You are having a nightmare. You’ve done something very bad and have been sent to Hell. Worse, you have to drive yourself and two children there at 8.30am on a Saturday morning.
Welcome to the Hertfordshire leg of the under 7s Chess Megafinals, a 9am-6pm torture marathon designed to redress the karmic balance of tiger parents.
Rufus and his retro-gaming chum are in a state of pre-match nerves. They are worried that mini Kasparovs lurk therein, blissfully unaware that a pulse and a self-harming mother in a car were the qualification criteria.
We have been up since before 7.30am, a goal that has never knowingly troubled my Bank Holiday weekend wish list. I’ve been trying to pep talk both contestants all the way up the M1: get your Knights and Bishops out sharpish; behave like you’re winning; take modest sips of beer between moves.
A helping of traffic, weird car park directions, and a G-force of doom impede our punctuality, so that we arrive in the school gymnasium panting and wild of hair.
But no order there awaits. Large, confused groups mill in random motion with panic in their eyes, like lost scenes from Towering Inferno: What do the lists mean? How many lashes for a stalemate? Are we black, or white? (Sorry, M. Jackson; that DOES matter here.)
70 chess sets anticipate their 140 pint-sized strategists, as an intellectual hum settles. Immediately, I know these 6 and 7 year olds could take me in a pub quiz, even without their side-partings and bow ties. They’ll grow up to cure diseases and unravel Hawking. I wonder if I might persuade one of them to handle my accounting spreadsheets, for a lollipop.
Boys and girls are split. Attempts to gain feedback on the reason for this fall at the first furlong, though presumably the girls get to play on pinker boards, shifting around My Little Pony horses.
Presiding over the welcome trestle table at the front is a bearded organiser, who has enjoyed a bumpy route to chess, having passed through Ant Collecting along the way and found it too flustering. Today his agitation is betrayed by a large red patch on his ancient-fleece-flanked neck. Seems a cruel God gifted him 2 flat tyres enroute to the venue, forcing him to take a taxi. Safe to say, this man hasn’t used a cab service, or been late, since 1962. Now his clockwork-efficient championships are half an hour in arrears, and he’s near imploding with the unjustness of his destiny.
Kick-off is close. Board game pheromones and competitive genes crowd the air; if the room came to life it would be Tom Cruise.
Time now for the rules, the best of which is encouragement not to thrust your hand out repeatedly between moves to offer a draw. Apparently, this could land you in a harassment lawsuit, the upside of which is preparation for your awaiting career at Goldman Sachs.
Parents are asked to bugger off. Parents won’t bugger off. Parents are asked to bugger off. I’m unsure how long this plays out because I’m hotfooting to Harpenden Town on a desperate junkie-style mission for espresso, leaving behind a sea of players in uniform concentration, stop clocks being tap-tap-tapped, like so many pesky mosquitoes.
On my return, Round 1 is wrapping up, and the emotional vista of the next 7 hours clears miserably. Two tots are choking back sobs while their opponents air pump excitedly. As a rule of thumb, the sort of people who play a game to win are also the sort of people who don’t like to lose, which will present a problem for roughly 70 children per round. Multiplied by 6 rounds, that’s 420 apple-sized hearts due to be broken in one extra-curricular day near St. Alban’s. You’d have to go to a Latymer School entrance exam, or steal the take-home bags of the entire guest list of 21 average birthday parties to replicate that sort of angst; so, on that front, it’s impressive.
Results just in, and it turns out Rufus mis-stepped by offering a draw whilst in possession of a functioning Queen. Meanwhile, his friend was an air pumper. This means my cohort have dodged the first heartbreak ball, and number one of a series of snacks delivering ever-diminishing nutritional returns can commence.
Many have come to witness their treasures reassuringly dis-engaged from an X-Box for 8 hours. All I hope for are some venal, pushy parents to satirise. But, for all the world, I can’t sniff them out. The crew are a mite too amiable, camping out jovially with their instant coffees and packed lunches in the school hall foyer, like refugees glad to have fled a natural disaster- indeed, casting a not unfavourable glow on the dead-eyed karate folk at Cheam gradings who make you re-assess the redeeming features of solitary confinement.
Ding- ding-ding Round 2, 3, 4, 5- it all becomes a blur.
A helper- with the looks and persona of Michael Mcintyre’s weaker twin- patrols to resolve disputes, rarely having to restrain hands behind backs with a rope. (That said, you do NOT want to mess with a 6 yr old who believes his Rook’s been swiped by foul play.)
Highs and lows ensue within a predictable paradigm; there are no nail-biting wet tyre changes in chess.
I pass into a zone of institutionalised apathy, like Dustin Hoffman at the end of Papillon feeding his chickens. Resigned to quaffing polystyrene tea on school chairs, from which I mete out lukewarm trickles of praise and commiseration, I find there’s scant fight left in me. Round 3, 33, 3,333: I’m in a place no league tables can reach.
The tykes are hanging in there. Buoyed by bouts of hide-and-seek and fruit pastilles, they’ve got the prize in sight- the one where we are all released to go home, rather than the one where they win.
In fact, the only thing I know at this point is that neither of my little buddies must qualify for the next-round Gigafinals; nothing at all has ever been clearer. It’s as if my whole life has been leading up to this moment, where I must mid-wife convincing failure.
Rufus’ friend suffers some setbacks. I manage a sad face by thinking about rain and Donald Trump. Now I need to break Rufus. He’s met with losses, too, but not quite enough, and a ball of fear is gathering in my gut. Luckily, he’s in tune (‘would I have to do another day like this?’) so I only need nurture a ‘cooler’ vibe and jazz up their attention spans with Walkers and Fruit Shoots.
Round 6 folds. The long-haul flight has landed. The kids are spent, the adults hollow and resentful. Dare I wait for the results? Do we have to stay for prize giving? Will I have a parking ticket?
Sweet Mary and Joseph, Rufus lost. So, the boys break even, and the buck stops here.
Now it’s me who’s air pumping and gathering the kids close, ready to tackle the motorway home: ‘Guys, there’s this amazing new video game, you’re gonna love it, 2,000 levels…’