PAWNS AND PARENTAL AMBITION

Children as young as four are playing in high-powered chess tournaments , egged on by competitive adults. Is the increasingly aggressive world of junior chess merely a vicarious battleground for fathers?
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The Independent Culture
"We're going to massacre everyone except Wey Valley, Kent and Essex. We're going to slaughter Kent, destroy Essex, and we're going to ... beat Wey Valley."

The small, bespectacled boy from the Richmond Under-11 team may have run out of aggressive synonyms, but his testosterone levels are running high. Indeed, were it not for the generally precocious verbosity and the high proportion of bulging foreheads present, this could be the prelude to a football tournament, not to the final of the Under-11 Inter-Association Chess Championship at Letchworth. In fact, several of the children - dressed in football strips rather than the club sweatshirts sported by the more seriously competitive teams - would probably prefer to be watching Manchester United "slaughter" Liverpool in the FA Cup final, which is taking place on the same day. But not 10-year-old John Foster. Offered the hypothetical choice of a seat at Wembley or a place in this tournament, the boy from the Richmond team appears to weigh up the equation quite carefully (good chess-players never make unconsidered moves) but then plumps firmly for chess. "This, you see," he glints earnestly from behind his spectacles, "is my cup final."

Like most of the other children in the team, John was initially taught by his father. "Mum detests it." He learnt how the pieces moved at the age of five, he says, and "started playing seriously at six".

And what do mum and dad do - something mathematical, possibly? "Actually," he confides, with the devastating frankness of childhood, "I'm not very interested in what my parents do. Something to do with languages, I think."

CHILDREN may not be very interested in what their parents do, but in the world of junior chess parents are very interested in what their children do. Sometimes a bit too interested. The stage mother has more than her match in the chess father (they are usually fathers, just as the children are usually boys). The chess scene in England may have some way to go before it reaches the pitch of ruthless parental ambition described in Fred Waitzkin's Searching for Bobby Fischer (Penguin), in which American paternal pride and vicarious ambition spill over into fist-fights. But there is no mistaking the trends. Thirty years ago, a precocious British child might have learnt the moves of the game at seven or eight, but taking it seriously was unheard-of; the youngest age-group at the London Boys Championships was under-14. Today, there are British championships (both climaxing in Nottingham this weekend) for the under-eights and under-nines. The career path for aspiring champions is to learn at four, start serious competition at six or seven and, if you're not a grandmaster by the time you're 20, forget it. England's latest prodigy, Luke McShane, is already close to his International Master title (one step below grandmaster) at the age of 12.

There is thus an intensity of emotion at these junior chess tournaments that the chess outsider - the sort of parent who would tell a child that it's the playing, not the winning, that counts - could never understand. One recent nationwide schools tournament attracted more than 20,000 competitors; there is, it seems, no place for half-hearted play - or half-hearted support.

William Hartston, the Independent's chess correspondent and co-author of The Psychology of Chess, says that he can look at players in junior tournaments and instantly "divide them into the ones who have a genuine talent and those that have pushy parents. Everything about them - even their pose at the board - gives it away." Hartston has not actually witnessed parents coming to blows; "but you do see them exhibiting McEnroe-esque behaviour, trying to ensure that conditions are absolutely right for their own children's concentration - telling other children to be quiet, complaining about the pairings." Chess parents, he believes, are often under-achievers themselves who want their children to succeed where they didn't. "But a lot," he adds, "are simply doting parents who just sit there beaming at them."

Fred Waitzkin, himself the father of a chess prodigy, Josh, says in his book that he can see in himself the worst traits of the pushy parents he describes, but is unable, or unwilling, to do anything about it. Before one of Josh's games, he confesses, he realised that this "game between two children was about fatherhood, life choices, happiness and failure. It had become too large, no longer just chess... If Josh lost this last game, I hoped that I would be able to control myself and be a decent daddy."

Daniel King, the British grandmaster and chess broadcaster, remembers vividly how he and his older brother, Andrew, hated their parents watching the games they played as schoolboys in the Seventies. "By then we were both much better players than our parents, and it seemed strange that they were staring at you, watching your every move but not actually understanding what you were doing - just desperately wanting you to win." As it happened, the King parents had no difficulty being decent. "They were brilliant, terribly supportive: when they realised we didn't like them being there they would just dump us, scoop us up at the end and pat us on the back."

Today, however, King, who often goes along as a team coach to junior tournaments, finds the behaviour of many parents quite disturbing. "It's not just the fathers - some of the mothers can be just as bad. They all trot out this line of 'It doesn't matter if you lose,' but it clearly does - and it often matters much more to the parents. You get a lot of children who quite enjoy chess on a social level - getting together with their mates - without having the drive to succeed. But chess is perceived by their parents as 'a touchstone of the intellect' - they think if you're good at chess it proves you must be very intelligent, which is absolute rot. It's like saying that because Boris Becker is good at tennis, he must be good at every other sport. Chess is a specific skill. OK, you do get quite bright people playing it, but you also get a lot more who are just not very good at life, and chess is the only thing they can do." The image of chess as a game for "spotty scientists" is not, he says, without foundation.

Children, however, are unaware of the game's image problem, at least until they approach secondary school age. Daniel King's brother Andrew, now a teacher, introduced chess to Westfields Primary School in west London, where he taught before becoming Maths Adviser to the borough of Richmond. Parents there who imagined it would only appeal to middle-class swots were, he says, surprised by its broad cross-class appeal - heroes of the football pitch transferred aggressive play on to the board with great enthusiasm, and children with learning difficulties sat alongside the brightest children on the school team. "Earlier on, children are not quite aware of how chess fits in with their self-image. It is an ultra-competitive game and quite aggressive, so it can appeal at that level. But what is so good about it is that - contrary to the self-sustaining myth - you don't have to be academic or middle-class. Children with learning and behavioural difficulties can succeed at chess, because you don't have to be good at adding up or reading; you don't even have to be good at being friends with people. It doesn't depend on social skills in the way football might, because you don't have to work as a team, which allows some of the best players to be ... odd."

BACK in the classrooms which form base camp for the competing teams at under-11s championship in Letchworth, team managers are giving the children a pre-match pep-talk. Paul Brookes, Richmond's manager, whose son Oliver is in the team, tells them that at the last tournament "three of you got less than two points and I don't want it to happen again. And I want nobody out of there in less than 10 minutes."

"Except if you've won," pipes up an eager little voice.

Winning is what it is all about for the children. Their parents may pretend it is an exercise in developing mental agility and concentration, but the Richmond team today simply want to thrash Wey Valley, their arch-rivals, who last time beat them by half a point. This time, Richmond have their secret weapon on board - one tiny, seven-year-old Murugan Thiruchelvam, seemingly destined to follow in the footsteps of Luke McShane, Britain's top junior player and a fellow club-member. Murugan's father, a quietly determined Sri Lankan, would clearly rather have his son on a lower board, where the burden on him would be less, but bows reluctantly to the team manager's judgement. Murugan started playing chess at the age of four, after watching his older brother on the computer, and won his first tournament at four and a half. His father denies putting pressure on him. "Children have got to have the heart to do something," he says, "not just do it for the sake of doing it. At the moment, he enjoys chess, but he is also very interested in music." Interest, however, seems to lead inexorably to competition. Murugan recently started playing the Eastern Drum and has already won an Under-16s Beginners' Trophy.

Idle pleasures do not seem to feature in the life of Adam Swersky either. Ten-year-old Adam, who plays on board four for Richmond, is also in the England team. "Since my children were little," his mother Joyce explains, "I have inculcated interests in them, thrown them at them wholesale. I was determined that my children would never walk the malls. Boredom," she states unswervingly, "is the most terrifying of childhood diseases." Adam plays the piano and guitar ("I nag him to practise - I tell him 'It's not for me, it's for you' "), and takes part in speech festivals; he also enjoys drama but has decided against extra lessons in this. "We sent off for information about drama classes from the Stagecoach school: it was a beautiful brochure, but I made Adam look through it because it demanded a commitment. He looked at it and said, 'Mum, I don't want another commitment.' "

Joyce believes that chess is good for Adam ("Lessons in concentration when little prepare them for long hours of swotting") and pays for private tuition for him with Daniel King on top of the chess he plays at Colet Court school and Richmond Chess Club on Saturdays. But if he gives up - as many children do at around 12 or 13 - won't she be terribly disappointed, after all this investment? "Even if he gives up," she declares, evidently seeing it as a remote possibility, "he'll never forget the experience." Adam, meanwhile, has just lost his third-round match. A cheerful, buoyant little boy, apparently not weighed down by his extra-curricular burden, he composes his features manfully before entering the Richmond classroom. "Adam, what happened?" cries his mother. And if he didn't know he soon does - losing players hand over the book in which they have carefully noted each move of their game and the team coach, Gavin Wall, sets up the board to replay the crucial moment of defeat: "Adam, you should know this move loses a piece."

This debriefing is common practice - the victorious come out smiling and go and kick a football around outside; the losers take their books in for a painful replay. Downstairs in another team's classroom a child is being taken through his moves. "So what would you do now?" demands a man with an extremely large head. "Well, I'd move that one," replies the child. "Now you're a better player," says Egghead, clearing the board.

But is he a better person? William Hartston is not so sure. It could be argued, he says, that chess brings out all the worst aspects of personality - "It is a game that is won by inducing your opponent to make mistakes, unlike other sports which you win on your own merit. Nor does it develop cooperative behaviour. In my book I came to the conclusion that playing chess badly is good for you and playing chess well may be bad for you. When you are learning to play you are exploring concept formation and developing pattern recognition skills. But once you start playing well, all you're doing is playing chess, and it becomes very obsessive."

AT THE end of the second round, Richmond are not doing as well as expected - they are in third position, one point behind Wey Valley, one and a half points behind Essex; Murugan has lost both his matches. He does not show his emotions, but his father knows he feels bad about letting down the team. The team manager, who only a few hours earlier was saying "They are only kids," switches into hard-man gear to psych them up. "Now listen, guys," he says as they gather round, "there are no medals for third place. You all need to win."

The children in the playing hall seem oblivious to the tension - they sit hunched silently over their boards in concentration: Taiwanese classrooms have nothing on this. Curtains shield the children from parental anxiety, but this does not stop some fathers from spying through the gap. Gaggles of them gather round the results boards, making charts on their notebooks and Psions and relaying cryptic messages to each other - "It's now rook against knight, but he has an extra pawn." You can see the boys these grown men once were underneath their beards, and they weren't the heroes of the sports field.

The vanquished children, a few in tears, brave their reception: the never- mind clasp on the shoulder from those who in Waitzkin's words have struggled to be a "decent daddy"; the hissed "I was watching you and you weren't concentrating" from the indecent. The jubilant ones step through the congregation of parents with that sibilant "Yesss" which accompanies juvenile victories everywhere today, on the pitch or the board. Richmond salvage second place but Murugan has lost his third round. It would be nice to think he still had a teddy-bear to cuddle for comfort tonight. !

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