Maya’s Move – a short story

5/4/2015 – "I am a big fan of ChessBase, and am a thirty something technology geek/entrepreneur, living in Silicon Valley, California," wrote Sundar Iyer, who sent us a short story on chess. It was inspired by recent world championship matches. A woman grandmaster friend, Nisha Mohota, who herself recently contributed a big report, encouraged him to contribute it for publication. Here it is.

Maya’s Move

A short story by Sundar Iyer

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the moves and tactics of chess
teach us a lot about life . . . but what can life teach us about chess?

An expert at chess needs to know four things—what to move, when to move, where to move and what to remove; all of which Ansen, born on 11th December 1989, excelled at in his childhood. When Ansen was six, his family immigrated to England, and moved into a small apartment on Voss Street in East London. He learnt ballet in school, but unlike Maya—his neighbor, two inches taller, and a year senior, Ansen could just not move in a graceful way. Maya became very good at her ballet moves, and soon Ansen did too . . . but of a different kind; a kind that he learned from his father, an amateur chess player.

Ansen mastered many of the tactics of chess by the age of nine, and in the following year, he made his first big move—at the London Junior Chess Championships. The international master title, at the age of twelve, meant that he rapidly moved up in the ratings. The boy was destined to be world champion, and all would have gone according to plan, but for a traumatic event that would make him fail, when he had to make critical moves under pressure.

Ansen would study his chess books daily, memorizing and maintaining copious notes; at night, with coffee for company, he became one with the computer, as he anticipated her moves, blitzing frequently, until all else faded, and it was only chess and him. On occasion, when Maya and Ansen would play, he would give her a handicap—one illegal move per game.

At fourteen, his rating crossed 2500 Elo points—the press was intrigued by the boy who was largely self taught, and who played his moves lightning fast. His parents watched his every move, while Maya cheered him from a distance. “If your king’s not in check, and you can’t make a legal move, the game ends in stalemate—a draw,” she remembered his exact words. By eighteen, only a few of his fellow grandmasters could match his moves. All that remained was to remove the product of the mighty Soviet chess system—the reigning World Champion, the formidable but congenial Kramnov . . .

“Do the pas de deux with me,” Maya said as she showed off her ballet movements; “Maybe if I win the qualifiers,” Ansen told her. When Ansen won, he came knocking on Maya’s door wearing his red t-shirt and shorts, and sneakers with black socks, and gave her a note—written with cursive letters, “Move it or lose it.” She would never forget that silly moment . . . it was then that he became her Ansen.

But alas,  . . . Ansen, his ballet skills rusty for the pas de deux, placed his right hand on Maya’s waist, the other underneath her thigh, and performed an unforgettable move—dropping her during the presage lift. The next moment, he heard a loud pop in Maya’s knee. “I don’t recall asking for a handicap in ballet, Ansen . . .” she quipped, as she lay on the floor in pain, unable to move. It would take Ansen years to look Maya in the eye, for his move finished her career, and he didn’t know it then, would leave his career unfinished . . .


In his first attempt at the championships in Sofia, in 2010, Ansen played the Grünfeld Defense, in the first of the twelve-game finals; as he made his twenty-third move, he froze. Ansen realized he had jumbled the order of his moves—a blunder. If only he had Maya’s calm—“I ain’t going to the hospital, dressed like a swan!” she had said . . . a calm that wavered only once, the moment she had heard Dr. Keen’s prognosis. If only he could undo what he had done to Maya . . . he lost to Kramnov in thirty-four moves, and later, the championship—what was a championship, when he had denied Maya a whole career?

For his second attempt at the championships, in 2013, Ansen worked diligently on the weaknesses in his opening, and improved his endgame; he moved into the championship finals with ease. In the afternoon of the final game, Ansen left his hotel late, as he attempted to refresh his mind with several sharp opening lines, and then hailed a taxi to assist in his move to the championship stage. Slowly, the taxi began to move past the many people, rickshaws, cyclists, and bullock carts, through the dusty streets of Chennai. Their driver honked, but the traffic had stopped moving. An animal had refused to move from the center of the road; what was it? It was a mooing cow; the problem—it was a not moving cow.

Ansen had better move it, for he had fifteen minutes to make the venue. He made a nervous dash to the playing hall, but by the time he arrived, his blue shirt half drenched in sweat, his glasses fogging, he was a few minutes late—it was not a good move on his part, he should have left his hotel earlier. Kramnov, who had waited for Ansen to make his first move, was ready to play on, but under the prevailing zero-tolerance rule, the arbiter declared it a forfeit. The Hindustan Times, reported, “Ansen’s challenge: All over, bar the mooing.” Ansen barely moved from his bed the next couple of days—chess was his only thing, and he simply couldn't cope with the devastating loss, as he tried to hide his intense pain and embarrassment.

Ansen resolved to move on from his previous losses; he learnt Yoga and greeted the morning sun, replaced his afternoon siesta with meditation, and practised all day. On his third attempt at the championship held in Sochi in 2014, Ansen moved into a resort at the base of the imposing Krasnaya Polyana to settle his nerves—this time he would win. Kramnov, the finals equally poised, was attacking with the white pieces in game six, when he moved his king to d2 on his twenty-sixth move . . . what had he done? What a terrible move—Ansen would punish him; he would make no expression; look into the distance . . . Ansen now only had to make the simple counter-attacking move, Nxe5 to turn the tables . . . would he see it?

As Ansen wrote down Kramnov’s move, he dropped his pen. He had almost dropped a piece on his thirtieth move in the previous game, now the pen, and Maya, on the ballet floor of all places; why was he so clumsy? He better focus . . . this was a crucial move . . . he would play 26... a4. As soon as he made his move, he put his right palm on his forehead, his fingers pulling on his hair. Kramnov stared; he stared Ansen in the eye; he took a moment to gather himself, and kept staring . . . they both knew.

The live commentators couldn’t believe the dramatic sequence of back-to-back blunders they witnessed, and broke protocol to double-check with their chess engines if they had wrongly analyzed the moves. Ansen turned his gaze away . . . he was so disturbed by his move that he caved in meekly. The day—November 15th 2014 would haunt him for the rest of his career, and he would go on to lose the championships . . . would he ever be able to remove Kramnov?

His fourth attempt in 2016 gave further heartbreak, when in a completely winning position he callously allowed Kramnov’s last-ditch drawing stalemate combination on move sixty-eight of the final game. The Washington Post opined, “Ansen renders Kramnov immovable.” If only they knew—he had seen Maya’s left knee give out as she tried to return to the ballet circuit last month—wasn’t it his act that eventually rendered her immovable?  . . . perhaps he should tell the press to credit him for that too? In the tiebreakers that followed Ansen choked—twice; the commentators felt that he lacked the killer instinct, the chess forums were abuzz with wild theories on Ansen’s physical health, and some self-styled experts even blamed his vegetarian diet for his inability to make correct moves under pressure . . . there was worse to come.


Ansen made a firm resolution—he would not move on the issue of his premature retirement, and would banish all thoughts of chess from his mind; he fancied studying the brain. After a period of six years, he became a neurosurgeon resident, and began to learn the subtleties of removing foreign bodies, deeply embedded shrapnel, and hard-to-remove tumors.

The next July, Ansen’s short break on the Caribbean Princess with Maya was moving along fine until a storm hit the cruise ship. The ship’s doctor summoned him, for Maya in a freak accident, had slipped from the upper veranda, and fallen over the movable barrier onto the deck almost twenty feet below. A dark red wooden bench had broken her fall, but a chipped piece of wood had entered her skull, a piece that had to be removed immediately. A Beechcraft B200 air ambulance, always on the move, was sent by the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue but was expected to take half an hour to arrive from Nassau; however, the excessive intracranial pressure from the brain injury could be fatal before that. He was in a dilemma—should he wait for a medical evacuation, or remove the fragment immediately?

In the ship’s operating theater, Ansen parted Maya’s blood-soaked hair; he removed the skin from her scalp—why was he such a jinx, always there when she fell? He moved his scalpel towards her skull. He paused a moment—he glanced at her left knee; he must keep calm—take a deep breath. He located the fragment—it took some effort; he picked up his forceps—he had to remove the damned piece. He felt the rocking movement of the ship—he didn’t trust it. The Antilles current was rough all day—it moved the ship to and fro. He assumed a Tadasana—Yoga helped his balance; he struggled to stop his right hand shaking—for any false move could be fatal . . .

Two weeks later as he was sipping his morning coffee, a ward boy came running, summoning him to the intensive care unit, and gave him a handwritten note—Ansen asked for a moment’s privacy. He moved towards the window, and read the note . . . thrice; his eyes teared up—for it could only mean one thing . . .


A month later, he applied for an extended leave of absence from his hospital—the National, and made a move back to the chess circuit—he spent a year in training, and won the qualification tournament. Kramnov and Ansen, both dressed in black, were welcomed by the mayor of New York on a mid September morning to the 104th floor of a newly built and imposing building—a tribute to the American people who vowed that it would never again be removed. Ansen was only six when the championship was hosted here back in 1995, but he knew—three floors above, the walls were red in color, they had soundproof glass, the tourists could view the games from the observation deck . . . within moments it had become the most observed deck in the world.

An Afghan girl walked up to the podium to light the last of 2996 commemorative red, white and blue candles—the first time that a world championship game was played in candlelight, and made the ceremonial first move . . . the rematch between the two adversaries ended in an even 6-6 score, and the championship hinged on the result of the final game in the tiebreakers. “1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 Nf6.” On his next move, Ansen briefly considered sacrificing his knight for Kramnov’s pawn on e5 . . . what should he do? It was a very risky move, but he would have a strong attack; it could be a good psychological ploy, given that it was a rapid game—why not test Kramnov’s nerves?

The commentators noticed Ansen making two unusual moves—he played the knight sacrifice 4.Nxe5, and he put the e5 pawn in his inner suit pocket. After his move, he leaned back, put his hands over the back of his head, and crossed his feet, revealing his boots. Ansen mounted an all out attack on Kramnov’s king  . . . and by move thirty-seven, Kramnov could barely move his pieces. Ansen would win if he played the next few moves carefully; but would he squander this opportunity  . . . like he had, so many times before?

Ansen seemed unmoved by the pressure of the situation. He would move past his negative thoughts; he could handle his nerves—he had to do it  . . . he had to do it for Maya; he would finally be champion; a champion at thirty-five. Over the course of the next five moves it became apparent to Kramnov that he was lost . . . ‘Ansen’s audacious move! Challenger beats Kramnov on fifth attempt’, read the Sovetsky Sport. The chess community referred to the game as ‘Ansen’s Immortal’, no doubt impressed by his bold moves.


A year later, Ansen was moved by Kramnov’s generous offer—to stay at his home in St. Petersburg, during the white nights festival close to the summer solstice. The city’s northern latitude just below the Arctic Circle meant that the skies were always bright even at night, as the sun never moved far below the horizon. Kramnov, on turning forty had retired earlier that February, a move that turned them from competitors who respected each other, to friends. On a day when neither bothered to move a muscle, Kramnov showed Ansen his Fender guitar, and collection of Russian science fiction.

For dinner, Kramnov had reserved a table at the Aquare, a fusion restaurant on a slickly decked-out boat moored on the Neva River, which moved ever so slightly. As they completed their preset four-course meal, and the waiters removed their plates, the Chef de cuisine arrived with an unexpected fifth course—five red, orange, yellow, green and brown churchkhelas, Georgian sausage shaped candies.

“Take five,” he said, as he placed the dessert plate on the table, and Ansen moved in to taste the orange-colored one. Then, to Ansen’s complete surprise, the restaurant’s jazz band on Kramnov’s subtle hint played a moving rendition of Dave Brubeck’s—Take Five, a serenade to Ansen’s successful attempt. Ansen smiled; it was a moment to savor, and four more churchkhelas to savor . . .

“I move that we adjourn for some fine wine,” said Kramnov at the end of dessert. They moved to the quieter outside seating by the deck of the boat.

“My turn for a surprise move,” said Ansen. He removed from his backpack a handcrafted wooden Shatranj set circa 1873, and a finely sculpted marble board from India. Kramnov thanked Ansen for his generous gift; he removed the smoothly figurine chiseled pieces from the box, gently caressed them with his fingers, and placed them on the board.

“Make a move,” he told Ansen. As the sun continued its slow path towards the horizon, many fine moves were played in quick succession.

 “So, what was the favorite move you ever played?” Ansen asked Kramnov.

“Oh, there were quite a few moves, but the one I enjoyed the most was setting you up for stalemate!” replied Kramnov. The sun moved below the horizon, as the players sat silhouetted against the opposite shore of the Neva River.

“And yours? The crazy knight move, Nxe5, in the finals?” Kramnov asked.

“Ah that move. Not playing it cost me a championship!” said Ansen.

“But when you played that move in New York, you won finally!” said Kramnov.

“Yes. So I have mixed feelings about that move, and that’s why it’s not my favorite.”

 “Wait! The opening move by the Afghan girl at the World Trade Center?”

“That was everyone’s favorite move, not just mine,” said Ansen.

“Well, which move then?” Kramnov asked.

“See, I once made a move on a woman during a cruise.”

“Ah. Smooth move, Ansen. And you moved in with this woman?” Kramnov grinned.

“At that moment it wouldn’t have been a good move. She couldn’t move,” replied Ansen.

“You made a move on a woman who couldn’t move? You miserable necrophiliac!”

 “The move involved trying to remove a wooden piece from a lady’s brain.”

“Oh . . . And that was your favorite move?” asked Kramnov.

“Because the operation . . . well because of the epiphany after that move.”

He respected Ansen being discreet about his patient, and moved closer, “an epiphany?”

“ . . . that I had needed a larger test of my nerves beyond moving chess pieces, and since I had succeeded in that, I could come back and tackle chess,” said Ansen.

“How ironical, the move away from chess eventually brought you back to it!”

“Yes. And that surgical move helped me beat . . . beat you,” said Ansen moving his wine glass upwards; he thought he had the last word . . .

“Well I thank you for that move,” said Kramnov ignoring Ansen’s gesture.                  

“ . . . for a move that later led to your loss?” asked Ansen, still holding his glass.

 “Your move eventually led to my retirement; it gave me time to read, spend time with Myshka and Katerina, play my Fender . . . and only then I realized that there’s so much to life . . . life after chess,” said Kramnov, raising his glass.

“Hmm . . . that move eventually led me to reflect on what I almost lost, and my priorities, and when I proposed to a special lady in January, she thanked me . . . for finally putting life . . . our lives before chess,” said Ansen, raising a toast to his former nemesis; the St. Petersburg night was unable to hide his moist eyes . . .


A legendary chess connoisseur updated a long dormant list, “The 111 most fantastic moves ever played,” with Ansen’s move. But only Ansen knew Maya’s move—it was the most fantastic move he never played. Legend has it that he always carried a piece of paper, with a note—“Move it or lose it.” At the bottom right, scribbled in pencil was a nonsensical opening move, 1.e5—the symbol of Maya’s epiphany . . . She was allowed one illegal move.

Postscript: An excerpt from Kramnov’s favorite book, Rendezvous with Vilca: “Modern languages have many words to specify different kinds of action, but since all action describes movement, Vanskrit, the ancient language of planet Vilca, uses only one word, move,a word that appears in different forms in every sentence of this story. When you visit Kramnov, you will notice the book proudly displayed on his top bookshelf; it’s the one with the bright red cover—please do not remove it.

About the author

Sundar Iyer, PhD/MS Stanford Univ. '08/'00, B. Tech IIT Bombay '98, is currently a Distinguished Engineer in the CTO group in the Insieme Business Unit at Cisco Systems. Previously, he was co-founder and CEO of Memoir Systems (acquired by Cisco Systems in '14), which pioneered Algorithmic Memory to enable 10X Memory Operations Per Second on embedded memory. In the fall of '03, Sundar co-founded Nemo Systems, where he was the CTO and Principal Architect. Nemo (acquired by Cisco Systems in '05), specialized in memory algorithms for high-performance networking, developed by Sundar during his Ph.D. at Stanford. From fall '05 to '08, he co-led the network memory group at Cisco Systems, where he helped architect and build multiple generations of high performance memory sub-systems for Cisco's Enterprise and Data Center Ethernet products. In 1999, Sundar was a founding member and senior systems architect at SwitchOn Networks (acquired by PMC-Sierra in 2000), where he developed algorithms for deep packet classification.

Sundar is a recipient of the Christopher Stephenson best Master's thesis award in 2000, and the Arthur L. Samuel best doctoral thesis award in 2008, both in Computer Science at Stanford. In 2008, he was awarded the MIT technology review (TR35) young innovator award for his work on network memory, and the IIT Bombay Young Alumni Achiever Award in 2014.

Visit Sundar's home page with publications, presentations, dissertation (Load Balancing and Parallelism for the Internet), a full CV and a short bio.

Topics Short story
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