Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Chess and the child

As much as she'd seemed to love it, as well as she did, Helena was not interested in continuing with chess club after the Christmas break.

We weighed our options, signed her up for choir instead of dance — something else she wasn't interested in pursuing, though she changed her tune when she discovered some of her friends were continuing and new ones were joining.

And chess, well, I signed her up anyway. Because, though it's extracurricular, it's the most (the only?) intellectually challenging aspect of her kindergarten year. And I believe that she thrives on it.

Friday morning she astounded me. She double checks that I found her chess folder and put it in her backpack. Very casually she mentions how she's looking forward to chess today (even though only a couple of her classmates are enrolled, and they're boys), and wouldn't it be nice if she got another medal — she's going to work toward that medal.

Sunday morning, we work on her sheet of problems: which piece should Black capture on the given sample board.

The choice is governed by where Black can move that is safe versus what immediate threat does White pose that Black must thwart, and, in one case, all other things being equal, the relative value of taking, say, a bishop over a pawn.

I don't recall my exact comment, or why I made it. Something empty, to the effect of "isn't it good to be taking a course where you can learn such interesting things." To which she rejoins: I don't need a course to learn these things, I already know these things. I need only to play now.

I'd spent a couple days already pondering her competitive spirit. Where does it come from? Not from me, I don't think, on either the nature or nurture front. The need to best her classmates? To prove something? To whom? The thrill of victory in itself? Reward or recognition?

After a few hours, I'd determined it was merely an extension of that purely natural human drive — for survival, of the fittest — that is either encouraged or quashed along the way.

But now. Now I have cocky self-assuredness to contend with. Now this is a quality I know next to nothing about, and I don't know what to do with it in a child of mine.

Hours later I understand something deeper and true in Helena's words: these are not things that can be learned. You learn the facts, the moves; the rest follows. You don't learn logic (do you?), you observe it. The game unfolds: something you know, put into practice. You learn from mistakes, from experience; but this is not fundamental. It's the fine tuning of the expression of something innate.

(I think. And I think this is what Helena thinks.)

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