Learning About the History of Chess

Using the student led unschooling method for homeschooling can seem rather chaotic and unstructured for many people, but when you have ADHD in the home – especially when both the parent and the child have it like in our case, it can lead to some rather unexpected and rewarding surprises and roads that might not have been discovered or explored.

For us, it’s been chess. This is a game that I personally have never really been interested in. I know how the game works on a very basic level, but it’s not something that I’ve ever taken into on a serious level.

Little Bear on the other hand has become extremely interested in it and gets rather excited about it. Lucky for him, Iron Knight is also very into the game. He was on the chess team with my siblings back in high school and they were all very good. Him and my brother were second board. So I think it’s safe to say that Little Bear is in good hands as far as learning how to play and having someone to play with.

But Little Bear hasn’t stopped there. He watches videos on YouTube were people break down and discuss the games of grand masters. And to my surprise, there’s been videos about historical pieces that were removed and replaced over time for game balance.

The game of chess as we know it today isn’t the original game.

Never once did it occur to me that it’s been tweaked the same way that the collectible card games I’ve played, or the table top RPGs, or even the online games. I’ve never thought about that, but now that he asked me about it, and I’ve looked into it with him, it makes sense. When the game was first invented, it wouldn’t have been perfectly balanced from the start. It would have needed adjustments until it had reached the point we know it now.

The piece Little Bear had asked me about specifically was the advisor. This was the article I found in my search since I didn’t have an answer for him: 10 Remarkable Chess Pieces You’ve Never Seen.

And like my mother back when I was just a kid, I’ve never been afraid to tell him I don’t know. She was the one who taught me how to go find the answer, so now I’m doing the same. The method now just looks very different. I kind of miss the long walks to the library with my mom. We live far enough away from the nearest library now that we can’t do that sort of thing, but maybe now that Covid restrictions are easing up significantly we can start making visits. I’d like for him to learn how to use the Dewy Decimal System too and not just search engines. I know it’s archaic, but sometimes, shit goes down or it’s simply not available online. Moreover, sometimes you can’t find it online but a librarian knows how to.

The point is, always know who you need to talk to in order to get the information you need and this is what I want my sons to know and learn. Never be afraid to ask. And let me tell you, this is something Little Bear has got down in spades. He’s got endless questions.

So of course, this becomes a rabbit hole of its own. And you know me, I will follow a rabbit hole just because. Questions and answers? My brain lives for that it seems.

Lucky for us this website has another page on the history of chess pieces specifically. Right here if you’re so inclined to peek and read. And yes, the Wikipedia has an article on chess pieces, the chessboard, the history of chess. Turns out, even the Smithsonian Magazine has an article on the history of chess too, which tells me that this game is considered to have a significant impact on culture.

And naturally, Little Bear asked me about Bobby Fischer. His main question was why he went crazy, and I think it’s probably because he saw videos like this one:

The thing I find incredibly frustrating is how people tend to describe paranoia as insane because I don’t think one necessarily equals the other. Is paranoia problematic? Yes. But is it automatically insane? No.

I think the human brain tends to always be plagued with a variety of doubts and fears. Many of them unfounded. Does that make any of us insane? No. So I just find this annoying and insulting. Paranoia is when these things trigger problematic and dysfunctional behavior, but again I don’t think it’s insane.

To call it insane or crazy is to “other” the person so as to separate ourselves from that person as if to say we don’t have any kind of thoughts like this. Because it’s easier? Because it makes us feel better about ourselves? I don’t know.

I don’t know a lot about this guy, but nothing I have ever heard about him has ever convinced me that he was insane or crazy. He just seemed to me that he had unusual opinions about shit than ran counter to the general public.

And no, I don’t agree with a lot of what he said. I don’t feel that women are automatically worse at chess. I don’t feel that the United States deserved to have the Twin Towers destroyed the way it did BUT I do agree that this country has done some really terrible things that should be addressed. We’re not this grand savior that deserves a free pass in everything we do around the world. We need to be called out when we act like a dumb ass. We need to be clapped back when we act like a jerk.

So I don’t think it’s insane to be really upset and angry with the way your country’s government is behaving. I just don’t. If it was, then wouldn’t that make all of us insane any time we voted against someone we don’t want in office because we didn’t like the way they do things?

The evidence they present to back up their claim that Bobby Fischer is insane is weak at best. According to the Wikipedia article, he had never been diagnosed with anything. It’s all been speculation based on the extreme views he had expressed and the unusual behavior people had observed.

You know, just for the record, if you had said in the 1500’s that germs exist and cause illness you would have been called crazy because this was before the invention of the microscope and there would have been no way to prove it. Prior to their discovery, it was generally believed that little creatures caused illness, so any opinion that countered that idea would have been insane – especially if there wasn’t anything concrete to prove it correct.

So in this video I linked to he didn’t want to celebrate his birthday on camera and use it as another point of proof of his descent into madness. How about respecting people’s boundaries? And yes, really I feel like this is what’s really going on. People freaking out over someone holding their boundaries. Yeah, the guy could have handled it with more grace but come on. How many of us have run into something like this where we are made into the bad guy just because they had an issue with a boundary we tried to set?

I don’t like celebrating my birthday publicly. I sure as hell wouldn’t want it on national television. This isn’t something that everyone would want or enjoy. And from the sounds of it, this is something that they just surprised him with and thrusted upon him. AND they expected him to just be thrilled about it. I don’t think that’s okay.

I have never bought into any of this any time his name has come up where as a neurodivergent all of this comes across as very normal to me. And for my son to ask me the question he did, I suppose that’s very normal too. Because in a way, it begs the question: am I crazy? Am I going to go crazy? Because I’m different too.

Hell as it was, the man died of kidney failure. And I had to look this up specifically since everything else on this man focused on painting him as a tragic chess genius that descended into madness died in obscurity. Usually this translates into something like suicide, so I wanted to find out. No, but I feel like they sure as hell wanted to let people assume something like that. And this pisses me off. A mundane “old man’s death” like kidney failure doesn’t really fit into the narrative, does it?

We watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix when it came out, and it’s probably part of why Little Bear became interested in chess. And this is when I was told it was loosely based on Bobby Fischer’s story. The problem here is that the series shows how medications were misused back then. Both in institutions and in women’s health. To some extent, I feel they still are, but the way the meds are handled in the show for that time period is a big reason why barbiturates, like Valium, are classed as a controlled substance now.

I think it was easy to just brush off and dismiss women as anxious and unhappy and to just write them a script rather than actually address what’s going on. I think something similar has happened with pain medications in our time period and it’s back firing on us. Just like with human behavior, if you get into the root cause and address why it’s happening you’ll have better luck in resolving the issue. Most of the time just throwing a pill at it will only mask the symptoms. I’m not saying addressing the symptoms never has a place in the treatment plan. Often times, you NEED to address symptoms in order to make room for addressing the root cause. But you can’t just mask symptoms and expect to become well.

What I do find interesting in reading up on the history of chess and watching the series is learning that the sexism in the sport has remained incredibly strong. If it hadn’t been for Little Bear asking me so many questions about chess, I never would have known about Lisa Lane, Susan Polgár, and Judit Polgár (currently the youngest grandmaster) even though men and women compete in the same championship. It’s as if the world doesn’t see women sitting at the chessboards at all.

Can we just take a moment and appreciate the fact that Judit Polgár BROKE Bobby Fischer’s record of becoming the youngest grandmaster in 1991. She was 12 years old when she got the International Master title. In contrast, Bobby Fischer was 14 years old when he got it. And I find it odd how NOBODY talks about this? Or at least nobody in the United States? Here they still talk about Bobby Fischer being the youngest? And I’m around people that talk about chess, so this would be like being around football fans that never talk about a major star athlete for whatever reason. Like, why does this happen? Is it because she is not from our country? Or is it because she is a woman in a game largely perceived as a men’s only game?

An interesting side note? The Polgár family chose to homeschool despite their country being against it. The Wikipedia article says the resistance was because it wasn’t a “socialist” approach, so I don’t know if this means their homeschooling style wasn’t socialist or if the homeschooling itself was considered to be not a socialist thing to do. Either way, from a cultural perspective, I find it an interesting thing to think about since I don’t think the decision to homeschool or not should be a political one, but I guess sometimes it is in certain contexts.

Additional addendum to all of this is the record keeping of chess prodigy and on Wikipedia, you can see the list of everyone who has made it to that list since 1950. Chess.com has a similar article covering the youngest grandmasters. Again, as you can see in both that Bobby Fischer has long since been beat but for whatever reason he’s pretty much the only one you here about around here.

And see? This is just one rabbit hole from what started from one question and while I can’t speak for my son, I know I learned a lot from it. I know none of this would have been discovered or explored if we weren’t doing the student led approach. And that’s all this approach is, letting him decide what is interesting and letting him go as deep or as broad into it as he wants for as long as he wants. When you have ADHD this could mean extremely deep and broad and last the entire year, or it could mean just one simple question. And there’s lots of those single questions that don’t go anywhere.

I will more than likely learn plenty more about chess this year as the days roll along here since Little Bear continues to show interest in the game. It’s still not a game that thrills me to play, but I do at least have a greater understanding and appreciation for it.

If you enjoyed this post, or have some thoughts about it, please let me know!

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