Hybrid European Youth Champs show the way
England teams playing in the European Online Youth Championships. Photo: Tim Wall

Hybrid European Youth Champs show the way

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What do you do when Covid-19 restrictions make it difficult to hold any large-scale or even small-scale OTB chess gatherings, but players would really like to see each other after months of lockdown? Well, the hybrid European Youth Champs show the way.

The European Online Youth Chess Championships (EOYCC) from 18-20 September was the first major international individual and team tournament to use the arbiter- and organiser-controlled playing platform Tornelo.com. In total, some 800 players took part from central playing venues for each of 40 countries, where they were able to enjoy some socially distanced interaction with each other.

Such hybrid events – including arbiter- and video conference-supervised online play, yet allowing players to recreate the atmosphere of an OTB chess tournament – surely must be a key way to get back towards the full OTB experience as we battle the pandemic.  

The hybrid European Youth Champs were organised by the European Chess Union (ECU) as 9-round Swiss rapidplay tournaments, with a time control of 25 minutes plus 5 seconds per move, and the eight sections included Open Under 18, Under 16, Under 14 and Under 12, and Girls Under 18, Under 16, Under 14 and Under 12.

Russians dominate – as usual!

With the superb Russians dominating the championships – they triumphed in six out of the eight sections, winning the Open Under 18, 16 and 14, and Girls Under 18, 16 and 12 – it very much felt like a return to “business as usual” in the chess world.

Two other countries managed to win individual titles – Azerbaijan took the Open Under 12, and Belarus won the Girls Under 14 – but overall it was an impressive display from the high-rated Russian teams.

In contrast to other major online events, where players have generally played from home, and the tournaments have been governed by the playing platforms’ own in-house Fair Play algorithms, for the hybrid European Youth Champs the ECU and Tornelo.com took a different approach, which gave the final say to the arbiters.

And the overall experience, I have to say – as one of the country Team Managers in this innovative event – was incredibly positive.

To see talented juniors meeting up again ... was like watching a movie such as ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, where Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman taste the sweet air of freedom after a lengthy period of incarceration.

The joy of meeting up again

To see talented juniors meeting up again – under carefully controlled, socially distanced conditions – after months of only seeing each other online by Zoom or Skype – was like watching a movie such as the ‘Shawshank Redemption’, where Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman taste the sweet air of freedom after a lengthy period of incarceration.

The joy was palpable – and the feeling that a combination of online technology and good old-fashioned arbiting efforts can help us to reconnect our chess community was very powerful. After all, while many young players in the competitive chess world will tell you that online is fine, most would agree that OTB is better.

Arbiters & webcams provide assurance

For now, given the second wave of  Covid-19 transmissions sweeping many countries, hybrid may be the best that many of us can do. But it arguably marks a big step forward in both experience for the players and online Fair Play assurance, as the in-person arbiting in playing halls and remote arbiting via video conferencing should lead to a dramatic reduction in both cheating and fears of false positives (where a playing platform’s algorithm concludes on the basis of probability that cheating has taken place, due to a high Z-score and circumstantial evidence that may indicate suspicious behaviour, but yet the player may not be guilty of any wrongdoing).   

The ECU’s experience of using Tornelo.com under arbiter supervision for the hybrid European Youth Champs may well spur the bigger playing platforms such as Chess.com, Lichess.org, Chess24.com and Chessclub.com to bid for the right to stage other official competitions, including those run by FIDE, the World Chess Federation.

It was good to see that the tournament organisers were in control, drawing upon the expertise of Professor Kenneth Regan, who passed the results of his anti-cheating algorithm data in cases of concern to the ECU arbiters, so that they could make the final decision in Fair Play cases. This extra control is something that I know many tournament organisers welcome, and helps players feel reassured that professional human expertise has been involved, allowing due process in case of any appeals.      

Positive experience for England Teams

I was involved in the event due to acting as England’s Open and Girls Teams Manager, and we were able to gather 16 players at a central venue, Holiday Inn Kenilworth.

The combined England performance (99 points out of a possible 180) was broadly in line with, or even slightly better than, performances in recent years in over-the-board (OTB) European youth championships. England’s 12 Open Team players scored 57/108, while our eight Girls Team players scored 42/72.

The England scores (out of 9) in the various age categories were (see hyperlinks for the final crosstables):

Open 18 – Jonah Willow 5.5, Koby Kalavannan 5.5, Viktor Stoyanov 5

Open 16  - Aaravamudhan Balaji 5.5, Ranesh Ratnesan 4.5, Aditya Verma 4

Girls 16 – Nadia Jaufarally 5, Imogen Dicen 4

Open 14 – Jacob Yoon 5, Shahjahon Saidmurudov 5, James Merriman 4.5

Girls 14 –Julia Volovich 5.5, Abigail Weersing 5.5, Anum Sheikh 5

Open 12 –Nishchal Thatte 5, Sohum Lohia 4, Luca Buanne 3.5

Girls 12 – Eugenia Karas 6, Nina Pert 6, Tashika Arora 5

A socially distanced playing venue

A large majority of the 20 England players took part from the Kenilworth venue, socially distanced and staying within designated groups (or ‘bubbles’) of 6 throughout the three days of competition, following new UK government regulations on the “Rule of 6.”

Each player played on their own laptop computer on a separate table, and sharing their screen by Zoom video conference link with the online arbiter. The playing hall was laid out in classroom style, with 16 players and one arbiter generously spaced out in a room measuring a total of 226 square metres.

The local arbiter at Kenilworth, IA Matthew Carr, could observe the players in person and ensure that Fair Play regulations were strictly observed in the playing hall, and there were two digital cameras set up to observe the whole playing area from different angles.

For a gallery of photos from the Kenilworth playing venue, you can view this post on the English Chess Federation's website.

Players masked up

Partcipants wore face coverings at all times in the playing hall, and also throughout the public areas of the hotel, in compliance with government regulations.

A small minority of players, whose families were either shielding due to Covid-19 regulations or in a “local lockdown” area, were permitted by the ECU organisers to play from home – in one case, with IA David Sedgwick as local Fair Play arbiter at the player’s home, and for the other three players, there was increased Fair Play scrutiny from the ECU’s online arbiters.

In addition to the in-person and online arbiter supervision, all the games in the hybrid European Youth Champs were checked in real time by Professor Regan’s anti-cheating software.

Worthwhile experiment

Tornelo.com is specifically designed for organised tournaments run and controlled by qualified arbiters, rather than for fun or unofficial online events, and that it uses FIDE-approved pairings systems, rather than ones designed by playing servers. The idea is to replicate as closely as possible an over-the-board (OTB) tournament, and it allows direct communcation between players and arbiters.

It is true that Tornelo is a new and relatively untested playing platform, and that there were a few technical glitches during play, including some rounds starting later than advertised. But the England players adapted magnificently to these delays, staying focused at their computers, and once play started there were no issues.

The players and their families all expressed satisfaction that the event had been a worthwhile experiment as a hybrid chess event, and were happy to be able to socialise in a limited way with other players and families whom they had not seen since over-the-board chess events were halted in the spring.

In short, they were rediscovering the fun of what it’s like to be a teenage chess player – at least, at a safe social distance.

Trash talking and banter blitz

One informal highlight of the hybrid European Youth Champs was the opportunity for the juniors to play a fun online “Banter Blitz” tournament on Lichess.org on the Saturday evening. The players played, masked up, via their computers from their desks in the playing hall, and enjoyed a fair amount of light-hearted trash talking and chatter while the games were in progress.

In short, they were rediscovering the fun of what it’s like to be a teenage chess player – at least, at a safe social distance.

On a personal note, I can say it was a real pleasure to be involved in organising this event and to interact with their players and their families, who all put in a lot of effort into the tournament and carefully followed the Covid rules.

To the wider chess community, I can highly recommend the example of hybrid European Youth Champs using Tornelo.com for how to play safely according to Covid-19 regulations, under arbiter and video conference supervision, while enabling players to meet in a socially distanced way and enjoy the experience of something close to an OTB tournament.