Do turtles play chess?

Sep 7, 2004

Anna and I used to watch the Animal Planet cable channel each evening. We were fascinated by the Crocodile Hunter and all of the gorgeous snakes that coiled into the television screen. No matter we don’t have so many cable channels these days. She and I went for a walk on the nearby American Tobacco Trail (a rails-to-trails project) this morning and saw a beautiful black snake on the paved path. Fearless, Anna squatted down to take a look. Once the snake had slithered up into the woods, Anna informed me that snakes get their sustenance from a special snake drink, which sounded a lot like the fruit smoothies we make at home for our own breakfast, and that alligators eat mud.

Later, we watched an Eastern box turtle crawl through our backyard. Anna squatted beside it, her hands clasped behind her. I was proud to see that. I felt the same last night when Anna insisted I stop my web surfing to play chess with her. She helped me set the pieces, and played a few moves before her attention wandered. Little by little, she’s learning the game.

I’m fascinated with chess, and I’m convinced it will be a good way to teach my daughters the importance of anticipating the consequences of an action. This was one of the most useful lessons my father taught me, though he didn’t use chess to impart the wisdom.

When I was in high school, dad would gently warn me about how, in a time of AIDS and underage drinking, my decisions could have deadly results. He wasn’t using fear or guilt—being a good Catholic, he could have used the guilt card, though I might have subconsciously done this anyway, since I didn’t want to get him in any trouble at his job with the State’s Attorney. He was using reason. He was challenging me to play mental chess, to move the pieces in my mind, to pick the path leading to long life.

The turtle, by the way, crawled under a tarp in the corner of our yard, and was safe and dry there when heavy rains fell in the afternoon.

Anton Zuiker

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