give it a roll, and move the corresponding pawn 1 square?

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I can hear the commentators now “Welcome to the 2018 World Chess Championship. The players are about ready to begin Game 1, and Carlsen is bringing out his opening die. What will he roll today? Only the die knows. Oh, it’s a 6! Carlsen shrugs, puts the die back in his breast pocket and plays f3. Wouldn’t be my choice to open a world championship but you know the saying “you live by the die, you die by the die.”

Am I being serious or not? Yes

Reason #2- This style was developed to defeat a chess meta-game that has drastically changed, making it less effective.

I don’t hear the term “meta-game’ discussed in chess and probably for good reason. Chess is usually like weight-lifting, I can lift 500 pounds, you can only lift 450, so I’m going to win this weightlifting competition. The Style or what method you use to lift the weight isn’t relevant. All that matters is: can you lift the weigh or not?

Compare that to a game like Hearthstone, or League of Legends, or even NBA Basketball. In those games it’s possible to have strategy, method, or team that is most successful but not objectively best. In those games the ‘strongest’ doesn’t always win. Here’s how: There’s a new Hearthstone deck that’s using the most consistent and effective strategy, let’s call that “strategy a”. “Strategy a” gains wide popularity because people that use it gain a high win %. Because of “strategy a’s” popularity a counter strategy is developed, “strategy b”. “Strategy b” is only successful against “strategy a” and quickly gains popularity. Now that “strategy b” is becoming so popular a normal and basic “strategy c” is developed, because “strategy b” wasn’t designed to beat it. And finally now that ‘strategy c’ is gaining popularity, guess what is ready to come back? “Strategy a”!


The other interesting logical consequence of above scenario is: “b” beats “a”, and “c” beats “b” but “c” loses to “a”.

Does the chess world have a meta-game? I don’t think so. But I do think Carlsen’s opening strategy is a reaction to an exploitable weakness, much like “strategy b” in the above scenario (but I also think Carlsen is the strongest weightlifter around). This choice made Carlsen a great match-up for Anand and Carlsen soundly won 2 WCC matches. Carlsen used the same strategy against Karjakin in their 2016 WC match in NYC. Carlsen did not win that match, Karjakin lost it. Carlsen won game 10 after a unbelievable mistake by Karjakin. After the match Carlsen admitted himself how close the chess world came to having a new champion.

Carlen’s strategy made him the king of the pre-computer world of chess, but I don’t believe it will serve him well in the post-computer era.


My prediction is simple: If Carlsen’s next WCC challenger is under 30 years old, Carlsen will have to stop making these suboptimal moves in the opening. If he doesn’t I believe he will be defeated.

Oh and yes, I have thought about what tree reminds me of Tal’s sacrifices: the weeping beechScreen Shot 2017-01-26 at 10.33.18 AM

Unreal, wonder inducing, strange, beautiful

The Count’s Chess Puzzle Room

In the summer of 2016 I went to an “Escape the Room” puzzle in New York City with my wife and two friends. If you don’t know what an “Escape the Room” puzzle is, it’s basically a puzzle where you are put in a locked room, and you have 1 hour to figure out how to get out of the room. There are countless themes and variations on how ETRs work. The first one I did was a detective’s office: we had an hour to gather evidence proving this was a crooked cop, and find the key to unlock the door before this fictitious detective got back from lunch. This one was pretty fun, there were trap doors, secret buttons,  and black lights exposing invisible ink. We escaped the room with just 30 seconds to spare. I did another ETR that was really fun: a bank’s security system was undergoing repairs for 60 minutes, we had to break into the bank, open the vault and escape with the treasure. The best part of this ETR was when we found a remote controlled car that was controlled by a provided tablet. We had to put the car into an air-vent, turn on the car’s lights, navigate around the vents until we found a secret room. In the secret room there was a button on the wall that we ran into with our little car. When the button was pressed it opened the door to the room, and we got in. I have got out of 60% of the rooms I’ve gone into, and would recommend the experience for anyone. If you’re in NYC I would recommend this place.

But what really interested me about the experience was the mindset you are put into during this 60 minutes. ETR participants feel: energized, extremely aware of surroundings, curious, collaborative, and creative. The hour goes by in a flash. I fell in love with that cocktail of feelings. It reminded me of the most inspiring classes I’ve taken and taught, encapsulated in a puzzle room.

Can “Escape the Room” puzzles be educational?

ETR rooms are almost exclusively built for adults. The motor control, creativity, and general life-skills (things like: how to open a safe or use bolt cutters to cut a lock off a door) make ETRs inappropriate for kids. But the feelings I experienced during that hour were so powerful, I wanted to think of a creative way to make an ETR ‘like’ experience that could be educational for kids.

Barrier #1- Let us not pretend to lock kids in a room.

If someone told me I was locked inside of a room when I was a kid, it would have scared the hell out of me. Even if it was explained to me that I could leave anytime I wanted, or the lock wasn’t real, I think I still would have been frightened. Plus telling someone something, then explaining that something isn’t real kind of takes away from the ‘authenticity’ of the situation. I wanted to create another environment where children had to solve problems in a certain amount of time, for some fun reason.

Solution #1- The Bye-Bye Box

The Bye-Bye Box in all her glory!

The Bye-Bye Box in all her glory!

The Bye-Bye Box is two crates held together by two door hinges, so the Bye-Bye box can open like a book. The Bye-Bye Box also has 3 hasps (the metal things you actually lock the different locks to, had to look up the name) and 2 or 3 different padlocks (depending on the difficulty of the puzzle), and a paper shredder mounted on the inside of the box. The paper shredder is hooked up to a remote controlled attachment giving me the ability to turn the shredder on and off remotely. And yes I did get funny looks in Home Depot and the NYC Subway carrying around all this, but once I explained it people were like ‘oh ok, that’s freaking sweet good luck!”

Barrier #2- Will this actually be educational while still being thrilling?

Here’s how the “Count’s Chess Puzzle Room” works: Kids come into the chess club, solve riddles to find clues, then solve chess puzzles to get numbers to open different locks. Students have 1 hour to open the Bye-Bye Box or else the shredder destroys “the prize.” Maybe the prize is patterns that the children can color if they succeed, or maybe 6 chess puzzles on a sheet of paper that will help the student beat whomever they want in chess. The addition of a consequence of failure is what injects urgency, and adrenaline into the students as they solve the riddles and puzzles.

I want to tell you about a typical hour lesson in the “Count’s Chess Puzzle Room.” This will help you see how I used chess, and a couple of other puzzles to get my students to feel the same way about chess as I did the first time I did an ETR puzzle.

The Opening Letter: Kids come into the chess club to find an envelope on the table, and a curious locked crate that they may or may not have seen before.



The Count’s Opening Letter

The kids read the clue and find the first envelope behind a Christmas themed design on our wall of fame. Here’s an example of a type of chess puzzle I use in the clues, and how that clue translates into opening up a lock.


Day 3 puzzle 3

Ok kids, in this game I moved my bishop to g5. What square does that bishop want to go to next? The first # in the wall mounted lock is the rank the bishop it will move to minus the bishops value (7-3=4.)

Now the students have the first number in a lock combination. They will have to find another clue in the chess club with another chess problem on it to discover the rest of the numbers.

Maybe for an hour we follow one game all the way through. And at different points during the game I insert a puzzle into the narrative that gives the students the next number in a lock’s combination. With a little creativity and planning you can easily write hour long lessons that your students will be energized to do lest they fail to open the “Bye-Bye Box”, and see their prize shredded before their eyes!

Another example of how to connect chess and the “Bye-Bye Box”

One week the “Bye-Bye Box” lesson was centered around a Mikhail Tal game. At the beginning of the lesson the following clue was given: the white queen opens the white lock. Here’s a photo of the white lock.IMG_1079

This is a cool lock I found at Home Depot. In this game Tal moves his queen 5 times: starting from d1 to d4, then to d2, d3, g3 and ends the game with Qg6. Here’s what those queen movements look like.

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The combination for the white lock is: Up, Down, Up, Left, Up. There are a lot of ways to translate those queen moves into a 4 digit, or letter, or movement-based combination: maybe

Getting crazy

This doesn’t have to just be about chess, here’s an example of a plot line I used today that uses playing cards.



Cards aren’t labeled correctly in this photo b/c it was taken when I was making them and the cards were taped together, so when I flipped the cards they would appear correct on the other side.


Around the chess club were 20 playing cards that students had to find. The back of the cards were labeled a1-e4 so the students had to organize the cards correctly in a 5×4 grid. Once the grid was made, the students flipped the cards over to reveal the other side. And are given the below riddle:


Cards are fun, cards are cool, they’re the apple of my eye. Search and scour for all 20, then stack them towards the sky!

The children had trouble discovering which way to stack the cards. The Ace of Clubs has “Start Here” written on it, and the 10 of Spades has “Finish” written on it. The children first tried making a pile of cards based on their value, aces first, then 2’s, then 3’s and so on. This is was not the correct order. One keen student realized there was so sort of bizarre path going between all the cards, maybe that was the order they should be stacked in. And indeed it was, when the cards were stacked in the correct order, the students found the secret message written on the sides of the cards.

7418* opens the wall mounted lockbox. Inside the box the key that opens the last lock on the Bye-Bye Box.

7418* opens the wall mounted lockbox. Inside the box the key that opens the last lock on the Bye-Bye Box.

The possibilities of what can be taught through this new method is endless

Any age any elo (chess strength)

One of the beauties of the Bye-Bye Box is it’s re-use-ability. Most ETRs can only be done once, once you know the ‘secrets’ of the room. But the combinations on all the locks can be changed, different plot lines can be added, and difficulties of the chess puzzles can be adjusted so that a chess player of any skill could be challenged by it. Have a student who is 6 years old, and only been playing chess for a few months? Put some easy puzzles in the clues, and only have 2 locks on the Bye-Bye Box. Or maybe GM Eric Hansen and his Chess Brahs are coming up for a challenge, crack open a Kasparov book, and pick the most difficult puzzles and use 3 padlocks instead.

Can I sign me or my kids up for this?

This is the only Educational Chess-Themed ETR that I know of. The Chess at 3 Chess Club is at 1309 Madison ave NYC. If you want book a session for you or your child you can email me at:

If you have a question about the Bye-Bye Box or the lessons I’ve written that go along with it, feel free to leave a comment!

Safety Notes

If you’re thinking: are you insane you have a locked box with a paper shredder that children put their hands into?

Before children begin any “Bye-Bye Box” classes a couple of rules are settled. 1. Children can try to actually unlock the locks but cannot open the Bye-Bye Box or put their hands inside the box for any reason.

The way I built the “Bye-Bye Box” has some safety failsafes that makes it impossible for a child or anyone for that matter to be hurt by the paper shredder. 1- The paper shredder is off at all times, the only way it is turned on is by a button only accessible to me. 2- The shredder will only be turned on when the box is closed. I’ve taken all possible safety measures, and if you want to something like this, it is 100% necessary you do too