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The Return to Over-The-Board Chess

 

After more than a year of online chess substituting our presence in over-the-board events, we are now slowly but surely returning to the chess clubs, the tournament halls, meeting our chess friends in person. So, what does that mean for those wanting to play?

At the recent US Open, all players and spectators were required to wear masks in the playing hall. Under the current circumstances, this seems like a reasonable requirement, even if the location, city, state, or even country require you to do so. Why? Because you really do not know the status of everyone there, and you will be sharing a relatively intimate place. After all, you will be sitting  3-4 feet across from someone you may not know, whose background you are unaware of, and who may or may not be vaccinated...

Recently, I visited Denmark in Europe. The vaccination rate is about 75% and therefore has passed the threshold of what is considered herd immunity, and even, so they are still aiming for a 90% vaccination rate. These things are, more or less, back to normal; during my visit, a chess tournament took place where most people were not wearing masks. But that is the situation when people are vaccinated. During the recent World Cup in Russia, it was optional for the players to wear masks, which had consequences. Several players tested positive but only found out after the games in that round had started and therefore had to forfeit the games, and then what were the consequences for the player. It is impossible to say what kind of impact the situation had on Fabiano Caruana when his opponent, who was pulled away after some moves, possibly exposing him to COVID. Caruana is likely too much of a professional to blame that situation for his early exit from the tournament, but psychologically it could easily have had an impact.

 

At the ongoing European Championship in Iceland, a grandmaster thought he had caught a cold but wrote in his Facebook feed “that to be on the safe side,” he decided to be tested and was found positive. He then had to withdraw. But what if he had not erred on the side of caution and gotten tested? How many players could have been infected by him? Should players even have the option of choosing for themselves? What if he had noticed “the cold” before the last round and he was in the running for a significant prize or a qualification to the World Cup or another important event, and then decided that I don’t want to know my status because if I do, I will be forced to withdraw, leaving a chance of a lifetime on the test table? That is a tricky question. 

But if we return home to the US again, we have several events with considerable prize money is available for the successful. How do we ensure that everybody is safe? Rapid tests and an on-site test team are not something all tournament organizers can make available, and getting rapid tests at a test location can be easier said than done. For instance, after my recent trip, I was tested at the airport overseas (and tested negative), but because I had a cold and wanted to be on the safe side, I wanted to get tested again when I came home. I had to wait three days to get a test appointment in my local town and then wait another three days (because the test was done on the weekend) to get the result. Imagine I had tested positive but had spent the six days playing in a chess tournament, where I had regularly pulled my mask down to drink beverages during the game, and what if I had gotten annoyed by my mask and pulled it away from covering my nose or even my mouth as I saw some players do during the US Open? How many could I have potentially affected by that situation? I could have ruined the tournament or, even worse, some people’s lives.

 

In the COVID policy for the Continental Chess events, it says, “ …Entrants further certify that during the 14-day period before the tournament, they have not experienced any symptoms associated with COVID-19, which include fever, cough, or shortness of breath, or had close or direct contact with anyone who is either confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19.” But how do we know if people are telling the truth or if they have the virus but are not showing symptoms and therefore can spread the virus to people there, just by doing what everybody else is doing?

Also, how do we handle the spectators, parents, and other present people at the tournament? To go back to that same policy sheet quote above, “Crowds should not congregate around pairings or standings or outside doors of the playing halls. Social distancing principles and any markers must be respected.  Failure to observe social distancing if required may result in removal from the tournament and/or site, without refund.” But during that US Open, I frequently saw spectators congregate at an exciting game or during time trouble without observing any kind of social distancing nor anybody being kicked out of the tournament hall, let alone thrown out of the tournament.

The entire situation is tricky. Firm, transparent and enforceable rules need to be put in place to account for this new normal. These rules should entirely depend on the current situation in the town, state, and country, and as we have seen, this can be a very fluid situation. To draw from my recent visit to Denmark, in Odense (the 3rd largest city in Denmark), nearly all restrictions had been removed except for one parish, which once more returned to total lock-down. 

We all want the world, including the chess world, to return to normal. What that normal will look like and what it means in terms of over-the-board chess and chess as a whole, that remains to be seen. But let’s enjoy the fact that it is happening by respecting each other and the conditions we are dealing seeing at the time.