Phillip Done, in his book Thirty-two Third Graders and One Class Bunny, says this about his experience as a teacher: “I always lose at arm wrestling.” I hope Mr. Done would understand.
I also am a teacher, but this game I had to win. Any teacher would lose an arm wrestle. He doesn’t need the biggest biceps, but Chess is a different story. He does need mind over muscle.
I’ve been Greg’s teacher for the last three years without knowing that he is a Chess champion. This means I’ve lost many opportunities to make the connection for him between the game and his school work. Perhaps it’s the thread that runs so true because when Chess became a craze in school this year, Greg brought in a board and won every game. He could win against his older brother, Henry. He says the only person he still can’t beat is his dad.
Then he asked if he could play me.
I don’t classify myself as a champion; I don’t play chess often enough. And I had seen enough of Greg’s play to know that he is good, in fact, very good. Yet something in me wanted to pit myself against him.
A crowd of students gathered when we settled down to business. Someone mentioned closing the doors during the championship. I smiled. They had been taught to block distractions.
I moved a pawn, Greg moved a pawn. My queen came out, Greg’s queen came out. The game progressed on even terms. Nothing was dramatic until suddenly Greg’s queen got busy bumping my players from the board. I lost a knight and a bishop while he shamelessly moved his queen into my corner. “Hey Greg, you got to get her out of there,” Henry said.
Greg smiled, “She’s okay.”
I was afraid too she was. But by playing with one eye on her and watching my chance, my players closed in… and he lost his queen. “Ah, too bad,” he said, using his poor grade voice. I doubted if he cared.
The game moved on. I loved it. There’s nothing like connecting with intellect over a chess board. Before school, at break, during lunch, and after prayer meeting, we played. That evening Greg’s dad watched the two of us play. He watched me sweat. I had a queen only; Greg had a rook and two bishops.
I wasn’t sure how Greg would react if I won the game. I wasn’t sure how he would react if he won the game. I wasn’t even sure there was much I could do about either outcome. “You know one of us will have to lose?” I asked, trying to feel him out.
“Sure,” he responded, “move your queen right there.” He pointed to a space beside his rook.
I moved the other way. “Sorry, but you play too well. I have to play to win.” I was as nervous as a third grader.
We left the game for the night and the next morning Greg told me in a calm, smiling tone that he had been up till midnight reading a book about chess. My eyes bugged out and my brow furrowed. He was very serious about this game, he even read books about it; but one of us had to lose.
That morning Greg miscalculated and my queen got his rook, then one bishop, and then the other. The game was over. Everyone cheered. Greg’s younger brother booed. Greg was silent, silent yet smiling.
He said very little until first recess. I could tell he didn’t like losing, but he knew he had given me a hard enough time. As he walked by the chess table on his way out the door he looked and his dark eyes smiled. “Good game,” he said.
To be a good loser is to learn how to win. – Carl Sandburg