If You Play Chess with a Six-Year-Old, Plan on Losing

I can’t imagine having more fun in an afternoon than losing a chess match. Really. And I’m not a loser.

Here’s the game: Find the nearest six-year-old and challenge him to chess. Not checkers. Chess. It doesn’t matter if he has any experience playing the board game or not. He’s still likely to beat you. And that will be fun. And therapeutic.

Here’s how I know:

One spring day in Sonoma, a six-year-old named Oliver appeared on my doorstep with his Dad, who was my friend. With a full head of tousled hair, Oliver wandered around my home, scouting a spot for entertainment. He took little notice of the big screen TV and even the energetic, eager-to-play Labrador, complete with ball in mouth. He was looking for a game — a chess game.

“Can a six-year-old play chess?” I asked, laughing.

“Of course!” Oliver’s dad insisted.

So Oliver and I headed off to the outdoor picnic table with game in hand.

Initially, Oliver looked disinterested, but this was clearly a poker face. He quickly set up all the pieces, all in the correct spots. Check. The kid knew the game.

Opening moves were pawn to pawn. Oliver made some quick, effortless shifts, then gazed off toward the pool and then over to the dog. I moved quickly, falling prey to his nonchalant play.

As the game progressed, I watched Oliver more than the board. Focused, relaxed and then — bam! — “Check,” he said, slowly eyeing me for a reaction. WOW. Where did that come from?

I covered my flank and began to focus on the game. Tension mounted. “Check” again. Somehow I wiggled out of my perilous spot. Relieved, I sat back. Finally, a third move: “Check Mate!” he squealed. A six-year-old beat me! How had this happened?

A few hypotheses:

1. A child’s brain is about 80% formed by the age of three. And Oliver is particularly smart — he’s advanced for his age, and has an almost mensa-level of knowledge.

2. Kids can be easily distracted moment to moment, but most live in the moment. If something interests them, they can be ruthless about single-mindedly exploring that interest and attempting to accomplish it. This is quite different than adults, who are always thinking on three planes and in various dimensions, holding onto grievances for days, hours and extended moments. Kids have the unencumbered focus to make the best and only decision at the time (whereas we’re sitting solving all kinds of problems simultaneously, and can get distracted by a child’s charm and adorableness). Finally, kids don’t complicate matters. They solve for one dimension (and in many cases short of Bobby Fisher), and that’s enough in the world of amateur chess.

Do it. Be a kid again.

Play chess with a kid or like a kid. Be simple minded. Enjoy the moment.

Heck, even risk losing a match or two and relax. Because ultimately, it’s ‘play’ and ‘joy’ that we strive for.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

One Response

  1. Adrianna Dufay

    Ha! I had a very similar experience with my 8-yr-old neighbor. Totally underestimated him when he asked if I know how to play. I was half playing, half watching the other kids run around in a full house, when I heard him say, “Check mate!” In like ten moves. Embarrassing but hilarious.


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