Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Stress of Chess

I have been a competitive Scrabble player for the past 14 years and have 177 official tournament games under my belt. Many of these games were extremely close nail-biters that went down to the last play and quite a few of them had money on the line. The difference between coming in first or second, second or third, Scrabble glory or Scrabble goatdom, often came down to a last second decision on how I placed my tiles. Sometimes I’d win some money because I bingoed out (Scrabble speak for using all seven tiles on your last play) and sometimes I’d finish just out of the money because I got stuck with a Q at the very end. It’s often a rollercoaster ride and as you might imagine, it can be quite nerve-wracking.

This past Friday night, however, I found myself in a tournament environment 50 times more stressful than any I have ever been in before…and I wasn’t even playing. I was observing as my 8-year-old son participated in his very first chess tournament, and at times my heart was beating so fast I thought it might explode.

That my son has little to no interest in Scrabble, but has developed a love for chess, is perhaps ironic, but I’m okay with it. I don’t want to be the dad that maniacally pushes his kids to do exactly what he wants them to do, so he could sculpt them in his image. I’m more of the “let them try different stuff until they find what they like” sort of dad. So when my son stumbled across chess while at school and displayed an interest, we signed him up for the school’s 12-week chess class. Lo and behold it turned out he had a bit of a knack for the game (he can already beat me without my letting him…not that that says much) so we decided to let him try a kid’s tournament.

So there I was on Friday night, looking through glass as my son and 17 other kids played in a two-hour tournament. Most of the parents just dropped off their kids and came back later, but I wanted to stick around to see how my son did. In retrospect that may have been a mistake, because had someone taken my blood pressure during this two-hour span, I’m certain I would have immediately been sent to the E.R.

I watched as my son got his opponent in check and didn’t notice; I watched as his opponent made an illegal move that my son tried to explain to the kid you can’t do, only to be ignored; and I watched as my son clearly lost interest in his third game and started making any random move just to get it over with. It took every ounce of willpower I could muster not to pound on the glass or go barging through the door to get my son’s attention and correct whatever odd injustice was taking place on the chess board. If your kid’s in a soccer match you can scream stuff from the stands, but if he’s in a chess match you have to bite your lip bloody and let the pieces fall where they may. My lips were a bloody mess by 8:30.

As it turns out, my son ended up winning two games and losing one (with two others called on account of taking too long). I was very proud of him (despite the fact that watching him almost gave me a massive coronary) and he seemed to enjoy the experience and indicated that he wanted to do it again.

A couple of hours later I spoke to my brother, whose 17-year-old son is a very high-ranked chess player and was the 10th-grade New Jersey state chess champion last year. I told him how stressful it was watching my kid play and being powerless to help, and he chuckled knowingly and said, “You just described the last decade of my life.”

The thought of having to deal with an entire decade of watching my kid play chess terrified me at first, but then I realized it could be worse. How much more stress would it be on me if I had to sit by quietly while I watched my kid play competitive Scrabble?