Sunday, September 8, 2013

Slow Learner

In today’s “micro-wave”, instant gratification, drive-thru culture it is very out of fashion to learn slowly. But truth be told, I am a slow learner. Thankfully, I had a slow teacher.

My dad had a rule in our family that said, “If you want to play a game, ask me and I will stop what I’m doing and play.” He stuck to that rule, even with five children who liked to play games. It is a small wonder that Dad accomplished anything other than playing games. He also had another rule: “I will never LET you win – you must LEARN to win.”  And believe me; Dad was hard to beat at any game. We have long thought that he had a close connection with the “game-gods”.

Learning to play chess, and play it well, has proven to be a life long journey. I started when I was six and Dad never let me win. The first time we played he had four pieces on the board while I had all of my pieces. He taught me how the pieces moved and a little bit about strategy. He beat me over and over again with his four pieces. Sometimes he would have his king, a bishop and two pawns other times he’d switch the bishop for a knight or a rook. But he always had only four pieces on the board until I could beat him with the four pieces. Then he would add two more, and then two more . . . you get the picture. This went on for hours, weeks and years of my childhood.

He also played with my brother Chris. I would watch them play for hours too. Chris was seven years older than me and had been playing much longer, so I got to watch “real” games. We never played with a timer. We just sat staring at the board contemplating our next move for as long as it would take. Dad always stuck with us.

Sometimes after I made a move Dad would say, “Are you sure about that one?” I’d stare at the board some more to determine whether or not I was sure. His asking didn’t necessarily mean that my move was wrong; he just wanted me to be decisive in my thinking and not second guess myself. So he’d challenge my thinking until I was certain I’d made the right move. Sometimes I was right and other times I was wrong, but either way I learned to stick to my answer and learn from my success or my mistake.

By the time I graduated from high school and went off to college I was finally playing Dad with all of his pieces on the board. I just couldn’t beat him. I found this incredibly frustrating! But in college I found Margie. She played chess, and we were more equally matched. We played a lot, and we each continued to get better. Sometimes she’d make a move and I’d ask, “Are you sure about that?” You see, I’d learned something from my dad along the way, and even my friends gained the benefit of his patient teaching, through me.

Christmas break of my sophomore year in college I arrived home and called out to my Dad, “Let’s play chess!”  He quickly picked up the board and asked, “How many pieces do I get?” I answered, “All of them.” He looked quite surprised as I set up the board.

I don’t remember how long the game took but I remember asking him a time or two, “Are you sure about that?” He laughed and said, “Yes. I am sure.” I then promptly beat him. I was 19 years old. It had only taken me 13 years to beat him with all of his pieces.

I wish I could say that I continued to beat him, but that would not be the truth. We continued to play for years until his Parkinson’s disease made it too difficult to manage the pieces. He beat me far more times than I beat him. I was a slow learner and he was a patient teacher.

So here is what I know from learning to play chess with Dad:

Being a slow learner is not a bad thing.
Think things through.
Plan your strategy.
Be decisive.
And if you’re wrong, learn from your mistake and try again.

Perhaps Dad’s rule to always play a game with his kids taught us more than just how to play a game.


© 09.08.2013 Martha Reed Johnson