Chess Makes a Father Into a Friend

As a child, I identified with my mother. She and I were bookish and introverted. My father, on the other hand, was as outgoing as a politician seeking election and enjoyed the more rugged pursuits of hunting and fishing, horseback riding and hiking. My relationship with him was always a bit strained.

By my 12th summer, however, he was determined to change my lifestyle and forge a stronger bond with me. We went fishing on his boat; I got seasick. We went horseback riding; I was thrown. We went hiking in the mountains; I broke my leg while traversing a rocky ravine.

My intentions were to spend the remainder of the summer reading and writing short stories while I recuperated. Yet my father, never one to give up the quest, introduced me to the game of chess. This was a strategic move that eventually changed the dynamics of our lackluster relationship.

Days after my mishap, he arrived home from his job as a truck dispatcher and snatched the book I was reading out of my hands.

Before I could protest, he proclaimed, ''Son, I'm going to teach you how to play chess. It's a great game!''

My inclination was to tell him that I was through with his ideas regarding me and that I didn't have any desire to learn the simple board game that he was always playing with his friends. Still, he had the look of a child at Christmas. I couldn't refuse him, nor could I retreat into my bedroom as I often did when attempting to avoid some unpleasantness: I was already there. Besides, it was rather a nice feeling to have this bear of a man showering me with attention.

It didn't take me long to realize that chess was anything but simple. Yet my father assured me that in time I would learn to play like a master. He patiently explained how each piece moved along the board. When he got to the knight, he spoke of his fondness for the noble warrior: ''The knight leaps over barricades and attacks enemy pieces as it dances its L-shaped movement. A skilled player can create chaos for his opponent with a knight!''

Afterward, we played a game in which he talked me through all the moves. He described chess as an exciting, thrilling game - one that could become an absorbing hobby and a lifelong source of interest and amusement. Chess would provide me with relaxation and recreation in greater measure than any other home game. It would also help me to meet new people. All I had to do was stick with it.... I said I would think about it.

We both knew that the only things I ever completed were books. Yet he was determined to see that I stuck with this game, at least for the summer. The days passed; my leg began to mend; and after work my father would sit by my side and teach me all that he knew about chess.

In time I learned to safeguard the king, the rules of castling, the power of the pawn, the principles of mobility, different gambits to use at various stages of the game, and the best openings to employ. I was becoming a chess player.

During these games my father began to share himself with me. He told me how his father had taught him the game.

''Son,'' he said, ''the game of chess combines all the principles that a boy should learn to master in order to become a successful human being: patience, determination, understanding, sacrifice, and humility - as both a winner and a loser.''

By the time school started, my leg had healed, and, without my knowledge, my dad enrolled us in a father-son tournament. Although I said nothing, I was seething with anger. He knew I felt awkward among strangers! So at the tournament I deliberately lost all my matches. We finished in last place, and I knew there would be no more tournaments for us.

My father did win second place in the senior singles competition, however.. As I congratulated him on his victory, he hugged me. ''Son, this trophy is as much yours as mine. Teaching you the game helped to hone my skills. You'll do better next time - if you would like to continue as my partner.''

I was stunned. Why would he praise me, his bookish, mopey son who didn't care about his chess tournament? He had to know I intentionally lost, yet he made no mention of it. I couldn't recall helping him. All we did was play chess together, as he listened to me complain about everything. I thought his tolerance was out of guilt for my broken leg. Still, he wanted to be my partner. He really did like being with me.

His words had humbled me. I knew then that I had to right my wrong. With great determination I immersed myself in chess. With Dad's help, I studied and played hundreds of games.

At the next tournament I won all my matches. We took home our first of what would become 27 first-place trophies. Now, whenever I play a game of chess and move a knight, I silently pay homage to my dad for teaching me that chess is a metaphor for life.

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