'We can't lock players in Russia' - FIDE stops Candidates tournament

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (L) took down Ian Nepomniachtchi in Wednesday's Round 7 game, to catch up with him at the top of the standings. Lennart Ootes/FIDE

FIDE, the world chess body, has decided to stop the Candidates, the only major sporting event that was taking place amid a global lockdown, after the Russian government banned air traffic with all foreign countries starting March 27.

In its statement, FIDE said that it "cannot continue the tournament without guarantees for the players' and officials' safe and timely return home."

Taking place in the fourth-largest Russian city of Yekaterinburg, the eight-player Candidates event stuck to its March 16 start schedule even as tournaments, leagues and seasons were swallowed by the pandemic.

Former world champion Viswanathan Anand, while admitting that the circumstances had forced FIDE's hand, couldn't help but feel a tinge of regret.

"You know since they had this tournament going, in hindsight it would have been amazing if it had gone on till the end," he said.

Indeed, seven out of the total 14 rounds had been held so far with all the players already facing each other once and six of them in the race for first place. The results and points so far will remain valid and once the situation worldwide eases, fresh dates will be announced and the tournament will resume from round 8. FIDE is looking into the July-September window if the scenario globally looks up. The result from the Candidates will decide the challenger who will play Magnus Carlsen for the world title at the end of this year.

"It was the decree published this morning that really pushed us to make this difficult decision," FIDE director general Emil Sutovsky told ESPN. "We can't really lock players in Russia since we don't know how long the flight termination will last. Players have their families, elderly parents and many other reasons to be at home this time. So we had no choice but to stop the event."

Even as FIDE announced its decision, the players were already on their way to the airport. "We had to act swiftly," Sutovsky said. "FIDE took all the travel arrangements and costs upon itself. Half of the players have been sent on the direct chartered flight to Amsterdam while the others flew to Moscow and members of the organising committee accompanied players until their point of departure from Russia."

The tournament had been taking place with players undergoing two medical checks daily and a coronavirus check once in 10 days, and hand sanitisers taking pride of place at every playing table. FIDE even publicly released photos featuring five-inch Ken doll replicas of all eight players in sharp suits and ties shown shaking hands or lined up closely beside one another at the start of the tournament, to spare the participants obligatory photographs and physical contact.

There were some fleeting anxious moments during the tournament, like when Alexander Grischuk, after round 5, called for the tournament to be stopped, Ian Nepomniachtchi coughed through the length of his post-game press conference on Monday (his medical tests later came out negative), or when Fabiano Caruana's temperature hovering at even 98.7 ended up provoking mild paranoia.

Earlier this week, Ding Liren had a boyish grin on his face even as an annoyed Grischuk, standing beside him, railed about the need to stop the tournament.

When the FIDE interviewer turned to Ding for his thoughts, he broke into a broad smile and said, "There's fresh air now. Life is more beautiful."

The Chinese Grandmaster who had arrived in Russia on March 1 and was housed in a country cottage in the outskirts of Moscow for the obligatory 14-day quarantine period had just one request to the organisers once he got to Yekaterinburg - that he be allowed to open the windows of his hotel room.

It's not an easy permission to get across most top hotels worldwide. In Russia, the central heating system in buildings makes it an even more untenable demand. Few days into the tournament though, FIDE shifted Ding to another hotel after having obtained the necessary clearance.

For all these players now, a self-isolated existence and a world that's vastly changed since they left their homes a fortnight ago, await.