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Monday, February 15, 2010

Chess Rumble: Life Lessons from Chess

The English language is peppered with chess idioms: stalemate (a position of impasse), gambit (a risky tactic, often involving a sacrifice), checkmate (a measured response, leaving your opponent with no way out), rank and file (literally, the rows and columns on a chess board; often used to name the "lesser players" in an organization), pawns in a game (bit players), and endgame (the final phase of an operation or story). Movies, television shows, theater, literature, and even video games widely use chess as a metaphor for human interactions. In The Lord Of The Rings, for example, Gandalf describes the coming war in chess terms:
The board is set, and the pieces are moving [...] But the Enemy has the move, and he is about to open his full game. And pawns are likely to see as much of it as any, Peregrin son of Paladin, soldier of Gondor. Sharpen your blade!
Chess as a metaphor for critical thinking and decision making is the central theme of Chess Rumble, written by G. Neri and illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson. From the book jacket: "Inspired by inner-city school chess enrichment programs, Chess Rumble explores the ways this strategic game empowers young people with the skills they need to anticipate and calculate their moves through life." Told in free verse, this book has a rich, authentic voice and a truly plausible story line.

Here G. Neri and Jesse Joshua Watson reflect upon their respective roles as author and illustrator, and the phenomenon that is chess:

As an educator once faced with designing an academic curriculum for inner-city youth at a summer camp, I chose chess as a center piece for that program (center piece is also a chess derived idiom). Sixth and seventh graders who otherwise had difficulty following directions and sitting still would immerse themselves for hours in tabletop warfare.

In one memorable game, a student made a reckless attack which cost him a rook (a valuable piece, outranked only by the Queen). My counselor responded to the student's dismay by saying, "You made a move from anger. When I took your piece, your first thought was to get revenge. But if you had looked a move or two ahead, you would have seen a bettter way." That exchange was just one of many that came from our games. (In later years I even taught a chess course at church called The King is the Thing, which taught life lessons through chess).

Chess Rumble is a fabulous book for your classroom library or as a read-aloud. The authentic voice and plentiful black and white illustrations make it a stand out for the middle school group.


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