Peter’s First Chess Tournament

I can see part of my son’s shoulder, and almost all of the board. His opponent looks about three years older. I’ve seen her try to slip her white bishop through an empty black square… the judge asks her to put it back.

“Excuse me,” says a voice at my side. “We ask that the parents not crowd around in front of the doorway.”

I look around. All the other parents are sitting on benches around the corner, or in another part of the library. Nobody else is near the door.


The librarian waits patiently for my reaction. I consider quibbling over her choice of words, with the idea that, by doing so, I will be able to stall long enough to witness a bit more of the tournament.

“You can walk back and forth in front of the doorway, if you like,” she says, smiling. “I know it’s hard.”

I’m not actually worried about whether Peter is winning or losing. He’s still only six (though his birthday is tomorrow), but he’s tall for his age, so people often expect his behavior to match that of an older child. I’m mostly worried that he’ll disrupt the other players, or start stomping around in a snit after losing a game.

The Rules:

No electronic gadgets or books. No telephones, no getting advice from or giving advice to other players.

Perfectly reasonable.

No parents in the room.

Hmm… I wasn’t expecting that.

If you touch a piece, you have to move it. If you touch an opponent’s piece with your piece, you have to take it if the move is legal.

Woah — that’s a bit more strict than what we had practiced!

And no talking during the tournament.

No talking? Peter? 

Well, of course they can’t have twenty little kids jabbering on and on during the tournament. But if I can’t even be in the room to give him the evil eye when he needs it… well… I knew this would be an interesting day.

* * *

Around the corner from the game room, a parent sits on a bench, wielding a highlighter over a textbook. She doesn’t seem all that absorbed in the material. In fact, she’s extremely annoyed with what she’s reading, and she doesn’t mind telling everybody about it. I overhear that she’s a teacher, and she’s taking a correspondence course for some kind of re-certification.

“I have to send in a final paper,” she says to a neighbor. “Though I wish I could just take a test and get it over with.”

She flips through her textbook, “They use four paragraphs to say what they could say in just one,” she scowls. “It’s like they feel they have to put in all this theory and personal opinion.”

I figure now is not the time to mention my profession, so I stroll off.

Meanwhile, in front of the used-book sale tables, another woman pokes through the display methodically. I find a used copy of Vonda McIntyre’s Enterprise (a Star Trek paperback I’ve wanted to read for several years… Gulp! Was it really published in 1986?), Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, and The Strong-willed Child, by Dr. Dobson, who I understand is a spanker, but may still have some worthwhile advice. For a quarter each, what the heck?

I note that the browser next to me has collected a stack that includes a biography of Sir Francis Drake and a book on nuclear energy.

“With a selection like that,” I say, “I’m guessing that you home-school.”

My deduction is correct — and how. Sharon is a mother of nine, with 18 years of home-schooling behind her, and another 13 ahead of her.

“Your son is Peter,” she says, not really asking a question. Because I hiss “Peter!” all the time when we’re in public, I’m perfectly used to strangers knowing his name. “My boy is Peter, too. Here he comes.”

“I won two games and had a stalemate,” the other Peter says. He inspects his mom’s books.

“Look… Queen Elizabeth’s personal pirate,” she says.

“Oh, yeah,” says the boy. “Sir Francis Drake… he took gold from the Spanish galleons.”

Her boy is well-mannered and quiet, about my boy’s size, though he’s ten years old.

More kids are coming out of the game room. My Peter is with them, smiling. Two wins and one loss.

“Are you remembering the rules?” I ask.

Peter shrugs evasively.

A judge gestures to me. “I’ve got to talk to you a moment about your son.”

Peter runs off and starts talking about videogames and Star Wars with the other kids.

The judge takes a deep breath. “We’ve asked your son to stop talking about ten times.” A stream of conciliatory statements, apologies and regrets pours from the judge’s mouth. He’s practically wincing. “He’s doing very well, but if he doesn’t stop talking… we’re going to have to… well… we might have to…” he takes a deep breath. “…disqualify him.”

I shrug. “Okay.”

The judge exhales.

I call Peter over and ask the judge to repeat what he said.

Peter listens. “What does ‘disqualify’ mean?”

I rub his thick, crazy hair. “It means you lose, Mr. Boy.”

“That game,” the judge interjects. “We wouldn’t kick him out of the tournament.”

When Peter runs off to play again, the judge offers more explanations and apologies.

I actually have to put my hand on the judge’s shoulder to calm him down a bit. “It’s all right,” I tell him. It would teach him a lesson he needs to learn. I wouldn’t get mad at you.”

Now the judge starts defending Peter… he keeps finishing his games early, and then instead of leaving the game room, he wanders around to watch the other players. And he won’t stop talking.

I ask whether Peter can have a lollipop to keep his mouth busy during the rest of the tournament, and suggest that the judge to send Peter out to me as soon as he’s finished playing his next game. Everyone agrees.

Peter has found a second-grader named John, who does an excellent imitation of Yoda walking. They soon collect a little army of boys, who swing their imaginary light sabers, then hop into their X wing fighters and zoom down the corridors, supplying enthusiastic sound effects.

Librarians walk past, mumbling and scowling. Now that both Peter and I have gotten warnings, I figure I’d better do something.

“Boys,” I cry. “Put your DVD on ‘slow’ and push the ‘mute’ button!”

It works… not for very long, but it buys us a little time. Soon, the judges invite the kids in for a practice game. Peter pilots his X-wing through the doors, dismounts, and starts to play.

It’s very quiet out here now.

* * *

“Rosetta Stone? What’s a Rosetta Stone?” It’s the teacher again, jabbing an accusatory finger at her textbook. “Now they’re talking about a Rosetta Stone. How am I supposed to know what a Rosetta Stone is? Does anyone know what a Rosetta Stone is?”

The parents sitting near her look at each other and shrug.

The teacher scans the room, practically gloating to have found this evidence of unnecessary complexity in a graduate-level textbook!

Since I don’t have a lollipop to keep my mouth quiet, I can’t help myself.

“The Rosetta Stone was an artifact that contained the same passage of text in Egyptian hieroglyphics and two other languages – I forget what they were, but they already knew how to translate them. Without that stone, they would never have been able to translate hieroglyphics.”

The teacher is listening. She seems to welcome the help, but she’s still frowning.

“In a more general sense, a Rosetta Stone is a key to understanding something difficult.”

She glances down at her textbook. “That makes sense!” she says, with a surprised laugh. “Yes, that makes sense!”

Sharon, the home-schooling mom, has found a cache of Robert Louis Stevenson books, and one title in a series of classic biographies that are popular with home-schoolers. She shares her discovery with me.

Sharon boy Peter comes out. “Now my score is 3-1/2,” he reports.

I must have made a puzzled look, because he and Sharon start explaining the scoring to me. A win earns a point, and a stalemate earns half a point. I had assumed that they would factor in the number of turns or the number of pieces taken. Chess is such a complex game that it seems to me that reducing it to that level seems almost unfair.

My boy pokes his head out of the doorway, an almost-gone lollipop in his hand. “Victory!” he says.

”Did you remember to shake your opponent’s hand?” I ask.

Peter blinks twice, thinking, then ducks back inside.

“Peter!” I hiss. “Don’t go back inside!” I catch the door before it closes, and peek in.

He’s is in the middle of the room, spinning around in circles, looking for his vanquished opponent. Sort of. He’s actually going “Woah! Woah!” as he spins, happily oblivious to his surroundings.

The judges exchange glances.

“Peter!” I hiss again. When I catch his eye, I do the “come here” finger.

“I’ll get my coat!” he says, his whisper as loud as a shout.

Sharon is watching, smiling. “My Peter used to be just like yours,” she says.

“But your boy is so calm!” I sputter.

“I’m sure if we put him in the public school system, they’d have put him on Ritalin. We adapted to him. He learned. He grew out of it. Maybe yours will, too.”

We’re waiting for the final game. There are no more lollipops left. “I’ll just hold my lips closed,” says Peter.

I alternate between grabbing him and hugging him tight and letting him hop around. Now he’s leading a crew of boys on a mission to destroy the Daleks who have invaded the TARDIS.

Sharon is smiling. “Wouldn’t it be interesting,” she says, “if the final game were Peter vs. Peter?”

The boards are set up again, and the judges start announcing the pairings. Lo and behold, Peter and Peter head for the same table.

“It’s homeschool vs. homeschool!” says Sharon.

I laugh. ”May the best Peter win!”

Mine is literally pinching his lips to keep them closed.

* * *

I pace, eat a snack, fiddle on my PDA, and chat with Sharon.

Soon, I see her Peter coming through the doorway. He’s smiling a smile and walking a walk that tells me he won.

But the first thing out of his mouth when he gets to his mother, with his thumb jerking backwards towards my boy, is “He’s good!”

Peter follows along behind, hopping and jumping. His mouth is red from the pinching. I ask the judges how he did. They smile and nod. “He was much better – he was obviously trying very hard to keep quiet!”

Okay, so I guess his behavior this time wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t thrown out of his first chess tournament — that’s good enough for me! I give him a bear hug. “I am so proud of you!”

We need to make a run to the store, so I consider ducking out before the awards ceremony. All the kids are supposed to win certificates, but we come to the library so often I’m sure they’d just hold it for us.

”Do you have my chess board?” asks Peter. “Let’s play!”

The store can wait. We plop in a quiet corner and start setting up the pieces.

* * *

At home, in the garage, I coach Peter a little on what to tell his mother.

He bounds up the stairs. “I won three games and lost two,” he says. “And I got a certificate!”

“A certificate?” my wife gushes. “Let me see! Oh, Peter! I’m so proud of you!”

Peter is holding his hands behind his back. “And there’s something else I have to show you… my second-place trophy!!

* * *

Round 2 is March 19. Sharon and I have exchanged phone numbers. We hope Peter and Peter can get together and practice before the big day.

Update: Peter finished with two wins (one of them a forfeit) and three losses. A photographer snapped a photo of another kid’s face just as Peter beat him, but the image didn’t appear in the Chess Tournament Kicks off in Greensburg story.

Update: in 2018, I corrected Sharon’s name, which I had misheard as “Sherri.”

5 thoughts on “Peter’s First Chess Tournament

  1. Dennis, Awesome job coaching Peter in chess! I had no idea that was going on, so kudos. Second place is a great accomplishment and it is great to read about Peter starting early. The only trophy I ever won was First Place in Radio Speaking at a Forensics tournament during my last year in high school. I wish I started earlier, but then college and research happened. Strangely, I experience the same enjoyment from my work.

  2. Great story. I blogged on this so you’re more or less writing my blog for me lately. How good am I at chess? How good is it if you know all the moves except castling?

  3. Congratulations to Peter, and to the proud papa. Second place is very good for his first tournament! Nice that he made a friend out of the deal, too :-) I enjoyed your story style here to relay the day’s events–I look forward to reading about round 2.

  4. Good for your son, Dr. Jerz! Second place is excellent.

    I remember my days in the chess club in elementray school. I also had to teach my brother, or so I thought, but then he beat my butt bad–he was only 5! Your son sounds like a little devil, but in a fun, cute, kiddish kind of way.

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