20 November 2015

What the 64 Squares taught me

It is a few minutes before 10 am on Sunday the 14th of November, 2010. I am sitting in a small room on the third floor of a building a few hundred meters from the Miriswatte Junction on the Colombo-Kandy road, i.e. just past the intersection when going out of the capital.  I have just attended the opening ceremony of a Chess Academy.  Well, the opening of a ‘branch’ of a Chess Academy; the ’64 Squares International Chess Academy’ is based in Kandy and was launched earlier this year. 

Listening to the speakers and the pre and post event conversation, I was persuaded to think about non-chess issues.  Chess players used to retire or move to fun-chess pretty quickly after leaving school because the money you won at tournaments was not enough to live for more than a couple of days.  Coaching was an honorary occupation.  Times have change. 

Today chess is like English.  There are lots of coaches and lots of English teachers.  Parents who are not fluent in English send their children to tuition classes and have no clue about the quality of instruction or the nature of the return on investment. It is the same with chess. Parents who have never played the game and have no way of ascertaining the instructing skills of ‘coaches’ spend a lot of money thinking their children will improve their game, pick up useful analytical and other life-skills and who knows, even end up as an International Grandmaster. By the time wisdom descends, the little boy or girl has moved on to other spheres of action and the relevant parent is poorer by a lot of bucks.

Children need to be taught the A the B and the C etc of English and of other subjects too, including chess.  There was a time when things were so bad that being able to learn the alphabet was considered an achievement. This was before communications hit the island like a meteorite. Today, there’s enough English letters bombarding the senses of the entire population in such volumes as to make alphabet-learning meaningless. 

It is the same with chess.  There are hundreds of ‘coaches’ who can teach children how to move the chess pieces. I met an Indian coach in Greece who told of a fellow-coach who was happy to teach a student how to move the knight.  This is not an achievement or something to raise eyebrow about except that it had taken him a week to impart the knowledge!  My friend said ‘Man, he was teaching this kid how to move the knight; one-two-three, three-two-one, for one week. I told him, “bastard”!’  He made a lot of bucks. 

Today, there are chess coaches in Sri Lanka who do one-two-three kind of coaching make a cool couple of hundred thousand rupees a month or more.  As a result there are thousands of kids playing chess in all parts of the country. This is good and encouraging because some will move from one-two-three to more interesting and worthwhile pursuits someday. It is not enough. We fall short on quality.  This is why ‘English Our Way’ is a hoax; it fools parent and student both and produces only basic literacy and not the levels of language competence that can make a difference to learner and society both. 

Quality is the key, I thought, as listened to speaker after speaker speak my thoughts.  My mind went back to the year 1980.  The coach of the senior chess team of my school was talking about strategy. He was using ‘Chess Fundamentals’ by the incomparable Cuban Grandmaster and World Champion J.R.Capablanca as his main source.  Arjuna Parakrana did not believe in one-two-three instruction. He taught the noble art of thinking, of analyzing, of visualizing, of imagining and the beauty of playing for small gain which when accumulated eventually produced the most satisfying victories. 

He made me realize that memorizing the move-order of various openings was important but not as crucial as securing the keys that would unlock the secret doors of chess behind which the magic of its poetry lay hidden.  It is easy to learn the alphabet.  Learning grammar and enunciation is tough.  Understanding and appreciating literature takes a lot of time and effort.  Writing is an art which is made of 1% talent at word-play and 99% of practice. Not everyone needs to write literature, but it is certainly useful to write a letter of excuse or a love note.  Knowing the alphabet is basic but this alone will not deliver. 

Arjuna taught other things.  He taught the importance of trying to be the best you can be.  The importance of focusing on the task at hand, not getting ahead of oneself and not getting emotional and bogged down in what has already happened, the games won or lost.   He taught integrity.  He taught the important lesson that there are never short-cuts when it comes to securing worthwhile objectives. 

All these things he taught over the 64 squares.  There are 64 squares, half of which are black and the other half white.  Each and every square is important at all points of a game and one can ignore this only at grave risk.  Learning is about exploring all 64 squares, i.e. the full landscape of the possible.  There are no short cuts. You can’t learn A, B and C and think you’ve got it all under your belt. 

The opening ceremony is over.  We had our kiribath and kevili, the milk-rice and sweetmeats. The guests have all gone. The noise level has come down.  There are no classes scheduled for today.  Time will tell if things will get delivered as promised.  I think there’s a good chance as long as quality and integrity remain the corner stones of the programme.