The FIDE 2020 Candidates Tournament was brought to a halt after the decision of the Russian authorities to stop all international flights as of March 27. By that point, half of the tournament had been played (seven out of 14 rounds) and the chess community and the world, in general, had had a chance to enjoy spectacular games, a welcome distraction from the rolling news about the coronavirus.
Explaining the decision to halt the Candidates, FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich said that the stopping of international flights to/from Russia would have “put too much pressure on the players and participants in terms of how and when they will be able to return home”. He added that FIDE did “everything to ensure the safe and secure return of everyone to their homes”. On the morning of the announcement by the Russian government, and following the decision to stop the event, FIDE immediately sorted out travel for both players and staff, by purchasing tickets and organizing a charter flight to ensure everyone’s speedy and safe return home.
The Candidates tournament is one of the most important chess events of the year – to both the players and the chess community – and is directly connected to the match for the title of World Champion. This year’s event has a prize fund of 500,000 euros, which is the biggest ever for a Candidates tournament. FIDE was committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that play went ahead, providing maximum safety and security for all involved, which was maintained for the duration of the event. It should also be noted that every decision about the event was made in consultation and agreement with the players who took part.
There have been questions as to whether the decision to go ahead with the event in the first place was right or wrong. FIDE maintains that when the decision was made to go ahead, it was done so taking into consideration the situation in Russia at the time (there were only a small number of cases and everything was done in coordination with the Russian authorities) and following discussions with the players.
FIDE also put in place health & safety measures to ensure that the players, arbiters and the entire on-site staff had all the necessary protection. This included two daily check-ups with doctors, tests for coronavirus (two were carried out for the duration of the event, at the beginning and at the end, and all came back as negative), sanitizers and masks, as well as banning spectators and maintaining social distancing for all involved. It should also be noted that the constant health monitoring and high level of protection provided to everyone involved was much more stringent than anything currently available to the majority of people around the world on a daily basis.
As World Champion Magnus Carlsen noted on his comments to Chess24, “having completed seven rounds has some merit – at least we tried, which I think in these days should not be discounted as nothing! I feel as though obviously this situation is chaotic and all those people who called for the tournament to be postponed from the start are going to say, ‘I told you so’ at this point, but I do feel as though they tried what they could and now it’s just not possible so they have to get the players out safely.”
It is right to argue that the tournament took place under difficult, even unprecedented, circumstances. However, we are witnessing the creation of a new “normal”, where not just playing chess, but life, in general, will be completely different. How we do things in the future, in whichever field that may be, is very likely going to be significantly different from what it was before the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. As Vishy Anand put it, “we are on the uncharted territory”. Bearing this in mind, FIDE’s decision to go ahead with the event was done by trying to minimize these disruptive circumstances. It was guided by having the best interests of chess at heart and in an attempt to help provide the chess audience and the public in general with a tournament that would lift everyone’s spirits during these troubled times, while also maintaining the health and safety of all involved.
From the duration of the first part of the event, interest in chess has risen globally. The live stream and commentary of the 2020 Candidates have attracted a viewership of several million people around the world. Top-class players (including the current World Champion) took part in daily shows to comment on the games. Overall, chess portals with live commentary saw a strong increase in viewership.
Reports about the 2020 Candidates appeared on prominent pages in media outlets around the world (Reuters, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, to name a few), giving chess attention which has not been seen for years. While concerns about the decision to continue with the event were pointed out (FIDE acknowledged them and always faced them head-on), the chess community was praised for its endeavor to have the only major sporting event in the world going ahead for as long as possible.
In chess terms, the seven rounds played at the 2020 Candidates produced some of the best examples of chess play and chess spirit ever seen. In the first part, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi gave the best performances but other participants showed a high level of preparation and sophistication in their play. All 28 games played in the first seven rounds provided excitement and novelty, pushing the overall quality of chess currently played in the world to a higher level.
Following the agreement between FIDE and players before the event, with regards to the current global developments, the tournament has now stopped and will continue at a later stage when circumstances allow. In the meantime, FIDE has said that it remains committed to ensuring that the chess community continues to function during this period. The international chess body will use this time to find new ways and ideas to connect the chess community and to reach out to people everywhere, stepping up online activities and finding new ways of keeping people connected.
These are challenging times ahead, not just for chess but for the whole world. Whatever happens, whether as chess players or not, let us all look out for each other and remember that We are one Family - Gens una sumus.