Caruana-virus Comes to Russia?

by admin on March 15, 2020

For anyone with even a passing interest in sports, this is a pretty weird time. You open the sports page of the newspaper… and there are no games. NBA, NHL, golf, soccer, … all canceled.

Which makes this an even more remarkable time for chess fans, because we are practically the only sport whose signature event is still proceeding as scheduled. On Tuesday, the FIDE Candidates tournament is scheduled to begin in Yekaterinburg, Russia. For anyone who doesn’t know, this is the tournament that determines who qualifies to play against Magnus Carlsen for the World Chess Championship next fall.

I actually e-mailed my local newspaper to ask if they would like someone to help them cover the Candidates tournament. Alas, my e-mail did not get a response. They are instead running favorite articles from the past. Apparently a 30-year-old basketball game is more interesting to their readers than a live chess game.

But their loss is your gain! I hope in this blog to have regular updates on the Candidates tournament, because what else is there to do?

There are lots of interesting storylines at this tournament. The favorite, of course, is Fabiano Caruana, the #2 rated player in the world and the most recent challenger to Carlsen’s throne. He is also the only American representative. He seems to be in good form, having won the Tata Steel tournament earlier this year by a dominating 2 points over Carlsen (10-3 to Carlsen’s 8-5). Can he get one step closer to becoming the first American world champion since Bobby Fischer?

If Caruana stumbles, the next most likely player to win the tournament is Ding Liren, the #3-rated player, who had a tremendous year in 2020 with no losses to Caruana. Coming from China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, Liren had to undergo two weeks of quarantine in Moscow, but presumably that has given him plenty of time to prepare for the tournament, while other players have been struggling just to find a way to get to Russia.

Another fan favorite will surely be Maxime Vachier-Lagrave of France, who until recently seemed to be the world’s most unlucky chessplayer. He barely missed out on the 2018 Candidates Tournament, and then he again barely missed qualifying for this one. In fact, there was a bit of controversy about it. The organizers are allowed one “wild-card” selection, and many people thought they should have used it to select Vachier-Lagrave. But understandably, the Russian organizers wanted to invite a Russian, so they gave the “wild card” to 22-year-old Kirill Alekseenko, the youngest and lowest-rated player in the field.

But Vachier-Lagrave went from unlucky to lucky when the coronavirus epidemic broke out. Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan withdrew from the tournament due to his concern about the virus. That meant Vachier-Lagrave was in, although he had less then 10 days to prepare!

The other four participants in the tournament are Wang Hao of China (who did not have to go through the quarantine, because he was not coming directly from China), Anish Giri of Switzerland (correction, a day later: the Netherlands), and Alexander Grischuk and Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. Half of the players are participating in their first Candidates tournament (Vachier-Lagrave, Alekseenko, Wang and Nepomniachtchi). I think this will make it a little bit more fun than usual for spectators, because we are not just seeing the “usual suspects.”

Of course, the main story before the tournament is the coronavirus. You might even wonder, why hasn’t the tournament been canceled or postponed? My first answer: It’s Russia. Does anyone understand why they do anything? That being said, the organizers are taking stringent precautions. Players will be tested for coronavirus twice a day (!). Spectators will not be allowed in the playing area, and N95 masks will be available for everyone in the auditorium. Also, there have not yet been any coronavirus cases reported in Yekaterinburg.

We’ll see what happens. If one of the players falls ill, it would be a public relations catastrophe and there will surely be fingers pointed. On the other hand, if the tournament takes place without a hitch, maybe it will draw some positive publicity to chess (in spite of my local newspaper’s lack of interest). Chess is almost a perfect game for this moment in history. You do not need a large gathering of fans because all of the moves can be broadcast over the Internet.

So, who do you think will win? The coronavirus? The Caruana-virus? The Ding fever? The Giri-ppe? Or maybe some other Lagrave illness?

I suppose it’s my job as a blogger to make a dubious and regrettable prediction, so I am going to say that this is Ding Liren’s year to become the first player from China to qualify for a World Championship match. And I will venture another, safer prediction: Whatever happens, it will be an unforgettable tournament.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Kuhner March 16, 2020 at 6:15 am

Looking forward to your coverage!

Anish Giri is from the Netherlands, though, not Switzerland.

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admin March 16, 2020 at 8:53 am

Oops! One of my Facebook friends also pointed this out.

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Larry L SMITH March 16, 2020 at 8:51 am

Also looking forward to your coverage! Nice puns, too!

On a somewhat related note, does anyone here have a suggestion for the best and/or simplest way to conduct remote chess lessons? I currently have about 7 weekly/bi-weekly student sessions, and while any single one of them is at a very low risk for having the virus, I don’t want to be playing Coronavirus Roulette, as it were. Nor do I want to be the one who gets the virus from Student A, and pass it along to Student B.

I’ve set up a Lichess Study session that I intend to try out, so if anyone has had experience with that I’d like to hear about it. Or, if there is another method that you have used and liked, I’d be interested in that information as well.

Thanks!

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Mary Kuhner March 17, 2020 at 8:58 am

For single-student sessions, I have used a combination of Google Hangouts for voice, and chess.com’s analysis board for chess interface. We load a .pgn of the game into chess.com and share an analysis board, so that both of us can move the pieces. This combo works better for us if you turn off video in Hangouts (or Zoom, Skype, etc.) to conserve bandwidth.

I’ve just been asked, though, to teach group lessons for 15 or so K-5 students (making up for after-school chess club, which is of course closed) and I have no idea how to do this. I’m looking into chesskids.com, which allows you to set up online tournaments among the kids. I know from experience they don’t want to listen to me talking for more than 10-15 minutes at a stretch: they need to be playing.

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Larry Smith March 17, 2020 at 9:50 am

Thanks for this info. I’m going to be testing a Lichess Study portal today, possibly with simply a cell phone call for voice. Not the most technologically advanced solution, but I’m hoping it will work. The Lichess I/F seems to allow for exactly what you are describing re: the chess.com analysis board.

Good catch re: Giri’s nationality yesterday! Maybe Dana was thinking about Giri’s reputation for “neutrality” vis-a-vis excessive draws!

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admin March 17, 2020 at 12:25 pm

Thanks for making excuses for me, Larry! I’m afraid it was just a brain fart. Maybe I can’t tell all of these little countries apart.

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