My last post have considered how most parents have little or no knowledge of what chess is all about. They want their children to ‘do’ chess because it ‘makes them smarter’ or, in my part of the world, because it will help their application to the secondary school of their choice, and will drop chess once they’ve got what they wanted out of the game. Many parents specifically tell me they don’t want their children to be good at chess, they are not prepared to support their children in any way and they don’t actually like chess themselves.
Some schools and parents are suspicious of excellence in any field, but many schools in my area who pride themselves, not just on their academic excellence but also on their sporting and artistic excellence, have no interest at all in promoting chess excellence and are quite happy with a low level club which doesn’t take part in competitions and where most of the children play to a very poor standard.
It seems to me there’s a general lack of understanding of what chess is: a highly competitive and extremely demanding mental sport played in most countries of the world.
But this isn’t the image most parents and teachers have about chess. The recent sad coincidence of the deaths of two players on the last day of the Chess Olympiad led to a series of negative articles about chess and chess players. The public perception of chess players – and one that is emphasized by articles in the press – is that chess players are introverted nerds with no social skills. They are often overweight, have a poor diet, drink too much, have a disregard for personal hygiene, dress badly, carry their packed lunch in a carrier bag and – this seems to be a new one – are likely to die young.
Now there’s an element of truth in this at lower adult levels. Those who continue playing chess even though they are not very successful are often those who don’t have a family life, or those who may have difficulty getting a job. But I’m sure this is true of many other pastimes, not just chess. It’s certainly not true at the top, though. The ages of the world’s leading players range from late teens to mid forties. There are, admittedly, one or two (Ivanchuk, for example) who might be considered slightly eccentric, but by and large they come across as well adjusted and well presented: excellent role models for our children. In these days of internet coverage of all major events, where players are interviewed after the game, where there’s money to be made from broadcasting, producing DVDs and teaching, excellent communication skills are as important for chess players as knowing the latest theory in the Sicilian Najdorf.
The media still churn out articles on the ‘all chess players are loonies’ theme from time to time, complete with the usual suspects and the same unsubstantiated or exaggerated anecdotes as evidence that chess sends you mad: Morphy collecting women’s shoes, Steinitz giving God odds of pawn and move, Carlos Torre taking his clothes off on a bus, Fischer, well, being Fischer. Nothing more recent than Fischer, mind you, and you might also share my concern about making fun of people with mental health issues.
I also can’t help thinking that it may not do the game any favours to promote chess as a game suitable for mass participation by young children. If you’re implying chess is so easy that young children have no problem mastering it to the point where they can play in competitions you’re putting it into the same category as Top Trumps. If chess really is that easy and that trivial, adults who devote their lives to it must be pretty sad, and high level competitive chess will not be attractive to potential sponsors.
The chess establishment really needs to stop the petty bickering, rivalries, jealousy and obsession with ancient disputes and promote chess for what it is. A game which, while it can be enjoyed at any age, is, at the top level, a game for young adults, both male and female, who are physically fit and emotionally strong as well as being intelligent and hard working. A game that, while it can also be a fun game for children, at the top level requires the pursuit of excellence and hours of deliberate practice, exactly the same qualities you need to excel at, say, tennis or golf, or at playing the piano. We need to get parents and schools to respect chess as a fantastic, endlessly fascinating and extremely difficult game, not just as a learning tool or a cheap after-school child-minding service.