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On Chess: 2020 FIDE Candidates Tournament Halted Midway Due to COVID-19

Grandmasters Ian Nepomniachtchi (left) and Alexander Grischuk avoid the traditional handshake with the elbow bump before the FIDE Candidates Tournament was halted on March 26, 2020.
Lennart Ootes | FIDE
Grandmasters Ian Nepomniachtchi (left) and Alexander Grischuk avoid the traditional handshake with the elbow bump before the FIDE Candidates Tournament was halted.

On March 17, the 2020 FIDE Candidates kicked off in Yekaterinburg, Russia, in somewhat controversial fashion.

At a time where most major sporting events were canceled due to growing concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the chess tournament was very possibly the biggest sporting event in the world taking place. The eight-player, 14-round tournament was to determine the next challenger to world champion Magnus Carlsen.

Fast forward just over a week later. The tournament was in full swing. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France had just defeated Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia in a thrilling round-seven battle. As a result, the two grandmasters led the field with 4.5/7 points.

Then on March 26, the tournament was abruptly put on pause. The Russian Federation announced firm restrictions on air travel to be effective March 27. In an official statement, the world governing body of chess explained, “FIDE can not continue the tournament without guarantees for the players' and officials' safe and timely return home.”

Instead of proceeding with round eight, the players were sent packing. FIDE scrambled to find flights for the players to ensure no one would be trapped in Russia. Thankfully, they were able to do so successfully.

Controversy, precautions

For weeks before the event started, there was controversy surrounding whether or not the Candidates should take place.

In an effort to minimize concerns, FIDE took many precautions to ensure the health of the players. No live spectators were allowed in the playing hall (apart from a couple of arbiters and photographers). Hand sanitizer and face masks were abundantly accessible for the players and staff. All competitors were subject to two daily health checks in which they were screened for any symptoms of illness. Additionally, some players refused to shake hands while others opted for the less germ-transmitting elbow bump.

It was difficult to ignore the fact that many aspects of the tournament were atypical. Some players complained about the overall conditions and atmosphere.

After the fifth round, grandmaster Alexander Grischuk expressed his feelings:

“My form is terrible. I don’t want to play at all with this situation. In the beginning, I did not have a clear opinion, but after several days, I have a clear opinion that this tournament should be stopped. The whole atmosphere is very hostile ... I don’t want to play. I don’t want to be here.”

One could only imagine how the players were supposed to devote their entire focus and energy to chess while much of the world was in a state of lockdown.

In an interview with chess.com, FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich admitted that FIDE was put in a difficult situation.

“It was a hard decision to start the tournament, and it was a hard decision to stop it,” he said.

To add another layer to FIDE’s already difficult predicament, grandmaster Teimour Radjabov dropped out of the Candidates just 10 days before the start, citing his concerns for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given that the tournament was postponed as a result of the pandemic, it’s unclear if some reparations should be made for Radjabov’s situation. With the complicated nature of contracts and legal issues, this could very well be something that the lawyers will decide.

As we look at the road ahead, there are currently many more questions than answers. It could very well take many months until it becomes clear how the Candidates will resolve.

You can still enjoy chess

With the cancellation of all major in-person chess in the foreseeable future, chess fans can still be grateful that there are many ways to enjoy our past time in the digital age.

I encourage readers to take advantage of chess platforms like chess.com, lichess, Chess24 and uschesschamps.com along with the plethora of high-quality video content across Twitch and YouTube. This includes the St. Louis Chess Club’s YouTube and Twitch channels, which continue to provide the club's weekly classes and lectures along with additional chess programming online for free.

One hopes it won’t be too long until the global chess community can return to over-the-board events and enjoy the high-quality games from the world’s best.

Eric Rosen is an international master and a Webster University graduate with a B.A. in Interactive Digital Media. Originally from Skokie, Illinois, Eric now lives in St. Louis and works many jobs relating to chess. He is a member of the St. Louis Chess Club, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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