By Neil Gonputh
The world’s best chess players were in the middle of the Candidates Tournament when it was unexpectedly checkmated by COVID-19.
There were fears players wouldn’t be able to leave the tournament in Yekaterinburg, in central Russia, after it was announced the chess matches were postponed.
The Candidates Tournament 2020 is an eight-player, round-robin tournament hosted by the international chess body Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE).
The winner would have earned the right to go on to the World Chess Championship and face the reigning World Champion, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, for the title of World Champion.
But any such hopes these contestants had have been put on hold.
FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich announced March 26 that FIDE would be suspending the rest of the tournament, to be resumed at a later date. Only seven of the 14 rounds had been completed.
The postponement was in response to the Russia’s announcement that starting March 27 Russia would be stopping flights to and from other countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“FIDE can not continue the tournament without guarantees for the players’ and officials’ safe and timely return home,” Dvorkovich said in a FIDE statement on March 26.
But arranging to leave the country in less than 24 hours especially in the midst of preparing or playing a match was no easy feat.
Grand Master Fabiano Caruana, a competitor from the U.S., was frustrated by the delays in flights leaving Russia.
Postponements of tournaments at this level in the chess community are very rare. The last one was the World Championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov which started in 1984 but did not end until 1985.
Michael Aigner, a National Master (NM) from California, said that tournament was annulled.
“The first world championship match between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov in 1984-’85 was annulled after five months and 48 games, ostensibly because both players were exhausted,” Aigner said.
Sam Copeland, content director for Chess.com, said the Mannheim 1914 tournament was stopped because of the First World War.
It is unclear how a tournament postponement would affect the players. Some may find it beneficial, others may not.
Chess journalist Peter Doggers said some players may find they may not be prepared when it resumes.
“Players who did well so far (French player Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Russian player Ian Nepomniachtchi) might not be in a similar shape when it resumes in months from now,” Doggers said.
But Chinese Grand Master Ding Liren, who scored disappointingly, which might be because he had to go through a two-week quarantine in Russia before starting the tournament, might catch up, he said.
“Unquestionably some of the eight participants in the Candidates Tournament were, at least partly, distracted by the troubling developments around the globe,” Aigner said. He said Liren played uncharacteristically poorly and was in the last place.
Aigner said Nepomniachtchi might be in an advantageous position.
“If anyone benefits, it might be Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. He has a reputation for impressive starts,” Aigner said. “Unsurprisingly, he was clearly the strongest player for the first six games.”
Copeland said current leaders Nepomniachtchi and Vachier-Lagrave will now be targets by the other competitors, who are expected to prepare in the next few months.
Diana Mirza, a Woman FIDE Master (WFM) from Ireland, believes the French Grand Master faces the most adversity.
“The delay probably damages [Vachier-Lagrave] the most out of anyone given that he was in good form at this point of the tournament and had just gone into the lead and was playing very well,” Mirza said.
Before the tournament, there were competitors and participants that were concerned about competing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Former World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik was scheduled to be a commentator but withdrew amid COVID-19 concerns.
“With all respect and general positive assessment of the work FIDE have done recently, I strongly believe the Candidates Tournament should have been postponed considering the nowadays disastrous humanitarian situation in the world,” Kramnik said in a statement he released March 16.
FIDE attempted to put precautions in place.
“All the players, arbiters and staff had medical checkups twice a day, tests for the detection of COVID-19 have been done and all came back as negative. Also, the spectators have been banned from the venue and the interaction between the players and the media has been put to a minimum,” Dvorkovich said in a March 26 statement.
However, Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan raised several safety concerns before the competition began and asked that the event be postponed. He withdrew when FIDE chose to proceed with the competition, replacing him with Vachier-Lagrave.
But now that the competition has been postponed the question of what to do with Radjabov was raised.
The Azerbaijan National Team wrote an open letter citing unfair treatment of their player and he should be let back into the tournament.
“We request and demand that the FIDE management returns…Radjabov into the world championship qualifying cycle as he suffered undeservedly in the circumstances,” said the letter from the Azerbaijan National Team.
However, Valer Eugen Demian, a Canadian chess master, said Radjabov made his choice to withdraw.
“Personally I don’t think they should let Radjabov join the tournament. He made his decision and should live with it. I would continue the existing tournament from where it stopped,” Demian said.
Todd Andrews, an American chess master, faced a similar situation when he was supposed to attend an international event in early March but decided not to go.
“We have to live with our decisions in those situations,” Andrews said.