Chess has been central to our family life since our son Ezra discovered, at the age of five, he loved playing, taught by his father and grandfather. Over the years, countless weekends have been spent competing at tournaments in motorway hotels, from Aberystwyth to Solihull. Social events are frequently declined ("Sorry, it's a chess weekend") and, to the joy of our other children, we seem to have acquired the dubious title of "Chess Parents". Now aged 10, Ezra is currently ranked first in England for his age group in "rapid" play and third in "standard" play.
Ezra recently returned from 10 days in Prague where he represented England in the under-10 section of the European Youth Chess Championship. The top players from more than 50 countries, aged eight to 18, fought each other across the chess board. We are used to competition, but the international chess circuit makes Channel Four's Child Genius look like child's play. In Prague, we felt like teddy bears compared to some parents and were struck by the cut-throat intensity of the competition.
Imagine Europe's tiger mums and dads, and their little chess prodigies, crammed into a Soviet Style hotel in the middle of an industrial estate. The children played one game a day every day for nine days. Parents were not allowed in the playing hall and games could last up to six hours. "I won," beamed a Russian boy to his father on the first day as he exited the hall. "You won? What in hell do you call those first five moves? Go straight to your room and practise." (My knowledge of Russian was rather handy). When, soon after, Ezra won his game against a Czech boy, we simply gave him an enormous hug and took him for a milk shake.
We were so proud that Ezra had been chosen to play and just wanted him to enjoy the opportunity to pursue his passion in this unique environment. All we ask is that he tries his best. Other parents, though, had different aspirations. In Turkey, winning a medal could guarantee you a grant at university. In Russia, children would attend full-time chess schools. Others took months off school to prepare, and brought personal coaches with them, training day and night. In Romania, losing a game might bring shame on your family. How lucky Ezra was when he lost a game that our reaction was another huge hug and another milk shake.
How do you boost your child's energy levels when they're playing for a gruelling six hours? We loaded Ezra up with nuts, dark chocolate, two bananas and energy bars, my husband having diligently researched the snacks that fuel the Grandmasters. The Polish contingent were sent in with cans of Coca Cola and four KitKats. Indian and Sri Lankan parents armed their offspring with soya beans and mango. The French children ne mangent pas beaucoup. The Italian parents dressed their children so immaculately that frankly it didn't matter what sustained them. And the Israeli kids got double the amount of hugs as they went in, one from their parents and one from their security guards.
With the children dispatched into the playing hall, the question was - what am I going to do with myself for the next few hours? Some parents sought distraction in the nearby shopping centre. Others spent the time with their chess players' siblings whom they had shlepped along in the guise of a family holiday. Most parents, like us, sat glued to our plastic chairs right outside the hall and waited for our players to emerge. Waited. And waited.
Despite aiming for a nonchalant attitude, the inevitable maternal protection kicked in and my stomach tied in painful knots. As soon as the first child came out of the playing hall, we would lift up our heads in case it was Ezra. With more than 500 children playing and Ezra's games never lasting less than four hours, that's a lot of head lifting. Guidance to chess parents prescribes the opposite - don't wait for them, so they feel less pressure. We felt guilty ignoring the rules, but seeing the hundreds of other parents there, we realised that wanting to support your child is a universal emotion.
One Ukrainian mother sat motionless, with not even the pretence of a phone or book. She wouldn't even take a loo stop in case she missed her child coming out. Her eyes were intent on the door of the hall for five solid hours.
It was intriguing watching parents respond to the results of the games. The reaction of the Russians, who had sent the largest delegation, was perfunctory. A win was simply an expectation met, a job done. A loss would unleash a myriad of expletives at the poor offspring very publicly (again, my Russian proving useful).
The Italians wore their emotions on their sleeves - a resounding "bravo!" for a win and a face straight from a tragic opera for a loss. The English were typically calm. One Spanish father asked us as his son left, defeated, "Do I try and cheer him up now or do I give him a massive bollocking?"
All we felt was huge pride at the stamina and mental endurance Ezra had shown as he fought his way through Austrians, Russians, Romanians, Serbs and even an Israeli during the tournament.
Ezra befriended many children from all over Europe. The camaraderie of the Israeli team made a strong impression on him. It made us incredibly proud to see all the children, holding their Israeli flags, walking into the hall and sitting alongside the Turks, Armenians and Serbs. The Israeli boys would play tennis with Ezra in the day and communicate in a mixture of bad Hebrew and English. On Friday night, they spent a wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat together.
Israeli chess players are no strangers to prejudice, just like Israeli Olympians. In the past, they have had to play "anonymously" in Dubai, had the national anthem shunned in Turkey and had their visas denied in Libya. The Sudanese Chess Association's president resigned and apologised to the Sudanese and Palestinian people because a Sudanese played against an Israeli at the World Youth Championships in Durban.
At the same tournament, an Algerian girl refused to play the Israeli Arab girl on the Israeli team. The reception of the Israeli team in Prague seemed to be very welcoming. It was heartening to see the two Israeli Arab competitors treated with warmth and respect from their team members. Their parents sat next to the Jewish parents, unified in their anxiety for their children to succeed. And with them sat Ezra, proud at being asked to represent his country.