'Offline Chess' Is Returning As Lockdowns Are Eased

'Offline Chess' Is Returning As Lockdowns Are Eased

| 57 | Misc

Regular, over-the-board tournaments are returning as countries are easing their lockdowns. A protocol published by FIDE could provide guidance for organizers and players to safely hold and play an event.

Starting from late February/early March 2020, over-the-board chess events were canceled alongside other sports events and big gatherings worldwide due to the coronavirus. Our sport was less affected than almost any other thanks to a fairly smooth transition to online chess, as could be seen both at the elite and at amateur or club levels. But it wasn't a perfect solution.

Many fans still prefer the "real," traditional way of playing—which could now also be called "offline chess." It is slowly returning.

According to Mark Crowther, who keeps track of chess tournaments like no other for his The Week In Chess, the first "offline" tournament with a standard time control since the worldwide lockdown was the Mestarit Areenalla tournament, held May 31-June 4 in Helsinki, Finland with severe restrictions to the number of spectators.

Of more significance was the Croatian Championship, which took place June 19-29 in Vinkovci and was won by GM Sasa Martinovic. Strict measures, early detection of spread routes, and prompt government reaction were among the factors for Finland and Croatia to become among the most successful countries with their containment of the pandemic.

Croatian Chess Championship 2020
Besides the larger distance between tables, the tournament hall of the Croatian Championship looked fairly normal. Photo: official website.

The next tournament that stood out for having wooden boards and pieces, among the abundance of online events, was the Offerspill Invitational. Offerspill is Norway's biggest chess club and has a certain GM Magnus Carlsen as chairman. The tournament, held June 10-18 in Oslo, was won by IM Johannes Haug.

Other over-the-board tournaments that were held (or are still underway) include the following, with different types of measures to contain the virus, related to local regulations: 

  • Pal Benko Memorial (June 12-20) in Balatonlelle, Hungary. 
  • SK Sarajevo vs. TSK Sloboda club match (June 13) in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Riga Summer Chess Festival (June 15-21) in Riga, Latvia.
  • Lviv Club Championship (June 20-28) in Lviv, Ukraine.
  • Baltic Pearl Opens and IM tournament (June 28-July 7) in Lazy, Poland.
  • Kveinys Memorial Open (June 26-July 3) in Panevezys, Lithuania.
  • Paracin Open (July 3-10) in Paracin, Serbia.
  • First Saturday (July 4-14) in Budapest, Hungary.
  • Stepan Avagyan Memorial (July 7-15) in Jermuk, Armenia.
  • Ikaros Open (July 10-19) in Ikaria, Greece.

More Swiss tournaments are planned, but participation might be less "international" this year. That should be a good thing because international travel is obviously one of the risk factors for the spread of the virus—which is still far from gone, especially in countries such as Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia, and the U.S. Meanwhile, it has become easier to travel among Schengen countries.

Playing with a face mask

One international traveler is GM Sipke Ernst of the Netherlands. He participated in the Paracin Open in Serbia and is currently playing another tournament in the same country: the Senta Open. 

"I am very happy to be able to play again, although I am not exactly sure how safe it is," said Ernst. "But we can get temperature checks and there is more distance between the tables in the playing hall."

Players need to wear face masks during games, which can be uncomfortable. According to Ernst, that's a "small sacrifice" after so many months without tournaments. He plans to play the Kavala Open in Greece next, but hasn't booked his travel there yet, saying he "needs to stay flexible." 

Sipke Ernst Paracin Open
Sipke Ernst playing in the Paracin Open. Photo: Dimitar Zlatkov/Facebook.

Top tournaments are still mostly played online. One exception, and so far the only major event that wasn't canceled, is the Biel Chess Festival. It starts on Saturday, July 18.

Biel Chess Festival

The main event ("Grandmaster Tournament") is an eight-player round-robin with GM Pentala Harikrishna, GM Radoslaw Wojtaszek, GM David Anton Guijarro, GM Michael Adams, GM Salem Saleh, GM Romain Edouard, GM Noël Studer, and GM Vincent Keymer. The festival includes more events, such as a Chess960 tournament, a "Corona Amateur" tournament, and rapid, blitz, and youth tournaments.

All participants have to abide by the special Protection Concept published in PDF on the official website. General principles include social distancing of "if possible" 1,5 meters distance and regular hand washing. Particularly people at higher risk are asked to protect themselves at their own discretion with facemasks and/or gloves. Anyone with COVID-19 symptoms won't be allowed to enter the tournament area. On request, body temperature controls can be carried out or requested.

On top of that, there will be game-specific measures to circumvent the 1,5 meter-rule. The Grandmaster Tournament will see the use of a plexiglass partition wall between the players. Also, after each round, all clocks, boards, and pieces will be cleaned and disinfected.

For the other, non-youth tournaments (with players over 16) it will be done differently. Players will be separated by the width of two tables, with the board and the clock in the middle. This means that for making certain, "longer" moves and for pushing the clock, a player may have to get up from their chair. To compensate for this, the time control has a 45-second increment instead of the usual 30 seconds.

Switzerland is one of the countries that managed to "flatten the curve" thanks to a fairly strict lockdown. From a peak in March peak, the number of new coronavirus cases fell to around a dozen in early June. Since then, the number of new cases has begun to slowly creep up in different parts of the country.

FIDE protocol

Tournament organizers who are working on getting their over-the-board event back on track may want to check out Biel's protocol, or the one that was published by the International Chess Federation and which was constructed by its Medical Commission. 

FIDE decided to work with a one-meter distance instead of 1,5 meters: "Playing halls shall not be overcrowded and there shall be sufficient physical separation (social distancing) between people (at least 1 meter). Tables shall also be at least 1 meter apart." It is also recommended to have as few spectators as possible and to disinfect the chess material regularly.

Unlike in Biel, where it is at a person's discretion, FIDE recommends the wearing of facemasks for all players, arbiters, and officials. Furthermore, playing halls should have "a proper and well-functioning ventilation and air circulation with fresh air intake. It is not recommended to have any tournaments in rooms without proper ventilation. Outdoor chess activities are recommended."

The coming months

It's unclear what the coming months will look like when it comes to top events. The Olympiad has been moved to next year and instead, there's an online edition this summer. The Sinquefield Cup, traditionally in August in St. Louis, hasn't officially been canceled yet. FIDE plans to decide before the end of July about the second half of the Candidates Tournament.

Norway Chess was moved from June to October. It remains to be seen whether the local situation will permit the tournament, which has once again invited 10 top GMs from around the world, from taking place. For now, it is still on and scheduled for October 4-17.

"We have been working hard to prepare as much as we possibly can," said Benedicte Westre Skog, project manager of the tournament. "We had to make sure there was enough availability at the venue, that our TV broadcast partner could make time in their schedule, that the players are available, et cetera...We are prepared to take all health measures needed to make it comfortable for players, teams, crew, and anyone else."

How do you organize an event, and in what form, while knowing that it might be canceled eventually in case of a second (or third) wave of the virus? It's a question especially relevant for the Tata Steel Chess tournament, scheduled for January 15-31, 2021, because of its strong link between top level and amateur chess that always results in a tournament hall packed with hundreds of players and spectators.

A full playing hall in Wijk aan Zee. | Photo: Alina l'Ami/Tata Steel Chess.
The playing hall in Wijk aan Zee won't look like this. | Photo: Alina l'Ami/Tata Steel Chess.

Commenting to, tournament director Jeroen van den Berg started by confirming that the tournament will be held at the planned dates. It is, however, almost certain that it will be in a different form than usual.

For instance, at the moment there is certainty only about the Masters tournament but not yet about the Challengers. Besides, the festival will very likely have space for fewer amateur participants.

"Personally, I expect 30 to 40 percent of our normal capacity," said Van den Berg. "The tables will probably have to be placed 1,5 meters from each other, but I'll be very happy if people can play a normal game of chess."

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