It was only fitting that I would play chess with my daughters. Long before I became a father in 1999, chess was a big part of my life.
My brother and father taught me when I was 5. Since then, I’ve played with friends, family members, even strangers (in a park in Boston, where I lost, badly).
Now I play chess with my daughters. I taught my oldest, Mikayla, when she was 6. She has already beaten me once. Liz, now 5, started learning when she was 3. When the baby, Erica, is older, she and I will also play.
The reasons are simple: I did it as a boy, it’s cheap, and it stimulates the imagination. It’s an elegant hedge against TV on a cold winter night. When the temptation might be to hunker down and watch a movie, my push for chess is my way of resisting the urge of the tube.
Last year, I was given Dr. Meg Meeker’s book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters. This book cautions fathers on the rancidity of the culture that awaits girls, and instructs on how fathers are uniquely positioned to help. Our oldest girl is 8. So far, so good — but we have a lot ahead of us. Even now, Mikayla faces questions that I don’t recall being discussed when I was 8. A dad tries to find strategies to help her blossom, without hitting her over the head with it.
The book, which doesn’t mention chess per se, makes two important points. First point: A girl needs Dad time. She needs to bond with Dad, to know he is there for her, and to be assured of his love for her. When life gets hard — not if but when — she can go to him and she knows he will listen. Today’s bond helps weather tomorrow’s problems.
The second point: Protect her from herself. Wise decision making — maturity — is the final thing that develops in the mind. Teens can rationalize anything for fun. They have the ability to wreak adult havoc but lack the logic to consider consequences.
With this book read and these two points understood, I revisited my stalwart friend and ally, chess. In fact, chess, it turns out, is the perfect companion for raising daughters. It rewards long-term strategy, stimulates the executive decision part of the mind (precisely what Dr. Meeker says develops last), and it helps build a bond. So it brings the question: Could chess be a helpful aid in raising kids?
I’m not the only one to have this thought. Leopold Lacrimosa is a Scottsdale, Arizona chess coach who also runs the American Chess Coaching website. He observes, on the ChessCentral site, that a child who takes up chess “begins to develop logical thinking, critical thinking, decision making, [and] problem solving.”
In July of 2000, Dr. Peter Dauvergne, a professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, and a visiting lecturer at the University of Sydney, wrote an article for the University of Sydney entitled “The Case for Chess as a Tool to Develop Our Children’s Minds.”
Indeed, a casual internet search of “chess children development” yields well more than a million hits. And how interesting it is, amid the unrest in Russia, that Vladimir Putin sees as his most serious threat, chess champion Garry Kasparov.
Closer to home, chess serves as a means of bonding with my daughter, and a way to show my daughter how to think long-term. Moreover, it provides a vital contrast to the culture at large. Consider the culture. Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, for instance, are young women whose current life situations scream “didn’t think ahead.” And yet, it’s hard to blame the fallen divas. When Lindsay Lohan was younger than even Liz, a beer commercial explicitly told us not to think. “Why ask why?” Yeah, why think? Just do it.
In one generation — my own — chess has gone from just another activity to a rare sanctuary of order and strategy in an attention-deficient culture. With every commercial I see on TV, with every fallen diva that appears in the tabloids, chess appears more and more important. If we weren’t already playing the game, I’d feel a strong urge to start.
Mikayla is a social girl who makes friends easily; her future will have many parties. But by the time she is 13, her father will have tempted her numerous times with a “free” bishop, only to exploit a vulnerability and pounce on her queen, or simply in order to win the game. The wisdom acquires in the context of a game will instruct her in the often harsh and exploitative ways of the world. By learning not to yield to temptation, and not to guard her vulnerability in the game, she will learn to refuse men who make empty promises, and protect herself from unseemly male companions.
In chess and in life, players do not surrender things without a self-serving reason. If someone offers something “for free,” walk away. If something seems too good to be true, it is. This is what the chess player learns well. It is also what approximately 100 percent of parents have said to their kids for centuries.
Additionally, chess is a twofer. In chess, the best move is often one that both shores up the defense, and goes on offense. For example, under certain circumstances by moving my bishop to a carefully selected square, I can protect my king and attack my opponent’s queen. The doubly effective move provides a paradigm for the game as a whole: in a single afternoon, we develop a bond (defense) AND I am teaching her to think long-term strategy against adversaries (offense).
In her life, problems will arise. I was there for the chess games, and I’ll be here for her life in all its complexity. Every creep that tempts her will be counting on her inability to think ahead, and my hope is that my daughter’s experience at chess will greatly help her buttress their motives.
I can’t flatter myself into thinking I can change the culture. But, just in time for Christmas, I can suggest a great game to give to the kids. It’s your move, parents.
— Jim Pemberton is a Minneapolis-area writer with three daughters.