Chess under Covid

by John Nunn
1/28/2021 – The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for many families and has brought many changes to the way billions of people live. It has also wrought a transformation of the chess world. This is described by John Nunn, who is playing vigorously in online tournaments. He has kindly annotated a game for us – one in which for the first time in his career he mated his opponent with a double check.

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Chess under Covid

John Nunn

The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for many families and has brought many changes to the way billions of people live. It has also wrought a transformation of the chess world. Online chess was always popular, but with the effective cancellation of almost all over-the-board chess, the shift to online play has resulted in an explosion of chess activity. Boosted by lockdowns and the Nextflix series The Queen’s Gambit, online play has reached new peaks and attracted many players new to the game. While the overall effect of the pandemic has been horrific, chess itself has actually received a boost.

Last year I would have been able to play in 65+ events for the first time and at the start of 2020 I was busy planning trips to the various senior championships taking place during the year. The cancellation of these events was inevitable once the pandemic took hold, but over the past year I have been more active with chess than for several years. Chess organisers in many countries have done a great job of organising online events, and the chess world has adapted surprisingly well to the new circumstances. In my own country, the English Chess Federation have been very active both in switching existing events online and in creating new tournaments. Moreover, independent organisers can quickly arrange an event on one of the various platforms. Chess has the advantage that, unlike many other activities and sports, it adapts well to online play and the chess world has taken full advantage of this.

I could not have imagined a year ago that there would be regular chess broadcasts on Eurosport, with David Howell and Jovanka Houska doing an excellent job of trying to explain top-level games to the audience. I also enjoy watching these events on the television, although the standard of play does seem unexpectedly low given the strength of the players. I think it would be fair to say that most players are weaker at online chess than at a physical board, although this may simply be due to unfamiliarity.

The bane of online chess is, of course, cheating. For ‘serious’ events the players are on camera and their screens are shared, with the task manager on display to ensure that other processes are not running on their computer. This does make it hard to cheat; doubtless someone who is really inventive could find a way round it but, as events have shown, it’s also possible to cheat in over-the-board chess. One could even argue that this type of online chess is safer from cheating than most over-the-board events. For more casual events which are not monitored by an arbiter, there is a far more substantial risk of cheating. I believe that a clever cheater is unlikely to be caught and this will always remain a problem.

On the other hand, there are many advantages to online chess. It’s convenient and quick, there’s no travelling or accommodation costs for the players, while the organisers don’t have to hire a hall, arrange for clocks and sets, provide refreshments, and so on. In some discussions between my ‘senior’ colleagues, they almost all said they couldn’t wait to return to over-the-board chess. I don’t see it like that. Certainly, over-the-board events will return once the pandemic is over, but I think much chess will switch permanently online. When playing online you miss out on some of the social aspects of chess, the meeting of old friends, and the chat over a drink in the evening, but for many people the pros of online chess outweigh the cons. Those enthusing for over-the-board chess are mostly keen players who live in cities with easy access to a chess club and tournaments of various kinds. Many people live in more remote areas where even a journey to the nearest chess club is a substantial effort. Other players are too old, too young or too busy to justify travelling hundreds of miles to a weekend event, but would happily play in the same event if it were online. Traditionally, chess has not catered well to beginners and casual players, but online chess has changed that and has offered the opportunity to attract large numbers of less committed players to the game.

John Nunn on a visit to beautiful Cornwall

Wife Petra, who is also an active chess player, and son Michael, who studies in Exeter

The Atlantic coast. Also read: John in Cornwall, and Problems and Compositions in this breathtaking landscape

One interesting aspect of the recent growth of online chess is the organising of events which would be inconceivable without it. A few weeks ago I played in the great international match-up Cornwall vs Fiji. For a small part of England (population about 500,000) to play against a country on the other side of the world (with a slightly larger population) would have been impossible only a few years ago. Now innovative events can take place and bring chess players from all over the world together in unprecedented ways.

Anyhow, now is the time to present one of my online games.


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Dr John Nunn (born 1955) is an English grandmaster, author and problem-solver. He was among the world’s leading grandmasters for nearly twenty years, winning four gold medals in chess Olympiads, and is a much-acclaimed writer whose works have won ‘Book of the Year’ awards in several countries. In 2004, 2007 and 2010, Nunn was crowned World Chess Solving Champion. He continues to compete successfully in over-the-board and problem-solving events.
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e-mars e-mars 2/2/2021 02:14
`@Ruteger007 is not a scientific website. It's just a search engine. It would be nice having some real, solid link to scientific papers.
Frederic Frederic 2/2/2021 10:54
@fgkdjlkag (what a name!): A world-class player once said: "If Frederic (who is following the game on a PC) can come into the playing hall, twice during a game, and signal me one bit of information - Now! - I will be world champion for the rest of my life. I do not need to know what move - I'm very good at finding them. I just need to know exactly when to look." And signalling one bit of information is trivially easy: just entering the playing area could mean "You can win!" or "You can draw!"
e-mars e-mars 2/1/2021 10:52
@Ruteger007 I live in the UK
Lockdowns don't work in the UK because people are not following the rules, they don't give a darn and unless you're so insane - or arrogant - to organise a 400 invites wedding party in a school, no one is going to catch you... (well, they don't even try to...)
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 1/31/2021 06:26
@adbennet, this "sharks circling when they smell blood" phenomenon that you describe should not exist, and spectators should be careful not to give hints to the players, and if not, penalties from the TD should be in order. Specifically I am referring to whispering, pointing, tapping another player.

Once I was playing in a tournament and it was my opponent's turn to move. An IM looked at the board, whispered something to another spectator, and walked away. I immediately spotted a tactic I was on the losing side of. I did not show any reaction. My opponent thought for a while and made a move, luckily for me he did not see it, as I would have had a decisive material loss.

Once at a team competition, there were 1-2 boards left playing and we all congregated around our team captain, whose opponent was in severe time pressure. It was an analog clock and his flag had already been pushed up quite a bit. After one of the moves of my captain, he forgot to hit his clock. The opponent, who had been fidgeting, tapping his hand on the table, tapping his head, leaning back and forth, and just appearing agitated from the severe time pressure on his moves, noticed the clock was not hit, and continued to put on a show. At least 3 of our players were watching, but made no reaction. After more than a minute our player turned his head to the clock, looked more closely and realized it was not hit, pressed it, moaned, and held his head in his heads. The opponent moved instantly. If one of us were even unintentionally made a reaction, our player would have noticed it and it could have made a big difference in the game.

@chessdrummer, you are right. The factors I mentioned below are what is important, not investment, which is independent to government policies.
chessdrummer chessdrummer 1/31/2021 05:21

You stated,

"Nations that invested well in health care, education, employment and housing fared well in meeting the challenge."

You could not be more wrong. I live in the U.S. That should tell you something.
Doccy Doccy 1/31/2021 10:55
The time limit was 60 minutes + 15 seconds per move. The general point that I was trying to make is that if chess wants to attract a wider range of players it must provide something for less committed players. To take an example, the English over-the-board 4NCL league, which has been very popular, may involve travelling hundreds of miles and spending the weekend in a hotel in order to play two games of chess. That's fine for enthusiastic players who value the social side of such events, but there are many players who do not care to spend a weekend away from their families and have trouble justifying the time and expense involved. Online events provide a way for such players to participate and enjoy chess. The online 4NCL, now in its third lockdown season, has attracted more than 250 teams, and in addition there's a Junior online 4NCL with five divisions. While many players will welcome the eventual return of over-the-board chess, the numbers who play in such events are small compared to those playing online, and that's the way for chess to grow.
capaping capaping 1/31/2021 01:57
Good game by Nunn with a nice mate at the end. I wonder what the time control of this online game was.
Frederic Frederic 1/30/2021 11:27
@adbennet: Many years ago a VSP (very strong player) told me he found Karpov tricky and devious. "If he makes a mistake he gets up and wanders cheerfully around the hall. You have no idea that anything has happened. When Kasparov makes a mistake he jumps up and starts banging his head against the wall. And you can sit there and try to figure out why his move was bad."
Hattie123 Hattie123 1/30/2021 04:04
Insightful thoughts John.. The only thing I cannot agree with is over the board chess, which I know that many people are missing ; the lovely people, the lovely cakes, the expressions on players faces. The interesting charcaters, and of course to move the lovely chess pieces and pressing the clock.. These can never be replaced by an online world.
adbennet adbennet 1/29/2021 06:31
A good game, 3.e5 is one argument in favor of 1.e4 d5. So far I have a 100% score after 1.e4 d5 2.e5, but I predict if a top player experiments with this it will be proved equal rather than the current view of =+.

"... the standard of play does seem unexpectedly low given the strength of the players. I think it would be fair to say that most players are weaker at online chess than at a physical board, although this may simply be due to unfamiliarity."

Isn't it slow play with deep concentration that makes one a strong player? Those trained in this way are then able to transfer their strength to faster online play, but only to a certain extent. Eventually this strength will erode, but for both sides more or less. Another point against online play is one cannot feel when the opponent is making a greater effort, like is visibly obvious in OTB play. And the ability to wander around observing other games has always been a huge part of my learning at chess. I notice top players doing the same thing. Finally there is the "sharks circling when they smell blood" phenomenon which can tip off an alert player to a hidden tactic when other players take an unusual interest in the board, start tapping each other on the elbow and whispering, etc. In short there is more than one reason OTB makes for better moves on average.
Frederic Frederic 1/29/2021 05:51
Yesterday the U.S. had 162,633 new infections, 3,919 deaths. Britain had 28,680/1,239. Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, together, had 1344/8, Taiwan had two new cases and zero deaths, New Zealand 4/0. Maybe they are doing something right? But can we please return to chess -- to John's game maybe? Let us not turn his article into a discussion forum with Corvid and lockdown deniers.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 1/29/2021 05:14
Not correct to look at mortality only. Have to look at morbidity (eg including permanent effects) + mortality.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 1/29/2021 05:01
The global response to the pandemic has been dismal. A 30-day lockdown at the same time in all countries, combined with social distancing, testing, contact tracing (technology-assisted), travel restrictions, and masking, would have wiped out covid-19, with vaccines as a bonus. Covid needs a human host. It can only survive by being transferred from 1 person to another. New Zealand had the right approach. If all countries took the NZ approach at the same time, then the whole world could re-open as normal after 30 days.
Ruteger007 Ruteger007 1/29/2021 04:42
e-mars, yes I can post a link to the data:
Thirteen, TDS much?
saturn23, if lockdowns work, why did the UK have to have 3 (or is it 4 now) of them?
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 1/29/2021 01:55
The pandemic was an emergency. However, conditions differed from one nation to another. Nations that invested well in health care, education, employment and housing fared well in meeting the challenge. Those that didn’t, were found wanting. Lockdowns had to be prepared with a series of measures like employment allowance and job security measures, not to mention supply of essential food items. Among other things nationalisation of hospitals was a necessity to get them to work on a priority basis. Even now several governments have not shown any inclination to transparency and accountability on their disaster management. Much good work was done by volunteer groups, dedicated doctors, nurses, and field workers who were in the front line and paid the price with their own lives. As for the common people, deaths on account of medical negligence, suicides and death by disease & starvation were the order of the day. Millions of tragedies, a number of them man-made.
thirteen thirteen 1/29/2021 01:49
@Ruteger007 The President Trump PROFESSIONAL LYING syndrome is very much read here, sporting ZERO evidence, again. [So maybe if these 'prisoners' get the virus, what if they were denied hospital entry?] What bothers me, is the numbers of 'blind mice patriots' that believe the exact opposite of the truth, just because some dangerous, dictating 'Icon' repeatedly and selfishly claims it. I too, can call black white you know! Even if I don't really want to believe it, nor voted for that. But I guess that I don't have the SAME PROFIT TO GAIN from, right? I knew I should have gone into politics. [Sorry, a bit OT also, and that there is ZERO chess talk here either]
bro bro 1/29/2021 12:14
and the good chance for the chess puzzles solves, for which the online is not a problem.
saturn23 saturn23 1/29/2021 08:53
Ruteger007 Where is your evidence to back up your claims? Lockdowns were necessary in order to save millions of lives at the cost of making life more difficult for probably hundreds of millions of people. Lockdowns had to be implemented because people don't know or want to keep the necessary distance, wear masks and wash their hands properly.
e-mars e-mars 1/28/2021 10:16
@Ruteger007 A bit OT but I am interested. Could you pls post a link to some of that scientific data?
Ruteger007 Ruteger007 1/28/2021 09:37
"The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating for many families and has brought many changes to the way billions of people live.."

Change the opening sentence the read "lockdowns" and you would be correct. ALL the science data says lockdowns DO NOT work to curb a respiratory virus with a 98 percent recovery rate.. The devastation is solely the result of the political decisions to shutter economies and lock people like prisoners in their homes. The "cure" has been worse than the disease.