Teaching the Game
"OK. So, here we go."
She's sitting there on the carpet, her eyes fixed on the black pieces in front of her. She's got a patented "smiling because I'm with dad" smile on, which I know will get me in serious trouble when she's 15.
I move my pawn to E4.
She sits, carefully considering her many options. Five seconds pass. Ten. She moved her A pawn to 6.
I have no idea what to say. It's not a move that would ever even occur to me. It's way out on the edge of the board. It's blocking her light-bishop. It was at that moment I realized I have no idea how to teach someone a game.
The dilemma of finding the perfect opponent is nearly intractable. The ideal opponent, after all, is just ourselves with a side of surprise. Someone at just about our skill level. Someone we can beat on a good day, but not every day. Someone who loves our game with the same passion, the same level of detail (whether that's casual or intense). The more disconnected we are from our opponent, the less satisfying it is. Hence the conflict between the beer-and-pretzels guy vs. the rules lawyer. The noob and the pubtard.
In the land of consoles and PCs, there is at least implied consent. If someone purchases a copy of Bill and Ted's Heinous Hoedown, they can be expected to have played the game and have a passing interest in its mechanics before they hop into their first multi-player skeet surfing competition. But even here, differences in skill set and temperament have forced the people who make our games into dozens of largely failed attempts at putting us all into the right anonymous buckets. Xbox LIVE has it's entirely meaningless self-selected "Pro," "Underground," "Recreation" and "Family" buckets. Face it, if you were a douchebag, you'd pick "Family," just to make Aunt Jolene blush while she plays Uno.
More inventively, there's TrueSkill, the mysterious matchmaking math that attempts to connect me up with gamers of a similar skill level, ensuring that I live exclusively in a land of 70 year old women named "Ida" who appreciate a good frag, or those 12-year-olds who haven't yet graduated to full on mindless-twitch-bot status. If you're serious about actually competing, of course, there are ladders and leagues, or in the case of heavily competitive and regulated games, like Chess, Scrabble or Magic: The Gathering, hard and fast ratings systems. In all of these setups, you're generally assured of finding an appropriate opponent, at the cost of bookkeeping.
But ultimately, it's still not your job to teach the other person how to play. This is not the case face-to-face.
It's a Tuesday night. Chris and Mary have come over to "play games." This is a mixed crowd. Following horrific gender stereotypes, Chris and I are hardcore grognards who would be happy to stay up until 4AM playing some endless chit-based wargame while we learn the rules governing elephant movement over the Alps during rainstorms. Jessica and Mary are variables - their repertoire is much more limited - a few games of Settlers or Bohnanza here and there, and a long list of fairly casual games like Cash 'n' Guns or RoboRally. And thus the tail-sniffing begins - a complex dance of deciding who has played what, and who has the mental acuity, sobriety and stamina to learn something new. And if it is indeed something new, is it new to everyone or just one person? And how much of a "crap I lose" guarantee is never having played?
For most of my gaming career, I've gotten a free pass on teaching. Nearly everyone I play games with plays more and more often than I do. All of them are better at absorbing new rules and teaching them. My friend Rob is such an acknowledged rules savant that if we crack the plastic on a new game, we immediately hand him the rule book and make another round of Manhattans, knowing with absolute certainty that 20 minutes later he will have distilled the 40 page, 12-by-12 inch rule book down into its atomic particles, and be able to dole them back out at precisely the right speed so that we never, ever say "well crap if I'd known THAT ..."
To make matters worse, I really like complex games. The more complex a game is, the harder it is to learn on your own, and simultaneously, the harder it is to teach. I can count on two hands the number of games of Advanced Squad Leader I have played from start to finish where I was neither the student nor the teacher. Long, richly crafted pen and paper games like Twilight Struggle require tremendous patience to teach, and the new player is nearly guaranteed to lose. Videogame equivalents (like Sins of a Solar Empire) at least have options: tutorials (not so hot in the case of Sins) or better yet Cooperative play, where the teacher can at least be playing the game, all the more challenging for the failings of the student (brilliant, in the case of Sins).
When my daughter first came home, excited to learn more about chess (it was a rainy-day recess activity at her school), I was ecstatic. After that first game, where she made an inexplicable opening move, I resolved to go back to my wall of game-books and pull out some of my early introductory chess manuals. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize how little I know about chess - or rather, how little I know about how to explain it. I am by no means a good chess player, certainly not in traditional terms. But I did waste a substantial amount of time and money playing speed chess in Washington Square in New York. I was schooled one crumpled up dollar at a time by 75 year old toothless immigrants who could clearly out-think me blindfolded, drunk and playing 5 games at once. (I did, in fact, lose $10 one afternoon to a homeless gentleman who challenged any 5 bystanders to a 10 minute game. He got ten minutes to play all 5 games. We, collectively, got 50 minutes for our 5. He made $50.) My point is simply that while I am a crappy chess player, I tend to know why.
So I went back to the drawing board. In this case, that drawing board has been Chessmaster 11, which I am walking through from square one - or rather, square e4.
Tonight, when I sat down to play chess with my daughter, it wasn't me speaking to her with the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon. It was Josh Waitzkin, Chess Dude Extraordinaire. My hope is that like everything else about being a parent, I only need to be one day ahead of her, and it will all work out.