JOHN GERMAINE, a play-by-play announcer
HAMISH MacFLAGON, a color analyst and former world champion
PETER CHERSKY, a Russian championship contender
EMILIANA, a Brazilian championship contender
various officials and audience members
JOHN: This is it, the match we’ve waited for all year! Welcome, everybody, to beautiful Dubai and the WFTTT World Tic-Tac-Toe Championships. Glad you could join us. I’m John Germaine, and with me as always is legend of the three-by-three Hamish MacFlagon.
HAMISH: Noughts and crosses, Johnnie! Noughts and crosses do not get any better!
JOHN: Hoo boy! It does not. It’s all come down to this, Hamish. Two contrasting styles going for the trophy today, Russian ice versus Brazilian fire.
HAMISH: Aye, we got a belter of a match ahead. A real belter. They go about the hashtag in their own way, but both can put three squares together.
JOHN: Russian Pyeter Chersky was co-champ last year, earning a share of the title. He’s back after a marathon match yesterday, literally wearing down his opponent over eleven hours of high-tension draws. Will he have any gas left in the tank?
HAMISH: Chersky’s conditioning regimen is second to none. He’s match fit all right.
JOHN: You like his game.
HAMISH: He’s a clinician, Johnnie.
JOHN: Facing him down is the flamboyant Emiliana, marking her first championship appearance. The Brazilian is known for her flashy attire, flashy bling but most of all for her flashy game, some of the best misdirection and slot fakes seen in a long time. How will all that flair and unpredictability affect the Russian?
HAMISH: She’s got more than bum and parsley, this one. Even so, she’ll not get in Chersky’s head. Any mistake, the Russian will pounce.
JOHN: First to connect three Xs or Os in any direction wins the coveted Terni Lapilli Trophy. In case of a draw–a 36th consecutive draw–the players flip X-for-O and go again until we have a winner or the judges deem one or both unable to continue. Hamish, you have a whole case of Lapillis.
HAMISH: Four draws and the one outright. I tell you, I wish I had hundreds. If you’re X, you’re going for the jugular. If you’re O, it’s all about the block. Sounds simple, but simple does not mean easy, I can tell you.
JOHN: The players have taken the stage and are ready for the coin toss. We’re just about underway.
JOHN: The Brazilian has the honors and calls tails…and tails it is! Wow, a big break to start, the aggressive Emiliana opening with control of the hashtag. Hamish, isn’t this where inexperienced players often lose the match?
HAMISH: It really is. The open is the toughest move in the game, Johnnie. It sets your tempo. There are eight ways to win, and starting in the center denies four of them from your opponent straight away. You’re in command, well-defended and able to pivot in any direction.
JOHN: A lot of players these days go for the corner.
HAMISH: Aye, the corner is a cheeky place to start, but you’d best have a plan. Your attack is limited to only three directions, and you’re exposed to the counter.
JOHN: How about the middle edges? It’s rarely seen at this level, but is that the sort of unpredictability we can expect out of Emiliana?
HAMISH: So risky, Johnnie. Starting at the edge cedes the initiative to your opponent. But the one thing Emiliana does not want to do right here is play an O.
JOHN: That’s how you won in ’77.
HAMISH: It was indeed. Over in four moves. Lost a few that way myself, but only ever after a few pints.
JOHN: So how would you open here?
HAMISH: You know, if it were me, I’d plop my X in the center and make the Russian try to stop me.
JOHN: A statistically savvy move, denying Cherksy the middle. 83% of his winning combinations go through Broadway. All right, Emiliana is reaching a bracelet-ed hand for the board…
JOHN: X to upper right! It’s the Highlands for Emiliana.
HAMISH: She’s having a go, Johnnie! From here she can march high to make Cloud Nine, go diagonal for the Slash or take the Plunge straight down.
JOHN: Classic Emiliana. The Brazilian loves to work the top of the board. Chersky has to go middle here, right?
HAMISH: No choice. Dead center. Any corner has him forked by the fifth move.
JOHN: And Chersky claims Broadway!
HAMISH: Smart. Really smart.
JOHN: So two moves in, and we have a match poised on a knife’s edge. Emiliana still has four paths to victory, but Hamish, so does the Russian.
HAMISH: Aye, that’s the math, but right now Chersky’s on the back foot. Barring an Emiliana howler, he just wants to see this first game out and fight another day.
JOHN: What do we watch for now?
HAMISH: Emiliana will keep up the pressure. She’s got to work the corners.
JOHN: The Brazilian looks ready to move…
JOHN: Right again, Mr. World Champion! X, bottom left. Fascinating move. Why the Foxhole? She didn’t set up a finish.
HAMISH: Wonderful combination play, Johnnie. If Chersky can’t break up her corner game, it’s done and dusted. A clean shirt for burying is all he needs.
JOHN: Hoo boy! She’s testing the famed Chersky intellect, isn’t she?
HAMISH: She’s making him pick his poison.
JOHN: Let’s see which poison he picks…
HAMISH: Brilliant. Just beautiful to behold.
JOHN: If you’re Emiliana, you have to block, right?
HAMISH: Block and pray. You block center-left and try catching him out with a Mexican Cliff Dive. You have to keep Chersky on the run.
JOHN: Right again!
HAMISH: Noughts and crosses!
JOHN: Look at that! Chersky’s back with a top-left block of his own! Now it’s the Russian again at the brink of victory, his O on the Coathook and one in the moat away from a Slash! It is cut-and-thrust out there right now, Hamish!
HAMISH: If Emiliana wants to go on, she needs to take Coffin Corner here.
HAMISH: I’d plop my O on Traitor’s Gate. Otherwise she digs a Moat.
JOHN: And win one for the ages. Folks, since the Scotsman on my left won it all, we’ve had 35 consecutive co-champions. Will we see number 36, or will the most storied run in grid sports come to an end?
HAMISH: Don’t count out the Russian.
JOHN: He takes a drink of water. Two squares open but everything on the line. Look at that concentration, Hamish. He sure doesn’t look rattled to me.
HAMISH: Blood straight from a tundra stream.
JOHN: I think he’s playing on…
HAMISH: Well played, both sides.
JOHN: Nerves of steel out there, that’s for sure. Round One stats: nine moves, five Xs, four Os. Hamish, they both had chances to win, but both came up empty. Now the cerebral Chersky has maneuvered first move. How do you see the next round shaping up?
HAMISH: Early days yet, Johnnie. I think he’ll feel out Emiliana’s defense.
JOHN: Which is considered suspect at times.
HAMISH: This is noughts and crosses, laddie. Played for all the noughts and all the crosses. Anything can happen.
JOHN: Hoo boy.
HAMISH: Aye. But I wouldn’t wager against another draw.