August: The 2012 Chess Olympiad, Istanbul, main playing hall. A large crowd has gathered around the last game to finish. Australia is playing against an unspecified Eastern European team, the match locked at one and a half each, and so teammates hover nervously behind the two players for the final stages of the deciding game.
I sit opposite my opponent, a freaky amalgamation of highly-rated grandmasters Vladimir Akopian (Armenia), Vugar Gashimov (Azerbaijan) and Kiril Georgiev (Bulgaria). I have the white pieces, and material is balanced: I have an extra knight, but him three connected passed pawns. Both kings are exposed, and we have two minutes each left on our clocks for the final moves. I look up, and Vladimir’s staring back at me – piercing, cold eyes, the eyes of a killer. He leans back in his chair, and suddenly it’s Kiril: sullen, serious, confident. I look back at the board; it’s my turn.
I see the position for the first time, and I draw a breath – he’s threatening checkmate next move, by capturing my knight with his queen. I look up, and it’s Vugar, his hands a triangle against his temples, his eyes fixated on the board. I become aware of the crowd, the remarkable silence of the mass, save for the odd tense cough, and the ticking of the old-school analogue chess clock. I pick up my queen, and my hand hovers over the board, grasping the white piece by her crown, waiting, looking. The crowd leans forward as one.
I place it on e5, giving check. Suddenly it’s Kiril, and he whips off my queen with his own with a flourish, slamming his clock with a large BANG. I recapture tentatively, and he pauses, checks, and thrusts forward his g-pawn.
I recoil; my clock’s flag is hanging, seconds remaining, but I can’t bring myself to move, to focus. Australia’s team captain, Manuel Weeks, flashes me a worried look; teammates Darryl Johansen and Zhong-Yuan Zhao simultaneously slump their shoulders with a dejected, knowing glance at each other. The diminutive Armenian grandmaster Gabriel Sargissian starts rubbing his hands together as he tries to peer over his teammates’ shoulders; for some reason, his nose is long and crooked. With much hesitation, I capture the loose e6 pawn, and suddenly Vladimir is back, the cold, calculating professional, marching his pawns towards my back rank. The g-pawn advances, his neighbour on the f-file quickly following, and my clock counts down the last few seconds to the flag falling…three…two…one…
Suddenly, the board begins to spin, and the table, the players and the room begin to swirl, a shimmery haze filling my eyes, before – SNAP! – I’m transported back back to the original scene, queen in hand, two minutes remaining on my clock. I blink twice, but my opponent and the spectators are busy staring at the board, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I try to regain my composure. I lower the queen, not to e5 this time, but to d4, again with check. Surely it can’t be any worse than the history I’ve just avoided.
Kiril takes off my foolhardy white pawn with his king, and I eagerly reply by swinging my rook to h1 with check. Suddenly I sit up off my chair – a retreat by his king allows my pieces to penetrate into his position on h8, and checkmate follows in just a few more moves!
But Vugar’s back, and he confidently marches his king forward to g6, and I realise my checks have quickly run dry. Despondently, I retreat my queen to d3 to defend my knight and prevent his own checkmate, but his reply is swift and precise: his queen plants herself deep into my territory, offering a poisonous trade that I dare not refuse, but assures destruction if accepted.
I look up, and Vladimir is staring back at me, expressionless; behind him, Gabriel is smiling at me, and the broad grin seems somehow maniacal when sheltered under such a wicked proboscis. The crowd starts to murmur. Faced with an impossible choice, I sigh, and, with a heavy heart, reach to move my queen, a move I know will seal my fate. The clock ticks down my final seconds…
The queen is in my hand, but the board looks different: I’m back again at the opening position, the crowd is silent, and Vugar sits opposite. But this time I’m ready, composed, and I have the advantage of knowing how two of the potential variations play out for me. I smile a secretive, half-smile to myself. Suddenly I notice that my score-sheet has my last played queen move to d3, and not e3. I frown, and gingerly lower the piece back to her original square, looking up somewhat guiltily at my opponent to see whether he corrects the alteration. He doesn’t budge, and neither does the crowd.
My clock ticks down, but I don’t notice. I take my hand off the queen and rest my arms on the table as I continue to stare at my opponent. I know I’ve touched my queen and I’m obliged to move her, but if I wait long enough, maybe, just maybe…
Sure enough, after a few moments the haze returns, and the people and objects mesh into a shimmery blur. My hands are still resting on the table when they re-emerge, and the board shows my queen sitting on d3, stoically defending my knight, and offering the e-file to my rook. I lift it, and the wood makes a satisfying CLUNK as I take the pawn on e6.
Vugar shifts uncomfortably in his chair, and the crowd again begins to murmur – but this time, they’re on my side. If he pushes his g-pawn, I’ll take his pawn on f5 with my queen, and suddenly his proud defensive wall of pawns will have crumbled, fatally exposing his king. With some trepidation, Kiril plonks his queen down on c3, offering a relieving trade. But this time, instead of accepting, I’ve a startling riposte up my sleeve…
I move my rook to e8, giving check. Taking with his own rook would leave his queen unguarded and en prise. With no other option, Kiril moves his king forward one square, capturing my pawn.
I reach forward again, and snap off his f5 pawn with my queen, again with check. With both kings now desperately exposed, I’ve got no choice but to keep the attack going at all costs, lest my own defences be breached. Vladimir also has no choice, and continues to shuffle his king forward into the abyss, sending the monarch on a perilous path down the h-file, hoping my attack will run out of steam before I can deliver the coup de grace.
I give check again, this time with my rook, prodding the black king one step further along the plank. Withdrawal would fall to a quick checkmate, and so Vugar pushes his king forward one last time to h5.
But now the king’s retreat has been cut off, and his own pawn blocks a sideways parry. The only breathing squares left to the black royal lie in front of him… but wait! I look up, and Vugar’s eyes meet mine – he’s seen it, too. I look back at the board as the crowd lurches forward as one expectant beast, sensing the imminent end. I can play check with my queen and cut off his king’s final escape squares at the same time, leaving no way out. It’s checkmate on h3, and I lean forward to deliver the killer blow…
(…And this is when I woke up. Sadly, I was not in Istanbul at the Olympiad, and I was not just about to defeat one of the world’s top grandmasters. But, perhaps even more disappointingly, even if the game had existed, I was not even about to deliver checkmate. As I got out of bed and set up my ‘brilliant’ subconscious combination on a chess board…
…I instantly realised that my final winning move was in fact a horrific blunder, as my queen could simply be captured by her opposing number on c3:
Ahem. It seems my fight of fantasy lacked the precision of that other dreamy David, the extraordinarily talented grandmaster David Bronstein, whose subconscious composed his famous Dream Game in 1961.
Not to worry. Perhaps I’ll get another chance in reality when the Olympiad kicks off in August. Though if I arrive on the first day and notice Gabriel’s had a nose job, I might start to wonder…)