FIDE Blitz Championship Concludes Dramatically With COVID Scare!

FIDE has been rightly criticized, from time to time, for poor organizational skills and controversial policies.

The FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Championship had been scheduled to take place in Riga until Latvia went into lockdown due to rising COVID cases. This meant that as recently as this month, the event had no host. Poland stepped up and offered to put on the event in Warsaw. Generally speaking, observers have been very impressed with Poland’s ability to host a high-quality event in very short order.

As we all know, COVID has caused serious disruptions to the chess world. It interrupted the 2020 Candidates Tournament, and delayed the World Chess Championship for an entire year. There were several COVID scares earlier this year as the chess world began to hold large over the board events again. It also led to many players we would expect to see at high level events not participating. Notably, Teimour Radjabov bowed out of the Candidates, making room for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. China’s top player, Ding Liren, has been notably absent from live events during the pandemic.

And Hikaru Nakamura, one of the absolute best in the world at rapid and blitz chess, declined to attend a number of events over the past year due of COVID concerns.

It is a particularly cruel irony, then, that Nakamura, feeling unwell during the Rapid Championship, took a COVID test that came back negative. But today, on day two of the Blitz Championship, he took another test in order to be able to fly back to the United States tomorrow. That test came back positive, and the event was thrown into disarray.

All participants in the tournament, roughly 275 men and women, were put onto buses to be taken to a public testing facility, where a few other lower-ranked players also tested positive and, like Nakamura, had to withdraw from the tournament. Game play started over an hour late, after all tests were done and the dust had settled.

It is pretty incredible that FIDE would not have made onsite testing a high priority during a five-day event involving hundreds of the world’s top chess players, and the handling of this has been widely and justifiably criticized by players and observers alike. FIDE is naturally keen to proceed with their events if possible, just like the NHL, the NFL, World Junior Hockey, and the IOC. But, perhaps FIDE should not be following in these footsteps, given how COVID is messing with these sporting bodies and the athletes for whom they undoubtedly have a responsibility.

Perhaps it would have been prudent to delay this event until after this wave of the pandemic had calmed down. Or cancel it outright.

But, back to the tournament. After testing, the players of course wanted to continue with the final rounds. The Blitz Championship was another Swiss tournament of games with the time control of 3 minutes + 2 seconds increment. There were 21 rounds in the open section, and 17 rounds in the women’s section.

After day one, Levon Aronian was sitting alone in first place with 10/12, followed closely by Egyptian GM Amir Bassem (9.5/12) and Iran’s Parham Maghsoodloo (9/12). After this was a large group of familiar and less-well-known names, including Nakamura, who finished day one with a very respectable 8.5/12. Magnus Carlsen began day one of the blitz tournament in great style, briefly surpassing 2900 in his live rating, before falling back under with a couple of losses. Alireza Firouzja struggled hard on day one, at one point ranking 100 in the field.

When play resumed on day two, Aronian kept on winning for a time, but then lost three games in a row. After round 19 he had slipped to fifth place with a score of 13/19, tied with 16-year-old Uzbek prodigy Javokhir Sindarov, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Kirill Alekseenko and a resurgent Alireza Firouzja. Daniil Dubov was in the lead with 14, followed by his countryman Vladislav Artemiev and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, each with 13.5/19.

A dramatic twentieth round ended with a six-way tie for first, with Aronian climbing back up, along with Dubov, Duda, Artemiev, MVL and Firouzja, all with 14/20. This, of course, raised the spectre of the controversial tie-break system that FIDE has instituted for these events.

In the final round, MVL defeated Carlsen, Duda defeated Artemiev, Firouzja beat Aronian, while Dubov and Anish Giri drew their game. This left a three-way tie for first place, with Vachier-Lagrave, Polish favourite Duda and Firouzja each with 15/21 points.

FIDE’s tie break system for these events has been to rank tied players by their Buchholz tiebreak score, eliminating all but the top two, who then go on the play some tiebreak games. You’ll recall that this eliminated Magnus Carlsen from contention in the Rapid Championship. Today, this same tiebreak system eliminated the world #2 player, Alireza Firouzja, leaving MVL and Duda to fight it out. This seemed particularly unfair, as Alireza had unseated Aronian, and Aronian had the best tiebreak score in the tournament. Had Aronian won, the final battle would have been between Aronian and MVL.

In many sports we dislike unusual ways of determining matches. People prefer to see hockey games decided by game play, not shootouts. Similarly, many are increasingly of the opinion that the best way to determine the top player in a tournament is not to eliminate tied players by tiebreak score, but to have them play chess!

Nevertheless, the tiebreak was dramatic. It was particularly exciting to see Poland’s top player fighting for an elite title on home soil. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Jan-Krzysztof Duda played two blitz games, each of which ended in a draw. After these two games, it went to sudden death, with the title going to the first victor. Unfortunately for the spectators, Duda floundered in the third tie-break game, and Vachier-Lagrave was crowned FIDE World Blitz Champion for 2021.

In the women’s section there was another surprise victor, with 17-year-old Bibisara Assaubayeva from Kazakhstan winning outright with 14/17 points, a clear 1.5 points ahead of the second-place Alexandra Kosteniuk. Assaubayeva is the youngest-ever winner of the Women’s Blitz Championship, and along the way she defeated real champions of women’s chess, including Kosteniuk, Anna Muzychuk and Humpy Koneru.

Whew, a long post! But let’s finish this off with Assaubayeva’s sharp round six victory over Kosteniuk, with the black pieces, no less!