All or nothing: How Wijk aan Zee pulled off its 'most challenging' chess tournament

Magnus Carlsen (in picture) has won the tournament on seven occasions, the highest number of times. © Jurriaan Hoefsmit – Tata Steel Chess Tournament 2021

Forty-eight hours before the first move was to be played at the De Moriaan Community Centre in Wijk aan Zee, tournament director Jeroen van den Berg was down by one player. Russian GM Daniil Dubov, one of the 14 players who was to arrive for the Tata Steel Chess Tournament in the Dutch fishing village on the shores of the North Sea, pulled out after his trainer began running a fever. Dubov, too, was feeling under the weather.

The playing field of the event -- the first major over-the-board tournament since the Norway chess event in Stavanger last October -- had already been hit by three rounds of changes since it was first announced on December 10. GMs Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Nodirbek Abdusattorov had withdrawn over travel and visa complications and were replaced by Pentala Harikrishna, Radoslaw Wojtaszek and Nils Grandelius, respectively. Van den Berg's list of alternate players was already thinning and he was in desperate need of a fourth replacement.

"I immediately thought of Alexander (Donchenko)," says van den Berg, "To save time, we sent a car to pick him up from his home in Germany, around five hours away. He was without preparation and played his first game less than a day after he reached Wijk aan Zee. I also had a contact of one of the players' seconds who lived nearby, as a back-up option in case this failed. I've been a tournament director for two decades now but this was the most challenging edition to organise."

The Tata Steel Masters, which concluded last weekend, is among chess' most prestigious annual invitational events. In tennis terms, it's Wimbledon. Since starting in in 1938, the tournament (earlier called Corus Masters) has been cancelled once in 1945, because of the Second World War. Magnus Carlsen has won the tournament on seven occasions, the highest number of times, followed by Viswanathan Anand, with five wins.

This year, to restrict it to a small field of elite players, the amateurs' competition was done away with. Three top-five players -- Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave -- were part of this year's edition, where Jorden van Foreest became the first Dutchman to win for the first time since Jan Timman in 1985. The 21-year-old remained unbeaten through the 13 classical rounds and won a dramatic blitz playoff against Dutch No. 1 and eventual runner up, Anish Giri.

For van den Berg, who started out as a board boy at the tournament in 1984, it was a question of all or nothing. As a classical tournament, going online wasn't an option. Around October, it was clear that only a small field of elite players could be hosted. Some top players who van den Berg contacted were frank about their virus concerns and their wish to skip the event, and he then narrowed his pool largely to players in Europe. Out of 14 participants, 13 were from the EU.

As part of the press service team at the event in the early 1990s, van den Berg faced his greatest challenge when the roof of the playing hall was blown away by strong gale winds just ahead of final round games. An alternate venue for around 500 amateurs had to be arranged at the last minute. But this year's challenges were of a completely alien nature. Van den Berg borrowed lessons and experiences from both the Norway chess event and the recent Speed Skating World Cup in Heerenveen, Netherlands, to put together this edition.

"From the Norway organisers, we got the idea that there was no need for plexiglass screens between players or for masks to be worn during games. Instead, the width of tables was increased from 0.80m to 1m and the distance between tables to 2.50m. Masks can be quite uncomfortable during games, especially for players who wear glasses, so is playing moves under the plexi partition, and we wanted to avoid both.

"Players were not obliged to wear a mask unless they were stepping away from the playing area to the restroom or to get refreshments. At the Norway event, players were tested only once, before the start of the event, but we had tests four times in all, one before the start and three on the eve of each rest day. Thankfully, no one tested positive," he says.

"When I picked up the phone to check with them, I was surprised as quite a few of the top players jumped up to say 'yes'. That's perhaps the beauty of physical tournaments. One can't stay away for too long." Jeroen van den Berg

Two bubbles were created -- in the playing hall and at the hotel, one that van den Berg says he was advised on by a colleague who also worked closely in putting the speed skating event together. The playing area was out of bounds for all but the 14 participants, director and two arbiters. There was one-way traffic in De Moriaan during the course of the tournament, the players had a separate entrance to the facility and the chess sets were sanitised before every game.

Players had to quarantine for 10 days on arrival, but since the Wijk aan Zee tournament has the status of a top sport event in the country, they were allowed to compete while they were serving quarantine. They were, however, not allowed to travel to Amsterdam or get their own groceries during the 10-day period. Organisers did the latter on their behalf and had provisions delivered to the hotel. Players could place meal orders via a call to the reception, pick them up from the bar 20 minutes later and then eat in their rooms. On January 22, the Netherlands went under 9PM-4:30AM curfew, which will run up to February 9.

"Players usually prefer to retire to their rooms after their games and prepare for the next day's play, so the curfew didn't really impact them," says van den Berg. "But even after their quarantine ended, no one really wanted to take a risk and venture out. We normally organise sightseeing trips for players, which we didn't this time. We also usually host a round or two outdoors at a football stadium or some public place to attract audiences, which we had to skip this time as well. Some players were here with family, like Magnus (Carlsen) brought his father and Anish's wife was accompanying him. In Wijk aan Zee, players usually love going out once a while for a nice meal. Here, the chess culture runs deep and even people who run restaurants and bars know players by face and follow their games."

For van den Berg and his team, it was a long and difficult preparation to carry the 16-day tournament comprising some of chess' top names safely to the finish line. According to Chess.com, over 700,000 viewers watched their broadcast streams during the playoff -- a fairly impressive number for an over-the-board classical event, and a hint of online viewership possibly translating into meaningful numbers.

"Until late last year, we weren't sure how we'd pull this tournament off, or how many players would even be willing to travel for it. When I picked up the phone to check with them, I was surprised as quite a few of the top players jumped up to say 'yes'. That's perhaps the beauty of physical tournaments. One can't stay away for too long."