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 fun with the “shift” key on my keyboard.)
Why is it NEW and BETTER? First, just check out the map. Instead of 20 teams, all based in the U.S., the new league has 48 teams in four divisions, and it is truly global in scope. There are teams from Africa, South America, Europe and Asia. To me, it is absolutely amazing that commissioner Greg Shahade has been able to scale up the league so successfully. It’s also a tribute to the global popularity of chess.com, which is both hosting and sponsoring the league. And it’s also a tribute to the new generation of chess players, who have grown up playing online and knowing no national boundaries. It’s their eagerness to organize teams that has made the league possible.
The league is also NEW and BETTER because of a new format. The games will be faster: game in 15 minutes, with a 2-second delay, instead of the slower time controls of the past. This will enable teams to play all against all: each of the four boards plays against all four boards of the opponent. Just imagine you are the fourth board for Reykjavik or Patagonia. If your team gets paired against Norway, you too may get a chance to play against Magnus Carlsen! (I say “may” because teams can change their lineups within and between matches.)
And the PRO Chess League is NEW and BETTER because of the star power. Look at some of the players who have signed up! Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, … When you watch football or baseball or any other sport, you want to see the best players. The US Chess League was pretty awesome, but it didn’t quite have the best. Now the PRO Chess League does. It’s not a minor league any more. I think this means the league has potential to attract real media attention.
There is also some real money at stake, as there should be in a league that calls itself “PRO.” The first-place team will receive $20,000, and there are various other prizes every week of the season. It’s up to the teams to decide whether they will also pay their professional players. (More on this in the P.S. below.)
In other professional sports leagues, there are salary caps and it’s public record who is getting paid how much. That’s not true in the PRO Chess League, and it could pose a fairness problem. However, in chess we also have something that other sports leagues don’t have: a rating system. Instead of a salary cap, the league has a rating cap; no team can have more than a 2500 average rating for a match. (Except that, as in the USCL, teams can get 10 bonus rating points if one of their players is a woman.) Hopefully, this will be enough to prevent a situation where the “rich get richer.”
I asked Greg Shahade (by e-mail) what motivated him to form the new league. He wrote, “We morphed into the PRO Chess League because it was clear that our old format just wasn’t working in terms of growing the popularity of chess in the U.S.A or the world. We were lucky to find a great partner in Chess.com who shared the same vision as us.” That vision includes faster time controls, more fun, and more action.
According to Greg, the first week of action drew 40,000 spectators around the world, and the live broadcasts lasted for 13 hours (!). Think about that. Forty thousand. That number would fill up a decent-sized sports stadium. And it can only grow from here.
I also talked with Judit Sztaray, the manager of my “hometown” team, the San Jose Hackers. (For people in the Bay Area, it’s going to be painful to decide whom to root for, the Hackers or the San Francisco Mechanics, one of the six remaining original USCL teams. I’ll root for both of them, except for this week when the Hackers are playing against the Mechanics.)
I think that the Hackers might surprise some people, because people always underrate San Jose. To start with, they have a legitimate top-ten player in the lineup, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. They also have four other grandmasters: Rauf Mamedov, Daniel Naroditsky (a defector from the Mechanics!), Zviad Izoria, and Ioan-Cristian Chirila. And they have the usual murderer’s row of young stars for board four, including Teemu Virtanen, Ivan Ke, and Christopher Yoo.
The first team to find out how good the Hackers are was the Webster University team (the Webster Windmills). Most or all of the commentators had Webster as the favorites, but San Jose handed them a resounding 11-5 defeat — and that was even with a forfeit loss by Mamedyarov in the first round! Christopher Yoo, with a rating of 1818, nevertheless managed to beat a Grandmaster and an International Master and draw another Grandmaster, for a 2½-1½ score. I think that teams with strong board fours (1800 players who can beat grandmasters!) will have a significant advantage in this league. All of the other San Jose players had positive scores as well: Mamedyarov 3-1, Naroditsky 2½-1½, and Chirila 3-1. Naroditsky’s win against GM Priyadarshan Kannappan won an online poll for “move of the day.”
I asked Sztaray how they had managed to sign up Mamedyarov, who of course lives in Azerbaijan, not San Jose. First I should mention that teams are allowed to sign up “Free Agents” from elsewhere in the world. However, at most one Free Agent can play at a time; the other three players have to be designated “Locals,” which means roughly that they live within a two-hour driving distance or have a demonstrated connection to the city. She explained that Zviad Izoria and Faik Alekserov live in San Jose and Rauf Mamedov visits about twice a year. All three of them grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, and were good friends with each other as well as with Mamedyarov. It was easy to sign up Zviad and Faik as Locals, and to persuade Rauf to join as a Free Agent. Although Mamedyarov surely had offers from other teams, he preferred to play on the same team with his friends. It’s refreshing to see that, even in this new PRO world, friendship matters!
The one hiccup for San Jose in the first week was that Mamedyarov had never played on chess.com before, and he wasn’t able to navigate the logging in process fast enough to play his first game. (Players have to start within 3 minutes after the beginning of the round, otherwise they will be forfeited.) Judit took the blame for this problem, saying that they should have practiced logging in ahead of time. In any case, it shouldn’t be an issue in future weeks.
Now comes week two, and that brutal match against the San Francisco Mechanics. The challenge got even tougher this week when grandmaster Sam Shankland signed up to play board one for San Francisco. (He qualifies as a Local, having grown up in the Bay Area.) Will the current Mechanics beat the former Mechanic (Naroditsky)? Will the Baku Battalion overwhelm the all-American lineup for San Francisco? And most important, which of the super-kids playing board four for both teams will step up and score the crucial points for their team? The answers are only one day away!
P.S. I just received an e-mail from John Donaldson, the manager of the Mechanics, which came too late for my original post. I asked him about the funding, and he said that there is no league-provided pay for players this year. The old US Chess League did provide a weekly stipend for each team until its last season. Greg Shahade and chess.com must have decided that the new league was better off spending money on a large prize fund instead of giving each team a steady income. Judit confirmed that Bay Area Chess is paying the professional players on their team, but not the junior players. I did not ask John whether the Mechanics are paying any of their players.
John also commented that in the first week of play, the quick time control seemed to work in favor of some of the younger players, but some of the “old guard” scored well too, such as Jim Tarjan (age 64) scoring 2½ out of 4 for Portland.
P.P.S. League commissioner Greg Shahade says that they stopped paying stipends to teams a little bit longer ago than John’s recollection — like 3 or 4 years ago. He says it was a “bad business model.”