Author Peter Smalley's son levies a crushing defeat on the family cat.

Author Peter Smalley’s son levies a crushing defeat against the family cat.

Chess Story One:  Playing Chess with the Boy

We are playing chess. Declan and I. I started playing at about five. Never mastered it, because I don’t think several moves head. I’m too social. I’d rather talk. In chess, you must think several moves ahead–devise a plan in response to every counter-initiative long before your opponent hatches his evil scheme.

I never have a plan. I just move the pieces around until someone better than me wipes me out.  But I can’t lose to a five-year old. That’s the line in the sand. There’s pride involved. I wipe him out mercilessly every time.  He tries hard. He asks all the right questions.

“Why does the knight move like an ‘L?’ Why not ‘A’ or ‘S’ or ‘C’?” I must confess I do not know.

“Why can the queen do anything she wants?” Because that’s the role of the woman in the universe.

“Why don’t you let me win?” Because I’d bring shame upon myself that would last all of eternity.

So, I said this, “Life doesn’t ‘let you win,’ kid. Do you want to grow up with a false sense of self-esteem? Do you want to lose the ability to feel like a winner when you win for real? Or do you want the system to artificially create conditions so that no child gets left behind and you have a false sense of self-worth that will be stripped away the minute your first boss kicks you in the teeth with the reality of your very existence?”

He paused to consider this. “Mommy, if he kicks me, I will defeat him with my karate–like this!” That is the upside to owning a martial arts establishment.

“You don’t really want me to let you win at the cost of your self-respect, do you?” I inquired.

“Yup. Let me win.” Another generation down the toilet.

Occasionally, he’ll try the “I’m going to put it here, but don’t take it, Mommy” defense. As if that negotiation will let him get away with the flagrant dangling of an unprotected queen. I immediately take it. He’ll yell, “I TOLD YOU NOT TO TAKE IT!”

So I reply, “Listen, we already discussed this…if I don’t take it, you’ll get a false sense of self-esteem. It’s like inflating test scores. It just reduces the national IQ in the end.” And he grumbles. I follow up with some sage advice from the heart. “In life, you have to protect your assets.”

“Don’t say ‘assets’ Mommy! It’s a bad word.”

“No, ‘assets’ is okay. Liabilities are bad.”  He’s already moved on to the next piece. Planning ahead.

The game continues. I win.  Again.  Maybe some day, he will take in some of these lessons and improve. I really don’t want that to happen, though, because then I’ll have to start planning ahead and improving. And when it comes right down to brass tacks, I don’t want to put in all that hard work. I just want to win–the easy way.

Tomorrow:  Part two of my chess series. Hardly call it a “series,” and I’m really bad at chess. Chess and Improv–Why Making 2 or 3 Plans Makes You Less Likely to Get Squashed.

[Photo credit: Peter Smalley, author, biochemist, and father of this budding chess champion. I wish to set him up with Declan if the cat ever goes on vacation]