Maxime Vachier-Lagrave will get to play his first Candidates Tournament after all after the World Chess Federation (FIDE) today announced that Teimour Radjabov had withdrawn for "personal reasons" (UPDATE: Radjabov has now explained that he asked for the tournament to be postponed due to the coronavirus). Maxime was the first reserve according to average rating for 2019 and has already agreed to play. He looks set to start as the 5th seed with white games against favourites Fabiano Caruana and Ding Liren. Meanwhile Wang Hao has called on FIDE to postpone the tournament due to the coronavirus situation.
FIDE this morning made the bombshell announcement that Teimour Radjabov has withdrawn from the 2020 Candidates Tournament that starts in Yekaterinburg, Russia in just 11 days’ time. The Azerbaijan grandmaster had qualified by winning the World Cup and expressed doubts at the time over whether he would play, but his withdrawal at such a late moment is a real shock.
His replacement will be Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who had been incredibly unlucky to miss out despite being next in line by rating, the World Cup and the Grand Prix series. The Russian organisers chose Kirill Alekseenko as the wild card and it looked set to be a 4th Candidates in a row that the French no. 1 had failed to qualify for despite being in the world’s Top 10 at the start of each event. It could drive anyone crazy...
With Radjabov’s withdrawal, however, Maxime was next in line by average rating for 2019 and has already agreed to play, with travel arrangements currently being made. There seems to be no reason why he won’t simply replace Radjabov in the pairings as well, in which case the new 5th seed will begin with White against Fabiano Caruana:
In fact he’ll have White against both favourites, Caruana and then Ding Liren, in the opening two rounds, so it goes without saying he can make a dramatic impact on the tournament:
FIDE says Radjabov cited "personal reasons", but Teimour has now rejected that:
In a statement via the Azerbaijan Chess Federation (published in Russian at Azerisport), Radjabov explains:
From March 15 to April 5 2020 I was supposed to take part in the World Championship Candidates Tournament in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. As is well-known, a growing coronavirus epidemic is currently taking place all over the world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the very highest level of epidemic – red. Many competitions and significant events around the world have been cancelled or moved to later dates due to the developing situation.
The World Chess Federation FIDE has implemented a series of prophylactic measures, but not all of them. It was announced that the Chinese players, their coaches and accompanying people would undergo a 14-day quarantine period in Russia. One of the Chinese players (Ding Liren), his coaches and the delegation really were placed in quarantine. However, the second player from China (Wang Hao) won’t undergo quarantine and will fly to the opening of the tournament from a country in which a coronavirus epidemic is growing by the day (Japan).
In addition, there’s no explanation from FIDE about how the tournament will proceed if any participant, or coach in contact with participants, or accompanying person, or journalists taking interviews, or arbiters, show signs of a cold, or Viral Respiratory Infection (VRI) or, God forbid, be confirmed as having the coronavirus. Will the participants be placed in quarantine, for how long, and how many stages will be needed for analysis and determining the definite presence or absence of the virus?
The Candidates Tournament is a chess marathon consisting of 14 rounds over the course of 22 days. Nobody has explained how the tournament will proceed during a global epidemic, what measures will be taken in case someone is found to have the virus or a common VRI and what measures will be taken regarding a participant or arbiter who falls ill. In connection with how complicated all those issues are I turned to FIDE with a request to postpone the tournament to a later date. That proposal was rejected. In connection to the above I felt that such conditions could impact the necessary level of concentration and mood required to play at the top of my game in such an important event as the Candidates Tournament and also be a possible health risk. As a result they replaced me with another participant.
FIDE Director General Emil Sutovsky has now responded in a statement for Championat.com. He explains the measures they had agreed to take and that the tournament has been approved by the health authorities. He also explains that the phrase "personal reasons" was intended to spare Radjabov's blushes from accusations that he had overreacted to the health risk:
Over the course of the last couple of days we’ve been writing back and forth with Teimour. He’s worried about the situation with the spread of the coronavirus. We proposed a whole series of measures in the ensuing situation: minimising the contact with spectators, establishing all the conditions in the playing hall. We also introduced the recommendation not to shake hands before games. You have to understand that this isn’t a mass tournament – there are just eight players. We will cancel or postpone mass events. The given tournament is sanctioned not only by FIDE but by the health agencies. We’re in daily contact with the health authorities.
Teimour thinks the issue of the virus has not been considered sufficiently and that FIDE can’t be prepared for all possible scenarios, which is logical from his point of view. We don’t see anything critical in this situation – the tournament will have medical personnel. We used the explanation “personal reasons”, although perhaps it would have been more accurate to use the phrase “personal decision”, precisely so as to avoid Teimour being accused of an over-exaggeratedly sharp reaction to the possible threat. You can argue about how appropriate Radjabov’s decision is, but it wasn’t dictated by government regulations. We’re not simply brushing aside issues but providing a whole range of measures that will be taken.
Of course it’s the player’s decision. We understand that the situation is unusual. In any other circumstances if a player withdrew from the tournament with 10 days to go we would apply sanctions. Now that’s out of the question.
Teimour then again responded to that statement by Sutovsky as follows:
Regarding my withdrawal from the tournament : I have received a letter from FIDE stating that the tournament can’t be moved “legally and practically”, after describing the measures that FIDE take, I was given a deadline until 0.00 6th of march Moscow time with the words: in case you do not reply to this email, we will consider that you are withdrawing from the tournament. Around 2 hours before deadline, to behave in a proper manner, I have given an answer that I confirm that I withdraw from the tournament. To sum up, whether I would reply or not to the email of FIDE, I would have been replaced IN ANY CASE.
The coronavirus has been wreaking havoc with the chess calendar: the HDBank Open, Dubai Open, Sharjah Masters and Reykjavik Open are just some of the events that have been postponed and potentially cancelled in recent days.
Smaller events are less of a risk of infection, but we’ve already seen travel issues stop Wei Yi playing in the Prague Masters and Zhao Xue playing in the Lausanne FIDE Grand Prix. Ding Liren had to fly to Russia 14 days in advance:
The other Chinese player, Wang Hao, found himself in Japan and is still planning to travel from there to Russia, but on Facebook he called on FIDE to postpone all official tournaments, questioning whether there was a plan to deal with the consequences of the coronavirus.
Of course the coronavirus is a concern for everyone right now:
We still can’t be sure
we know the final line-up for the tournament, but we’ll keep you updated with any new developments. Meanwhile Laurent Fressinet, Jan Gustafsson and Peter Heine Nielsen are already planning to film a new video for their Candidates 2020 Preview series!
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