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A call for mask wearing and improved Covid safety at English chess events

This letter was originally published on 20 October 2021 and send directly to chess tournament organisers including Malcolm Pein, who did not reply. No significant changes in safety measures were introduced. Since then many players became infected with Covid-19 at the London Chess Classic, included Nigel Short who required treatment in ICU. 

An open letter to the English chess organisers

Dear Chess Friend,

I am writing to express my concern about the lack of effective covid safety measures at chess events in England.

1. High Covid rates in England

By now, we would all have hoped that the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community would have dropped to such a point where the risk of running and participating in chess events may have been dramatically reduced. However, since the government restrictions have been removed, case numbers have continued to climb. The Zoe study app [1] led by Professor Tim Spector of King's College London estimates that there are now close to a million active cases of symptomatic covid in the UK and this is in line with the Office of National Statistics estimates, from random sampling data, that 1 in 60 people currently have the disease [2].

Data from the Covid-study app: Active covid cases in the UK - close to a million people currently have the disease


2. What this means for chess events

If you have 100 to 300 people in a room, it is highly likely that some players, perhaps asymptomatic, will have covid while participating in an event. With no mitigating measures in place, it is also likely that the disease will spread the disease to other people during the event.

The reasons why chess congresses may be particularly dangerous include:

  • The age profile of the players

Many players are well into their retirement years, putting them at extra risk. They may be sitting opposite an unvaccinated junior during their game. Covid rates are currently extremely high amongst this younger school-aged group.

  • Players sit directly opposite each other for hours

Players are breathing on each other for prolonged periods, creating an opportunity to receive a high viral dose, which is associated with an increased chance of transmission and more severe disease [3]

  • There are a large number of people in the same room

A large number of people in the same room creates ideal conditions for viral spread. It is now well established that covid-19 is transmitted by aerosols in addition to water droplets. These particles float in the air, which means a person playing on one board can easily infect many other people playing on different boards around the room. [4]

3. The risk to chess players health

Around a quarter of people who contract covid are fully vaccinated and while the risk of death and hospitalisation is lower, it is not insignificant - hundreds of patients are being admitted to ICU daily and hospitals are stretched, putting patients at risk. Older chess players who had their vaccine early, could have waning protection and around 1/3 of those eligible in the UK are not fully vaccinated.

Furthermore, long covid should be a serious consideration. A recent study from Oxford University suggests 37% of people who contract covid still have one or more symptoms 3 to 6 months later [5]. This ranges from abnormal breathing to anxiety and depression to brain fog - not great news for a chess player.

Contracting covid is, therefore most definitely something to be avoided if possible.

4. Simple safety measures that can be taken

Bearing these points in mind, I feel it is extremely important that if chess congresses go ahead, some key measures are in place to mitigate risk:

  • Mandatory mask wearing All players participating in an event should wear a mask. People may ask why they should wear a mask - “my opponent can wear a mask if he wants to protect himself”. However, we know that cloth masks and medical masks are more likely to protect other people than the person wearing the mask. In addition, better protection will be provided by both players wearing masks.

  • Natural ventilation – opening windows and doors

Opening the windows, even if it is cold, is essential to reduce the level of virus in the room. Air-conditioning may not be sufficient. “The efficiency of ventilation as a control measure depends on the ambient air velocity. In indoor ventilated environments, for higher ambient-air velocities, the infection probability decreases since droplets are rapidly removed (expose to the virus is minimized).” [4]

5. Why act?

In almost all other western, modern countries, it would not be possible to run a chess event without mandatory mask-wearing. This includes France, Spain and Italy which have higher vaccination rates and covid prevalence which are many times lower than in the UK. In France and Italy, you would also have to prove your vaccination status to play. I understand that this is not currently the law in the UK. However, while there is currently no legal requirement to introduce such safety measures, I would suggest there is a moral case and a duty of care on behalf of the organisers.

While there is a significant risk to participants; some of which may be older or have underlying health conditions; a particular individual may not understand that they are taking a risk - after all, the event wouldn’t run if it wasn’t safe, would it? I have also seen an event advertised as ‘Covid-safe’. This is simply not the case - whatever safety measures are in place, no one can guarantee safety and it is dangerous to suggest this.

The moral case for the risk mitigation measures above extends beyond the risk to the players; consideration should be given to the partners and families of players and wider society. The chain of infection will not stop at the doors of the congress.

I am writing this letter to call for:

  • the ECF to show leadership in this matter and issue clear guidelines around mandatory mask-wearing and ventilation and;

  • to urge all congress directors to implement these simple safety measures, mitigate risk and safeguard life.


Matthew Wilson Ph.D.


[1] https://covid.joinzoe.com/home3


[3] Marks, Michael, et al. "Transmission of COVID-19 in 282 clusters in Catalonia, Spain: a cohort study." The Lancet Infectious Diseases 21.5 (2021): 629-636.

[4] COVID-19: How a better understanding of airborne transmission is the key to break the chain of infection, EU Science Hub, https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/news/covid-19-how-better-understanding-airborne-transmission-key-break-chain-infection

[5] Over a third of COVID-19 patients diagnosed with at least one long-COVID symptom, https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2021-09-29-over-third-covid-19-patients-diagnosed-least-one-long-covid-symptom

Matthew Wilson Matthew Wilson
Published 01/06/2022 12:09
  • covid-19
  • nigel short
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Last Activity 01/06/2022 12:09