To thoroughly understand the intricacies of chess, that age-old sport of kings and queens and knights and pocket-size castle turrets, it's best to have it all explained to you by small children. Small children who like to play chess. Small children who like to win at chess. Small children who could beat the pants off adults such as myself in a game of chess, but fortunately I was wearing a skirt.
I used to play chess when I was about 12 or so. At least I claimed to play chess. I knew what the pieces were supposed to do, but I was never very good. Tiddlywinks was really my game. I think I wanted to play chess merely to have other people be aware that I was playing chess and recognize this as a sign of my sophistication and intellectual prowess, more than I wanted to actually sit there for five hours and ponder the use of the Sicilian Defense, the Grand Prix Attack or the Rossolimo Variation. (I was really pondering David Cassidy's dreamy bedroom eyes, but no one had to know that.)
Anyway, Thursday nearly 200 kids were in the auditorium of Oakland's Maxwell Park Elementary School at the first chess tournament held there — sponsored by the Berkeley Chess School — with children from five Oakland schools participating (Maxwell Park, Learning Without Limits, Santa Fe, Esperanza and Futures). And these kids actually like to play chess. They are not as superficial as I, and eagerly defy critics who simply don't understand the game.
"Some people say chess is boring, but I think it's sooooo interesting," said Rosita, 10, from Learning Without Limits, who has been playing chess since she was 8. Or was it 7? Time is a mere blur when you're crushing entire royal armies with the flick of a pinkie and the force of a frontal lobe.
My own lobes being a bit rusty, I asked these old pros for guidance, and chess was explained to me in a whole new way, making it sound much more interesting than David Cassidy ever really was, especially when I found out he was shorter than me in real life.
"You have to know the pieces," Rosita said, settling in at one of the chessboards set up on several rows of tables. "The king, he's the weakest one because he's an old man. So you have to protect him."
Elijah, 10, explained that the game is "all about capturing people." Fortunately, no enhanced interrogation techniques are involved, and the detainees are quickly returned to their provinces so the battle can begin again.
"Pawns go here, and the queen and king and bishops and knights go here and here and here," said Tolinisi, 8, from Maxwell Park, running his fingers across the board. "I do checkmate a lot," he added. "Five times of four, I win."
"I like the queen the best," said 8-year-old Mayra. "The queen is like a lawyer. She goes sideways and horizontal, and can gobble up most of the other pieces."
Since last fall, the nonprofit Berkeley Chess School — in addition to its regular programs — has been offering weekly chess classes to students in several elementary schools in Oakland and Richmond that traditionally draw from lower-income neighborhoods. (Check out www.berkeleychessschool.org/pages/show/105.) The chess school itself is not new — it was founded in 1982 by Elizabeth Shaughnessy, the 1970 Irish women's chess champion, a woman who just plain loves the game.
"What's not to love?" she said, scurrying around to help distribute chess pieces. "It gets them to focus, teaches them concentration, critical thinking, self-discipline. Children are curious and children like games, so this is a natural."
Thursday's tournament consisted of three rounds. Glistening trophies awaited the players on a table in the front of the auditorium, but everyone would get a medal just for participating. Just after 9 a.m., the aspiring Bobby Fischers — sans the renouncing-America-and-moving-to-Iceland thing — eagerly set up their pieces, and the fierce, spine-tingling, action-packed chess match began.
The normal kid-caused cacophony hushed to a mere harmonious hum. Players assumed the position: elbows on table, chins in palms, eyes targeting the board as if trying to burn a mental hole through which one's opponent would be sucked to another universe, thereby forfeiting the game. There was frowning. Much frowning. So young, yet so furrowed. Ah. Look! Someone moved a pawn. Oh. Look out! Someone scratched a nose. A strategic nose scratch. Aha! Blatant massaging of the forehead. More brain power, more! One girl sighed deeply. A boy chewed his lip. A chair squeaked. Holy cow, someone coughed!
Now, replay the above for about two more hours, and you've got the idea.
Reach Angela Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org