Sunway Sitges Chess Festival: The Show Must Go On
As one of the few strong open chess tournaments during the pandemic, the Sunway Sitges Chess Festival is underway in Sitges, Spain. While the participants enjoy playing chess as never before, the tournament hall showcases a wonderful variety of face masks.
Since April of this year, we know that Oskar Stober Blazquez, the owner of the Sunway Sitges hotel and the main organizer of the tournament, likes challenges. He successfully held the first-ever online tournament with a classical time control, the Sunway Sitges International Online Chess Open, when Spain and most of Europe were in its first strict lockdown.
The biggest challenge was the aspect of cheating. There were some cases, and these players were removed from the tournament.
Stober: “I tend to look at it from the perspective of a hotel manager. The satisfaction of the participants is of higher value than chess standards. This might not sound politically correct but if I look back, people were so grateful, so delighted. They had such a good time.”
Eight months later, holding the seventh edition of the festival is no less of a challenge. While it was never certain that the tournament could be held, Stober also never really planned to cancel it.
“If everything is canceled, we have a chance to do something no one is doing,” he said.
After that first lockdown, Sitges had a reasonably normal summer with a 75 percent occupancy for Stober’s hotel—mostly Spaniards. The situation in Catalonia was more or less stable for four, five months and by the end of September, Stober decided to have another event.
“It was not ‘let’s do it,’ but ‘let’s not cancel it.'”
Then came the second wave in October, and it became more likely that the authorities would not allow the tournament to happen. However, while sports in general were restricted to professional players, international competitions were allowed.
Last year the tournament had about 450 participants. It was clear that it had to be scaled down.
“We expected 100 people at most and only from our area,” said Stober. “Then things started to go better again mid-November, and we reached 230, our limit.”
The timing of the event couldn’t be better because, while it is underway, the numbers of COVID-19 positives in Spain are going up again. At the moment there are some restrictions for restaurants, bars, and theaters and a limitation to travel during weekends, but it is expected that the government will increase the measures again.
The tournament couldn’t be held without several measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Because it is held in a hotel, many of the measures are part of general regulations, such as regular cleaning, distance, the closing of certain spaces, and regular checks by staff.
The most obvious difference with last year is that the chessboards are all placed at least 1.5 meters from each other. Players have to wear face masks and may walk to the outside terraces but are not allowed to walk in the playing hall to check on other boards. They have to remain seated as much as possible, cannot eat in the hall, and water is put on the tables three times per round.
At the start of the round, there are temperature checks. If one would be over 37.5 degrees Celsius, the player would be forfeited but that hasn’t happened yet. There’s a doctor available at all times, which was one of the precautions necessary to be able to hold the tournament. Foreigners from countries at risk needed to present a negative test.
Apart from all this, there is regular cleaning of the playing hall as well as the analysis room.
“We wanted a tournament that is as close to normal as possible, so with an analysis room,” says Stober. “We have someone checking that no one goes into it that hasn’t played a game. When a table has been used, it is blocked until our cleaning staff has cleaned it, and then security at the entrance lets the next players in.”
Although the organization is tougher than ever, the tournament is going well.
Stober: “The participants are so keen on playing over-the-board chess again that they understand everything. If they have to wait for 10 minutes at the gate of the hotel, no complaints. If they lose a few minutes on their clock, no complaints. People are really happy and say the organization is good. I cannot judge that because I am part of it, but I am glad to hear it.”
Five rounds have been played so far, which saw a few upsets. For instance, last year’s winner GM Anton Korobov lost to the Spanish GM Hipolito Asis, and GM Karen Grigoryan went down against GM Nino Batsiashvili, both in round four.
The game of the tournament, at least so far, is Batsiashvili’s clash with GM Maxime Lagarde. The French GM was quick to pick up GM Daniil Dubov’s gambit opening from the Russian Championship as the game in Sitges was played just a day later.
By the way, if you thought Dubov’s idea is new, you were wrong. For 12 moves, Lagarde and Batsiashvili followed a correspondence game from 1873!
7th Sunway Sitges | Round 5 Standings (Top 20)
|3||6||GM||Santos Latasa, Jaime||2588||4.0||14.5||16.5||12.50|
|7||7||GM||Santos Ruiz, Miguel||2581||4.0||14.0||15.0||11.25|
|8||25||GM||Asis Gargatagli, Hipolito||2470||4.0||13.5||16.0||12.50|
|9||29||GM||Vasquez Schroeder, Rodrigo||2459||4.0||13.5||15.5||11.50|
|11||24||IM||Niemann, Hans Moke||2478||4.0||13.0||15.5||11.50|
|13||21||GM||Narciso Dublan, Marc||2495||4.0||12.5||15.0||11.75|
|16||15||GM||Lopez Martinez, Josep Manuel||2542||4.0||11.0||13.0||11.00|
|17||30||IM||Maurizzi, Marc Andria||2445||3.5||14.0||15.5||10.00|
|20||31||IM||Gines Esteo, Pedro Antonio||2437||3.5||13.5||15.0||9.00|
(Full standings here.)