I have always had an amazing ability to learn. My parents told me that several teachers throughout my youth commented that I was a gifted learner. I imagine they kept this information to themselves so as to encourage me to one day become a well-adjusted adult. This ability to learn was evident in every intellectual endeavor I attempted. I was creative and mature in my understanding of language while destroying the grading curves in math and science.
And please don't think that my talents were limited to the classroom. Outside of class while enjoying baseball, I also loved to play board games. My favorites were Risk, Monopoly and chess. Especially chess. I guess I was about nine-years-old when my father first taught me the way the pieces were supposed to move. Almost immediately, I displayed an amazing command of the board and seemed an expert at making those sixteen pieces do their deadly dance. I demonstrated my dominance at the board by winning, almost without exception, every game I played. This incredible, unprecedented streak continued for nearly twenty years.
You may now be wondering why I don't have a GM or IM in front of my name. Well, perhaps I am very modest and don't wish to rub your face in my internationally recognized title. Perhaps like Henry V, I like to walk without my well-deserved designation, so as to get a better idea of what the average chess player is thinking and doing. But the truth is that I never played anyone who had even the slighted clue as to how to really play this game. And even worse, I had to come to the ultimate realization that after twenty years of playing chess, I didn't know shit. I was about to become a serious beginner.
It is hard to believe that that an adult can lose a game of wits to a child. But there I was, sitting across from sixty pounds of terror. I had fumbled through Nimzowitsch's MY SYSTEM before this kid had taken her first step. In the opening, I was knocked off balance and never got back on track. All I could do was await each painful move that she recorded with a pink Hello Kitty pen onto her scoresheet.
And of course I did not have to suffer alone. The only thing misery loves more than company is an audience. And at any chess tournament, an audience can always be found when a child is beating an adult. I tried not to look at the audience as my position got worse and worse, knowing that the room was filled with smirks and at least one smug parent. At the same time, a part of me was very proud of my child-opponent. After all, I have two children of my own, including one just about her age. The only difference is that my son's favorite pastime happens to be throwing dirt clods at the neighbor's house.
I believe that being a serious adult beginner in the game of chess is one of the most challenging things in the world. Some non-chess playing people will disagree and righteously say that the greatest challenge is raising children and ramble on about things like the importance of future generations and tomorrow's leaders. Compared to chess, raising children is a piece of cake. If one of my children talks back to a teacher, I simply explain "he gets that from his mother." If one doesn't want to eat his vegetables, "he gets that from his mother." But when I blunder at the board...it's all me.
The biggest threat to the serious beginner is the temptation to just quit. After all, this is supposed to be fun, a pastime. But to sit down and lose again and again is incredibly frustrating. The serious beginner has to make a lot of new friends. These friends go by many names, but the most common ones are frustration, heartbreak and humiliation. To be two pieces up and then lose to a one move mate on g7 has made me curse this game more times than I care to mention.
It is also at this point that we truly learn about ourselves. Do we simply give up like a spoiled child or rationalize that adults are not capable of learning as quickly as children? I am old enough to know that persistence will overcome almost any obstacle. Intelligence is great and helps, but over the long run it is the persistent person who comes out ahead.
And it was at that moment, when I could do no more and tipped my king in resignation, that I made the decision to renew my studies. There are many examples from my past where I have given up too easily. I decided that this would not be one of those times. I will focus more on the fundamentals that I know I neglect. I will seek a teacher to help me fill in the gaps in my play that seem to be reoccurring over and over. And I know that the next time I sit down to the board, it will be a fresh chance to show what I have learned. It will be a fresh chance to climb out of the lower section. But most importantly, I will try to not get discouraged and always enjoy my journey with this beautiful game. It is often difficult to love something, which at times, does not seem to love me back. But like all our great loves, we do not choose them; they choose us.
I walked out of that tournament with a lower rating but a greater understanding of myself. And in the grander scheme of things, which was more important? The answer was obvious. So as that little girl climbed into her dad's minivan and began to drive away, I picked up a dirt clod and threw it at their car. He gets that from me.
I had written this essay a while back and it was posted on Jeremy Silman's website...here. -John.