The story of a chess game in the time of the Coronavirus. But it's not just a game, it's something more.
It doesn’t take Vanni long to realize something’s not right. Moments earlier he’d opened his eyes, he’d sat on the bed and he’d stood still for a few seconds, frozen, staring aimlessly.
He feels like he’s lost touch with a memory, maybe some important details, because he can sense the uneasiness you feel when you lose the thread of something you care about.
He tries to concentrate, but can find nothing but deep emptiness in his mind.
Damn, I must’ve slept like a log. I need some coffee.
Only when he enters the kitchen does he notice the silence: aside from muffled distant sounds, perhaps even whispers, he senses nothing else. No noise from the streets, no movement from the neighbours above. Nothing.
He looks out the window and sure enough sees that everything’s still, nobody walking or running or riding their bike, no motor vehicle, no bus.
The sixth week of quarantine has just ended, the lockdown forced and set by the Italian Government to cope with the Coronavirus pandemic. This hasn’t stopped, however, some people from going out, maybe even to shop, go to the chemist’s, or simply just to go for a walk.
But now Vanni doesn’t see any signs of life from his window.
Strange, he says to himself while filling his old moka with coffee.
He’s attached to that coffeemaker. Valeria had bought it just before a ischemic stroke ended a marriage spent with her ups and downs. It had happened almost twenty-four years earlier. At the time Vanni was forty-eight years old and worked as an Italian teacher at a classics high school. A job that had allowed him to overcome, not without pain, the stage of depression he’d gone through after his wife’s death.
They hadn’t had children. Vanni and his wife had never wanted to know why, maybe because they found it useless to keep trying to have a child at all costs. They’d tried, even asking for adoption, but time had gone by without giving them a chance and then the ischemic stroke had come.
That’s how it went.
He walks in the living room holding his coffee cup. He’d like to turn on the TV to watch the news, but out of the corner of his eye he sees a slight movement next to him. He turns around. His eyes open wide and he feels like his heart’s stopped beating. Shocked, he drops his coffee cup on the floor, breaking it and spilling all the coffee inside.
A tall, thin man with dark glasses covering his eyes is standing there, right there, next to him.
Vanni tries to react. A stranger has just broken into his home.
Who is he? How did he do it?
“Who are you, how dare you break into my house and how did you get in?”
The man doesn’t answer, he seems keen on observing the living room furniture. Then he moves towards the paintings hanging on the walls.
“Oh come on, who are you?? I’m calling the police. You’re not even wearing a face mask!”
Vanni’s voice sounds almost hysterical. He’s scared, but nevertheless tries to think clearly.
“Don’t worry, I don’t need a face mask”, the man answers calmly.
“Why are you talking to me like this? Do I know you?”
The man hints at a smile while still observing the paintings.
Vanni approaches fearfully. The face of that man are familiar to him, but for how many efforts he does, don't currently remind him of anyone in particular.
“Perhaps you remind me of someone. But that doesn’t change the fact you have illicitly come to my house”, says Vanni feeling calmer.
“I go wherever I want, always have and always will.”
This guy’s totally insane. But won't be dangerous?
Only now Vanni notices the other’s clothing. A dark and well-groomed suit, that gives the man a certain elegance.
Vanni stares at the man’s face. He wants to understand why it seems so familiar or why he just doesn’t see him as a stranger.
“So, what do you want from me? Enough, I’m calling the police now.”
“If it’ll make you feel better, go ahead. Nobody will answer you anyway because the phones aren’t working.”
Vanni picks up the phone and dials the112 right away. The line’s down.
“Who are you?”
The man turns around and walks towards him.
“Have you not worked it out yet?”
For Vanni, everything instantly makes sense. This time he feels like his heart really is about to give up, but he also feels the rage building, the knowledge that he can’t even remain impassive. He’d already had something to do with that individual, he remembered him very well, and now this guy had entered his home uninvited, although he doesn’t know how he could’ve done it.
Damn him! Why did he come to me?
“So… We meet again “, Vanni says with a half-smile bending to clean what remains of the coffee cup.
“Are you surprised?”
“Yes, I am surprised, but also deeply pissed off.”
“I can understand that.”
“No, you can’t understand, don’t say such bullshit.”
“As you wish.”
“And may I know why you’re procrastinating instead of getting to the point of your visit?”
“There’s time? Are you someone who’s got time to waste?”
“Time takes everything and gives everything; everything changes, nothing annihilates.”
“Giordano Bruno, if I’m not wrong.”
“Yes, him. Interesting guy, don’t you think?”
“Yes, but it made a bad end.”
“Those were difficult times.”
“More or less like now.”
“The truth is that today's man goes into crisis immediately. He is so too tied to his own comforts, to his habits, to his certainties that when a crisis arrives, a real crisis, of any kind, man proves weak as a sand castle in front of the sea wave.”
The man is now in front of the table placed at the end of the living room. A mahogany coffee table with an inlaid chessboard. Hand-engraved silver and bronze chess pieces are already positioned in their respective squares.
“I can see you like my chess pieces.”
“It’s the game of chess that I like. I must admit you have one great chessboard and your chess pieces must be valuable.”
“Very, I bought them a while ago at an antique market.”
“Shall we play?”
Vanni is stunned.
“Let me get this straight, you want to play chess with me?”
“If you know how, I suppose we can play a game. There’s no hurry, don’t you agree?”
“I don’t agree with anything. Seeing is believing and all I see right now is you asking me to play chess. I can’t believe it.”
“But you’re wrong. And you know what? Let’s make this more interesting. Let’s raise the bar.”
Vanni walks to the coffee table.
“Fine then. In what way?”
“If I win, you know how this ends. But if you win, I’m leaving.”
Vanni found it incredible.
“You are known for never giving up, never leaving things half done. And now you’re suggesting to play chess, and if I win, you’re going to leave. Sorry if I find that hard to believe.”
“You got that right: if you win.”
How presumptuous. Want to challenge me? Be it!
“Alright, let’s play. The challenges have never frightened me.”
“And I don't frighten you anymore? Before you were bleached like a sheet when you recognized me.”
“Yes, you're right, you scared me. Then I remembered where I already met you and then the fear turned into something else.”
“That's right and you also know why.”
“We are talking too much. You can be white.”
“Ok, thank you.”
The two men sit one opposite the other.
Vanni looks back and forth between his white pieces on the chessboard and the man sitting in front of him.
Come on, Vanni, focus on the game.
The white always moves first and Vanni makes his first move.
“White Pawn C2 to C4.”
“Typical English opening move. Alright.
“Black Knight G8 to F6.”
“White Knight B1 to C3.”
“Black Pawn G7 to G6.”
“White Pawn G2 to G3.”
“Black Pawn C7 to C5.”
“Symmetrical position. I’m sorry, I can’t see that you’ll want to get to a stalemate.”
The man smiles.
“Don’t jump to conclusions, just wait and see. Now make your move.”
“White Bishop F1 to G2.”
“Black Knight B8 to C6.”
“White Knight G1 to F3.”
“Don’t tell me about a symmetrical position. I see you could perfectly count on a stalemate, but not today because there’s going to be a winner and it won’t be you.”
“Black Pawn D7 to D6.”
“White Pawn D2 to D4.”
“Ok, this has just got a little bit more interesting”, says the man.
“Black Pawn C5 takes white Pawn on D4.”
“Yeah, I guess we could dare some interesting moves”, answers Vanni.
“White Knight F3 takes black Pawn on D4.”
The man frowns.
“You like attacking, huh?”
“Let’s say attacking is the best defence mechanism, don’t you think?”, says Vanni.
The man smiles.
“Don’t fool yourself, you’re dealing with quite an experienced player.”
Vanni shakes his head.
“I don’t like arrogant people who are full of themselves. Just know that in this game I can give my opinion. Now make your move.”
“Alright, don’t get mad, but you won’t have my knight.”
“Alfiere nero C8 in D7.”
Vanni stays still for a few seconds studying the situation. He has various ways to attack but doesn’t trust any, it’s best to protect the King.
“White Rook castling to F1 and King to G1”
“And you’re the one who attacks to defend himself. Castling isn’t exactly an attack.”
“Less talking, more playing”, Vanni answers seriously.
“Black Bishop F8 to G7”.
“I’m bored. Now you’ll see what attacking is all about.”
“White Knight D4 takes black Knight on C6.”
“You’re right. Black Bishop D7 takes white Knight on C6.”
Vanni sees his Bishop in danger. But he also sees the chance to use an interesting attacking move.
“Black Pawn E2 to E4.”
Vanni stares at the man who seems focused. Something inside him is telling him to get up and run. But he’s not a coward and the other probably knows.
The man looks up. His dark glasses conceal his expression. Vanni would like to ask him to take them off, but can already imagine what his reply would be.
The man nods, as if he’d read his mind and makes his move.
“Black Rook castling to F8 and King to G8”
Vanni frowns. The man’s using a seemingly defensive tactic, which may actually be hiding a surprise. He understands, however, he must sacrifice some pieces.
“White Bishop C1 to E3.”
The man immediately reacts with his move without thinking twice.
“Black Pawn A7 to A6.”
This move assures Vanni that the other is carrying on his strategy, indifferent to the whites’ moves. Best to prevent.
“White Tower A1 to C1.”
“Interesting move. I must say you know how to play.”
“Did you doubt that?”, Vanni asks.
“I wouldn’t know, I’m getting to know you.”
“We’ll see, if you really know me. Go ahead, make your move.”
“Black Knight F6 to D7.”
Vanni stays motionless, in deep thought, with his gaze fixed on the chessboard. His breathing is deep. He can feel the other staring at him. He avoids looking up so as not to get distracted. Several thoughts are spinning in his head, but he ignores them. The game is too important and he doesn’t have the time or desire to think about anything else.
“White Queen D1 to E2.”
“I can see you decided to move an important piece.”
“The Queen, you mean? She was bored standing still.”
The man, hiding a smile, makes his move.
“Black pawn B7 to B5.
Vanni can now feel the tension building. He knows the game’s got to the point where every wrong move can cost you dearly. He can’t afford to concentrate only on his strategy, but needs to try and anticipate the moves of the man opposite him. He knows perfectly well that after all the other man has nothing to lose. But he’s got a whole lot, too much to lose.
“White Pawn B2 to B4.”
The other moves right away.
“Black Knight D7 to E5.”
Vanni is certain the man has something in mind: he’s moving with too much confidence. He feels his heartbeat racing. His eyes are stinging from the excessive staring at the chessboard. He closes them and sighs.
Alright, let’s add fuel to the fire.
“White Pawn C4 takes black Pawn on B5.”
“Black Pawn A6 takes white Pawn on B5.”
This is real battle, now or never!
“White Knight C3 takes black Pawn B5”
“Black Bishop C6 takes white Knight B5”.
The chit-chat’s over now.
“White Queen E2 takes black Bishop B5.”
The man grins.
“Black Queen D8 to B8.”
That grin. Vanni can’t stand it. Maybe it was a mistake to move his white Queen.
Or maybe not.
“White Pawn A2 to A4.”
The man reacts immediately without thinking twice.
"Black Queen B8 takes white Queen B5.”
Vanni smiles on the inside, but doesn’t want to get noticed.
You’ve got tempted, huh?
“White Pawn A4 takes black Queen B5.”
The man seems stunned, he thinks for a few seconds.
“Black Tower F8 to B8.”
Vanni has no choice now. He’s got to carry on the attack.
“White Pawn B5 to B6.”
For the first time, the man looks nervous.
“Black Knight E5 to G4.”
Vanni can’t hold back his excitement.
“I screwed you up, asshole. White Pawn B6 to B7.”
The man looks up and glares at Vanni who returns the look with a grin.
“I see you still don’t get it. Let’s just say then that whatever move you make, I’ll always have the upper hand to checkmate.“
The man is concentrating, perhaps he didn’t even listen to Vanni.
“You should be grateful. Give up now and you’ll avoid the humiliation of checkmate.”
“No, it doesn’t work that way.”
“Oh yes it does: I beat you in just 21 moves. Nothing left to say. And now, go ahead, you pay: get out of here!“
The man looks from Vanni to the chessboard. Two minutes later he overthrows the black King. The end.
“Well done, I must say. I obviously didn’t focus enough.“
“Or perhaps you found a great opponent.“
“Maybe I wanted to make you win”.
Vanni shakes his head.
“Can't you accept defeat, right? Quiet, next time you’ll have a rematch with another game.”
The man turns around. He has a spiteful expression.
“Don’t fool yourself, there will be no other game. Now close your eyes “, says the man placing his hand on Vanni’s eyes.
Vanni struggles to open his eyes. He’s no longer at home, on his bed. He’s confused. He can’t figure out where he is. He sees a figure leaning over him saying something. It’s calling him. But he feels it’s far away. On his face he has some sort of mask and is wearing a strange alb.
He tries moving, he wishes he could stand, but a hand’s keeping him still. He tries talking and realizes something’s covering his mouth and nose.
His ears perceive, with annoyance, a seemingly endless and constant hiss and buzz.
Then his brain finally gets tunes with the reality.
“Vanni, hey Vanni, can you hear me? Come on Vanni, you made it. You were great!“
The nurse’s voice is sweet. Vanni looks at her and without knowing why his eyes start to water.
He’d like to talk, but his throat is bothering him.
“Don’t try to talk Vanni, you need to keep breathing regularly with the oxygen now. You’ve been intubated for many days.“
Intubated? Why? Where am I?
The nurse senses Vanni’s questions from the look on his face.
“You’ll see, hold on a little longer and you’ll remember everything. You’ve been sedated and it’s normal to feel this way. You’ve been infected by Covid-19. It’s been rather tough, but you’re healing now.“
Suddenly the dam of memories opens in his head, pouring images, feelings, fears, thoughts, pain.
He nods to tell the nurse he remembers.
“Come on, tomorrow you’re leaving intensive care and going to sub-intensive. You’ll definitely feel better. I need to go now. If you need anything, ring the bell in your hands. Ok Vanni?“
He nods and watches her walk away.
He turns around and realizes he’s in a room with other patients. The oxygen’s hiss and equipment buzz is deafening, but he doesn’t feel bothered anymore.
He feels tired. He would like to sleep. He closes his eyes, but opens them right away again. He’s scared of not waking up.
And just now a memory makes its way through the whirlwind of thoughts. The memory of a chessboard. It takes just a moment for him to then mentally relive the whole chess game with the stranger.
A dream? No, it couldn’t have been a dream.
The images, feelings and the actual moment when the stranger gave up, overthrowing the black King on the chessboard, are too clear.
They say when you’re sedated, your brain can generate images so strong they seem real.
Of course, it must be that. It’s the fault of the sedation.
Then why does he feel an odd excitement remembering the stranger’s twisted expression after his defeat?
But most of all why did he feel he knew the man who dared him at chess in this real dream? Where could he have seen him already?
Vanni is sure that during the dream he felt like he knew the man and where he’d already seen him.
Enough, there’s no use dwelling on it.
He turns his head on the pillow. Many people are walking around and stopping at patients’ beds.
Vanni feels thankful to the doctors and nurses who saved him and God knows who else.
He sees them working non-stop. He feels safe with them.
He looks around, but stops. Suddenly he feels troubled, like his eyes have fallen upon an image or something else that shouldn’t be there and has caught his attention. Something creepy.
Sluggishly, as if in slow motion, he retraces the path he had taken with his gaze.
And then he sees him.
The stranger. The man who’d entered his home in his dream. The man who’d lost the chess game, is now there. He too, like the doctors and nurses, is wearing protections and a cover on his face, but it doesn’t cover his entire face.
Vanni is certain, he now recognizes him.
He’d already seen him in the past just one time, one goddamn time. In the hospital, when his wife Valeria had left him due to the ischemic stroke.
And now you’re here again. You bastard. But I beat you, you hear me asshole? I beat you!
The man seems to have heard him. He turns and fixes him with a stare.
Vanni isn’t afraid, he knows he won’t be able to do anything to him.
The man nods and waves as if saying they’ll be seeing each other again.
Not yet, bastard!
And while the man walks away, Vanni gives him the middle finger.
The chess game I told was really played by two great chess champions: the Russian Garry Kasparov, one of the greatest chess champions of all time, and the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, current reigning chess champion. The game was played in Reykjavik on March 18, 2004. Kasparov played with whites, Carlsen played with blacks.
Carlsen was only 13 at the time and shortly afterwards he was given the title of grand master, while at 19 he became the youngest player to reach the top position in the world rankings. However, he had a respectable teacher, Garry Kasparov himself.
The story is dedicated to all the women and men who fought and won against Covid-19.
 Giordano Bruno, Epistola