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"On Teaching Chess"

There's a story behind this story. First, it kinda-sorta really happened, back when I was ten or eleven and my brother Brandon was five. Then I wrote about it in English class in, I dunno, 8th grade I think. [At first I wrote 10th grade, but no, this was almost definitely the same class in which we wrote the Wydown Junior High newspaper.] The assignment was to write a story in which we also explained how to do something.

Mom has always hated this story, saying its sole purpose was to make Brandon look bad -- but at least I didn't write a story about Brandon's biting me all the time, which would have been just as accurate and made him look a lot worse.

Anyway ... somehow I found the story again in the early 1990s, after our family moved to Boston. Seeing no reason not to, I sent it off to _Chess Life_. I knew it could use some revision -- I'd learned a bit of technique between 8th grade and the end of college -- but I figured I'd let the editors decide what stuff they wanted to change.

To my shock, they not only accepted it "as is" but BOUGHT it. For $100. Which means this story may well be my only real sale. Which would seem to indicate I reached my creative peak in 8th grade. Woe.

_Chess Life_ changed the title from "The Battle of the Board" to "On Teaching Chess," although perhaps it would have been better still to call it "The Battle of the Bored." (They also increased the age difference between Brandon and me.) But, you know, it was their dime, so to speak.


[typos and such, such as there be, presumably my fault, not that of _Chess Life_]

====

ON TEACHING CHESS

As I looked across the chessboard at my five-year-old brother Brandon, I realized how insane it was to think I could teach him to play chess. There he sat, reading some dumb book while I set up the pieces.

"Okay, put down the book so you can listen."

"I can listen anyway," he said.

"Put down the book," I said calmly, "or it will be in the sink." Brandon put down the book.

"This," I said, pointing at the chessboard, "is a chessboard. Those are chess pieces," I told him, snatching one from his drooling mouth. "They are not candies."

"They look like candies."

"They are chess pieces. You play chess with them."

"Can you play chess with candies?"

"If they're smart enough. Now listen!"

Brandon perked up his ears.

"Chess is a war; the soldiers are chess pieces, and the battlefield is an eight-by-eight black and white squared board. You place the eight black pawns on the second to outermost row on one side, and the eight white pawns on the opposite side. You take that side; you are 'White.' You now control the white pieces. I'll take this side; thus I am 'Black.'

"The rooks, these tower-like pieces, we place in the corners."

"Why?"

"I don't know. Originally they represented Indian war elephants."

"There must be a reason why they're in the corner!"

"Maybe Indian elephants are antisocial. May we get back to business? After the rooks come the knights, the horse-headed pieces. I guess that is because the knights rode on the horses' backs."

"But why do the knights themselves have horse heads?" Brandon asked.

"Why is a cow?" I retorted.

"I give up. Why is a cow?"

"Never mind. Anyway, next come the bishops. Finally, we place the king and queen here. The queen always starts on her own color."

"The king and queen are last?" Brandon asked in horror.

"Well, we place them in the middle."

"You said last."

"And you said you would listen!" I snapped.

"Kevin!" called Mom from the next room.

"Yes?" I said, knowing what she'd say.

"Don't yell at Brandon. He's almost eight [sic, from _Chess Life_] years younger than you." [sic] Mom reminded me.

"Yes, Mom." I managed to extract another stray chess piece from Brandon's gaping jaws. "Initially, these are the pieces each player possesses. One piece on each of these squares. Only one piece may occupy a square at a time."

Brandon tried to balance all four bishops on top of one another. "That won't work," I said. "Put the pieces back," I said after they had toppled. Brandon put them back in the wrong places, but I quickly rectified the mistake. "In the beginning ..." I began.

"In the beginning, God created ..." Brandon quoted, in order to demonstrate his vast accumulation of knowledge.

"That's very good," I said with a touch of sarcasm, "but it has little to do with our current situation."

"How can a situation be current?"

I counted to ten slowly. "Can a current be situated in a place?"

"I guess electric ones can."

"Then why can't a situation be current?" I knew this made absolutely no sense, but I also knew that Brandon would regard it as irrefutable logic.

"Ah," he said, momentarily pacified.

"One piece may move, in accordance with certain rules, in each turn. First White moves a piece, then Black moves a piece, then White, and so on."

Brandon moved a pawn up through my layer of pawns. "In accordance with certain rules," I repeated, resetting the board. "The object of the game is to checkmate the opponent's king.

"Any pawn may move two squares or one square forward in its first move." I pushed a pawn forward two squares. "Subsequently, that pawn may only move forward one square, if any, unless 'taking' another piece."

"Good." Brandon began to read again.

I tossed the book in the trash can. "Listen!"

"Kevin!" Mom called again.

Sulking, I retrieved Brandon's book. "No pieces, except the knight ..."

"Why not the day?"

"... except the knight may skip over another piece, and no piece can take its own color. Once a piece is taken, it's removed from the board."

"I'm bored," Brandon said, and to prove it he poured all the pieces onto the floor and, sticking a few pawns into his mouth, began to read again.

"Spit those pawns out!" I shouted, leaping to my feet.

"Kevin!" said Mom. "Once more and you're in serious trouble." Brandon had already spit out the pawns, which flew across the room.

Collecting the sticky pawns, I continued. "You take an opponent's piece by replacing it on a certain square with one of your own pieces." I demonstrated. "The piece which you move there must be able to move into the place in that one turn, except the pawn, which takes in a different way from the way in which it usually moved."

"Why the pawn?"

"Ponder it. -- The pawn may only take by moving one square on a forward diagonal, and it can only move this way to take a piece. Once you take a piece, your piece must stop for a turn."

"It can't keep going?"

"What does 'stop' mean?"

"It's 'pots' backwards."

"The knight moves up or sideways or back two squares, then perpendicularly one more square either direction, to form an 'L.' This means it will always land on a white square if it leaves a black one, or a black square if it leaves a white one. The knight can never take the piece, if any, over which it jumps, since this isn't checkers."

"It looks like checkers."

"You may move the bishop back or forth on a diagonal as far as you wish until it is blocked by another piece. The bishop may take this piece if it is of the other opposite color. The bishop always stays on the same color throughout the game."

"How many possible games are there?" Brandon asked.

"Between 10 to the 100th and 10 to the 120th; so many that if you owned a marble for each game, they'd fill the known universe trillions upon trillions of times over."

Brandon looked thoughtful for a while. At length he said, "Even more than one hundred?"

I sighed. This wasn't going well. "The rook moves straight; forwards, backwards, or to either side. It is very powerful, especially in the endgame. The queen is the most powerful of all the pieces, and the second most important. It can move as either a bishop or a rook.

"The king is the most important but perhaps the weakest piece. The king can never be taken; when it is threatened by the enemy, the opponent must say 'check' to warn the endangered party. Nothing else may be done until the threat is destroyed or blocked or the king is moved to safety. The king may move one square in any direction in one turn, but it may never move into check. In order to win -- to checkmate the opponent -- you must put the enemy king in a position where it can't move out of check in one turn no matter what it does.

"If the king isn't in check, but it cannot move without passing into check (an illegal move), and if you have no other movable pieces, then the game is called 'stalemate,' and no one winds. If one person resigns, the other person wins by default."

"Because it's de fault of the person who gives up?" Brandon asked from behind his book.

"Brandon, are you listening?"

"Nah."

Groaning, I removed the pawns from his mouth and contemplated methods of strangulation.

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poetry by Kevin L. Schwartz

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