An Armenian Example The Rest Of The World Should Follow. Arianne Cao


December 13, 2013 | 22:57

One of the first questions I am often asked is whether I will
teach my future children chess. The query is soon followed with
a confirmation that if I do, they will certainly be geniuses and
conquer the heights of the chess world. Although I can’t agree with
the theory of an automatic transfer of any particular chess prowess
(if such a thing even exists), my answer is always a resounding and
very smugly proclaimed, “Yes”.

An Armenian Example the Rest of the World Should Follow

A lot of my childhood friends who achieved a decent playing standard
(and who had the ambition), are now extremely successful in their
respective fields with a sack of scholarships and a killer resume in
their back pockets. They are some of the brightest and most realistic
people I know. And we all admit that chess has played a major role
in shaping our character and attitudes towards risk-taking, failure,
and strategizing our lives so that there is purpose in action.

At a recent event in Yerevan, the US Ambassador, John Heffern, extolled
the merits of the game, claiming that “chess expands horizons and views
of what is possible in the world. A child’s circumstances – income,
family, background, should not limit or determine their future”. Amen
to that; but one could replace the word ‘chess’ in that sentence
with any sport. What makes chess so special? So special in fact,
that Armenia is the only country in the world that has made chess
compulsory in schools since 2011. Because let’s face it: not all of us
can be a Levon Aronian. Why go to the extreme of making it mandatory?

I won’t bore you with the usual suspects of the virtues of teaching
children chess: improved social skills (when taught in class, for
example), sharper and deeper concentration, improved problem solving
capacity and cognitive performance, and knowing that there is always
someone better than you. The lead Armenian psychologist in charge of
monitoring performance has confirmed that even at this stage of the
program’s infancy, key indicators beam with success. Charities also
use chess to distract children from the streets and drugs, and studies
show that it can even prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. But I
propose three other main reasons why kids should learn chess. These
reasons are profoundly practical (and depending on the child’s
personality and upbringing, their effect can be especially potent).

Firstly, chess accustoms one to continual disappointment, and
therefore breeds courage and resistance to failure. Probably the
wisest words ever said to me occurred when, as a twelve year old, I
whined about some devastating loss as being unfair “because I played
so well”. My former team captain snapped back at me almost immediately
to terminate my self-pity, and said in a very matter-of-fact fashion,
that “the world is not a fair place. The sooner you get over that,
the better”. What brilliant words to a child and how true they ring
on and off the chess board.

Many tournament players can still feel the sting in their heart when
they think of that one (or two, or several) moments where they missed
their chance(at first place, or a grandmaster title, for example)
because they played badly or their opponent played better during a
few seconds in their personal history that proved to be a crucial
and infinitely cruel moment. Or perhaps a bit of luck was involved:
a few seconds of lost concentration, a miniscule overestimation, or
time mismanagement. In the end, they packed up and went home with a
heaviness in the pit of their stomach and a bit of their heart eaten
away – and worst of all, with the understanding that ‘my best was
not good enough’.

But it is not all misery: sometimes you find yourself on the other
side, where luck has surrounded you as a shield with favor, perhaps
when you most did not deserve it. (In one of the best books I’ve
ever read, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning economist
Daniel Kahneman firmly establishes the major role of luck in random
environments – such as in business: “the comparison of firms that have
been more or less successful is to a significant extent a comparison
between firms that have been more or less lucky”. The brilliance
or incompetence of any CEO in fact has little bearing on corporate
profitability or stock returns. In chess as in life, randomness is
everywhere, engendering both elation and castration – the point is
to fight on rather than wallow in self-absorbed depression).

Before his recent comeback fight in which he completely outclassed
his opponent, legendary Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao was probed on
the question of whether his last match (in which he was surprisingly
knocked out) had any effect on him. His reaction was sublime: you get
knocked out – so what – that’s boxing, and that’s life. In boxing you
learn the lesson with several blows to the head; at least in chess
only your ego is damaged.

Secondly, chess acquaints one to the fleeting face of opportunity. At
any given moment, opportunity reveals itself in many guises, and it
must be snatched away like the last pretty village maiden. Because
if you don’t, she is gone in a flash or your opponent will take her
as his own. Opportunity must be sought after or created but never
squandered. If the world is not fair – and it isn’t – you will not
be handed victory. But to take advantage of opportunity you need a
fighting spirit and the tenacity to actively seek out any and all
resources available.

IntermediateSchool 318, an inner-city public school in New York,
has a poverty rate of 70-75%. You could say that their pupils are
instinctively combative: because they have learned, or at least have
seen their parents learn, that to achieve ‘the American dream’, they
must worm their way out of the muddy trenches of a low socioeconomic
and minority wasteland, where there is no pity, and nobody near to
give you a hand up. I don’t think it is a coincidence that they are
record-holding winners of 30 national school championships – and I
am even tempted to draw a parallel here with Aronian himself.

Lastly, chess cultivates an obsession with the future. After all,
it is a game of prediction. Chess favors those who are objective, and
any long variation of moves eventually begs the question, ‘so what?’ A
child’s argumentation is sharpened due to the prioritization of the
macro-strategy: it forces them to always find an answer to ‘so what’
or ‘what now?’ in ‘because of this’. It is a way of disciplining
decision-making to be made with a future birds-eye view evaluation
and a keen awareness of consequences. You must not only predict the
opponents motives and future, but also plan your own (and according to
available resources). Meaningless moves will be punished. As old King
Solomon once cautioned: “When there is no vision, the people perish”.

Now,give me an individual with all of that wisdom, and that’s the
kind of person I would want to hire. That’s the kind of person who
will succeed in whatever path they choose in life. No degree from any
university in the world can offer as much value as these qualities. A
government program that cultivates a generation of these kinds of
thinkers will be paid back many-fold.

Arianne Caoili

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