When we start playing chess as beginners, we play because we are intrigued with the game. We play purely for the pleasure of an intellectual challenge! I say this because when I started playing I did so because I was fascinated by the game. I was fascinated by the endless positional possibilities within a single game, the number of which is literally astronomical. Unlike other board games that relied almost purely on chance, the role of the dice, chess requires strategic and tactical abilities which translates to using your brain. It’s an intimate battle between two minds. The game’s two players face off against one another employing what I call Kung Fu of the intellect.
I teach in thirteen different schools as of now and have many students who have been with me for years. These long time students have given me the chance to watch some of them lose sight of their initial love of the game, replacing it with a lust for ratings points. Of course, rating points are basically a measure of one’s level of play or improvement, yet they become a symbol of status for some players. While there is nothing specifically wrong with this (it can drive some players to a higher skill level), one should always play for the love of the game.
In my own teaching career, I find that every student is gunning for me, wanting to beat me at the game I teach. To a certain point, I encourage this. After all, if I take a youngster and work with them, and this leads to them becoming a stronger player than I, then I’ve done my job! However, there is a fine line to competitiveness, one that should be respected. I know one particular student who has an extremely competitive father. The father, after his son had studied with me for a year, pushed him into going after me on the chessboard. The father was a bit of a chess hustler who won his games employing all or nothing tactics. Of course, he imparted this knowledge to his son who used it to win quite a bit. When I finally sat down at the chessboard to take on the student’s challenge, I closed the game down, making it about positional play and not tactics. Needless to say, I won. The father, upset that his son didn’t “clean my clock,” an attitude no child should employ in chess or life, challenged me to a game. He invited the class to watch.
This is a position I don’t like to be in because if I won, I’d feel as if I was making matters worse for my student. While I tried to diplomatically get out of playing, the father insisted we play. To be honest, I was a bit fed up with the situation and started thinking to myself “I’m going to destroy this man consequences be damned!” Sorry friends, I’m human and certainly not a saint, so the bloody battle went on. His biggest mistake was allowing me to play the white pieces because I played for a closed position, simply and carefully activating my pieces until I had a stranglehold on things. I won and it was the worst feeling ever. The father grabbed his son, stormed out and that was the last I saw of either of them.
Of course, I’ve played other parents who were absolutely wonderful opponents. In fact, I’ve been playing regularly with two of them for the last three years. However, my previous example brings up the question, where does one draw the line at competitiveness? There seem to be two predominant factions when it comes to competitiveness, those who push it beyond sanity and those who are drastically are against it. The father, in my former example, is the alpha male who wants to win at all costs. The latter are those that think every child should be rewarded whether they win or lose. While I believe in making my students happy, I honestly think that simply rewarding everyone regardless of results undermines the idea of healthy competition.
Competition, when employed with some sanity, is a good thing. It creates an environment in which one strives to be better at whatever it is they’re doing. Healthy competition drives civilization forward to a certain point. However, there’s that thin line that must not be crossed, the one that leads to a win at all costs mentality. Therefore, I teach my students to play for the love of the game.
To do this, I bring in other elements when I teach them chess. We learn the game through science, art and history. Using science, we explore the mathematics of the game, how the staggering large number of possible positions comes about (numerically speaking). With art, we look at the positional beauty that arises in certain games. Using history, we look at historical events that took place during the game’s evolution. I do this so my students have different connections to the game rather than simply a win or lose mentality. Homework, (yes, I manage to get my students to do homework and their parents to accept it – I suspect because of my punk rock past that I scare them) includes short essays on science, art and history, and how it relates to chess.
Of course, there comes a point when my students start playing in tournaments and the concept of rating points enters their minds. I explain to them that one’s rating is simply a measure of where they’re at on the road to improvement. I go on to say that, like the stock market, ratings go up and ratings go down. More importantly, I carefully explain that one’s rating increases the more one studies and then plays the game, adding that there are no shortcuts to a higher rating. We spend a great deal of time discussing the concept of chess ratings and I reinforce our discussion by pointing out that in the end it’s simply a tool that measures one’s level of play. We humanize the concept of ratings rather than put it on a pedestal which in turn can create unhealthy competitiveness.
Chess is a very philosophically three dimensional game in that it incorporates science and art. It’s also a very personal game for those who play it because your only weapon is your mind. When we win we feel good because we feel that our mind has triumphed over another mind. It’s this same idea that also makes losing painful. When I see my students lose a game, I can clearly see the pain in their eyes. I remind them that those who play purely for the love of the game will take a loss and use it as tool for improvement, examining that loss and discovering where they went wrong. When you play for the love of the game you can appreciate a beautifully played game, even if you’re on the losing end of it. While we all aim to improve our rating, don’t let it be the sole focus of your playing because doing so robs you of all the game has to offer. Play because you simply love to challenge your mind. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.