Margin-building simplicity with engaging complexity. Sound like an oxymoron? Perhaps. Those are some of the words that come to my mind as I try to describe what it has been like to play a couple games of chess lately with my eight year old.

I had a running joke with one of my professors at Texas Tech for the past few years, who kept a very nice chess set in his office. The joke was a question that generally seemed ridiculous given the workload he faced as both a college administrator and professor. I would ask, “Played any chess lately?” The very question, had it been asked naively, would seem to communicate a lack of awareness about how many “important and pressing” matters there were to tend to. To do lists which never got entirely finished. Email inboxes that seemed to only grow with time, rather than shrink, even as they demanded hours of attention taken away from other tasks.

I think the question may not have been so silly now, however. My eight year old son has started to play chess regularly, every other week in a “chess club” after school at his elementary school. I taught him to play chess a year or so ago, but we only played a few times. Now he is really getting into it. Amazingly, about 100 kids show up after school every other week to learn and play. He has also been able to get some private tutoring from a young Oklahoma chess champion that lives in our city, who is ranked in the top 10 in the state for her age range. We have played twice in the last week or so, and both times I only narrowly managed to beat him– The day of my chess demise will dawn soon! I am by no means a guru of chess– I played a little bit off and on growing up. My dad taught me to play originally, but I remember playing most with my friend Mitch Janasek, who I’ve known since 6th grade. Mitch was always into playing games like chess, Risk, Stratego, and other “thinking games.” He was always better at thinking several moves ahead when it came to chess– I never did that real well and still don’t– hence I don’t remember winning many games against him. The experience of playing those games was a lot of fun, however, and are pleasant memories etched in my mind.

The natural order of my life these days can lead to task-pinging, endless information consumption and synthesis sharing (blogging and podcasting), and less exercise, healthy eating, book reading, and sleep than I need. A game of chess with my son is a much-needed respite from this pattern.

When I say that playing chess is “margin-building,” my context is Dr. Richard Swenson’s book “Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives” that I read several years ago. Swenson defines “margin” as “the distance between our limits and our load” when it comes to stress. Lots of activities can build margin, but I find increasingly that conscious effort and even scheduling are be required to build-in these moments during the day. Recess can build margin. Chess requires that we sit quietly, think deeply, and move slowly. That is an atypical behavior pattern today, I think. The idea is a simple one: Sit down and play a quiet game together. The net result is not only fun, but also satisfying in a way that both yields joy and margin.

Chess is also engaging. The complexity of the game is amazing. No matter how old I get or how much experience I gain playing the game, I serious doubt I will ever “master” it. I think the process of playing chess and learning to play better teaches a lot of skills that my son and I may not be learning like we should in different contexts. We both made mistakes in our last game when we were “hasty.” This reminded me of Treebeard in “The Lord of the Rings,” who always admonished the hobbits Pippen and Merry by saying, “Don’t be hasty.” That is good advice for chess players.

I’m looking forward to more frequent games of chess with my kids in the weeks and months ahead. I think those moments amount to time well spent together.

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