By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The world's top chess players are set to resume a tournament in Russia on Monday after it was abruptly halted more than a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, with organisers banking on safety measures to ensure its completion this time around.
The International Chess Federation (FIDE) suspended the Candidates Tournament at its halfway point in March 2020 as Russia announced it was grounding international flights, prompting concern that foreign players would have trouble returning home.
Unlike chess pieces, the security situation at the tournament in Yekaterinburg, a city 1,400 kilometres (870 miles) east of Moscow, is not black and white.
Organisers said the eight players taking part would be tested for COVID-19 no earlier than 72 hours before the tournament and would not be required to wear masks. Handshakes are also optional.
A limited number of spectators will be admitted to the tournament, whose winner will challenge reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway for the title later this year.
Spectators must have been vaccinated, have antibodies or have tested negative for COVID-19. They will also be required to social distance.
"Unlike for the first part of the tournament, today we have learned how to live in these conditions," tournament director Albert Stepanyan said. "At least we now know how to fight it."
The eight players taking part are France's Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Russian grandmasters Ian Nepomniachtchi, Alexander Grischuk and Kirill Alekseenko, China's Wang Hao and Ding Liren, American Fabiano Caruana and Anish Giri of the Netherlands.
Vachier-Lagrave, tied for the tournament lead, said he had noticed a sharp contrast between pandemic restrictions in Russia, which have been lifted in some regions and are only partially enforced in others, and France, where authorities have declared a third lockdown.
"It has been a little strange to eat in restaurants again and to see that few people wear masks in enclosed spaces in comparison to France, where it would be unthinkable not to wear one," the 30-year-old told Reuters.
Vachier-Lagrave's preparations included plenty of online chess.
"I did everything to return here in the same shape to play as well if not better, but of course there is no guarantee," he said. "I'm still going to be careful because I obviously don't want to be the person who brings the virus to the tournament."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)