Hybrid chess stands for arbiter-supervised play via an online platform. The presence of arbiters prevents the biggest ailment of online chess: cheating. Whereas online chess is virtually always rapid and blitz, chess as a sport still refers mainly to games played at long time-controls and over-the-board instead of on the screen. When travel is restricted and people may only meet in small groups that can maintain physical distancing, hybrid chess offers a way back to competitive chess nearly as it used to be. Your opponent is far away, but at least you can see him or her on the screen, and in pandemic times the two of you should not be physically close anyway.
FIDE has recently published regulations for online competitions which include a chapter on hybrid chess. Without using the term it has been an option since 2013, especially with regard to areas where travel between countries is notoriously difficult and expensive, says Nick Faulks, head of FIDE’s Qualification Commission, but it has never come into practice. During some FIDE and ECU online competitions last year, players met locally and played under arbiter supervision, but it was always at fast time controls and on the screen.
When travel is restricted and people may only meet in small groups, hybrid chess offers a way back to competitive chess nearly as it used to be.
The first big hybrid chess project was conceived by the Catalan Chess Federation, which planned a worldwide electronic open with arbiter-supervised tournament halls all over the globe. About thirty cities were interested to join, but when the time came the second wave of the pandemic had most of the world in its grip, and the event had to be canceled. Maybe hybrid chess needed to start a bit smaller and a set-up as close as possible to competitive chess as it used to be.
We had run a webinar on hybrid chess in June 2020, and at the ChessTech 2020 conference in December the combination of online and over-the-board chess was a topic again. We thought about who could partner in a test event, and since the Catalan Federation has thought a lot about hybrid chess, they were a natural starting point. So is the Offerspill Chess Club that was founded in 2019 on the premise to connect over-the-board and online chess. Since hybrid events can also help to diminish the carbon footprint of international chess, we also talked to Axel Smith from a group of chess climate activists that formed at the conference.
Thus the Hybrid Cities Cup was born, a tournament between four city teams. Barcelona and Oslo are joined by a team Axel brought in from TePe Sigeman Chess in Malmö. The field is completed by the Slovak Chess Federation which received a special permission from the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Sport to take part. The four city teams play each other this Saturday and Sunday. Since the FIDE regulations require a board arbiter and a technical arbiter and only up to six people are allowed to meet in Slovakia, we had to go for teams of four players. Among the expected players are 11 grandmasters.
FIDE requires online and hybrid games to be played via one of the established platforms. We chose Lichess which developed an interface for electronic boards. The matches will be played on electronic boards from DGT with a screen showing the clock time, the last move and a webcam view of the opponent. In order to compensate for the player to make the opponent’s moves on their own board, the usual time increment per move is increased from 30 to 35 seconds.
If four teams met in one of the four cities the event would produce 5,3 tons CO2, mainly due to air travel. The hybrid version produces about 340 kg CO2, a reduction of more than 93%.
A lot of technical and arbitration questions turned up in the planning. Shall players lose in case of a disconnection? This may be sensible during an online rapid tournament but is inappropriate during a rated hybrid game at a classical time control. Our arbiters are prepared to restart a game froms cratch by resetting the position and clock-time. May an arbiter alert a player who fails to notice the opponent’s move? Absolutely, since play on a real board should not be about staring at the screen. Do players have to comply with touch-move and writing up the moves? That’s what they are used to and will help them to concentrate at their best.
Axel Smith calculated that if four teams met for the tournament in one of the four cities the event would produce 5,3 tons CO2, mainly due to air travel. The hybrid version requires some extra use of computers and cameras but only local travel and produces about 340 kg CO2, which comes down to a reduction of more than 93%. He noticed that watching the streams can have a significant environmental cost during bigger events: For last week’s Opera Europe Rapid this amounted to 187 tons CO2. Our stream, as by grandmaster Aryan Tari for Offerspill or on the brandnew Twitch channel of the Catalan federation, will be fantastic but not come anywhere near that in terms of carbon emission.
A lot will be learned during this weekend without doubt. Players and arbiters will document their experience and observations. Each venue will also stream the games in the local language or in English, and the streamers will also come up with observations and questions to the players. Rules will be improved. Other set-ups need to be tested. We are already planning a second Hybrid Cities Cup on 13 and 14 March.