Figuring out the real point of chess

2011-05-12 00:00

"MOM," five-year-old Joah said one morning. "I get my hit from playing chess."

I never expected chess to take hold of Joah as it did. One Berg weekend he asked to learn the game and thereafter the mountains, rivers and cows faded into obscurity. Every cottage dweller who happened to walk past got recruited into a chess game; in desperate times even his four-year-old sister would do. After a weekend of endlessly explaining just exactly how a horse could move, we found the game on the computer, and so Joah's obsession flourished. When he wasn't killing pawns he saw chessboards all over the kitchen floor, his sisters began to look like queens and he spent long hours talking moves.

I began to worry. This didn't look exactly like the balanced life all children were meant to lead.

"It will teach him to think logically," my teacher friend encouraged me.

"It's what helped me order my thinking at school," an academic friend told me.

"It will teach him to think strategically," my husband reassured me.

I was more than reassured, I was excited. A thoughtful, logical chess genius — that was just what we needed around here. So Joah was allowed unusual amounts of time on the computer, because unlike all those other empty, educational promises, this was really developing his brain. A few weeks later I decided to test his strategic thinking: "So Jo, what is your plan when you start a chess game?"

"Well," Joah began eagerly, "first of all I try kill all the pawns, then I try kill all the bishops, then I try kill all the castles … but by then I'm usually dead."

This wasn't sounding hopeful.

"And what about the king," I asked. "Do you ever try kill the king? That is the point of chess, you know."

"No," he said, puzzled, "no, I never thought of that."

So much for strategic thinking; so much for logic. So many wasted hours in front of a computer screen, so many wasted hours when I thought his brain was developing into a razor-sharp machine.

I gave up — maybe chess could just be for fun after all. Maybe I didn't have to have the most logical, strategic-thinking five-year-old in Maritzburg. Maybe he could just enjoy life.

But then, one afternoon, Joah surprised me. We'd just arrived at football practice and as we pulled in he said: "Mom, you've parked the car like a bishop moves, and that tree is like the king."

Wow — strategy. He was applying chess to real life. He was seeing the logic of parking in a certain way.

"Joah my boy, you are so right," I exclaimed.

This is where it all begins, I thought. This is where he becomes a mastermind. Next he'll be playing football like a chess piece — crossing that ball like a bishop, shooting down the line like a castle and knocking down that weenie little pawn of a goalkeeper with all the cunning of a knightly horse.

The computer was back again — chess was turning my son into a genius — he deserved all the screen time he could get.

A few weeks later I again checked up on him. "So what is your plan these days in your chess games, Jo?" I sat back and waited for his logic to pour out and overwhelm me.

"Well," he began excitedly, like a commander general with a shrewd plan. "First I move both horses out the way, but I leave the pawns in their places. That way the castle can move from side to side, but it can never be killed."

You mean the killing machine of the castle can shuffle from its left foot to its right, in the back row, protected by fat pawns, like a white boy with no rhythm?

Joah ignored my despairing face and continued: "Then my next move is to get my pawns to the other side so I can get my pieces back."

This was going downhill fast.

"And then my very clever trick is that I tell the computer that I want to play another human, but I am the human. So I get to move the blacks and the whites, and that way the game goes on as long as I want and I never lose."

"And what about the king," I said in one final attempt at developing some strategy. "Remember the point of all your chess moves is to get the king? Do you ever come up with a plan for that?"

"Mom," Joah explained slowly, "if you kill the king, that's the end of the game."

We stared at each other, wondering who really had the real point of chess. "And that," Joah added, in a last-ditch attempt to enlighten his mother, "is just boring."

• Sarah Groves is a freelance writer living in Pietermaritzburg.

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