The sanitised, noiseless environs of the Candidates chess tournament has hit a bit of a rumble strip.
The event taking place in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg amid a global lockdown recorded its first vocal player dissent in Russian Grandmaster Alexander Grischuk, one among the eight participants, calling for the tournament to be called off.
"In the beginning I did not have a clear opinion but now from the last several days I have a strong one, I think the tournament should be stopped," Grischuk said after his round five draw against Ding Liren on Sunday.
"It's no coincidence that everything else is stopped. We're the only major sport event in the world and I think it should be stopped and postponed. The whole atmosphere is very hostile, the security, everyone in masks. It's very difficult. I just don't want to play, don't want to be here."
After five rounds of play, Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi has emerged as the sole leader with 3.5 points, half a point ahead of second-placed Maxime Vachier Lagrave. Tournament favorite Fabiano Caruana together with Wang Hao and Grischuk are at 2.5 points, followed by Ding, Kirill Alekseenko and Anish Giri at 2 points.
Fide, however, is of the view that putting off the tournament at this point would be a 'huge blow for chess'.
"Cancelling would have been the simplest thing to do from the beginning. But it's not about Fide, doing so would be a huge blow for chess. We have postponed a number of official championships where hundreds were supposed to participate at the same event," Fide Director General Emil Sutovsky told ESPN.
"Here we are talking of a tournament with just eight players and we have taken all possible measures to protect their health. In a tournament like the Candidates, the pressure on players is immense and Grischuk was answering questions after over five hours of play."
In an unusual gesture in these time of social distancing, Grischuk shook Ding's hand ahead of their game before squirting a generous amount of sanitiser on his palm and dousing his hands with it. What any pandemic might also find it hard to change is chess players' compulsive habit of touching their faces almost all the time - thumbing chin, palms pressed against cheeks, ears or cupped at the temple, even if with Purelle-scented fingers. At the Candidates, players have been screamingly culpable of flouting one of the primary antivirus recommendations of keeping hands off face.
Usually during major tournaments, chess players prefer to lock themselves away from the world and recede into a bubble. This time, Caruana and Giri attest, it's proving harder than ever.
"It's really difficult, it would take so much discipline to not check out (social media) what's going on in the world," Caruana told fide. Giri then interjected with his dead-pan humor: "We have to know what's happening... at some point there might be a message saying 'Ok you have to go to this place or you might die'. With stakes this high, it's more important to follow the news than focus on the tournament."
Caruana has another pressing worry that he's trying to shake off - finding a way to return home. A few days ago, the US state department raised its travel advisory worldwide to its peak Level 4 - Do Not Travel, in light of the virus' worsening global impact. It has instructed citizens to not travel abroad and requires Americans overseas to return immediately unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period of time.
The Candidates will run till April first week, and that's almost a fortnight more to go.
"At this point, I'm not sure of my chances of returning home," he said. "I might be stranded somewhere and I'm not exactly sure where. But I'm not thinking about it right now."
Giri, typically, took shelter in sarcasm: "I have faith in Fide's private jet flying all players to their houses. That's my only hope."