Fabiano Caruana will be top seed as the FIDE Chess.com Grand Swiss starts this Wednesday, 27th October in Riga, Latvia, despite a lockdown that includes a curfew from 8pm to 5am each day. Hikaru Nakamura and Vidit have both withdrawn, with Hikaru citing, “respect for Latvians suffering with Covid and for the health and safety of myself and my trainer”. The Open and Women’s tournaments, which combined will feature around 160 players, have been given an exemption to take place by the Latvian government.
Update: 26 October
Since this article was published more players have dropped out, including 3rd seed Alexander Grischuk, 5th seed Richard Rapport, 6th seed Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and 13th seed Liem Quang Le. In the women's event top seed Kateryna Lagno has also pulled out. Alexei Shirov decided to play at the last moment.
There’s a lot at stake in this year’s Grand Swiss, with the $70,000 top prize less important than the two places up for grabs in the 2022 Candidates Tournament, the 8-player event that will decide the World Championship Challenger who faces the winner of the Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi match. The Grand Swiss is an 11-round Swiss tournament taking place from Wednesday October 27th to November 7th, with a single rest day on November 2nd.
The Grand Swiss was initially scheduled to take place on the Isle of Man, but was then switched to Riga, Latvia due to “strict COVID-19 restrictions still in place in the Isle of Man and the UK”. At the time the World Chess Federation FIDE explained:
Taking into consideration the current and prospected COVID-19 regulations in Latvia, and the readiness to host the events providing high-level organization, Riga has been designated as the host city. Latvia doesn’t require mandatory self-isolation and offers the flexibility of regulations and capability to host major sport events.
The pandemic has been thwarting well-laid plans for one and a half years now, however, and just before the event in Riga was about to begin, Latvia, facing some of the world’s worst COVID infection rates, announced a month-long lockdown that would cover the whole of the Grand Swiss.
As well as closing all non-essential shops and imposing a curfew each night from 8pm to 5am, it banned all indoor and outdoor gatherings, including sporting events, which would have made the tournament impossible to hold. FIDE, whose Managing Director Dana Reizniece-Ozola is a former Latvian Minister of Economics, applied for an exemption, however, and were successful — with the Grand Swiss joining 30 top sporting events in gaining permission to continue.
The players (and officials, arbiters, accredited journalists and others directly involved in the event) will face a regime of regular testing and be required to remain within a bubble, avoiding contact with people outside the tournaments. The rounds have been moved forward an hour to 13:00 CEST, with players allowed to be outside after the curfew at 19:00 (20:00 local time) only to return to their hotels.
The World Cup saw one of the top seeds Levon Aronian pull out for health reasons, a major scare involving Fabiano Caruana and an Indonesian player, and a number of members of that delegation testing positive or deciding to quit the tournament vountarily
FIDE will be crossing their fingers for a successful event, and can point to the FIDE World Cup as a mass-participation event that was completed with only minor disruption caused by positive COVID tests. This time, however, is potentially trickier, since it’s not a knockout where the numbers involved half each round. The tweets of FIDE Director Emil Sutovsky are unlikely to have reassured players.
Participants were faced with tough decisions, with two top names, Hikaru Nakamura and Vidit, among those who are already confirmed out of the main event.
More withdrawals, or players unable to participate, are likely. For instance, 3rd seed Alexander Grischuk said when the resumption of the Candidates Tournament was being discussed:
I won’t play in a mask and gloves, or if I need to sit in quarantine for two weeks before the start of the event. Or to play in a so-called “bubble”, when during the tournament you’re not allowed to leave the territory of the hotel or some other premises.
It seems a mask won’t be required while playing and leaving the hotel will be possible apart from at night, but will the curfew be an issue for the Russian star? There’s also another factor for Russian players, with Russian Chess Federation President Andrei Filatov releasing a statement encouraging vaccination that also included:
The Russian Chess Federation doesn’t recommend that chess players participate in events taking place in countries with an unfavourable epidemiological situation.
That would include Latvia, but also Russia, which perhaps wasn't Filatov’s intention.
It’s not only about recent withdrawals, however. Alexei Shirov, perhaps the most famous Latvian chess player since Mikhail Tal, commented:
I turned down playing [the Grand Swiss] almost a month ago because it was already clear to me then that due to the restrictions I wouldn’t be able to travel from home and back, living my normal life, and I didn’t want to stay in a hotel in my home town for 12 days. Unfortunately, the reality turned out even worse than I imagined. Supermarkets are still working, but with restrictions, to 7 at night, while normally they’re open to 10-11. There’s a quiet street from the tournament hall to the hotel, but you can’t expect to meet no pedestrians on it. I hope it all works out, but the event is nevertheless no doubt more of a risk than the Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg. However, Radjabov doesn’t have to play :)
Even if no-one else drops out of the tournament, less than half of the world’s 2700+ players will be in action in Riga.
There are multiple reasons, with one of them that some are already qualified for the Candidates Tournament, including Teimour Radjabov, as noted by Shirov. The others are Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi — the loser of the match automatically qualifies for the Candidates — and Jan-Krzysztof Duda and Sergey Karjakin, who qualified by reaching the final of the World Cup.
After the Grand Swiss there will be just two Candidates spots remaining, to be decided in the Grand Prix series held in Berlin from February to April 2022. Six spots in that series will also be decided by where players finish in the Grand Swiss, and you would imagine top players would be eager to take a shot at qualification, but some are reluctant. Leinier Dominguez, Sam Shankland and Wesley So all said during the US Chess Championships that they preferred to rest after a hectic schedule, with Wesley elaborating:
I’ve fallen for the same trick before. I played in Isle of Man, the Grand Swiss, two years ago, but opens are hard, because you play all these 2600s and then they play very solidly, they’re happy with a draw with both colours, pretty much, so it’s very difficult. Last time I played for two hard weeks, a very difficult tournament, and I think I earned 1500 bucks for that, so I’d have been better staying at home. There’s the two Candidates spots, but at the same time, there are 120 players. Also I think at this point I’m pretty much tired and going there with no preparation will lead to disaster.
In the 2019 Grand Swiss, which was notable for featuring the already qualified Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana, 15th seed Wang Hao won, while 3rd and 4th seeds Wesley So and Vishy Anand finished 26th and 27th.
There was only one spot in the Candidates up for grabs in 2019, though the result also enabled Kirill Alekseenko to be chosen as the Russian organisers’ wildcard.
We can expect the unexpected in 2021, but there’s no doubt the absence of some top players will only give those who do play a boost. Alireza Firouzja will be one of the big favourites after Fabiano Caruana, while this will also be a chance for other youngsters to stake a claim to the World Championship title ahead of schedule. The tournament features the likes of Nihal Sarin, Nodirbek Abdusattorov, Gukesh, Arjun Erigaisi, Vincent Keymer, Praggnanandhaa, Raunak Sadhwani and Javokhir Sindarov.
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