The Day I Became a "Russian Grandmaster" ... Well ... For a Moment At Least!

By Chris Mavraedis

It was October 1992 and my beautiful wife Elizabeth, who is from New England, and I were visiting there for a fall foliage trip. On a sunny Saturday afternoon before we headed up to Maine to begin our "leaf-peeping", we stopped into Harvard Square and began wandering about in the sunny, yet crisp fall air. We came upon a group of tables outside of the Au Bon Pain Café, where people were playing CHESS! My eyes lit up and I ambled over to watch while my wife went inside to get us some coffee.

The chess world at that time was abuzz over the rematch of Fischer vs Spassky going on then in Yugoslavia. It seemed incredible that the legendary Bobby had come out of retirement after 20 years to play chess again! I stood by and watched some players playing blitz chess. Looking down the line of tables, I noticed a guy in a hat sitting at the end table with some sort of sign on display. When I investigated, I learned that he was charging money to go over the latest Fischer vs Spassky game from the match, as a chess lesson ... remember, this was pre-Internet! He was explaining to a paying student how Fischer had beaten Spassky in his first game back after 20 years of retirement!

As I watched with interest, I noticed he had another sign saying "Play the Chess Master for $5". When my wife returned with our coffees, I pleaded with her to let me play "just one game" with him? After rolling her eyes, and being the good wife she is, she said, "No problem," but added, "ONLY ONE GAME!" I kissed her thank you and waited 'til the lesson ended. When I asked if I could play him, the chess master looked me up and down, and, not recognizing me, smilingly said "Sure! Sit down!" ... and I'm certain he was already making plans for THIS fish's $5 contribution!

A crowd began to gather around the board as we set up the pieces. As he set the clocks to 5 minutes each, he asked me if I knew how to use a chess clock ... I grinned and just said, "Yeah, I think I know so!" He gave me White, shook my hand and hit my clock. As I recall, I played a King's Gambit, as that was my speed chess weapon of choice back then. He looked up and smirked as he snapped off my f-pawn. The game was on!

I did not play the opening well and soon lost a second pawn. On top of that, he was WAY ahead on the clock. I could sense him relaxing, as he moved in on his fish for the kill and easy $5 payoff. I may not be a master chess player, but I do have some natural attacking ability. As such, a lot of my stronger opponents who know this, try to keep the game very positional so as to stop my attacks or counterplay.

Well, this Harvard chess master did not know any of this about me. I could sense him getting over-confident as our game progressed. He started chatting casually with some observers, as I sweated over my final couple of minutes. I wish I had written down the game when it was over, but I did not. I was down three pawns and two minutes on the clock when I thought I saw a slight chance to rip open his king position. As fast as I could, I went for it; no time to think now! I hurriedly sacked my white-square bishop on f7 and suddenly he stopped chatting, his grin disappeared and he sat straight up at the board. And he began to THINK! I could see the over-confidence drain from his face and was now GONE. You could almost hear his thinking, "Could this patzer really see how dangerous this attack is?"

He finally saw that he had to take the bishop, but by now I had had enough time to see clearly how to proceed, and my confidence shot up! Next my rook shot down the board and again he was struggling and taking more time on the clock. Was that sweat I now saw on his brow of his hat? He made a move and slammed the clock, trying to rush me. My queen moved in for the finish! And now it was clear to him that he was totally busted if I did not blow it! Glancing at the clock, he made his move like lightening trying to play on my time pressure! But I now saw a clear mate in two! Another quick move by me and his King was in check. Now his face reddened as he realized he was losing to an unknown patzer! Rather than resign, he moved his king, and I swiftly delivered mate with my queen and gently stopped the clock.

There was a momentary silence as the crowd gathered around the board realized that the chess master of Harvard Square had lost! How could this be? Then voices all around spoke out. "He BEAT him!" yelled one kid to his dad. A murmur swept through the crowd, and then I heard one gentleman ask my wife in a pronounced voice, "Is your husband a Russian grandmaster or something?" She smiled and said, "No, just a chess player from San Francisco". The master said, "Nice game!" and then, "Like to play another for double or nothing?" Now in a perfect world I would have simply said "Thanks for the game, but I've got to run." And left them guessing for years! But I looked at my wife with that look of "One more, honey?", and she nodded her assent.

In the next game, with a larger crowd now surrounding the table, we drew a hard fought game, where I found a perpetual. He asked me then, "WHO are you?" I laughed and said "just a Class A player from San Francisco". He scoffed and softly said, "Bullshit!" under his breath, as we set up the pieces again. This time he had an idea about my attacking skills and deftly declined my King's Gambit. Stopping all my counterplay this time, he beat me rather handily. "OK, gotta run. We're even now! Thanks for the games!" So I got up, retrieved my laughing wife, and left.

Now here is the real kicker to this story and pretty amazing evidence of some hidden force we do not understand yet. A few years later we were back in New York City. I was there to watch a few games of the 1995 Anand-Kasparov World Championship match in the World Trade Center. My wife stayed for only one day, then headed to New England to be with her parents. I drove up there to join her few days later. It was late at night when I arrived, as I had attended the match game that day. As I walked in, she said casually, "You'll never guess what I read about today in my mom's Yankee magazine!" (a regional New England magazine). I thought briefly and then exclaimed, "You read about that Harvard Square chess master I beat three years ago!" She looked stunned for a moment and then retorted, "You've seen the article". I laughed and said, "No, I just guessed". She did not believe me at first, but I finally convinced her I had never read that article. Besides, the magazine had come in the mail that same day. How could I have read a local New England magazine in New York that day? Don't ask me how I divined what she had read, but it is an intriguing example of some sort of ESP that my wife and I have experienced many times before.

So now, convinced that I really had just guessed about the article, she said, "Well, guess what the article says? It says "The Harvard Chess Master has not lost a game for at least 10 years"! We both paused as we looked at each other, and then we burst out laughing. At last, I sputtered, "How could they forget about the mysterious Russian Grandmaster and his King's Gambit?"

The chess master I played is a nice fellow named Murray Turnbull, and he is still playing chess in Harvard Square to this day! He even has a Wiki entry about his Harvard Square chess play. Here is the link:

Carry on Master Turnbull! I applaud your efforts to popularize our royal game, but get your facts straight next time you are in a magazine article, else the "Russian GM" may have to pay you another visit.

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