Confessions of a Chess Mom


Over the last year I have become an avid proponent of chess through watching my son play on his middle school chess team. The benefits of chess are multi-fold. Research shows that playing chess increases not only the IQ of children, but also their emotional intelligence, or EQ. From my perspective as a parent of a pre-teen boy, chess is the perfect antidote to video gaming in that it demands prolonged focus and strategic thinking, all while interacting with real people face-to-face.

Here’s the problem—I’m a lousy chess player. It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve attempted to learn the game numerous times. Regardless of my efforts, a youngster can checkmate me in mere minutes.

I think of myself as a reasonably intelligent person with more than one diploma to support that belief. Harvard educationalist Howard Gardner identified seven multiple intelligences: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, logical-mathematical. While I could claim adequate fluency in all of those areas separately, when it comes to the combination of intelligences that chess requires—part of its universal and lasting appeal—I appear to come up short.

In spite of this lack of talent, I managed to end up as one of the parent leaders of our fledgling team. For a while I kept my chess ineptitude under wraps, until the day I had a blazing insight: I don’t have to be a great chess player myself to create a motivational learning environment for our young chess players.

I once heard a senior leader of a global chemical company describe his primary role as “removing obstacles for my people”. That’s my job as a chess mom, to keep the board clear for quality chess playing. Those hurdles might include scheduling, communication, funding, politics, and this year, a relentless Maine winter.

Subject matter expertise can get in the way of building a motivational environment. Our chess coach is a gifted high school junior who is a national chess champion in his own right. He continues to generate innovative ways to focus and inspire our gaggle of squirrelly kids. Say, theoretically, I was a skilled player. That might make me think I could be a skilled teacher. I could then be tempted to interfere with how our youthful coach magically works the room.

Last month we created a Junior Chess Club for even younger kids to be introduced to the game. Think developing the Pipeline. It’s also a way to recruit more girls to a male-dominated world. Think C-Suite access. Because the organizing adults didn’t have a clue how to teach chess, we looked to older members from the chess team to mentor the younger members of the junior club. The program was a huge success, primarily because the grown-ups stayed out of the way.

This same pattern plays out in the workplace, where as rising leaders we get promoted beyond our traditional subject matter expertise. Suddenly we find ourselves leading others who know far more about the task at hand than we do. The good news is that if we let go of the knowing and doing ourselves, we can empower those around us to perform beyond expectations.

Instead of attempting to master all elements of the game, my new area of expertise is to learn how to maneuver with the agility of a Queen, knocking those obstacles out of the way.

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