Losing and Winning

We live in an extremely competitive world in which many people view success as the measure of one’s place within the social pecking order. While being competitive is healthy and natural to a certain extent, it can quickly become mentally unhealthy, especially with children. Chess is very competitive. After all, it is a battle of two minds with the winner often feeling intellectually superior to the loser. Combine this with the often fragile egos of younger players and you have a recipe for emotional disaster. It is because of this issue that I spend a great deal of time teaching the art of handling loss and what we can learn from our losses. I also teach the art of winning gracefully.

Many losses are made more painful because the winner has no tact (what used to be called good sportsmanship). Children have a greater tendency to gloat when they win because they haven’t yet learned how to deal with wins graciously. For many children, it’s simply a matter of immaturity. For others, it’s a case of having bad role models. Often overly competitive parents psychologically brand their children with their own competitive behavior. Either way, the child is not at fault, especially if someone else is serving as the model for their behavior. Therefore, I spend a few days with my students examining the way in which we deal with both victory and defeat. I call it Chess Manners 101.

I should mention that I set an extremely strict set of rules for my students regarding behavior when playing chess in my classes. Number one rule: If you make any type of rude comment, such as “that was a stupid move,” your game will be restarted after you apologize to your opponent. Number two rule, if you win, you shake your opponent’s hand and thank them for the game. Of course, there are other rules of behavior which I introduce during Chess Manners 101 such as shaking your opponent’s hand before starting the game and playing quietly. However, rather than hand my students a long litany list of etiquette which might make the game a bit less fun in their eyes, I start with the two primary rules and expand the list over a few days.

Of course, I should mention that you have to develop a tough emotional skin to play chess competitively. No one likes losing, especially children. Therefore, I teach my students the great lessons that can be found in even the greatest losses. I use an example from my own life. When I was twelve, I had a neighbor who was a pretty good chess player. He offered to give me chess lessons in exchange for doing yard work. I gladly accepted and we started my lessons. After about a month he told me he couldn’t give me lessons anymore. I was heartbroken and when I asked him why, he told me I was perhaps the worst chess player he had ever seen and thought I might do better with a less intellectually straining game (I suspect he’d have me playing checkers). Of course, I was in tears for days and couldn’t tell my parents why I wasn’t taking chess lessons anymore. At that moment in time, I had a choice to make. Do I give up because the neighborhood chess guru told me I was worthless as a player or do I go on and try to prove him wrong? I decided to keep at it regardless of what he said. Years later, I faced him on the chessboard again and beat him. When telling this story to my students, they always ask if I did a victory dance around my opponent. “Absolutely not,” I tell them. My reward came long before the chess guru and I played that game. My reward was that I decided to roll up my sleeves and work on my game. Getting better was all the reward I needed. I tell my students this story because I want them to look at their losses as a challenge to get better. When my students lose a game we go over that game. I tell them that it’s an opportunity change the course of their chess future by finding where they went wrong and correcting the problem. What does this have to do with developing better chess manners? A great deal!

Children tend to approach competitiveness in a very back and white way. Winning is great while losing is dreadful. However, if loss can be transformed into a positive learning experience, it can often buffer the emotional low felt after defeat. The student who uses their losses to help hone their skills will often start winning more games. Knowing how it felt to lose, that student will hopefully become a gracious winner. Of course, there are some children who are very bad winners. With them, I’ll sit down as their opponent with their classmates surrounding us. As I start to dismantle their position, other students may start to say something disparaging (especially if they’ve lost games to this student) at which point I remind them of rule number one. When the game is over, I shake my opponent’s hand and offer thanks for the game. I also suggest we play through the game and see where things went wrong. I make our postmortem a joint venture, just two chess players working through a game. During the postmortem, we’re not teacher and student, just two chess players looking to learn from our game.

One thing I do in my classes is to have us all work together as a team. As a team, each member has a responsibility to their teammates. The stronger players work with the newer players as junior teachers. As teachers, they develop a sense of consideration for their students rather than an “I’m better than you” attitude that some of them once had. We work together towards the common goal of group improvement. Through their teaching, they discover they have much in common with their students. Friendships are developed. As team, we are united in the cause of improvement!

For any parents reading this, remember that you set the example regarding how your child deals with losing or winning. Your example sets a standard for your children not only in chess but in life. I adhere to this standard as well, learning from my losses and never gloating over my wins. One of the attributes I’m most proud of when it comes to my squad of junior tournament players is not just their chess skills but the fact that they are kind to their opponents. Of course they will put their hearts into dismantling their opponents but they do so graciously! Here’s a game to enjoy:

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).