The American chess star is caught in a Polish Covid nightmare


American chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura was at the World Rapid and Flash Chess Championships last week when he found himself without a clear move. He was in Warsaw, Poland. The next day he flew home. And he had just tested positive for Covid-19.

The result threw the tournament – and Nakamura’s way home – into chaos. After an hour late last Thursday, the last day of action passed without one of the sport’s outstanding stars. Nakamura has since been isolated in a Polish hotel room and tries to find out how and when he can return to the United States. By Monday evening he hadn’t found a reliable answer.

“It’s a difficult situation,” says Nakamura. “It’s just very, very confusing.”

It’s a problem that could afflict any American traveling to a foreign country or even Olympians at the upcoming Beijing Games. The Omicron variant is raging around the world, while different agencies may have different guidelines on how and when it is appropriate to go ahead. It doesn’t help if these rules are in a West Slavic language.

Nakamura, a five-time US champion, is one of the most famous chess players, mainly for turning the old game into fast-paced content of the 21st century. Based in Los Angeles, he has built a huge global audience of fans who can watch him streaming chess anytime of the day, with 1.3 million followers on Twitch and 1.2 million subscribers on YouTube.

But instead of chess problems, Nakamura now navigates through a set of rules that he barely understands, even though he has flown frequently internationally for most of his life. He has tried working with the FIDE chess association, local organizers and others only to come across conflicting answers.

At first he believed that he would have to isolate himself for 10 days before going outside to do a PCR test. However, his reading of Polish regulations suggests that his two negative tests at home could clear him up for an outside test. The risk of making a mistake and leaving before the 10-day window expires is a fine of 30,000 Polish zlotys – the equivalent of about $ 7,400.

“There is some discrepancy in the information I received,” says Nakamura.

The tournament was already full of surprises and frustrations before players started testing positive. On the second day, a little-known 17-year-old from Uzbekistan named Nodirbek Abdusattorov became world champion in a quick format that gives each player 15 minutes plus an additional 10 seconds for each move. On the way he defeated the five-time classical world champion Magnus Carlsen and after a controversial tiebreak in a playoff defeated the number 5 in the world rankings Ian Nepomniachtchi. (Carlsen had called the arcane tiebreaker rules “idiotic”.)

The blitz tournament that followed – which gave players three minutes plus two extra seconds for each move – got the action at breakneck pace. Nakamura, one of the favorites, was firmly in the mix on the final day of the match.

But at the end of the competition, in order to meet international travel requirements, players had to juggle to prepare for more fast-paced games against the best chess brains in the world with one of the most mind-numbing activities of the past two years: queuing for a Covid test.

Associated video: To combat Omicron, the Biden administration opens more Covid test sites and delivers 500 million Covid tests to Americans. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains why testing is still a pain point in the US two years after the pandemic. Photo illustration: David Fang

Nakamura criticized FIDE, the global chess federation, for not having on-site testing at the event. It was originally intended to be played in Kazakhstan, but was relocated to Warsaw at short notice due to the Covid restrictions in Kazakhstan. Then things got complicated in Warsaw.

“It’s disappointing that players have to stand in the freezing cold for hours (!) To have the basic PCR test done right before the games,” said Vidit Gujrathi, a grandmaster from India. tweeted. “After I was almost inside [the queue] I had to come back for almost 2 hours. Otherwise I would lose the first round. “

A FIDE spokesman, David Llada, wrote in an email that FIDE had provided rapid tests to those who requested one during the event, but was not responsible for providing PCR tests as they relate to the Travel home of the players and not related to the tournament itself. Llada wrote that FIDE Vice President and Tournament Director Lukasz Turlej, a Polish national, was in contact with Nakamura and needed to isolate himself for 10 days, get a negative PCR test and a medical certificate of recovery.

“Lukasz and his team grant Hikaru every request he has, and they bring fruits, vitamins – even a game of chess to his room,” Llada wrote.

Nakamura had his doubts before traveling to Poland, his first international excursion since the pandemic began. This was only his second personal tournament during Covid. He was very aware of the risks of playing chess with a communicable disease after learning in 2015 that he had played two tournaments with pneumonia.

He was already feeling bad before last Thursday, but continued to play after testing negative on self-administered tests at home during the event. On the last day, he had to endure the long queue for a public test in order to be able to fly home if the result was negative. The problem was that he was positive.

“At least because I’m here in Poland, not Kazakhstan, it should be easier,” he said on Twitch at the time.

It was not. Nakamura immediately informed the organizers and returned to his hotel room while FIDE delayed the start of the tournament, posting on Twitter that some players had positive feedback and that “their opponents have been contacted so they can conduct additional investigations”. Nakamura also criticized FIDE for not having a clear plan and information for a player like him in this situation.

In this video, Daniil Dubov plays a move when Hikaru Nakamura failed to show up for the game at the 2021 FIDE World Blitz Chess Championship in Warsaw, Poland.


Not in the credits

When the action resumed there was a bizarre scene in the arcade where Daniil Dubov, a crafty Russian grandmaster who was supposed to take on Nakamura, played a single pawn move across from an empty chair. Dubov then struck the music box, and when Nakamura’s time passed, the victory was awarded to Dubov. Dubov eventually took the lead before Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave took the crown in another tie-break. Confined to his hotel room, Nakamura returned to comment on the games from his Twitch channel, where he occasionally coughed and described mild symptoms.

Since then, Nakamura has celebrated New Year’s Eve in his hotel room, trying to solve a puzzle more confusing than any variant of the Sicilian defense: when can he fly home?

“It’s very complicated,” says Nakamura.

There was one positive aspect that was actually positive for Nakamura: he surpassed Magnus Carlsen as the world’s top rated blitz player during the event.

Write to Andrew Beaton at [email protected] and Joshua Robinson at [email protected]

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