Daniel Gormally’s take on lockdown life

by Daniel Gormally
8/2/2020 – Near the end of March, the world came to a halt — even FIDE had to cancel the second half of the Candidates Tournament, the last sporting event taking place amid the corona crisis. It’s been four months and the chess world has almost turned completely to online events. Great conditions have been given to those at the very top of the rating ladder, but how has this impacted the rest of chess professionals? Daniel Gormally sent us his take in his usual painfully honest, self-deprecating style. | Photo: John Upham / British Chess News

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The other day I was sent an email from somebody at ChessBase asking if I’d like to give a “non-elite GM’s take” on life in the post-corona world. I thought that was a polite way of saying “weak GM” and I was tempted to reply, in my own mind I am an elite GM. But I doubt anyone would care.

It might be stretching the truth to say that I predicted the coming of Covid, but about 18 months ago I had a very strange dream. In the dream an evil virus ravaged mankind, killing millions, and bodies lined the streets. There was a goat (the devil?) walking through a laboratory and red lights were flashing. Eventually the goat ended up on a street corner, staring at me. This had such a powerful effect on me that I told a friend about it, because I’d never had a dream about a virus before, but then forgot about the whole thing until recently. Until all this madness, of a changed world, people dying alone on ventilators. Mask wearing and suspicious stares every time you visit a shop. At least I could be smug and say, well I foresaw all of this.

Daniel GormallyWhen the virus first revealed its potency and lockdown was imposed, I, like many others, was very anxious. I became even more fat because the gyms were closed and I didn’t leave the house. Eventually I forced myself to take lengthy walks and it greatly helped my state of mind as well as helping me to lose some weight. Sun-drenched afternoons, baking my skin in ultra-violet rays, with always the sense that you could disappear down a leafy path, invoking the sounds and smells of times long forgotten, and you’d be back in childhood. And all this would be all forgotten, it had been a dream all along, and you were back in a happier time when concerns about money and health were somewhere in the distance.

Part of the anxiety that I felt at the start was because I was confronted with what I was going to do with my life. My existence before had been the slightly unhappy one of the chess bum, but at least a chess bum who occasionally went away to chess tournaments. Not anymore. If I couldn’t play chess tournaments, then what was I? An internet chess bum? A coaching chess bum? I was forced to face up to the poverty of my existence, and like so many others I retreated into social media, gladly exchanging wild conspiracy theories with my equally bored friends.

I think if this coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, then it’s that we’re all the same. Not only can any of us die, but the illusion that some of us have superior lives has been shattered. Film star? Not anymore. Now at best, you’re a Tiktok creator. Singer? Now you do Zoom concerts. We’re all stuck at home, bored, bored, bored, none of us having any idea when things will be totally back to normal again. As I said on Facebook when the lockdown was first announced, we’ve been given the news that we're supposed to sit around at home and do nothing for the next few months. Well, I’ve been preparing for this for 44 years.

One thing I could do was play online, and at first I threw myself into this exciting, unfolding world of endless internet chess tournaments. It wasn’t long before I was dismantled by my first cheat. If online chess had exploded in popularity during the lockdown, then online cheating was just as popular, and it seemed as if everyone was at it. Seasoned pros, happy to flush their hard-earned reputations down the toilet. And particularly juniors, who were no doubt bored out of their tiny skulls and unused to doing so little, were acting out in a big way. Sites like Lichess and chess.com had to close endless accounts, and there were new ones opening up all the time, because lockdown has accelerated the pace of internet chess growth exponentially.

Internet chess is also worryingly addictive. Take today, for example. Using my account Carobee (like so many of my online chess accounts, named after a racehorse) I logged in at 6 am, intending to only play for an hour. However, when I went from 2615 to 2613, I “tilted”, and keen to actually gain points on the session, ended up playing for five hours. The sum product of this session? Seven points gained and the sense of time completely wasted. Here is one of those games.

 

Games like the previous example are quite likely to induce furious meltdowns, involving mishandled pillows and screamed profanities. Such is the mental torment inflicted by internet chess, that I’ve ended up closing more chess accounts than Magnus Carlsen has won online tournaments. In fact because now I play with an account that doesn’t use a title (to get a verified account there are several hoops to jump through) often my opponents will abort the game before it has even begun, sure that they are facing a computer cheater.

TorquayOf course an online blitz addiction is probably a more healthy addiction than some of my other ones, like watching Supergirl and betting on choking golfers. I have no idea when I will play again, and however bad things got in my life, at least I had tournaments like the British to go away to, every summer. I’d be there now in glorious Torquay [pictured] if this hadn’t happened. When will the next event in England be? I have a good idea that events like the London Classic and Hastings will eventually be cancelled. It’s a sad state of affairs, and I doubt I'm the only professional chess player who is questioning their chosen vocation.

But of course, put it into perspective. People are dying and I'm complaining about not being able to play chess. The lack of tournaments has also seen more possibilities open up on the coaching front. A new site, Cochess, linking chess students with potential coaches, has taken advantage of this gap in the market, although a brief perusal of the website seems to suggest it has something of an Instagram or Tinder feel to it. Matching up hot WFMs with horny virgin males, their bank accounts overflowing due to the lockdown giving them nothing to spend it on. All concerted efforts to take a more professional approach to my life, seem to be quickly ended when sites like Lichess come calling. The game against the Krygyzstani IM Markov was typical of the crash-bang wallop nature of blitz.

 

If you play for too long, then there is a good chance that after a certain point your chess will start to look utterly abysmal. In this position it looks as if White might be better because of the far-advanced pawn on e6, but matters are not so clear, because Black has some ideas of taking on g3. My response to these threats was not what was needed.

 

To replace the loss of classical chess, some of the leagues have moved online, for example the 4NCL had quite a popular online turnout and already plan to get season two started in August. Personally, I’m not sure about this development — I think we should reject this moving of everything online, because then people won't have the courage to organise chess tournaments over the board. I also found it very difficult to focus and take completely seriously when playing these classical online games. I’d get bored and start watching the TV, when waiting for the opponent to move.

If online chess can also be boring, then I wish I could also say that the lockdown has enabled me to spend a great deal of time studying chess, honing my opening repertoire to unbreakable proportions — unfortunately that has not been the case. If I was lazy before, coronavirus won't change that. And what is the motivation to study chess now? So you can play a little bit better online?

Something which has been a useful product of recent times, and is a useful educational tool for lazy people like me, has been the rise of banter blitz. Can you imagine forty of fifty years ago, players like Fischer or Karpov giving their thoughts on their games so openly? It’s something that I think is unique to these times, and is tremendously informative. To advertise the ‘chess24 Legends of Chess’ tournament, players like Caruana streamed some of their online encounters.

 

Caruana, despite having a reputation as not being that formidable at blitz, was ferocious in his stream, winning all of his games and displaying awesome feats of calculation.

In general, this is keeping with all the elite younger players — they are all fiercely ambitious and have very high online ratings. When watching the streams of players like Kramnik, Anand and Ivanchuk, while they were impressive you could also detect understandable rust. It’s also rather endearing how little regard they seem to have for the clock, and there isn't the obsession with flagging people that you get from other streamers. In fact, quite the opposite often happens — as they become so focused on the clock, they end up losing on time to much lower-rated players. I get the impression that the legends couldn’t care less what their online blitz ratings are.

 

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Daniel is an English grandmaster with a FIDE rating of 2498 and a peak Elo of 2573. He became a Grandmaster in 2005, and played for England in Olympiad and European Championships. Author of Play Chess Like the Pros, Calculate Like a Grandmaster, Mating the Castled King and A Year in the Chess World, Gormally is also an established chess coach at St Mary’s School in Alnwick, England, where he lives.

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