It’s the mind-warping new reality of the coronavirus pandemic with all sporting/cultural events being cancelled or postponed. And now the International Olympic Committee is facing almost irresistible pressure from athletes to postpone the Tokyo Olympic Games this week to 2021. And late last week, it was also revealed that the governing world body of chess, FIDE, is set to make a similar announcement of postponement plans for the 185-nation team Chess Olympiad scheduled to start in Moscow in August.
Save for Shogi in Japan, the only major event left in a Covid-19 decimated sporting calendar is the FIDE Candidates Tournament in Ekaterinburg in the Russian Urals – but for how long? As the tournament to decide Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger reaches its midpoint, ‘pandemic paranoia’ has now set in with some of the players, with many now openly questioning the wisdom of the event taking place in the first place amidst the global panic and mayhem.
What started with the novelty of elbow bumps in place of the customary handshake has now seen the fear-factor escalating with almost siege-like conditions for a room of eight players in a potential perfect petri dish environment – all handling the same pieces, pressing the same clocks and breathing the same air as they compete in the biggest tournament of their career. There is also no access to anything outside of the official hotel for the players due to local restrictions; they also see images daily of those around them wearing face masks; they franticly wash their hands with the bottles of hand sanitisers left for each player at the board; and there’s also the Covid-19 testing every 10 days and also twice-daily medical checkups – so it’s no wonder that the bizarre conditions are beginning to take a psychological toll on the players.
Russia’s Alexander Grischuk is notoriously one of the most battle-hardened players on the elite circuit, but with a young family back home in Moscow, it is clearly affecting his chess, and he’s now having second thought of why he’s playing: “My form is terrible, I don’t want to play at all with this situation. At the beginning I didn’t have a clear opinion, but now, after several days, I have a very clear opinion that this tournament should be stopped. The whole atmosphere is hostile, with masks…”
Some, like the US top seed Fabiano Caruana, there’s also an added fear that if the tournament does get abandoned now, then he’ll be the one who is left marooned in Russia due to global travel restrictions. And according to Anish Giri in a Wall Street Journal feature, while the medical examination is thorough, it can’t account for the strain on your mindset: “The doctor just tells you that you have no fever and your throat is alright. But the doctor doesn’t tell you that you play like a total idiot and that there’s something really wrong with your brain…She tells me I’m fine, but I know I’m not fine. I see how I play,” he adds. “This is not fine.”
And yet through it all, the one player who is now physically beginning to display signs of possible Covid-19 symptoms is the player everyone now needs to try and catch, namely Ian “Nepo” Nepomniachtchi, who with a brace of wins in rounds 5 and 6 against the Chinese duo of Wang Hao and Ding Liren respectively, has seen the Russian storm into the outright lead with a +3 score, and he now has a full point lead over his nearest rival, Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.
Nepo is known for his fast starts, but the temperamental Russian is prone to poker-like ‘tilts’ and also known to squander decisive tournament leads. Last year in Croatia in the Grand Chess Tour, he also got off to a similarly spectacular +3 start, but he quickly blew it all away with a meltdown in the second half of the tournament. And then there’s the next Covid-19 test due for Tuesday’s rest before play resumes again on Wednesday. Worryingly, Nepo coughed his way through his game with Ding Liren, and not only did he look bad, but he also commented during his post-game presser (see video below) that he’s “definitely not feeling okay.”
And in the scenario of one of the fateful eight testing positive, then the Candidates will stop immediately. It will then resume later in the year, with all points scored to date being carried over.
1. I. Nepomniachtchi (Russia) 4½/6; 2. M. Vachier-Lagrave (France) 3½; 3-6. F. Caruana (USA), A. Giri (Netherlands), Wang Hao (China), A. Grischuk (Russia) 3; 7-8. Ding Liren (China), K. Alekseenko (Russia) 2.
GM Ian Nepomniachtchi – GM Ding Liren
FIDE Candidates Tournament, (6)
Ruy Lopez, Martinez Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.0-0 Be7 6.d3 The slow but solid ‘Martinez Variation’ has been seen numerous times at the highest level of play, having been regularly employed by the likes of Magnus Carlsen, Vishy Anand, Fabiano Caruana, Alexander Grischuk, Sergey Karjakin, Peter Svidler and many other super-grandmasters who regularly play the Ruy Lopez. 6…b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.a3 Just making a retreat to tuck away the Lopez bishop on a2 – Black will now have to play …Be6 if he wants to trade the light-squared bishops. 8…0-0 9.Nc3 Na5 10.Ba2 Be6 11.b4 Bxa2 12.Rxa2 Nc6 13.Bg5 Qd7 14.Bxf6 Bxf6 15.Nd5 The knight has a powerful outpost on d5, where to remove it, will require some concessions having to be made. 15…a5 This is the best idea, trying to trade as many queenside pawns as possible, especially Black’s a-pawn that could become a target. 16.Rb2 axb4 17.axb4 Although 17.Nxf6+ gxf6 is possible, I think Ding wouldn’t be too unhappy dealing with this scenario, as at least the dominant knight is off the board. 17…Bd8 18.c4 Nd4 19.Nxd4 exd4 20.Qc2 There really isn’t too much in the position, the main difference being White nicely placed Nd5 overshadowing Black’s pitiful …Bd8 – but …c6 is not far off to even things up a little. White just has a little ‘something’ to work with; nothing much, just a little something. 20…Re8 21.g3 This, though, is a little puzzling, as Black really isn’t threatening any kingside attack – I thought the obvious try was 21.Ra2 Rxa2 22.Qxa2 c6 23.Nf4 with just a minimal edge to White, with control of the open a-file. But now Ding takes a miniscule edge. 21…bxc4 22.Qxc4 c6 23.Nf4 Bg5! One of the drawbacks to 21.g3 is that White doesn’t have the option now of Nh3. 24.Ne2 d5 25.exd5 cxd5 26.Qb3 There really is not anything in this position – in fact, if anything, Black marginally stands a tiny bit better. But what is amazing is just how rapidly Ding’s position collapses, as he over-plays his hand somewhat, thinking he has a possible winning attempt to get himself back among the leader after his disasterous start. 26…h5 An adventurous try, but Ding also had the solid option of 26…Rab8 27.b5 Bd8 and it is hard to see how White can makes anything of his b-pawn that is now blockaded. 27.b5 h4 28.b6 h3 29.Kh1 Reb8 Again, better looked 29…Rab8 – but Ding is letting his position drift, as he’s seemingly oblivious to the dangers. 30.Rfb1 Bd8 31.Qb5! Qg4? Ding has delusions of grandeur – the only move was 31…Qf5! as 32.Qe8+ Kh7 33.Ng1 Bxb6 34.Qe2 and Black having the slightly better of an equal position. 32.Qxd5?! There’s an unbelievable saving resource missed by both players. And with that in mind, the clinical kill was 32.Qe8+! Kh7 33.Qxf7! covering the vital f3 square – and if 33…Rxb6 34.Rxb6 Bxb6 35.f3! Qg5 36.Nf4 and Black is in trouble with h3 and d5 set to fall ; particularly h3. 32…Ra5 33.Qc6 Rc5? It’s hard to be critical, but even in this seemingly hopeless position for Ding, the complexities are such that he missed his only saving chance, which the engines quickly find with 33…Rxb6! 34.Rxb6 Qxe2 35.Rb8 Re5!! An amazing resource that Nepo himself said any player should be “disqualified” immediately if it was played at the board. 36.Rxd8+ Kh7 and with no way to stop the omnipresent threat of 37…Qe1+, White, despite the extra rook, has to now take the bailout with 37.Rh8+ Kxh8 38.Qc8+ Kh7 39.Qxh3+ Kg6 40.Kg1 Qxd3 41.Qg4+ Kh7 42.Qh3+ Kg6 43.Qg4+ and a draw by repetition, as 43…Rg5 backfires to 44.Rd1! Rxg4 45.Rxd3 Re4 46.Kf1 and f3 will soon pick-off the d4-pawn and an endgame advantage for White. 34.Qe8+ Kh7 35.Ng1 Rxb6 36.Qxd8 Rxb2 37.Rxb2 Rc1 38.Qh4+ Qxh4 39.gxh4 Rd1 40.f3 1-0 Ding resigns, as 40…Rxd3 41.Nxh3 Rxf3 walks right into the winning fork of 42.Ng5+. Some thought Ding’s resignation premature, others somewhat cruely remarking it was perhaps brought on by Nepo’s coughing!