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Teaching chess to nine middle-school students

There is no method to teaching chess to nine middle-school students. Setting up one of the five boards blinds one to the other four. These four boards will grow helter-skelter. They will trade pieces and players. Backs and knees will strain over the octagonal table, and I will shout, “I should never hear the sound of a piece fall.”

Upon the end of the hour, the cafeteria within which we work will be flooded with the remainder of the middle school. The aforementioned porosity will reign on a grand scale, and I will evacuate the pieces. I will not have any idea how much they have learned, if anything.

All this is mentioned in the future tense because it was inevitable. Any re-imagining of the class that seeks to remedy these imperfections will be naïve, and therefore any consideration of method must resign itself to these events’ occurrences. Yet mistakes were made, and need not be made again.
Like any novice larderer, I cannot stand to turn away applicants to my store. In time, this store is meager, and worthless if too narrowly divided. I sometimes have help to work with three students and sometimes am alone with nine students.

It seems almost vulgar to say that most if these students came from background where they’d never seen a chessboard. I don’t know this to be true and have never in any professional capacity taught students from any other background. The only relevant thing for the reader to know is what staff at this school will tell anyone who cares to listen: these students have difficult lives.

I was not surprised to learn that attempts to teach the game piecemeal were problematic. Disputes arose.
Attempts to teach it in totum were in vain as they were vain. Nobody listened because they were wrapped up in their games. A bizarre contradiction I felt would be dangerous, or just impossible to explode. The sight of students involved in a game they in no way understand conjures up the notion of something either very powerful or very delicate, and opposing it in either sense seems unwise.

I learned to reach a middle-ground.

The resulting compromise was a whirling dervish tour where I picked up every piece and physically demonstrated its function in the middle of the board.

Unsurprisingly, these functions were misunderstood. Some mistakes were reasonable. “Pieces passed in the course of the knight’s ‘L’ are not to be taken.” Only some were not. “Rooks cannot vertically advance over all the pieces in their way. They are neither panzer units nor packmen!”

I do not think good teachers make jokes with themselves. It is also difficult to imagine good teachers screaming, “You never, ever kill the king,” but this was the biggest problem. Students killed their opponent’s king whenever they could. Sometimes they just advanced their queen straight down the board and knocked it over. Then they picked it up and gloated.

I wanted tell them of the infamy that fell upon Richard III, upon Cromwell, for the implacable sin of picking up pieces. But that thought has an evil sister. Why shouldn’t they kill the bloody king? The answer, of course, is that chess shines in the spirit of constraints; design is vivified by the difficulty of strategy, and its art is one of circumscription. The question is, why all these damn rules?

Chess is a relief from the vertiginous and absolute freedom of the blank page. But is chess a relief from the equally rule-based and systematic world of iLEAP test (Integrated Louisiana Educational Assessment Program) preparation? Maybe. I would have run much harder into this pedagogical consideration if there weren’t a significant countervailing problem.

The anarchy of the “classroom” itself. The rules of chess, at the game’s simplest levels, are prohibitions. It is rare for a student to underestimate a piece’s capacity, and so teaching is as much correction as recommendation. This is where the lessons most resemble successes. Students love to correct each other. I’ve mentioned porosity before, and should note again that for all the rigor of the game’s constraints, only an instructor with a far more effective disciplinary regime than I could ever keep adjacent games separate.

My role is readily supplanted by a rotating cadre of TA’s, who comprise fairly well every student I teach. This is the meta-game; the game of elbows and shouting between the boards, operating by rules I can’t guess at. On the one hand, I am happy that the students are “owning” the rules as their own, and very impressed with how gracefully (by middle school standards) they are accepted by their peers. On the other, the relish with which these kids go out of their way to correct each other is disconcerting. I did not want chess instruction to turn into a tiny laboratory on how rules and authority function, and hopefully, almost certainly with some students, this aspect of the chess club will give ground to the strategies and structure of the game.

A rather demoralizing amount of negative structures must be built before positive options can be explored. One must gather the limitations of landscape and personel before one can plan an assault, and the applicability of this metaphor to chess has been worrisome, because the last thing these students need in their life are more arbitrary rules. To the rules of chess I add my own, always repeated at least three times (why I sound like a cock) like everything I say, “I don’t want to ever hear the sound of pieces falling.”

But no matter how many times I say, “this ain’t checkers,” pieces will jump. (Though I once had to tell a first grader checkers wasn’t craps, as per the chips her mother loves.) The chessboard may not necessarily be an island, and the quibbling between games over rules has been the best part of the program. The rules of the game are not taught or received in any fell swoop, but are shuffled around, corrupted, corrected, and left to stew for days in the discourse of the tables. Mistakes continue to be made, and perhaps it would be suffocating for these students if we could actually correct them all.


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