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Lessons from the chessboard

Whenever I see a chessboard, I think of my father.

I grew up before Xbox or Playstation existed. We amused ourselves with board games like Chinese checkers and Monopoly.

My father and my brother (who was eight years older than me) spent endless evenings playing chess. Watching them in “action” was like watching paint dry. They sat staring at the board between them, apparently transfixed by something well beyond my comprehension. If I tried to lighten the moment with conversation I was immediately shushed. Then one made his move and the other reacted as if something significant just happened. Minutes passed. Finally a counter move came. When it was all over they would trade figures and reset the board for another match. Sometimes they played three games in a single evening – mind boggling from a six-year-old’s perspective.

When they were done I would take the figures and partner them up as black and white couples dancing on the checkered ballroom floor. “It’s a game of war, dummy,” said my brother. “They don’t dance with each other.” To my mind at least now they were having fun.

Around the age of 12, my friends began to take an interest in chess. I lost more games than I won. My only strategy was to evade my opponent rather than engage her. I asked Pa for help. He was happy to assist, especially since by then my brother had moved out and Ma called chess langweilig (boring).

Integrity

I was eager to master the game, but we started out with only the king, queen and pawns. Pa insisted I learn the functions of each piece separately. Weeks later we finally played with a full board. He patiently tutored me, slowly weaning me from his input and allowing me to learn from my mistakes. Now and then I would touch a figure and he would whisper, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Thus he taught me to size up the big picture and anticipate what his next move might be.

Before long I became the undisputed chess champion of my peers, but I could never beat my dad. I yearned for the day when I could say “Checkmate!” to him.

To Pa chess was more than a game; it was a metaphor for life. “In chess, as in life, forethought wins,” he said. He peppered our evenings with axioms from the game: Never underestimate the opponent. Pay attention to the details. Sit back and look at the big picture. Haste makes waste. Some mistakes cannot be corrected – they are the most valuable learning tools. And the lesson I learned the hard way – it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

One night I was certain I had him. “Check,” I declared. To my surprise, with a single move he put himself out of danger and placed my king in check. In two moves he finished me.

“How could you do that?!” I raged out of the room, tears flowing.

Ma stood in the kitchen as I stormed up the stairs. Their voices carried behind me.

“Couldn’t you let her win just once?” she said.

“If I let her win she hasn’t won anything,” he said.

“You’re being ridiculous!”

“No, I’m not,” he said. “She’s a good player with the potential for excellence. If I let her beat me now, she won’t develop past this point.”

His words stunned me. How could I be a good player when I could never win over him? But I heard it with my own ears. He said I had the potential for excellence (not a word my dad used lightly).

The next night I set up the board and we resumed. A week or so later it finally happened – I won! Pa shook my hand. “Congratulations,” he said. I hugged his neck and ran up to my room to record the victory in my diary IN CAPITAL LETTERS with a coloured pen. It was, quite literally, a red letter day.

Beyond the board

I haven’t played chess in years. It’s longer still since I’ve seen my dad. He died in 1976. But I still remember much of what he showed me, mostly by his example. Among other things he taught me to look beyond the board, and proved to me that integrity is crucial to legitimate success. He demonstrated that a truly loving father will teach his children the hard lessons. This Father’s Day, as I do every year, I will think fondly of Pa, thankful for having had him as my dad.

I will also consider my heavenly Father and the perfection of his ways. I’ll keep in mind that sometimes trials and troubles are necessary in order to achieve the best. I’ll thank him for not always letting me have my way and especially for never giving up on me.

Author

  • Heidi VanderSlikke

    Heidi VanderSlikke lives on a farm in Mapleton Township with her husband Jack. They share their home with a gigantic Golden Retriever named Norton, who thinks he's a lap dog. Heidi and Jack have three happily married children and seven delightful grandkids.

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