Sunday, November 09, 2008


Helena is in chess club.

Chess is not part of her regular curriculum but is offered as part of the after-school program:

The "Challenging Mathematics" program is based on extensive research and field-testing. It focuses on problem-solving as a strategy for developing an understanding of mathematical concepts.

The goal of the series is to develop judgement and the ability to reason in children, to foster an ability to explain why and how when it comes to their solutions to problems and to develop their self-confidence as well as their own efficient strategies for solving problems.

[Source: Chess'n Math Association, Canada's National Scholastic Chess Organization]

I hesitated to sign her up, thinking it might be too demanding, and too early to be cultivating her geek factor. But it's never too early to learn to solve problems! She is joined by a boy from her class, and their instructor seems well-equipped to inspire a kind of discipline in them. (My own efforts to show Helena the actual starting positions of all the pieces always ended up in a procession of Helena's devising, of characters greeting the king and queen and riding away on horseback, in an orderly fashion.)

It is by far the most (academically) challenging aspect of the kindergarten experience, and the only one that demands homework. We have problems diagrammed on paper that we transfer to a board in front of us. (Initially identifying the pieces out of order. Now testing the rules of the moves: in a given diagram, how many pieces can a given piece capture, or how many squares can it safely move to.)

She wants to play a game proper. I know it will be only a few moves before she feigns disinterest in order to disguise her frustration. She will pack it in and silently resolve to be better prepared another day.

We open.

I blink and she's in tears — deep, sincere, sad sobs. "C'est pas juste!"

That she's only 5? doesn't know all the rules? that we're unfairly matched?


That the pawn can move only straight ahead, one slow square at a time. The pawn advances to the end, and for what? It's not fair, when others can move farther, in different directions. Poor, stupid pawn! What good is it?

It's a weird and proud moment for me, to see in my daughter this glimmer of existential speculation, social injustice.

I try to rationalize. The pawn is important to the security of others. If it is smart enough to survive, to endure the journey to the other side, the pawn can be anything you want it to be.

We are laying the groundwork for the battles ahead.

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