Monday, March 2, 2009


I once read that an ancient Japanese proverb says: "The greatest honor for a teacher is to be surpassed by his student."

My son is getting ready to honor the crap out of me.

He's 12, and he's been playing chess off-and-on since he was 9.
However, in the last 6 months or so, he's taken a very keen interest in beating his dear old dad, and he's made no secret about it, either.  He and I play frequently, sometimes 5 or 6 games in one day, plus we play correspondence chess online.
And he's getting better.  Much better.

Flashback - 1971: I'm six years old.  There is a chessboard set up on a small round table in the living room, with two chairs in opposition.  It's always been there, a constant fixture, as familiar and expected as the sofa or the Magnavox console stero.  My father is teaching my brother, who is 9 years old, to play chess.  Concentration and focus are treasured commodities, feircely protected.  The ground rule for kibbitzers (spectators) is singular, crystal clear, and ruthlessly enforced: BE QUIET.  Anything other than stoic, silent stillness results in immediate banishment to another room for the duration of the game (to be followed by a stern lecture).  Eventually, curiosity would get the better of me, and I ask to be taught.  I learned, and lost many games, enough to temporarily crush my desire to continue playing.  My father said he would always play his best and never throw a game, because then I would have a constant by which to measure my skill, and my improvement.  When I realized just how lofty a goal it was, achieving his level of play, I let it go for several years.  When I renewed my interest, it was primarily out of sibling rivalry: I wanted to beat my older brother.  It seemed a more attainable goal than beating Dad.  By the time I was 10, I was playing again, against my dad, my brother, and even occasionally against my mom.  Anything to help me improve enough to beat big brother.  (A task which I still find difficult.)

Always, the game was played quietly, with reverence for the complicated thought processes necessary to plan several moves in advance.  
Anticipate your opponent's reaction to each move you are considering.  Look at every piece.  If you touch a piece, you're committed to moving it.  When you let go, your turn is over, no changing your mind.  If you have to, sit on your hands to avoid the impulse move.  In your mind, you have this bizarre monologue:
"If I move here, he'll move there, then I'll threaten his piece, then he'll protect it with that piece, then I'll capture that piece, he'll capture this piece... then what?"
To oversimplify, the strategy and tactics of chess is an endless repetition of the questions, "What if?" and "Then what?"
The opening is much like lining up dominos of alternating colors.  At some point, they begin falling, and if you've done your job right, when the dust settles, you end up with more pieces still standing than your opponent.

Fast-forward - 2009: Saturday night is family movie night, and we watched "Searching For Bobby Fischer"which, by the way, I wholeheartedly endorse.  Sunday afternoon, and I've drawn my son away from his beloved video games by offering to play chess with him.  After three games where he plays his usual style, the fourth game is different.  He is different.  Something has changed.  He's decided he will play like me (or perhaps like Josh Waitzkin).  He focuses, and he thinks ahead, and he starts to plan.  He hasn't done much pre-planning on a chess board up until now.  His is, as I was at his age, a reactive player.  He responds to the conditions on the board, instead of creating them.  But this is not his usual game.  He has stopped distracting himself.  He is truly studying the board.

He has a knight which is threatening one of my knights.  I could force the trade, but I don't need to, and I want to preserve my piece for later.  My knight is protected by a pawn, so I'm not fearful of losing it.  He usually blunders and loses at least one or two pieces during a game, so even trades generally work to my advantage.  Confident that I'm safe there, I focus elsewhere.  I have a plan, you see.  I'm developing a line of attack on the queen's side of the board, and it's coming along quite nicely, thank you.  I'm wearing him down, slowly but surely, and I have a clear vision of good things to come.
Then it happens.  Back on the king's side of the table, he threatens a bishop with a bishop.  No problem, I'll just advance this pawn to protect my bishop, and go back to working my attack.  Child's play.
I make the move, and look at his face.  He's smirking.  He never smirks.  Uh oh...
He takes only a moment to make sure, then he reaches out and springs the jaws of the trap closed.
With his knight, he captures my knight.  The one I had protected with a pawn.  But I just moved the pawn, without thinking.  I forgot to ask myself, "THEN WHAT?"
In capturing my knight, he "forked" my king and queen.  I was in check from his knight, and my queen was threatened by the same piece, and by moving my pawn moments before, I had nothing with which to capture his knight.  I had to move my king.  He had anticipated my playing style, knowing I tended not to force trades until later in the game.  He had planned ahead, and tricked me.  And he won my queen for his efforts.  
It was brilliant.  It was genius.  (Yes, I'm biased.  He's my son, what did you expect?)

It was also a little embarrassing.

My very first reaction is amazement, and appreciation for a well-executed tactic.  I reach over the board and give my son a high-five.  He beams.  He is happy.  Now, he might just have a chance to beat his dear old dad.  Down a queen, I consider resigning.  I might still have a chance, but he would be so happy with a win.  I could say that the odds against me were too overwhelming.  I could hand him this on a silver platter, and he would deserve it.

Then I remembered what my dad said... "If I always play my best, you'll know how good you are by how close you get to beating me."  I had to carry on, for his sake.  I had to set the example.  I had to show him that it's possible to dust yourself off, pick up the sword and battle on.

I rejoined the fray.  We battled fiercely back and forth.  Capturing, protecting, maneuvering, calculating, pondering, sacrificing, it was all there.  It had everything you might want in a chess game, and the challenges on both sides of the board went on and on, until the very last move.
When the dust settled, there were two kings on the board... and NOTHING ELSE.


I had overcome the loss of my queen, and prevented him from parlaying it into a sheer massacre.  He had taken his dad to a draw for the third time in his young chess career.
Much more than that, he learned a few valuable lessons about focus and tenacity.
And I learned that my day of reckoning is growing closer with every beat of the drum.
I will fight it off with all my might, but it will come, and nobody will be prouder on that day than I.

Except, possibly, his Grandfather.

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