Monday, July 10, 2006

Chess - this game helped me as a kid.

When I was growing up my parents had a few of my older cousins from Donegal and Derry lodging in our house when they started working in Dublin. At one stage the two lads took an interest in the game of chess. I watched them playing chess with each other with curiosity.

Then to my surprise I discovered that my Dad was a good chess player - he had learned to play chess in the Irish army during his time in the Curragh camp in the WWII years. So now I watched the three adults playing chess and they discussed the game regularly. I kept nagging at them all to teach me and they each put varying but small amounts of time into helping me learn. I guess I was maybe eleven years old at the time. My Dad was patient and put the most time into teaching me. This also felt like good bonding to me because Dad was a quiet man and not strong at communicating with his child. Lots of Dads were like that in the 1960s, he was far from unique.

So I found myself playing my cousins and my Dad at chess and getting beaten all the time. But every time I made a mistake or lost I learned something new which I didn't forget. Unlike the flighty cousins my Dad would play any time I asked him if he happened to be in the house. Dad was fond of going to the pub to drink with his friends and my eager youth made me hungry for greater access to his time for playing chess. He gave me tips on chess and it shaped a lot of ideas in clever moves and lateral thinking. It's a great strategy game. The length of the games improved as I learned more and I started to provide a challenge to the adults.

Next another thing happened. Completely unrelated, our primary school teacher decided it was a good idea for the class to learn to play chess. He asked the class if anyone could already play chess. Myself and another boy - Sean - put our hands up. The teacher taught the class how to play and he used myself and Sean to help out in the chess training. I was a very average pupil academically at the time, there were loads better than me in class - mainly because I was too bashful to fight for teacher time in the large class sizes of the 1960s. But chess was something where I had a head start over most of the others, for the first time I felt special and the teacher giving me an important job was brilliant.

The other boys in the class improved a lot at chess over the following months. The teacher then decided to have a class chess competition. It was a straight knockout tournament. The teacher had myself and Sean seeded on opposite parts of the draw so that we could potentially meet in the final.

Sean and myself played through all our rounds beating the other boys. They were not very easy matches as the class had improved a lot, but we won them nevertheless. So Sean and I met in the chess final for the best of 3 games. I won the first game and then Sean won the second. So it was down to the wire on the final game. I managed to win it. It was quite a thrill, first competition of any kind I'd ever won. And the prize was a beautiful orange 10 shilling note. In 1966 it would be the equivalent of a kid being handed a 50 Euro note today I suppose, and it meant more to me because we were a fairly poor family. I couldn't wait to get home to hold the note up to my parents and especially my Dad. Their excitement was equal to mine.

The win was a small thing in reality but it's funny how it inspired me. I tried to learn more about chess, even got out library books. The teacher then offered me a challenge at chess. When I managed to beat the teacher it was an amazing feeling. I often had a low opinion of myself in primary school and these little successes gave me such a badly needed boost.

I continued to play chess regularly with my Dad. He was a very pensive player, took a long time between moves, tough to beat. We were eventually fairly evenly matched, each winning as much as losing, which always kept it interesting.

So chess was a helpful little game for me as a kid - it drew me closer to my Dad and it did wonders for my confidence building in school. In hindsight I think it helped to make me believe in myself and build other goals.

Today as I watch my own kids enjoy little successes at school and other events I think on how important it is to offer kids a challenge, how it stimulates the natural enthusiasm of youth and maybe prepares them for greater goals later in life.


missmellifluous said...

This is a great story! We really do have to give children a chance to succeed. Your teacher was very smart.

I love how the game gives occasion for bonding between yourself and your dad too! How great that your dad would always sit down and play with you.

My little man wants to learn how to play 'chesst' as he calls it. Sadly, I am not very good a chess though I do enjoy playing it. I have lost many a game. Perhaps I should teach him though, it would be good for him to beat me!

Thanks for the inspiration. I like your stories.

John of Dublin said...

Thanks missmellifluous for your very kind words.

If your lad is wanting to play chess it's great - keep encouraging him. We as adults can often be lazy when kids keep wanting things - I'm often like that myself. But it can be worth the effort if you can spot a passion for something emerging.

And yes - you are right on another point - kids get a great boost from beating an adult at something!

-Ann said...

Great story - I'm really enjoying these looks into your past. And you're so right about teachers. I had a teacher in second grade who had us keep track of all the books we read outside of class. I read the second-most books and got a horse puzzle. It was, at the time, the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.

John of Dublin said...

Hi Ann, thanks. Yes, it's real exciting getting an award in school as a kid.

I'll have to think about what a horse puzzle is though. A jigsaw puzzle with a picture of a horse maybe? :-)

Omaniblog said...

What a lovely way you have of telling the memory and connecting it to now.

And another amazing coincidence: I watched my father playing chess with his friend Fr Naughton, a Jesuit, who used to come visit him on Monday evenings. The two men sat in armchairs by the fireplace, over a chess board decorated with ivory pieces (which I have inherited). They pushed those red and white carved statues around the war zone, and my mother brought them in tea and biscuits. They played three games each time. I have no idea who won; they never seemed to go on about that. In fact, I don't remember them talking much. It was as if Faldo and Woods were playing - only I know their adversity was seriously friendly.

He taught me to play, and eventually let me win. He showed me how to read Tal & Alekine, Fisher and Spasky. It as all pawn to king bishop four... (well before E4, D5...)

Last week, in Algarve, I had few high points because of the heat. But I had a lovely time playing chess with one of my nieces with whom I'd never played. I didn't even know she could play. We fought wonderfully, twice, and now I have something to look forward to whenever I visit them in Limerick.

I've tried chess with Grace. But she's better at backgammon: they won't go in her mouth yet.

John of Dublin said...

Thanks Omani,

Yes I remember all that logical type chess moves terminology - e.g. Pawn takes Pawn etc. I also followed all the Spassky Fisher matches from early 1970s.

Royal Lopez said...

Great Story