Sunday, November 16, 2008


I've commented before that I've been trying to think of ways to get my kids to learn strategy. I think part of this is that I want my kids to start thinking ahead. Yeah, yeah; I know--most kids don't learn to think ahead until they're about twenty-five.

But it's not always easy to find the time or energy to play strategy games. We're just not much of a game-playing family, partly because the toddler thinks that all those smooth, pretty mancala stones are really yummy looking. Games just aren't part of our normal routine, so it takes a break in our routine to play one. And, of course, we mostly like our routine the way it is.

So imagine my surprise, just before dinner yesterday, when the Pillowfight Fairy (just turned six) comes up to me and says, "I want to play chess!"


Ummm, er... ok.

I was about second grade when my dad taught me how to play. The Fairy is first grade now. That's not too far different, is it?

So I pulled out the board and started explaining all the pieces and all the moves they make--leaving out for now the ones about courtesy (like touch-move) and capturing en passant (which even high-schoolers often don't understand). Turns out it took her a while to get the concept of moving along a diagonal. When I was trying to show her the queen's possible moves, I would quiz her: "Can the queen capture this pawn? How about this one?" and at first, she thought that any angled move is a diagonal, so her answer was always yes.

But eventually she figured it out, so I showed her how to set up the board, and we started playing. She wanted to be Black, because it was pretty; so I let her, and I got to go first.

Now, this being her first game, I kept explaining to her the ins and outs of what was going on on the board--pieces that I was threatening of hers, and consequences if she did that move instead of the other, and so forth. I saved her from disaster several times.

It's odd, playing your side while assisting your six-year-old with hers. Especially when you're really, really rusty. I kept finding myself trying to give my daughter advice, and suddenly noticing: "Oh, if she were to do this right now, I'd be in a world of hurt." And then of course, I have to explain that move to my daughter.

Basically, the game turned out to be very, very tense, and it lasted a lot longer than I expected. I ultimately won, but to do it I had to advance a pawn all the way to promote it to queen, just to have enough material to checkmate.

This morning, the Fairy was telling everyone at church who would listen: "My new game is Chess! I play Chess!" And she was drawing chessboards with schematic icons of the various pieces on the different squares. And just after lunch, she pulled out the chessboard and started trying to explain the moves to her not-yet-four-year-old sister. I don't think those lessons took, but she was doing a pretty good job of it.

Was it Charlotte Mason who believed that a student has never really learned something until they can explain it to someone else? Well if so, Charlotte Mason would be proud of our little girl.

Anyway, after she'd finished trying to explain the chess rules to the Adrenaline Junkie, she wanted to try something a little different, so she pulled out the checker pieces. She'd never played checkers either. So I set up the pieces and played a game with her. As with our chess game yesterday, I tried to explain to her the consequences of her moves in advance; and even so, I didn't have too much trouble winning--even though I haven't played a game of checkers since I was a pre-teen. (Man, has it been that long? I guess it has...)

I'm noticing a couple of hopeful signs.

One, the Fairy is now able to lose a game without breaking into a fit of wailing. I consider this to be some serious progress.

Two, she now wants to play these games. Of course, some of that could be their novelty: after all, she's only played mancala half-a-dozen times or so, she's played checkers once, she's played chess once, she's played Sorry maybe a half a dozen times, and she's played Uno maybe a dozen. It could be that she's just playing these games enough to see what they're like, then she's dropping it and going on to the next one out of curiosity to see what else is out there. Nevertheless, the fact that she wants to play these games now is encouraging--especially given the time and effort needed to learn the rules.

Third, she's starting to think strategically. She's not able to look more than a move ahead yet, but she's willing to stop and consider when I warn her that a move she wants to make could bring disaster. I suspect she'll start to set up forking attacks and pins and skewers any day now.

Fourth, I now know what it sounds like when she lets out an evil cackle. And everyone, I mean everyone, needs to develop a good, hearty "I'm going to take over the world!" cackle, and chess is a good way to learn.

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