Carlsen Heads Field As Pandemic-Defying Tata Steel Chess Starts Tomorrow
The playing hall for this year's edition. Photo: Sernin van de Krol.

Carlsen Heads Field As Pandemic-Defying Tata Steel Chess Starts Tomorrow

PeterDoggers
PeterDoggers
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64 | Chess Event Coverage

Pandemic or not, there is always chess—even over the board. On Saturday, the 83rd Tata Steel Chess Tournament will start with the world's highest-ranked grandmasters Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana making their first moves on a physical chessboard in three months.

How to watch?
The Tata Steel Chess Tournament runs January 16-31, 2021. All rounds start at 14:00 CET (5 a.m. Pacific) except for the final round that starts an hour earlier. You can follow the games at chess.com/events/2021-tata-steel-masters and watch the broadcast at chess.com/tv.


Chess during a lockdown

On Tuesday, the strict lockdown in the Netherlands that went into effect mid-December was extended by another three weeks until February 9. The numbers of new cases of people infected with the coronavirus are not slowing quickly enough, and the government is worried about the new mutations of the virus.

Working from home is strongly recommended; restaurants, bars, and non-essential shops are closed as well as schools. Sports activities are forbidden for all amateurs. Only top sports competitions are allowed to continue but without spectators. As in many other countries, the matches in the professional football competition are played in empty stadiums.

Because of this exemption for top sports, the Tata Steel Chess Tournament can be held as well. It will be one of the few top-level chess tournaments played over the board during the pandemic—after Biel, the Bundesliga, Norway Chess, and the Russian Championship Superfinals.

Tata Steel Chess tournament
Luckily there will be a Tata Steel Chess Tournament but without spectators and amateur players. Photo: Alina l'Ami/Tata Steel Chess.

Is chess a (top) sport?

The chess fans are lucky that the chess played at the Tata Steel Chess Tournament is seen as a sport because tax-wise it isn't any longer. In October 2017, the Court of Justice for the European Union ruled that bridge is no longer considered sports due to a lack of a physical element. As a result, starting in 2021, mind sports federations and clubs in the Netherlands no longer qualify for a VAT exemption.

Chess does fall under the scope of the NOC*NSF association, a merger between the Dutch National Olympic Committee and the Dutch Sports Federation. As top sports athletes, the 14 grandmasters in Wijk aan Zee are allowed to compete during the lockdown. What also helps is that the international participants can play during their quarantine period, which means they did not need to arrive 10 days in advance.

Players

World number-two Caruana did come to the Netherlands early. He was the first player to arrive in Wijk aan Zee, on January 5, followed by third seed GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave two days later. Most players came last Wednesday, although Carlsen will arrive on Friday afternoon, after a long stay in the Seychelles where he celebrated the holidays.

The pandemic has affected the tournament a lot, even before it started. The field of participants was changed three times after it was originally announced on December 10. First, GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov withdrew and was replaced by GM Pentala Harikrishna. Then GMs Ian Nepomniachtchi and Nodirbek Abdusattorov were replaced by GMs Radoslaw Wojtaszek and Nils Grandelius

A day before the start of the tournament, another late change was announced. GM Daniil Dubov sadly had to withdraw because someone close to him tested positive for COVID-19. The Russian GM was replaced by the 22-year-old German grandmaster Alexander Donchenko, who won a nine-round Swiss in Krakow, Poland, that finished on January 4. 

2021 Tata Steel Chess Tournament | Participants

# Fed Name Rating Rank Age
1 Magnus Carlsen 2862 1 30
2 Fabiano Caruana 2823 2 28
3 Maxime Vachier-Lagrave 2784 5 30
4 Anish Giri 2764 11 26
5 Alireza Firouzja 2749 18 17
6 Jan-Krzysztof Duda 2743 19 22
7 Pentala Harikrishna 2732 22 34
8 Radoslaw Wojtaszek 2705 36 33
9 Andrey Esipenko 2686 49 18
10 David Anton Guijarro 2675 60 25
11 Jorden van Foreest 2671 66 21
12 Alexander Donchenko 2668 72 22
13 Nils Grandelius 2663 76 27
14 Aryan Tari 2618 184 21

Carlsen will be playing in Wijk aan Zee for the 17th time. He won the Grandmaster Group C when he was 13 in his first year in 2004 and has won the main tournament a record seven times. As for Caruana, he is the defending champion.

The pairings for the first round and beyond will be revealed on Friday at about 17:30 CET (8:30 a.m. Pacific). We'll add the info here when available.

Corona measures

The tournament itself is strongly affected by the pandemic. All standard measures to prevent the spread of the virus are in place at the venue. On top of that, players and organizers will undergo COVID-19 tests four times during the tournament. There will also be one-way traffic in the building, and the grandmasters will be strictly separated from others with a dedicated entrance and exit to the playing hall.

No one except the 14 players of the Masters tournament will be playing. There's no challengers group this year, and the hundreds of amateur players, normally playing in the same hall, won't be there either. Spectators are not allowed either, so a full focus is given to the online experience.

Live broadcast

The "stage" where the games are played has been turned 90 degrees and virtually covers the whole playing hall now. A metal truss of 16 meters long and eight meters wide has been placed around it, and lights and cameras have been attached.

Anish Giri was interviewed for Dutch television on Wednesday while the playing hall was still being set up.

For the live broadcast (produced by Chess.com), three extra pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras will be used compared to previous years that should result in the best viewing experience ever.

The live broadcast will be available on Chess.com/tv as well as the official website. For rounds 1-6 the commentators are GM Daniel Naroditsky and WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni. Round 7 will have GM Simon Williams and FM Tex de Wit, and then for rounds 8-13 we'll have GM Robert Hess and IM Sopiko Guramishvili.

It will be a very different experience and surely some part of the traditional atmosphere will be missed this year. The fact that there is a tournament is a small miracle in itself. After this 83rd edition, we can still say that since its inception in 1938, only one year the tournament did not take place: in 1945, due to World War II. 

The Tata Steel Chess Tournament runs January 16-31, 2021. All rounds start at 14:00 CET (5 a.m. Pacific) except for the final round which starts an hour earlier. You can follow the games at chess.com/events/2021-tata-steel-masters and watch the broadcast at chess.com/tv.


Update: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the Court of Justice for the European Union ruled that "games such as bridge and chess" are no longer considered sports due to a lack of a physical element in October 2020. That ruling was in October 2017, and only about bridge.


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