Saturday, March 2, 2013

Chess: Education for Life

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of stepping into a whole different world. An old friend of mine whom I hadn't seen in more than 20 years posted online that he was in town. It turned out his daughter was competing in a statewide scholastic chess championship. I just had to go and check it out and hoped to meet up with him and his family.

It's been several years since I have played chess, and I never progressed beyond working on mastering how the different pieces move and learning some beginner strategies. However, I love the whole idea of chess - the life skills it fosters and the rich metaphors it offers for life.


As the mother of young children, one of my favorite parenting books was Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn. In one chapter, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes first the ritual of playing chess with his daughter and then various life lessons and skills that develop from this special father-daughter activity.  Here is an excerpt:
"Every game is an infinite number of possibilities narrowing themselves slowly down to one inevitable end, the one that we get. But we can and do sometimes replay different possible ends. It's like role-playing alternative scenarios in a personal dilemma. We see the elements involved and their combinations and our own power to make choices and direct the flow of things. We visualize and actually explore different approaches, and see the consequences that unfold from each. All sorts of psychotherapy make use of role-playing to sort out emotional dilemmas and the different ways we might navigate through difficulties. Imagine beginning to learn this while playing a game, and developing the inner repertoire of seeing alternative openings and moves that will further the unfolding of our lives in ways that might embody an element of wisdom." (Kabat-Zinn & Kabat-Zinn, p. 334)
Citation: Kabat-Zinn, Myla & Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1997). Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. New York: Hyperion.

The passage inspired me to learn the beginning basics of chess so I could teach and play with my children and learn along with them. My daughter was five at the time. In addition to playing with her parents, she participated in some chess opportunities through our homeschooling network and took a mini course a few years later through our school district. However, an interest in chess never really took hold - with her or her brother. Still, it was fun playing when we did, even if our understanding of chess barely touched the tip of the iceberg.

Playing chess builds so many skills for life. The 64 squares and 16 pieces compel a player to consider the best move that can be made right now given the situation on the board. The rules provide both limitations (structure) and the freedom to apply your imagination and creativity in a world of possibilities. You need to know the rules inside and out, beginning with the way each piece is able to move and how you can apply these rules to the fullest advantage. Working within the parameters of the game, players develop strategies, patience, perseverance, memory, mindfulness, and deep concentration. Playing chess promotes critical thinking, problem solving, analytical thinking skills, and spatial intelligence. You also develop an awareness and appreciation of your opponent - what s/he is thinking, where s/he is trying to go. I wish it were a standard part of the school curriculum.


During a game of chess, players learn from their mistakes and discover that there is more than one way to solve a problem. You need to see the big picture of time and space by taking in the entire board and visualizing several moves ahead. You are challenged to foresee consequences and benefits of potential moves and to perceive and weigh risks, including sacrificing certain pieces for a greater gain. You learn to think before you act and to make the best moves based on whatever circumstances present themselves, changing your plans as situations evolve. You learn the impact of your choices - that each move you make has an effect and changes the game in some way. All of these skills apply not only to the chess board but to life in general. The world needs more people who are able to think and perceive life in this way! 

The game of chess is also valuable for the lessons it offers around engaging gracefully and effectively with an opponent. A quote from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama comes to mind (*I would substitute the word "opponents" for "enemies"):
"Who provides the opportunity to cultivate patience? Not our friends. Our enemies give us the most crucial chances to grow."

It is also useful to learn from a master, to gain insight about how the game works on a deeper, more complex level. Metaphorically, this speaks to the value of the mentors and counselors in our life!

Given all the life skills and thinking skills chess promotes, I've always wanted to have a chess "club" in my class. Although it might be better suited for second grade and older, at the kindergarten level I envision chess as an engaging enrichment activity for a small group of very bright children. When I was student teaching in first grade, my mentor teacher invited the dads to come in on Friday afternoons to play chess with the children. What a great way to draw dads into the classroom! Every year, I've sent home a volunteer interest form that includes playing chess with children, but I've never really had any bites. Having volunteers come in and play chess and other strategy games with my students is something I still want to do. Perhaps extending the invitation to the entire school community is the way to go, rather than hoping each year for a group of interested adults who are both attached to children in my own class and available to come in during the school day.

Back to the chess championship, which took place in a large hotel and conference center... I walked through a world of chess boards - many of them quite elegant - set up on top of long tables, in breakout rooms, and on the floor in hallways. Many of the chess sets were unoccupied as students of all ages were behind closed doors competing in championship rounds. The parents waited anxiously outside the closed doors, forced to let go and hope their children would make their best moves - their best choices - on their own. I love that metaphor; every parent has to do this at some point.

I ran into my friend in the hallway outside the room where his daughter was competing behind closed doors. It was quite lovely to converse about life and chess in this context. It's good to reconnect with old friends and to see that they are doing well and holding their own against the challenges and opponents with which life presents us all. We live and learn as we go along, hopefully improving our game as we grow and age and reflect. I left the championship glad to have connected with my friend and to meet his wife (but unfortunately not his daughter, who ended up placing ninth out of nearly 100 children in her section - and second of all girls) and filled with renewed motivation to expose the children in my life to this incredible game. My son doesn't know it yet, but I am going to begin with him...



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