Learning Chess at 40
May 22, 2016 5:14 PM   Subscribe

What I learned trying to keep up with my 4-year-old daughter at the royal game. Although it scarcely occurred to me at the time, my daughter and I were embarking on a sort of cognitive experiment. We were two novices, attempting to learn a new skill, essentially beginning from the same point but separated by some four decades of life. I had been the expert to that point in her life—in knowing what words meant, or how to ride a bike—but now we were on curiously equal footing. Or so I thought. (Tom Vanderbilt, Nautilus)
posted by misterbee (27 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I've been paired against plenty of kids in chess tournaments back when I used to play a lot, and it's kind of grim. If you lose, you feel pretty foolish. Look at all the time you waste on chess, studying openings and watching analysis on Youtube, and you just hung a Rook to an 11 year old. Win? You just beat a little kid, awesome for you. Now go put your point on the wall chart and enjoy feeling like a big man.
posted by thelonius at 5:47 PM on May 22, 2016 [20 favorites]

Oh god i'm already on the downhill slope someday my four-year-old is going to crush me in board games repeatedly help help nooooooo
posted by Scattercat at 6:24 PM on May 22, 2016

Chess lol I'm just happy to beat my four year-old in Spot It.
posted by resurrexit at 6:42 PM on May 22, 2016 [11 favorites]

Gotta love Brooklyn and the whole hiring a Polish emigre to teach your daughter chess because you're too busy to do it. Anyways, good for the youth, this globe is getting more complex and the information to access and explain that complexity is going to be easier for them to access. Chess will help.
posted by skepticallypleased at 6:57 PM on May 22, 2016

For whatever the games had taught me about brains young and old, about the different ways we learn and deploy our cognitive resources, they also taught me that the only thing harder than losing to your daughter in chess is winning against her.

My late grandmother was a mean sumbitch at Chinese checkers. They only owned 5 games, a deck of cards, regular checkers, Chinese checkers, one of those peg board games from Cracker Barrel, and Connect Four, and she didn't believe in letting the kids win. We'd stay there for a week at a time as kids and play Chinese checkers with 2-4 people, me, my younger brother, Mom and Grandma, and she always won. We could beat her at Connect Four, and sometimes she got dealt a bad hand in Hearts or Euchre, but that was about it. No one ever beat her at Chinese checkers, and she'd always sandbag, letting us think we were close to winning before the killing blow.

One time years later Mom told me, "I don't think I ever beat her either". I've since learned that Chinese checkers is a solved game for 2 people, and solved to a draw for 3 persons. She might have been the only person alive to know for sure whether it's also solved for N = 4>, but alas, she wasn't the kind of person to write out a proof or even know what that was. But she never forgot how to whoop your ass at Chinese checkers, fancy proofs or no.
posted by T.D. Strange at 7:07 PM on May 22, 2016 [26 favorites]

Gotta love Brooklyn and the whole hiring a Polish emigre to teach your daughter chess because you're too busy to do it.

Come on, the other half of that sentence was about how he decided that they could both use lessons from a professional because he didn't know enough to teach her properly. And the rest of the article is about all the games of chess he played with her. Whatever other Brooklyn stereotypes might apply, it doesn't sound from the article like he's too busy to spend time with his daughter.
posted by No-sword at 7:32 PM on May 22, 2016 [27 favorites]

My kid was fascinated by the big Russian bear who taught chess at our community center. So, when he was about eight he took lessons. He was good, and the instructor wanted him to go to competitions, but he wasn't interested at all, so he wandered off to be fascinated by bowstaff karate. Before all was chaos here, and we had to start packing up stuff, there's usually a couple of boards around the house, and while we don't sit down to play often, there's this long term game happening, where every once in a while a move gets made. If we sit down to play, he can beat me most of the time. I'm still the marbles queen though, so it's all good.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 7:36 PM on May 22, 2016

I was just thinking about this sort of thing the other day; my four-year-old went space-mad about a year ago and it has lasted and grown and I thought, "Oh, hey, it'll be a good time for me to learn my constellations too!" but GOOD LORD THERE IS NO KEEPING UP WITH A DETERMINED FOUR YEAR OLD. His memory is just endlessly retentive -- he remembered the names of the guys who wrote the paper positing Planet Nine after just one mention in passing -- and he remembers and connects all kinds of things that he hears in passing in two different NASA videos and realizes they're the same thing. Kindly presenters at the planetarium ask him, "Do you have any questions?" after explaining that there are 8 planets, and they get hit with, "Is oxygen in the ice volcanoes on Pluto a liquid or a solid?"

I know some of the stuff he knows he doesn't understand in any contextual way -- he can tell you the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and that they're called Galilean because they're the ones Galileo could see, and Galileo was the first guy with a telescope, but that's just a string of facts he can rattle off. OTOH we let him watch The Martian and when there was the airlock breach he gasped with alarm and exclaimed, "BUT HIS POTATOES CANNOT SURVIVE WITHOUT OXYGEN!" before they even cut to the potatoes. (The next day, he attempted to poop in the veggie garden so help dad's potatoes grow better and we had to have a long conversation about why poop is good for potatoes on Mars but not so good for potatoes on Earth. Four-year-old logic! So close and yet so far.) It's hard to tell what he understands and what he's just memorizing.

Anyway, I'm TRYING to learn my constellations and, like, how the stars and planets move in space so I can at least understand some of his questions, let alone answer them, but he's just a lot faster at memorizing all of it, and I have nearly 40 years of NOT understanding planetary motion in my brain that is hard to replace with the correct stuff, while he's willing to accept whatever nonsense NASA tells him, because that's what you do when you're 4, you don't worry too much that 90% of the world as yet makes no sense -- it'll fit together later.

My husband took him to the local astronomy society stargazing event this weekend and they totally thought it was "nerdy dad dragging exhausted kid along" at first, right up until he started talking and everyone realized it was "bemused parent chaperoning nerd-child who needs more accomplished nerds than he can access at home." And of course the craziest part is that while this has lasted (much) longer than most of his brief fascinations, kids are so fickle, he could be on to something else in another two months, and by the time he's 10 totally forget that he ever memorized the entire winter sky. (I kind-of hope he sticks with it a while, I can reliably identify like FIVE constellations now, which is up from just Orion and the Big Dipper, if he keeps at it I might get as high as a dozen!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:48 PM on May 22, 2016 [87 favorites]

My young daughter is fascinated by chess too, but all she cares about is capturing as many pieces as possible, as quickly as possible. Strategically, she sucks. So I have that.
posted by gottabefunky at 7:51 PM on May 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

I really like the distinctions the article introduces between 'fluid' and 'crystallised' intelligence, and further to that the different kinds of confidence the author and his daughter experience. They're very helpful at explaining the complete non-event that my long chess career turned out to be. You see, at the club level, there's a bit of crystallised intelligence. There's a decent handful of fluid intelligence. And then the rest is confidence play. Moving from club to professional-level chess requires you to substantially up your crystallised intelligence game. This requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice, two things I never really had the capacity for.

Some time ago I realised I was never going to crack the professional tier in any capacity, due to my complete refusal to study any opening theory. I had been raised on 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 and 1. d4 c5 and these two openings were about the only ones I ever played. The fact that they are both openings instantiated by Black is instructive. As White I had even less of a clue: 1. e4 and hope that I didn't have to reach for the crumbling memories that contained my anti-Sicilian lines. And don't get me started on what happened if someone played the English.

I was still a member and active participant in my chess club then, and it was the sole thing that tied me to a lot of my friends. I was also a massive dweeb and quite possibly an introvert beyond even the conception of Jung himself. Perennially lazy, unmotivated, and increasingly depressed and anxious about my sexuality amongst other things, I decided to stake everything by pouring my limited reserves of effort into being, essentially, a smug asshat conman.

What this meant is that I would focus at least as much on my opponent as I did on the game itself. Knowing that at the club level people rely more upon their fluid than their crystallised intelligence (although I didn't have these terms for those concepts at the time), I decided I could siphon time at worst and cause outright mistakes at best by causing people to doubt their own abilities. Firstly, I developed a strong poker face; I gained greater control over my nerves. My shaking hands and my face stopped giving me away. Fine; basic. I went further. I started developing a fake persona; I wanted to lure them into thinking I was a certain type of opponent.

Who's most satisfying to beat? For most people, I'd venture it's the person who comes to the table with that smug air of confidence; who moves his (it's always a he) pieces and touches the clock just so; who plays fast, impatiently; who gets up once he thinks he's played a decisive move and goes to look at the games of his friends. When you start beating this person, it's glorious. Hidden tics and habits start to appear like springs and sprockets shooting out of a malfunctioning wind-up toy. They twitch and blink. They stop making eye contact and frown at the board as if they can't understand what they're seeing. They stall for time with increasingly frequent sips from their water bottle. And finally, they tip over their king as quietly as possible and give you the limpest handshake they can muster, like picking up a damp tea towel.*

This person is a veritable species of chess player. You can spot them at fifty paces. I was banking on the notion that most players would have this person profiled a little too well. What if I, assuming this persona, could lull the opponent into a false sense of security? I could set off along the precise line the opponent desperately wanted me to go down, slowly deploying all the tics and the body language, giving the opponent all the non-verbal assurances I could that everything was going exactly to plan, encouraging them to calculate further and further ahead, and then abruptly take the out I knew was there all along. Suddenly I would be the only one comfortable with the position. The opponent would have to spend a lot of valuable time working out all the new lines. Commonly, they would try to make mistakes trying to get me back onto the winning line they thought they were leading me blindfolded down. And of course, I would have turned all the tics off. I would relax just perceptibly enough, adopt what was almost a smile and try to catch the opponent's gaze.

The combination of sudden unfamiliarity with the position, time pressure and psychological bastardry would be very difficult not to succumb to. Reader, I started placing in chess tournaments again. My rating began to climb, and my friends (who I definitely did not deploy this strategy against) gained a little more respect for me. But...

But nothing. In fact, the benefits didn't stop at chess. In general, I became a more confident person and I shed a lot (though not all) of my self-doubt and anxiety issues. I was still an introvert, but I got much, much better at deploying my extrovert side. I got better at negotiation, persuasion and social diplomacies in general. I came out.

I guess what I'm saying with this absurdly long comment is... chess can be really boring and hard, and it's really tempting to not even bother with it because of this complex combination of what the article in the FPP calls 'crystallised' and 'fluid' intelligence that is required, along with a whole lot of patience, to eke out a professional rating, let alone a professional career. Especially if you're older than 20. If you don't have those skills, don't let it worry you. They're not the only ones chess allows you to develop, and there's also a lot of fun and reward to be had in realising that chess is performance and spectacle as much as anything else and developing a trade in that side of instead.


*Of course, the person who this type of person finds most satisfying to beat is the one who presents as a small target and obstinately refuses to engage with their swagger with anything outside of silence. Any eye contact must be returned with the most quizzical gaze you can summon and as their impatience begins to show, you have to provoke it more with a sort of deliberate lethargy of your own. That's how you gotta play it with them.
posted by president of the solipsist society at 7:59 PM on May 22, 2016 [30 favorites]

I thought we were talking about the Royal Game of Ur, and I was like, yes, my daughter could kick my ass in a racing board game, as she is lucky as all hell with the dice (and cards) and utterly ruthless.

Chess, now. Well! "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess" will give you a book with clever end-game puzzles, and you will learn, A LOT.

If you as I once was, as utterly entrancing as that book is, and I am not being sarcastic here, you would think it pointless, as humans are not as good at chess as machines are.

You're not playing a machine, tho. You are playing a person. And you know how to kick ass playing a person, and also rhetoric, because you are an ardent follower of legal and ludic scholar Ward Farnsworth.

I play chess with my daughter, and she makes the Queen move like a knight and kill everyone on my side of the board, because, no, she's not ready for chess. I wasn't until I was 40. She is brutal on Go Fish, Old Maid, War and Uno, and similarly dominant on Settlers of Catan Dice and dominoes.

I hold out hope I can beat her at backgammon when she's a little bit older.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:06 PM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

SecretAgentSockpuppet - your daughter learned chess from a bear?

That is so badass.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:18 PM on May 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yeah, but the bear's not that good.
I beat him 3 out of 5.
posted by MtDewd at 8:24 PM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

I lived through this and quickly realized I was beat. The author is much better than me in that I learned the basic moves and just tried to bluster my way through. Where he wins through greater focus I would tell my child to hurry up and beat me so I could go and do something else. It carries over to video games too. I recently bought a Wii U for the kids' birthdays. I picked up Pikman 3 because we like playing puzzle games together. I'm so lost. I can't figure out where I am in the game, my sense of direction is pathetic. There are something like 8 different buttons on the console, some multi-directional, some that do different things depending on when or how you use them. The touch screen has additional buttons and features that are entirely opaque to me. My eldest seems to have been born knowing what all these buttons and screens do and just flies through things effortlessly. On my sad tries I bumble around forgetting which combination of buttons to push as I lurch toward failure. I'm trying to believe my efforts will stave off early dementia but maybe it's too late. I can feel my brain creaking.
posted by Cuke at 8:25 PM on May 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

omg, cuke, I am so there with you on the new gens of consoles. I am just lost trying to play new games on the latest Xbox. I've just ceded the territory to the teenagers.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 9:20 PM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

That bear? If you carve some scratches really high on a tree nearby and bring a large picnic basket, you'll see all his ticks and insecurities come out during the game.
posted by benzenedream at 11:17 PM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Only thing worse than beating a child at chess is kicking their ass at Monopoly. It's a great feeling for about one second or so.
posted by My Dad at 11:40 PM on May 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

And of course the craziest part is that while this has lasted (much) longer than most of his brief fascinations, kids are so fickle, he could be on to something else in another two months, and by the time he's 10 totally forget that he ever memorized the entire winter sky.

Ha, so true. When I was three or four, I memorized the map of my 10-square-mile hometown. I had probably only seen 20% of the territory in real life, and as that percentage rose, the percentage of the map I could recall dropped...
posted by aws17576 at 11:51 PM on May 22, 2016

Oh god i'm already on the downhill slope someday my four-year-old is going to crush me in board games repeatedly help help nooooooo

Try Diplomacy. You'll win, and she'll have something to tell her therapist someday.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:23 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd like to compare a 4-year-old with a forty-year-old who ALSO has absolutely nothing to do and nothing to worry about except learning this one task. Let's even up the motivation, too. Say, if the forty-year-old gets good, they win a million bucks.

posted by Mogur at 1:16 AM on May 23, 2016

It's still worth learning even at 40. I can't possibly begin to count the number of times I've said to my lady friend "we really need you to learn how to play chess." So, so many life lessons and strategies I learn in life go right back to chess.

That being said, my father solidly whooped my ass for years, so all the comments here about beating your kids ass at chess and how it makes you feel are instructive. I don't know how much fist pumping he did, but I'm sure it existed.
posted by nevercalm at 4:33 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had good results with the King's Gambit against schoolchildren. You'll find out what they're made of right away, with the King's Gambit. The scholastic coaches usually don't even show them this opening, and they well may be totally on their own. I've seen them either fall apart at once or drift into a lost game soon, many times. If they just up and crush your King's Gambit, you were doomed anyway.
posted by thelonius at 6:25 AM on May 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had good results with the King's Gambit against schoolchildren. You'll find out what they're made of right away, with the King's Gambit.

That's the funniest thing I've read all week. My daughter came over wondering why I was laughing.

Tangentially, I saw a bit in a documentary a few years ago which said that adults are objectively faster at learning new languages than children, but they feel like they're progressing very slowly so they give up more easily. I wonder how much this applies to chess, too.

There's also the fact that the father has to apply a bunch of his neurons to the task of keeping himself and his daughter alive. That can chew up a surprising amount of brain bandwidth.

Not to say that I'm not getting stupider as I get older myself. I noticed it after my mid-twenties, and the lack of sleep caused by said daughter has amplified the effect.
posted by clawsoon at 6:42 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

The ability to concentrate intensely for long periods seems to fall off with age, and also the physical strain of formal competition (which seems hard to understand, how physical conditioning is important for sitting in a chair all day playing chess, but it is) falls harder on old people.
posted by thelonius at 7:05 AM on May 23, 2016

My young daughter is fascinated by chess too, but all she cares about is capturing as many pieces as possible, as quickly as possible. Strategically, she sucks. So I have that.

More of a Starcraft player, huh?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:22 AM on May 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

My granddaughter just turned 4. I don't think she's ready yet, but I hope she will want to play soon.
posted by MtDewd at 1:18 PM on May 23, 2016

Teaching my daughter chess last year (when she was five) and seeing her interest in it bloom has been one of the greatest joys of parenthood for me. So, from that perspective this article is directly aligned with my interests.

However, as a person with an educational background in cognitive science, his analogies are just driving me nuts.

My daughter is, in effect, learning chess like a first language, whereas I am learning it like a second language.
She is, in a sense, still making sense of the world, and as she does, those synapses are closed—like emptying one’s hard drive of little-used applications in order to help optimize overall performance.

Anyway, I'm not a great player by any stretch, but I'm good enough to be solidly in the expansive no-man's-land between an amateur and a competitive player (probably around a 1500 rating, I'm guessing; it's been a long time since I played a ranked match). I really look forward to the day my daughter starts beating me, but it's a pretty long way off. I do throw about one game in three, which is something I never would have thought I would do. Before I had kids, I had this weird idea that intentionally losing a game was basically a mortal sin. But now I just see it as a harmless way to keep her interested.

My own father was a high school chess champion and, I expect, he was probably about as good a player when I was 5 as I am now. I know that he never threw a single game against me (I got my weird ideas about games from him) and the first time I beat him was when I was 12.
posted by 256 at 3:05 PM on May 23, 2016

« Older Children of Heroin Crisis Find Refuge in...   |   Blue flash Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments