Fear of coronavirus has been a persistent backdrop to the start of the world Candidates, one of a very few global sports events to survive a flood of cancellations. The eight-player, €500,000 event is the final eliminator to decide who will challenge Norway’s Magnus Carlsen for his global crown at the end of the year.
Fide, the 190-nation chess body, made a fortunate venue selection because Ekaterinburg in the Russian Urals was virus free until its first case on Tuesday, the day the first pawns were pushed. That could still change before the 14-round tournament finishes on 4 April, and meanwhile the organisers are taking no chances.
Everyone involved – players, seconds, arbiters, organisers and officials – is being medically checked twice a day. All were tested for coronavirus when they arrived at the official hotel, and this will be repeated every 10 days. No spectators are allowed in the playing hall. After a new decree on Thursday forbade groups of more than 50 people, journalists were also barred not only from the hall but even from the post-game press conferences.
If the worst happens and one of the eight players tests positive, then the Candidates will stop immediately. It will resume later in the year, with all points scored at Ekaterinburg carried over.
Ding Liren’s status as one of the favourites took a blow when China’s world No 3 lost his first two games. This was the Ding Liren who went unbeaten through 14 rounds of the last Candidates in 2018, and who set a world record, since broken by Carlsen, of 100 games without defeat against elite opponents.
Leading up to the tournament, Ding endured weeks of lockdown in his home city of Wenzhou, then had to arrive in Russia two weeks in advance for quarantine. Ding fought back in Thursday’s third round with an important win over the No 1 seed, Fabiano Caruana. The games so far have been full of fighting chess, very different from the draw-ridden norm of many elite tournaments.
Going into Friday’s rest day, the entire field was covered by just a single point. Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia), Wang Hao (China), and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France) shared the lead on 2/3, followed by Alexander Grischuk (Russia) and Caruana (US) 1.5/3, Anish Giri (Netherlands), Kirill Alekseenko (Russia) and Ding (China) 1/3.
Caruana won impressively against the tournament wildcard, Kirill Alekseenko, but revealed the tensions of the event in his post-game interview: “Today I showed a temperature of 98.7 degrees. This provoked a panic. Everyone’s extremely paranoid, They’re not great conditions to play under, but I have no choice.”
Vachier-Lagrave, a last-minute substitute, has made a good start with his strategic victory over Ding and explained: “I had motivated people helping me, and so far they all did a really good job. I felt fresh, with the idea that I didn’t play for almost two months, [which] just feels great, especially after my schedule last year.”
Nepomniachtchi and Grischuk drew a Berlin Wall in round two, after which Grischuk criticised some of the play. “Nowadays everyone is so polite, tolerant and so on, politically correct. It used to be much more interesting and honest – you know, certain players were saying: ‘I will crush this guy like a bug, this one like a little baby’. It was cool. And now everyone is like ‘I respect so much’. Magnus says a lot of interesting things. Sometimes he says such interesting things that I wish he would not open his mouth, because he shares some really good insights that I feel some people are not aware of.”
Friday is a rest day at the Candidates. Round four starts at 11am on Saturday, and is viewable live and free online with move by move grandmaster and computer commentary. The websites Chess.com, Chess24 and Chessbomb will all show the games.
Long ago the tournament at Bournemouth in 1939, where the star game was a miniature by former world champion Max Euwe, ended on 3 September just as the second world war began. By an eerie coincidence, one of last weekend’s two English congresses (the other was Blackpool) before an indefinite chess shutdown was the Dorset Rapidplay at Ringwood, just outside Bournemouth.
The only GM at either event was Matthew Turner and the Millfield teacher duly won Dorset’s £200 first prize with 5.5/6. Turner survived a difficult episode in round four, where Alan Pleasants went for attack by 18 g4!, passed up a perpetual check with 23 Bxc5 Qxc5 24 Bf3 Qxe3 25 Rxg6+ and could have had a winning position with 29 Rae1! Rf8 30 f5 but instead blundered by 29 Nxc8? allowing a decisive counter against White’s g2 rook.
3663 1 Kxc4! (1 Rxc4? Rxb5 2 Rxd4 Rb2 allows Black good drawing chances) d3 2 Kxd5 d2 (seemingly Black queens, but…) 3 g4+! and Black resigned. If Kxg4 or Kf4 4 Rc4+ and 5 Rd4 stops the pawn and White wins.