Open Letter From Tata Steel Chess Chief Arbiter
Pavel Votruba speaks with Alireza Firouzja during the final round in Wijk aan Zee. Image: Still from Chess.com live broadcast.

Open Letter From Tata Steel Chess Chief Arbiter

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147 | Chess Event Coverage

The video footage does not tell the full story of the controversy around the Firouzja-Wojtaszek game at the 2021 Tata Steel Chess Tournament, says the chief arbiter of the tournament, Pavel Votruba. In an open letter, the Czech arbiter explains his perspective.

It was an unfortunate incident in an otherwise wonderful over-the-board tournament, held during the pandemic and continuing 83 years of tradition in Wijk aan Zee. A heated discussion unfolded during the final phase of the last-round game between GM Alireza Firouzja and Radoslaw Wojtaszek while, not far away from their table, the tiebreak between GM Anish Giri and GM Jorden van Foreest was about to start.

In the days that followed, the organizers and arbiters were strongly criticized, and the Tata Steel Chess organizers issued a statement. Chess.com reported on the controversy in this article, which also gave a description of what had happened.

As it turns out, our version of the story was inaccurate regarding the moment when the arbiter interfered in the game. This only occurred later (and off-camera) and as a result, he did not forget to stop the clock, as we suggested.

To correct this inaccuracy and as a way to provide more valuable information on the incident, Chess.com publishes the following open letter by chief arbiter Votruba:


I read the article about the controversy at the Tata Steel Chess Tournament, and I would like you to reconsider some words and accusations. I also hope that my defense and the correct information can become part of the debate and will reach both VIPs and people in the chat.

Everybody makes mistakes, for sure and my intention is not to blame anyone but to defend not only myself or the other arbiters in Wijk aan Zee but also other arbiters in the world who are, in such cases, only a "toy" in the hands of journalists and people in the chat. For them, it is the only theme, a giant blast, clickbait for their articles, streams, et cetera while these people were not even at the venue or even sometimes do not have a clue at all.

I would like to start emphasizing that there were exceptional, very non-standard conditions with this COVID. The whole situation had three levels: sportive, hygienic, and "arbiters." The controversy only dealt with the last level. However, as you can imagine, with 13 rounds, a quarantine, the special conditions, seven COVID-tests (five in Wijk aan Zee), the arbiters who had to disinfect the boards, pieces, tables, and chairs every round before the games started, wearing face masks for six-seven hours and make sure the players wore their mask when it was needed...

First of all, there was an earlier moment, during the fifth round, when Firouzja was involved in a "situation," in his game with Van Foreest. This was all recorded on video so I only provide a small explanation. It was Firouzja who claimed he was disturbed by the noise coming from the ceiling of a small room up on the balcony and asked me for help. He also suggested, while pointing in the direction of the arbiters' table, that there was space elsewhere to finish the game because one of the games had already finished and that table was empty.

I told him that I will postpone my decision, checking all facts first. That included inspection of the "noisy room," asking Van Foreest if he would agree, and discussing things with the IT person and the people involved in the live broadcast. After a while, I decided that it was indeed too noisy and that it was time for the players to leave this area.

Then, from the bottom of my heart, I was surprised by the fact that the electronic board operator came with a screwdriver and started to remove the connection to the chessboard. The reason was that he did not want to risk a disruption in the transmission of the moves.

Meanwhile, I had prepared the position on the new board and reckoned that only the nameplates and the clock had to be moved. What to do now? I took the chessboard myself and we all moved, of course, disturbing other games in progress.

Why this story? Of course, I used it to persuade Firouzja to move at the critical moment of the last game and he insisted that this was a different situation. Yes, I told him, but it was on your request and now it is according to tournament rules, on the basis of the information provided in the documents as described below.

(On a side note, for such situations, we had earplugs available on our desk but they were never used...)

Now, please, let's start with the information (documents) that Firouzja had at his disposal in advance and in various forms:

1) Contract with players

4.3. In case two players are sharing first place in the Masters, they will play a tie-break after the last round, on Sunday, January 31, 2021. The time control for two blitz games is 5 minutes + 3 seconds and a possible armageddon in the third game. Note: in case there are more players sharing first place, the first two players will be selected according to criteria stated in the Welcome Letter. Possible other games that are still in progress then, will be continued.

2) Tournament information - Welcome letter (page 4)

In the Tiebreak Rules, after describing the aforementioned conditions, at the end of the article, it is stated: The Chief Arbiter will decide where and when these remaining games will be moved and players are expected to abide by this decision.

Note: There is no mention of moving to a place elsewhere out of the venue (inside the building "De Moriaan"), which was the case in last year's regulations.

3) The information about the tiebreak was also posted on the players' tables before the last round. There, the unlucky decision that the tiebreak would start at 18:00 sharp was also mentioned.

If I remember well, tournament director Jeroen van den Berg also mentioned this in his last speech just before the final round. But Firouzja, like Carlsen, only arrived in the playing hall at the last moment—in time, but without the possibility to hear Van den Berg's information.

Firouzja Wojtaszek Carlsen
Carlsen checking on Firouzja and Wojtaszek at the start of the round. Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit/Tata Steel Chess.

Now, let's discuss what happened at the venue as it will help clarify the situation, or my version of the matter.

Personally, I have never agreed with the moving of games, even when there was such a case in the past. And now, with COVID-19, there was no other place in the building to move to, only to other tables in the playing hall. OK, but these are the rules, what to do. It was a success that, with the help of some people, we managed to move the start of the last round (from 13:00 via 12:30 to 12:00) because I know that the last round is usually the longest.

So, the players were aware (or should have been) and the organizers started to prepare the final tiebreak, which was scheduled for 18:00 sharp. [Eventually, it started 18:10 - ed.] Sure, there was some noise with the moving of the nameplates and the boundary ropes and even some small discussion about the last game that was underway and to which table it had to be moved. I repeat, the moving was decided and confirmed during a meeting before last round started.

So, after that, it was my intention to come for the first time to the table after the second time control and inform both players about the upcoming tiebreak and that their game would be moved to improve, a bit, the noisy situation for both players.

But what was stated by Peter Doggers and also GMs Nigel Short and Hikaru Nakamura, and the brother of Firouzja on his stream, and others too, was apparently not correct. Their remarks were based on the incorrect idea that I really intervened, and from this fact the arbiters are blamed for the controversy.

And now, what really happened, according to the video (thank for it) and close witnesses.

The interaction between Votruba and Firouzja, starting at 6:07:27.

At some point in the video, you could see Firouzja making gestures in the direction of the restroom and the camera. Yes, it was a mistake, because at this moment the DGT operator came and asked me (a bit too loudly) something like: "So, on which table will they will play then? I have to prepare the board in time." We quickly left the playing hall and discussed it shortly, away from Firouzja.

Before that, there was some preparation for the tiebreak: moving the result plate, change the nameplates, and placing a banner behind the "central board." All this had caused some small noise and made Firouzja nervous.

What happened next was not completely visible in the video. But, what is clear: Firouzja made his 60th move, left the board (away from the camera), and walked towards me. He immediately started to ask me: Why there is so much noise? Is there a tiebreak now? Why the moving? As he asked some more questions, we were standing between the table and the refreshment area. He was very angry, nervous, and even furious.

It seemed to me, I was quite sure, that he had no idea about the tiebreak that was about to start and maybe he was still hoping for tournament victory? I answered his questions and repeated that he had all the information available to him in advance and had agreed that he would abide the regulations.

So it was there, away from the chessboard, that there was a fierce discussion, started by Firouzja. I apologized for the noise that had happened, trying to make him less nervous and answering his questions calmly. So, the discussion took place away from the board, on Firouzja's initiative.

Then Wojtaszek made his 60th move as well and pressed the clock. As the time control was reached, he started looking at us and then (for a while) joined us. At the start, he was also a bit upset by the noise (regarding the preparations for the tiebreak, and also from our "debate," he was eager to know the reason). After that, all of us walked toward the chessboard while the questions and half-protests by Firouzja continued. This moment can be seen in the video, with Firouzja even without wearing a face mask. Note that players were obliged to wear a mask when leaving the stage or talking.

This makes it clear that I did not "interfere" in the game, as Doggers wrote in his article (and what others stated as well). Some of them also quoted some paragraphs from the Laws of Chess that were not exactly relevant to the situation. The following rule should have been mentioned:

12.6 The arbiter shall refrain from informing a player that his opponent has completed a move or that the player has not pressed his clock.

I did not intervene. I had to refrain from informing a player that his opponent had completed his move and I decided that, in this case, there was no reason for an interruption and therefore I did not stop the clock. It was Firouzja's "business," he was aware that it was his move and that his clock was running when he was asking some of his questions repeatedly, this time also in Wojtaszek's very short presence, perhaps hoping for his kind help.

After a while, Firouzja realized that his clock was running and stopped it himself. Because it happened in my presence and I did not want to add more oil to the fire, I agreed (I did not have to), and after a few moments, the game could continue as the players, finally, sat down at the table. I informed them what will follow, that I will come to them to tell, when the tiebreak starts, that they will need to move and I apologized once again for the noise and allowed Firouzja to restart the clock, even a bit later than necessary, but you'll understand...

After a short while, I came back to the board and this time I did intervene, with both players at the board. I stopped the clock and informed them briefly that there would be no moving. This was an ad-hoc decision based on the discussion we had earlier and also taking into account the technical issues that I remembered from the fifth round. I apologized, told them that the tiebreak would start very shortly, and started the clock again. This intervention lasted about 10 seconds only and was according to the specific tournament rules, signed by all players in their contracts (see above).

So, in this situation, I acted according to the specific regulations because there was reason to intervene (and they were informed about it in advance): to inform both players, that the tiebreak will start at 18:10 and that there will be no moving, what I decided ad hoc myself, according to the tournament information welcome letter everyone received. I such a situation any moving would be nonsense, as you can imagine.

Note: if I am right, this intervention is neither seen in the video, nor mentioned in the article by Doggers, but I am trying to be as objective as possible to clarify the situation as a whole. It is important to mention here, that the whole controversy and debate on social networks was therefore only about the first moment that I spoke to the players.

I had other duties then—to perform the drawing of lots and to arbitrate the tiebreak— so my assistant arbiter continued following the Firouzja-Wojtaszek game. Later, during the tiebreak, I noticed that Firouzja had even ripped his scoresheet. After their game finished, luckily there was Wojtaszek's signed scoresheet.

Firouzja vs Wojtaszek Tata Steel Chess 2021
Firouzja vs. Wojtaszek, earlier in their game. Photo: Jurriaan Hoefsmit/Tata Steel Chess.

To summarize: maybe some mistakes (noise) happened but the biggest one was, as we all know now, the unlucky decision to arrange the tiebreak at this particular time. You could say this was an amateur mistake, but this is easy to say. Yes, the Tata Steel Chess organizers acknowledged their mistake in their statement, but there are always some requests from the media and sponsors and with COVID now, then, in most cases, it is almost impossible to meet all requirements completely. And for arbiters, there are, in addition, FIDE rules. Of course, in these rules, there is no mention of COVID…..

As for me, my big mistake is that I should have pushed through the tournament rules earlier in the past so that the tiebreak was played only after the last game of the tournament.

Generally, it was a great tournament and I think, the arbiters did, in these non-standard circumstances, their best and the organizers as well.

This is nearly all that I could say about this matter, on my (our) defense. I do not expect any apology from anyone, but it was a very hard attack on the organizers and the arbiters. These journalists, people in the chat, and even some grandmasters, finally found their victim, saying only, e.g.: "The arbiters did not even stop the clock!!"

And now more about, what we had to experience, all these hygienic measurements, disinfections pumps, tests, strict quarantine prohibitions... We were further limited when, during the tournament, the Dutch government introduced a curfew after 9 p.m. So, we were really, lucky, very lucky, that NOT A SINGLE POSITIVE TEST occurred! Please compare it to this, even if we make bigger mistakes...

And I want to appreciate all players, who participated – especially the three reserves (after three withdrawals) – it was really courageous to play in this (over-the-board) tournament in these unique circumstances. Also thanks for showing fair-play during the whole tournament, extra thanks to both Dutch players who did so well, and congratulation to the winner too!

I can also appreciate Firouzja himself. He was in Wijk aan Zee January 13 till February 1, nearly three weeks. It is a long period, in such COVID and quarantine conditions, and he was the youngest one. I even understand, to some extent, his attitude and behavior he experienced at the end of the last game, but there were here the tournament rules, which were stated in these documents, and so no discussion about it, at this moment, was in place. But, on the other hand, he never blamed arbiters here, or that his time was running, as far as I know. Maybe he properly estimated his own, apparently a bit exaggerated reactions without any punishment.

I hope that the next Tata Steel Chess Tournament will continue in 2022 and in even better conditions (without COVID).

IA Pavel Votruba,
Chief Arbiter, Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

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