A Rook & A Quarter: A Classroom Setting
- Written by Rachel Schecter Rachel Schecter
- Published: 07 August 2017 07 August 2017
Setting: January 2017. A Beginners Chess Class.
Students setting up. Javier and Erik, friends, rivals, promising players, are eight moves into their game; neither has castled.
I sit at their table. "Are either of you gentlemen planning to castle?"
"We like our kings in the middle," says Javier.
"Keeps your opponent guessing," says Erik.
"See?" says Javier, "Erik has no idea what I'm planning."
I look at their board. Double and isolated pawns, blocked bishops, undefended knights... This was a plan?
"We've gone over this," I say lightly. "Control center, develop your pieces, castle your king to safety..." They are unconvinced.
"We get tired of castling," says Javier.
"Who knows?" says Erik, "We might invent something new."
I smile. I like them. I like their game, their attitude. Flying in the face of 1,600 years of chess logic.
Invent something new? What's not to like? But I am their instructor. I sink my hands into my pockets.
Loose pieces, loose change, notions.
"Okay," I nod, "Let's invent something new."
I place a quarter on the table. They exchange glances.
"What's that?" says Javier.
"It's a quarter, duh." says Erik.
"I know it's a quarter. You think I'm stupid?"
"Nobody's stupid," I say. "This is the smartest game on the planet."
"We're sorry," says Erik.
"Sorry," says Javier. "What about the quarter?"
Other students gather 'round.
I spin the quarter on the board. "Put this quarter under your rook on a8," I say to Erik.
"What about the rook on h8?"
"You lost that rook."
"Oh, right," he grins.
I take out another quarter and slide it towards Javier.
"Place this quarter under your h1 rook."
"Why not the a1 rook?"
"Can you castle with the a1 rook?" I ask.
The other students shake their heads: "No, he has already moved that rook --
"...he has lost the right to castle--"
Javier places the quarter under the h1 rook.
Class is quiet, absorbed with the board.
I calculate the board.
"It's your turn, Erik," I nod, "Castle queenside."
Erik castles queenside.
"Now pick up the quarter," I say, "You just earned 25 cents."
"Really?" exclaims Erik, "I earned money? I get this money?"
"That's not fair," says Javier.
I quote Goethe: " 'Chess is the fairest of all games.' It's your turn, Javier. What's your next move?"
Javier castles quickly, grins, tosses his quarter into the air.
The class animates; everyone wants quarters; everyone wants to castle.
"Do we get to KEEP this money?"
Students are silent; all eyes on me.
I sigh, look into the board, spin, spinning. Students keeping the money?
No. No. Parents won't like it. I don't like it. School won't allow it. But I try to follow the mantra of chess-thinking and see deeper..
"No," I say firmly, "We can't keep the money. It's against policy. But we can earn it for learning and applying good chess moves. Like castling. What are other good chess skills?
"What about draws?"
"We can determine categories and assess values," I say. "It's our invention --"
"What about losing?" asks Erik.
I stand up, shake my head.
"There are no losers in my class. Win and learn."
I pace: "Okay, if you are checkmated, or lose on time, or on material, you will still earn money."
Everyone is excited, setting boards, shaking hands.
"But what about the money?" asks Javier. "What do we DO with it?"
I sit back down: "Any ideas?"
"Take a vacation!"
"Buy more chess stuff!"
I nod, notating.
"All good ideas. But let's think harder. We know chess can enrich and improve life. So, how can we… ...how can we "invest" our chess money to improve lives?"
Tara, studious and shy, speaks softly: "My best friend Kim lives next door. When her dad lost his job a bunch of the neighbors gave her family money until he found a new job. Is that what you mean? Like charity?"
"Excellent. Charity. What other examples can we think of?"
The children react quickly:
"Sick people need help..."
"Old people with no family..."
"Some kids are orphans..."
"What about animals?" says smart, adorable, and suddenly tearful Li Wu. "We got our cat Missy Honey from a shelter. It was very sad. There were so many puppies and kittens living in tiny cages."
"We saw a man on the street with a sign. He had no place to live." This from Sasha, a chess natural, visiting from Moscow.
Sai, quick wits and a born leader, jumps up: "We can help them ALL!" he shouts. "We can give ALL of them some of our chess money!"
Enthusiasm, wildfire. I'm surrounded by brave knights and future queens, armed with rooks, flanked with bishops, ready to save the world. I look into their clear eyes and generous hearts: our hope for the future. I clear my heart from my throat:
"Okay, we have an opening plan, we'll need strategy, tactics."
"Can we start playing today?" chime the students.
I spin, flip the quarters, and smile:
"We already have. This is what you earned today--for charity."
"It's only 50 cents," says Erik.
"No," I say, correcting him, "It's only the beginning... Now--where shall we keep our...treasure?"
"Yes, treasure, it's treasure!"
"Like the pirates--buried treasure!"
The students rummage through the classroom.
"What about that chest?" I say, pointing to one of the shelves.
"Whoa! It has a lock and everything!"
We gather 'round the chest.
"There's no key," says Alana, quiet, poise, determination.
The class is dismayed: "It's locked, we can't open it!"
I reach back into my pockets and pull out a key.
"I knew this pirate back in California," I smile, "Voila. Chess Key to a future?"
I open the lock, lift the lid, hand one quarter to Javier, the other to Erik.
"Boys, will you do the honors? Make the first contribution?"
The quarters clink; the class cheers.
Anne Marie, the youngest at 4, tugs on my sleeve.
"May I put something in the treasure box?" she asks.
"Of course, honey," I smile.
She opens her hand: "It's only a white pawn..." and drops it atop the quarters.
"It's for our chess treasure--"
"Yes, yes, Treasure Chess!" shouts the class.
A whirl of activity: "Can we decorate the Treasure Chest?"
"I'll start writing the game rules--"
"Me too -- let's work together."
"How much should we earn for good sportsmanship?"
"Let's make a list of charities."
I am swept into their enthusiasm, listening, smiling, suggesting, advising, drawn again into their young eyes and kind hearts. I feel pride, hope. If this is the future, the future looks good.
Anne Marie tugs at my sleeve again: "Here's a black pawn," she whispers.
I hold it up to the class: "51% of all chess games are decided by one pawn. Never underestimate its value."
Echoes of: "Really? How is that possible?"
I drop it into our Treasure Chess and laugh: "It's all part of The Crustacean Defence."
Erik nudges Javier: "What's the Crusty Defense? Did the pirates invent that? We better start paying attention."
"Just castle," says Javier. "I'll Google the pirate thing later."
Note: Actual names and circumstances have been altered to protect "youth, our future".