PRO Chess League Regular Season Complete

by admin on February 23, 2017

Wow, that was fast! It seems like just yesterday that I was writing a post about the first week of the PRO Chess League. Now the season is already over! That’s because it was only seven weeks long.

Next week the playoffs will begin, and for people who haven’t been paying attention previously, this might be a good time to start. The playoff teams are (listed by seed order):


  1. Montreal ChessBrahs
  2. Buenos Aires Krakens
  3. Toronto Dragons
  4. Montclair Sopranos
  5. Philadelphia Inventors
  6. Miami Champions


  1. St. Louis Arch Bishops
  2. Webster Windmills
  3. Dallas Destiny
  4. San Diego Surfers
  5. Rio Grande Ospreys
  6. San Jose Hackers


  1. Marseilles Migraines
  2. Stockholm Snowballs
  3. Amsterdam Mosquitos
  4. Cannes Blockbusters
  5. London Lions
  6. London Towers


  1. Delhi Dynamite
  2. Budapest Gambit
  3. Gorky Stormbringers
  4. Norway Gnomes
  5. Mumbai Movers
  6. Riga Magicians

In the playoffs, as in U.S. football, the top two teams in each division will get a bye, so next week’s pairings will be #3 versus #6 and #4 versus #5 in each division.

Some quick and superficial comments: St. Louis, Webster, and Montreal seem to be the class of the league so far, as the only teams with 6-1 records. San Diego, lurking at #4 in the Pacific Division, also deserves some mention. They actually started out 5-0 but lost a heartbreaker, 8½-7½, against St. Louis. Then they tied Dallas in the last week. Both St. Louis and Dallas are former winners of the U.S. Chess League (the predecessor of the PRO Chess League). The Pacific Division was extremely competitive this year, and any of those four teams could win the title.

In the two European divisions, it’s interesting that Norway barely made the playoffs with a 3½-3½ record, even though they have Magnus Carlsen on first board. Part of the reason, of course, is that Carlsen didn’t even play in the first four weeks. But I imagine he will be participating throughout the playoffs, so they could be a little bit stronger than their record shows. On the other hand, in team matches with a rating ceiling, it’s very often the fourth board that is the most important. That’s where you need strong young players who can play above their rating.

A few comments about the quality of the league, now that it has more of a track record: A major problem for developing a fan base was the lack of easily accessible information about the league — the players, the standings, the games, the stories. The TV coverage was outstanding, but for people like me who don’t have time to spend several hours on Wednesday watching the matches, it was really hard to keep track of what was happening. It’s frustrating for me to read comments like “What a great game last night between Mamedyarov and So!” but I have no way to actually play through the game. The league needs to make major upgrades in this area for next year, and it doesn’t seem as if it should be that hard. Perhaps they should take some of the prize money and re-allocate it to hire a webmaster and a statistician?

Some other problems could have been expected and aren’t worth losing too much sleep about. One team dropped out midseason. I would actually spin that differently: only one team dropped out, and the league pulled off the miraculous logistics of keeping everything going on schedule, on five different continents. Also, there was a cheating scandal, and a relatively significant one. The match between San Jose and the Las Vegas Desert Rats initially ended 8½-7½ in Las Vegas’ favor, but then two of the Desert Rats’ wins were overturned for reasons of cheating. Not only did that flip the result of the match, it also flipped which team won the last playoff spot in the Pacific Division. If the original result had stood, then Las Vegas would have made the playoffs.

I was sorry to hear about this scandal because I have friends on both teams. I’m sure that my friend on the Las Vegas team had nothing to do with the cheating.

I do wish that the league were more transparent about the nature of the cheating, given the fact that it decided a match and changed the playoffs. In the (U.S.) National Football League, when Tom Brady was suspended four games for a form of cheating, everybody knew why. But I have not been able to find any official explanation from the PRO Chess League of what happened in the two overturned games. I imagine that doesn’t want to say too much about it because they want to keep their cheating-detection algorithms hidden. But I wish somebody would tell them that “security through obscurity” never works in the long run. See Wikipedia: “Security experts have rejected this view as far back as 1851, and advise that obscurity should never be the only security mechanism.”


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Alternative Chess Facts. Plus, Reality TV!

by admin on February 13, 2017

In honor of our new “alternative facts” universe, I decided to delete my chess rating against Shredder (the computer program) and start over with no rating. After 925 games against it, I was unsatisfied with the fact that my rating had gone below 2000. It just wasn’t right! The alternative fact is that my rating is 2400. Also, I’m alternatively 24 years old and really good-looking. Yup.

So, after a few false starts and resets, I am now on a pretty good roll. After 7 games, the “new me” has a record of 5-2 and a rating of 2283. Okay, it’s not 2400, but at least it’s better than being under 2000.

My latest game was not terribly interesting overall, but it had kind of a cute final position.

ez puzzle 1Position after 60. … Re6. White to move.

FEN: 4k3/5p2/p3rQ2/1p4PP/8/P1P2B2/5K2/4r3 w – - 0 61

Of course there are a zillion ways for White (me) to win this position, but can you find the cutest one?

(Space inserted in case you want to think about it.)

The move I played was 61. h6!, and Shredder resigned immediately. The point is that after 61. … Rxf6 62. gf, Black has no way to stop my h-pawn. The bishop on f3 controls the two key entry squares h1 and h5, so that Rh1 and Re5-h5 don’t work. The pawn on f6 blocks Re6-h6 and Re7-h7, and Black’s own king blocks Re8-h8. Also, the pawn on f6 prevents Kf8-g7, and finally 62. … Ra1 63. h7 Ra2+ Kg3 gets nowhere for Black because my king covers h2.

I thought this was really cool, but it’s not such a great puzzle because everything wins for White; 61. h6 is just the icing on the cake. So let’s try a little bit of alternative-facting!

ez puzzle 2Position after 60. … Re6 (alternative universe). White to play and win.

FEN: 4k3/5p2/p3rR2/1p4PP/8/P1P2B2/5K2/4r3 w – - 0 61

Now this puzzle is somewhat interesting. Again, White plays 61. h6! Taking the rook is, of course, as futile as before, but Black has a new try: 61. … Kf8 62. h7 Kg7, apparently stopping the pawn. How does White break through?

The answer is a cute sacrifice, 63. Rxf7+! If 63. … Kxf7 64. h8Q Black’s rooks cannot get organized in time to stop the g-pawn. So Black has to play 63. … Kh8, and now 64. g6! creates unsolvable problems for Black. He can’t play 64. … Rxg6 65. Kxe1, and he has to stop the threat of Rf8+, so 64. … Re8 looks forced. And then 65. Bc6! takes advantage of the overloaded e8 rook. It has to defend its comrade on e1 but it also has to defend the back rank, and it can’t do both. Checks on e2 and e3 accomplish nothing. At best Black can sacrifice the exchange with something like 65. … R1e7 66. Bxe8 Rxe8, but this is extremely hopeless.

That was a pretty nice problem! But why stop there? Let’s make the queen a bishop!

ez puzzle 3Position after 60. … Re6 (alternative universe 2). White to play and win.

FEN: 4k3/5p2/p3rB2/1p4PP/8/P1P2B2/5K2/4r3 w – - 0 61

Once again the winning move is 61. h6! Here 61. … Kf8 is obviously of no help at all, but Black does have a new defensive possibility with 61. … Kd7, planning … Re8. Here I tried really hard to make 62. Bg4?! work, and I’m sure that a skilled problem composer would be able to tweak the position so that it does. Unfortunately, in this position after 62. Bg4 Rh1 63. Kg2 Rh4 64. Kg3 Rh1 65. Bh3 Kd6 it doesn’t look as if White’s bishop maneuver has gotten anywhere. Instead, the best move is the simplest: 62. h7 Re8 63. h8Q Rxh8 64. Kxe1. White threatens 65. Bb7, and Black has extreme difficulty defending both the queenside pawns and the f7 pawn. The only defense I can see is the ultra-passive 64. … Rb8 65. Bd5 Ke8 66. Bc6+ Kf8 (diagram).

ez puzzle 4Position after 66. … Kf8 (analysis). White to move.

FEN: 1r3k2/5p2/p1B2B2/1p4P1/8/P1P5/8/4K3 w – - 0 67

I feel as if White should be winning here, because Black’s army is split into two camps and his king cannot come to the aid of the queenside. Probably White will just gradually activate his own king and win by force majeure. However, it’s not completely clear. Does anyone have a really convincing line?

As you see, alternative realities can be a lot of fun!

By the way, an interesting thing happened last week that may be of interest only to me. My most recent blog post, “The Edge of the Truth,” attracted the attention of a website called Marginal Revolution and they posted a link to it. As a result, I got my largest number of page views ever in one day (2,891). In fact, the next day also was among my top five busiest days ever, with 1,486 page views.

This kind of thing is fun when it happens. (It also happened last year, to a less extreme extent, when one of my posts got a link on Reddit.) However, I’m not really sure that it does anything for my long-term readership. The Marginal Revolution readers were probably more interested in my thoughts on go and on the effects of computers than they were in chess. Still, in case any of them stuck around and are reading this post, welcome! I hope you’ll keep coming back!

P.S. Another interesting piece of non-chess news: grandmaster Sam Shankland will be one of the contestants on a reality TV show called Kicking and Screaming. It’s a Survivor-type show, where the twist is that ten survivalists are paired with ten couch potatoes who have never been in the wilderness before. Sam is, of course, one of the wilderness newbies. He has the absolute funniest moment in the trailer, when he swings a machete backwards and it sticks in the tree behind him.

I have no idea how Sam got cast onto this show, or when he had time to film it in his busy chess schedule. But it promises to be a hoot! The premiere is on March 9 on the Fox network at 9 Eastern time.

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“The Edge of the Truth” (Computer go and chess)

February 5, 2017

Last year I wrote a couple posts about AlphaGo, the computer go program developed by a team at Google that beat Lee Sedol (one of the world’s top players), 4-1, in a five-game match. If you’ve forgotten, you can read my post-match thoughts here. For several months nothing more was heard about the program, but […]

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My Worst Game Ever Against the Computer

February 3, 2017

Since my last post was about my best game (possibly) against the computer, fairness requires that I now show you my worst game, which I played yesterday. As ghastly as it is, there is still a fascinating train-wreck-in-slow-motion beauty to it. Shredder — Dana Mackenzie (40 moves/10 minutes) 1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nf6 3. […]

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Happy Halloween … Oops, Wrong Time of Year

January 18, 2017

Yesterday I wasted a ton of time playing against Shredder on my computer, and losing game after game… Finally I “dumbed the computer down” to a rating of 1977 just so that I would have a chance to win. And what do you know? I got a chance to play probably my nicest combination ever […]

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A New League in Town!

January 17, 2017

I’m sure it hasn’t escaped the attention of my readers that a new, worldwide chess league has come into existence. The old US Chess League is defunct, and in its place stands a NEW and BETTER chess league, called the PRO Chess league. (Yes, PRO is capitalized; no, I don’t know why; yes, I’m having […]

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Life Masters, Pretty Pieces

January 2, 2017

Welcome back! I’m officially ending my blog hiatus today, but I have to warn you that posts will continue to be very sporadic for the next month or two. My book still isn’t finished yet, and that has to be the #1 priority. Still, I will post here when I can, especially when I have […]

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The Kitten Awards

December 25, 2016

Hi everybody! My chess blog is not really back yet — I’m still working on my book — but I thought that on Christmas I could take a little time out for a Kitten Awards Show. As long-time readers of this blog know, my wife and I take care of foster kittens for the Santa […]

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Shocking Chess News

November 28, 2016

While the chess world waits for the epic twelfth game of the Carlson-Karjakin world championship match, there was another shocking piece of chess news halfway around the world that I’m still trying to digest. If you remember, the last serious post I wrote before going on hiatus was on the “Most Amazing Game of 2016,” […]

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Crunch Time

October 10, 2016

As many of my blog readers know, I’m working on a book project that has taken a lot of my time away from chess this year. That’s why I haven’t played in a chess tournament since February. It’s been hard to pass up on so many tournaments, because I usually like to play in at […]

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