Life lessons I learned from a lunch recess chess game at age seven

Franklin Chen 2nd grade school photo

Recently, I have had the opportunity to play chess casually with kids at parties. I could not help reflecting on my own childhood memories of playing chess. I feel that there was much I learned about life from the chess activities of my youth, whether casual or serious. This is the first of a planned series of posts about chess.

Chess Challenger III from 1977

This post is about the first time I played with a chess computer and was surprised to find myself winning.

A little bit of my chess history

Supposedly I first learned chess at some time between the ages of two and three, accidentally picking it up while my father was learning the game along with grad student classmates of his. At the time chess was becoming extremely popular in the United States because of the “Fischer boom” resulting from Bobby Fischer’s world championship match and victory against Boris Spassky. Since I don’t remember anything from before age two and a half (I remember the months leading up to my celebrating my third birthday), I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know at least the basic rules of chess!


When I was in Kindergarten, I came across some chess books targeted toward children and filled in some gaps (since my father actually had been confused about some of the rules, involving the details of castling and capturing en passant). I played casually with my father, but nobody else, getting beaten every time (although in retrospect, I have doubts about whether we were playing completely legal games).

Second grade

By the second grade in elementary school, I was much improved because I had started going through chess books geared toward adults, checked out from the local public library. I had earlier spent some time in the school library going through all the basic chess books there.

Chess Challenger III

Chess Challenger III from 1977

One day at lunch recess, a lunch proctor who had heard that I played chess brought me her new Chess Challenger III computer. I started playing a game with it (with me as White and the computer as Black). To my surprise, I was winning against this computer, which had fallen into a trap I had set! (Up until this point, I had only ever played chess with my father, and he had always won.)

White to play and win:

Critical position in game

Unfortunately, the bell rang shortly after I had trapped Chess Challenger III’s Queen and I excitedly told everyone I was beating the computer. The proctor just sniffed and dismissed my claim, practically calling me a liar. I never talked to her again in my life and never asked to play the computer again for a rematch.

What I learned:

My game against Chess Challenger III

I have fully annotated my one and only game against Chess Challenger III.

I am guessing the computer was set at a default “easy” level; I am guessing that at its highest level (which unfortunately would have led to its playing too slowly in a recess setting), I may not have been able to beat it. I had never played with anyone other than my father by this age (I started playing with other people only at age ten, with some exceptions I’ll discuss later), but I’m guessing my ELO rating strength at age seven was probably no higher than 1200.

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