Coach Jason Chen
Contrary to popular belief, when a nuclear bomb is about to explode, the best place to be is tucked safely behind a chess board. That’s where the roaches know to be. Why, you might ask? Because chess is immortal. It’ll survive the zombie craze and that vampire your daughter is in love with. Chess reaches through time and across great distances, appealing to characters of every stripe. The tremendous mental benefits and sheer fun of the game are a combination few sports or games can match. Whether you are a parent, a child, a monk, zealot, attorney, one of those suicidal divers on “Shark Week” on the Discovery channel, or just an old-fashioned, flirting-with-grandma milk man, chess can bring something unique and valuable to your life. Here’s how.
First, chess is a medium for self-expression; it is, in part, an art that provides us a way to articulate our ideas and emotions. Those that know chess know that the game is a mixture of art and science, and while precision is needed to checkmate your opponent, there are many routes to that end. Just as our attitudes, bias, and personality become our choices, so do they become our chess game. Chinese chess professional Kiki Chen, for example, extinguishes her competition with blazing aggression and pressure; she immediately puts opponents under fire, welcoming sharp tactical scenarios that might intimidate or unnerve other professionals. The same restless ambition she exhibits in such assaults is as readily seen in her almost vicious string of accomplishments: attained the rank of Chinese Master (the highest possible level awarded in China) the year she became a pro in 2007, won third place in the American Open in the 2000 rating division, ranked in the top 100 female chess players in 2011, and broke into the top 100 quick game players the following year. The intense, competitive fire needed to accomplish such an impressive chess resume is plain to see in her games; it is an extension of her. You don't need to be a chess professional to have a taste of that, either. Radio firebrand Howard Stern is an avid chess player, and his same peculiar intelligence, chutzpah and irreverence is found in one of his favorite openings as black, the fighting, trap-fraught Budapest defense. Our personality comes out in our decisions, and chess is a war that boils down to a series of simple choices. For children, this is perhaps one of the greatest aspects of chess. As young people learn and reach for the foundations of their identity, they can experiment at the board. According to Kiki Chen, chess is "the door to the soul." Chen will be the first to tell you, chess teaches us who we are. Analyzing one’s own game, what works, what doesn't work, is a natural part of chess. True introspection follows.
If you are chess knowledge is challenged, then you might not be privy to the tremendous versatility of the game. Chess can be played in so many different ways, with different time controls, and even with different starting orientations; there is something for everybody. The variations in the time controls can mean the difference between a hot-dog and a steak; they're both beef, but very different meals. Those that prefer the steak, the long, slow, traditional chess, can enjoy patient build-ups and strategy, but for those looking for a quick meal, blitz and bullet chess is where it's at. Blitz changes the game immensely, and the patient game you thought you knew becomes a tactical dogfight where mistakes are made and redeemed in the blink of an eye. Both players in blitz have just five minutes to complete their moves, and the pressure makes the games razor sharp. Watching a blitz game -that is, watching the players move and slap their chess clocks- is like watching two sharks snapping at each other, each hoping to land a deadly bite on a crucial vein. For top 100-rated female Kiki Chen or American blitz champ Hikaru Nakamura, the faster games give them an opportunity to levy their strengths even further at the board, allowing them to dominate top professionals that might otherwise have an edge in longer time controls. “I’m better at blitz because I enjoy the speed and love attacking,” remarks Kiki. “I think quickly to control the time and the game. It‘s just more fun.” As Nakamura and Chen prove, different people excel at different forms of chess. Other chess giants sometimes play blindfolded, and the challenge of this can lead to amateur blunders that would be unseen in top-level traditional matches.
Chess can be as fast or slow, as messy or precise, as you want it be. Sublime diversion that it is, chess is also a powerful educational tool. The vacuum of deficiencies in American education is almost a perfect negative for the vast benefits chess has to offer our children. Despite this, chess is still largely stigmatized as a game for nerds, intellectuals and rabbis, and relegated to relative obscurity. In many southern Californian high schools, for example, chess clubs rarely hold the same status that Model U.N. or the debate team enjoy, yet the measure of enrichment in chess study may equal or even surpass the more noted extracurricular brethren. Kiki Chen, a former Chinese Youth Chess National Team captain, strongly believes in the positive developmental influence of chess. Kiki’s character was largely chiseled by her study in the discipline of chess, and her accomplishments in the game catapulted her past many elite college applicants into a highly prestigious school. Though those unfamiliar with chess may not know Kiki, virtually everyone knows of someone who shared her opinions on chess, albeit hundreds of years before she was born: Benjamin Franklin. It was he, the famed American statesman, who penned the widely-known essay On the Morals of Chess, and many of the expansive benefits of the game Franklin extolled upon in this work Chen herself has experienced through the rigors of national-level chess competition and study. According to Franklin, “several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions.” Kiki herself will testify to Franklin’s claim; she credits chess with transforming her from a puckish tomboy to the elegant, intelligent woman she is today.
In his essay, Franklin firstly notes that chess develops “foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action.” It is the dear hope of a good parent that their children will look before they leap, and recognize the dangers inherent in their candidate choices. Kiki Chen agrees that chess augmented her natural leadership qualities by bolstering her foresight, and as a top-level chess student was rewarded for such presence of mind. During a camping retreat with her team, away from the super-elite Chinese Youth National Team Development School in Tianjin where she studied chess, a fourteen year-old Kiki noticed a young girl, aged five or six, walking very close to the edge of a lake near her cabin. She quickly rushed down to the girl, worried that the girl might take a wrongl step and soon find herself drowning. Kiki’s teachers noticed. Soon after the incident, her instructors called a team meeting, and anointed her captain of the Chinese Youth National Team, citing the incident as a major reason for her selection. To her instructors, it proved that Chen’s sense of foresight had grown well beyond the chess board, and her notable embodiment of the quality made her the right choice for team leader.
In addition to foresight, Franklin notes that the virtues of circumspection and caution are enhanced by chess play and study. Relative to chess, circumspection is, in Franklin’s words, “the relations of the several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to, the several possibilities of their aiding each other, the probabilities that the adversary may make this or that move, and attack this or the other piece, and what different means can be used to avoid his stroke, or turn its consequences against him.” We live in a world of tough competitors, and whether they square off against us in college admissions, sports or academics, or business and beyond, the ability to consider the big picture is essential one for our children. Very few endeavors outside of chess offer such effective development of the quality.
Chess is a noble game, and the reverence and discipline that accompanies it is something that parents surely can appreciate. Kiki Chen notes that when she first arrived at the Chinese Youth National Team Development School at age thirteen, she was a raw tomboy, constantly causing a stir. In some early games at the Development School, she’d throw pieces at opponents in jest, or tell defeated opponents to get under the table and make a funny face as a punishment for losing. Kiki’s chess instructors fairly but sternly took her to task, and in a matter of months, the wild youth was tamed into someone less like a child and more like a woman. Franklin was adamant that game be approached with class. “You should not sing, nor whistle, nor look at your watch, not take up a book to read, nor make a tapping with your feet on the floor, or with your fingers on the table, nor do anything that may disturb his attention. For all these things displease; and they do not show your skill in playing, but your craftiness or your rudeness.” Even in colonial America, it wasn’t whether you won or lost, but how you played the game. Franklin continues to outline other inappropriate behavior in his essay, ultimately underscoring the simple notion that to play chess, one must conduct themselves well. Children today are caught in school with knives, guns, drugs, and students, especially those with negligent or overworked parents, often find trouble. One wonders what a dose of chess would do for their character.
Franklin wrote about many of the benefits he saw in chess, but there is one essential benefit he overlooked: the development of creativity. Young people are dominant in chess because their minds are relatively unbiased, agile, and imaginative. “To catch your opponent’s king, you have to be able to create a position,” notes Kiki Chen, who donates a healthy amount of time to mentor young talents at Rowland Heights’ Beyond Chess chess club and The Chess Palace in Garden Grove, CA. Through the practice of imagining various solutions to their opponents threats and advances, children test and tax their imaginations in highly practical ways. Author, educator, and speaker Sir Ken Robinson argues that the world is changing so fast, it is impossible to educate them for a specific future. All we can do is present them with the tools to make the best of whatever the future will hold, and creativity, he argues, will be an important part of their preparation. According to Robinson, because of the rapidly changing world, “creativity is as important as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” Robinson also argues that creativity in public schools is vastly stifled, thanks to an outdated academic hierarchy that places math and language as priorities, and subjugates other equally valuable pursuits. Additionally, as standardized testing has given rise to an emphasis by teachers on right-or-wrong answers, many students are now afraid to take the chance to attempt an answer aloud in class. Without the willingness to take risks, creativity is severely stunted in developing children [Robinson]. Chess offers amnesty from the cracks in classroom education and gives children an encouraging, supportive forum to explore their imagination on a chess board.
Chess is a universe both engaging and educational, and while many of the shining benefits of this universe have been explored, like the stars, it is difficult to count them all. Chess is a sublime creation that has withstood centuries. It opens the soul and whispers truth to you. In pursuit of one‘s authentic chess game, you feel the triumph of victory and grapple with the agony of defeat. You learn how to bounce back, how to win and lose with class and style, how to reason, how to control yourself. It is a whetstone against which we can sharpen ourselves. In sum, chess is so much, but maybe its true beauty lies in that when we play, we catch a glimpse of ourselves, and see that we, as individuals, are so much too.
By Andrew Long
"Bobby Fischer." The Dick Cavett Show. ABC. New York. 2 Jun. 1971. Chen, Ke. Personal interview. 2 Apr. 2012.
Franklin, Benjamin. "On the Morals of Chess." The Chess Player. Boston: N. Dearborn, 1841. 7-11.
Robinson, Sir Ken. "Do Schools Kill Creativity?." TED. Monterey, CA. Feb. 2006. 24 Apr. 2012