Check mate…

It has happened before with badminton, table tennis and now chess.

In my youth I played all three sports to a very high level. By this, I mean I thought I was very good. It seems the delusions that have shaped my adult career were forged and set from a young age.

At Tom’s 16th birthday, I had a rude awakening about my badminton ability when Tom and his four buddies all dismantled me easily. My weaponised smash was no longer. More likely, it never was. Typically I searched for possible explanations for these defeats and no matter how oblique: are the courts the same size, I wondered?

Table tennis plays a prominent role in many lives growing up and is likely to become an important punctuation mark in fatherhood and particularly so for dads with boys. That first dad loss at table tennis is definitely a moment and one which I was determined to stave off for as long as possible and which I managed by any means available.

By this, do I mean cheating?

Absolutely, guilty as charged.

I cheated to defeat my boys.

And to think that so often I am lauded for my parenting skills.

But needs must and a proud dad has needs like no other. But eventually the defeats arrived. In order, Tom, Sam, Harry and finally Paddy, whose victory signalled the end of a long but uninspiring table tennis career.

And now chess too and has been equally painful. If anything, even more painful because chess is such a cruel game. The defeat can be seen a long way off and yet the end can be so protracted. Like bleeding out as the victor looks on.

Harry is the strategist amongst my boys. Chess suits him and he plays regularly. So when he asked for a game I might have known better. I should have feigned injury or claimed I was too busy, albeit neither excuses are easy to pull off and especially so in lockdown.

Harry had a plan, of course. To claim the only chess scalp in the family eluding him. Without agreeing to play, he began setting up the board and ignored his mum’s protests that dinner was almost ready and that we should wait.

…don’t worry mum, believe me, there is still plenty of time for me to beat dad.

He didn’t say this but he might as well have done. And this spurs me on. Maybe, I wondered to myself. Just maybe….

If I can make a good start and get him rattled!

The Netflix hit, The Queen’s Gambit came up in conversation and I noted that Harry had given up on it.

Too boring, he claimed and I sort of agree. A little one-note and probably two episodes too long. But Nikki loved it and I stuck with it and I hope that something from it might have stayed with me.

Clutching at straws, I know.

In fact, chess forms one of my few abiding memories. An ignominious defeat playing in a chess congress for my school. The best players in London. Held at an elite school, I was nervous in the enormous hall with desks and chess boards as far as the eye could see.

The format – winners play winners and losers play losers – so on and so forth until one player remains undefeated – the champion.

Looking down the list to establish my first opponent and on which chess board, I saw the name, Sean Bell and my heart sank.

Sean was practically a chess celebrity. Feared and admired in equal measure and standing in his way was yours truly. Not for long as it transpired.

My mum had dropped me at the event and I left her chatting to someone as I headed off to ruin the day of a potential grandmaster.

Sean smiled. We shook hands. And within only a few moves he was offering me his hand again.

Because my match was the only one completed, I decided to amble back to my mum who was still ensconced in conversation with another mum.

She looked at me oddly. How was I back so soon? Could I not locate my desk?

‘No mum. I found the desk alright. But I lost.’

No words needed. Just a look was sufficient.

And so it was this week, playing Harry and somehow still believing in myself.

The match begins and quickly I begin to lose, heavily.

In exchanges, I come off worse. I lose a knight, a rook and bishop. It’s like being mugged. I lose my queen and I’m doomed. He is unrelenting and aggressive. Maybe he’s hungry?

The food is ready and so am I. Harry circles my king. The Master Holland is about to fall.

But before he check-mate me….

I concede.

Dinner is ready and I need to get the water jug. Why does no one get the water? What are we, a family of camels?

Harry had won, of course.

But on my terms!

Kind of.

This is ridiculous, I know. Desperate even, and a glimpse in to my mind.

You see, for the delusional, there is always a sort of upside. You just have to know where to look.







14 thoughts on “Check mate…

  1. Lorraine says:

    I was never sporty at all but danced, also a very competitive sport. Competition is very hard in any sport. I think you were definitely set up by Harry He was on a mission – maybe because he was taught by the grandmaster that is his dad!!! Have a good week Dom

  2. Sophia says:

    I really like the way you write your story. It’s like making every sentence exciting and compassionate. I love it.

  3. Grace says:

    This was such a great read. I always enjoy reading your blogs Dom! I wasn’t really much of a badminton player at school and I never understood chess, but I loved table tennis, it was a great game for me and I’m quite competitive so I really enjoyed it. Thank you for always creating and writing such amazing blogs and books! Your family must be very proud of your accomplishments!

  4. Antonieta Alanis says:

    It usually happens and I assure you that you’re not the only one who went through that.
    Greetings from Monterrey, Mexico.

  5. Isabella Benz says:

    Well isn’t that a quote to keep. “You see, for the delusional, there is always a sort of upside. You just have to know where to look. Onwards.” Whether your intention was philosophical or not, you’ve certainly made my quote board. With words that carry a double meaning, you just might be giving hope to those that fear far greater delusions in life, and so, I thank you. Shame about your defeat though, but I suppose all great reigns must come to an end eventually…

  6. G'na Elyse says:

    This reminds me of the time my dear friend and former water polo coach asked if I’d like to play chess.

    We were watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the wizard’s chess scene came on. I was elated by the idea of a life size living chess game. So, he asked if I’d like to play. Of course I said, “Sure!”

    (My uncle and father had taught me to play on the set that had been handcrafted by my uncle. I was a wee girl then, but I enjoyed the strategy of the game. )

    Shaffer pulled down a chess set, place it in front of me, and said, “Here, set up, I’ll be right back”. Then he exited the room.

    As I looked down to open the chess set, there was a small golden plaque with an inscription. There is was , Shaffer’s name followed by the title of Chess Champion. He returned to the room, flashed a sinister smile, and a castle later the game came to a close.

    Well played.

  7. Márcia Malaquias says:

    Hello Mr. Dom
    I don’t know how to play Chess and The Queen’s Gambit series is cool, I really liked it

  8. Yasmin says:

    Hi Mr. Holland, I have read your blog, and I want to tell you that it was great, so much talent and dedication, that I came to feel that I was part of the story, I just want to congratulate you, I hope I can read more, greetings from Chile

  9. Sydnee Coleman says:

    Lovely blog Mr. H as usual, I’m not much of a chess player, but my brother is and he can beat me endlessly. And will play every now and again, just to prove that yes he can still beat me. But afterwards I will pull out Othello and we will play a real game. One where I can win if I want to, and I can lose if I want to. That is how you have to play in bigger families.

  10. Shira Salzman says:

    Hello Dom, this blog was hilarious to me, I’m not such a good chess player and my dad doesn’t even know how to play but when I play any board game with my dad he always cheats as well.. it’s funny to see how much Dad’s are alike 😉

  11. Rachel says:

    I really enjoyed the blog this week!
    Table tennis, badminton (speedminton/crossminton is a really fun combo of squash, tennis, and badminton to try out), and chess are awesome games! Sorry about the exceeding losses, but there’s always a next time to turn it around.
    Looking forward to next week’s blog!

  12. Yose says:

    I think it’s great when children get so good at something they can beat their parents. Like a rite of passage. But don’t be fooled, we still admire our parents like crazy, it’s the only reason we even try to win in the first place.
    I remember once my dad asked for my help updating his resumé. Since I’m now also a professional, I was excited to read his resumé and see how it compared to mine…only it didn’t. At all.
    My resumé fits in one page, a description of several jobs I’ve had, some certifications, qualities, a picture, the usual. My dad’s looked more like a short story, over 50 scientific articles published since the 80s, work at two of the best universities in our country, conferences, courses, you name it, he had done it. It was overwhelming.
    One might think it’s a matter of time, he has had 30+ years to acquire that sort of experience, but that’s not really all there is to it, it’s a matter of being outstanding in his field, and that’s one of the reasons he’s still my hero and why I hope one day I can say I wrote my own “short story resumé”.

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