The first time my son, Eli, and I played chess, he beat me in four moves. He was 7 years old. Ashamed and proud I told a friend and fellow father. Sounds familiar, he said. His daughter, only 6, had defeated him in the same way: by playing the white pieces, she entangled his king with a quick two-pronged attack on the f7 square, the weakest on the board for black (as we both learned).
Eli wouldn’t necessarily be the next Bobby Fischer or Beth Harmon. But he immediately went to play chess. He started playing in the first grade, learning from his mother and a teacher at his special education school.
Since his preterm birth at 27 weeks — he weighed less than 2 pounds and clung to life on a ventilator for a terrifying two and a half months — he has faced physical and behavioral challenges. Growth hormone deficiency, ADHD, anxiety, lack of impulse control.
In some ways, his difficulties only got worse after his mom and I broke up when he was 2 and soon divorced.
In other words, from the very beginning parenting turned out to be very different and more difficult than I could have ever imagined. As a single father to such a challenged and defiant child, I found myself having to throw out the script I had drawn up in my head. I turned to chess as an audible, a play conjured up on the fly, when my son and I needed a score.
After Eli thrashed me a few times, I was faced with a crossroads: either avoid chess altogether, as the father of one of his classmates did after he properly lost to his son, or take up the game himself. Looking for connection, I chose to learn.
Decades had passed since I last played chess. At Eli’s age, I liked sports a lot more. In the evenings and on weekends, I watched sports on TV with my father, a tradition I adopted with my son. But it turns out that sport, at least from what I understood about it, is not his bag.
For a while he loved football. He took weekly classes in the basement gymnastics of old churches and schools and on lawns in crowded parks. We spent Saturday afternoons playing fetch games, using our jackets, backpacks, and water bottles as makeshift targets. Little did he know that the field would be huge and most of the other guys bigger, more agile than he was. He more or less survived the first game. But after that he refused to play. His mother and I persuaded him to go to the second game, but neither we nor his coaches and teammates were able to lure him onto the field. He skipped the third game altogether – and played street chess instead.
Now that he’s 12, Eli occasionally watches the NFL, but with his mom, not me. Chess was our chance. It allowed the two of us, a single father and an only child who only saw each other three days a week, to have a shared interest. As a toddler, Eli asked me before bed to dim the ceiling light in his room to the faintest glow. When he returned to his mother’s house the next morning, the light would stay on all day, imperceptibly until nightfall, when the sight of it hurt me.
Looking back, I think Eli also saw chess as a way to connect us. He volunteered to teach me, set the board on our coffee table and demonstrated pins, forks, and skewers—tactics he’d learned in school and used mercilessly against me. Eventually my eye became sharper, but he was always a step or two ahead. I would take his bishop or knight only to expose my queen: I walked into his traps.
I also tried to learn myself by watching videos of chess openings and attacks, but I always couldn’t remember more than a few moves. I tried to play slower, hoping to make fewer blunders. Eli, impatient by nature, would have none of it. “Come on!” he would cry.
Losing again and again hurt me, but seeing how animated Eli got when he played chess, learned or even talked about chess kept me going.
I bought some chess books and studied puzzles. I created an account on Lichess.org, an open-source server where over 40,000 games are in play at any one time. I lost a lot at the start, but slowly started to improve. I won one game in seven moves, using a fork trick called the Fried Liver, which Eli taught me.
From time to time, his interest in chess has waned. He loves other games like Uno or Exploding Kittens. Today, screens are more likely to monopolize his attention, especially during the pandemic, as he can join friends online.
But chess keeps calling him back.
In chess, Eli finds a balance that eludes him in other areas of his life. Instead of impulsively criticizing or cursing, he gets involved in the game. Chess contains him. Endlessly complex and bound by a set of rules he accepts, it stimulates his analytical mind. On the chessboard he is fast, agile and strong.
Chess has mainly become an ongoing conversation between us. One night while he was with his mother, I checked my email and found a note from him. He had studied the queen-versus-pawn endgame and wanted to show me how it worked. His room in the hallway was dark and the apartment felt empty without him, but for a moment he stood right next to me preparing the pieces.
Paul Rogers is a columnist