Dear Parents

This is a open letter to all the well meaning and loving parents out there who work so hard to give their children an advantage in life by teaching them, in this case, the game of chess. I know you love your children and I appreciate your efforts to aid them in their journey through life. However, we often, in the name of love, do things that end up having more negative consequences than positive outcomes. Take teaching your child chess for example. How could teaching your children a game that helps them develop logic and reasoning skills possibly have any negative consequences? Well, in theory the idea is absolutely sound. However, in reality, where the rubber hits the road (as an old college professor was fond of saying), things can go terribly wrong.

Enter the well meaning parent. Now, I know some of you are not going to like what I have to say. So be it. I’m not a politician seeking office and would rather bruise a few egos to ensure this problem is corrected than hold your collective hands and say, “don’t worry, it’s going to be alright.” I’m here to fix a few things and in doing so help your children get the most out of chess. What do I mean by the well meaning parent?

We all want the best for our children and tend to shield them from the harshness of life with love. The last thing a parent wants to see is their own child crying. It’s heart breaking but it’s part of a child’s journey through life. Children try something, make mistakes, cry and move on (hopefully learning something in the process). Parents, rightfully so, don’t want to see their children feel any kind of pain, be it falling down on the playground or getting crushed on the chessboard. It’s the well meaning parent that bends the rules and principles of chess so their child can win (and not cry) that creates a plethora of problems for the child later in life as well as the chess teacher in the here and now. Here’s what I mean.

Our well meaning parent will decide to enroll their child in a chess class or club to give them an academic leg up. A few months before the class or club starts up, our parent teaches their child the game of chess. This sounds great so far doesn’t it? After all, my job will be so much easier if all my students know the basics before my class starts. The parent works with the child every night and those few months pass quickly. Armed with chess knowledge from mommy or daddy, my new student walks into class. I ask them if they know how to play chess and they enthusiastically answer yes! I sit down with them to play a game and they proceed to play a version of chess that has it’s own set of principles and rules. When I question them about questionable or illegal moves they respond the same way, “my father always does this, so I do that and I always win.” Here’s an example:

I had a new student who knew how the pieces moved and the very basics of the game. His father, who taught him how to play, had done a fine job so far. However, my student started the opening phase of the game without any regards to the most basic of opening principles. With each move my student made, I asked him if he knew about the proper way to start a chess game. His response was “to move pieces and win the game.” I opted to give him the chance (a one time offer) to choose alternative moves. He chose not to change the moves he made because, in his words “I always beat my dad when I play this way. Needless to say, I beat him and without mercy. A week later, the father came to class and asked me why I insisted on beating his son and “not even giving him a chance to win a few pieces!”

I carefully explained that the students I teach show no mercy on the chessboard, doing their best to win the game. I wasn’t trying to produce chess players that were mean spirited but chess players who simply played good chess. Of course, the father decided to avenge his son’s loss with me, expecting I would graciously loose to him so his son would be proud. Wrong. I’m not in the business of throwing games. I try to play to best of my abilities and expect my students to do likewise. I really hate being put in this position with parents.

Many parents, really great people who only want the best for their children, make a huge mistake in letting their children win. What happens when that child, whose parents let them win over and over again playing chess, faces another child who knows the basics and has faced losses on the board before? Tears and loathing for the game I love so much is what happens in most cases. Sheltering your child from loss can have extremely negative effects in the long run. Better to teach them how to handle losing before enrolling them in a chess class or letting them loose in the world!

The other big problem that crops up is the teaching of bad chess habits by parents. If I had a dollar for every bad chess habit I had to break in my classes, I could purchase a small castle somewhere. Again, it’s the well meaning parent with little in the way of principled chess knowledge that creates the problem. Bad habits are hard to break once they’re ingrained into a young mind. Compounding this problem is the statement “my father always does this” or “mom always beats grandma doing this.” Now it’s personal since the bad idea was hatched by a beloved family member. I really don’t want to be the guy that points out to children that their parents were wrong! I bet there’s a few parents that use a picture of me for a dartboard!

On the flip side of this problem are the parents who realize that they don’t know enough about the game to offer good instruction prior to their child’s first chess class or who know that it’s better to have their child face a loss on the chessboard with them before that child faces another child across the chessboard in class. I offer my parents the option of sitting in on my classes if they don’t play chess so they can learn along with their child, thus ensuring everyone is on the same page. I’m surprised at how many parents won’t take me up on the offer and then proceed to teach their children bad chess habits. The best life lesson I ever learned was discovering that I don’t know everything and should consult experts when need be! When it comes to the intellectual welfare of children, one should set their ego aside.

To remedy the problems discussed above, parents should take advantage of old fashioned books and new technology! You can find many great books, look up Richard James, and software programs/DVDs that properly teach chess to children. By doing so, you’ll ensure that your children are learning the right chess habits. Don’t be afraid of hurting your child’s feelings by beating them at chess. They love you and will get over it in five minutes. Play the best you can against your child because when your son or daughter sits down with a classmate, that classmate isn’t going to go easy on them. It’s much better to get a life lesson regarding losing on the chessboard than elsewhere in life. Children are a lot tougher than you think! Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It doesn’t make you a bad parent! In fact, in my book it makes you “parent of the year.” Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).