Friday, January 23, 2009

Chess Books

Walker picked chess over playing a sport this winter, so we've been driving him to chess matches and tournaments instead of indoor soccer games or swim meets. At his first tournament he won a trophy and established a U.S. Chess Federation rating of 943. I found the parent's role at the tournament to be much like the parent's role at a swim meet--you stay there to feed and encourage your young participant, and to help him figure out where he's supposed to be next and when. Actually Ron has been doing most of the care and feeding with the chess stuff, since he's a little more interested in the game than I am. (I think it's fair; I did all the swim meets a few years ago.) But I did acquiesce to Walker's repeated requests that I read the 1980's chess book about how the father of a young chess prodigy took his son all the way to the national chess championship. Entitled Searching for Bobby Fischer, it's part baby-boomer memoir of the apparently heady days in the 1970's when Fischer was up against two great Soviet players at the height of the Cold War, and part parental memoir about how it feels to raise a champion.

I was disturbed by the way the father/author, Fred Waitzkin, was so deeply invested in each chess game his son played. (One example: "Joshua's bad moves felt like little stings.") It reminded me of the parents you see at sports events who yell at their son when he misses blocking a goal, or hug each other and dance around when their kid's team wins. I'm not the first person to have an uneasy feeling around people who are obviously living out their own dreams through their children.

But I do think that if you're the parent of a child who has proven to be extraordinary in some way, you have a responsibility to provide opportunities for that child, just as the child has a responsibility to use his gifts in a way that can eventually benefit someone besides himself. And that idea of responsibility is a very interesting one when it comes to chess. As Fred Waitzkin pointed out in this book (published in 1984), playing chess is not something that gets you respect, much less money, at least in the U.S. I don't see any evidence that that's changed, despite the $4 Walker won for accurately predicting the next move on a chessboard set up to challenge the players between rounds at the tournament. (The thought did cross my mind that winning money at his very first tournament was, for Walker, a lot like winning money for her very first poem was for Eleanor when she did it in 8th grade--a misleading entry into a world that really doesn't pay that well.) In fact, Josh Waitzkin has branched out from chess in his adult life.

But for right now, Walker is immersed in chess books. He is spending all his allowance and all his Christmas money on books about things like the queen's indian and sicilian najdorf. He has a big box of books that were lent to him about a month ago, and which he has read and reread. Sometimes I wish he were getting more exercise (in their infinite wisdom, the school counselors scheduled him for gym class only during fall soccer season), but I can't complain about how much he's reading.


Harriet said...

The issue of responsibility with prodigies is an interesting one. Do parents always have a responsibility to make sure their children maximize their gifts? What if their children don't want to? And how do you draw the line between a parent exercising his or her responsibility for the child and getting too personally involved, putting the child at risk? Maybe I should put this book on my reading list.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, those are good questions. I think my general response is that it should depend on the child. I do NOT think that parents have "to make sure their children maximize their gifts," especially if the children don't want to. That's pushing. But I do think that the parents should try to follow the child's lead, if possible. That can mean giving up a lot of time that the parent could otherwise spend pursuing his/her own activities.

Probably it's hard for some people, with some kids, to avoid getting too personally involved. The only answer to that is being aware of how all the other parents react to you. F.W. talks about that, although it sounds like most of the parents of chess prodigies are pretty over-the-top, so not helpful for a reality check!