The Chess Teacher

I learned two very important lessons this week playing chess with a stranger in Washington Square Park in New York City.  I am in New York for several meetings related to Living Compass, including an all-day presentation at General Theological Seminary.   I had some free time one sunny afternoon, and being an avid chess player, I walked over and observe some games being played by locals at Washington Square Park.  The park's chess players are quite famous and have been featured in many movies, most notably Searching for Bobby Fischer.  Playing a game of chess at Washington Park has always been on my bucket list and I'm happy to say it has now been crossed off.  

As I approached the chess tables in the southwest corner of the park, I noticed there were several intense games going on.  Many had several spectators surrounding them and so I excitedly joined in to watch some very high level chess chess, hoping to learn a thing or two.  I walked around for some time, watching several games, when I heard a man call out to me.  He motioned me over and asked if I wanted to sit down and play a game.  I was delighted to do so.  We introduced ourselves and I found out his name was James.


James,  whom I had noticed earlier while I had been observing the other games, had been sitting by himself, surrounded by a few bags of what I assumed were all of his worldly possessions.  He was now at a chess table with all the pieces set up when he invited me be play. He graciously offered the white pieces, which if you know anything about chess, is always an advantage.  I tried to defer, but he would not hear of it.  He said he was a regular at the park and I was obviously a guest, and so as a guest I should play the white pieces.


I'm not proud of this, but I was already making the assumption that I was going to be a much better chess player than James based on his appearance, and so that was why I was trying to let him play white to give him the advantage.  Again, and I'm embarrassed to admit this, I made the assumption that a person living on the streets probably wouldn't be very good at chess. This was the first lesson I learned--even though it's something I seem to have to relearn over and over again--I cannot judge a person by their appearances.  How many times have we all done this, and how many times have we been wrong?  Appearances really tell us so little!


I made my first move with white, and  I immediately realized I had misjudged James.  After I completed my opening move (a Queen's Pawn opening for those of you who are chess players) James looked me in the eye and said, “Now there's one more detail we have to agree on.  I play all my games for $10 a game--winner take all.”  The fact that he said this with a glint in his eye made it clear to me that I was in the presence of a brilliant chess player.  I then continued my opening of the game with the Queen's Gambit, which he chose to accept. He then went on to play a variation of defense that I had never seen before, and I play a lot of chess!  I kept thinking to myself, “this man is a genius,” at the same time I was feeling so embarrassed about how I had prejudged him.


The game went back and forth for a long time.  We traded pieces every step of the way and the game was completely even for the first forty-five minutes.  I was hanging on as best as I could when he made a brilliant move to capture a passed pawn I had on the far left side of the board.  In a close game, the loss of one pawn can be the difference between victory and defeat, and in this case that's exactly what happened.  Ten moves later James checkmated me.


I learned two important lessons during my game at Washington Square Park.  The first, as stated, is to be more aware of the filters I use, consciously or unconsciously, as I make assumptions about others.  They are never helpful and are almost always wrong.  Every one of us is much more complex and much deeper than our simple appearance reveals.  The second lesson I learned is this: always advance a passed pawn as early in the game as you can.  You see, after our game ended, James took the opportunity to teach me this lesson.  He recreated from memory the exact set up of the board when he made the decisive winning move.  He showed me how I should have played the situation and how I could have forced a tie game if I had played it correctly.  The lesson was brilliant.  For a good ten minutes he was my teacher and I was his student. I handed James a twenty dollar bill when I stood up to leave.  He said he wasn't sure he could make change for a twenty.  I said there was no need for change--that ten dollars was for his victory, and the other ten dollars was for the lesson about how to advance a passed pawn correctly.   I refrained from mentioning that the more important lesson he had taught me that day, about judging others, was priceless.