It’s not just the Little City adults who’ve become more adept at planning ahead recently. The bug seems to have infected the kids, too…
Every time I start to write something positive about my kids I read it back through my self-effacing English eyes and think: bleurgh.
Any praise tips so easily into the worst kind of parental bragging (“…and then Tristram counted backwards from 100 in Greek, missing out every seventh number! And he’s only two!”) It’s boasting of the worst kind – the kind designed to make other parents feel bad.
In order to counteract any possible threat of smugness, I then feel honour bound to point out that, for every one thing my kids are better than yours at, there’s two they’re worse at.
So much guilt, and I’m not even Catholic.
Then, I worry that my kids will read all this one day and think I did nothing but write about their shortcomings and failures for the amusement of the world.
Eventually, having contorted myself into knots with all that mental gymnastics, I usually end up cutting the entire section out, leaving anyone wandering by these parts none the wiser, and my next post precisely zero words nearer completion.
Let me tell you, writing nothing is exhausting.
Fail to prepare…
Usually I have to endure a restless night before the threads and patterns of a new post emerge from my subconscious, but this week, they may as well have been gift-wrapped with a pretty ribbon and left on my keyboard overnight.
Because Amnesiac, seven next month, is displaying previously unseen signs of being able to hold more than one thought in his head at a time.
Ok, so I exaggerate for comic effect, but not much. His concentration is, let’s be charitable, an area for improvement. He knows this too, because his teachers have been reporting it back to us since he started school. (I wrote that last sentence before seeing his latest school report; let’s just say it’s now a priority.)
Much like the squirrel-obsessed Doug from Up, he can be distracted at the drop of a hat. Great for when he’s injured or upset, but less helpful in the classroom.
(Need more evidence? I nicknamed him Amnesiac.)
This might just be because he is a small boy and that’s what small boys are like.
But over the past few weeks there have been signs that he might just be able to plan ahead after all – and it’s all thanks to chess.
The king stay the king
If you’d asked me about chess a month ago, a few scenes would have come to mind. One is the juvenile spoof from the otherwise execrable Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey of The Seventh Seal’s playing-chess-with-Death scene, in which our heroes take on Death at far less serious or symbolic games, like Twister and Cluedo (or Clue, if you’re that way inclined).
(Even now, I still find myself saying “Best three out of five?” when Mrs LC beats me at anything.)
Then there’s the Shawshank Redemption, which everything seems to remind me of in one way or another, with Andy asking Red to get him rocks so he can carve a chess set. (Red: “That’d take you years.” Andy: “Years I’ve got.”)
More recently, chess plays a central role in one of the finest scenes from one of the finest TV shows of all time, The Wire. (It should go without saying, but that link is NSFW.)
In it, ambitious junior dealer D’Angelo explains to a sceptical couple of punks named Bodie and Wallace about the relevance of chess to their world of street corners and drug dealing.
The scene, which is overflowing with foreshadowing, also acts as a fantastic primer to any viewers who still don’t quite get what they’re watching (the series famously makes no concessions to casual viewers. No episode recaps, no neat conclusions, no explanation of the slang; you’re just dropped into their world and expected to keep up).
Through the use of chess-as-metaphor, the scene teaches us that there might be small defeats on the way to a victory. That small victories on the way don’t always mean you win in the end. It teaches you to plan, to think ahead, to anticipate, to put yourself in the mind of your opponent – and to decide precisely what you’re prepared to sacrifice on the way in order to achieve your overall goal.
Expats can learn a lot from it.
Anything’s better than draughts
Sat on our games shelf, unloved and forgotten, is a combined chess/draughts (or checkers, if you’re that way inclined) set which we bought a few years ago for Kid A.
Draughts bores me witless; every game ends with the world’s least exciting slow motion chase round the board until someone, usually me, declares it a spirit-draining stalemate and goes off to do something marginally more exciting, like stick pins in my toes.
But then, out of nowhere a few weeks ago, Amnesiac picked the box off the shelf and asked me to teach him how to play chess. I was so excited that he wasn’t asking me to play draughts that I happily agreed, despite not having played myself in about 30 years.
So I laid out the pawns and the rooks and looked up everything else in the instructions and went about describing the odd pieces and their restricted abilities.
And at first, I went easy on him, cancelling moves that needlessly exposed him to attack and trying to get him to think about not just what he’s trying to do, but also anticipate what I’m up to on the other side of the board.
Honestly, I didn’t think it would appeal. Too many rules, too many weird elements to manage, too much tactics and strategy (the concept of losing battles but winning wars is not one that The Magic Treehouse books cover in any great depth).
But something struck a chord and I watched, amazed, as his appreciation grew with each game we played. He saw that his actions have consequences, and that there’s more than one way to achieve your goals. He’s started to plan ahead. Then he started to beat me – actual proper victories based on exploiting my weaknesses.
He plays on a giant outdoor set in breaks at school. We’re playing most days at home, too. I’m looking forward to taking him to the conveniently-timed Kings and Pawns exhibition at the Museum of Islamic Art which explores the game’s origins and history across the region.
Even if the desire to play the game gives way in time to other interests, I hope the lessons chess is teaching him will stick around.
We might not be able to predict the future – we don’t even know what pieces are on our own personal chess boards – but if we don’t plan ahead, if we don’t try and shape our destiny, influence it in some way, then we’ll end up losing out – with no chance of best three out of five.
PS: Experience The Wire’s realistic portrayal of America’s decaying inner cities…through the magic of song!