Which Chess Animal Are You?

As I’ve watched my younger beginning students play over the years, I’ve noticed that their style of play tends to parallel their personalities. While there are always exceptions to any observation, I’ve found, in general, that outgoing and aggressive children tend to play chess in a more aggressive and outgoing manner. They tend to favor attacking while reserved children tend to play more defensively. Of course, as they learn more about the game, they can change their chess personalities as they mature. I had a young student once ask me what kind of chess player he was. The young man was new to chess and extremely bright, wanting an answer to this question so he could concentrate his studies in the right area. This single question brought up some interesting points and problems regarding just how to answer such a question when the questioner is a child.

With an adult, a discussion could be initiated by exploring basic psychology and personality traits. We could create a profile based on our discussion. The profile would help identify character traits that would define the individual’s personality. However, with children, you can’t really have the same discussion because many of the concepts you’d be discussing with them would have no real meaning to the child. Knowing a child’s personality is a key factor in successful teaching both on and off the chessboard. Connecting with your students requires knowing a bit about their personalities.

While my chess classes are all about improving one’s chess skills, I also like to introduce other subjects or topics into my lessons. I do so because it demonstrates how intricately woven the game of chess is into the fabric of our world. When we examine the Italian opening, we talk a bit about Italy. When talking about the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972, we discuss the cold war (in gentler terms since I’m working with children). Because my students love chess, they’re inclined to be open-minded if I introduce a bit of art, science, geography or math in my lectures. I want my students to use the game of chess as a starting point for the greater exploration of knowledge in general!

In thinking about how to determine my student’s chess personalities I had a sudden realization that all my students shared one common interest, a love of animals. Younger or older, boy or girl, all my students had favorite animals. It was here that I decided to pose the question to them, what kind of animal are you?

Of course, with over 300 students, I had to streamline the questioning. I first defined the word personality as the things that make you who you are. If you help your friends you’re kind. If you aren’t easily frightened, you’re brave, etc. After going through a number of examples with my students, I created a list of thirty words we could use. I asked each student to write down five of those words that described their personalities. It was extremely interesting to see how each of my students saw themselves in relation to other students and adults. I was quite surprised at some of the lists that were created. Students I thought to be reserved viewed themselves as more aggressive and vice versa. I learned a great deal about each of my students through their lists of personality traits. Once we had the individual lists created, it was on to the animals.

My students know that creativity earns extra points in my classes. For example, I hold a checkmate of the month contest. The student with the most interesting checkmate for that month wins the contest. I take photographs of student checkmates, compare them to one another and the most unique mate wins. I started this contest to get my students to use pieces other than the Queen and Rooks when delivering mate. When approaching the subject of animals, I spoke with their regular classroom teachers to discover what animals those teachers had introduced in their curriculums. After my teacher consultations, I made a list of twenty animals, ranging from turtles to tigers. We dispensed with distinctions such as mammal versus non-mammal to keep things simple. I gave my students the list of twenty choices, mentioned that they could chose animals not on the list. Of course, a few students asked if animals not on the list were worthy of extra credit points (and yes they were worth extra credit points).

Under each animal on our list of twenty, were character traits of that animal. The Cheetah, for example has five character traits. The Cheetah was brave, aggressive, fast, careful (cautious) and smart. Each of the animals on the list had their own individual traits. I gave my students one week to find their animal. After my students had chosen their animals, I told them it was now time to own that animal. Most students asked what “owning their animal” meant. I explained that to own your animal, you had to write a brief half page biography of the animal demonstrating that you truly knew your animal. Once you did this, you understood your animal and could claim it (its personality traits) as your own. By writing the animal’s biography, you became the animal. I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of the written papers were over a page in length.

My favorite animal choice was the Hippopotamus. One of my advanced students said he was a Hippo. I asked him why. He said that everyone thought he was cute and nice. He went on to say the Hippo was very cute until it charged at you with his sharp teeth. I said “sharp teeth? I thought they were dull?” Apparently, the sides of the Hippo’s teeth are sharp, something I didn’t know and discovered through my student’s research. Knowing how this particular student played chess, I knew why he chose the Hippo. He chose the Hippo because he could produce devastating attacks from a seemingly passive position!

Once the students had become their animals (metaphorically speaking), it was time to apply this to the game of chess. We created a list of chess personalities, ranging from totally aggressive and attacking to defensive and positional, matching the student’s animals with their chess personality. Once the children had their chess personality, we started work on strengthening their traits. With aggressive attacking players, we worked on making their attacks more coordinated. With defensive players we worked on building up their defensive skills.

Of course, these student’s chess personalities will change over time as their personality changes and their game gets better. However, this provides them with s starting point, allowing them to build a better foundation for their game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week! What kind of chess animal are these two players?

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).