Check Mates – Stewart Foster

Put it over simply this is Karate Kid but instead of Karate overcoming bullies it’s Chess and ADHD- but that’s gross oversimplification and it is a wonderful heartbreaking and rousing story which I pretty much blubbed constantly throughout.

Book cover for checkmates
cover design by Leo Nickolls

Felix has ADHD which his parents say is a fancy way of saying he’s got ants in his pants, but it’s getting worse with revalue visits to isolation and being sent to special reading classes- no one seems to understand, he’s not unintelligent, his mind wanders and jumps about and teachers aren’t patient enough to ride the wave or help him. He can’t tell anyone the shame he feels at this; not his parents who are working every hours god sends after his father’s business went bust; not his best friend who seems happy to have someone in trouble with; not his teachers who just tell him to concentrate; not his grandad who has been grumpy since his grandma died.

So when he is sent to his grandad for the weekend and given a list of ‘Ten Things I’d like to teach Felix’ he is determined that no way, no how is his grandad going to trick him into playing boring old chess, surely?

“I know Grandad, but chess! Only swots play chess, and it takes longer than Monopoly!!”

This book had me crying so much. The pain that Felix is feeling is palpable, the crushing guilt and frustration at himself for his ADHD and his loneliness as his parents are focused on work and basically neglecting him but he doesn’t feel worth the effort to challenge them in light of money issues.

This book isn’t just about chess or ADHD, it’s about finding yourself amidst grief and despair and clawing your way back to a new form of happiness for both Felix and his Granddad.

I wish I could do something with Granddad, but there’s nothing we like doing together. If Grandma made a list, she’d fill it with twenty things. Twenty brilliant things

The relationship between Felix and Granddad is beautiful crafted. Franke’s initial relationship with both Felix and Felix’s father is strained but not in a big fights and arguments way, more in a lack of deep emotional connection way as Franke always depended on his wife to be the loving and enthusiastic one but now bitterly regrets this. We see this awkwardness in the ways he ‘knocks’ Felix on the head as an attempt at playfulness and how he doesn’t quite know how to communicate with Felix when caring for him after school in that classic way of giving practical advice rather than emotional support.

The fact that Franke realises he has much to make up for and wants to help Felix with his ADHD (as he suggests that he struggled similarly as a boy) by teaching him chess is a massive thing that will probably be underplayed in favour of other themes in the book. As much as Felix is learning chess, Granddad is learning to communicate with Felix and has chosen to do what he can to improve the relationship which for someone so set in their ways is a huge and very scary thing for Franke to open his heart in this way especially when still grieving so hard for his wife.

I’m not a chess player but I understand the concepts and recognise that such games can be great for those prone to hyperactivity because of the opportunity for hyper focus or ‘flow’- Felix gets absorbed into his daydreams and computer games because they are allowing his focus to hook onto something and run with it. By immersing Felix in the rules of the game through the ‘Ten Things’ before allowing him to play it does remind me a lot of the original The Karate Kid especially the scrub the patio, mow the lawn and clean the brass having additional meaning to building skills even how playing the glockenspiel helps him memorise things ready to remember complicated moves.

By the time Felix plays his first match at school he thinks he only knows 2 moves but he has a deeper understanding of the game which is much more valuable.

It doesn’t matter if the room was lit by football lights, I still won’t be able to concentrate long enough to read what’s on the page. Mum and dad are right when they say I’ve got ants in my pants. I’ve always been that way but since last year it’s like I’ve got a colony of them crawling all over my body and niggling at my brain. I must concentrate but the harder I try the worse it gets.

ADHD is a cruel and highly misunderstood thing. Felix with his vivid daydreams ignited by small stimuli and random utterances and painful embarrassment but refusal to admit it reminds me particularly of one former student- I was warned by a few colleagues to ‘save my sanity’ just find reasons to send him to isolation with a worksheet, it was clear he thought school had written him off.

So I relaxed the rules just enough to give wiggle room for fidgeting, self-soothing and tics and adjusted plans to accommodate his need to move and desire to contribute and he quickly became a enthusiastic student saying he felt safe and important in my classroom because I understood- like Felix begins to focus when he has chess to occupy his mental fidgeting. It infuriates me that Felix got sent to isolation again and again when he’s not naughty, the impact on his self-worth is heartbreaking and indicative of how whilst there certainly are awesome teachers out there, still so much needs to change to support and understand children with additional needs.

The whole story is wonderful for its redemption arcs, for its empowering sense of belief and it’s hope that no one is ever written off, that when we find our flow, we can find our true self.

CheckMates by Stewart Foster is published by Simon & Schuster.

6 thoughts on “Check Mates – Stewart Foster

  1. This is another I’d read if I wasn’t already swamped but it’s great to have read such a good review of it.
    I think the relationship between Felix and his Grandad sounds like it’s really well developed and written.
    As for ADHD, I agree it’s so frustrating to see kids dismissed as naughty rather than understood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I admit I read it because of Primary School Book Club as being contemporary and non magical you know I’m a fuss – but I’m so glad that I was encouraged in this way as it’s a book with a lot of depth and meaning and hits on my history buttons too- so very glad about picking this up!!

      Liked by 1 person

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