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.