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AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

A Fubon Guardians’ pitcher throws during a game against Chinatrust Brothers with no audience at Xinzhuang Baseball Stadium in New Taipei City, Taiwan. (AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying)

Sports

A baseball void gives Taiwan some limelight

With sporting events canceled around the world, Taiwan’s baseball league is one of only two playing

On the evening of April 30, CTBC Brothers faced off against the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions in a stadium in the southern city of Tainan. Typically, baseball games in Taiwan are noisy affairs with rowdy crowds and cheerleaders beating drums and leading call-and-response chants as spectators chomp on sweet Taiwanese sausages and fried chicken. 

But because of the coronavirus pandemic regulations, the stands were empty and the stadium uncommonly still. Banners draped over the seats. One thanked front-line workers. Still, music blared from the speakers as the Uni-Lions cheerleaders danced to the cameras while the team’s mascots—a lion and a milkfish head named Saba Boy—donned face masks as they danced to K-pop and pretended to cook barbecue in the stands.

Josh Roenicke, a pitcher for Uni-Lions, noted the strange new normal: The field was eerily quiet, and he could hear chatter from the dugouts. “I have a little more focus without all that noise, but the game is not as exciting,” he said. Another team, the Rakuten Monkeys, set up cardboard cutouts and mannequins dressed in Rakuten jerseys holding signs at their home games, while robots played the drums amid flashing lights. On Friday, Taiwan relaxed regulations, allowing up to 1,000 fans to watch a game in the stadium. They must sit three seats apart, with every second row of seats empty. They can't bring in outside food, and concession stands are still closed.

Being able to play ball at all is a luxury most countries can’t afford as the coronavirus has infected nearly 4 million people globally, and many countries remain in lockdown. On April 12, Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) was the first in the world to start its baseball season, then the Korean Baseball Organization followed on May 5. Taiwan’s government has been proactive in fighting the virus. Despite being only 81 miles from mainland China, the island of 23 million has 440 cases of infection and six deaths.

The time in the spotlight presented an opportunity for the four-team CPBL, whose first season was in 1990. With baseball fans around the world missing the crack of the bat and the thrill of a home run, more are tuning in to Taiwan baseball games, which are now livestreamed online with English commentary. Eleven Sports Taiwan, which posts live broadcasts on its Twitter account, said three CPBL games from April 17-19 garnered a combined 3.6 million views, an impressive number as the games are shown at 5 or 6 a.m. eastern time. 

Previously, the number of people allowed in the ballpark—including players, coaches, umpires, cheerleaders, stadium staff, and media personnel—had to be between 150 and 200. Roenicke, who played in the U.S. major leagues and the Mexican Baseball League before coming to Taiwan two years ago, said players get temperature checks at hotels, stadiums, and buses and need to wear face masks regularly. Otherwise, he believes Taiwan has done such a good job containing the virus that in everyday life it’s easy to forget the pandemic.

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Vladimir Vyatkin/Sputnik via AP

Norwegian chess grandmaster and the current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen (Vladimir Vyatkin/Sputnik via AP)

Sports

Chess champion keeps lockdown in check

When professional sports, including chess, had to shut down, Magnus Carlsen started his own showdown with the world’s top players

Most professional sports are offline for now, although outliers like professional darts players and Belarus’ soccer team soldier on. Sports networks are mostly replaying old footage. 

Thanks to world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, it’s the perfect time to become a fan of professional chess—a sport that involves no concussions and helps improve concentration and creativity. On Monday morning, more than 25,000 people streamed the first ever online professional chess tournament, which Carlsen organized when official chess had to suspend its tournaments around the world. 

Sound boring? The best players in the world, including arguably one of the best players of all time, are accidentally knocking over furniture live on camera, mutely yelling at themselves for a bad move, revealing their quarantine hairdos, and playing fast, tense matches. 

Eight of the world’s top players are vying for a $250,000 pot in the Magnus Carlsen Invitational, which plays until May 3. The games appear live for free on Chess24, whose traffic has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. 

As the coronavirus was spreading around the globe in March, the official organizers of professional chess—FIDE—went forward with the candidates tournament in Russia to determine who would challenge Carlsen in the 2020 world championship. Some players were displeased and out of sorts about having to show up and play under such circumstances. 

Halfway through the tournament, Russia announced it would stop flights out of the country, so FIDE abruptly halted the games to give players a chance to get home. The federation plans to resume the tournament whenever it becomes possible to play in person again. 

With no chess on the horizon, Carlsen and his team set up their own tournament in a matter of weeks, and on their terms. They came up with a format of rapid games that makes the tournament much more exciting to watch than usual classical tournaments, especially for chess newcomers. 

Players start with 15 minutes on their clocks, as opposed to the typical 90 minutes of classical games. Classical games can easily go four hours or longer because players gain time on their clocks as they make moves, and sometimes players will ponder a move for an hour. Carlsen has advocated for official tournaments to incorporate more rapid games. 

The Carlsen tournament began with the attention centered on the hot chess prodigy Alireza Firouzja (usually just called “Alireza”), a 16-year-old Iranian, who a few days before upended the chess world when he beat Carlsen in an online blitz tournament. 

Carlsen is the world’s best in blitz, and recently he has been in the best shape of his chess career, having almost two years without a loss in classical games. The Chess24 chat for viewers watching the fireworks showed a split between love for Carlsen (“Magnus proving why he is the world champion”) and love for the newcomer (“Congrats Alireza for putting up a great fight against the world champion”). 

Alireza played for Iran until last year, when Iran tried to block him from participating in a tournament with Israeli players. Now Alireza is a chess refugee, living in France, and considering changing his nationality. 

Other Iranian players have left Iran for the same reason. Iran banned female grandmaster Dorsa Derakhshani, the second-highest rated female player in Iranian history, from its team for not wearing a hijab, and in 2017 she moved to St. Louis, the new center of American chess. She now plays for the United States. Iran also banned her brother for playing an Israeli. 

The other players Carlsen and his team selected for this tournament: Fabiano Caruana (“Fabi”), the American who nearly wrested the championship from Carlsen in 2018 and is ranked No. 2 globally; Ding Liren, a Chinese player who is No. 3 globally; Ian Nepomniachtchi (“Nepo”), a Russian player at No. 4 globally; Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (“MVL”), a French grandmaster who is currently ranked fifth in the world; Hikaru Nakamura, another top American who has a massive following on livestreaming platform Twitch and is known for his speedy internet chess; and Anish Giri, a Dutch player ranked No. 10.

After games finish, the players pop in and out of the game commentary, which has the laid-back quality of friends talking on a porch. After one match Fabi appeared and described his life in quarantine in the U.S., which consists of going to the grocery store and playing chess. 

Chess24 has commentary on the matches in nine languages. Top chess players Jan Gustafsson, Peter Svidler, Lawrence Trent, and Alexander Grischuk lead the Chess24 English commentary and are hardly serious for more than two minutes. Grischuk always shows up late to the games, inviting endless jabs, and various children of commentators stumble in and out. 

“Grischuk following up for the Jinx season 2,” said Gustafsson when Grischuk showed up late and Carlsen promptly lost a game to Alireza. Svidler then suggested some part of Carlsen losing might be “psychological.” 

“Once again, a hot take by Peter Svidler,” Gustafsson deadpanned. 

Someone asked Grischuk about how Carlsen and Alireza’s rivalry might play out. 

“Who knows what will happen with the world and if there will be any chess rivalries going on,” the Russian grandmaster said dryly. 

Carlsen, visibly frustrated about losing to the teenager, recovered and won the day’s match against Alireza. The matches are best-of-four rapid games, and if players need a tiebreaker, they play an armageddon game (where one player wins if it’s a draw, and the other player starts with more time to play). After seven rounds of matches, the top four players will advance to a semifinal the first weekend of May.

Dress codes were looser than official tournaments: Alireza has worn the same sweatshirt every day with a pair of shorts, while Carlsen and Liren kept things sharp with button-up shirts with jackets. Fabi crowded into his computer’s camera during his games: “Just glasses and hair,” commented Gustafsson. 

It’s the first tournament of its kind, and everyone was adjusting: Technical glitches plagued the first day, with an arbiter incorrectly telling Nakamura mid-game against Carlsen that the clock was off and to abort the game. Nakamura, who was already in a losing position when the arbiter interrupted, ignored the message but graciously conceded defeat to Carlsen despite the interference.

Chess24 has assured viewers it’s taking measures against cheating (extra cameras to monitor players, specially issued computers) and the grandmasters commentating said it’s not worth it for the world’s top players to cheat—a whiff of cheating, even without evidence, means losing invitations to tournaments. 

But some players don’t think old-fashioned chess tournaments are going away anytime soon. “I couldn’t even imagine playing a classical game online,” said Fabi after one of the matches.  

The games start every day at 10 a.m. Eastern.

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Lukas Schulze/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

(Lukas Schulze/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Sports

Strange wagers

As the coronavirus pandemic stifles the gambling industry, sports gamblers turn to more obscure competitions

In this dark age of the coronavirus, sports gamblers are left searching the ends of the earth for any sign of sports. Among the exotic offerings the pandemic has not canceled: soccer in Burundi and Belarus, basketball in Tajikistan, and professional darts. Yes, darts.

New Jersey sports columnist Steve Politi said he put $20 on a Russian table tennis match last week out of boredom and to scratch a gambling itch that March Madness would’ve normally scratched. After placing his bet online on a sport he knew little about, Politi spent the next hour on the edge of his couch watching his guy Oleg return smacks from Dmitry. “When you’re stuck indoors all day, you’ll try anything to kill a little time,” he told me over email. 

Politi describes himself as an occasional gambler and says he knows his limits. But anti-addiction advocates and counselors predict problem gamblers will struggle during the coronavirus pandemic, when money is tight and obscure sports rule the day. 

Overall, the coronavirus pandemic has pounded the sports gambling industry, with states temporarily closing both casinos and brick-and-mortar sportsbooks to prevent virus spread. Gamblers can still place bets online, but states saw a steep drop in wagers: New Jersey sportsbook bets totaled $187 million in March, down from $372 million in March 2019.

When you’re stuck indoors all day, you’ll try anything to kill a little time.

Before the coronavirus canceled sports, sports betting itself was going viral across the United States. In the two years since the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on most sports betting, 19 states plus the District of Columbia have passed legislation allowing sportsbooks to take bets. (Additionally, Nevada, Oregon, and New Mexico already permitted the practice.) New Jersey, one of the early new adopters, has already collected $61 million in state taxes on $6.8 billion in sports bets. Keith Whyte, director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, says the last two years have been “the largest and widest expansion of gambling in our country’s history.” 

Thirteen more states had bills to legalize gambling in the works before the pandemic, but the coronavirus killed their momentum. Still, Whyte believes states will revisit the issue: Those that green-light sports betting before August could cash in on the most bet-on sport in America—NFL football. The American Gaming Association (AGA) estimated Americans spent $6.8 billion betting on the 2020 Super Bowl.

According to the AGA, the closure of the nation’s nearly 1,000 casinos (and related revenue losses to local restaurants, hotels, and businesses) will cost $43.5 billion in lost economic activity if they remain closed through May. While most of the gaming industry did qualify for relief under the $2 trillion CARES Act, it’s anybody’s guess whether gamblers will bring their own stimulus checks to the card tables.

The prospect of betting on virtual horse racing and Taiwan-based basketball will probably deter most, but Whyte says seriously addicted sports gamblers will still take the risk. Alone at home with a fast internet connection (and no Gamblers Anonymous meetings to attend), they’re the ones placing bets on sports they know nothing about.

And in a fast-paced sport, betting can be a wild affair: A table tennis game can last as little as one to three minutes, and individual points take four to eight seconds. That means gamblers may barely even be thinking (or blinking) between bets.

Sports columnist Politi learned this the hard way. After the victorious Oleg made Politi a richer man, he didn’t think twice about applying his winnings to another Russian table tennis match. This time, he lost.

He says it was fun while it lasted, but, “I think I’m probably done with the pingpong.

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