Monday, June 15, 2009

Chess doesn't get the respect it deserves


My 17-year-old son is away this weekend playing in a chess tournament. As a parent of a child who has been playing in chess tournaments since he was eight, I find myself wavering between feelings of amazement and disappointment. The kids I’ve met over the years at competitions are an amazing lot. They remain calm under pressure, endure long hours of intense concentration yet somehow manage to stay focused and analytical. While other sports depend at least in part on luck, winning chess players succeed by out-thinking and outmaneuvering their opponents. What I find disappointing is how little attention chess players receive for their achievements. Our basketball-football-soccer-golf-crazed society is rarely interested in the accomplishments of its mental athletes.

The last time a chess tournament made headline news was 1997 when IBM’s chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, defeated then-world champion Garry Kasparov. The only other recent event to catch the attention of the media was the death in Iceland on January 18, 2008 of 64-year-old expatriate and infamous chess maven, Bobby Fischer.

Last July, when Melbourne, Florida resident Makaio Krienke tied for first place in the Under 2000 division of The 35th Annual World Open in Philadelphia, the 17-year-old didn’t return home to a rush of reporters knocking at his door. He eased back into his everyday life without fuss or fanfare. Even 14-year-old Ray Robson of Largo, the youngest chess master in the state of Florida and the youngest International Master in the United States, is relatively unknown outside the chess community. Yet Robson has been astounding the chess world for years. Since he was nine, this holder of seven National Scholastic titles has represented the United States in international scholastic events.

Last week while clicking through TV channels, Toby and I chanced upon coverage of the Scripps 2009 National Spelling Bee. A day or so later we also watched the finals of the National Geographic Bee. Like thousands of other viewers, the mental acuity displayed by the young contestants bowled us over. I’m glad the media covered those events but I couldn’t help wondering why important chess events don’t receive similar coverage.

The chessboard is one of the few level playing fields in the world of competitive sports. Men, women, boys and girls – able-bodied and disabled - compete against each other in divisions determined not by age, gender or physical condition but by strength of mind, mental agility, and performance.

One would think a society that medicates more than 2.5 million of its children for attention deficit and hyper-activity related disorders would pay more attention to a game that teaches players to think slowly, clearly and logically.

Toby began playing chess when he was four. By the time he was six he was routinely defeating his father and older siblings. During summers, while his peers were off at soccer or basketball camp, he joined a band of loyal players at chess camp. Instead of shooting hoops or practicing blocking, the kids at chess camp worked on improving their endgames, developing tactics and honing techniques.

His hard work paid off. After years of competing in dozens of small and large tournaments, Toby is the third highest ranked under-18-year-old in Florida. I have no doubt he’ll achieve his present goal – to earn the title of “Master” before entering UCF this fall.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of chess.”

Franklin was right. Chess is much more than an idle amusement. It’s a sport. It’s a discipline. It’s preparation for life. Isn’t it about time society took notice and gave it the attention it deserves?

1 comment:

  1. I think people feel intimidated by the game-after all, you do need a level of concentration most people can't muster. My brother was an excellent player. He's very successful now in his adult life. Physical sports always seem to trump anything that uses the brain. Sad, but true. You should be very proud. He'll go far...