On Wednesday afternoons nine students from our school and I get together to play chess. It's a great game. It's also a tool to discipline the mind, and a stern teacher on the lesson of how to handle loss.
We start every new year with a few weeks of playing "for fun." This lets the kids get back into top form after a Summer usually spent entirely without chess.
But once the "for fun" phase ends, every game counts. I supervise the play, adjudicate disputes, take on the kids who want to challenge me to a game.
Very importantly: I keep the official record of wins and losses. Every week this gets printed as the "Chess Club Standings." Every week the players want to see the new standings with the enthusiasm of an archaeologist who's just learned of a new manuscript discovery in the Judean Desert.
Chess Club is not for the faint of heart. Every participant plays to win; no one gives anyone any breaks.
Why does it go that way? Because in Chess Club there is no "participation award." Each year there is one champion, who has emerged from a long regular-season, finished high enough to make the play-offs, and beaten all challengers through the play-offs.
In my office I have a notebook, appropriately labelled "Chess Club." In the front of that book is a list of every annual champion from 2006 to 2015. Many times the kids know the names of prior champions, even if it's a former ILS student they’ve never met.
If it sounds grueling, that's because it is. Chess Club is about mental discipline, willingness to learn and grow, and healthy competition with someone also doing their very best. If you don’t win this year, well, there's always next year.
With this one additional feature: the kids like to challenge me to a game now and again. Here's the rule: If you lose to me, it doesn’t count against you; if you beat me, you get credited for five wins. Naturally they have wide eyes about the prospect of getting those five wins. Probably unsurprisingly, most years no one ever gets them.
I play with one simple rule: I never "let" anyone beat me. Years ago, I noticed that kids actually don’t like it if they feel that a game is "unreal." But the real proof of this came the first time a student beat me.
The student jumped up from the game, and yelled out, "I just beat Pastor Walt." The rest of the students responded, "He let you win." To which he replied, with a face full of pride, "He never lets anyone win." They all thought on it, realized it was true, and stood in disbelief: Godzilla had been vanquished.
It was several more years before anyone else could say the same. When that player beat me twice in the same year there was shock and amazement. (Not the least, on my part.)
In a Lutheran School there is much said, and lived out, about Grace. Every student at Immanuel will hear clearly and repeatedly of the un-merited favor of God that is ours because of Christ.
At the same time, they are encouraged to take the blessings God has given them, to sharpen their tools, discipline their thinking, and apply the very best of themselves to get results. Chess Club is one of those places.
Of nine players, only the top four make the play-offs. As of this writing the separation between #4 and #5 (i.e., play-offs or not) is .038 winning percentage points. In two hours that could change.