The Dark Side

Competition is healthy and has fueled great advances in civilization. Competition drives economics. Competition, within reason, can be a healthy motivator that brings out the best in us because we have to work hard when competing. However, it can also bring out the worst in us. There’s a fine line to be walked when it comes to competition and, if you fall over the wrong side of that line, you’ll find yourself on the dark side, a place akin to the Twilight Zone!

I make reference to the landmark television series, the Twilight Zone, because in each episode we were afforded a glimpse into a skewed reality into which the story’s protagonist is haplessly thrown. In my story, we meet a young chess player who’s thrown into the world of competitive junior chess. Our young protagonist starts out as a chipper, charming young man who serves a model of compassion. However, he ends up becoming a victim of the side effects of competition. He truly got to experience the Twilight Zone first hand.

William, that’s what we’ll call our young man, was a former student of mine. He was shy and not one of the more popular kids at his school. He wasn’t athletic but he was extremely bright. However, he looked at being smart as a curse. He wanted what the guys who played on his school’s sports teams had, friends and popularity. He knew how to play chess and knew the school had a chess team which I coached. He came in one afternoon, signed up and fit right in. I was amazed at his ability to quickly pick up the concepts I taught him. William was also a gracious winner and even more gracious when he lost. The one thing I stress above all is good sportsmanship and he had it.

The young don’t know social boundaries and have to learn them the hard way, by trial and error. This means they might jump up and down screaming “Ha, I beat you” after winning a chess game. However, once you point out that this is not the way to embrace victory, they often heed your words and become more gracious. Sometimes, it takes being beaten themselves by a person exhibiting bad sportsmanship to drive home the concept. The point is, they eventually learn. Of course, if they refuse to behave properly, they’re off our team.

William, was a great sport. After several months of training he was off to his first tournament with the team. He won all but one of his games, taking first place and bringing the team to second place overall. Of course, I was happy because I had a team that was strong and worked well together. Then something started to happen.

William slowly started to become more aggressive, being a bit less gracious with each victory. I talked at length with him and his parents about his behavior, explaining that as his rating went up his opponents would become a much stronger. There would be a time when William would face a series of losses against stronger players and have to deal with those losses calmly. The parents felt William had such a strong record of wins and, since he had handled his losses well up to this point, that there wouldn’t be any problems in the near future (despite what I had seen and commented on). As a coach dealing with parents, you can only make a sound argument and hope the parents leave the decision making to you. After all, you’re the professional. Well, the parents let William do as he pleased because he was happy. After a few months, William’s parents decided their son would be better off playing tournaments on his own, “not having to act as sole strong player on our team.” There’s an old saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and William’s father, it turns out, was a really bad sport. The parents took William off the team, hired an International Master to train him and entered him in tournaments.

About six months later, I get a call from his new trainer who says “the kid has turned into a bloody little monster.” Of course, I really wanted to say “and how is this my problem” but refrained as that would make me a bad sport. It turned out that William was now so rude to his opponents that Tournament Directors were taking serious notice. I asked his new trainer if he had talked to the parents. He had and reported to me that the father would scream things like “I’m paying you good money to deal with this nonsense.” Somehow, I suspect I got the good end of the deal when I was taken out of the equation. Within months, William had been all but black listed from tournament play. He eventually gave up on chess. William gained personal power through chess but in the end absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I tell this cautionary tale because I see the dark side of competition on a regular basis in the junior chess arena. Again, competition is a good thing within reason. However, some individuals take it to an unhealthy extreme. I’d like to offer some advice for young players and their parents:

To you youngsters: Enjoy winning because it feels good. Your hard work has paid off. However, remember that your victory on the chessboard means your opponent is suffering emotionally from their loss. Losing doesn’t feel good and having to deal with an opponent who rubs victory directly in your face makes matters worse. When winning, think of your opponent’s feeling before your own. Offer them a handshake and thank them for a good game. People remember gracious winners in a far better light than winners who grandstand. Be the better person. Who knows, your opponent might end up becoming a good friend of yours (if you’re a good sport).

For parents: Don’t live vicariously through your child. I see this all the time. Just because you didn’t win the junior state chess championship in your youth doesn’t mean you get a second chance through your child. I’ve seen parents put so much pressure on their children to win that it takes away the love that child has for the game. I’ve also seen parents belittle their children in front of other children because the child’s performance wasn’t up to par. Children have feelings! It’s about enjoying the game.

You, as a parent, should also let your child develop their chess skills naturally. Your son or daughter is not going to be playing like Magnus Carlsen after six months of lessons. You’d be surprised at how many parents have completely unrealistic expectations regarding their children and chess. Here’s an easy one: If your child doesn’t want to take chess lessons, try something else. I have had students who have no interest in chess but attend classes because their parents want them enrolled. Listen to your children and let them pursue what interests them.

Teach them how to win graciously. As I mentioned earlier, children tend to discover social boundaries through trial and error. However, helping them along can make their social journey a lot easier. Remember it’s easier to develop good habits than it is to break bad habits. Teach them to love the game first and foremost. If they behave in an unsportsmanlike manner, explain to them why this isn’t the proper way to act. Ask them how they’d feel had they lost the game.

Lastly parents, how you act at a chess tournament influences your child and how her or she behaves. You are their ultimate role model. I’ve seen parents sink to all time lows in an effort to see their child win a tournament. This behavior ranges from trash talking other children and parents to using subtle hand signals to aid their child while playing which is also known as cheating. Be the better person. Chess should be enjoyed and loved, first and foremost. Speaking of enjoyment, here’s a game to ponder 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).