GM Teimour Radjabov is considering legal action now that the second half of the FIDE Candidates tournament has been postponed amidst the coronavirus crisis. The Azerbaijani grandmaster, who predicted big problems and withdrew before the tournament, was interviewed Thursday on Chess.com/TV.
Radjabov’s withdrawal from the tournament became public on March 6, which was 11 days before the first round in Yekaterinburg. In an interview, he provided motivation for his decision:
“The Candidates Tournament is a chess marathon, consisting of 14 rounds over 22 days. How the tournament will develop during this global epidemic, what measures will be taken in case of detection of the virus and what measures will be taken in relation to a sick participant, no one has explained to me. Due to the complexity of all these points, I turned to FIDE [and] asked to postpone the tournament to a later date. This was denied. In connection with the above, I considered that such conditions can greatly affect the necessary level of concentration and mood required for the best possible play in such an important tournament as the Candidates, and a possible danger to the health of the players. As a result, I was replaced by another participant.”
Radjabov was replaced by GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and the tournament went ahead as scheduled. As the coronavirus pandemic became a global crisis, things initially seemed to be developing more slowly in Russia. At the same time, some players expressed their unhappiness with the atmosphere at the tournament.
When it was announced on Thursday that air traffic from and to Russia would be halted, FIDE had to stop the tournament immediately so that the (international) participants could still travel back home.
The interview with Radjabov was conducted by GM Robert Hess and IM Daniel Rensch as part of Chess.com’s Candidates Postponement Show. Below, you’ll find the text version of the interview where parts belonging to the same topic have been merged and the language improved upon.
Daniel Rensch: You saw the coming curve earlier than anybody, you acted with integrity and expressed your viewpoint that you felt it should be postponed. The only way you could really have any power or make your voice heard was to act on your principles and withdraw. Now that the tournament has been postponed, how are you dealing with all of this, how are you feeling and is there some vindication in your feeling? And what in the world would possibly make this right to you?
Well, first of all, of course, I have expressed myself in a letter that I sent to [Arkady] Dvorkovich at first. Then, talking about all the legal actions that FIDE can take in that situation, he sent me an official letter back and it was written that it cannot be postponed non-legally, non-practically. Also, I was told by high-profile FIDE representatives, including the president, that they are following all the instructions of the authorities of Russia and they will not stop the tournament because everything is fine.
Later on, the minister of sports of Russia said in the press that if the international sports federations want to postpone events on the territory of Russia they should send the request to the ministry of sports and then they can take this decision. I was told otherwise: that once the ministry of sports is not stopping the event, FIDE cannot take any actions. So, what they said contradicts the words of the Russian ministry of sports—which I guess is the right authority to know how things are.
After sending this letter and receiving this reply I got this deadline. I’ve posted it on my Instagram account. I could say yes, I could say no, I could say whatever actually but besides “yes I’m playing under the circumstances” there were two options: either say OK, take me out of the tournament because I disagree with this, or not to answer, which would be considered the same. So, a few hours before the deadline I said: OK if it is not possible to move the event I am withdrawing.
What they said contradicts the words of the Russian ministry of sports—which I guess is the right authority to know how things are.
Besides that, at the time they somehow thought that the situation was not critical. They were referring to some tournaments that were still ongoing, but the difference between the FIDE events and the ongoing tournaments is that they are ongoing. That is the point. Once you are considering to start the event in these circumstances you, first of all, have to make some kind of analysis in the General Assembly of FIDE, there are people who have to talk to each other and decide on the situation, I don’t know how it works. I think they should have taken the right decision there. Now, to cancel proves to be right, they have taken it and created this whole mess. Now the situation is super complicated.
I think FIDE should take some action to include me back into the tournament, that’s what I think. I think it’s a fair decision. From my side, I think I have done everything possible. I just asked them, warned them, I also warned the chess community by expressing it openly. There was no action by FIDE and now we are in this situation.
I think FIDE should take some action to include me back into the tournament, that’s what I think. I think it’s a fair decision.
Besides that, on 16 March, there was a statement from the ministry of sports of Russia that all sports events on the Russian territory should be stopped. Then FIDE was already conducting this ridiculous opening ceremony with a few thousand people. Actually there, at this ceremony, they got the message and they certainly should have stopped the event.
Then there was some kind of interview with Dvorkovich and [Emil] Sutovsky where they were saying: “We are not shutting down because we started on 15 March.” Should I really comment on this? Is it something valid?
You know that this will happen and now it happens in the middle of the most important tournament in chess. The entire world is laughing at us because we were the only ones to start the event at this time, I guess. Especially an event of this caliber. Also, the players were expressing their vision on how it was going and it was going not well at all, with the hostile circumstances there for [Alexander] Grischuk and Wang Hao and all the others.
In my letter, I said that besides the situation with the coronavirus, that with the tournament it’s not clear what we will do, it was not clear for anyone. FIDE said that they know what they are doing, with all the measures they were going to take. FIDE is the authority in chess but as you can see, even the great states with great power and abilities cannot fight the virus—but FIDE somehow said that they are able to really do everything possible in the situation. But actually, nothing is possible. There is nothing you can do about it to be honest, at the moment. There’s nothing you can do besides postponing the event under the circumstances.
As you can see, for example, billion-dollar industries are suffering from this and they are moving events that cost like hundreds of millions of euros, and we cannot postpone one of the most important tournaments in chess just for five, six months, let’s say, with the possibility to play at the end of the year? This would be the normal thing to do. All the other events have been postponed as well now in chess, and a lot of them were canceled before the Candidates. I just can’t understand it.
Robert Hess: We had some FIDE officials in the show earlier who said that the situation in Russia was not so bad at the time. What information were you looking at when you made the decision?
First of all, I think it was on 4 March that I was talking to Dvorkovich. By the way, they were saying that I was leaving the tournament for “personal reasons.” If coronavirus and the whole situation are “personal reasons,” what can I say? But certainly, that was strange from FIDE.
When Dvorkovich told me that according to his information it was not yet that bad and probably it’s going to be OK, I said: according to my information, it’s going to be really bad. I was discussing it and analyzing it as well and you know, sometimes I can foresee such things, like Bitcoin’s price and stuff like that. This is much easier for me to calculate because it’s actually connected with my profession.
So, in general, I was seeing all the football news and that a lot of tournaments would be postponed and already at the time when I was talking to Dvorkovich, some of them were postponed for sure. I actually mentioned in my letter that sports events were getting canceled around the world in my letter. Just having general information was enough to understand that you will not run this kind of event of this importance which is very easy to postpone compared to the European soccer cup and all these huge events and now the Olympics. It was so easy to foresee. I don’t really see a problem. I don’t understand why others were negligent of this.
Sometimes, until it really reaches their region or reaches their country, people don’t see this as a common threat, you know. We were like always OK with it, OK there is a flu, it’s just normal to feel sick and probably it’s just going to fade at some point and everything will be fine but in fact, with my analysis, it was going to be hard to play these three weeks completely out of any concentration in this case, trying to just keep yourself working, as Magnus says, “as you are already at the job you have to do it.” In these circumstances, it’s really hard.
Now we can see everyone even having problems to move back home. At the time, of course, I didn’t know that this would happen but certainly, I thought that conducting such an event for three weeks would be unbearable. It’s certainly hard for me psychologically to play under these circumstances as I was receiving the information every second from the entire world that everything is shutting down. If you cancel such big events you understand that measures are taken because everybody understands that it’s huge. It’s not something simple.
Rensch: Tell us about how hard you have been preparing for the Candidates and as Robert said, how much it would’ve meant to you to be able to play and have a chance at the world chess championship.
It’s always hard to say something about chances. It’s always problematic because, for example, I was not considered the player who was going to win the World Cup, I was not a clear favorite, I wasn’t even a favorite I guess. But sometimes everyone has chances, especially at a high-level tournament. It depends on how you approach it. I have played at the top level and am still playing at the top level for a long time so certainly, I know some stuff about chess and how to prepare and so on. But you never know until you start the tournament how it is going. For example, you wouldn’t expect Ding Liren to start like this, or even Caruana to be on this score after seven rounds.
I was preparing with GMs Vladimir Chuchelov, Sergey Karjakin, and Leinier Dominguez, and actually, with Karjakin and Chuchelov we have spent months of training sessions. We were preparing for the tournament and actually did a lot of stuff. But as I said, you never know. You can be super prepared and then play bad or you can be unprepared and play amazingly sometimes.
My team of seconds is not one for a world championship match that I am revealing before that. I can even say that I would still play the openings that I like to play so it’s not a problem for me to be honest like it is for other players. It was not the kind of super preparation that I was hiding. I just don’t like to express the preparation when it’s ongoing like for example, [Anish] Giri does on his Instagram. It’s up to the player, it’s fine. As far as Magnus [Carlsen] is concerned, I don’t see a lot of photos of him. For Giri it’s different. For Caruana, there is sometimes a leak in his preparation.
I was preparing with GMs Vladimir Chuchelov, Sergey Karjakin, and Leinier Dominguez, and actually, with Karjakin and Chuchelov we have spent months of training sessions. We were preparing for the tournament and actually did a lot of stuff.
But I am mostly working with Chuchelov, sometimes I’m practicing with Sergey and this is the way I am preparing and also, of course, working on my own. But in this case, we were preparing, we were sure the tournament was going to happen in advance when we started the preparation. But then it became more and more clear to me that something will be happening in the entire world.
Hess: It sounds like for those people who are saying, “Oh, if Radjabov really wanted to play he would have played,” it sounds like you were preparing very hard and you clearly wanted to play in the Candidates and you wanted to chance to play for the world championship.
Of course. There is no reason for me to just be out of the tournament or just doing nothing and sitting at home. Actually, it’s my profession. Besides some jokes that they were talking about that I made during the World Cup, I was making them because there’s kind of a tradition in Azerbaijan that you say you are not trying to win and you are trying to bring luck this way. So that was what I was doing during the entire interviews of the World Cup and actually, at the final interview, I said: “Guys, it was, of course, all a joke.” Of course, I was trying to win every game that I was playing and it was certainly visible by the style of the games, all the fighting games in the World Cup. There are always things that people talk about when they don’t understand jokes and humor, so it’s just fine for me.
Of course, I was happy to play. You never know if it is your last Candidates tournament because getting there is really hard. It’s a huge thing, especially since I was really almost dead after this tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk.
I can say in interviews that I’m not trying to win the world championship but in my mind, my emotional state is that if I’m playing chess, in general, my only hope is to become the world champion. If I have big chances or small chances, if I am a favorite or not a favorite… Otherwise, I would just not be playing chess anymore.
Rensch: If FIDE would suggest that you would be given a wildcard or a guaranteed spot to the next Candidates, is that something you would accept, or is it pretty much that you feel that the only justice to be served would be a reshaping and reforming of this year’s Candidates?
At this point, to be honest, it’s hard to discuss what would be clearly the right decision except for letting me play in the tournament and certainly start it again because the situation is extremely strange. I want to hear from the other players as well. I don’t hear anything from FIDE that comes out at least in the news and interviews that makes me understand for now that they are going to take any proper action. In my opinion, this would be to include me in the tournament, start it again. I guess now the situation is that you have to play with nine players, I understand it but I don’t see any other way of doing it for now.
Besides that, they are not even discussing this at the moment so probably their idea, for now, is to try and see what’s going on in Russia with the virus situation and then play it till the end as soon as they can. That’s all I hear.
I guess now the situation is that you have to play with nine players, I understand it but I don’t see any other way of doing it for now.
I should also consult a lawyer, see how it’s going and look at all these replies and all the stuff that FIDE mentioned in their letter. I am really disappointed about the situation.
I’m actually a lawyer myself but certainly, here I will need real professionals who are always there doing their jobs because I’m certainly more a professional chess player than a lawyer. In this case, I see a lot of problems with the legal interpretation of what FIDE did here but I want to first consult professional lawyers and see if it’s right from a legal standpoint.
I should also consult a lawyer, see how it’s going and look at all these replies and all the stuff that FIDE mentioned in their letter. I am really disappointed about the situation.
But I don’t hear anything from FIDE, that’s the problem. I want to hear something, maybe they will discuss something now, maybe they will say something. It seems that it’s still ongoing: first that they didn’t make the right decision, now there’s not even an apology or anything like it’s just normal. I would like to see not an apology just to me but to the entire chess community. Because what’s going on right now it’s really a shame for chess.
When you know that the situation is approaching, especially closer to 14 March, even if my message was this far from the reality but when on the 16th the ministry of sports prohibits all the events and the tournament hasn’t started at all, at the opening ceremony they already had this decision from the ministry of sports. Was it so hard to foresee that things are going to end like this?
I would like to see not an apology just to me but to the entire chess community. Because what’s going on right now it’s really a shame for chess.
Should you really know something special about it when you are the ministry of sports of the country that is hosting this event just says that, guys, there are no more sporting events and we say: guys, it’s not illegal from the 15th, we are starting this tournament. Seriously? Is this a real action from the federation that is responsible for the health of the chess players, for the Candidates, for the world crown? All these guys that are now suffering from the situation, they shouldn’t take any measures in this case? Maybe I just don’t understand something, I don’t really know.
Hess: Let me ask you a question just for the sake of clarity. You said you haven’t heard from FIDE so I want to ask you multiple questions here. One, we heard from our interviews today that they said you were essentially issuing them an ultimatum. Do you agree with that assessment of your letter to FIDE? And also, when was the last time FIDE spoke to you about anything related to the Candidates tournament?
First of all, the ultimatum. In this case, there are also some speculations that maybe I should have first talked to the players about the situation and make a decision with all the other players or some of the other players. But in this case, I guess that would have kind of sabotaged the tournament in a way because I’m basically asking other players to decline their participation in order for the tournament not to be hosted. Would it be sabotaging the event? Or is there a governing body that should take the decision to postpone the event?
So I thought it was the right decision to speak directly to the representative of the federation. So at the time, I wrote a letter to Dvorkovich. Can you call it an ultimatum when you say, for example, the situation in the world is like this, I have all the letters, you have all the letters and in case the postponement is not possible I will have to withdraw from the tournament? What kind of ultimatum is this? I don’t have any dates, there is no deadline, I was always there for discussion, it was always possible to talk to me.
The first letter I wrote to Dvorkovich was not even an open letter, so he could really express things and talk to me and discuss the situation. What he actually did was that he talked to me and said: you will have two days to discuss the situation, so the ultimatum came from FIDE. There was a deadline, with a clear time when I had to support my decision with the official withdrawal from the tournament. The ultimatum comes from FIDE from my understanding.
Hess: Even Magnus Carlsen said that he felt like you didn’t really want to be there because of Candidates is a tough event and maybe you weren’t up for it. What do you make of this?
It’s a personal opinion, first of all. I think the world champion certainly has his personal opinion. As for me, for example, as a top chess player as well I have some different opinions when he does something so I also have my own opinion and it’s a personal opinion.
But, his opinion is not supported by the facts. If we’re speaking from a legal point of view, I just won the spot to play the Candidates. I was legally there. I was preparing for the Candidates, wanting to play it and it can be, in any top player’s life, the last Candidates tournament always. You never know if you’re getting back into this business trying to qualify for the match against Magnus.
Is it a tournament in these circumstances, when everything is closed, everything is postponed and also it’s officially going to be stopped by this ministry of sports? Is it the way to conduct a tournament in this situation? Is it normal? I think not.
Besides, my willingness to fight for the world crown and to play in the Candidates tournament is my own decision. I am playing there, I am in the tournament, I am preparing for the tournament and some people can’t say: “He has no chances so it doesn’t matter if he plays.” Is it considered just normal that “maybe he shouldn’t play there?”
Hess: Do you think if another player was writing that letter they would have stopped the tournament?
I think if it was Carlsen, for example, who wrote that letter, the tournament would have been canceled. I guess Caruana would have a huge impact on this as well. I think this is not the right thing, to be honest, to happen in general but certainly, we understand that the world champion has his opinion heard more than all the others. It’s generally understandable because he’s a world champion. If he’s not playing the match, let’s say, they should think about changing the world cycle or stuff like that. It has happened in chess many times. A world champion can have a huge impact on this. If he would say no, the tournament would be postponed.
I think if it was Carlsen, for example, who wrote that letter, the tournament would have been canceled.
It’s hard to judge why he generally thinks that I was not going to withstand this pressure or stuff like that. I was withstanding the pressure in the World Cup for one month—I guess I would be OK to withstand the pressure for 20 days. But in these circumstances, it’s just not right to play the tournament. We have seen the consequences that actually prove me right so I think it’s not even right to discuss this from my side to comment on the world champion’s personal opinion. I think it’s more correct to ask me and ask me about my ambitions or my willingness to play. It’s only me who knows the real situation.
Generally, we would not know what would happen if Carlsen would be there. I can tell you that if he would see the situation with the virus I am not sure that he would participate, especially since he has a team of managers and so on that would probably say that in the circumstances he shouldn’t play there and you should talk to FIDE or write a letter. If I can also express my personal opinion, I think that would be the case with his team in this situation. I am not even sure if his team would support him to play a match under the circumstances.
Don’t forget that I have very good relations with Carlsen, his family and actually his team as well. It’s just a personal opinion from him and from me. We don’t have any problems so it’s fine.
Rensch: have you been following the event and if so, how closely?
Of course I am following the event. Chess is my life. Always when there is something important I am following it. When there are some important games or sometimes even blitz games and rapid events but especially when some top players are playing each other, of course, I am following it.
At the same time, I know that Nepomniachtchi is sick, I don’t know how badly but he is sick there, he is not feeling good at all. It probably had no impact on his game against Vachier-Lagrave, he played a very good game in general. But generally, I don’t think the level is as good as it should be for this tournament and some of the players that were considered the favorites, Caruana and Ding, I have my general concerns about Ding Liren spending two weeks somewhere outside of Moscow which really impacts his play a lot, this is what I think. Being in quarantine, not in your hometown, before such an important event, I think it’s a hard thing to bear and I think it tells in his games in general. You wouldn’t even expect him to play like this in the first two rounds. Certainly, it could happen in any other tournament, but this really has some impact I guess. And Caruana’s play at the moment is far from brilliant.
There is also the situation that we can see now, the tournament is it stopped halfway through with unclear consequences, You’re playing seven rounds now and seven rounds, I don’t know, in one year or half a year or three months. It will be a different tournament with different players. Let’s say there are eight players coming to this tournament and they are super ready and one player is more ready than the others in these circumstances. Now it’s postponed and now we see completely different players in three months with a different concentration completely. They can come again for the new tournament which is not started anew because they already have their points. It can only be a good thing for the players that are not on top because they can maybe perform better if it starts in three months.
Rensch: If FIDE had made a decision and decided to run the 2020 FIDE Candidates as an online event under circumstances assuming everyone would be proctored closely maybe by a FIDE arbiter and in a more controllable setting obviously for COVID-19 concerns, but assuming those circumstances were handled properly and that the spread of the virus was not a concern, would you have considered playing the event?
Fischer at some point, if I’m not mistaken, was playing by the telephone, wasn’t he? Of course, online chess is a great thing and all these blitz and rapid games keep you in shape for many other events. But I think it would be a bit closer to a tennis match where you would put Roger Federer in Switzerland and Rafael Nadal in Spain and they would play against each other. I think it’s really different. In chess, it’s also different.
For this event, it would be only you in the room moving the pieces and someone in front of you moving for your opponent, you don’t see the face of your opponent properly and then you don’t feel how he feels about the position, what emotions, it would be hard. I would consider it but it would be really hard to do. It’s a different tournament. It’s the same game but a different story completely.
You should feel all the others, you should see the others, how they behave, how do you feel, all of this matters a lot during your game. One smile at the board of your opponent can change a lot. Sometimes there are cases that your opponent even speaks during the game or he does something with a pawn or a piece. It’s a game of two people against each other, playing one in front of the other. I don’t think that in this case, online play can help such a great event. I think it will be a different story simply.
It’s cool maybe to make a non-official Candidates tournament or make an event for seven rounds with some nice prize money to see how it goes but generally, I think it’s a different story. Maybe you can do something with cameras and you can see your opponents in all these rooms, maybe with VR, maybe there are some things like this, but at the moment I don’t think it would be a proper way to conduct this tournament.
In some situations, let’s say in the World Cup, my body language was not the best but somehow I managed to trick them all because I was in a super shape really, calculation and opening wise. I was preparing on my own, I was really doing a lot of work there even during the event. In that case, my body language was so bad that they were probably thinking they were playing against someone who could collapse any moment but actually it was the other way around.
Hess: If FIDE officials are watching this, is there anything that you would like to say to them and do you want an apology from them at this point?
Certainly, but first of all to the chess community of course, because I think it’s a shame what is happening now and I can also see a lot of fans, really thousands of people writing about the situation on Twitter and so on, mostly I see it when they mention my name on Twitter and then I see more comments. In general, I think they should apologize to the entire chess community. It cannot be supported in my understanding, not legally nor by just common sense, what has happened. It’s an unprecedented situation that was, to my mind, easy to avoid. It was much easier to avoid than now fight with the consequences.
Their idea, for now, is just to conduct the tournament and finish the tournament, now that is all they want to do and in this situation. When I was exchanging messages with Dvorkovich I was actually telling him that it’s going to be really bad but for now, we have what we have and it’s a pity that certainly at some point there is a problem.
I also expressed in one of my posts on Instagram that it’s an individual sport mostly and so, the Association of Chess Professionals should be more active in this case, but they sent letters to FIDE that were not answered as far as I understood. Besides that, I think there should be more voices raised during such situations. For example, if Wang Hao wanted to decline the tournament he should really speak out and say that he supports my decision or something or that he’s going to be out of the tournament. Or Caruana, in one of the interviews he said that he has no other options for now rather than to play in the tournament, as he’s there already and so on. But imagine if Carlsen says I am not playing in this tournament after the first round or before the first round, I have doubts that FIDE would conduct the tournament.
Maybe when they heard the ban from the ministry of sports, Caruana, Grischuk or Wang could have spoken out but certainly, this is a bit of a problem for chess in general because it’s an individual sport so everybody speaks on their own and there’s not much support among the players. That’s why we have this situation where, generally, only what the world champion says will matter.
It’s an individual sport so everybody speaks on their own and there’s not much support among the players.
That’s why we don’t have this kind of thing that OK, Radja declines, guys, the situation is really terrible, we don’t know what will happen so let’s postpone it, let’s write an open letter to FIDE, let’s do something. It would have been much easier if somebody else, like Caruana or other players, would have said that they agree with my decision and think it should be postponed and let’s write, let’s do something together. That would be the right thing to do from our side but of course, it doesn’t take out the responsibility of FIDE. They are the governing body and they should be first to act.