Long-distance chess

by Stefan Löffler
5/19/2020 – The whole chess community plays only online. The whole chess community? No. Five brave players from Vienna met in a park to play a tournament. In strict adherence to the Covid-19 rules. Stefan Löffler was one of the players.| Photos: Joe Wallner

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Chess in fresh air and sunlight

Don't get me wrong. I think online chess is great. When I am asked to play in the Online-4NCL, I like to sit in the yard to enjoy the evening air, and perhaps a glass of red wine with a little cheese. Occasionally, I chat with my teammates via WhatsApp. If my opponent is in the tank, I work on emails or play Lines of Action. Of course, all this is something you just cannot do during a normal tournament game. Moreover, I am not a big fan of ceremonial speeches at the beginning and the end tournaments, and I can easily do without the horrible coffee, the driving and the stale air that so often come with tournaments.

So I wonder why I of all people think about how it is possible to play live-tournaments in the times of corona. Well, first of all, I think that we as chess players know better what is acceptable and reasonable for us than many officials. That we should seize the initiative. Moreover, I miss playing chess in fresh air. Outside, the risk to catch the virus is much lower than inside. While others complain about cancelled tournaments, I say: This could be an extraordinary chess summer. But we must not rely on those who have not yet organised any tournament outside, we must take action ourselves. With fewer players, more space and being more relaxed. But first of all we must find out how we can play chess while complying to the current corona-rules that make it difficult to play live-tournaments.

Austria is a good place for such an attempt. The number of infections goes down and small outdoor events with up to ten participants are allowed again. The recommended minimum distance has been reduced to one meter. This could at least be feasible for a game of chess. In Germany the distance is 1.50 metres or two metres, depending on the federal state.

Individual sports are allowed again in Austria but rules for indoor sports – which is what chess is – still have to worked out. However, two departments of the Ministry of Health have expressly approved our tournament.

We had the following guidelines:

  • The tournament will be held outdoors but it will not be publicly announced. Thus, we do not attract too many spectators who do not keep the minimum distance and we restrict the number of participants to the maximum of ten that is currently allowed.
  • All players, including the arbiter, are healthy, free of symptoms and do not belong to a group that is at risk.
  • All players, including the arbiter, touch pieces, boards and clocks only with gloves. Physical contact is avoided.
  • Disinfectants and mouth-nose protection are always available.
  • All players and the arbiter maintain a minimum distance of one metre from face to face at all times.
  • We play with a time-limit that gives us enough time to move without having to bend over the board, which would violate the minimum distance.

At Loquaiplatz in the sixth district of Vienna we found tables that had a bench on each side.

The chess players are about to come

The other tables in the park are either part of the playground or were closed off for the residents of a retirement home. Thus, we were more exposed to the sun, which we prepared for with hats and sunglasses, and played only a few metres away from the glass containers, but on a Sunday morning this was not much of a problem.

We had the masks ready, but played without them. Oxygen is simply part of the basic equipment in tournament chess. Ilya Balinov had fun keeping his hat on and pulling his scarf up over his nose. He recently frightened the employees of a bank in this outfit. Which he only realized when he saw their faces.

Joe Wallner and tournament winner llja Balinov, who looked like a bank robber when he pulled the scarf over his nose.

Originally, we wanted to play with ten seconds increment. But with such a time-limit we would not be in time for dinner at Mother's Day dinner. So we agreed on a five second increment. Which wasn't enough time for me. Apparently, I was not only distant to my opponent but also quickly learned not to take a loss too close to heart. We weren't allowed to lean forward, leaning on our elbows and bringing our heads over the board, as we are used to. When two opponents do this at the same time, the distance from face to face shrinks to to about thirty centimetres. So we leaned back and tried to play in that posture. It takes some time.

The arbiter Kaweh Kristof warned us if we came too close to the board and the distance between the players was less than one meter.

Arbiter Kaweh Kristof had a close look on the required distance.

In the first round this happened to everyone, sometimes even more than once. But in the end the arbiter did not have to intervene anymore. The distance between two players becomes too small when one player no longer leans back while his opponent leans forward to make his move. But who should the arbiter admonish in this case: the player who makes his move or the player who is leaning forward though it is not his move? Attacking on your opponent's back rank also might easily reduce the distance to less than a meter. However, over the entire course of the tournament we probably kept our distance 99 percent of the time.

Too much light

However, our equipment was not the best. The arbiter could only see the time on the LEAP chess clock when he bent over the board. The players also had to take a closer look. The display is obviously not made for sunlight. The display of the DGT clocks is a bit better in that respect, but noch much, says Kaweh Kristof. The disposable latex gloves (60 pieces for €4), which we pulled over our fingers before unpacking the pieces, didn't work either. Our hands were sweating in the tight gloves. Maybe disposable gloves from the field of medicine are better suited. Winter gloves are certainly too warm. If you want to play chess more often with gloves, you will probably find something suitable at the hardware store. Apparently, there are also be gloves for card players.


Basically the test was successful, says Kaweh Kristof, because it was only a round robin tournament with a small number of experienced players. In a Swiss tournament with more participants, you would have to think carefully about how to avoid crowds. Maybe we should be more relaxed about the time-control in these times and allow each player to overstep the time once per game, a practice that is known from Go tournaments.

Ilya Balinov won ahead of Joe Wallner, who shot a video about the tournament. The games were interesting and full of fight, the quality of the games was not great but not bad either. After we had played online in the last weeks, playing chess on a board felt different to us and everybody really enjoyed it. Were there any prizes? Afterwards, Joe Wallner invited the four best players to a corona beer.

During debriefing everyone got a Corona beer.

Final standings

1 GM Ilja Balinov 2,5

2 FM Joe Wallner 2

3 FM Peter Sadilek 1

4 IM Stefan Löffler 0,5

Games (about right...)







Stefan Löffler writes the Friday chess column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and succeeds Arno Nickel as editor of the Chess Calendar. For ChessBase the International Master reports from his adopted country Portugal.


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