12 November, 2010

The Most Important Thing to Teach A Kid About Chess

I went to my son's first chess tournament last weekend. Some of the kids barely knew how to move the pieces, and the ones that did very quickly cleaned up the board. And yet, almost all the games were draws. Why?

No one knew how to checkmate.

 Fig. 1 : Know how to get here, from anywhere on the board.

I saw a trash talking kid with two queens fail to win against a nice little girl reduced to only her king. He just kept giving check, over and over again, until he blundered into a stalemate. It happened over and over again. It was excruciating, especially since it was a competition and I couldn't give any hints.

I suppose it's as true of chess as it is for anything else: turning a winning position into an actual win is an art in itself.

It's not enough to write a book that should be published: there's a long road from there to getting published. It's not enough to deserve a job: you have to actually go and get it. How many armies (and, more importantly, sports teams) have all the advantages, but lose because they don't know how to use them?

And so I spent the rest of that weekend teaching my son to win. First, with a queen and king against my king. Next with two rooks. Then a simulated game, me with a king and eight pawns versus his whole side.

OK, I might have been a little harsh. I might have even, once or twice, said "Wrong! Again!" in a credible imitation of Leopold Mozart at his worst. But he started to get it. He learned how to cut off the board, drive the king into the corner, and win.

The best part was his sister's chanting: "Checkmate Daddy! Checkmate Daddy!"

And despite my channeling a Prussian drillmaster, he kept wanting to try. All last week, he's been as likely to want to play chess as Lego Batman Wii when I come home from work. It's the taste of victory. Who wants to move pieces around a board once you know you can win?

I can't wait for the next tournament. He's going to murder those little punks... and, uh, learn very important lessons about perseverance and sportsmanship. Or something.

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