How to play chess safely during Covid-19? Over the board chess is rebooting in countries that seem to have passed the peak of the pandemic. In some places players are separated by a plexiglas screen, in others they wear masks during play or have a choice between masks and visors, while elsewhere they play on two separate boards. The ongoing Irish Championship has an even more comprehensive approach. Recommendations have been published by FIDE as well as in the recent European Chess Union newsletter (see p 16–17).
With relatively few infections and lifted safety measures already in May Austria seemed like the perfect place to restart over the board play. An experimental outdoor event was approved by the Austrian Health Ministry. The Austrian Chess Federation (ACF) didn’t want to hear about it though, as indoor sports were not yet regulated at the time.
The ACF consulted with Hans Peter Hutter from the Institute of Envrionmental Hygiene at the Vienna Medical University to prepare the return to the boards. While the safety concept and safety regulations for organisers as well as for players are published (all in German), the expertise, which has costed „a significant four figure sum“ according to ACF President Christian Hursky, is not meant to be published or shared.
The open tournament that took place in St. Veit on 10–18 July was its first test. When the ACF made public that a participant reported a Covid-19 infection after the tournament, it also declared: „The organiser has meticulously adhered to the safety concept.“
During the rounds the protocol was strictly followed in the playing hall. Once the players left to the adjacent lobby to analyse their games, play blitz or chat, the rules didn’t apply any more. After we had learned about the breach of the anonymity of the infected player and had spoken to him, we e-mailed questions to the ACF. Instead of answering in writing or by phone, they set up a Zoom meeting with four federation officials and organiser Fritz Knapp. The meeting was a tedious, forty-minutes-lasting affair.
Was the lobby considered a part of the tournament area, as the ACF’s own regulations seem to suggest? After some meandering we were told that is was considered the “gastro area” and therefore not subject to chess safety rules but to the gastronomic regulations.
While the ECU is recommending organisers not to provide boards for analysis and blitz, FIDE suggests to go outdoor. Blumenhalle in St. Veit is surrounded by underused open air space. However, the organiser decided to keep the players inside.
Was the prize-giving part of the tournament and fell under the safety regulation? We didn’t get a straight answer either. The safety rules do mention that officials could take off masks for speeches. But as photographs show, hardly anybody wore a mask during the prize-giving. We had been alerted that potentially compromising pictures were removed or replaced online after the Covid-19 infection was made public. According to organiser Knapp his son was in charge of the websites and kept changing pictures frequently on his own initiative.
The only mistake that the ACF admitted during our Zoom meeting was giving away the identity of the infected player by mentioning that it was a foreigner who didn’t play the last round. „This was my personal fault“, says ACF President Hursky. In the meantime, he has reached out to the player, and his apology has been accepted.
Hursky claimed that all other participants were informed immediately. When confronted with the roughly 48 hours that passed after the infected player informed organiser Knapp until the mailing to the participants, Hursky said that they contacted the health authorities and had to wait what they would be told to do. The ACF website quotes him saying how happy he is „that the contact-tracing after the tournament worked excellently“.
Hursky told us that by now it is evident that nobody had been infected at the tournament. How could he know that? Hursky replied that no other participant reported an infection and the incubation time of two weeks had passed. From this he concluded that the infected player must have caught his infection elsewhere.
We countered that many people infected by Covid-19 don’t notice symptoms. Expert estimates of asymptomatic cases go up to 80 percent. The best estimate by the Center for Disease Control stands at 40 percent. Those who carry the virus but don’t have symptoms can pass on the virus, too, and are estimated to be 75 per cent as contagious as symptomatic cases. Besides, the infected player told us that he had only mild symptoms and took the test mainly because the safety measures in Austria were in general much lighter than in his country. Personally, he is sure to have caught the virus during his trip to Austria, but he cannot tell if it happened in a restaurant, grocery store or the tournament lobby.