Letter to my Father.
Today, on your 72nd birthday, I, your only (that we know of) son, would like to wish you the happiest of all birthdays. There is no doubt that I owe much of my current happiness and success to your parentage.
I want to talk a little bit about chess. Chess has always been your game, and because of your love for it, I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t know how to play. I started playing chess when I was two, perhaps. Maybe younger. It’s something we do together every time we see each other. I’ve never been as good as you are. I never will be. But the lessons I learned from playing chess with my father have prepared me to be successful in life.
The first lesson you taught me, after how the pieces move, was to get used to losing. I don’t believe you ever let me win a game in my whole life. I didn’t beat you a single time until I was in my teens. I still only win maybe one game out of five. In my current career as a scientist and an engineer, I lose a lot. Papers get rejected, grants go unfunded. Jobs I want don’t land. I had to learn that no matter what I choose to do, someone is better than me. That taught me to fight harder for what I really want, but to accept it gracefully when I don’t get it.
The second lesson you taught me with chess was to appreciate it when I win. You never taunted me when you beat me. You had encouraging words, and every game we played when I was a kid, you analyzed and showed me what I could have done better, how I could improve. When I finally did beat you, I could see that your reaction was not dismay but pride. Pride that I had finally achieved what you’d been teaching me all those years. And I celebrated. But I didn’t taunt. Because you taught me by your example to win generously.
The third lesson you taught me was that my actions have consequences. I make a move on the chess board, and the game unfolds one way, not another. I can’t go back and undo it. Even when I was a little kid, you’d ask me, “Are you SUUURE you want to move there?” Because you always enforced, once I’m no longer touching the piece, I can’t take the move back. No matter how bad it is. It was my decision. Now I have to live with it.
The fourth lesson you taught me was that time spent playing a game doesn’t have to be about the game. Just about wherever we went, you had a little cloth pouch with a roll-up vinyl chessboard and a set of heavy plastic pieces. If I was bored, or cranky, you’d say, “Let’s play chess.” And then, you’d beat me at chess, and by the end of it, I felt better. Because through the game we’d talk, and I’d usually either talk about what was bothering me, or we’d find a topic that entertained me, and my boredom or my discontent would vanish among the forest of warriors on the board.
The fifth lesson you taught me is that time is too precious not to waste it. All that time that homework didn’t get done, and chores went untended. While the world went on with its business, we played a game in the park, or in a coffee shop. Wasting time. Playing chess with my dad. Learning how to live.
I love you, Dad. And thank you.