A post-mortem of the 2020 Candidates Tournament
Postponed halfway through due to safety concerns caused by COVID-19, the fallout from the Candidates may be the least of FIDE’s worries
Controversial from the start, the 2020 Candidates Tournament promised to be like no other when GM Teimour Radjabov was unceremoniously removed from the line-up ” (from 18:12 onwards)
We don’t know what FIDE said to Hao before the event, but it appears to lend strength to Radjabov’s description of being handed an ultimatum from FIDE - that “ ”, others just that “ ” and that they were “ about how they would get home after the tournament, or Alexander Grischuk and Wang Hao outright saying the tournament should not have been held in the first place (cited above). With the range and extent of players’ criticism, it appears Radjabov’s comment of FIDE imposing an “ultimatum” is more persuasive, rather than FIDE having a fair and open discourse with the players prior to the start of the tournament.
With a sense of inevitability, on the 28th of March at 10am Ekaterinburg time, the government of Russia decided it was necessary to close Russian airspace from midnight the same day, to protect the public health and security of the nation against the threat posed by COVID-19.
Maxime Vachier-Lagrave recalls that he received “various messages from FIDE officials
” about the cancellation, receiving “an official email that was sent out around 11:30am local time
”. Shortly after, FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich sent out a press release that the tournament would be postponed with immediate effect. The official reason was that as Russia had chosen to indefinitely close its airspace, it could no longer guarantee the safe return home of players and staff.
In further correspondence with FIDE, they maintained that whilst the closure was “related” to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic was “not equal” to the borders closing. When asked whether the tournament being closed due to the risk to staff and players meant that Radjabov’s fears were well-founded, FIDE replied: “the tournament had to be stopped for reasons different to the ones he hinted at. Related, of course, but quite different
The difference from FIDE’s perspective being, Radjabov was concerned he would contract coronavirus - not be able to get home safely following Russia’s (understandable) public health concerns and decision to close borders. Whether this is anything but an academic distinction ignoring the ontological nature of the universe is not for us to decide.
The venue became a hive of activity which was bizarre to see, given how sterile the environment had been prior. The infrastructure and equipment which facilitated the tournament was dismantled, expensive lenses, television cameras, kilometres of cables, carefully packed away and then stored. The oversized props, sets and stages, all accounted for, picked up, and transported away for an unknown Candidate’s future.
The frustration and unease which had accompanied the tournament’s atmosphere remained, but there was a sense of excitement, a pioneering energy. This particular hubris would become historic in the chess world. Those present were directly experiencing something which would be referenced for years to come, the unfolding events becoming part of chess folklore.
Only a few grizzled veterans of the chess world would be able to say they were there, man (as they take a drag on their cigarette and stare off into the middle distance, silence interrupted by the iceberg in their grime-crusted whisky gently clinking the glass), you wouldn’t understand what it was like to be on the last ‘copter out of ‘Katberg.
And they’re off! Have a safe flight @Vachier_Lagrave @FabianoCaruana @Jvdbergchess @LennartOotes @leontxogarcia and see you very soon for the Candidates 2.0! 💚 pic.twitter.com/Yj9yK5eV7xLooking to the future
— Maria Emelianova aka MissLovaLova 🔴 (@photochess) March 26, 2020
The tournament going ahead was a clear mistake, and the opening ceremony was unforgivable. There is no clear ownership of those decisions, so it can only be assumed they were uniformly FIDE’s senior board members’ decisions. The only clear ownership of a decision came from Dvorkovich - alone in putting his name against continuing the tournament. Undoubtedly, this was a difficult and mature decision, but the correct one. Credit should be given for him sticking his head above the parapet when the majority of the senior board appeared craven at a whiff of responsibility.
Equally, it should not be forgotten, FIDE and SIMA-Land between them arranged a private charter jet to ensure those who needed to leave Russia, could. From what was shared on the night, SIMA-Land owns the jet, and FIDE paid for the fuel costs, taxes, and relevant air fees. This is a remarkable logistical achievement, and shows the responsibility FIDE felt (although somewhat undermined from the financial perspective by SIMA-Land having paid for the event costs, prize money, and giving FIDE a 20% cut of the prize fund
There are also silver linings for some - not least for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave who deserved a spot in the Candidates and now sits in first place, compellingly showing exactly why he deserves to be there. FIDE sees the second half of the tournament resuming “as soon as the conditions allow it”
, but in any event “it was agreed that if the tournament reached its 7th round, the results would stand no matter what
”. Vachier-Lagrave is in an excellent situation, regardless of the next chapter.
And if (or when) the tournament does resume, the title sponsor, SIMA-Land, will get a second free round of publicity later this year when the second half goes ahead. Hopefully they held pandemic insurance, just as the farsighted board of directors of Wimbledon did, netting them $140 million
. There continues to be much FIDE and tournament organisers can learn from other international sports. (Lennart Ootes for FIDE - Nepomniachtchi thinking near Sima-Land's logo)
There are also major questions. The first major headache for FIDE is what happens to Radjabov. Some have suggested he should automatically have entry to the 2022 Candidates Tournament. FIDE has said this “sounds like a sensible suggestion”
, but are unable to commit to it until later this year. The ACP have said they do not yet have a position on the Radjabov situation. But regardless of how it is dealt with, he understandably is “feeling frustrated [..] I have warned of it [that the tournament is not safe] and it’s exactly what happened. And I am left aside.
Radjabov has since been joined by the Azeri Federation in his complaint, which has submitted an official open letter
on his behalf. It appears FIDE will have to carefully balance taking mature responsibility for its actions, whilst also ensuring a major chess player and chess federation are not left in an unfair situation. It is worth bearing in mind, Radjabov is undoubtedly one of the few individuals with the financial means to fund extensive legal action against FIDE.
FIDE is not the only chess organisation finding itself in trouble. Much soul-searching will presumably be happening at the ACP, reflecting upon itself and its purpose. An organisation designed to protect chess professionals was here unable to defy FIDE, in a once in a lifetime pandemic. To be seemingly unable to protect those who spoke out before the tournament began publicly, and to have still not come up with a position on Radjabov, must naturally lead to questions about their effectiveness and who they actually protect.
Much of the ACP’s board is involved with FIDE at a senior level, are in the leadership of their own national federations, or are also tournament organisers, but the ACP do not believe this work generates any conflicts of interest.
Those from the outside may consider these as direct conflicts of interests. Notably, it is coming up to a FIDE election cycle and the current Director General of FIDE, Emil Sutovsky, was Chairman of the ACP for a decade. It may not be outside the realm of possibility that others within the ACP may have spotted an opportunity.
Major issues also arose at the tournament itself. In its final days, there was a lack of clear communication, and a loss of tournament hierarchy. Essentially no FIDE officials were at the tournament, and without hierarchical order or a final arbiter on disputes, a power vacuum formed. In true Hobbesian tradition, various factions formed in an attempt to seize control of the tournament, and promptly entered a state of hostility against each other. Disturbingly, the one FIDE official present appeared to join one of these factions, which deposed the well-respected Tournament Director, apparently known for his excellent organisational ability. (The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan in 1651, a foundational analysis of social contract theory, with a pessimistic outlook on human nature and behaviour when individuals are left to their own devices)
The coup was successful, in the sense they ousted the Tournament Director. The faction which did split off seemed to have little knowledge about chess, not recognising Fabiano Caruana or Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Charitably, the split could have occurred due to holding different ideas on the standard of health and safety at the tournament. However, they used derogatory language about all chess players, in front of professional chess players and media, and had poor organisation overall. Potentially Leviathan
remains correct; everything boils down to lust for money and thirst for power.
These circumstances were exceptional, but FIDE still stands to learn much from unravelling what went wrong. For example, implementing clear communication channels with the players, organisers and media is vital in pressured situations. Similarly, knowing their people and their professional boundaries well-enough to trust them to not get involved within the organising committees relationships and politics is vital. Trust, goodwill, and rapport are precious resources; but FIDE seems willing to risk these with the turn of the wind.
With little over the board chess now lined up, FIDE is now in uncharted waters. Playing online chess is the only route available for FIDE to remain relevant over the next few months. Online servers have been instrumental in modernising the oldest played game, and bringing new generations and demographics to the sport. This is also a vital time for FIDE to be introspective. FIDE’s new charter
specifies it is a non-profit, with the purpose of promoting chess activities, in all their forms (incidentally, it also especially encourages any effort aimed at improving good governance in all chess organisations). The approach FIDE takes over the next few weeks and months, as it forays into the online realm, will be instructive in understanding where FIDE’s priorities rest.
This is a complex time for FIDE, which is now afforded multiple avenues and opportunities to learn from this series of blunders. As an organisation, the “new FIDE” can show itself to be a responsive, forward-thinking organisation, develop robust crisis management procedures, and communication channels for future events. The alternative - to stagnate like an old pond, without any freshwater flowing through it - will show the “new FIDE” to be a Potemkin village
rebrand, behind which kickbacks and cronyism likely remain.Appendix - links to the questions and interviews
All parties were informed the full text of our questions and the full text of their interviews would be shared. This is to ensure no biases are present in the article, and readers can see whether we have unwittingly changed context, meaning, or clarity of what the relevant parties shared with us.
The questions and replies in themselves are worth a read - only some of the content they provided could work within the confines of the flow of the article. But the full texts offer an insight into the organisations and individuals which may not be often found elsewhere. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave commentTeimour Radjabov Q&A and commentFIDE Q&AACP Q&A