How chess helped a first-grader learn patience and strategy
By Renee Moilanen, The Daily Breeze
Every Tuesday, the lunch tables at my son’s school are packed with kids, their shoulders hunched over game boards, deep in thought. There are no video monitors. Not an electronic cable to be found. Instead, the kids are engrossed in — of all things — chess.
I was skeptical when my son first asked if he could participate in the after-school classes, which are offered by an organization called Academic Chess. The kid has zero strategy during a game of Go Fish. How could he begin to grasp the complexities of chess?
But he’d taken a liking to it a while back, when — in a moment of desperation — I decided to entertain him by pulling out our dime-store chess board. He was in kindergarten then, and I figured he’d lose interest as soon as I put the last darn piece in place. After all, this is the kid who can’t finish a game of Candy Land.
Turns out, the boy loved it. He sat still as I explained how the bishop moves, the rules about pawns capturing other men, the awesomeness of the queen. His interest quickly surpassed my own.
When I found out about the after-school chess classes, I asked if he wanted to join, figuring it would get me off the hook. Yes, he said. Definitely yes.
That my 7-year-old does not have the patience to wait five seconds for me to unwrap a cheese stick but can sit for an hourlong game of chess continues to mystify me. But seeing the rows of otherwise rambunctious children similarly entranced by the moving chess pieces lets me know it’s not just him.
Numerous studies extol the benefits of teaching chess to children, from boosting math scores to improving cognitive abilities. Plus it’s one of those activities that seems so intellectually refined. Letting your child play hours of Minecraft? Grounds for abuse. But hours of chess? You’re practically grooming them for Mensa.
And I can see why. Chess, apparently, has lots of rules. Arcane rules about how certain pieces can move and when, how they can attack, how many hands you can use to move the pieces. There are even names for specific moves. Castling. Electric fence. Rook roller.
When I play chess with my kid, he reminds me of all these rules, over and over again, because, as it turns out, there’s more to chess than just knowing how the knight moves, which was my claim to fame until the pint-size Kasparov taught me otherwise.
Half the time, I think the kid is messing with me, especially when he rattles off some obscure rule that inevitably leads to his pawn catching me in checkmate.
But worst of all is the sacrifice rule. Sometimes — after what seems like days of playing — I slide my king into the perfect position for checkmate, pretending to be outmatched by my son’s chess prowess. But he won’t allow it.
You can’t sacrifice your king, he’ll say.
But we’ve been playing for hours, I’ll groan, I can’t take it anymore.
You can’t sacrifice your king, he’ll repeat, as I wonder where he finds the patience for this.
And so we play, until I’m legitimately trounced by a first-grader. He may have me in chess. But just wait until I take out the Scrabble board.
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– GM Susan Polgar