by Elisa All
Three years ago, no one in my family had ever played a single game of chess. These days, however, it’s not uncommon to find any two of us engaged in a friendly competition as we face off across the chess board after dinner.
It was our son, CJ, who first learned to play during first-grade indoor recess. My husband quickly learned, followed by our twin daughters, Cassie and Jules. With everyone in the family playing, I finally, reluctantly, learned the game. Once I knew how all the mysterious pieces moved, I actually had fun learning to think in a new way.
The kids enjoyed playing so much that all three joined the school chess team and started competing in local, regional and state tournaments. The satisfaction they found at these competitions led us to a national event held this summer, where we met chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar, the No. 1 ranked woman chess player in the United States.
Polgar was just 4 years old when she “accidentally discovered” the game of chess at her home in Budapest, Hungary. Intrigued by the different pieces, she asked her mother how to play. Having no idea how to explain what she felt was a complicated game mostly played by men, her mother suggested Polgar wait until her father got home from work to teach her about it. She learned quickly.
By age 4 1/2, Polgar had competed in her first tournament – and won. Her father took her to a local chess club in search of competition and found only older men smoking cigarettes, who found the idea of competing against a little girl amusing – until she started beating them.
“Chess bridges people of all kinds,” Polgar says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, rich or poor, short or tall, black or white.”
By age 12, Polgar had become a Grandmaster and won her first World Championship for girls 16 and younger. By age 15, Polgar was ranked the No. 1 woman chess player in the world and would go on to win 10 Olympic medals (five of them gold).
Polgar was the first woman to qualify for the Men’s World Championship, only to be told she could not compete in it because she was female. A year later, however, the rules – and the tournament’s name – were changed to allow her, and other women, to participate.
“Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Polgar says. “If you are willing to work hard enough to accomplish your goal, you can do it. Believe in yourself.”
Self-confidence and perseverance are just a couple of the virtues I believe my children are learning as they play chess. As they use critical thinking skills to analyze situations on the board, they’re improving their focus and concentration, and their ability to visualize and plan ahead. Chess teaches them to think strategically and find solutions to challenges. As Polgar explains, each move in chess is an opportunity to solve a problem.
“Each move is a new puzzle; each move is a new solution,” she says. “Strive to improve your position from the previous one. Break [the puzzle] down into smaller pieces.”
As I watch my children play chess, I can almost see the synapses firing and connections being made where they weren’t before. Since each game is completely unique, the kids are constantly evolving their own strategies in order to achieve checkmate. Sometimes their ideas work and sometimes they don’t, but figuring out how to checkmate (before being checkmated yourself) is the key to the game.
The victories may be sweet and the losses can be painful, but learning to be a good sport is vital in our competitive culture – perhaps even more so in one-on-one situations like chess. It’s important for kids, and for all of us, to accept our successes and our disappointments gracefully.
While Polgar has seen more chess success than most, her final piece of advice is hard won: “Win with grace; lose with dignity.”