- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2020


FIDE officials have announced the postponement of the 2020 Chess Olympiad, the biennial event that brings together teams from across the world, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. team, which took gold and silver in the two previous Olympiads, was shaping up to be a top contender this year in Moscow. The 44th open and women’s Olympiads will be held in the same location in the summer of 2021, FIDE officials announced.

It’s either a beacon of normalcy in a world turning out the lights or a misguided indulgence in a time of global crisis.

Either way, the FIDE Candidates Tournament, being held in Yekaterinburg, Russia, is one of the few sporting events to get the green light when other leagues, competitions and meets have packed it in. As the number of COVID-19 cases jumps in Russia, the eight elite grandmasters are plowing ahead (at least as this is being written), eschewing pre- and post-game handshakes in favor of elbow bumps and Japanese bows as they battle for the right to challenge world champ GM Magnus Carlsen of Norway this fall.

Top-level chess is stressful enough without a dangerous pandemic lurking at the door, something the players themselves have acknowledged. Said U.S. GM Fabiano Caruana, a pre-tournament favorite, “The situation is extremely difficult around the world, so it’s difficult to distance yourself from that, but we have to try.”

Other players, including Russian GM Alexander Grischuk and Chinese GM Wang Hao, have been even more outspoken, calling for FIDE organizers to shut things down.

“The whole atmosphere is very hostile,” Grischuk told reporters. “Everyone is with masks, also more security and so on. … We are the only ones left, the only major sport event in the world. I think it should be stopped and postponed.”

Chess is so variable that it’s hard to determine how the times are affecting the play, but things have not gone as many predicted. Chinese GM Ding Liren, one of the hottest players in the world coming into Yekaterinburg, has stunningly lost three of his first six games, balanced off by a win over co-favorite Caruana.
Ding’s shaky play was evident in the very first round, when he was upset with the white pieces by his compatriot Wang. In an English, Ding gets saddled with a backward d-pawn on a half-open file and, in time pressure, misses a crucial freeing move.

After 15. Nxc5 dxc5, White has counterplay to offset the weak pawn, but it will be a source of concern for the rest of the game. By 32. gxf4 f5! 33. e5 Re6!, White is in “some slight trouble,” Wang said later, as Ding’s well-placed knight is doing nothing and Black has a clear plan for a kingside incursion on the g-file.
White misses his chances in the game’s critical passage, with time control looming: 36. Rd1 Bd8 37. Ra2 (d4!? was worth a look here, though 37…cxd4 38. Rad3 Bxh4 39. Rxd4 Rxd4 40. Rxd4 Be7! leaves Black in charge) Rd4 38. Nc2 Rd5 39. Ne3 Rd7, when now 40. d4! Rxd4 (one key point is that, on 40 … cxd4?!, White turns the tables with 41. Rc2!, setting up some nasty checks) 41. Rxd4 cxd4 42. Nc2 Kd5 43. Nxd4! Kxd4 44. Rd2+ is equal.

Instead, on the game’s 40. Rdd2?, Black initiates a winning exchange sac idea — 40 … Bxh4 41. Rg2 Rg4! (the connected passers are well worth the sacrificial investment) 42. Rh2 g6 43. Nxg4 fxg4+ 44. Ke3 Be7 45. Rac2 h4, and White resigned as the Black king and bishop are poised to escort the pawns to the promised land.

Grischuk has complained that his form is “terrible,” though he has racked up six draws in the first six rounds. He missed a good chance to score a full point in the very first round against fellow Russian GM Kirill Alekseenko, which we pick up from the diagrammed position after Grischuk has just played 29. a2-a4.

With White’s imposing pawn center ready to roll, Black rolls the dice with 29 … a6!? 30. Qxa6 (Ra1 b5 31. Rfb1 is also pleasant, but a pawn is a pawn) Ra8 31. Qxb6 Bd5 32. Qb2?! (more forcing was 32. Bxd5+! Qxd5 33. c4! Qxc4 34. Rc1, with a clear edge) Rxa4.

Who knows if the weird atmospherics finally got to White, but the last real winning chances come on 33. Bxd5+ Qxd5 34. Rb1 Ra2 35. Qb3 Rg2+ 36. Kh1 Rc2+ 37. Qxd5+ cxd5 38. Rfc1. Instead, after 33. Ra1? Raf8 34. Rxa4 Rxa4 35. Ra1 Rxa1+ 36. Qxa1 Bxg2 37. Kxg2 Qd5+, the weak light squares around his king preclude any serious winning try by White.

The game ended 38. Kf2 (Kg3 g5 39. h3 Qe4 40. Qa2+ Kg7 41. Qd2 Kg6 holds the balance) Bh4+ 39. Ke2 Qg2+ 40. Kd3 Qe4+ 41. Kd2 Qg2+, and White conceded the draw as 42. Kc1?? Qf1+ 43. Kb2 Qe2+ would actually lose.
Through Tuesday’s rest day, the surprise leader is Russian GM Ian Nepomniachtchi, whose Round 6 win over Ding put him at 4½-1½, a full point ahead of French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave.

Ding-Wang, FIDE Candidates Tournament, Yekaterinburg, Russia, March 2020

1. c4 e5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 Bc5 4. d3 O-O 5. Nc3 c6 6. Nf3 d6 7. O-O Re8 8. Na4 Bb4 9. a3 Ba5 10. b4 Bc7 11. e4 a5 12. Bb2 Na6 13. b5 cxb5 14. cxb5 Nc5 15. Nxc5 dxc5 16. a4 Bg4 17. Ra3 Nd7 18. h3 Bh5 19. Qb1 b6 20. Nd2 Nf8 21. Bf3 Qg5 22. h4 Qg6 23. Qd1 Bxf3 24. Qxf3 h5 25. Qf5 Rad8 26. Qxg6 Nxg6 27. Kg2 f6 28. Nc4 Kf7 29. Bc1 Rd7 30. f4 exf4 31. Bxf4 Nxf4+ 32. gxf4 f5 33. e5 Re6 34. Kf3 Rg6 35. Ne3 Ke6 36. Rd1 Bd8 37. Ra2 Rd4 38. Nc2 Rd5 39. Ne3 Rd7 40. Rdd2 Bxh4 41. Rg2 Rg4 42. Rh2 g6 43. Nxg4 fxg4+ 44. Ke3 Be7 45. Rac2 h4 White resigns

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email [email protected].

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