When Andy Janning’s Atari broke down, his dad sensed an opportunity to teach his son a new game—one that might teach them both a few things about each other.
“You should play chess.”
I heard this a lot from my father when I was 13, especially when he caught me playing endless games of PacMan on the good ol’ Atari 2600. Usually I would just ignore him. If the game didn’t have an explosion, high score, or joystick attached to it, I didn’t play it. Besides, playing chess with my dad would have broken the unwritten “If A Parent Likes It, It Must Be Stupid” rule.
So I rejected chess, and the father who offered it, in favor of bad graphics and cheesy sound effects. That is, until the day the Atari died.
I was moments away from a new high score in PacMan when—BLIP—the entire screen went black and quiet. No amount of shaking or screaming could revive the dead microchips in my hands. I was caught. And speechless. I knew that the sudden silence in the game room would tell Dad that I was ready for a new game. And, sure enough, he casually strolled into the PacMan funeral chamber with a chess box under his arm and a smile on his face.
Tired and beaten, I finally agreed to his stupid game, just to get the old coot off my back.
He patiently read the instructions to me as he set up the chess board. I, of course, tuned him out after four seconds. Yeah, yeah: move pawns, capture pieces, take the king. This game will be easy, I thought. After all, I was a video game master. I would lay waste to both my clueless father and his ancient game.
Ten minutes later, my pride was as empty as my side of the chess board as my father checkmated my king. I was stunned. I had been beaten, badly outclassed by my father and his stupid game. I looked into his eyes, dumbfounded. But he never gloated, never rubbed it in. He just smiled gently, inwardly hoping for a few more minutes with his only son.
And he got another game out of it. I could not be vanquished again, I thought. Ten minutes later, the same result: dead king, wounded pride, another game. As day gave way to night, a strange thing happened. I forgot about PacMan and Atari and focused simply on the challenge before me. Ten games and ten defeats later, I shocked myself by inviting Dad to play again tomorrow after he got home from work.
What had started as a game, a father, and time avoided turned into time cherished. Dad and I would sit for hours examining the board, trying to pry victory from its sixty-four squares. We didn’t say much. We didn’t really have to. We would occasionally glance at one another, sometimes to compliment a good move, question an unconventional strategy, or simply to smile at the man we finally saw in the other.
With chess, my dad taught me how to plan to succeed, not just to react to a temporary crisis. With chess, my dad taught me to never to underestimate my opponent, and to understand that the deepest of lessons are taught in the simplest of places. Most importantly, with chess, my Dad taught me that a true king fights to the death to protect the kingdom and queen he loves.
My Dad taught me these and many other lessons with a gentle smile and unyielding patience.
He’s older now, my first true hero who taught me about life through the game he loved. The challenges of age, injury, and advancing Alzheimers have made chess more of a struggle than in years past. He still rises every day to provide for both his queen of 44 years and his kingdom, though.
I don’t see him as often as I want to now, separated as we are by distance and the daily distractions that conspire to undo the lessons learned on that old chessboard.
I know, though, that our hearts and minds are drawn back to those days when a lasting bond was forged from plastic and cardboard. And we both know that somewhere, a chessboard awaits to lead a father and son back home.
I should play more chess.