Chivalry at the Chessboard

On Saturdays from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m., I welcome and dread the chance to see my daughter compete from a glass window.

I join the hushed parents outside closed doors, occasionally peeking in. Sometimes a youngster will run out with one of three phrases: ''I won,'' ''I lost,'' or ''They called a draw.''

Somewhere in that room sits my daughter, arranging the pieces, calculating moves, the only girl among 20 boys playing competition chess.

Natasha began her journey after finding a chessboard in our playroom. We encouraged her, wondering if this would be a passing interest. But soon Natasha could beat me and give her father a run for his money.

''Chess is a man's game!'' he would insist, having played chess at the university level. His love for the game was greater than mine.

''But what of your daughter?'' I would ask.

With a nod, as she beat him on his third game, he said wistfully, ''Perhaps Natasha's unique.''

At the competition, the boys were at a loss to know what to do with my daughter. She was a girl. What happened if she cried when she lost? They didn't know how to approach her.

The parents were the same. After one boy defeated her, his mother came and apologized and said she hoped my daughter was OK. Perhaps I should go in and console her, she offered.

Heeding my own mothering instinct, I checked, but I didn't have to. My daughter smiled at me, put her thumbs down to show me her score, and set up for her next opponent.

Eventually, the boys found they really didn't have to treat her any differently. She was not a china doll that was going to crack because she lost. She had the same love of the game they had. She could be a cunning opponent, a challenge, and yes, she could compete on the same level.

Sometimes when they would sit with tearing eyes, it was I who felt the need to console. But I didn't have to; my daughter already had done it for me.

After she won, I would see her reach across, shake her opponent's hand, and whisper, ''Good game, you nearly had me.''

Each game she would say the same thing. It started to rip away at some feelings I'd had as a youngster, having been locked outside many closed doors.

I pulled her aside after one match and criticized her. ''Natasha,'' I said, ''you had him. I know you should say, 'Good game,' but you don't have to say he nearly had you.''

She looked up at me, struggling with the values she had been taught. ''Yes I do, Mom,'' she said firmly.

''But the boys don't always say that to you,'' I argued. ''When you beat them, you should enjoy it a little.''

She shrugged her shoulders. ''I do like winning, but I know what it feels like to lose. It's nice for someone to recognize and say you've tried your best. Besides, Mom,'' she said, ''I'm here to beat their game, not to beat them.''

I realized then that I was reacting to some of the inequalities I'd experienced as a child, when I was denied the same opportunities the boys had. I always thought competition was a way of making females feel lesser. I was acting like the angry girl outside the locked door. But this was her game, and Natasha had found a different way to play it. Natasha had learned to treat everyone the same way and was careful not to tread on anyone's pride.

In the end, tied for seventh place, she played her final game. Her moves were accurate, her timing perfect, but the talented child at the table with her was just a little better. As he rose from the table and shook her hand, he said ''good game.'' I held my breath to see if Natasha's teaching had rubbed off. But he smiled and went outside to meet his parents.

They congratulated him on his victory. He smiled with pride and then whispered to his parents, ''That girl you know, she nearly had me!''

It was loud enough for Natasha to hear as she packed up her board. Perhaps change doesn't have to come in leaps and bounds. Perhaps a recognition of equality whispered in the hallways of a chess tournament is the beginning. Perhaps, as my husband learned, we can see every daughter, every child as unique and equal.

For myself, I have learned a lesson about equality: You don't need to slam the door when you finish, to echo your victory. Leave the door open, just a little, for others to follow in pride, regardless of their gender.

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