Why Americans Children Should be Taught Chess – ATrigueiro
I learned to play the game of chess very very young. My father, who was deployed in the Navy while he was married to my mother, taught me one of the few weeks he was home from the Vietnam theater. There I sat on the kitchen floor, which looked like a chess board coincidentally with the checkerboard linoleum in the old Long Beach apartment. I eagerly listened to my Dad’s every word. I never saw him due to the war. He had my attention when he was home. I was very young perhaps only three though most likely four. In any case, with so few moments with my father as a child this lesson stuck with me.
I remembered how all the pieces moved forever after. I never ever forgot the moves even though there was no one else that could play. After the divorce when I was seven, I would fall into a game or two a year with an adult at some event or family gathering. My Dad’s gift of the game was invaluable to me in this respect. I could sit with adults and engage in a game with them as an equal. It a powerful thing to a child to be on equal footing with adults. I planned on passing it on to my own children.
As is often the case, parental intentions can be derailed by the tastes and desires of their children. Much to my chagrin, my sons were not terribly interested in learning such a seemingly boring and static game. I was faced with the fact they were uninterested in learning. My own internal debate on the utility of the game had firmed my resolve, however. If they did not want to learn, they would be taught anyway. It was just too detrimental NOT to have the critical thinking skills the game gifts its players.
How to teach things to the unwilling? You actually cannot do it. People must WANT the knowledge. You can create a false desire through punishment, but that was not a course I wished to follow. It is one way or another, though. I understood this better than most, so I hit upon a plan. I would run a chess club at the elementary school where my sons were attending. I enlisted a couple of teachers and I was off. My sons learned to play the game.
Why did I think it was so important that my sons know how to play chess? So important that I had no problem teaching a whole elementary school just to get them interested. The critical thinking skills are one thing, but the game is also egalitarian. Money cannot buy an advantage in the game as the equipment is inexpensive. It is extremely difficult to cheat without using a computer and other technology. Nothing is hidden. Your opponent’s moves are always right there in front of you.
Chess is a great equalizer. Yes, being smart helps, but it is not everything. Practice and the WILL to find the right move can make up for a lot when it comes to raw brain power. Chess rewards hard work. Chess is very much like life in this way.
I can teach you the value of the pieces. The King can never be lost. The Queen is the most powerful piece, followed by the Rook, the Knight and Bishop. Also, there are pawns which despite being the weakest, can be transformed into ANY other piece but the King. I cannot play the game for you, just as I cannot live your life for you.
Here is a way where chess is just like life. After I have taught you the relative values of the pieces, I can teach you a lot about the rules and the strategy. At that point, you would understand you should not trade your Queen for a Rook or a Bishop, because these pieces are so much less powerful. However, just like life, there will be instances in any given game, where it COULD make sense to trade your Queen for a Bishop, especially if it led directly to checkmate. Unfortunately, I am unable to tell you how to recognize that situation specifically. You will have to decide for yourself in the game.
I remember explaining this at the first meeting of the chess club with an analogy. It was an analogy which brought a grimace to a few parents’ faces, but to their credit they did not object. I told the young aspiring players about how chess was very much like life.
“Every one of you here has probably been told not to talk to strangers”, I said. There was agreement all around the room, so I followed up.
“However, if you are laying in the street with a broken leg, because you fell off your bike or out of a tree, perhaps then if you were to see a stranger, you should probably tell them about your broken leg.” The kids laughed, while there were some sour looks among the parents, they did not object. Truth is truth. They knew they wanted their child to be able to make this distinction.
Another thing which is great about chess is the fact that the most powerful piece is the Queen. The most powerful piece on the board is a female analogue. Whoa! I could see all the young girls who had come to the first meeting LOVED this fact. If chess is like life and the most powerful chess piece is the Queen, well then the boys were forced to consider what this meant in real life. I did not offer up an answer to them, I only pointed it out.
I went on with my introductions to the game as a war game allegory from India. A game meant to teach young royalty in historic India how to manage an army, how to win a battle and subsequently win the war. I went into some historic minutiae from there, trying to edit my own personal beliefs about the value of the game in this vein. In my heart though I knew it was also the war analogue that I wanted my sons to “grok” completely.
As you play the game, you are in control. You fight to protect your King while marshaling your forces to storm your opponent’s defenses. The more you play, the more you understand the war analogy too. You see how war honors no particular rank. If the sacrifice of the Queen and both your Rooks leads to checkmate and victory, well then you will do just that. It is everything to protect your King and checkmate the opposing monarch. If it means trading off the most powerful pieces to gain advantage you will do it. Rank means nothing if the ultimate goal is victory.
You also learn about the power of the people in the trenches, the foot soldiers of chess, the pawns. You lose these easily, but if you lose them all too soon, victory is difficult. Most games between relatively equal opponents will go many moves with only a few pieces left. One side inevitably is able to get a pawn all the way across the board to be promoted to whatever piece they want, most likely a Queen. Foot soldiers are expendable as individuals, but if you lose them all, you likely will lose the battle.
Finally, there is this very, very important lesson about the war game that is chess. As you play, your ego and your intellect is very much tied to the outcomes. After all, nothing is hidden from you. If you lose, YOU LOST. It was not bad luck, it was bad decision making. Your ego will be bruised, but you will walk away to play another day. As the chess player, you are very much like the politicians back home that start the wars, but never actually shed any blood upon the battlefield.
It is here where chess as a war analogue really shines. This was the lesson, I wanted my sons to understand. As my nation became ever more belligerent and pugnacious across the globe, I wanted my sons to be “protected” from warmongering rhetoric about the GLORY of war. Chess players understand that the glory is only for those that move the pieces, not for those on the battlefield.
I truly believe that if more American children played the game, this nation would have far less volunteers for its endless Global War on Terror. They would grow up to be citizens that can see through America’s War myths. Chess is a game about war. It really teaches one about the many nuances of war that are lost in breathless speeches about glory and victory. It is a teaching tool.