Sunday, November 18, 2007

Chess Is Elementary

[Sunday Scribblings this week prompted us with "I carry..." It took me a while to figure out my response: I carry memories and stories. And eventually I'm going to write most of them down in one place or another. What follows is a real-life story, a memory evoked by a picture.]


Carmi posted a picture of chess pieces. Go on, take a look. I'll wait.
Then he asked what it said to us. To me it whispered a memory:



My dad didn't like games of chance. He tolerated very few of the card and board games my brother and I had when we were young. He could be convinced to play only one hand of "War" with the deck of cards. But he was more than willing to play any game with at least a small element of skill or strategy. He taught us Rummy and checkers. And while we were still in grade school he taught us to play chess.

He taught us how each piece moved, and what they were called. He taught us how to think before moving the piece, and how that once we moved, we couldn't take the move back. He taught us that we should try to think ahead as many moves as possible -- to imagine "what would happen if..." By the time I was in fifth grade (and ten years old) I had been playing chess for two or three years.

I usually didn't play chess with my younger brother. I don't think he liked it as well, and when he got bored with any game, he was apt to try to cheat. Since that only made me angry, I tried to pick games with him carefully.

I didn't play chess with my friends because none knew how. I don't know if I ever offered to teach them, but I think chess was something very foreign to their experience. Most of their parents did not play, and most probably didn't even have a set in the house, unless it came with a checkers set. No, we played other board games, sometimes checkers, but more often something with a pair of dice or a spinner and with colorful plastic markers.

In our elementary school we usually went outside during recess, all year long. If it was cold, we bundled into warm coats. If it was hot, we were happier to be outside than in the non-air-conditioned building. But if it rained, we stayed inside. Instead of playing on swings and teeter-totters, instead of playing kickball or tetherball, instead of jump-rope or tag, instead of stretching our muscles we played games in the classroom. It would take 15 minutes to sort out the games and figure out how to divide them up. We had about 25 kids in the class. Once you factored in the amount of time it took to put games away at the end of recess, there was little time left in the middle to play anything.

When I was in fifth grade, we had one particularly rainy week. By the third day, a lot of us were tired of the games we'd had out and someone noticed a chess set. This person asked if anyone knew how to play chess and it turned out that only two of us knew how to play: I did and Brian did.

I didn't know Brian very well. First of all, he was a boy and we hadn't reached an age where boys and girls played together very much. He didn't live in my immediate neighborhood, but he did live pretty close to where my best friend lived. He had a brother and a mother, but I don't remember if he had a dad. Someone had told me his mother was blind and that seemed like a scary thing to me. But Brian knew how to play chess.

That 10-year-olds could play chess seemed to fascinate our classmates. We agreed to play and we set up the board on a table in the back of the small classroom. We had a large audience, something I'd never experienced before. It was one thing for Mom or for my brother to look on while I played with my dad, but to have half a dozen or more people looking on was intimidating.

I don't remember much about the game and I'm sure it was pretty unimpressive. Neither of us was a chess prodigy, and we were pretty well matched. It did surprise me a little because for two years I'd been shifted to a "gifted" track with extra assignments, while Brian was in the regular track. I guess I had thought that chess was only for really, really smart people. It shifted my idea of what smart was. And it shifted my idea of who was smart. I also remember looking at Brian's face. I don't think I had noticed before how shy he was.

We must have played for about a half an hour. We were nowhere finished with the game when recess ended, but I remember we told each other "good game" and shook hands. The plastic chess pieces were put away and stored with the rest of the games and I don't remember any more too-rainy-to-stay-inside days the rest of that school year.

I never played chess with Brian again. Our paths just didn't cross. I no longer remember Brian's last name, and I don't know where life took him, but I do remember the attention we shared that rainy day across a chess board.


23 comments:

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I'm so glad Michele sent me this morning. That's a gorgeous, gorgeous story!!! It made me smile and sparked a few chess-oriented memories of my own.

I, too, learned to play that young. My son is seven and he's already got a grasp of the basics. I hope he'll create some of these neat memories you've shared here. I suspect he will.

sister AE said...

Hello, Susan. I'm glad Michele sent you today.

Linda said...

Such a nice simple story but with a sobering thought about "gifted" and "regular" students!

You know, I never noticed that period in front of the 17! Thanks for pointing it out! ~Linda

sister AE said...

Hi, Linda. Thanks. And you're welcome - I know computers don't like multiple periods in filenames, so they sometimes do some odd things to avoid them.

tumblewords said...

I tried chess but it didn't take. Looking ahead has always fallen low on my processings. The story is vivid!

sister AE said...

Hello, Tumblewords - it has been years since I played real chess (I've tried playing against the computer but even "dumbed down" it beats me everytime). But this story really did stick in my head, I'm glad I could share it.

Jo said...

I enjoyed your piece. I suck at it, but I'm hoping my boys will play.

DJPare said...

Good story! I felt like I was in the classroom watching.

sister AE said...

Hi, Jo. It's useful to know how to play, even if you aren't good at it.

Hello, DJPare. Thanks.

paisley said...

i learned to play chess in sixth grade .. a student teacher,, who's name i have no recall of taught us... i am amazed at the age of 46 that i have found few others who even know the basics of the game... excellent post....

sister AE said...

Thanks, Paisley. I've found that backgammon is the same. And I'm thinking it is about time I learned to play cribbage, too (someone tried to teach me in high school, but it didn't "take").

Carmi said...

I love this vignette, and I'm so thrilled My image helped spark your sharing this. How cool the blogosphere can be!

Something tells me that wherever Brian is, the imprint of that experience remains with him as it does with you.

You've made my week with this. Thanks!

UL said...

I enjoyed this piece very much, thank you. Growing up, my dad taught us too, he and my brother are really good - I havent played in a long -long time. I wasnt very good, but like you said, it was a game many didnt play at school back then. This brought back quite a few memories thank you.

colleen said...

Memories are a like patchwork squares all sewn together. Sometimes the strangest, simpliest, or meaningless things get stuck in our minds.

I had seen Carmi's chess shot. It made me want to play .... Scrabble.

sister AE said...

Hi, Carmi. The blogosphere is, indeed a great place. I'm delighted you are so pleased. Thanks.

Hello, UL. You are welcome anytime.

Ha! Colleen, I like Scrabble too! And I play it much more often.

gautami tripathy said...

I used to play with my brothers. In fact they taught me. Now we hardly have any time. They hardly have any time!!

sister AE said...

Hello, Gautami. I wonder if time is a factor in why so few people play here anymore. It certainly is not a game of instant gratification.

Maria said...

I LOVE playing chess. Liv, at 8, is already a passable player. Both her father and I love the game and so does Bing, so she always has someone to play with.

My Da taught all of my sisters and I but I am the only one who really enjoyed it. I, too, thought it was because I was so much smarter. And then, our cleaning lady beat me. So...I was firmly put into my place.

I still beat Bing regularly and she still gets so frustrated. It won't be long, though, before Liv can take me.

sister AE said...

And somehow, Maria, I don't think you will mind too much when she does!

Pearl said...

Thanks for sharing that learning moment. What an interesting story.

sister AE said...

You're welcome, Pearl.

Janet said...

My Dad taught me how to play chess too...we'd play sometimes at home, or on our camping vacations. I haven't played for years...wonder if he still can?

Beautiful story :-)

sister AE said...

Hello, Janet, and thanks.