Eagles Skewer Pandas in Championship Match

by admin on April 8, 2018

Season two of the PRO Chess League has now ended, and the Armenia Eagles are the champions! In fact, the championship match went exactly as Hikaru Nakamura predicted. He said in an interview before the match that he expected an 8-8 tie and then expected Armenia to win in tiebreaks because of their superior blitz chess. (The tiebreak consists of 3-minute games with a 1-second time increment.) And that’s exactly what happened.

Going into the last round of the match, the Chengdu Pandas has a 6½-5½ lead, and in the early stages of the last round things looked very promising for them. Armenia’s fourth board, Artak Manukyan, wildly sacrificed two pawns for dubious counterplay and looked as if he was on the way to defeat. That would have forced Armenia to make up a two-point deficit, and none of the other three games looked all that promising for them to win.

Black to move.

FEN: r1b1r1k1/pp3ppp/6n1/3q4/1B1pnP2/3B3P/2P3PK/R2QNR2 b – – 0 1

But in the position above, instead of  playing the safe 1. … b6, planning to move the bishop to b7 with a nice battery on the long diagonal, China’s fourth board Chu Ruotong played the suicidal 1. … Bf5?? Manukyan pounced on his opportunity with 2. Ra5, skewering the queen and bishop … and then he offered a draw!

In fact, he would have been winning after 2. … Qd7 3. g4, trapping Black’s bishop.  Why did he offer a draw? It’s all psychology. When you’ve been in a losing position for a while, just hoping to escape somehow with a draw, and then your opponent makes a mistake, sometimes it’s hard to re-orient your thinking to the fact that you might actually win. When he played his move, he probably thought, “Maybe this will worry my opponent enough that she will take a draw.” (Both of them had less than 2 minutes left.) Chu was worried, all right — she saw that she was dead lost, so she had to take the draw offer.

The shocking turn of events must have left both players shaking their heads, but the bigger picture was that Armenia was still alive, needing only to win one game to catch up. And Karen Grigoryan came through for them, winning a pawn and outplaying Xu Xiangyu in the endgame. Now the match was even at 7-7, with the games Zaven Andriasyan – Wang Yue and Samvel Ter-Sahakyan – Ni Hua still going.

But not for long! Both of those games were quickly agreed to draws, as both teams apparently preferred to play it safe and go to the tiebreaker instead of attempting to win in “regulation.”

Here are how the tiebreakers work in the PRO Chess League. It starts with #4 playing #4. Then when one of them loses, he is eliminated and the #3 player for that team replaces him for the next game. And for each game after that, the loser gets eliminated and the next higher player on that team plays next. If there is a draw, then both players get eliminated. Finally, if it comes down to #1 versus #1, they keep playing games until someone wins.

The thing I hate about this format is that 90 percent of the time it will come down to #1 versus #1, and the earlier games are essentially meaningless. It turns a team competition into an individual competition — who has the best first board? I hope that they’ll look for a better tiebreak method in the future, but I don’t think it’s very likely because it seems to be popular with the fans (all of the fans except me).

So, indeed, the match did come down to #1 versus #1. For historical completeness, I will report that China’s #4 beat Armenia’s #4, then Armenia’s #3 beat China’s #4. Then the two #3 players drew, eliminating each other. Then the two #2 players drew, eliminating each other. Thus, the whole season came down to Wang Yue versus Zaven Andriasyan.

Although Yue is rated much higher than Andriasyan in  regular (long time control) chess, Andriasyan is a beast at blitz. He had won a “Titled Tuesday” tournament at chess.com earlier this year, against a number of super-GM’s, and I think that this was the basis of Hikaru’s forecast that Armenia would win the tiebreaks. The first game of the tiebreak was very exciting, as Yue defended brilliantly against Andriasyan’s attack and even seemed to have some winning chances in the endgame, but they ended up drawing. The second game of the tiebreak was a quick and relatively uneventful draw. But in the third game, Andriasyan’s pressure was too much. In a Q+B versus Q+B endgame he had an extra pawn and a much more active queen, and he ended up skewering Yue’s king and bishop. Then, for good measure (already a piece ahead) he skewered Yue’s king and queen! At that point Yue threw in the towel, and Armenia celebrated their hard-earned victory.

The number of viewers online got as high as 27,000. Does anyone know how this compares with the number of online viewers of “traditional” events like the world championship or the Olympiad? All I can say is that for a chess event, that sounds like a lot of viewers to me.

Congratulations to commissioner Greg Shahade and the whole chess.com team. The chess was far from perfect, but if you want perfect chess, go watch AlphaZero beat Stockfish. This was an exciting, fun, and somewhat chess-like competition, and I think that is the main point.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Hal Bogner April 9, 2018 at 2:16 pm

I had similar thoughts about the tiebreaker. The “last man standing” method invented by league commissioner Greg Shahade is a great twist in applying the idea of a sports shootout, but pro hockey first inserts a 3-on-3 session (a few years ago, they played overtime as 4-on-4), whereas normal play is 5-on-5. My idea is to start the playoff with blitz (whether 3 minutes +1 second increment, or perhaps 5+2), across all four boards playing in order – and if the first match is tied 2-2, drop the board 4, and play a new match with just the top three boards, and then two boards, and only then 1 vs 1. In rounds 2 and 4 and beyond, one side or the other will have an extra white, too. Much harder to feel in control when you don’t know if you need to keep the draw in hand, or to take risks to make up for risks or loss elsewhere.

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