I don’t remember my first game. As I look back, I can remember Cootie and Candyland, when I was five or six years old. But my first game…I can’t recall. However, I do know that I learned a series of life lessons from games when I was young.
Candyland is a fun one to discuss, because it’s the game that taught me not to cheat, after it taught me that the only way to win was to cheat. Seriously, there’s only one way to compete in Candyland: stack the deck. And so, one game, that’s exactly what I did. I carefully arranged the deck so that my second or third card would be the ice cream float, which was the farthest special space in that edition of the game. I whooshed away to the far end of the track, way out in the lead. I don’t remember if I copped to having cheated or if I was called upon to confess, but I do know that I ended up having to forfeit that game. I suppose I learned a valuable lesson about not cheating. I do know that I have a deep dislike for cheating of all kinds, so maybe it worked. God was merciful, because that experience could have taught me to cheat more carefully.
Speaking of embarrassing childhood game stories, we were on a camping trip with the extended family around the same time, and some of the folk were playing Rummy. I was watching over my aunt’s shoulder and helpfully mentioned that she could play her Queen. I didn’t mean for everyone else to hear. Um, I don’t think I even thought about it. Oops. It’s been years, and I still get teased about this one.
Checkers taught me to respect the “rules as written”. I’m pretty sure I taught myself how to play Checkers , probably from a book. But I hated the “forced capture” rule, that says that you must capture if you can. So I threw it out and proceeded to hate playing Checkers. It turns out that the forced capture rule is the key rule of Checkers that makes it actually work. No wonder I hated what I was playing. It wasn’t Checkers; it was actually a Checkers hack, and a pretty lousy one, too.
All these life lessons from games. But I haven’t talked about the most important game in my young life: Chess.
Dad was an avid Chess player when he was younger, and he taught me the game at a young age. I learned how all the pieces moved, how to castle, and how to promote pieces. (We didn’t really talk about en passant capture until later. Because, really, while it’s a necessary part of the design of Chess, it’s an inelegant hack to fix a minor issue.) Armed with my knowledge, I set out to checkmate my father.
I think it took eight years.
Dad was a patient teacher. He always showed me the errors I was making and would even let me undo particularly glaring errors. But he never let me win. Never. And somehow, he struck a balance between frustrating me into giving up and handing me a cheap victory.
And so, one day, after many games played and various books read, I bested my father. You’d think an occasion that mythic would be better captured in my memory, but I can’t remember any of the details.
Just the pure rush of having earned my victory.
I learned how to teach from Chess. Certainly, how to teach games, which is why I never throw a game to a novice. But, even more, how to teach anything. That the goal, somehow, is to equip the student to gain his own mastery without chasing him away at the same time.