PRO Chess League, Week 1: It’s Yoo Again!

by admin on January 8, 2019

Although Google says that San Francisco and San Jose are 48 miles apart, it really is all one metropolitan area: If you drive from one to the other on highway 101 or El Camino Real, you will never have a moment when the urban landscape stops. So when the San Francisco Mechanics and San Jose Hackers squared off in the first week of the PRO (Professional Rapid Online) Chess League, it was a lot like neighbor versus neighbor. Think Hatfields versus McCoys. Brooklyn Dodgers versus New York Giants. Duke Blue Devils versus North Carolina Tar Heels.

When I looked at this match in advance, it did not look promising for the Mechanics. There were two reasons for my lack of optimism: Mamedyarov and Yoo.

The first name is familiar to almost everyone. Just as they did last year, the Hackers have Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, the world’s third-highest rated player, playing for them. This is not merely a psychological advantage. As I understand it, the rules of the PRO Chess League require the average rating of the players on a team to be under 2500 – but there is a catch. Players rated over 2700 are counted as if they were rated 2700. Because Mamedyarov is actually rated over 2800, San Jose’s average rating was 2518, while San Francisco was forced to field a lineup with “only” a 2498 average.

But there was another X factor, or maybe I should say Y factor: Christopher Yoo, the breakout star of the San Francisco International tournament that just finished yesterday. Although his FIDE rating is under 2400, Yoo was beating grandmasters right and left in the San Francisco tournament. If he continued playing that way in the PRO Chess League, San Jose’s actual strength might be more like 2550, and they would be prohibitive favorites.

However, anything can happen when you actually sit down to the chessboard, especially when there are only 15 minutes for each player. An exciting comeback by the Mechanics fell just short, and the Hackers won by the slimmest margin, 8½ – 7½.

Here’s a round-by-round account.

Round 1: No drawn games in this round, and two upsets already! Christopher Yoo continued his grandmaster-killing ways with a victory over GM Yannick Gozzoli. However, Vinay Bhat—for many years the X factor for the Mechanics—scored an upset of his own by taking out GM Zviad Izoria, leveling the score at 2-2. Vinay has an unusual chess resume: he has played in only one over-the-board tournament in the last eight years, but he continues to play and score well online. If we include seasons in the US Chess League (precursor to the PRO Chess League), he has now played 12 seasons for the Mechanics. His ability to play on the increment (5 seconds a move!) and to take down highly-rated grandmasters is legendary.

Round 2: The grandmaster killer struck again, in especially stunning fashion: Christopher Yoo beat Daniel Naroditsky, the Mechanics’ #1 seed for this week! You could tell something was wrong when Danya sacrificed a pawn for an attack, and pretty soon it was Christopher who was attacking. Again there were no draws this round, but this time the Hackers took the round, 3-1, as the other three games were all won by the higher-rated player. At this point things were looking pretty grim for the Mechanics. If Mamedyarov could go 4-0 (a definite possibility) and Yoo could go 4-0 (which seemed possible given that he had already beaten the Mechanics’ two best players), the Hackers could win in a rout.

Round 3: It got even worse. At one point Gozzoli seemed to have Mamedyarov on the ropes, but the wily Azerbaijani wriggled out to a draw. Bhat could only manage a draw against San Jose’s fourth seed, Ivan Ke. Naroditsky-Izoria was a relatively bloodless draw. That left Yoo versus Ezra Chambers. After Yoo’s wins against grandmasters, we did not expect Chambers to put up much resistance. Nevertheless,he found a way to crack the young prodigy – by playing an eccentric opening in which he left his bishop on f1 and his knight on g1 for at least 20 moves. David Pruess and Andy Lee, who were doing live commentary on Twitch.tv, said they were taking bets on which one would move first, and which square it would go to. (Answer: knight to f3.) Eventually Chambers got a 2-pawn advantage, and in spite of his lack of development seemed to be in very good shape. As Ezra said, “I was completely, unbelievably crushing.”

But I’ll bet you can figure out how the story went. People only say things like that after blowing an advantage, and that’s what happened here. Instead of consolidating, Ezra tried to blow Yoo off the board with tactics. And you know how well it works to open the position up when you have inferior development. Yup, it doesn’t work. So Ezra went down to a crushing defeat. Instead of winning the round, San Francisco lost the round 2½ – 1½, and now faced a nearly insurmountable 7½ – 4½ deficit with one round to go.

Round 4: Early in the round, the Hackers seemed to be trying to draw all four games, starting with rather tame openings. They did get a draw in the first-board matchup, Mamedyarov vs. Naroditsky, but the Mechanics were arguably happy with that result, because Mamedyarov outrates Naroditsky by 150 points. Realistically, Naroditsky’s job was just to draw that game and hope that all of his teammates could win.

In the board-four matchup, Ke seemed to lose patience and sacrificed a piece wildly for an attack that wasn’t really worth a piece. Chambers was happy to redeem himself for his failure in round three by accepting Ke’s sacrifice and then accepting Ke’s resignation a few moves later.

The big shock came on board three. We had gotten so used to Yoo being the grandmaster killer that we forgot who he was paired against – Vinay Bhat, the Mechanics’ patron saint of lost causes. Yoo got what appeared to be a crushing endgame advantage, but then he allowed Bhat too much counterplay. Both of them were under 10 seconds on the clock, which played to Bhat’s strength. In a knight endgame, Bhat managed to get his knight to a square where it blockaded Yoo’s connected passed pawns (which were on f2 and g4). Meanwhile, Bhat had connected passed pawns of his own at e6 and d6, and there was no way for Yoo’s knight to blockade them. At that point, Yoo’s flag fell. So the kid really is human, after all!

Thus, everything came down to Gozzoli’s game against Izoria. Gozzoli definitely seemed to have the upper hand, with a two-pawn lead at one point. But his position was riddled with weaknesses – Pruess said that he had “two pawns and no dark squares” – and he was unable to stop Izoria from getting a perpetual check.

In the end, Yoo’s result of 3-1, with wins over GM Naroditsky and GM Gozzoli, was probably the most important factor in the match. But San Francisco’s comeback made things a lot more interesting at the end than they should have been, and it gives us some reason to be confident about the future. As Pruess pointed out, whenever you lose a match by only one point, you think of games that could have flipped the script. Certainly one game that could have ended differently was Chambers’ game against Yoo. But if you do that, you’ll be second-guessing yourself forever.

Next week: A match against the Australia Kangaroos. Pruess says that San Francisco may use its “secret player” – whose identity he is not revealing so that Australia can’t prepare against him. I’m not sure if I really believe in such stunts, but I can understand that it’s Pruess’s first year as manager and he wants to manage. So … we’ll see if it works!

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