The Female World Record--Part 2 ("More Openings")

Apr 21, 2010, 9:03 AM |

(This is the second in the series. The story begins below with the first post.

. . . When we left little Cassandra, she was only eight years old and already wanted to be a chess world-record holder.)

Cassandra’s chess tutor resigned in disgust after three months of lessons. At the time, Cassandra was only eight-and-a-half. After that, her father resumed her tutoring, because she still insisted that more than anything she longed to grow up to be a chess world-recorder holder. When he asked her what she thought it meant to be a “chess world-record holder,” Cassandra said, “It means everyone waits for your next move with bated breath.”

In school Cassandra was the head of her third-grade class in every subject. She won the school Spelling Bee. She could recite the first fifty prime numbers backwards. And she was the only child who enjoyed playing chess. The only problem was that she did not really play chess, she only moved the pawns and pieces around the board improperly, and she had no idea what checkmate was.

Cassandra’s father blamed himself. He was sure that his daughter had the I.Q. to understand chess. “It must be some error in my pedagogy,” he told himself. So he tried to find new analogies for the game; his well-worn battlefield analogy probably did not resonate with little girls, he thought. Instead he drew analogies to the art of love, but, of course, Cassandra had yet to feel the first stirrings of romance or experience the battle of the sexes.

Next he tried teaching her to play only with Black and then only with White, thinking she might be confused by the constant switching from offense to defense. After all, he told himself, even thick-skulled football players specialize in only one or the other.

It made no difference. Every time he took his eyes off the board for an instant and then looked back, her bishops would mysteriously find themselves on the same-colored squares. He could not seem to explain the queen’s movements so that Cassandra could understand: “Being able to move in every direction as many squares as she wants doesn’t  mean that every time she moves the queen can move in every direction and visit any square she wants to.” After he showed her how to open by bringing her knights out before the pawns, he could not stop her from bouncing the poor horses all over the board as if they were in a steeple chase and not on a chess board.

Eventually it occurred to him that his daughter was just being perverse. He decided to lay down the law. “Either you play fair with me,” he warned, “or I won’t play with you any more.”

“I am playing fair,” she said, her big, black eyes wide with surprise.

For the next three years, her father slogged ahead with Cassandra’s chess education, such as it was. He gave her books to read. He subscribed to “Chess Life” for her. He bought her an XBox and Chessmaster Live.

But on the cusp of middle school, she still had mastered only a few chess concepts: White goes first, pawns usually move only one square at a time, kings always move only one square at a time, bishops travel on the diagonal, and rooks travel in straight lines.

“Cassandra,” he said as he drove her to the middle school on the first day of her sixth-grade year, “I hear there’s a chess club you can join. I know you’ll join. Nothing I can say will stop you. So the best advice I can give you is this: always play Black so you can mimic exactly what White does; avoid moving your knights; and never complain when someone says you’ve made an illegal move. Just say you’re sorry and try again.”