My 8-year-old son Lucas recently joined the Chess Club at school. He didn’t have much experience other than a few games with our 10-year-old neighbor, so his first day in Chess Club was a disappointment for him.
My husband pulled out our old chess set from the depths of the hall closet and dusted it off so we could practice. I had mentioned several times that although I played quite a bit in college, I no longer remembered the names of the pieces much less how they moved. Lucas asked me to play with him, and when your 8-year-old asks you to play chess with him, ya freakin’ play chess with him. I consulted Google for a quick refresher in Chess and soon Lucas and I sat opposite one another with stern, focused looks on our faces.
It turns out playing chess is like riding a bike (or it was after I remembered that it’s called a “knight,” not a “horse.”) After about 45 minutes, I had Lucas’s king trapped. “Check,” I told him. He stewed for about five minutes trying to imagine a way he could escape my rook and bishop. I let him think about it, but when I saw his shoulders slump in defeat, I told him he played an excellent game and I held my hand out for a post-game handshake. He left me hanging.
“Whoa, dude, that’s not polite. You always shake hands after a game, win or lose. How ‘bout a high five instead?”
He wasn’t interested. His bottom lip began to quiver. Soon, my gangly 8-year-old was sitting in my lap and sobbing. I wiped his frustrated tears with my hand and reassured him that he had played a great game, that it was perfectly normal, expected even, for beginners to lose almost every game. I told him it was part of the process. Meanwhile, my husband mouthed from the couch, “You should have let him win!”
Later, as he was getting ready for bed, Lucas continued to talk about our game. His tears had dried but he still hung onto every regretful move from our game. He spoke around his tooth brush, rambled while he peed and mumbled through his pajama shirt as he pulled it over his head. “I shouldn’t have moved my knight out of that spot!” “I should have sacrificed that pawn!” “I can’t believe I let you get my queen!”
Finally, as I pulled his covers over him, he got to the point he’d been dancing around for the previous thirty minutes: “Mom, can I ask you a favor?”
“Could you … maybe take it easy on me next time?”
I suppressed a giggle. “Well. Let’s think about that. If I say I’m going to take it easy on you, and I do, and you know I’m not playing to my full ability, and then you win … how will you feel about that win? Will you believe you earned it? Or will you feel like I just handed it over to you?”
He thought seriously for a moment before admitting, “I guess I would feel like you just handed it over.”
“On the other hand, how do you think you will feel if, every time we play, you know I’m playing to my full ability, and let’s say we play five games before you win … or 20 games … or a full year of games! …” (He looked nervous when I said this) “… but then, one day, you finally beat me. And you know without a doubt in your mind that you just beat your mom fair and square. How do you think you’ll feel then?”
He smiled. “I think I’ll want to scream with happiness!”
I had to laugh. “Okay then. It’s your choice. If you want me to go easy on you, I will. If you want me to play full out, I’ll do that too. But just know I won’t lie to you about it either way. So what’ll it be?”
He only hesitated a little: