Anita stirred her morning coffee and imagined a Sargasso swirl of letters and numbers, tumbling, gyrating. As the rotation slowed, they conjoined, drifting up from the surface: e4; bg7; g6; nc6. She shaped the display into a merry-go-round and began mentally ordering the sequences, formulating, composing. She saw it as her gift: recognising the correct progression of the paired numbers and letters to describe an opening, a middle game, the end game. Grid references which illustrated precisely, unambiguously and, in her view, elegantly, the perfect game of chess.
In the adjacent ballroom, the final day of the 47th Chess Olympiad was about to commence – the biennial chess competition between countries, held this year in Madrid. Teams from all over participated, though for several years only China, the former Soviet Union countries and the US had vied for the podium. England had no chance of winning, but it did not seem to diminish the media circus surrounding the five of them. Mixed teams had been allowed for the first time, but only England fielded a female. As Anita allowed the chess notations to cascade back into her latte, she massaged her temples. What had she let herself in for?
“Listen, Anita, I know we’ve had our differences, but good luck today.”
She had failed to notice Anthony Sturridge approaching her.
Anita forced a smile. “Oh, thanks, Anthony. Appreciated.”
He had been one of the most vocal campaigners against mixed-gender teams. Women could not play chess, according to Anthony. They had a genetic predisposition which inhibited concentration for long periods in stressful situations, apparently. Odd then that Anita had beaten all four male players of the England team over the past eighteen months. Yet still she found herself chosen only as a reserve. Some people just could not make the adjustment. In the end, it was only when England had little chance of a top three place that the English Chess Federation had condescended to allow Anita to replace Anthony on this final day. Pressure from the media may have been a factor.
“You’ll be fine. You’re on board four against Huang. Should be easy enough for you.”
He smirked and walked away. Anita resisted the urge to propel her coffee cup into the back of his overinflated head. Patronizing prick. China were their opponents and Huang was certainly the weakest of their team, but he was still rated higher than any of the England players. The Chinese were so far undefeated throughout the tournament’s two weeks and were leading the competition. Anita rolled back her head and studied the vaulted ceiling – a monastery formerly occupied the site of the hotel. She understood the scepticism of her fellow teammates. Anita was younger and had only recently reached the highest level of the women’s game. Nobody liked an upstart.
“I bloody deserve to be here,” she muttered to herself.
“Sorry, Ms Glossup?”
She looked down with a start and saw one of the tournament judges standing beside her table, a clipboard clutched to his chest, body leant forward so that his lanyard swung like a pendulum.
“Just talking to myself. Can I help you?”
“Just to say, Ms Glossup, that there has been a change in the China team. They seem to have shuffled their players. Your original opponent on board four, Huang, has been switched to board one. You’re now playing Zhou. Have a nice day.”
Anita stared as the official scuttled away, clearly anxious to avoid any questions. The England manager, Neil Cuthbert, wandered over from another table. He had been one of Anita’s few advocates and she doubted that she would have accepted the invitation if it were not for his badgering.
“What was that about, Ani?”
Her mouth was still agape, watching the official hasten around a corner. “They can’t do that, can they?”
“The Chinese have reversed their team order. Huang is now playing you on one. I’m up against Zhou. They can’t just switch opponents on the morning of the match like that…”
She and Neil spent the next half-hour lodging a formal complaint with the organisers. The rules state that teams must provide forty-eight hours’ notice of any changes. Players need to have time to prepare against specific opponents, to analyse their style of play, favourite openings, preferred strategies. Their efforts proved futile. China held considerable sway with the World Chess Federation. Since they were guaranteed to win the tournament regardless of the outcome of the final match against England, they argued it should make no difference.
“They’re worried about you, Ani. They think you’d have a chance against Huang so they want to put their best player against you. It’s all about saving face,” Neil explained, running his hands through his hair, looking as frustrated as she was.
Their best player was an understatement. Zhou was the current world champion, undefeated in three years. Anita excused herself and hurried back to her room. The décor was trendy brutalism and the stark furnishings seemed fitting. This was typical, she thought, flinging herself onto the bed. The one chance she had to show what she could do and she ended up playing one of the legends of the game. She lay there a while, the walls closing in on her.
She forced herself to sit up, taking deep breaths. Above the bed hung a depiction of the old monastery which once stood on the site. Only a few bricks of the original were now visible in the hotel gardens. Anita focused on the image and tried to pull herself together. Her eyes tracked the architecture of the cloisters and she visualised the serene lifestyle of the monks. The monotony of their daily routines designed to instil composure, oneness with the world, if you believed that sort of thing.
She had less than an hour before the game so she opened her laptop and trawled through her library of Zhou’s recent matches. In truth, she knew them inside out. Any player worth their salt had studied Zhou’s rapid rise over the past few years. He was famous for his aggressive attacking style and opponents had so far been unable to identify any weakness. The key would be the opening.
Anita knew that Zhou would be playing white, allowing him to make the first move. Throughout the tournament, he had started the same, advancing his king pawn. His opponent’s usual response had been to advance their king bishop pawn, a tactic known as the Sicilian Defence. She scanned through his games and noticed that this had been child’s play for Zhou. Most of his wins with white came when black played the Sicilian Defence – very few draws and no losses. Maybe she should be different?
She was still pondering her response, walking back down to the ballroom. As she turned a corner, she bumped into a man coming the other way.
“Señorita, I do beg your pardon. Please forgive me.”
“Not at all,” she replied, lost in thought. She walked on.
“Excuse me, if I may be so bold, are you the chess lady, about to play the Chinaman?” The man spoke with a thick Spanish accent. Anita looked up at him for the first time. Tall, with a neatly trimmed full beard and moustache, he bore the features of a movie villain but his mouth carried an impish smile and his eyes shone brightly.
“Er, yes.” As the only female player in the tournament, she was used to being picked out. Before she could prepare herself for an autograph or a selfie, the man continued.
“My name is Rodrigo. May I wish the señorita the best of luck and, if I may be so bold,” the man edged closer, “perhaps I might suggest the Spanish Opening? I believe it may bring you some success.” He looked up and down the corridor as if reminiscing on something. Before Anita could respond, he smiled again and walked away at a brisk pace, soon disappearing around another corner.
Anita was used to being given advice – again, one of the burdens of being a woman in a man’s world. The Spanish Opening was also known as the Ruy López. The idea was that black responded to white’s initial pawn move by matching it. Then, when white brought out the king’s knight, black brought out their queen’s knight. She recalled the opening came from some Spanish priest named Ruy López, who wrote a detailed study in fifteen-hundred-and-something.
She was still in contemplation when she met Neil at the entrance to the ballroom.
“You OK, Ani? Look, don’t worry. Play your natural game. Half the time, Zhou wins because players try to be too clever. Keep it simple. You’ll go with the Sicilian, right?”
“Actually, Neil, I’m thinking of trying the Ruy.”
“The Ruy? That’s a bit risky. Zhou will know the Ruy inside out. Every possible variation. Keep it simple, play the Sicilian and go for an early draw. That’s your best hope.”
Anita nodded. Neil was probably right. Nobody would blame her if she lost playing the Sicilian, like everyone else, and she might even sneak a draw. She entered the ballroom and looked for her table. With over a hundred countries represented, the air hanger of an auditorium was packed, chess boards laid out from wall to wall like a vast chequered blanket. Some tables were afforded more space than others to allow for camera crews to film. Anita was not surprised to find her table to be one of them; the men’s world champion playing the only female in the tournament was bound to provoke interest.
Zhou was there, conducting an interview, a small crowd hanging on his every word. In fact, no spectators should have been allowed on this level. The ballroom had an upper gallery around all four walls for the audience. Anita stood by until the interview finished, then took her seat opposite Zhou, the black pieces already laid out before her. Zhou remained impassive as they shook hands. Not so unusual – top level chess players rarely socialised, before or after games. Anita did not choose chess for the camaraderie. The small gathering dispersed and the organiser asked players to prepare to start.
Anita surveyed the surroundings, trying to ignore the camera behind Zhou’s shoulder. The gallery was crammed full for the first time. She noticed Anthony Sturridge – never Tony, of course – sharing a joke with a small section of the audience as he pointed down at her. Anita forced herself to ignore him and continued her scan of the crowd until she noticed a familiar face in a top corner of the gallery. The man she had encountered in the hallway appeared to be sitting alone – Rodrigo, was it? He looked directly at her, smiled, and nodded slowly. How strange that she should pick out that one face in hundreds? She returned the smile and thought again of the monastery. She relaxed her posture and felt a tightness in the back of her neck ease.
She turned back to look at Zhou, who had evidently been watching her. He was famous for his impassive stare, especially while dismantling his opponents. As he looked into her eyes, however, Anita sensed a shift in his demeanour. Micro movements in the corner of his mouth, the edge of his eyes, signalling doubt, uncertainty, hesitancy, which she had never previously noticed. Then his deadpan appearance reasserted itself.
The adjudicator announced that the time had come. The players with black pieces were instructed to start the chess clocks which recorded each player’s time and a crescendo of clicks reverberated around the ballroom. Anita followed suit and Zhou pushed forward his king pawn straightaway, slapping his button to start black’s clock. She motioned her hand over her king bishop pawn, ready to respond with the Sicilian Defence. Before touching the piece, she looked up again at where Rodrigo sat. He was still there, looking directly at her. Far from feeling unnerved, Anita found his presence comforting.
She shifted her hand across to her own king pawn. As soon as she touched the piece, it felt right. She advanced the pawn to mirror Zhou’s move and pressed the clock. Zhou straightened in his chair. He looked at Anita with an eyebrow slightly raised, then brought out his king’s knight. Anita responded by moving her queen’s knight and the Ruy Lopez opening had begun.
Most of the crowd followed games on a phone app, earphones plugged in to hear experts’ commentaries. As Zhou and Anita played their first three moves, a murmuring broke out in the gallery.
“Shhh!” exclaimed several of marshals.
Anita deduced that most of the audience were glued to her match with Zhou and her choice of opening had caused a stir. She looked up again at Rodrigo and he bowed his head at her as though acknowledging that she had taken his advice. Anita remained impassive; exchanging signals with the audience, however innocently, could always be construed as cheating by an opponent.
The Ruy was so well known in chess circles that Zhou and Anita were able to play out their first dozen moves rapidly. There were five or six popular variations of the opening, all tried and tested over the years and all very familiar to serious chess players. Anita knew she would never be able to gain an advantage over Zhou through conventional play. If she pursued any of the normal options, Zhou would comfortably achieve parity and, given that white started first, most likely have the initiative. She recalled that one line of the Ruy had not been deeply studied. In older chess books, mention had been made of a knight sacrifice on move fourteen, a deliberate loss of a piece designed to provide an advantage at a later stage. It was a variation which fascinated her in her youth, but one which had slipped her mind until then. Now, the sequence of letters and numbers presented themselves, like the sudden recollection of a song.
The effect was noticeable. Zhou allowed himself a brief grin. After a pause of just a few seconds, he took the knight and smacked the clock emphatically. Around the auditorium, groans could be heard. This was nothing like the muttering when she chose to play the Ruy. This was the sound of an audience concluding that Anita had just blundered and her game was lost. At this level, such a material disadvantage with no obvious gain meant certain defeat. Anita again looked up at Rodrigo. Of all the disapproving faces, only he in that far upper corner of the auditorium was smiling appreciatively.
Anita needed to play with precision to take advantage. Again, she calmed herself inwardly, took slow breaths and relaxed her posture. The sequence of moves, displayed with their letters and numbers properly aligned, reappeared in her mind. The mathematical purity of the required formula, like an elegant equation demonstrating an algebraic proof.
As the game progressed, her moves flowed in rapid succession, while Zhou took longer and longer each time. After an hour and a half, it became apparent that the defence of his king had been weakened by taking black’s knight. Anita was coordinating her pieces to capitalise on that weakness and Zhou always seemed one step behind. He spent half an hour on his next move, before positioning a piece. He then made to change his mind, almost forgetting the rules. Anita sat back, surprised. His move made no sense. She ran through the permutations over and over as she rubbed the back of her neck. Was Zhou laying an elaborate trap? Uncertainty began to creep back into her mind, but then she willed herself to recapture her previous state of serenity. Her confidence flowed back as she pushed aside the doubt. She made her move. Looking up, she saw that Zhou’s face had lost all its composure. His eyebrows arched and his mouth pulled back in a rictus of anger. His arm shot out.
“Well played,” he muttered.
Anita shook his hand, barely registering that the world champion had just resigned. Zhou slapped the clock to stop the time and scribbled on his scorecard, almost tearing the paper. Anita followed suit in a daze, and they handed their cards to the adjudicator. Zhou stood, his chair grating as it was thrust back, and he strode away without looking back. Around the gallery, the audience began murmuring and, despite the attention of the marshals, the noise crescendoed into cheers as most of them stood and began applauding. Anita was still shell-shocked, staring at the pieces, barely believing her plan had worked.
First to congratulate her was Neil, who had beaten Huang.
“Brilliant, Ani, brilliant!” He shook her hand furiously as she stood, then hugged her. Highly inappropriate, thought Anita, but I’ll take it.
“We’ve come third overall! No-one expected us to take points off the Chinese. Third! Our best result since 1990, would you believe it?” He was bouncing from foot to foot. “Where did that opening come from? I’ve never seen that variation of the Ruy. And what happened to the Sicilian? You caught Zhou with his trousers down!”
“I know,” Anita said, pushing him back, conscious that others were still playing. The adjudicators were trying to usher them out of the ballroom. She followed Neil toward the door and looked up again at the gallery, where the audience was still applauding. In the far top corner, she saw an empty seat and felt a flicker of disappointment that she could not thank him for his advice.
Outside, people wanted to shake her hand and, beyond the security rope, she could see the media waiting to interview her. Anita gently pushed her way to the security desk
“Excuse me, I’m looking for a gentleman in the audience called Rodrigo. Has he already left?”
The check-in officer searched through the security passes left on the desk by departing visitors and dragged one out.
“I’m afraid so, señorita, if this was the person.” He held up a pass and Anita recognised Rodrigo’s face. She grabbed the pass. Perhaps she could track him down and send him a message. His full name was clearly displayed. She read it twice, laughed, then read it again, before handing the pass back.
Some kind of joke, presumably. She knew that many of the leading grandmasters in the chess world used pseudonyms to avoid attention. One of them must have been attending incognito. Then she remembered the sense of calm she felt when contemplating the former monastery that used to stand here. Could a 16th Century Spanish monk have once visited this very spot – especially a certain Rodrigo Ruy López de Segura? She looked up at the vaulted ceiling and smiled.
About The Author
Richard Garcka attended creative writing classes in Guildford and his short stories have been published by AudioArcadia, Spellbinder, Arts Quarter Books and Cranked Anvil. He hopes his tales offer a modicum of optimism in these dark times.
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