In a world now largely reduced to a sum of deserted airports, empty supermarket aisles, ghost cities and panic on an overdrive, one of the few major sporting events that remains obstinately on schedule involves eight chess players and a bloodied slice of the Romanov dynasty.
The Candidates, a marathon 14-round 5,000,000 euros prize fund tournament that will have eight of the world's top Grandmasters locked in combat in Russia's fourth-largest city Yekaterinburg, is scheduled to start on March 15 and run till April 4.
The event will pick reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen's next challenger for the title encounter to be played later this year. The timing of the tournament smack in the middle of a global pandemic is certainly far from convenient. This, when most other sports including, football and NBA, have suspended seasons and most tournaments worldwide stand canceled.
One of the original participants at the Candidates, Azerbaijan GM Teimour Radjabov withdrew from the tournament after world chess body, FIDE, turned down his request to postpone the event in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.
He was replaced by France's Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (since he had the highest average rating over the past 12 months) who was informed of his surprise opportunity when he was on his way back from a vacation in New York.
Two of the eight-man field - Ding Liren and Wang Hao - are Chinese players who've had to navigate their own labyrinth of obstacles. Ding was requested by FIDE to arrive in Russia well before the tournament start date and was housed in a dacha (country cottage) in the outskirts of Moscow where he lived out a self-isolation period before traveling to Yekaterinburg.
Hao, meanwhile, stayed put in Tokyo where he was on a business visit during the virus outbreak before traveling directly to the Russian city and was tested upon arrival at the Sheremetyevo airport.
Last year's World Championship challenger and American poster boy for the sport, Fabiano Caruana, endured two flight cancellations from New York to Moscow before finally arriving on Friday morning. The other participants include Anish Giri, Alexander Grischuk, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Kirill Alekseenko.
Responding to ESPN, FIDE admitted that they had weathered "serious concerns" regarding the participation of the Chinese players.
"As new restrictions were put in place, the uncertainties demanded that we checked the situation by the minute," a FIDE official said. "Airlines have been canceling a large number of flights and this impacted the logistics of the tournament. But Candidates involves a limited number of players, just eight and three of them are from Russia.
"So it meant we had to just deal with five players arriving from other parts. Since it's not a mass event it allows to monitor and assist each of the players closely. Also, the number of fans on-site are usually less."
Among the health and safety measures in place at the tournament venue include spectators not having access to the playing area and the presence of a qualified nurse at the entry point for participants, officials and visitors for symptoms of COVID-19 and checking body temperature.
Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand will be part of the tournament, although remotely and not as a competitor. The Indian GM will be up for his first ever gig as online commentator for chess.com's live show on the event. Currently in Germany for the Bundesliga chess season, he's now staying put in the country after both this weekend's matches and that of the next were canceled, and traveling back to India at this point doesn't appear feasible.