While the entire world of sports was shutting down, eight of the deepest thinkers on the planet were heading to a chess tournament on the edge of Siberia.
Organizers had assured the players it was safe—the coronavirus pandemic had yet to reach the Sverdlovsk region of Russia. So they socially distanced themselves, one by one, in the city of Yekaterinburg for the three-week Candidates Tournament, all for the right to face Magnus Carlsen in the world championship match later this year.
Chess authorities are taking every possible measure to keep competitors healthy, from lavishly dispensed hand sanitizer to twice-daily medical checkups. But as they sit for hours, locked in fierce concentration, the players are still struggling with one crucial antivirus recommendation.
In the last major sporting event in the time of coronavirus, they can’t stop touching their faces.
“Of course we touch our faces. That much is clear,” Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the No. 6-ranked classical chess player, said in French. “We have habits while playing that are impossible to break. Thinking with a hand on your chin or on your forehead is a reflex.”
Every day of the tournament, which began Tuesday and runs until April 5, all eight players have compulsively touched their faces within the first hour of play. They hear constantly that they’re not supposed to. They are geniuses. And still, they can’t help themselves. Something in the wiring of a human brain firing on all cylinders decides it’s imperative to also connect your hand to your chin or mouth or nose or temple. No one really knows why.
“Sometimes I remember for a moment,” Vachier-Lagrave added, “but then human nature takes over.”
One study conducted by University of Leipzig neurologists drew the connection between “spontaneous facial self-touches” and moments of heavy cognitive or emotional stress. They even noticed that it intensified when those moments also involved memory. All of which neatly describes what it’s like to play high-level chess: intense focus paired with remembering thousands of complex scenarios.
Ding Liren is more sensitive to coronavirus protocols than most. When he set out for Russia, his hometown in China was still under lockdown. And once he landed in Yekaterinburg, Russian authorities insisted he spend two weeks in isolation before competing.
During Wednesday’s second round, Ding played the correct opening of coughing into his elbow. But his coronavirus prevention tactics went to pieces in the middle game when he grabbed his entire face with both hands during a long period of thought.
Not even the greatest chess player of his generation is able to stop himself. Carlsen, who isn’t in Russia, is brilliant enough to sweep the floor with multiple opponents at the same time while blindfolded. But he has a harder time keeping his hands away from his nose and mouth. Last Sunday, while taking on all-comers online with a camera turned on himself, viewers noticed his less-than-perfect coronavirus protocol.
“I should quit touching my face,” he said after being chided in the comments. “That’s what everybody says. Don’t touch your face these days. It’s just hard to change your—what’s the word—habits.”
Chess’s international governing body, FIDE, is doing its best to make sure that all that face-touching at the Candidates at least occurs in a sanitary way.
It administered coronavirus tests to every player upon arrival, with a second test scheduled 10 days later.
Twice a day, they have their temperature checked and their throats examined by a doctor. There is ample hand sanitizer and masks are available. Human contact is limited: there are no spectators and most meals are served in the players’ hotel rooms.
“We’re in a tough situation here, because if everything goes well, it will look good,” the director general of FIDE, Emil Sutovsky said. “But if one of the players gets it, our tournament is ruined. We will be under attack.”
Sutovsky was especially pained by having to ban handshakes before and after every game. They are such an integral part of chess tradition, he said, that their absence is conspicuous now. Bumping elbows just isn’t the same.
“I think it would be much more elegant to do a bow as the Japanese do. I think they do that in shogi and it would make a lot of sense,” said classical chess’s world No. 5 Anish Giri, referring to the Japanese board game. “This ‘elbow-shake’ is very creepy. From all the possible ways to show respect to each other, this is the creepiest.”
The great irony is that the only world-class event in sports right now is in a game so easily played online. Chess.com alone hosted more than 7 million games a day for the past two weeks. The site has also added more than 400,000 new members in that time, coinciding with the increase in lockdowns world-wide and the Candidates tournaments.
But chess purists would consider that heresy. Dispatching referees to every player to prevent computer-assisted cheating would be a logistical nightmare. It would also break with centuries of tradition. The tension in the room, the sidelong glances, the body language across the board, all of that would be lost.
“When you talk about classical chess, it’s like classical music,” Sutovsky said. “Of course, you can listen to recordings. But for the musicians, for the atmosphere, you still have to go to the symphony.”
One of the few times a remote solution was attempted for high-level classical competition came in 1965, when American Bobby Fischer agreed to participate in a tournament in Cuba but was blocked by the State Department. He played his matches from a chess club in Manhattan, communicating his moves by teletype.
FIDE never gave serious consideration to a remote setup. For the Candidates, it was Yekaterinburg or bust. Everyone would simply have to trust that a room of eight stewing chess players—all handling the same pieces, tapping the same clocks, breathing the same air—wasn’t going to turn into a petri dish.
“We’ll see if it was the right decision to have it or not at the end of the tournament,” said American Fabiano Caruana, the top seed and bookmakers’ favorite to win.
Through the opening four days of play, no one has tested positive—although the Sverdlovsk region now has its first confirmed cases. But just because the players don’t have coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean all is well. The bizarre conditions are beginning to get to them.
“The doctor just tells you that you have no fever and your throat is alright,” Giri said. “But the doctor doesn’t tell you that you play like a total idiot and that there’s something really wrong with your brain…She tells me I’m fine, but I know I’m not fine.”
“I see how I play,” he added. “This is not fine.”
—Matthew Dalton contributed to this article.
Write to Joshua Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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