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What Chess Means To My Family

It’s 10 at night and my husband, Ilya, is breathlessly asking me if he can wake the kids to show them the online chess game he just finished. He’s joking. Mostly. Since it is a scene I witness often in daylight hours, I sense that if I weren’t scowling, he’d romp in and wake our son and daughter — both scholars and chess players at Success Academy Upper West — to show them a tactic he found that lets him win with a forced “mate-in-3 [moves].”

Years ago, when we were first dating, he and I played chess all the time, frequently getting in two to three games a day while stretched out on a blanket in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. He always won graciously, but still I’d be slightly irked and very stubborn, so I would challenge him again – sometimes with thinly veiled aggression. It was interesting, though, because I was learning how he thought. One happy Sunday afternoon when I finally did win, a non-sportsmanlike grin spread over my face as I finally checkmated his king. Victory was sweet.

It is fair to say that our children’s chess education at Success Academy has reignited Ilya’s passion for the game. You could see his eagerness to play as my daughter, Sencha, who was then in kindergarten and is now in fourth grade, learned how each piece moved. She’d tell him the stories she learned from her teacher, Ms. Ragin, to help her remember the rules. One story involved the king who had on glitter shoes and could move only one square in any direction so that the glitter wouldn’t come off. Hudson, Sencha’s little brother, who is now in the first grade, would stand to the side and listen intently.

My husband couldn’t wait. When Sencha got to the pawn and its complicated movements, he challenged her to a game. No, he didn’t let her win. Ever. He told her he wouldn’t, and that someday she would beat him.

For the next couple of years, they sat down at the board with predictable results. After Hudson started kindergarten, he followed suit and, despite his wiggly nature, was able to calm himself enough to play his father. It was difficult at first to get the children to understand that it was okay to lose. But gradually, as they received more instruction from the school, losing was something my kids accepted. They didn’t dwell on it; instead, they appreciated the smaller victories in their games. Their ability to sit for long periods, focused on the pieces in front of them, always amazed me. The school had clearly inspired in them this ability to concentrate and taught them how to lose as well as win.

The school had clearly inspired in them this ability to concentrate and taught them how to lose as well as win.

Ilya started to help out in the chess room, listening, along with our children and their classmates, to the teacher explain the strategies of the game. He and the kids talked in a language that was totally their own: a back rank checkmate, a d4 opening, the Sicilian, the Caro-kann. They studied tactics (chess puzzles) together, and somewhere along the way, a leveling occurred among the three of them, so that age was no longer relevant when discussing chess. They now collaborate on these tactics as like-minded strategists. Sencha — and even Hudson — finds solutions that Ilya sometimes misses, and the chess lectures flow in both directions. And, on a few occasions, they beat him at the game — legitimately. (I wish I could adequately describe my husband’s emotional state after these games. He often paces with a large smile on his face, but he is also visibly perturbed. He is clearly overwhelmingly proud but also slightly uneasy as fatherhood and his own competitive nature collide.)

What is most inspiring to me is my daughter’s grace when she loses. Her chess rating has her playing kids and adults that have lots more experience, and we know beforehand that she’ll surely get beaten just because her opponent is an exponentially better player. This is actually a good thing. Two hours, later she’ll emerge defeated, but often with a huge smile on her face — sometimes it is so large, it makes us think she has won. Her pride comes from knowing she has played a great game, and she is eager to share an analysis of her loss with her coaches. She knows she didn’t make any real mistakes and that the better player had to work hard for the win. I sometimes wonder: Is this losing?

I have to extend sincere thanks to my children’s coaches and to the Success Academy network. They have instilled in my children not only passion and persistence, but also certain grace and equanimity. My daughter and, increasingly, also my son show me how to win and how to lose, and how to handle challenge and adversity. There is a maturity gained. This program has given our family a fun way to bond and allowed a meeting of minds and mutual respect that I think is special in parent-child relationships. And though there’s lots that I value about the discipline of chess and its ability to teach patience and strategy and logic, it is the ability to win when you lose that I find myself marveling at.

Written by Nina Zito May 11, 2015

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