Some things in life are important to start early, and loves one might wish to inculcate in a child's life are best introduced as part of the Universe — or their conception of it — rather than as separate pursuits. Books, for instance. If books simply are — if they're an ambient feature of the environment — rather than needing to be sought out (furniture, to be simply used without particular goal or foresight), literacy becomes a given, not a goal.
Chess. It's one of those things that doesn't even occur as a possible "furniture-piece" in a child's life. How can chess, ever the symbol of deep thought and solemn old men, become such an early fixture?
I'm still not sure. In fact, several days ago, I'd've said it couldn't. That was before I started teaching a four-year-old to play chess, though.
It was at a lab party. I very nearly didn't go. I don't care for parties, and I care even less for parties among co-workers. Not that I dislike my boss and lab-mates . . . it's just that . . . meh.
However, go I did, and several slices of pizza, pieces of catfish, and insipid fireworks (not all of the preceding were eaten) later, affairs had settled into rather dry, boring conversation. Now, the conversation I'm likely to enjoy at a party is what most people would term dry and boring, so conversely, this talk of [rock] music, [bleeding-heart liberal] politics, and popular entertainment is the stock in trade of most parties — and bores me to absolute tears.
In the living room, far from the madding crowd, was a chessboard. D__ had played a game earlier with Misa, the four-year-old daughter of one of the attendees. Rather, he'd been playing against himself until she started soliciting advice from everyone else: then it became him against the entire lab, and he (quite predictably) was forced to resignation. I mean, how can you start playing yourself to a weak position, and then hold up to a committee of moderately-intelligent, moderately-experienced chess players? (When she checked him for the first time, I told her, "Say 'check'." "Check!" she gleefully announced.)
So later, Misa and her eight-year-old brother were still orbiting the chessboard, obviously wanting someone to play another game with them. Who was I to refuse (especially given the dearth of any other intellectual pursuits in the vicinity)?
I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to do it. I mean, Misa was the one showing the most interest in having a game, and she obviously couldn't be expected to find legal moves, much less good ones.
So I set up the board, asked her if she wanted to be white this time (she'd been black for the first game), and swiveled the board. I gave her a choice of first moves: a knight or king's or queen's pawn. I think she chose her king's knight. I answered with preparations for what's become my standard opening (set up an outpost for my king's knight and fianchetto that bishop), more out of habit than anything.
As the opening progressed, she made the choice each time (sometimes more-, sometimes less-restricted) of which piece to move and where to move it. Eventually Suse (her brother) got more into the game, finding possible moves and suggesting them. He delighted in pointing out why certain moves were bad moves: "If you go there [moving the piece] he'll [pointing to another piece] eat you."
We got well into the midgame by the time the first capture occurrecd. I'd decided not to "pull punches", and simply take a decent capture for either side when it made sense. She was suitably disappointed that I'd drawn first blood, but stated philosophically that "it's only one of the little ones". Farther in, she pulled ahead in material, and there came a point where her best move would've been a bishop-for-knight exchange.
Somehow I resisted the urge to tell her where to move, and instead presented several moves — I think a couple pawns (she called them "little ones") could advance, there was a safe pawn capture, and of course the exchange. I explained that if she took the pawn, she would be safe, but if she took the knight, she'd be trading her bishop for it, because I'd kill her bishop on the next turn.
With the philosophical aplomb already mentioned: "Trade."
Unfortunately, the time came long before the game was over to leave: in the middle of the game, at the height of the excitement — an excitement over a checkerboard battle I'd thought a four-year-old couldn't know.
I think I probably learned as much as she did. Granted, she caught on to the idea of castling (impressive in itself), and even accepted the diagonal attack of the pawn (I explained it as a swordsman marching forward slashing off to the side, and analogy that delighted her), but I discovered something I should've been able to figure out: if the child believes himself to be in control of his progress, he engages just as fully — and perhaps more so, as protective control prevents the insurmountable obstacles that often frustrate young learners of any pursuit — as if he were in an actual situation facing every decision himself.