My dad taught me chess when I was in elementary school, and I eventually beat him once in a while. So when there was a tournament at my junior high, I entered. It was double elimination, meaning you were out after two losses.
I lost my first game after just a few moves, and I remember wondering how that had happened. I had never read any chess, knew no 'openings', and had no easy way of working out what each move had been. So I didn't really 'get' what had just happened. I played my second game, and lost in the same exact way. This time, I wasn't going to let it go. I asked my opponent to show me what he'd done. He did. I also learned (apparently incorrectly) that it was called Fool's Mate. I just learned last night that the name Fool's Mate is (now?) reserved for a mate in two moves that only happens if one person makes some pretty bad opening moves.
What had happened to me is called Scholar's Mate. I started hearing that name for it when I began taking my nephew to chess school, but thought it was just a sweet alternate name. I sat in on his first few lessons, and loved the teaching. The teacher talked about Foolish Freddy and Sneaky Sam, asked lots of questions, and kept the kids excitedly trying to figure things out. He showed them the Scholar's Mate opening, and explained how to defend against it. I also remember him showing the kids (and me) why moving King's bishop's pawn in the beginning is a bad move. (Of course Foolish Freddy kept thinking he'd start that way and Sneaky Sam kept beating him a different way each time.)
Back to that long ago junior high tournament. I had learned how the Scholar's Mate worked, and could find a way to avoid it, but I was out of the tournament. Or so I thought. There were maybe 30 or 40 boys in the tournament, and only 7 girls. Every girl had lost her first two games. So the organizers decided to create a girls' tournament, and we got to do a round robin (everyone plays everyone else). I wanted to keep playing chess, so I didn't question it. I played all 6 of the other girls, and I think I beat all of them. I probably used that new trick on a few of them. I got a first place trophy, which I found terribly embarrassing. I threw it in the back of my closet, and may have lost interest in chess at that time.
[I did try to learn a bit more at some point, and loved learning from the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. It had pictures drawn of the chess board, which made it easy to see what he was talking about. When I wanted to read more, I couldn't find another book that used pictures. They all used the standard 'algebraic' notation, which may be a good way to remember your game, but which sucks for trying to learn. Hmm, is there a lesson for math educators there?]
I was angry about that trophy. I'd lost fair and square in the original tournament. Why would I want a trophy for winning in a consolation tournament? The word 'sexism' wasn't in general use yet, and even now, it's a little complicated - feeling angry about getting a positive treatment. (Kind of like men opening doors for women. I was never comfortable with it, nor with complaining when it happened. I developed the habit of trying to open the next door for the guy who'd opened a door for me, hoping to raise his consciousness a wee bit, or at least to return the favor.) I never connected my loss of interest in chess with what happened at that tournament until now, but it would make sense...
I've been taking my nephew J. to chess school on Friday nights since January. He's had trouble in school (bounces around too much, talks back to teachers, gets in fights, ...), but he's a good kid, and I've wanted to help him connect with the world in positive ways. He was already interested in chess when this opportunity came up, so I jumped on it. Class meets from 5:30-7, and then there's tournament play from 7 to maybe 8. I knew nothing about chess tournaments, and had never seen a chess class before that first night. When I wanted to follow J. into the tournament room, I was told parents weren't allowed. I flashed on the scene in Searching for Booby Fischer where the parents are kicked out of their kids' tournament room because the parents are behaving badly. It made me giggle.
After 4 months of carting J. to class each Friday night and hanging around North Berkeley for a few hours with my son, I was eager to join in the fun when a Friday night adult tournament started up at the same time (and place). Last week I hadn't signed up properly yet, and was paired with someone for a 'casual game'. I ask people their ratings to try to understand the system. He hadn't played in many years but used to be rated around 2000. I knew I'd lose each game at first, and lost as I expected. It was the most delightful loss I could have imagined.
I often beat J., and he's winning trophies in the kids' tournaments, so I know as much as a kid who's getting good. But that's nothing, apparently. One of the things I use to measure how I'm doing is how many of my pieces have crossed the midline of the board. I think I never managed to get a piece past that line that night. I loved thinking about the game as it progressed, and thought of his pieces as exerting a kind of pressure. It was fascinating.
Last night I had gotten my U.S. Chess Federation membership, and signed up for a game. I was paired with Gerl (rated 1484), and lost after we'd each made 12 moves (faster than in my previous game). We went over to the 'analysis room' afterward, and talked through the game. I was once again fascinated, totally intrigued by it all.
Would you like to see how much of a rank beginner I am? Our moves follow. I absolutely can't make sense of this without putting the pieces on the board and moving them. If you're interested enough, try playing this out. Rows 2 and 7 are where the pawns start, and the lettering left to right from White's point of view; pawn moves just show the square moved to, N is for knight; x means a piece was taken, + means check. White's second move was bishop to C4.
I used to play to capture pieces. In the last two games I've played, it has become clear to me how silly that is. Both times the checkmate was almost bloodless.
I'm hoping I can get the guy I played last night to come give a few chess lessons at my son's school.
What do you think - does playing chess help us learn math?