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21 Mar, 2020 15:33

Twice-daily health checks and no spectators allowed: World Chess Candidates grabs online audience as sports hit by coronavirus

Twice-daily health checks and no spectators allowed: World Chess Candidates grabs online audience as sports hit by coronavirus

With stringent coronavirus tests before and after each game, the World Chess Candidates has become an unlikely sensation as action-starved sports fans go online to watch the battle of minds in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg.

Eight potential challengers are duking it out for the right to challenge the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, and for a €500,000 (US$538,000) prize fund – but the start of the three-week contest has been overshadowed by fears of Covid-19, with two competitors from China facing 14-day quarantine periods before the event began, and at least one player dropping out in protest over health fears.

Players’ temperatures are checked by medical personnel twice a day at the tournament, and all spectators have been banned from the auditorium, leaving fans to watch the games live with commentary online. Players have been allowed to forego the traditional handshakes before and after each game, with most players resorting to elbow bumps instead.

Yet the controversy surrounding the tournament and the lack of other sporting action worldwide has served to make the World Chess Candidates more popular online, with an audience of hundreds of thousands reportedly tuning in via YouTube and dedicated livestreaming chess websites to watch commentary on the matches by leading grandmasters, including Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the world champion himself.

According to new World Chess Federation (FIDE) regulations, hurriedly brought in amid the growing coronavirus pandemic, if just one of the players tests positive for Covid-19, the entire tournament will be suspended until later in the year, and resumed then with the scores as they stood when play was suspended.

The Candidates is going ahead in the capital city of the Urals for the first time, despite calls from some quarters for the event to be postponed due to fears connected with the global pandemic. One of the original qualifiers, Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, pulled out less than two weeks before the event was due to start, citing fears over Covid-19. His place was immediately taken up by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, one of the leading contenders for Carlsen’s throne who had narrowly failed to qualify for the Candidates.

In the first three rounds, three players have established a lead on 2/3 - Russian Ian Nepomniatchi, Chinaman Wang Hao and Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, but the big sensation has been the form of No. 2 seed Ding Liren from China, who disastrously lost his first two games but then bounced back in Round 3 to defeat the top seed, American Fabiano Caruana after an epic 59-move struggle.


The topsy-turvy game in Round 3 saw Caruana, the pre-tournament favorite to challenge Norwegian World Champion Magnus Carlsen in Dubai in December, unfurl a fiendish opening novelty on Ding, and the Chinese player was forced to consume huge amounts of time on the clock to counter the American’s brand new move, the pawn sacrifice on move 8, in a super-sharp Queen’s Gambit Slav Defence.

Caruana’s loss left Russia’s Ian Nepomniatchi, France’s Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (popularly known as MVL) and China’s Wang Hao in the joint lead on 2/3. Caruana was on 1.5/3 going into Saturday’s Round 4, along with Russia’s Aleksandr Grischuk, at 35 the veteran in the field, while Ding Liren, Russia’s Kirill Alekseenko and The Netherlands’ Anish Giri are still in contention on 1/3.

Ding showed great resilience in Round 3, going more than an hour behind on time, but through a combination of tenacious defense and grabbing two extra pawns, managed to wrong-foot Caruana, who played “too slow” with some unnecessary pawn moves instead of attacking Ding’s king, according to the Chinese player in his post-game press conference.

The surprise result came after Ding, the No. 2 seed, shocked the chess world by crashing to two defeats in the first two rounds, against Wang Hao in Round 1 and MVL in Round 2.

The participation in the Candidates of Ding and his Chinese compatriot was allowed by Russian authorities after a quarantine period of 14 days, during which the players stayed under medical supervision near Moscow.

The other three Round 3 games were all hard-fought draws, allowing the field to bunch up slightly after the first two dramatic rounds. Dutchman Anish Giri drew with MVL, while Aleksandr Grischuk drew with Wang Hao and the all-Russian encounter between wildcard competitor Kirill Alekseenko and Ian Nepomniatchi also ended in a draw.


The 14-round double round robin tournament is scheduled to conclude on April 3. The eight-player Candidates tournament is organized by FIDE, the World Chess Federation, every two years to find a Challenger to the World Champion.