Coronavirus is causing chess events to fall like dominoes, with cancellations all over the world. But the Candidates tournament in Yekaterinburg, which selects a challenger for the World Championship, is still standing. The first round took place on Tuesday 17 March.
It goes ahead without Teimour Radjabov, from Azerbaijan, whose request to postpone the event was denied by Fide, the governing body. Emil Sutovsky, Fide’s director-general, pointed to the size of the event (just eight players) and a number of sanitary measures that will be instated. (Larger events have been cancelled or postponed). But a photo of a packed auditorium at the opening ceremony looks distinctly at odds with a safety-first approach. And if anybody does become ill, it is hard to imagine how the tournament could be fairly concluded.
I count myself among an anxious online audience for this feast of chess, hoping that there is no disruption. At 14 rounds long, it is an epic event, and watching every minute will take about as long as all eight seasons of Game of Thrones. It will demand special mental fortitude of the players, who must block out their anxieties amid alarming headlines. Fide has declared that handshakes will be optional. So ingrained is that ritual that when I began a game the other day with a friendly but nervous wave to my opponent, I immediately felt both foolish and unsettled.
In a twist of fate, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave will replace Radjabov in the tournament, despite not being granted the official wildcard invitation. The Frenchman had narrowly missed out on qualification by several criteria, so many of his fans felt he was deserving of that wildcard spot, which the Russian organisers instead awarded to Kirill Alekseenko, a promising young player who became eligible after his strong finish at the Grand Swiss event in October. Alekseenko will be the third Russian in the tournament, after Alexander Grischuk and Ian Nepomniachtchi, who both qualified from the Fide Grand Prix Series. Anish Giri, from the Netherlands, qualified on rating, and Wang Hao, from China, was the winner of that same Grand Swiss event.
The two biggest names are Ding Liren, from China, and Fabiano Caruana, from the USA. The latter is fairly considered the tournament favourite. He won the last Candidates event, and had a storming performance at the Tata Steel event in January. But Ding is not far behind, and has crucially shown a greater proficiency in rapid chess, which is used as a tiebreaker in a World Championship match.
Here is a crushing victory from a giant of yesteryear, at the Nutcracker Battle of Generations in Moscow. At move 15, Shirov casually ignores his attacked rook to focus on the kingside attack, and later blasts his way through.
Alexei Shirov–Alexei Sarana
Moscow, March 2020
1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 Nf6 4 Nc3 cxd4 5 Nxd4 a6 6 h3 e5 7 Nb3 Be7 8 g4 h6 9 Be3 b5 10 a4 bxa4 11 Rxa4 O-O 12 g5 hxg5 13 Bxg5 Bd7 14 Rc4 Be6 (see diagram) 15 Rg1! Nbd7 15…Bxc4 looks very risky. After 16 Bh6 Ne8 17 Bxc4 the c4 bishop will contribute to the attack 16 Bh6 Ne8 17 Nd5 Ndf6 18 Qf3 Kh7 19 Bd2 a5 20 Ra4 Qd7 21 Rxa5 Rxa5 22 Nxa5 Bxd5 23 exd5 e4 24 Qf4 Nc7 25 Qh4+ Kg8 26 Rxg7+! winning by force Kxg7. 27 Bh6+ Kh7 28 Bxf8+ Kg6 29 Qg3+ Kf5 30 h4 Ng4 31 Bh3 Black resigns