Tata Steel Chess Tournament Issues Statement On Firouzja Controversy
Arbiter Votruba suggests to Firouzja to move to another table. Image: still from Chess.com live broadcast.

Tata Steel Chess Tournament Issues Statement On Firouzja Controversy

PeterDoggers
PeterDoggers
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228 | Chess Event Coverage

In a statement published on social media, the organizers of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament expressed regret and provided further explanation about how they handled the playoff situation on the last day. The statement came after an avalanche of strong reactions in forums and on social media.

The statement was posted on Monday evening European time, a bit more than a day after the tournament ended.


Update February 5, 2021: Firouzja has provided a brief comment now as well: "The fact that they understood that they made a big mistake was good. I'm happy that they said it will never happen [again]. In general, it was a great tournament." 

The situation arose a few minutes before 18:00 CET on Sunday, January 31st, when only one game was still underway in the final round of the Tata Steel Chess Tournament. GM Alireza Firouzja had a promising position against GM Radoslaw Wojtaszek and the players had just reached the second time control at move 60 (and both got 15 minutes extra to finish the game) when chief arbiter Pavel Votruba interfered.

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

Votruba informed the players that a playoff between GM Anish Giri and GM Jorden van Foreest was about to start two tables away from them, and suggested that Firouzja and Wojtaszek continued their game further away from the action.

Firouzja declined to leave the table—Wojtaszek didn't mind staying either—and after a small discussion that lasted almost two minutes, he sat down again. As the video footage suggests, he lost those two minutes as the arbiter didn't seem to have stopped the clock.

After thinking for almost three minutes, Firouzja blundered with his 61st move. This allowed a tactical solution with which Wojtaszek could force a draw. When the game ended, the playoff's first blitz game was already underway.

As he spoiled a probable win after being disturbed during a game, it was understandable that Firouzja was angry afterward. He then turned rather hostile toward the organizer, shouting words that cannot be repeated here. While playing their playoff, Giri and van Foreest could hear it from the playing hall.

Soon after, van Foreest became the surprising winner of the tournament but his success has been overshadowed by the strong reactions that appeared online about the Firouzja incident. The comments section under Chess.com's news report has now collected over 400 comments.

A number of different aspects of what happened on Sunday were criticized. For example, many critics argued that moving players to a different table should never be done. Many also believe that the arbiter shouldn't have disturbed the players.

The tiebreak rules were under debate as well. Some think that a classical tournament shouldn't be decided with blitz games in the first place. Furthermore, some disagree with the way players qualify for a tiebreak in Wijk aan Zee.

The tournament regulations stipulate that only the top two players qualify. In this tournament, Sonneborn-Berger points would have eliminated Firouzja from the possibility of qualifying, even if he had won his game with Wojtaszek.

As the statement from Tata Steel Chess mentions, the players had been briefed about the rules and starting time of a possible tiebreak. According to tournament director Jeroen van den Berg, the tiebreak regulations had also been discussed with Firouzja.

Firouzja still had enough to play for. Besides the extra five rating points for a win, which would have made him the number-11 player in the world, there was the (relatively small) extra portion of the prize money for finishing in shared first place instead of shared third. It should be noted that the biggest chunk in Wijk aan Zee is always paid as starting fees.

The strongest reaction came from Firouzja's brother Mohammadreza, who was streaming the tournament live and later tweeted as well. It was an emotional reaction:

Another strong critic was former world championship contender, now FIDE Vice President GM Nigel Short, who pointed his arrows at the arbiter. In a tweet, he referred to the FIDE Laws of Chess and two paragraphs in particular.

Three other paragraphs in this particular section of the Laws of Chess which are relevant to the situation were not mentioned by Short:

12.2 The arbiter shall:
12.2.1 ensure fair play,
12.2.2 act in the best interest of the competition,
12.2.3 ensure that a good playing environment is maintained.

In the case of Firouzja-Wojtaszek, some of these paragraphs about the role of the arbiter are in conflict with each other. Specifically, the arbiter in Wijk aan Zee decided to go against 12.2.4 (making sure the players are not disturbed) in favor of at least one other paragraph mentioned above: ensuring that a good playing environment would be maintained.

What is also relevant here is what happened earlier in the tournament, says van den Berg: "The arbiter did so, having in mind that Firouzja had asked himself to be moved to a different table during the fifth round when the wind was causing some noise on one end of the playing hall." That request was granted and the players moved to another table, while others were playing their game.

An attempt to answer the question of what would have happened if the arbiter would not have interfered in the game and just let the playoff start two tables away, makes clear that the arbiter had to choose between two bad choices.

Realizing that arbiters should not be put in such a situation in the first place, the Tata Steel Chess organizers noted that they "will take the implementation of a tiebreak into careful consideration to prevent a situation like this from reoccuring in the future."

One logical suggestion would be to use one of the tables on the far end of the playing hall for the playoff and not one in the middle. However, that only works if that table is not in use.

As van den Berg clarified to Chess.com, the possibility of setting up a separate room for the playoff will be considered for next year. In fact, this option was mentioned in an older version of the tournament regulations from pre-pandemic times, when there was still a Challengers tournament played on the same stage. In fact, in 2018 a game from the Challengers was moved when GM Magnus Carlsen and Giri played their playoff.

Another possible measure for next year is to change the starting time of the playoff. The reason why it is scheduled to start at six o'clock is that the national broadcast channel NOS might still be able to cover it in their popular Sunday sports program on television.

On the final day, NOS was indeed present in Wijk aan Zee all day. Their report about the tournament, however, did not include the playoff because it was broadcast around 18:30 when the playoff was still underway. Only a day later, a second report covered the playoff. This suggests that the six o'clock starting time could perhaps be altered in 2022.

Unlike Short, FIDE Director General GM Emil Sutovsky did not agree with the criticism toward the organizers and arbiters.

One of the players present in the playing hall has now commented on the situation. Giri, who joined a stream of GM Vidit Gujrathi, described the controversy as "completely blown out of proportion" and noted that "the tiebreak will be arranged better next time, that's for sure."

Giri's reaction from 1:07:02.

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