The Final Round: A Story

kyska00
kyska00
Mar 22, 2009, 12:00 AM |
13 | Other

The Final Round

By R. Christopher

 

 

 

 

This is the final round of a major chess tournament. A tournament Pyper should not have been in. The players, three of those in the world’s top ten, the rest all Grandmasters in the top fifty, and her.

She is playing because her teacher, who was invited, fell ill the day before the event was to start. He successfully argued for her to take his place. Boris Milov had taught her well. Unexpectedly she was in a three way tie for first place, and all the tie breaks went her way.

Grandmasters Long and her opponent Voss were her co-leaders. A win would give her the tournament title and more money than she had seen in sixteen years. A draw and she would finish second if Long won. Lose and she would finish third. A great result for an unknown player. Before the tournament she would have been ecstatic to finish so high, but now she wanted it all.

 

Pyper liked to arrive early. Using the time to focus herself for the upcoming fight. She settled into the comfortable chair. It would be her last chance to relax until the game was over. Each player was allowed two hours for their first forty moves, then an hour for the rest of the game. She listened to the crowd entering the theater, and watched the engineers doing their last minute checks on the large video displays. One display was over each of the five tables on the stage. The activity around her helped to calm her. On the table before her sat a beautiful chess set. The pieces carved out of rich woods and exquisitely finished. The set pleased her aesthetically. Chess sets always had, from the first time.

 

 

d

 

When she was six years old Pyper saw her first chess set. Two old men were playing at the local park. The tall wood pieces mesmerized her. The man said hello as she sat on the concrete picnic table where they were playing. Pyper replied with a shy smile. For two hours she watched.

The pieces were so beautiful, especially compared to the gaudily colored plastic and cardboard games she owned. This is an adult game. These were grown-ups playing. Pyper had never seen adults playing a game, except when her parents played on of her games with her. This was different.

“Do you want to play one?” The older of the two men asked.

A quick shake of her head sent her new copper penny colored hair flying.

“Do you know how to play?” He continued.

The bright hair flew again.

“Would you like to learn?

This time the head changed directions and nodded. This was accompanied be a soft, “Please.”

Pyper learned the game was called chess, that her favorite piece, the horsey-head, was called a knight. She learned how all the pieces moved.

She heard her mother calling her home.

“We’ll be here next weekend.” The man said.

It was the longest week in her life. Eventually the weekend came. It was followed by many more weekends spent learning the game.

 

 

d

 

The public address system blared jarring her from her memories. She saw most of the other players at their seats. The announcer was introducing the players. Her opponent always the showman, waited until the announcer reached his introduction. He strode onstage, smiling and waving to the audience.

“Grandmaster Max Voss. The Wizard. Former World Champion. He held the title for fifteen years. Lost it to Alexi Turosov twenty years ago. Last year he was one of the three people to win a game from the current World Champion.” The announcer droned on.

Stylish and distinguished, he has been the face of chess for more than forty years. His wit and ability to explain chess to the layman has kept him popular on the talk show circuit. He also was something of a surprise leader in this event. At sixty-seven he was well past his prime. He could win a game against anybody, but a three week competition taxed his endurance. The announcer did not mention that the win over the World Champion was his only win in that competition. This year he looked healthier, He had lost some weight. He did not look tired, he looked eager.

He shook her hand as he sat down. While the announcer was winding down he said softly, “You have played some exciting chess. Your win over Karloff was as nice a game as I’ve seen in years.”

“Thank you.” Was all Pyper could say.

“We have played before, I think. I recognize the style.” Voss said.

This startled her. She remembered the game vividly, but had not expected him to. “How can you remember that?” Pyper exclaimed.

Voss smiled warmly and said, “I remember interesting games and their players.” Indeed he was famous for being only able to remember people if they had a chess game appended to their names. His encyclopedic memory did not extend past chess.

 

d

 

Ten year old Pyper sat behind on of fifty boards arranged on a horseshoe of tables. Max Voss circling in the center. Making a move at each of the boards as he passed. During the game Pyper was in the zone. Focused, seeing the possibilities better than she ever had. It was a tremendous game. After two hours hers was the only game not completed. Bill Evans, a master and her teacher, managed a draw. Everybody else lost. With no one else to play he could concentrate fully on her game. With every move he increased the pressure on her defenses.

Then he surprised her, “How about a draw?” He said smiling in a kind grandfatherly way.

Pyper looked at the position on the board. She knew she was losing, but did not know how he would break through her defenses. She wanted to know. She did not want to lose that feeling of being in the zone. “Not yet, please.” She begged.

Voss laughed and moved one of his pawns. Pyper felt a hand on her shoulder. It squeezed softly. Her father’s warm voice said in her ear, “Mr. Voss wants to go and eat. Take the draw.” Then to the grandmaster, I hope you’ll allow us to take you to dinner?”

“Yes. Yes, I’d like that. Thank you.”

Their eyes turned to Pyper waiting. She extended her hand and said, “Draw. Could you show me how you were going to win?”

 Laughing Voss then made the pieces dance. Rapidly moving the pieces around the board. Every few moves accompanied by a “See” or an “And then.” Pyper watched dazzled.

 

d

 

“Lady and gentlemen you may begin.” Concluded the announcer. Pyper slid her king’s pawn up two squares and tapped the clock. The game had started. Voss advanced his queen bishop’s pawn. The Sicilian Defense. It was a favorite of his, so this came as no surprise to her. Their moves followed mainline theory. Neither player gaining any advantage.

Then unexpectedly Voss shifted into the Dragon Variation of the Sicilian Defense. She had not prepared for that she did not remember him ever playing that variation before. She knew the lines because she played that variation occasionally herself.

The complexity of the position increased. Voss played his knight to the center of the board. He set the piece down with a screwing motion. In effect saying, this piece is here and you cannot move it!

This was a lesser known line, extremely dangerous and double-edged. Pyper countered with a move that could send them back into the main line. With a bang Voss put a pawn down supporting the knight. He was not going to allow her to steer the game back.

For a game where you could not talk Voss’ every move spoke volumes. A banged piece said, be scared of this move it is powerful. Moved caressingly said, I like this move.

The game went on with Voss dictating most of the play. She kept looking for ways to trade off pieces. Get to the endgame as fast as possible. Skip the middle-game entirely if possible. Pyper was not used to playing that way. She was not seeing the moves like she wanted and needed to. Her pre-game plan was going wrong. She could not make it happen. In truth it was not really her plan.

 

d

 

When Pyper visited Milov the night before he said, “Voss is called The Wizard for a reason. He can make an attack appear out of thin air.

Pyper knew this. Since that game she played against him six years before he had been her hero. She had played over every one of his published games. She had read all the books he wrote. In many ways she patterned her game after his. Her natural tendencies ran that way anyway.

Milov continued his lecture, “Turosov showed how to beat him in their match. Go straight to the endgame. Sometimes Voss’ll push too hard to win. He’ll open himself up to a counter-attack, or he’ll sacrifice a piece unwisely.

“You play a lot like he does. Steering for complications. Sharp tactical chess, full double-edged moves. Always attacking. High risks, if you don’t win you lose. Remember, a draw gives you a lock on second place. It will most likely win as Long will go for a quick draw. But first and second advance to the next stage in picking a challenger for the World Championship. So with a draw you win, maybe not the tournament but the important prize.”

Pyper said how strange it was to play the way Milov advocated after they went over a few games.

“It may seem strange, but it is your best chance. Voss has mellowed out a bit in his old age, but the tiger still has sharp teeth. You saw what he did to Harding two rounds ago. Vintage Voss, an eighteen move crush of a top ten player. He’s playing better than ha has in tears. Hell even off form he took out the World Champion in a twenty-five move slaughter. If you play a sharp tactical game against him he’ll crush you too. You’re good, very good, but he’s probably the best ever. Play like Turosov. Let him beat himself or give you the draw.”

She and Milov worked on lines of play until the nurses kicked her out.

 

d

 

Voss put his rook behind the missing center pawn with a thump. His moves and body language shouted. Shouted that she would not win, could not win. Pyper looked up to his watery blue eyes. They spoke the same message. There was no trace of the kindly grandfather in them. The man in front of her was serious—deadly serious. She knew she was seeing The Wizard conjuring her defeat. Now she understood why the World Champion said that Voss had hypnotized him.

There was no way to trade any pieces. She had never felt like this before. Always she had been the tiger, now she was the rabbit trying to dodge the claws. Milov had told her being worse is not lost, but how much worse could she get before she did lose? She had no experience playing against a relentless attack. She glanced at the clock. The seconds ticked off. Her stomach was knotted with tension. At least she had experience with that.

She made her move, an offer to trade off a couple of pieces, and then walked backstage. There were snacks and drinks laid out for the players She grabbed a soda and a doughnut. Stretching to relieve tense muscles, helped the body, but it was her mind that was rattled. She had to focus, had to be calm. She finished the soda and threw half of the doughnut in the trash. Grabbing another soda she walked back onstage. Pyper looked at Long’s game Milov was correct he was going for a quick draw. It looked like his opponent was happy with a draw as well. Voss was out to win and in very good position to get one.

She returned to her board. Voss as she expected had declined to trade any pieces. Her attention kept returning to a pawn move. A pawn move that would increase the tension. The exact opposite of what her teacher instructed her to do.

‘She could force the exchange of bishops. Voss would gain a little positional in the swap. Milov said, worse is not losing. What to play, the simplifying exchange, or the sharper pawn move? Would Milov be angry if she pushed the pawn and lost? Yeah, he would. Would he still teach her?’ She thought.

She had learned a lot in the tear and a half she studied with him. ‘If she did not do as he instructed and lost… Results were important to him.

 

d

 

Her father had different priorities. “Always do your best. Whether the task is important or not.” He drummed into her. “Then win, lose, or draw you will have your self-respect and usually the respect of others.”

When Pyper was thirteen, she and her chess instructor asked her father to allow her to play in a tournament.

“I hate competition, especially for kids. Chess is inherently competitice, it doesn’t need adults adding to it with organized events. Tournaments place too much emphasis on winning. I want Pyper to grow up a little before she has to deal with that pressure.

Her father supported her chess playing. He brought her the best computer programs, books, and magazines. Paid for lessons with masters and finally a grandmaster, but no tournaments instill she was fifteen.

 

d

 

Pyper sat up and pushed the pawn authoritively. She knew how to make moves talk too. She was not as eloquent as Voss, but she could and would assert herself. The pawn move might not be the best move, but it was her best. She would play the kind of chess she loved.

The following few moves increased the complexity. There were so many things going on. All the pieces were engaged. Multiple threats. Attack and counter-attack—balanced. Nervous tension filled her. The knots in her stomach tied themselves into knots. Her mouth was a desert. Again she went backstage, stretching knotted muscles as she walked. A soda and some deep breaths helped some. She tried another doughnut. She could barely swallow the bite she took. Her stomach would not allow it.

‘Why couldn’t I have played the simple swap-down game like Milov told her?’ Pyper agonized. The thoughts and doubts continued, ‘Stay away from the middle-game, he said. Nooo! I couldn’t follow good advice from someone who knows what to do. Not me! No ducking into an endgame now.’ She took a few more deep breaths to dispel those energy robbing and useless thoughts.

Pyper looked onstage at Voss. He looked so calm. She wondered how many years it would take for her to be so relaxed in pressure situations.

Throwing the barely touched doughnut in the trash she returned to her seat. Pyper would have been amazed to learn that her two uneaten doughnuts kept company with Voss’ half-eaten bran muffin. Equally surprising, if she knew was his wondering how a young girl could be so composed.

The middle-game is where each player searches for a way to break through the others defenses. Probe for, or tempt a weakness in the opponent’s position.

Voss sat forward in his chair. Tension filled his body for the first time.

‘He sees something.’ Thought Pyper. “What is it?’ She went hunting.

Voss was in a long think. He was chasing down variations, and testing the moves that would ensue.

She could not waste valuable time waiting for him to make the move. Whispers from the crowd grew in volume as his ponderings approached twenty minutes, then erupted as Voss captured her knight with his rook, inviting recapture by one of her pawns. The quiet please signs glowed out their message.

Pyper had figured that was the move he was planning. She had seen this possibility moves earlier. She did not think that he would get enough compensation for the sacrifice. That he made the move indicated that he thought differently.

Her options seemed clear on the surface. Do not capture the rook and be down a piece. That did not sound appealing. Take the rook and have a compromised pawn structure, but be up material.

‘Where’s the trap? What does he see? I must be overlooking something.’ The questions chased each other.

 

Voss had spent more than twenty minutes examining this move. He went searching and found something. Now she had to find out what that was. Pyper settled into her chair. It was time for a long think of her own. After all one long think deserved another. That was one of the things she learned at her first tournament.

At that tournament Pyper won some games and lost some. She learned things and found a teacher. It was a weekend she would never forget.

 

d

 

The state chess championship was three weeks before her fifteenth birthday. Pyper’s father allowed her to participate. Mark Hordon, her teacher, worked on preparing her for the event.

Her first game was with a strong master. Nerves and the unfamiliar atmosphere helped contribute to her losing. Each player was allowed ninety minutes to complete the game. Pyper played fast. She always did. Her opponent used nearly eighty minutes. Pyper used barely twenty-five.

After the game Pyper played blitz chess in the skittles room. The next round would be played that afternoon. Mark walked in.

“How’d you do? Pyper asked him.

“Draw.”

“I lost.” Pyper said dejectedly.

“It happens. I watched some of your game. You sure played fast. Bet you used less than half an hour.” Mark saw in her eyes that he had guessed correctly. Then continued, “One time he must have used fifteen minutes on a move. You made yours in less than two.”

“I figured out what to play on his time.” Pyper interrupted.

Mark responded, “So he took ninety minutes to find a win. You used thirty to lose.” He smiled and tousled her hair to take some of the sting out of the words. Then continued, “If you took twice the time you did could you have found a win.”

Her face reddened. Hurt and chagrin filled her. “Sorry.” She said softly.

“Nothing to be sorry about. You just learned a lesson. The same lesson everyone learns. The same way everyone learns it, by losing. This is a new experience. Just remember, if someone spends a lot of time on a move they may have found something. So if you have the time use it.”

It was lesson Pyper remembered.

 

d

 

The crowd grew loud enough to light the quiet please sign again. Lost in the game, Pyper did not notice. Lines of possibilities. Pieces attacking or supporting other pieces in a precarious balance of offense and defense. Pyper had to find a way to weave those lines to her advantage. Two of the other games ended. The player paused and examined her game as they walked offstage.

She had an idea. She needed to work out how it could be implemented. Glancing at the clock, she was surprised at how much time had wound off. Only nineteen minutes remained. She stood in hopes that a change of perspective would help. Nothing. She knew what she wanted to do, now find a way for it to be done. Then as she was sitting she saw how. She paused half way to her seat. Fixing the move in her mind she finished sitting.

Everyone in the building knew she saw something. Voss leaned forward eyes scanning a board already fixed in his mind. The audience grew loud. When they did not respond to the signs the public address system whispered, “Quiet please.”

Five more minutes spent checking. Her dark green eyes stared with laser intensity. Small quick movements followed the pieces to a future position. That position rejected, and then trail them to another. Each move of those pieces checked and evaluated. She could find no holes in her analysis. Pyper reached out. Her hand hovered over the knight. One more fast check. Then she lifted the piece and set it softly on its new square.

The hushed murmur of the crowd grew to the point of hearing then sank down again. A look of surprise crossed Voss’ face. Clearly he had not expected her move. The watery blue eyes returned to the board after a momentary glance at the clock. His head sank into his hands.

He could take the knight two ways. If he did Pyper would have time to capture his rook and protect her weakened pawns. Voss would have a slight advantage, but the rest of the game would be trench warfare. That was not the type of play he favored.

She hoped he would retreat his endangered rook.

Pyper’s plan hinged on a pawn sacrifice. That move was six moves in the future. To avoid it Voss had to see it now. If he did he would snatch the knight. Though he did not like trench warfare did not mean he could not play that type of game.

Looking out at the audience she saw her father on the front row. Surprisingly he was talking with Milov

‘How did he get out of the hospital’ Pyper wondered. It was not the first time he had surprised her. That was at that memorable first tournament.

 

d

 

Pyper took Mark’s advice and slowed down. She managed to win her next two games and draw the fourth. For the fifth game she was paired to play grandmaster Boris Milov.

She was very nervous. Mark had helped with some ideas about how to play against him.

Pyper decided to arrive at her board early and focus on the game. This would become a habit.

Just before the game was to start Milov sat down opposite her.

“I’ve been watching you. You play well.” Milov said.

Just as she thanked him the tournament director called for them to begin.

Milov slid on a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Then he nonchalantly moved his queen’s pawn.

His style of play was like nobody she had ever played. He played defensively, preventing every attacking move she made. Slowly he increased the space he controlled. Gaining space square by square. The movement of her pieces was becoming more and more restricted. It was like playing a boa constrictor. He sat there so casual and relaxed. The board’s distorted reflection looking back at her when she looked up into Milov’s sunglasses. She had to find a way to break through and get some room for her pieces. She went into her first long think.

It would be expensive. She would have to give up a rook for only two pawns. That would but her some breathing room.

Pyper picked up the first of the pawns and replaced it with her rook.

This seemed to startle Milov. He sat back, adjusted his sunglasses then captured her sacrificial rook.

Pyper snapped up the second pawn with her knight. The knight attacked his queen, so he had to give way. For the next ten moves she found one way or another to keep him off balance. Milov kept ducking and dodging. He pulled most of his forces back to stave off Pyper's desperate attack. She knew that if her attack failed she was dead. Milov found one defensive resource after another. Pyper sacrificed another pawn when her attack started to slow. Then her attack died. There was no way to keep it going, no more pieces to burn to keep the heat on. It was over. She tipped over her king and reached out to congratulate him on his victory.

Milov shook her hand. Smiling he asked her if she would like to come to him for further instruction.

Once in the skittles room Pyper quickly called her father and handed the phone to Milov.

 

d

 

The rook retreated putting pressure on her knight Pyper slammed a bishop where it could support the knight. Voss instantly countered by sliding his other rook behind the just retreated one, now both rooks were working together, and aimed straight at her king. The moves were relatively forced. After their long contemplations of the last few moves both players had worked out the variations. Bang. Bang the moves came rapid fire.

When Pyper pushed the pawn in front of her king a few moves later Voss paused. After stealing a glance at the clock Voss spent three of his precious few minutes calculating. His rooks would penetrate her king’s protection. Each move a check. Every check a move closer to mate.

Voss snapped up the pawn. His rook gave check. Her king ran from the checking rook. The rook stepped forward one square. Check. Her king dodged once more, running up the board. The other rook joined in the hunt. Check. The harried monarch ducked into a cluster of pawns. Temporary security.

Voss only had to reposition his queen, and then it would join the rooks. With the queen’s help, mate would come quickly. It was all over now. Voss nudged his queen over a square.

This move did not give check. Pyper now had the free move that she spent so much to get. That long ago knight move had another, deeper purpose it opened a line for her queen. When Voss moved his queen to mate her he unprotected a square. That line and that square were crucial to her plan. No longer a helpless bystander her queen could strike a blow. Her queen slashed along that opened line. It captured the pawn in front of her adversary’s king. Check. The audience roared.

The queen was unprotected. Voss could just reach out and capture it with his king.

Voss looked up at her, then smiled, “Wonderful! A great game. I hope we will play again.” He said extending his hand.

Pyper shook his hand saying, “Thank you I would like that.”

She looked out over the confused audience. They were only beginning to understand what happened. She saw Milov explaining it to her father. She watched his finger see-saw as he pointed at the video display board.

Again she looked at the beautiful pieces. In her head she moved them. Voss takes her sacrificial queen. Then her brave knight charges giving check. The king retreats to the only available square. The safety he is seeking is not to be found there. The knight dances away. The prancing knight uncovers the bishop discovering check. The king must move. The only square available to him is the one that he had just vacated. The knight rushes back to check the embattled monarch, and the scene is repeated.

Pyper whispered one word, “draw!”