Friday, March 9, 2012


I normally don't let my kids win when we play games. In most board games, like Sorry or Monopoly, or games of chance, like War, they've got enough of a fighting chance without me throwing the game, and in other games, like Scrabble or Quirkle, we don't keep score at all, and in games of skill or logic, like chess or poker, I don't think it's reasonable for them to expect to win the majority of the time when playing adults, and instead I encourage them to focus on the pleasure of a game well played, and the etiquette of good sportsmanship. Syd still throws the occasional fit when she loses a game, and needs to be reminded that a competitive game requires an opponent with the same skill set, and a game of chance chooses its own winners, and good sportsmanship is a behavioral requirement in our family.

It's funny, then, that before Will's latest chess competition, I spent several weeks deliberately throwing games to her. Will loves to play, and has great strategy for a kid her age, but she doesn't tend to aim for checkmate, which means that she tends to lose games against kids who may be less adept players, but who focus all the strength of their young wills into mating her king. Of course Will doesn't care, because she just likes the play, but before this latest competition I wanted to gently, very gently, encourage her to play more aggressively for checkmate.

Argh, such a fine line to walk! Should I focus her at all, or just let her be? Was I sending the message that good sportsmanship means that you can't be competitive? Am I now sending the message that a game isn't fun unless you're trying to win? What message does it also send that 99.9% of the other children at these competitions are boys?

I still can't decide.

Nevertheless, for a few weeks before the competition, Will and I played chess games in which she had a special assignment: checkmate Momma! To take the dive while not make moves so ridiculous as to ruin her good strategies (which depend on logical counter-moves), I pretended that I was playing speed chess, giving myself zero time to contemplate before moving.

And it was--as chess ALWAYS is--fun!

Will has a special skill for eating away her competitor's pieces, whether or not she's gunning for checkmate, so that often her opponents with their laser focus on checkmate don't even really notice the attrition until they suddenly realize that they've basically been forced into a draw:
 How fun!

Also fun, it turns out? That elusive and long sought-after checkmate!

Will had a lot of fun in her chess competition and did well there, but without another competition on the horizon until September, we're back to our normal play. My new chess goals for Will are to encourage her to play more games with the children at her bi-monthly chess club, and to begin learning some formal opening, endgame, and piece-specific strategies that she can then have in her memory to utilize during play.

However...when I think about some of the child (and adult!) behavior that I've witnessed at chess competitions, I'm hugely grateful for my non-competitive kid, whose love of simply playing the game helps me remember to de-emphasize winning in my own life, as well.

Of course, I'm more of a work in progress on that one...


Tina said...

I love how into chess Willow is! Chess is one thing I always thought I was too dumb to learn. Thankfully I have given up that way of thinking, but I haven't yet taught myself to play.

An odd idea, but I think it would be fun to find one of those parks you see on t.v. where old guys are playing chess and see if anyone could jump in and play. I bet one could learn lots of different lessons in a game like that :)

Stephanie said...

Rarely does competition come into play here. FOr some reason, though, Madeleine and I are pretty forceful at Quoridor!! :) It's actually pretty hilarious.

Definitely better to love to play than to just love to win!