When I first learned of this assignment my mind was flooded with so many possibilities. Perhaps I can learn to build a website or some other technological skill. Or I can learn how to knit and gift family and friends with scarfs or socks for Christmas! Or I can re-learn Greek so that I can do my morning devotions in Greek! Or I can learn how to play another instrument. Although all of these ideas would be useful to learn they just didn’t seem to get me excited.
In The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast, Josh Kaufman lists ten major principles of rapid skill acquisition. The first one on the list is “choose a lovable project.” So that’s where I started. I asked myself, “What do I love to do that I have not done in a long time?” The first thing that popped into my head was “play”…I have not played in a long time. Immediately I thought about learning to play chess. I have always wanted to learn how to play chess. The more excited you are about the skill you want to acquire, the more quickly you’ll acquire it.
There were several reasons why I was excited about learning how to play chess. First, my husband loved the game! Second, my son loves to play chess (learned from his dad) and I thought what a wonderful way to spend time with my son. So I shared with him my assignment and asked him if he was up to the challenge of teaching me how to play chess and he agreed. And lastly, I get to do something I haven’t done in a long time—-play!
So I decided to focus my energy on learning to play chess. The first thing I did was look for the chess boards. We own two very nice chess boards and I know if I did not look for the right away it would not get done. The next thing I knew I had to do was learn the names of the chess pieces. I knew that if I was going to play with my son I could not address the pieces as “little horses,” “short pieces,” or “tall pieces.” So, I did a little research. I learned:
- The names and the number of pieces each player has. Each player has 16 pieces – 1 king, 1 queen, 2 rooks, 2 bishops, 2 knights and 8 pawns.
- Each piece has a unique role and a level of importance. The king is the most important piece. The queen is the most powerful; the rooks are powerful when protecting each other and working together; only pawns can be promoted if they reach the other side of the board (way to go pawns!)
- All the pieces do not move in the same direction and the knights are the only ones that can move over other pieces.
- There are a few special rules: “en passant” – which is a rule about pawns and “castling” which is a move that allows you to get your king to safety and get your rook out of the corner and into the game. But in order to do this move it has to be the king’s first move, the rook’s first move, there cannot be any pieces between the king and the rook to move and the king may not be in check or pass through check. (So many rules to remember!)
- There is a specific way to set up the chess board. The second row is filled with pawns. The rooks go in the corners, the knights go next to them, then the bishops and then the queen and the king next to the queen. The queen always goes on her own matching color.
- The white pieces always move first.
I realized that the only thing I knew about chess was the purpose of the game—to checkmate the opponent’s king. But I had no idea how to do that. Clearly, this is not “checkers!”
Now, the time had come to play with my son. For the past 5 days we played for two hours each day (not consecutively). The first day he asked me to set up the board and he was impressed because I knew how to do that. I even remembered the names of the chess pieces! But it was downhill after that. For our first game I had trouble remembering what direction to move each piece. I had tried to jump over a pawn with another pawn, and I was jumping over pieces as if I were playing checkers! It was evident that I had to continue doing my research. My son was very patient, but I did notice that his breathing got a little louder! I knew I had to remember the moves for each of the pieces. So we agreed that I would have a “move sheet” on hand which would help me remember the moves of each of the chess pieces. I was comforted by Kaufman’s words, “recognizing confusion can help you define exactly what you’re confused about, which helps you figure out what you’ll need to research or do next to resolve that confusion.”
I realize that this assignment is about learning a new skill, not perfecting it! On day five my son said to me, “Mom, I’m proud of you. You remember the names of the pieces, you know how to set up the board and you are aware that not all the pieces can fly! You’ll get it soon.” He said, “Just remember there are five basic things to playing chess:”
- Protect your king (castle as soon as possible)
- Don’t give your pieces away
- Control the center (set your pieces up in the center so that your opponent will have a harder time finding good squares for their pieces)
- Use all of your pieces (try to set up all your pieces so that you’ll have more to use when you attack the king.)
- Play, play, study, play, play, play and have fun!
He finished by saying, “But for now…checkmate!” I think I’ll be hearing more “checkmate” than saying it. But I know the day will come when I too can say “checkmate!”
This assignment was more than learning a new skill. It was about spending time with my son and discovering how good a chess player he is!
 Josh Kaufman, The First 20 Hours: How To Learn Anything Fast. (London, England: Penguin Books, 2013), 14.
 Ibid., 15
 Kaufman, p. 30.