Chess adventures in the time of Corona

by Stefan Löffler
3/31/2020 – Chessmates is an organisation for junior players that uses chess to encourage young people to visit other countries to see the world and to broaden their horizon. However, when visiting Murmansk in Russia to play in a junior tournament the French team had more adventures than they really wanted. Stefan Löffler talked to Jurriaan Kien, president and founder of Chessmates. | Photo: Mvestnik.ru

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Corona tests with TV crew

Total closure of international air traffic from Russia? Well, not quite. Ten junior players and four adults just managed to return from Murmansk to Paris via Moscow. Two weeks later than planned. First their return flight was cancelled, then they had to go into quarantine after a confirmed Covid-19 infection was detected at the Chessmates Junior Tournament in Murmansk. Chessmates founder Jurriaan Kien, reports.

"We are home. The adventure is over. Our Russian friends have done everything to help us in this difficult time. The health authorities have tried to treat us correctly, even if there were a few oddities. But some things that were spread in the media are not true.

They said we shouldn't have traveled in the first place. On the evening of March 11th we had to decide. Were all parents still behind the trip? Yes. Would the Irish team come? Yes. Was our return flight confirmed? Yes, it was. Let's go. My son and I flew from Nice to Paris that night. Early in the morning we flew to Russia with the rest of the group. On March 12th, the government announced much more far-reaching measures against the spread of the coronavirus. But we were already on our way. If we had arrived a day later, perhaps only a few hours later, we would not have travelled.

Before the tournament, in front with guest of honour Valentina Gunina

It was said that our tournament should not have taken place at all, because events with more than one hundred participants were forbidden. If that had been the case, the mayor of Murmansk would not have come to the welcoming ceremony. Our tournament started on March 13 and ended on March 15. On March 16 the Candidates Tournament began in Ekaterinburg and about 2000 guests came to the opening ceremony. We did not even have a hundred participants in Murmansk. All in all, there were about seventy juniors, coaches and referees.

IM Loic Travadon, left, number one of the French team

They said that we had been warned before. Nobody had warned us. There were no obligatory safety precautions either. But we did some things on our own. The players didn't shake hands and kept a metre apart. Everyone was told to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly.

A hint that not everything was running normally came in the evening of day two. The employees of the medical authorities announced that next morning they would test us for corona viruses. This seemed strange to me, because by the time the test results would be available, we were supposed to have left Russia. But Air France cancelled our flight, so we knew that our group – ten juniors and four adults – would have to stay a few days longer.

The next strange thing was that a television crew arrived the next morning and took pictures of the tests.

Tests with TV crew

It was also strange that only the Irish group and we had to hand in saliva samples and nasal swabs. Neither the Estonians nor the players and coaches from Murmansk and St. Petersburg were tested. We still joked that everything was a trick to disturb our concentration to stop us from winning the tournament. After all, we were leading before the last round. But then we actually lost against Murmansk and had to settle for second place. The Corona test was repeated in the afternoon because apparently something had gone wrong with the labelling.

In the evening the Irish team drove to the airport where their oldest player, Alex Goss, was taken to the hospital because he was coughing. But the rest of his team could fly home. But we were told at the hotel that our team had been quarantined.

In the meantime our host had found us another accommodation. On the Monday after the tournament we were able to go to a holiday village about thirty kilometres from Murmansk. Officially we should have stayed at the Hotel Meridien, but I just asked for the passports and told everyone to get on the bus quickly before they changed their mind. On Tuesday we got the confirmation that we were allowed to spend our quarantine in the holiday village.

It was a dream come true. Skiing and walks in the woods with thirty centimetres of fresh snow.

Winter in Murmansk

Dreams in white

A real Russian sauna. Chess and music in the evening. The best holiday you can imagine. Until Thursday night, when the medical authorities arrived. One of our players speaks a little Russian and translated. Alex had Corona. We should go to the hospital immediately. I managed to negotiate a little delay claiming that we should have dinner but I basically wanted to have time to find a Russian lawyer. The lawyer got in his car and drove to the holiday village. After checking the papers of the medical authorities, he advised us to comply. The alternative was to be picked up by the police the next morning. I negotiated that we all had to stay together.

We spent the next ten days and nights in a hospital in Murmansk.

Quarantine

We had double and triple rooms right next to each other. Four times a day each of us was examined. Three times each day we were tested for corona.

The personnel in protective suits

All negative, nobody was sick. Food was brought. Sometimes we had internet. We could shower, but the water from the tap was undrinkable. I organized the daily routine: get up at 9 am, gymnastics, showers, breakfast, then three hours each for school and one hour of English lessons. In the afternoon we watched the Candidates Tournament. Before dinner a French dictation.

Meanwhile, some of the Russian participants were also quarantined, including Artem Kuzmin and Andranik Musatian, who had organized everything in Murmansk. Some of them were in our hospital. In the evening they joined us for dinner and to play chess. The last evening at the hospital brought another highlight. Everyone could play online blitz with Laurent Fressinet.

We somehow managed to make sure that nobody went crazy and everyone saw the trip as an adventure.     

Juriaan and Clovis Klien

Getting to know other countries through chess and making friends there is the idea behind Chessmates. It all started nine years ago when my older son Clovis started a chess course at his school. After a few weeks, I got a message: "My name is Emmanuel Neiman, I am your son's chess teacher, and he is very talented."

I didn't know much more about chess than the rules. The chess player in my family was my grandfather who was one of the first Dutchmen who had a Mephisto computer. I remembered that and got Clovis a chess computer. Sometimes he played with it in the morning, right after waking up. Clovis was five and a half then. One day he said: "Dad, you can't have eight queens at once." Why not? He then showed me that with nine queens on the board the enemy king would have no square on which he would not be in check.

Three years later I read about a chess tournament on a ship in Rotterdam to which chess players from Murmansk were invited. That gave me the idea to ask the same sponsor whether he would like to invite us to a tournament with junior teams from Holland, France and Russia. I wrote to the organizer and he liked my idea. Basamro, a company that handles container transport, became our sponsor.

In 2015 we played our first tournament at the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam. 2016 we met in Murmansk. The following years André Rasneur, the president of the Ile de France Chess Association, and I organised tournaments in France. Once we played at the UNESCO, once at the Chateau d'Asnières and last year at the noble Hotel de Lauzan in Paris. On that occasion we founded Chessmates. Every year Chessmates organizes an international junior tournament and chess camp, and we are happy to welcome more members.

Through the Glorney Cup I had contacts to Ireland and they joined this year. Because they didn't mange to bring eight Russian kids were playing for the Irish team at the lower boards. Ireland's top board was Alex. He's been in another hospital all by himself for the last two weeks. All he had was a cough. He was bored stiff.

Because his tests were negative he was allowed to leave the hospital on Sunday evening. The end of our quarantine was documented by two local television teams. Afterwards we met Alex and our hosts for a farewell party. The French Consul Hughes de Chavagnac had also arrived from St Petersburg. Only Andranik did not come along. While he was in quarantine, he became a father and wanted to see his son and his wife. We partied until we had to go to the airport to fly from Murmansk to Moscow at 2.50 am. In Moscow we said goodbye to Alex. His flight to Dublin was scheduled to leave at 7.35 pm but was cancelled. He is still in Sheremetyevo."

     Recorded by Stefan Löffler

Jurriaan Kien is president and founder of Chessmates and lawyer in Monaco.

All photos and videos: Jurriaan Kien

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Stefan Löffler, a journalist and International Master based in Vienna and Lisbon, is member of FIDE's Education Commission, a consultant at ChessPlus Ltd. www.chessplus.net and Programme Director of the London Chess Conference: www.londonchessconference.com.