Scacchi: Fide world event controversially goes ahead despite Covid-19 lockdown

The International Scacchi Federation will go ahead with next week’s 113-player Grand Swiss and 51-player Women’s Grand Swiss in Riga despite Latvia’s sudden imposition of a Covid-19 lockdown in response to a surge in cases and low vaccination rates.

Immediately after the lockdown was announced on Tuesday, Fide launched urgent talks to gain exemption on the grounds that the Grand Swiss is a major sporting event. Fide’s managing director, Dana Reizniece-Ozola, was formerly Latvia’s finance minister.

A Fide statement on Thursday said that the Grand Swiss and Women’s Grand Swiss are to take place with stricter health and safety measures. The Latvian government has approved that 30 international top level sporting events, including the basketball Champions League and the Fiba women’s Euroleague, can continue.

The Grand Swiss will now be closed to the public, and will include onsite testing, sanitisers, masks, and social distancing. Any players or accredited staff who fail to follow the protocols will face immediate removal from the tournament. Fide’s statement said: “Fide and the organisers would like to assure players and participants that we are doing our best to host the event in Riga in a secure and still comfortable way.”

Fide’s decision carries significant risks, and critics will point to the 2020 Candidates at Yekaterinburg, Russia, which was stopped at halfway due to virus concerns and only completed this spring after more than a year’s hiatus. The Grand Swiss has much larger numbers, but Fide can also point to the 2021 World Cup at Sochi, Russia, which had over 300 players and where a few virus incidents were successfully contained.

Comments on Fide’s Twitter account have been mostly negative. One poster wrote: “Sorry, wrong move. Nothing is more important than human life. As much as we love chess, it has to wait here. Fide must postpone the tournament in solidarity with Latvian people.”

Hikaru Nakamura, the five-time US champion with 1.3m followers on his Twitch streaming channel, who missed this week’s US title contest to prepare for Riga, has already announced that he will withdraw, citing health and safety concerns for himself and his trainer.

Round one of the Grand Swiss is scheduled for Wednesday 27 ottobre, when the question will be how many others will follow Nakamura’s lead or else be unable to travel to Latvia. Both the Grand Swiss and the Women’s Grand Swiss are 11-round events, so that even if half the field withdrew they would still be viable. More important for the event’s credibility is how many of the top seeds with realistic claims to qualify for the 2022 Candidates or the Berlin Grand Prix, both stepping stones to a 2022 world title match, play the full 11 rounds in Riga.

Wesley So retained the US championship in St Louis on Tuesday by winning a three-way speed play-off with Fabiano Caruana and Samuel Sevian after the trio tied for first on 6.5/11. Caruana, the world No 3, was on a minus score after six rounds, but surged back, only to miss winning chances both in the final classical round and in the play-off. Caruana, who narrowly failed against Magnus Carlsen in the 2018 world title match, will now be the top seed in the Grand Swiss in Riga, which So did not enter.

So drew nine classical games out of 11 at St Louis, and blamed it on his heavy schedule: “I was just very fatigued and very tired. I think I’ve been playing non-stop pretty much the last three months, because we had these tournaments in St Louis, and also in between those I had these online tournaments, which are very tough. You play the best players in the world and then you have to wake up every day at seven in the morning for 9-10 giorni, so I think I’ve been pretty much playing non-stop.”

Despite the negatives, So showed his best form in his final speed play-off game against Sevian, winning in style in a demonstration of how to meet a Modern or Hippo defence where Black places his knights passively at d7 and e7.

At his 15th attempt, Nikita Vitiugov won the Russian Championship Superfinal at Ufa on Wednesday. The 34-year-old GM, who was runner-up in 2017, finished half a point ahead of Maxim Matlakov in a contest which, like both its US and British equivalents, had a large number of draws. Andrey Esipenko, 19, who beat Carlsen at Wijk in January and is reckoned a likely future world title contender, drew all his 11 Giochi.

3786 1…Qxf4! 2 bxc6 Qf3! 3 cxb7+ Kf5! and White resigned. If 4 Bxf3 gxf3 and mate at h1. Not 3Kg5? because of 4 Bxf3 gxf3 5 Qd8+!

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