Peter Zhdanov
3 August 2022

Playing Chess in the COVID Era

Relatively recently, I returned from Paracin Open in Serbia. The tournament was organized extremely well. The hosts were friendly, willing to answer any of your questions and make your experience as comfortable as possible in all respects. The playing hall was spacious, with good ventilation, a pleasant temperature, and large spaces between the boards.

Now let's talk about the COVID regulations, which were a mixed bag.

On the one hand, I'm not too fond of all these rigorous testing procedures you must undertake to visit some countries. They add up to the overall tension of traveling. Similarly, I would rather not ever play chess wearing a mask, and it's not particularly enjoyable to stand in the queue for a test before the round. When you look at this issue from this perspective, it seems like it was a great decision not to have any COVID testing upon entering Serbia and at the tournament.

On the other hand, I got slightly worried when I noticed that many of the participants were coughing, sneezing, or having running noses. And then you shake hands with them and sit for hours over the same board! Unsurprisingly, some participants didn't make it to the end of the event, even though I have no information on the causes for this. Still, with a few hundred representatives from almost 35 countries, there is a lot of infection risk involved. The Indian rising superstar Pragg was one of the few responsible people who wore a mask for every round, but most people didn't seem to care about their own or other participants' safety at all.

When the event ended, many players headed to Belgrade for sightseeing or to compete in the Gligoric Memorial. Once again, that was 72 people in a tight space, with hardly anyone wearing a mask. After enjoying the city and walking over 20 km in a day, I felt like my temperature was rising. "Maybe it's the heat," I told myself, even though I was pretty sure it was not the real reason. Then I flew to Cyprus and, upon arriving home, realized the following day that I was seriously sick. I had a strong fever, a headache, a cough, and many other symptoms you have probably experienced or read about. I took a COVID test, and it was positive. On the same day, I learned that Vladimir Kramnik could not attend a tournament due to testing positive for COVID. What a coincidence! I guess our self-isolations started at more or less the same time.

It took me roughly ten days to recover, and I am not yet sure if there will be any aftermaths. Anyway, this accident got me thinking about how dangerous it is to travel to tournaments nowadays.

Finally, seeing only a single stripe is one of the small joys of life!

Overall, COVID has had a tremendous effect on the chess world. Some traditional tournaments have been postponed, canceled for now, or ceased to exist altogether. More events, including those with cash prizes, have appeared online, including the elite $1.6 mln Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. A new "Queen's Gambit" generation has emerged that hasn't ever played competitive chess over the board. They refer to ratings from online sites as real ones since they are unaware of how those compare to FIDE ones. Previously, you would probably chuckle if someone told you an online rating after you asked, "What's your ELO?". Now it's becoming more of the norm, so all you have to do is to clarify which site you are talking about.

On a separate note, ratings are all over the place now, so it's hard to come up with conversion formulas. For example, I know some people rated 2300+ FIDE who are 2300-ish Lichess. Then there are players with FIDE 2000 who have the same 2300+ online rating. And even some bright underrated kids rated 1600+ FIDE who are also 2300+ Lichess.

In theory, I have been largely enthusiastic about hybrid tournaments. The idea behind the concept was that you could attend a local club and play official events online under the supervision of arbiters. This would have been extremely useful for people who can't afford the luxury to travel all over the world playing tournaments due to time, financial and other constraints. For instance, when I lived in Russia, there was a large chess club five minutes away from my house, and I would have been happy to play rated games almost daily. However, it is no surprise that, so far, this hybrid format hasn't blown up. I believe the main problem is that cheating is too much of an issue. There are always players who have friends among local arbiters, so it's impossible to guarantee that the playing conditions will be fair for all participants, especially with serious prizes or trophies at stake. Anyway, I strongly believe that the future lies in shorter time control (something like 45m or 1h per game and 30s/move) and the ability to play from a nearby club without flying a few thousand miles to get to the venue.

Actually, the latter point led to two entertaining conversations with experienced WGMs. Both told me that for them, one of the prevalent aspects of chess is to travel the world and socialize. I was like, "If you want to travel, why don't you just travel? Why bring chess into the equation, when we both know that you can see only so much when you are in a tournament since you are busy playing and can't focus on sightseeing?". Then they started talking that chess gives you opportunities and "excuses" to travel and such. In contrast, my point was that all I need is challenging enough competition, and then I would instead save time, energy, and money and not fly anywhere. Just let me play the game! Apparently, they didn't share this message, thinking I am some chess fanatic, which is probably true.

Overall, if you are planning to travel to tournaments in the COVID age, you had better prepare for it. First of all, psychologically. Secondly, bring some medicines with you since you may not be able to get them fast at the venue. Thirdly, adopt safety practices that will minimize the risk of getting infected. Fourthly, make sure you have insurance that covers COVID. By the way, I brought my insurance papers with me but didn't use them since self-isolating and recovering at home doesn't cause many medical expenses. Still, there are always tough cases when you must get hospitalized, so you should be prepared for the worst.

Anyway, I hope COVID doesn't affect your tournament schedule and spoil the process of enjoying our beloved royal game!  

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