The Crying Game

I often go to a number of local junior chess tournaments to closely examine the tournament’s inner workings, players, etc. I do this so, when I eventually take my students there to play in a tournament, I know what we’re getting into. I had a chance to visit a tournament that was geared toward very young players which was exactly what I was looking for. The venue looked great, the equipment was good, parking was plentiful and there were plenty of restaurants nearby. However, there was one major problem, an overwhelming number of crying children. Looking at this scene of bleak despair, you’d think that every child in the tournament hall had just been told that Santa Claus had been viciously murdered on Christmas Eve. It got me thinking about my own students and how much crying they did. Thankfully, my students, even the really young ones, aren’t criers. There’s a good reason for that. I teach my students not to cry when they loose a game (or tournament).

I read an article about how we now have a generation of cry babies coming up in the world. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with crying. I had a good cry upon hearing about the death of David Bowie. Crying can be a healthy thing. However, too much of anything, healthy or not, will have negative consequences. My heart goes out to parents who, upon seeing their children in tears, feel terrible. After all, as parents we do our best to shelter our children from life’s often harsh realities. A little sheltering is a good thing but, like anything else, too much of it and you do your child more harm than good. This business of too much crying, according to the article, stems from “Special Little Snowflake Syndrome.” This problem occurs because many parents tell their kids that they’re special little snowflakes, unique and unlike any other child. Well, this seems reasonable enough on the surface. However, many parents, in a effort to shield their children from the emotional pain that comes when a child discovers they’re not good at something, overplay this idea. Yes, every child has the potential to do great things but they’ll have to fail at many things though their journey of life in order to find the one thing they can do well. It’s called growing up and experiencing life!

Now we add into the mix, the new idea that rather than have a first, second, third and fourth place trophy only, we give trophies to every child at a sports competition or chess tournament so no child feels left out and, more importantly, no child cries. At our monthly Academic Chess tournaments we offer four trophies per section so you either place or you don’t. Obviously, this idea of rewarding every child for showing up and playing chess didn’t work at the above mentioned tournament. The drought in California could have been solved had I collected all those tears (they would have filled a petrol truck). I’m not trying to be an old SOB here but, there’s something to be said about healthy competition. After all, it has driven civilizations to great advancements. If every child playing in one of these “everyone’s a winner” chess tournaments knows they’re going to get a trophy, doesn’t that dampen their competitiveness? I think it does to a certain extent. While I can’t change the generation of crying children on a whole, I have been able to control it among the hundreds of students I teach and coach.

The first thing I tell students is that there will always be another game of chess for them to play, so if they just lost a game, there will be another game they’ll have a chance to win. Eventually, they will win a game or two or three. No losing streak lasts forever. I also tell them that they can have a good cry over their loss or regroup. By regroup, I mean playing through the game, figuring out where they went wrong and then correcting the problem so it doesn’t occur in future games. Crying won’t improve your game. Learning from your mistake will! The best revenge is simply learning from your mistakes and moving on.

I make a point of spending greater time with students who are having problems winning games, working through those games with them and creating a battle plan. The battle plan consists of working through the problematic part of the game and coming up with a set of better moves that could have been made. Kids love the term battle plan because it means preparing for future action on the chessboard, a call to action (I use a lot of old Kung Fu movie examples because kids love martial arts). You have to provide hope to your students but telling them they’re special little snowflakes does little in the way of practicality. Practical hope is helping them improve their skills on the chessboard so they’ll win that next game. You also, as a teacher, have to lead by example.

Since losses are what discourage students of the game we love so much, you have to show them your own losses on the chessboard. Young students often assume that because you’re the chess teacher or coach, that you’ve never lost a game in your life. I make it a point of showing my worst chess losses at least once a month. If students see that you’ve painfully lost a game and come back from that loss, they’re more likely to take losing a bit better. Always give them practical hope!. I’ll often ask my advanced students to take one of my losses and show me where I went wrong. You’d be surprised at the really good ideas they come up with!

A loss on the chessboard is really an opportunity to learn, to get better. Therefore, a lost game should be looked at in a positive light. That is the wisdom I impart to my young students. When you lose a game, don’t get sad, get mad. Mad enough to sit down and determine where things went wrong and then correct the problem. I reinforce this idea over and over again until I’ve completely convinced my young students that every single loss is a golden opportunity to get better at chess. Of course, you can’t overdo this idea, otherwise you’d have a gaggle of students simply not trying to win. Again, too much of anything can have negative results.

Then there are those moments where a young student plays the best chess game ever and still loses. After fifty or so moves and hours on the board only to lose, I might feel like crying. However, as I tell them, crying only adds to the winners feeling of superiority. The best way to handle a loss to shake you opponent’s hand firmly, look them straight in the eye and say “great game” with a smile on your face. This works especially well when faced with an obnoxious opponent who wallows in victory. Always be gracious.

Again, I don’t fault parents for their attempts to shield their children from emotional pain but when you go overboard, you’re doing more harm than good. It’s a hard world out there and it requires having thick emotional skin at times. I grew up in a hard world which prepared me for many of the challenges I would face later on. Given the choice between a cloistered or sheltered life or a life steeped in often harsh reality, knowing what I know now, I’d take harsh reality.

I firmly believe that the idea of giving everyone a trophy just for participating, while it might make everyone happy, removes healthy competitiveness from the equation. This leads to children striving less towards achievement. Healthy competition is a good thing and children are a lot more resilient than we think. They’re young so their minds jump from one thing to the next and this holds true for emotional situations as well. A child will lose a chess tournament and move on to thinking about something else. Of course, the parents tend to be more crushed than their children who just lost but that’s part of parenting as well.

So parents, I highly suggest teaching your children to deal with life’s losses early on. I do believe each and every child is special. Every student I teach is brilliant in my book. However, I know realistically, they’re not all, if any, going to become Grandmasters. However, they’ll find their way to that one thing in life that they enjoy and do well at. In the end that’s what counts. Let them find their way through life. Be there when they need you. Let them cry but remember, too much of anything is counter productive. Teach them that crying is appropriate at certain times but it is not the answer to everything. Here’s a game in which I suspect one player might have had a good cry. 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).