Thursday, March 02, 2006

Searching for Bobby Fischer at John F. Smith Elementary

Last night at chess club the 10 year old faced his toughest challenger yet.

Not that every match he's had since he joined the club has been a cakewalk. He has a good record. 7 wins, 1 loss, 3 draws, and a stalemate. Half his wins and two of his draws and his loss were in games against more experienced players, but he wasn't really overmatched in any of them, and his other games were against much weaker opponents. So he's a good player for his age and the amount of time he's been playing seriously, but he's not a prodigy---there's only one kid in the club who so far looks like he might be talented enough to play for his high school chess team someday. At club meetings, he only plays against adults. The upshot is that the 10 year old and his previous opponents have played some pretty quick and sloppy games. Last night was the first time he really had to think.

The father of the girl he played said it was the first tough game for her too.

They hadn't played before because there's a ranking system and the 10 year old had to work his way up to her level.

They battled it out for a whole 40 minutes. In the end the girl was down to just her king facing his queen, a rook, and a couple of pawns. He had a queen only because he'd managed to get a pawn promoted. She had to resign, but both were exhilerated. (The 10 year old was a little bit more so, of course.) There's just nothing so much fun as a real challenge to your skills and talents, even when you're in the fourth grade. On the way home I told him about the Sixth Game of the 1975 World Series and how late in the game, after Bernie Carbo had tied it up and postponed the Reds' championship celebration for a few innings---Carlton Fisk would postpone it for another game in the 12th---Pete Rose came to the plate and said to Fisk something like, "Isn't this the most fun you've ever had?" That sentiment has always made me think more kindly towards Rose who still shouldn't be in the Hall until after he's died and the Old Timers put him in. The 10 year old liked that story and agreed with the feeling.

I'm sorry now that I didn't watch the kids play. The club meets at night and a parent is required to accompany each kid, but I generally don't watch the games. I sit in the corner and read, peeking up over my book only now and then to see how it's going, because I'm afraid I won't be able to resist the temptation to kibbitz.

You've heard of out of control hockey dads?

There are chess dads.

Last week I did watch one of his games and it drove me crazy. The 10 year old was cleaing up. His opponent was pretty good but Jack had him on the defensive all along. Come the endgame, he was up five or six pieces, with his opponent having nothing left but his king, a couple of pawns, a bishop, and a knight. It should have been all over but the shouting. But when he should have put his opponent in check, the 10 year old saw a clear path to promoting a pawn and he went after it. Meanwhile, his opponent went on the attack.

The 10 year old got his queen, and lost her immediately. This bugged him. So he sent another pawn down. He lost that one too. Then he went after promotion a third time!

I wanted to scream.

I refrained.

Finally his opponent managed to pick off his remaining bishop and that got his attention. He returned to the attack and pretty soon the other kid's king was all alone and he had to resign. He was a tough player, however, and he tried for a stalemate first.

I was able to wait until we were in the car and on our way home before I pointed out to the 10 year old that he should have won that game easily. I tried not to make it sound like a criticism, just an observation with a helpful tip---don't let yourself get sidetracked. Promoting a pawn is gravy, something you do almost by accident, I said, you shouldn't make it your strategy. As gentle and Ward Cleeverish as I tried to be, the 10 year old was still crushed. I'd taken the wind out of his sails.

Oh well. A tactical error on my part, I should have let him enjoy his victory a while longer, but at least I wasn't as bad as one of the fathers I overheard talking to his son at our first meeting.

"Overheard" suggests he was speaking quietly and intimately to his kid. I didn't overhear him. I heard him along with everybody else in the room. He didn't even try to keep his voice down.

His son had just lost and instead of encouraging the boys to shake hands and sending them off to report their game to the teacher running the club and keeping the records he said to his kid, "You know why you lost, don't you? It's not because he's a better player than you! It's not because he's more talented! You weren't paying attention!"

He said this with the other kid standing right there too, raining on his parade at the same time he was humiliating his boy.

Chess dads.


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