Playing Games

I have a little chess set I inherited from my Dad. He used it to teach me and I have been teaching my five year old, Peter.

Peter is an apt pupil, but only about as apt as you expect a five year old to be. He beats me-if I remind him to move his Queen here and his rook here and if I gasp at the appropriate time so that he notices I’ve just done an exquisitely stupid thing like place my queen in striking distance of his pawn.

Peter’s main interests in chess are often in other departments than mere brute competition. First, there is the joy of sheer ritual, something both of us love since we are both rather hobbitish at heart. Peter announces the chess game, then climbs up on our piano bench to get the board. I get the pieces, while Peter goes and fetches a pillow for me to lay on (we always lay in the middle of the living room floor, partly because I’m a confirmed “floor person” and partly because our three-year-old, Sean, likes to climb on my back while I play.) Peter always gets his pieces set up first and they are always the white ones (so he can go first). The sameness of the scenario is somehow quite lovely to both of us.

Some live to win, Peter lives to castle. No game is complete unless he can get his other, more boring pieces out of the way so that he pull that fabulous switcheroo of king and castle. I’m not sure why this is so important to him, but he will happily sacrifice a piece or two just so he can do it. Also, he seems to have a very egalitarian view of things. He will cheerfully immolate a bishop or knight to take a pawn. I’m not sure why that is either, but I suspect he just likes to cry, “ah-HA!” and pounce.

At any rate, the clock cleaning proceeds nightly. And that, by the way, is the only term for it. One never merely wins in a game of chess with Peter. Life is divided between his cleaning my clock and my cleaning his. But if you think the game is therefore cutthroat you are far wrong. Such is the happy calculus of Peter’s sweet mind, he doesn’t much care who wins, nor I. Peter is equally cheered to announce to a waiting world that I cleaned his clock as much as that he cleaned mine. The point appears to be the sheer joy of being able to use “clean” and “clock” in the same sentence. Such joie de vivre makes him a very good loser and a very good winner. For my part, I try to make sure it’s about even, with him winning one night and me winning the next (to prevent the early onset of Juvenile Cockiness Disorder).

Peter appears to have a good grasp of something we forget as adults: namely, that games are not really about winning. They are about joy. Games are play. It is one of the sickest ironies of our culture that we have turned play into “sport” and “sport” into a business as mechanized as cattle herding. Indeed, the whole innocent pleasure of games is so perverted that a boss, spouse or particularly conniving and manipulative person is described as “playing games” when he or she torments some hapless victim in the exercise of raw power. It’s a billion light years from the sheer refreshment of gaming that Peter knows intuitively.

Peter thinks he is one of the best chess players in the world since he has so frequently beaten the best chess player he’s ever known. I think Peter is a great gamester and I have learned more about chess from him than he from me. Who says there always has to be a loser?


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