Teaching Through Chess: Family Relations

Lonnie Monka Lonnie Monka / August 17, 2017 / Teaching Strategies

Reading Amy Tan’s “Rules of of the Game”

In our Summer Reading & Literature class, we read a well-known short story called “Rules of the Game”. In this story, the main character, Waverly Jong, must navigate through her relationship with her mother as she rises to become a child chess champion. This rich story touches on many themes, including familial relationships and the immigrant experience in America.

The most striking feature of this story, which leads to an engaging discussion with our students, is the way “chess” is used in the story. At first, chess is introduced as an actual game that the main character learns to play. Then, the careful reader realizes that this story also presents chess as a metaphor for life.

Games are simpler than life, right?

It may seem ridiculous to equate life with a game. Thinking of chess, the board sets very clear limitations on movement. Then, for each piece, capabilities are limited. Life, on the other hand, does not have these limitations. In an age where we can now think about the coming realization of space travel, people’s motion seems only to be limited by their resources. We are not stuck on some board, we must only discover the means to travel through a potentially unending universe.

Furthermore, real people are not limited to unchanging roles like chess pieces. Across our lives we jump from stage to stage -- such as student, to professional, to retiree. Sometimes people can take on many positions simultaneously or change their careers. Many adults today are both professionals and parents, and many people leap between different professional paths later in life.

Yet, only focusing on how life is not like a well-defined game, we might miss some interesting similarities. In certain social contexts, there are strict roles and rules, which if someone does not follow then he or she is unlikely to achieve a desired goal. If the procedures of a courtroom, for instance, are not meticulously followed then the judge will intercede, and people can even get into trouble.

Family Relationships & Chess

Even though our social roles in life change with the passing of time, family relations are more static. Parent-child relations can shift in meaning but not in essence -- i.e. even when people’s children eventually become parents, they remain children to their own parents.

When learning how to play chess, people also learn the importance of not only questioning, but also learning the limits of social roles. In the Amy Tan story, Waverly’s brothers teach her the rules of chess, and she is forced quickly to realize that if she doesn’t accept the rules she won’t get to play the game. Here you can see Waverly narrating this part of the story:

“Why?” I asked as I moved my pawn. “Why can’t they move more steps?” “Because they’re pawns,” he said.

“But why do they go crossways to take other men? Why aren’t there any women and children?”

“Why is the sky blue? Why must you always ask stupid questions?” asked Vincent. “This is a game. These are the rules. I didn’t make them up. See. Here in the book.” He jabbed a page with a pawn in his hand. “Pawn. P-A-W-N. Pawn. Read it yourself.”

Again, reducing everyone we know in life to such pre-defined roles would be as problematic as equating all of life with a game. Still, thinking through this analogy with the above example, we see how the game of chess teaches people to accept roles for practical ends. Chess, then, can serve as a good playground in which to practice accepting roles while also thinking through potential situations wherein these roles should be challenged.

Thinking back to family relationships, everyone needs to learn when to accept the expected actions of roles and when to challenge them. In “Rules of the Game”, Waverly masters her understanding of the roles of the chess pieces in order to achieve the practical goal of winning the game. Simultaneously, she learns that while in the role of being a daughter she must make difficult practical decisions, as the goals of ‘independence’ and ‘respectful obedience’ begin to contradict one another.

The Importance of Literacy

In this age of tech, young people must face challenges to traditional social roles, while keeping up with dynamic new forms of communication. We, at Knovva Academy, believe that literacy is still one of the best ways to prepare students to become responsible adults. For instance, thanks to the Amy Tan’s story, young readers have a fun and accessible way to delve deeply into these questions about practical decisions and family life. At Knovva Academy, we are glad to help facilitate these fun and engaging discussions.

Feel free to let us know what you think our next reading group should be, and don’t forget to check out our current programs:

About Knovva:  

Founded by impassioned educators, Knovva Academy prepares students for the 21st century using innovative technology along with experiential learning to teach teens about the world while helping them acquire skills for their future. Our mission is to enhance educational opportunities for students on a global scale through partnerships with prestigious schools, leading businesses, and local communities. 

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