Look out, world. Your next dangerous mastermind has arrived.
My 8-year-old niece Ivy has discovered chess.
In case James Bond’s descendants need the data later, some family photos have captured this historic global turning point. In one, Ivy and my dad have squared off across the board in the midst of a carefully thought-out match. In another, my grinning niece is throwing herself into a solo game, complete with self-generated commentary that my mom called “a mix between a roller derby match and the Hunger Games.” (“Let’s get out there and take chances, but play smart!”)
I had to smile. And not just at the thought of the next Bobby Fischer also being the next Howard Cosell.
After all, it hasn’t been that long since I was in the same chair.
Dad taught me to play chess. He taught all of us to play, really, but I was his most frequent opponent, carefully internalizing the values of rooks and queens, the surprises that knights could pull, and why you never, ever touched a piece until you were ready to make a play.
It was absorbing. Mind you, I was grown before I finally won a game against him – Dad believed in treating us with respect by not holding back on the chessboard – but it didn’t matter. It was the game that mattered, the time together, the fun.
And just maybe, the tools I was picking up without realizing it.
From an early age, I had petit mal epilepsy. After a couple of years, it was readily controlled with medication, but there were still some related neurological issues that needed to be addressed, ranging from physical coordination and balance to simple concentration. Among other things, this meant spending some time in the “resource room” at school each week, playing games.
That always sounded cool to my friends – and to me, come to think of it – but it was only later that I thought about what the teacher and I were doing. Sometimes it was card games like Concentration, building up memory. A few times, it was a noisy parachute game called Bombs Away, helping me with my timing and hand-eye coordination. And a lot of times, maybe most times, it was chess.
Chess requires planning. Memory. The ability to weigh choices. And most of all, situational awareness – the ability to be in the moment, thoroughly aware of what’s coming at you and what you have available to meet it.
Invaluable skills. Then and now.
I’ve thought a lot about those unspoken lessons. But it’s only recently that I started thinking about the other lessons that were being taught – by that teacher, by family, by the other professionals that worked with me. Not by a game or exercise, but by example.
Things like patience. Persistence. Taking the time with someone who needs it, no matter how small, no matter how much time they may need. Learning to value each person you encounter, to see not just what they are but what they could be someday … and to help encourage that, if you can.
Invaluable skills. Then and now.
For all of us.
It starts with pieces on a board. Then grows to people in a life. None of it comes easy. (Thanks, Dad.) But if we learn the real rules of the game, all of us can win. Not by storming our way to checkmate, but by being willing to sit down with the other players in the first place.
So good luck, Ivy. Take chances. Play smart.
And have fun storming the castles.