Ben Buckland had the upper hand in the opening. He was playing the black pieces and had manoeuvred his opponent - the Indian contender, Asutosh Kumar Jha - into an uncommon variation of the Queens Pawn-Zukertort game named for the last great player of the Romantic era of chess, Mikhail Chigorin.
The Chigorin variation appears as a strategic response to the conventional queen's pawn opening. As white tries to secure the centre squares with their D-pawn, supported by the Knight on f3, Buckland responds by developing his opposing Knight to c6, then the second to f6, working methodically through his early game. His structure was neat and logical; if it appeared quieter than his more aggressive opponent pushing his King's pawn forward, the payout would come in a move or two as the battle for the centre unfolded. The tempo was Buckland's. Now, all he had to do was keep it.
Kumar Jha, by contrast, had taken a less focused approach, seemingly dipping his toe in various openings and never committing to a line. At first, it seemed he might transpose his initial idea into the London System (a favourite for some beginners and intermediate players for its formidable pawn structure and control of the centre), only to seemingly abandon it later to focus on fortifying his castled King.
Buckland rested his chin on his strapped hand and mulled his mouthguard. The trainee surgeon and urology registrar from Adamstown, who works at John Hunter Hospital, had been playing chess since he was a young boy. He learnt the way a lot of kids learn - losing to his dad and older brother. In lockdown, when the game exploded in a global renaissance pushed in part by the hit Netflix drama The Queen's Gambit, he had started challenging his siblings online to keep in touch.
He continued his development calmly. Playing fast was important - the round was timed and would only last a few minutes - but rushing would surely lose in the long run. His dark-squared bishop moved toward the centre.
It's hard to tell when the 27-year-old Hunter man knew he had the advantage. Perhaps it was when he managed to fork Kumar Jha's bishop and Knight, effectively guaranteeing he would bag the first capture, and a major piece. Maybe it was when his opponent sensationally exposed his King's file to recapture a consolation piece, after seemingly putting such effort into solidifying his position. Either way, before the opening was over, it was clear Buckland was the better chess player.
But Kumar Jha was a brawler. And the boxing round came next.
Chess-boxing has been around since 2003 when it was invented by the Dutchman Iepe Rubingh, inspired by a 1992 comic book by the Yugoslavia-born French artist Enki Bilal that depicted a sport where boxers play chess in a hybrid game that Rubingh says was meant to find the "smartest and toughest man or woman on the planet" by combing the world's "number-one thinking sport with the number-one fighting sport".
Rubingh contested the first chess-boxing World Championship match in 2003 against his friend and fellow middleweight Jean Louis Veenstra. Since then, the sport has gained considerable popularity in Europe and has a burgeoning presence in Australia.
The World Chess-Boxing Organisation, founded by Rubingh, describes the sport as a bout of 11 rounds - six four-minute rounds of chess and five two-minute rounds of boxing - where the contest is decided either by checkmate, knockout, exceeding the time limit in chess, retirement, or referee decision. If the game ends in a stalemate, the winner is decided by points in the boxing.
At the end of October, the fifth chess boxing world championships were hosted in Riccione, Italy, where - after gaining the tempo in the opening - Buckland was about to step into the ring against Kumar Jha to throw the first punch.
"It's like Mike Tyson quote," Buckland said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth."
Kumar Jha was not a pretty fighter, but he was lethal, throwing wide blows in a ruthless assault on the young Aussie, who quickly found himself backed onto the ropes. Buckland had boxed on and off as a teenager as a fitness and training option for his other sports and had been training between 10 and 20 hours a week in the lead-up to the tournament.
His response to Kumar Jha's onslaught appeared to be to weather the body blows and let his contender tire himself out. But the Indian's burst of energy in the ring was enough to rattle the Australian contender, who was ultimately knocked out in the first round.
"My competitor was just a bit too good at boxing," Buckland said, "I just didn't get through enough of the boxing to beat him at chess. But it was my first World Championship."
Buckland has only been chess boxing in earnest for the past year, but he said the European teams were redoubtable.
"The real challenge of the game is switching from one to the other and trying to remember where you were up to, what your plans were and what your opponent was doing as well," he said, "You can be a very good player, but after a few heavy blows, then even your best chess players can be completely thrown off and out of the game.
"You can't just be a very good chess player or just very physically strong and coordinated. You have to be good at both."