King’s Pawn Advances to E4:
A Childhood Memoir
By Eric Sparks II
This memoir was written as a college as an assignment, but I really enjoyed it and decided to share it with everyone after getting my own site.
“King’s pawn advances to e4.” That is the full-length statement to the most common opening in chess, which makes it a fitting title for a memoir on my childhood. As in life, after a common beginning the game takes on its unique identity. My chess story began like any other. However, we soon developed our own, unique relationship.
I was first introduced to chess as a second grader. One evening, I had finished my homework and was playing my Super Nintendo in my room. The homework took about 30 minutes. The video games would take up the rest of the evening. Or, at least they would have, if my parents had not had intervened. For the past four years, my parents had regretted ever buying me a video game system. My dad called me to the living room to play a game, which of course I answered with a “Wait a minute, almost done with this level (which would have been my response had I just started the level).” I finished, saved my game, and rushed down the stairs. My dad being home from work and still having enough energy to play a game, while not rare, was not an everyday occurrence.
I went down see what looked like the ugliest checkerboard ever made. Its squares were dark brown and dingy-white, and the material was some type of cardboard. My father had set up all the pieces except for the king and queen (he was looking at the instructions for these). If the board looked horrible, the pieces were worse. Made of the thinnest plastic, they clinked whenever they touched each other in way that made you think they were brittle enough that even a nimble cat placing just one paw on one would shatter it. After setting the final pieces in place, my father looked at me like he is trying to decide something. Finally he just spilled his thoughts. “Eric, I want to teach you how to play a game my dad taught me. You’re a lot younger than I was, so if you’re having trouble, let me know, but I think you’ll get the hang of it.” looked at the box. I had seen it in our basement before, and I had always thought it funny that somebody had gone through all the trouble of making, presumably, many of these boxes with the word “chest” misspelled. “So this ‘chest’ is a game?” I asked. “CheSS,” my father responded, emphasizing the absence of my additional phoneme. “Yes, I want teach to you. I know it looks like a checkerboard, but this is a much more difficult game than checkers.” The next 15 minutes were spent explaining all of the different moves to me, accompanied by a few mock scenarios to demonstrate them. I felt like he had overstated its difficulty, as memorization was not difficult for me as a kid. “This is easy,” I thought. Then we played our first game. Knowing what I wanted to do was easy. Knowing what my opponent wanted to do was another story.
I was hooked. Looking back, it really is no wonder I fell in love with the game. My father probably saw what it was I loved in video games, even if he was unable to articulate it, and sought another hobby with the same qualities. My favorite video games were always puzzle or competition oriented, yet I was not highly competitive in sports. Part of what makes a sport beautiful are the two parts to it: the plan and its execution. Furthermore, in sports, the best plan is pointless with failed execution, and as such the execution is what most people chase after in sports. Who can shoot the three-pointer? Who can pitch with the lowest ERA? Someone with only a mild interest in a sport can name the stars of most teams in that sport. Only sport fanatics know even a few of the strategists other than the head coach, if they know even him. The fact of the matter was that I couldn’t care less if you could shoot better than me.
Ah! But here – here was a playing field where execution was equalized. Here if you beat me, you didn’t out-perform me, you out-smarted me. That was something I could not idly accept. Oh, I was not bitter if you won. I was concerned though. What did I not see? Where did I fail? We both saw the same board, had the same resources, but I missed something. That challenged me. In basketball, I could do everything right and still lose simply out of skill. Here, if you beat me it meant that I had made an actual mistake.
Such was the story of my elementary childhood. I strove for perfection, and everything was a competition. However as I grew, my love for chess matured with me. Anything you have affection for and stays with you through different stages in life does. A turning point in life is middle school, so it is no surprise that a turning point in my chess career came in seventh grade.
I was not a popular kid in middle school. My family was not of the elite social class the rest of my classmates were. However, they had a chess team, something my elementary school did not have. Chess went from a hobby to a social lifeboat. My chess coach was a man named Mr. Dillard, the eighth grade algebra teacher. Because of how influential he was for me, it’s only fair to spend some time talking about him. Mr. Dillard lived the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. More often than not, you had to call his name three times to get his attention. Wherever his mind was, it must have been an enjoyable place because he always had this huge smile. And his smile was not the only thing large about him. I never quite believed he drove the small car he owned until I rode with him once. Possibly due to his size, but just as likely his lack of fashion sense, the man wore suspenders every day, accompanied with a plaid, button-downed shirt and bow tie.
I was not good enough to actually make the starting team (the top five players of a club), but Mr. Dillard still took time to teach me as much as he could. Because a lot of his time in the meetings was spent coaching the team that would travel to other schools for competition, he encouraged me to start entering a small, weekly chess tournament he ran at a local restaurant and arcade. So, I bought my own tournament chess set (officially and unashamedly entering the classification of nerd to my classmates) and began my scholastic chess career. At first, I was crushed; there was no age limit, and I was playing adults who had played for years. However, Mr. Dillard was a man born to teach. Some teachers are incredibly brilliant, but they leave their students behind in the dust. Not Mr. Dillard. The man had an amazing ability to play at whatever level his opponent needed him to play. When reviewing a game, if we made a mistake he would have us find the better move. Not necessarily the best move. The best move may only be so if you could see a twenty move combination, and if we did not possess that skill yet, he simply made sure we were making a better choice. This allowed growth at any skill level. Eventually, I started winning the local tournaments, and entered regional scholastics, never winning (these often consisted of hundreds of participants), but holding my own. I even entered the national scholastic tournament that year and won half of my games. A year of my life that would have been sheer misery was made much better thanks to the role chess and Mr. Dillard’s coaching and friendship.
The next year my family moved again, and my chess career lulled with no chess team and few tournaments in the state of Mississippi. However, we moved yet again the next year for the start of my high school career. My high school, though it lacked a knowledgeable coach, did have a chess team. Thanks to Mr. Dillard’s teaching, I knew how to improve myself even without any direct instruction. I had learned how to review games; I knew my personal weaknesses and mistakes to look for. However, unlike in middle school, I no longer was a social misfit. This meant my love for chess was able to mature into natural love, instead of a desperate love that develops from a lifeline. My father’s initial instruction, Mr. Dillard’s tutelage, and my own natural maturation allowed for my chess career to mature as well.
When I first joined the chess team at my new school, I started near the bottom of the totem pole; a year of letting my skills rust was showing. One might think since I had found my niche at school and I had fallen so far behind I would not want to put in the effort to sharpen my skills again. However, chess was now like an old, childhood friend to me. My friendship with the game had changed throughout the years. Up to this point, it had been incredibly exciting: the energetic and playful love of a child, the lifeline of an insecure middle school adolescent… but now, for the first time, I no longer needed chess to be exciting. It was like when you have a friend that you have always loved selfishly until you start to mature and see the worth the friend possess simply for being himself. I now saw chess as something wonderful and worth pursuing for its own sake, and my progress showed the value of this insight.
I quickly climbed to starting position on my high school and won against almost every opponent I played from other schools. I started placing in scholastic chess tournaments. However, most importantly, I acquired the calm joy one finds only from a proper understanding of something’s worth. I no longer became frustrated from losses. Instead I learned from my mistakes and sincerely appreciated my opponent’s skill. My tournaments and school matches began to have the same feeling as a dinner with an old friend. True, the face was always changing, but once we sat down and a hand reached out to play: “King’s pawn advances to e4,” it felt like we had known each other for years. No matter whom they were before they sat down or would be afterwards, for that hour they would be my old friend, my Opponent.
Unfortunately, I was forced to leave this friendship when I started college. I have not found a group of people who share my love for the game, and I have not found a local chess community. Instead, chess has become a treasured school time memory. To this day, the smell of new vinyl and paint from chessboards that filled the air at those tournaments makes me smile. I know of at least two hobby stores in malls I have found as that smell wafted through the air from a chess display. But I don’t believe my path with chess has parted. It feels like me and my opponent are playing a best out of three series, and we are simply taking a break before we begin again.