Learning to Play

When my oldest son Max was five he asked me to teach him how to play chess. One of his friends at school was some kind of chess prodigy and Max thought it looked fun. Fun’s got nothing to do with it, I thought, but I was a life-long gamer, and if he wanted to learn The Game of Games, then it was my fatherly duty to teach him. Max wasn’t quite tall enough to see the board comfortably at our dinner table, so I set it up on his plastic, purple and white kid’s table that came equipped with little red drawers for storing crayons. I had no doubt Max would be able to quickly grasp the rules to chess. What I wasn’t sure about was whether he really wanted to play it. There is nothing fun about chess other than the exercise of one’s strategic muscle. There are no cards with colorful pictures, no dice, no ringing bells. To play chess is to think your way to victory. That is all.

So I showed him how the pawns and rooks and knights and bishops and the queen and the king moved. I showed him how to capture and how to castle. I started a sample game for us, moving out our pawns and then our knights and bishops and then moving his queen to the center of the board. I was enjoying myself. Come join me in manhood, I thought, where I will teach you how to win.

“All right, Max,” I said. “Now you move a piece.”

Max thought for a minute, and then grabbed his king and hopped him four squares, right to the middle of the board beside his black queen.

Something nearly as old as I was sounded an alarm in my brain. A rule had been broken. Worse yet, he had moved his king to the worst place on the board. This is how you lose games. To lose is the worst thing in the world.

“What are you doing?”

“He wants to be with the queen,” Max replied.

Do you know I almost scolded him? That alarm was still ringing in my brain and I almost didn’t hear what he said. But I did hear it, and so I asked him, “Why does he want to be with the queen?”

“Because they’re going to be married.”

First there was disappointment. He didn’t really want to play chess, to learn how to win and not to lose, he only wanted to play make believe. All my earnest teaching was for naught. But when I said—

“Okey-dokey. The bishop can marry them and the rook will be the best man.”

—and helped Max set the pawns up in a neat procession, I discovered the bell wasn’t ringing anymore. I did not know until then what victory actually sounded like.

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You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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