The Ron we meet in Philosopher’s Stone isn’t exactly brimming with self-belief. He’s embarrassed about his hand-me-downs, overshadowed by his older brothers and burdened by the weight of family expectation. It’s really no surprise that the Mirror of Erised shows him basking in the glory of being the best Weasley boy – something, he gloomily tells Harry, is unlikely to happen in real life:
‘Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first.’
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
All that sibling rivalry, plus the added factor of being the best friend of the incredibly famous Harry Potter, all seems to contribute to knocking Ron’s self-esteem, and it can lead him to being pretty jealous at times. But in his very first year, Ron shows poise and bravery while battling Professor McGonagall’s huge enchanted chessboard, one of the many obstacles protecting the Philosopher's Stone. He’s even willing to sacrifice himself by being knocked unconscious by the giant chess pieces so Harry and Hermione can move on. It's a hugely mature decision for someone so young, especially for someone who can be a bit immature at times like Ron.
Here’s why Ron’s chess match was so important.
Ron’s part of a big family, constantly jostling for room. At Hogwarts, it’s even worse: not only does he have the legacy of his two eldest brothers to contend with, he’s also got perfect Percy and practical jokers Fred and George on his case.
If everyone expects certain things of you, it’s hard to feel in control of your own choices. Chess might be an unpredictable game, but when Ron is directing his pieces around that chessboard it’s just him and his opponent.
Ron can be impulsive, reckless and irrational – such as stealing his dad’s car in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for instance – or falling out with Harry over his Triwizard Cup entry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Chess, however, is a long game with only three possible outcomes. Chess forces Ron to think strategically, and quickly. This is where he’s at his best. He thrives on action and at the very least he likes a plan. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, he initially struggles with the randomness of his Horcrux journey but later, during the Battle of Hogwarts, he has the idea of gathering Basilisk fangs to destroy the remaining Horcruxes — the kind of thinking on the spot that chess encourages.
He says it himself — at every point in Ron’s Hogwarts journey, from the Sorting Hat to his lessons to the Quidditch pitch, he’s burdened by expectation: all his family were Gryffindors, Bill was Head Boy, Charlie was Quidditch captain, Percy’s a prefect and Fred and George make everyone laugh.
But a game of chess demands nothing of you except that you play, and in Ron’s case, he plays well. To lose is disappointing, but not devastating (or at least until he comes to play Professor McGonagall’s giant set), and in any case, he doesn't often lose.
It’s precisely because nobody expects anything in particular of him that Ron can play wizard chess without feeling self-conscious. When Ron makes it on to the Gryffindor Quidditch team, his anxieties about becoming the new Keeper become so overwhelming that they affect his ability to play – especially joining the team years after Harry did. His insecurities really play havoc with his intentions in Deathly Hallows, when he abandons Harry and Hermione after one too many Horcrux-influenced bad thoughts. He has no such insecurity when faced with a chess board so he just plays instinctively, analysing nothing but his opponent.
In Half-Blood Prince, Ron’s pre-Quidditch match nerves get so bad that Harry pretends to add a drop of liquid luck to his pumpkin juice. It’s only then that Ron starts to feel confident. But when he comes across Professor McGonagall’s chess set in Philosopher’s Stone, he already has the confidence to know he doesn’t need luck. He wastes no time telling Harry and Hermione what to do — he knows he's the best chess player, so he takes charge and says so.
Above all, wizard chess is Ron’s game. Elsewhere he is overshadowed and sometimes entirely overlooked, but when faced with a chess board, he knows he’s playing to his strengths.
This is what gives him the confidence to face McGonagall’s merciless white queen. When he steps across the square knowing he will be attacked by a large stone chess piece, he does it so that Harry can checkmate the king. Sure enough, Ron is knocked out with rapid brutality, but his strategising works and Harry and Hermione can move on.
Ron’s a Gryffindor, so of course there are many moments where he proves his bravery and determination — attempting to save his sister in Chamber of Secrets, ignoring a broken leg to challenge Sirius in Prisoner of Azkaban, battling Death Eaters in Order of the Phoenix, to name a few. But off the chess board, he generally works best as part of a team.
He has a family full of high-achieving siblings and friends like Harry and Hermione, so the moments that Ron gets to singlehandedly save the day are few. Chess gives him an opportunity to shine, and the things it teaches him — strategy, quick thinking and the importance of self-belief — are pretty important lessons.
Fifty points to Ron.
If you want to revisit Ron's epic chess match again, you can watch Kenneth Branagh and Ruth Wilson, with Helena Bonham Carter, read Chapter Sixteen, 'Through the Trapdoor' here.