Handshakes have been replaced by elbow bumps. Hand sanitizers jostle for space with the chessboards, clocks, pens and writing pads that are the standard props for all top chess matches and the relatively staid air has a tinge of awkwardness, as the usual formalities are set aside.
This is what it is like at the Candidates chess tournament in Yekaterinburg, Russia, probably the only top-level sporting event still on anywhere in the world. The eight chess players cooped up at the Hyatt hotel (serving as both official hotel and playing venue) there for the past week have been coming to terms with the new social norms - and it's taking some getting used to.
Not all of them agree that the greeting makes for a pretty sight. One of the eight competitors, Dutch Grandmaster Anish Giri, aged 25, ranked 11 in the world and with a unique brand of droll on social media, calls the elbow bump 'creepy'. "It looks very perverted to me," Giri told FIDE. "It's a bit awkward, that some players offer a handshake and some others refuse. It can be a bit disrespectful. I'm thinking of proposing a code at the players' technical meeting, that we do the bow like the Japanese do before Shogi [Japanese chess, also known as the Game of Generals]. This elbow thing is a really creepy way to show respect. You may have just sneezed into your elbow before you offered it."
There was an awkward moment before Round 1, when Giri's opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi shook his head as former world chess champion and legend Anatoly Karpov offered him a handshake before the cameras. Giri, though, was polite enough to accept it before promptly reaching for the vial of hand sanitizer placed next to him on the table.
One of the few surviving global sports events currently on amid a flash flood of cancellations, the Candidates, which got underway on March 17 -- a fight for 500,000 euros and the chance to challenge reigning champion Magnus Carlsen later this year -- has had to impose tighter restrictions after day two of play. Yekaterinburg hadn't reported any Coronavirus cases until its first on Tuesday, the opening day of the Candidates games. Although the participants were not invited in order to avoid potential exposure, there were still over a 1,000 people at the tournament's opening ceremony on Monday.
"With new regulations from the Russian government coming into effect, we are forced to keep the event running with less than 50 people at the venue," FIDE told ESPN. "That essentially means players, their assistants, the organizing committee and the basic technical staff is allowed in the hotel. We had to ban the press, which comprised over 70 journalists, from being on-site."
Small bottles of hand sanitizer have been placed next to the chessboards at each playing table and players and personnel involved in the event go through medical checks twice a day. They have their temperature measured, lung function tested and throat examined. Tests for coronavirus were conducted on the first day and a second test is likely on the 10th day (next Wednesday).
The world chess body has copped some flak for stubbornly sticking to schedule. Former world champion Vladimir Kramnik pulled out of the commentary team for the tournament hours before the opening ceremony since he was of the view that the event shouldn't take place smack in the midst of a global pandemic.
Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand too calls FIDE's decision a 'controversial' one. Currently in self-isolation in Germany, Anand is one of the commentators for the tournament. "I think the FIDE is probably right in thinking that the small field of eight players allowed them to go ahead and ensure medical attention for everyone," he told ESPN. "It's hard for me to say really. [Teimour] Radjabov (who pulled out of the event in protest) would have good reason to complain about FIDE's decision. But I think the players are taking this seriously. It may seem farcical to be shaking elbows and all of that but these are unusual times. This is totally uncharted territory. We are all learning new forms of behavior and social relationships. We're fighting an invisible enemy and this is what we have to do."
FIDE, though, is looking to find opportunity in adversity. More precisely, in a stay-at-home world starved of any sporting action, this tournament offers casual followers of the sport and droves of fresh ones a chance to get hooked. There are numbers to be propped up as proof.
According to FIDE, one million people in China alone watched the first day's play online. Two Chinese players -- Ding Liren and Wang Hao -- form part of the eight-man player field. "This is pretty much the only big sporting event currently going on in the world," FIDE said. "All of a sudden, the Candidates is in the spotlight. While some are of the opinion that it should have been canceled like any other sporting event in the world, our view is that we cannot compare F1 (with teams of hundreds of people plus thousands of spectators on-site), with the Candidates, where you have only eight players and the audience is online. Many people are discovering (or, rediscovering) chess thanks to this event. Parents are using this isolation period to teach kids how to play the game. It is the perfect activity for these days of reclusion and forced home-schooling. Chess clubs online have experienced a rise in the number of registered users and games played (according to www.lichess.org, 30% in a matter of days), and they were already pretty big before this."
Popular chess website chess.com, according to FIDE, has seen its numbers across nearly all metrics grow by 30-40%. They have broken daily records for games played and concurrent players on site with a jump to over 35,000 new member registrations in a single day. In addition, the site has seen 7.6 million games played over a 24-hour period, a number that's reportedly climbing by the day. "Chess.com's broadcasts together with that of our partner channels live streaming is likely to garner 1 billion minutes watched in 2020," FIDE said. "This global quarantine phase may or may not lead to a baby boom, but we're certainly on our way to a chess boom."