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….
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!
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.