I read this wonderful article about chess ages ago, and it has stuck with me. When things stick with me, I like to write about them, tease out what has gotten under my skin in good or bad ways. In this case, it’s all good, and I want to share. The article is about how chess has transformed the students in a Brooklyn school, and how it has given so many of them the sweet taste of success. The school, a middle school, won United States Chess Federation’s national high school championship, beating top-ranked high schools.
I should start by saying that I cannot play chess. I actually have no interest in learning. (Oddly, I do covet all manner of themed chess sets, but that’s a love of the visual and of the stories that the themed sets represent.) My five year old regularly beats me at checkers, so I don’t think my chances are very good if I take up chess. My brain simply does not do well with spatial logic, and I lack the particular brand of patience required for strategic planning. But I did grow up with there being a deep love of chess in our household. I associate it most profoundly with my father’s few relaxed hours, with my father challenging family friends or my brother to a game on lazy Sunday afternoons, the enforced hush around them in reverence to their concentration. We moved from country to country every few years, but one constant was my father’s cream-coloured wooden box with his chess pieces, a box that was, frustratingly, just slightly too big to fit into his briefcase no matter how hard he tried. I can hear the pieces now, rattlling around as he carries them to the board.
Chess is one of the activites offered all through the year as an after-school activity at the boys’ school, and my eldest, who is in his last year of elementary, has been playing chess since Grade 1. He loves it, and I love to see that his grandfather’s passion for the game has passed to him. I love it even more when he beats my father, fair and square. There are not many playing fields on which children and adults can meet on equal footing, but chess has proven to be one of them in our family. The two kids who play (11 and 7) are capable of beating their father, grandfather, uncles and friends. I love what that teaches them about the value of patience and persistence, about the chances of the little guy.
But it’s not just their performance on the board that makes me wax lyrical about the benefits of the game. Indeed, if there is one thing the head chess coach wants to plant firmly in the minds of his young charges, it’s “Think before you act.” There are limitless possibilities to the applicability of that wisdom, and I think I’ve uttered it more than a thousand times in my parenting life. And that is why I lit up when I read this part of the article:
The walls [of the classroom] are plastered with chess tips that read like maxims for living life: “When you don’t know what to do next, improve your worst piece” reads one, written in felt-tip marker. “If you’re winning, play safe and keep the game clean and simple. If you are losing, take risks and complicate the game.”
When my eldest tried out for competitive hockey, the coach said, “I can tell that he is a chess player. He’s always steps ahead of the play.” What joy to hear that the maxims that the chess coaches were teaching him were translating to other areas of his life. Chess does move in mysterious ways, its wonders to behold.