A song of ice and fire and drizzle

A match that looked like a certain victory suddenly turns, and as the Olympiad goes beyond its halfway point the Welsh women’s team hits rock bottom

Michael Healey

Loss Win Loss Win – the predicted yo-yo-ing is in effect, and we’re at par thanks to the result (sans moi) against Namibia. As reward, next up in round five are the strongest chess nation on Earth (proportionately) – Iceland! Captained by international chess celeb and occasional London visitor Ingvar Johannesson, this will be a tough test. They’re all rated higher, have a WGM on top board, but they’ve been underperforming a bit.

Today brings the excitement of umbrellas – yes more free goodies, on top of our goody bags back at the hotel (set, cap, book, heavy ornament, badge, mask, hand sanitiser, XXlarge shirt, which presumably is in Indian sizing). Every arbiter of every match is receiving a dozen umbrellas, trying to stack them on their chair without rolling or dropping them, as if we’re about to enter some amazing musical number. Well almost every arbiter – the two countries surely most in need of umbrellas, Iceland and Wales, get nothing. Possibly they’ve realised these are really sun parasols; after two seconds of North Atlantic rain that lovely Chennai logo will have been obliterated. Liv is super-excited by the prospect of more free stuff. With my deeply mistrustful nature, I’m guessing they’re expecting rain.

The match against Iceland starts off well enough: their board one Lenka Ptacnikova sidesteps our prep, but the position is about equal. Kim on two has a near-repeat of her round one game, but might be playing it a bit more effectively. Hiya on three has a fairly level Scandi as White. Khushi makes a couple of early strategic mistakes and is making a quick exit on 4 against a WIM.

I’m reading The tale of Sinuhe and Other Egyptian Poems, a nice switch from the problems of chess captaincy to the problems of pharaohs, famine and death. The book seems quite popular; not only do I come back from a wander to find one volunteer engrossed, but later another asks my permission to read it.

Kim Chong earned her first win, beating a player rated 200 points higher: Photograph: Fide/Mark Livshitz

Hiya’s game gets interesting, and she once again threatens to cause an upset. Kim is finally playing a position she’s comfortable with, and slowly outplaying her opponent. The WGM is looking concerned. Ingvar is looking concerned. He’s also looking damn cool as a fan comes up to ask for his autograph.

It’s all kicking off now. Liv is (over?)pressing. Kim is looking groovy. Hiya is finding some snazzy manoeuvres. A man is reading my book. No one asking for my autograph.

Hiya goes wrong, then wronger, but she’s still alive. Kim’s opponent is imploding, but so is Liv. This is tense. Hiya refuses a rook endgame, but that was by far her best bet to draw. Within a few moves it’s over. Liv goes down meekly. Kim finishes her game and gives me an exhausted hug after her well-earned first win – “Fiiiiinally”. I congratulate Ingvar, who complains about all these crap teams only giving Iceland a tough game, but collapsing against all the other seeds.

Back to the hotel. Tomorrow is the last day before the rest day. After my unrestful rest day the previous day, I’m quite looking forward to vegetating. We’re all ecstatic for Kim, who had suffered so badly. Everyone is up and running; we can smash up whatever poor team faces us next.

From ice to fire. Tunisia, coached by Mehdi Bouaziz, who I played years ago in a Maltese IM norm tournament. The Tunisians were using it as a warm-up for the Olympiad, and would come to play dressed in pyjamas, agree a draw in their games, then go back to bed. The other three are still in the Open team across Scum Hall, one now a GM. At the time I scored WDDL, although one was a shamefully prearranged “grandmaster draw” to help Zoubaier Amdouni successfully obtain an IM norm. He still seems to be an FM however. I have to live with the guilt for nothing.

We’re not quite sure what to make of Tunisia. They clearly know how to move the bits, but sometimes they play some truly bizarre stuff. We definitely don’t know about the board three, as her last three games (and indeed this one) don’t transmit. Perhaps she’s just super-clumsy with DGT boards?! Is this how teenage chessette rebels rebel?

I’m forced into some team photos. It’s drizzling a bit. Excellent. Wales will have home conditions today.

Captain Healey aboard an auto-rickshaw with his youthful Welsh team: Photograph: Fide/Lennart Ootes

Liv has deliberately chosen a dull Petrov where she can bore her opponent into submission. Kim has played a gambit, and obtained yet another optically magical position. Hiya has played exactly our prep, and must be a bit better as Black. Khushi is doing wonderful things on bottom board, playing with some real vim in the opening stages.

My next book – Balzac’s the Black Sheep (make your own Welsh jokes) – is not really doing it for me, so I go for a wander, well pleased with our progress. This might be 4-0! I always like to look over the teams we’ve played and the UK teams (those in Scum Hall anyway), but also those we’re staying with. Zimbabwe in particular I’ve been impressed with, while Chile and Bolivia are clearly doing really well. Given that hotels are allocated on performances in the Open (men’s performances basically), it’s possible that the chess gender disparity is less in South America. Ecuador’s WIM Anahi Ortiz, whom Kim and I met on the flight out from Heathrow, is having a good tournament. Indeed, English women’s captain Lorin D’Costa warned me she had been with him, Ed Player and Stefan Macak in Barcelona, smashing up 2200s like they were nothing.

Time to mosey back. Wait, is this the same match? Kim is using up a lot of time on simple moves. Hiya is throwing pawns forwards. Liv is looking drawish. Khushi is still better heading into an endgame, but misses a little spite-check nuance. This is not going well.

Hiya decides to jettison a piece rather than put up with a bit of grovelling in an endgame – that might work on juniors, but this is a step up in class, with 30-second increments. Kim decides to exchange pieces a pawn down with a space advantage, and her lovely position is coming apart at the seams. Liv is winning, but her opponent stubbornly keeps going, knowing her defiance is helping her team-mates. That first decisive game can act like skittles in these matches. Khushi has a winning endgame, but does she know how to go about winning it?

A bad (k)night but you have to keep smiling! Mike Healey, Kim Chong, Olivia Smith and Khushi Bagga

Hiya loses. Kim loses. Liv’s opponent eventually downs tools. It’s all up to Khushi, who knows what she has to do and heroically turns down draw offers. Play on both sides alternates between perfect and … imperfect. But now White has a pawn on h6; she can do this! And her opponent is worrying away her time.

Back on the shuttle home the Welsh men are watching this game, saying as long as Khushi doesn’t do such and such, which would lose, she should win this. (Elsewhere a certain Surbiton-based journalist, not noted for his powers of analysis, thinks it’s a dead draw.) I’m doing my best to psychically project the moves into Khushi’s mind.

She doesn’t do such and such, she does this and that, finding another way to miss the win. From a pawn up to a pawn down, it is now a dead draw. We lose the match, a shame for Khushi but … There’s a stab of pain in my chest and I audibly inhale. Khushi trades rooks. She’s completely and utterly busted.

Khushi is crushed. I’m furious with Kim and Hiya. Back in the hotel lift a friendly Ugandan chessette asks how my team got on. “Well, two are being shot in the morning.” The yo has not yo’d. There are tears before cocoa all round. In a movie, this would be that dramatic all-is-lost moment.