The Sweet Sound of Saying ‘Checkmate’

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My nephew Connor reminded me of an obscure chess move I doubtless once knew but forgot in the passage of time. Connor, who is 10, learned to play chess recently and took to it so well that he took first place in a recent UIL contest among several rural East Texas schools.

The move is called en passant, which means in passing. It occurs rarely, but can be an effective offensive maneuver. Here’s how it works, thanks to Connor, who provided what he called the “simple explanation.” For non-chess players, please bear with me. In chess if a pawn has not yet moved, it can be moved straight ahead either one space or two spaces. After that, a pawn can only move one space at a time. Normally, a pawn — the foot soldiers of chess — can only take a piece diagonally, unlike some of the more powerful pieces on the board.

So, here’s the scenario. The game has advanced to the point that, for example, a white pawn has moved ahead three spaces. Black decides to move the pawn in the next over column two spaces, so that it is even with the white pawn. Using en passant, the white pawn slips behind the black pawn, thus capturing it.

Pretty slick, huh? I probably knew about this when I was Connor’s age and a serious chess nerd, but have let it slip away. Chess is a game I come back to every decade or so and resume playing. About 10 years ago, I went through a phase of playing online against hidden opponents literally scattered across the globe. I managed to rise several levels until I reached a plateau where I was regularly gobsmacked at the speed at which somebody living in Britain or South Korea had trapped my queen and reduced my game to rubble.

Now I’m back on a chess kick, playing Connor, a co-worker, and preparing to teach it to interested middle-schoolers participating in Thrive 360’s Beyond the Bell after-school program. That is my day job, helping this start-up non-profit get off the ground. Most of what I do involves handling the communications aspect, but I also get to work with the kids — teaching them how to play chess, for example.

Chess is a great game that spurs strategic thinking, teaches kids how to play a game that does not involve a screen, and requires patience. I have taught a few rug rats how to play chess over the years. I start with a history lesson of the game’s origins (almost certainly in India, 1,500 or so years ago). I stress that chess is a game of war. The object is to capture your opponent’s king. There are many strategies for accomplishing this, and that is where the fascination lies.

So Connor and I played again the night before Thanksgiving, on a ceramic set my late mother created. It is beautiful. No doubt the pieces were preformed, but she had to paint them and add the gold and silver patina. I had forgotten how gorgeous this set was. First time we played, Connor’s eyes stretched to their limit. “That is the most beautiful chess set I have ever seen!” And it is.

I beat him twice Wednesday night. I do not believe in letting kids win, especially at chess. What do they learn from that? That whole “give every kid a prize and tell them they are a winner” thing crawls all over me. Kids need to learn how to lose, because, whatever the endeavor, there is always, always someone better. Learning to lose gracefully is part of growing up.

Each time we play, Connor gets better. Just as when I was a child, playing my dad, eventually he will beat me. It might be 10 games from now, maybe 50. And when that occurs I will celebrate his victory because it is honestly won. And I hope someday down the road, one of those middle-school students I plan to teach chess to will do the same. Not all will take to the game. It requires a patience and concentration that seems to be rare these days. Connor has the patience. As one night I finally beat my father, so will he beat me.

That will be a wonderful moment.

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