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Fred Waitzkin
September 19, 1988
For the father of a prodigy, chess is hardly child's play
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September 19, 1988

My Master, My Son

For the father of a prodigy, chess is hardly child's play

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In the spring of 1984, at the National Elementary Chess Championship in Syracuse, N.Y., a distraught father began to whisper moves to his son. Across the gymnasium floor, scores of other parents crowded close to the chessboards and nervously discussed the games within earshot of the players. Some of the six-, seven-and eight-year-old children asked the parents to be quiet and to give them room to play. Two frustrated fathers began shoving each other, and one took a swing. Eventually, the irate tournament director ordered all parents out of the playing room. Soon more than a hundred fathers and mothers were pacing in the hall outside. I was among them.

When Joshua was a baby, I fantasized that he would grow up to be a star basketball player, and I would be cheering from the stands. Instead, my son is a chess player. Since he began competing in tournaments at the age of seven, he has frequently been the highest-rated player for his age in the United States. Our home has become cluttered with gaudy trophies, chess sets, chess clocks, score books, computers and chess literature in different languages. His precocious ability has seized control of my imagination. I used to worry about my career, my health, my marriage, my friends, my mother. Now I mostly worry about Josh's chess. I worry about his rating and whether he has done his chess homework. There are tournaments to be concerned about. Has he practiced enough? Too much? In years past, while I sat at my desk struggling to write, I often daydreamed about the New York Knicks or about going fishing: Now, in my mind I play over my son's chess games. I am a passionate sportsman, yet his sedentary activity has displaced many priorities in my life.

Josh also loves other sports, and at chess tournaments he is eager to play ball between rounds. While I gather up his pencils and chess pieces, it's my job to say, "No, Josh. You don't want to knock yourself out. Why not go over your openings?" Usually at scholastic tournaments he is seated at the number one board, and other little kids sometimes get sick to their stomachs because they have to play against my little kid. Their parents treat me deferentially, as if I had achieved something myself. It's an odd position for a father to be a caddy and coach for his 3�-foot, sitting, brooding son.

Josh and I had played our first chess games on a squat coffee table in the living room, when he was six. He sat on the floor, his face cupped in his hands, his eyes at the level of the wooden pieces as if he were peering into a dangerous but alluring forest. By trial and error more than by my instruction, which he staunchly resisted, he found tricky ways to trap my pieces. He unearthed standard chess strategies and tactics that players have used for centuries. He was good at this new game.

Before long, Josh had a professional instructor. His teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, would arrive at our apartment at 6:30 in the morning, and Josh would stumble out of bed in pj's, wearing the same dreamy face as his infant sister. But within a few seconds he would assume the position—two hands under his chin, staring bullets at the chessboard. My little Karpov. Watching him sit at the board concentrating like a miniature master had become more exciting to me than watching Michael Jordan whirl 360 degrees and jam.

Whenever Josh is about to play in a tournament, I'm haunted by the possibility that he isn't any good, that his supposed talent is a house of cards manufactured by a father who thrives on fantasy. I bring a book or the Sunday paper to read while he plays his games. Hours pass with the newspaper on my knee, but I never read a paragraph. I'm preoccupied with his game.

When he was eight, in the final round of the 1984 New York City Elementary Championship (primary division), my son played against a boy also named Josh. A group of 15 or 20 parents and children crowded around the game that would decide the city championship for kids between the ages of six and nine. At one point I caught the eye of the other Joshua's father, an intelligent, gentle man, and we nodded at each other a little sadly: acknowledging that it had come down to this, both of us rooting like crazy for an eight-year-old kid named Josh to crack and make a heartbreaking blunder. This father had been a star running back in college, and it occurred to me that he had probably never felt more pressure on the football field than he did right then, all of those bone-crunching games toughening him up for an afternoon of watching his son try to outthink another kid.

Finally I couldn't bear the tension and went outside to walk around the block. When I returned 20 minutes later, it was all over. The awards ceremony was finished, and my Josh was joking and playing speed chess with another boy. They were having a good time, making plans to get together. The tournament was old news. When Josh caught my eye and lifted up the big first-place trophy, I made a gaudy high five from across the room. My son was a little embarrassed, but it was impossible for me to be casual. At such a moment, a parent is truly the child, giddy and dancing like a fool with fantasies of glory and immortality that he will carry to his grave.

Each spring, the emotional odyssey of the chess parent comes to a head at the National Elementary Scholastic Chess Championship. If a child is one of the highest-rated players, with a realistic chance of winning his division, the pressure on both him and his parents during the weeks before the event can be horrible. Parents keep trying to reassure themselves and their kids that winning doesn't matter, that chess must be kept in perspective, that life will quickly return to normal; the summer is coming up, after all, with camp, baseball and lots of other distractions. But an inner voice blasts these arguments apart with the crazy but unshakable moral conviction that winning is the only thing. Despite love for the artistry of chess and the hundreds of little pleasures and pains during the preceding year of study and play, in the weeks before the nationals the entire effort seems important only in relation to the child's performance in this single two-day event.

In the case of Joshua, who was nine at the time, the upcoming 1986 primary championship was shadowed by the memory of losing in the final round the previous year. One poorly played chess game had changed him; he would never again be the same cocky little boy who was convinced that no child on earth could beat him. By his ninth year, he had studied the game more intensely than I had ever studied anything before attending college, but, ironically, in becoming so accomplished so young, he had been forced to scrutinize the limits of his potential. Already he had seemed to learn what many of us artfully avoid realizing for another 20 or 30 years: that wanting to be Tolstoy or Einstein or Sandy Kou-fax doesn't make it so. During the past year, even when he was loving the game and was playing his best chess, he would sometimes refer to himself derisively as a patzer, and whenever he played street chess and ogling bystanders made a fatuous comparison to Bobby Fischer, he would wince visibly. Early success had made it more difficult for him to be a dreamer, and his rigorous, caustic self-assessments made me feel terrible. What's wrong with imagining yourself a world champion when you're only nine years old? I did. I was going to be an NBA All-Star, bringing the ball up the court like Bob Cousy.

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