Monday, September 14, 2020

The chess-microbe part 3

While the French Open of Cappelle La Grande (end of February) was still running, it already became clear to me that the corona-virus wouldn't be a joke despite at that time the news was still minimizing the dangers of it. However I was also at that time still hopeful that we could quickly beat the virus. China was able to do it so I assumed that Europe and definitely Belgium with a much higher average standard of life should manage this too. Meantime we know that this didn't happen.

We failed as we didn't want/ weren't able to impose the draconian measurements necessary to exile for sure the corona-virus. Economical as well as individual interests blocked an efficient strategy. As a consequence after 6 months we still are dealing with the threat and it seems that it will be like that till a good vaccine is sufficiently spread among the population.

Of course people are fed up of it by now. Virologists and policymakers keep telling up to hold on to the strict hygienic regulations but people aren't willing to do anymore. Against all advice still 3 million Belgians traveled abroad last summer. After months of a complete stop of chesstournaments, I also notice more and more clubs restart (small) otb-tournaments. In other words more and more people are willing to take bigger risks which unfortunately we also find back in the increase of infections.

Playing chess physically is not without risks. The Belgian championship organized in Bruges went fine without new infections (a.f.a.i.k) but there are no guarantees which was proofed by the recent outbreak of covid-19 after the Spanish teamchampionship despite they used many strict hygienic measurements like face-masks, gels... We still don't know much about which risks are exactly connected to an action. Avoiding any contact is the only rule which protects us for sure. It is therefore no surprise that many players dropped out of the Spanish individual championship (which started just after the Spanish team-championship) although the authorities tried to reassure the participants that there wasn't any threat anymore.

Myself I avoided any contact for a longtime. I was definitely afraid of becoming ill. However slowly I also got to miss more and more my old social life. In the first months I was able to fill the freed time with other activities but this came harder over time. You can't clean your house forever and my garden has never been so nice before. I analyzed my games of Cappelle La Grande for 2 months but at some point this ends of course. I teached my family the games Catan, Rummikub and Risk but after a while they got fed up by losing against me all the time. I am fanatic in any game I play and I understand it is no fun for others when I self-learn all kind of advanced strategies by looking up on youtube how experts are playing.

In my article online chesstournaments I also mentioned that I started to play a lot of online chess but that obviously couldn't compensate my needs. More and more I was not knowing anymore what to do in my free time. For convenience I focused myself on my job. I didn't take any holidays for half year and chose to work long days in the office until I was contacted that I really had to share my planning for the annual holidays. Initially I had the idea to wait with it till this corona-crisis would have passed but this clearly wasn't an option anymore.

Legally I had still 6 weeks of holidays to take before the end of the year. Last month of the year is always very busy so management was pushing to not wait any longer with taking up the holidays. However I really didn't like the forecast of a staycation of several weeks next to my door at all. Eventually I made a difficult decision. My fear for covid-19 wouldn't dictate anymore what I should do or not.  Playing chess makes me happy and for that I was willing to take some risks. So beginning of July I started to look for a chess-tournament to play during my holidays in August.

The Belgian championship in Bruges was of course the closest for me but as I explained in my previous article it was not an option for me as I can't wear the obligatory face-masks for hours due to my skin-allergy. However there existed not many tournaments where you can play without face-mask. I couldn't find even find any tournament in the neighboring countries like Netherlands, France or Germany. Out of sheer necessity I looked further away from home. I considered tournaments in Swiss and Austria but in the end I was attracted to a tournament in Czechia (Prague): 9 rounds of classical chess (same time-control as we have in our Belgian interclub) with the playing-hall in the hotel where we could stay. Face-masks weren't obliged. 1000km so still manageable by car (as I didn't like the plane with a face-mask), 2 rating-groups so my children would also get interesting opponents. After some hesitation I accepted but immediately I also realized that there were no guarantees.

This became quickly evident when a second corona-golf started. Each day we approached the tournament, the situation became less clear and more complex. Till the last minute I was doubting to go or not and probably any smart person would've cancelled it as the things which we had to endure were definitely unusual to say the least.

First Prague became quickly an orange zone which means a lot of covid-19 infections but not yet that much to forbid people going to it. Next my own province Antwerp was hit by a dramatic increase of new infections. For Netherlands we even were a red zone so forbidden territory. Then a week before the tournament of Prague would start, the Czech government announced that you need to wear face-masks in all inside-events with more than 100 people. This I didn't like so I contacted the organizers of the tournament to cancel my participation (at that time there were already +250 participants confirmed). However they told me that this rule isn't applicable for sportsmen when they do sport. Chess is in Czechia considered as sport contrary to e.g. in Belgium. I didn't feel fully convinced by their statement but it appeared to be the truth.

However my biggest setback happened 2 days before we had to leave. My wife became ill and had a running nose with low fever. We immediately decided that she had to take a corona-test. This also means the rest of our family had to be in quarantine till we were sure that the result was negative. However the Friday of our departure we still didn't receive the result of the test and waiting any longer would mean that we would miss at least the start of the tournament. I guess most people in this situation do miss the start but here you are dealing with a desperate and fanatic chessplayer. I convinced my wife to stay home and that it was ok that I would travel alone with my 2 children to Prague. She had to call us during the drive from the moment she knew the results. As we would be the whole time in the car, there was no risk for others. However it also meant that if her test would be positive that we would immediately return and the adventure would be over.

Fortunately a couple of hours after we left home, the message arrived that my wife had only a cold so no covid-19. As a Russian she doesn't have the immunity against the wet Belgian climate which means each year she has several times a cold. Resting and sleeping is in such periods the only she can do but this way I was alone the whole week in Czechia with my 2 children. If it wouldn't have been about covid-19 then I surely would've invited another player (adult) as all reservations were already made.

As this wasn't enough excitement also another obstacle arrived 1 day before the start of the tournament. Suddenly Germany required from Belgians of the province Antwerpen that they should show a negative covid-19 test otherwise we had to first quarantined for 14 days.  Now I had decided in advance to make an overnight-stay in the beautiful German city Dresden (at 150 from Prague) so I could drive the last kms next day quietly. However it is impossible to get such test done in less than 24 hours. I called the hotel where we would sleep and explained the situation but they had not yet heard about this new regulation. Ok but the next day things could be different. In the end I took the risk and thought in worst case we will sleep in our car.

Fortunately things didn't escalate. In Dresden nobody cared about the new rule and happily accepted our euros which allowed us to visit the center and close an enjoyable first day of our holidays. The next day we already left early in the morning to Prague. My next worry was that we didn't have yet a vignette which is obligatory for driving on the Czech highways. So the first tank-station I found, I looked for it. This was also a bit stressful as I don't speak Czech and my poor German was first not understood.

The remaining 100 km went at last fine thanks to my GPS. Only at the hotel I still was struggling a bit to find a safe place for my car. Once that was done, I finally could register myself for the tournament and the hotel (so same location). A kind man helped us in English and comforted us everything was in order with the rooms and the subscriptions. As the first game would start only at 16h we still took the opportunity to rest a bit in our room. More than 300 chessplayers (50% more than last year) were participating. Even a Norwegian +2600 player joined us despite only a first prize of 500 euro (which he didn't even win). I am obviously not the only one having missed classical chess during the last couple of months.

9 rounds of "real" chess. I enjoyed every minute of it and I noticed many thought similarly about it. There was also a lot of youth, much more than usual. I guess it is because youth is more corona-resistant. Anyway it was the first time that I felt old. 7 of my 9 opponents were much younger than me: 12 years, 13 years, 14 years old.... Besides these young players all had ratings between 2000 and 2100 and already conquered several national youth-titles. You understand that this is not a tournament where you are going to win a lot of ratingpoints but I didn't care as just playing was much more important.

Anyway against the 3 youngest ones I scored 2,5/3 so the loss of 20 fide had rather to do that I was playing a bit too slow (this is always the case after having not played classical chess for a long time) and also that I encountered in each of my 9 games openings in which I had little or no experience. In at least 4 games I had a very bad position out of the opening and sometimes I was only able to make a draw by proposing some tactical draws.

This means I have now again for weeks of analyzing work at home which I enjoy a lot. Playing tournaments like that is much more for me than just the time sitting at the board. I also took the time to visit the beautiful center of Prague. Here I noticed a plus-side of the corona-crisis as everywhere it was very calm. It must have been ages ago that you could stand in front of the famous astronomical clock in the heart of Prague during mid of the summer at daylight with so few people around.
I can also recommend the Madame Tussauds-museum in Prague if you are with children. The dolls are looking lifelike and people told me afterwards that they are exceptionally good compared to other Madama Tussaud-museums. Sometimes I did have to explain to my children who some of the stars are as naturally they don't know the ones from long before they were born.
Freddie didn't make a problem of my anti-corona-pose.
To play a tournament oneself and at the same time take care of 2 children isn't easy but I managed. Warm meals were available in the restaurant of the tournament and fortunately this was ok for my children. We also had a supermarket at a couple of hundred meters away from the hotel in which we could buy a lot of extra snacks and drinks.

For the return I decided wisely not to stop anymore in Germany. I wanted to visit Leipzig but expected that by that time the new regulation would be much stricter for Belgians coming from the province Antwerp. I noticed not one single Belgian at the way back. In less than 9 hours we were back home from Prague thanks to the German highways.

Once I arrived home, I immediately contacted our familydoctor to undergo a corona-test. This is not mandatory for people coming back from Prague but I considered playing chess in a hall with more than 300 players not wearing face-masks as a high-risk behavior (I was still afraid of course).  Personally I didn't do any handshakes and always wore a face-mask when I wasn't playing but most players didn't care at all about corona. This was especially clear when I met my opponent of round 4. A young muscled man with some tattoos was clearly upset when I didn't want to handshake before the game and I feared a few seconds that he would punch me on the nose.
3 days after the test (it is no fun getting a stick deep in your nose) we all got back fortunately negative. Still we were asked to stay in quarantine for 2 weeks as such tests are not giving an absolute verdict. Meanwhile this period has passed. The chess-microbe has won from the corona-virus. However I also realize that next time it can be the other way around. Such adventure is definitely not to be recommended and you really need to be a fanatic chessplayer to uberhaupt do such risky things.  So I am mainly thankful of being able to tell you here this story. It gave my a lot of pleasure but I will only look it up if better and safer alternatives aren't available.

Brabo