My son’s love for chess began when we signed him up for a chess class at age 4. Three years later, he would compete against older contestants both in local tournaments and in the U.S. National Open ― many of these he’d won. At around the same time, he became the second-ranked player in Pennsylvania for his age group.
I was an amateur chess player myself, but with no ferocious desire to win. Still, I was ecstatic when he started bringing home prize money and trophies. He was featured in local newspapers. He played against grandmasters, including Renato Naranja, who drew against chess greats such as Bobby Fisher and Samuel Reshevsky. After Naranja played my son, Ivry, at the famous Marshall’s Chess Club in New York City in 2012, Naranja said, “Well, now we know the true meaning of chutzpah.”
Now, at 16, he can be seen playing with two hands perched on his cheeks ― a signature pose he’d adapt from those earlier years. At home, in front of Zoom with his weekly chess tutor, a grandmaster at age 17, my son is practically unrecognizable in his hoodie as he reworks his attacks and captures from previous games.
Before COVID-19 hit, my son had achieved a U.S. Chess Federation rating of 1700, a coveted goal that took him nearly two years. But in light of the pandemic, the last two rounds of our local 2019-2020 USCF-rated tournaments were put on hiatus.
I encouraged him to sign up for the online tournaments offered through the federation, but he refused.
“Mom, with eight hours of online school, why bother?” he retorted. “Playing these online tournaments is like playing Chess.com. It’s so stupid. It’s so dumb.”
In comparison to the losses of peoples’ own health, lives and death of family members both in our own town and globally, my son’s loss was a very minor one. Obviously, we could survive without chess tournaments. The lack of momentum felt like a loss, nevertheless.
For 11 years, he had been playing in-person chess games nonstop, and each time he went over those lost games with his tutor, he could strengthen his understanding of those openings, middle and endgames. But now the loss of the in-person playing experience made him feel as if he had been robbed of something.
Then, just as we entered the eighth month of the pandemic, a solution emerged unexpectedly.
When watching the popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” I saw my redheaded son in Beth Harmon, the fictional character played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Here was a protagonist of will and wit breaking social norms, creating her own destiny. Her moves were extraordinary, and I wanted my son to at least witness her in action.
“Ivry, there’s something I want you to watch,” I said, and surprisingly he stopped what he was doing so we could watch together.
In one scene, Beth Harmon trains with Benny in New York City, her mentor in preparation for her big tournament in Paris and in Russia ― both against the world champion Borgov.
“Why not advance the knight? Why isn’t he defending against the rook?” Benny asks. “What’s going to become of the backward pawn?”
For months, Ivry’s chess tutor had been pointing out my son’s oversight of not using his knight to defend the rook.
In chess, there is a situation known as “stalemate” for which there is no legal move. Even though Beth was a fictitious character and I was just my son’s mother, I didn’t want him to feel stuck in a “stalemate.” The pandemic has been teaching us that without flexibility and adaptability, it’s impossible to think with clear moves and plans for defense and attacks.
“So what do you think? Do you agree with Benny? Where’s the defense against the rook?”
“Hmmm,” he said. “Interesting.”
Problem-solving has become key to navigating a pandemic, our uncertain world. Similarly, I am a chess player understudy: How can I parent and work from home successfully? How can I stay focused with ongoing distractions when we’re fighting this global war? When we problem-solve together, we become golden.
Up until now, my son was responsible for his own problem-solving. Unlike baseball and basketball, you can’t exactly cheerlead a chess player. But you can advocate for them.
So together we came up with a plan:
1. Play for the love of the game. Not to advance a USCF rating. Come back and analyze. This will take the pressure off.
2. Then when you’re ready, sign up for just one one-day tournament. We picked one that fell during the winter break that didn’t compete with my son’s online schooling, the Manhattan Chess Open on Dec. 30. He won three games, lost one and drew one. And he won a cash prize for a score that put him in fifth place in his rated group.
Even though chess is played silently, at least I have the pride of helping my son as we find ways to adjust and overcome in an uncertain situation. He realized he could do just as well and maybe even better. I learned to trust in his adaptability and flexibility, that he would find his way even if playing online wasn’t his thing.
At the end of the day, however, there is really no other choice in a pandemic but to adapt and go with the flow. I want to believe that the day will come when he will go back to playing in-person tournaments, and when that happens, we will not take them for granted.