PRO Chess Overview — First 3 Weeks

by admin on January 24, 2019

So far in this PRO Chess League Season I’ve been focusing on the San Francisco Mechanics, since they asked me to be their official team blogger. But for a change let’s look at what else has been happening in the rest of the league through the first three weeks. This gives us a chance to talk about what some of the leading teams are doing right, instead of what the Mechanics have been doing wrong!

First, here are the standings:

Atlantic Division
Montreal (60.5)
New York (56.5)
St. Louis (46.5)
Montclair (45.5)
Webster (44)
London (19.5)
Miami (19)
Pittsburgh (18.5)
Pacific Division
Australia (59.5)
Chengdu (58.5)
Seattle (44)
San Jose (38)
Dallas (33)
Minnesota (32.5)
San Diego (27)
San Francisco (19)
Eastern Division
Tbilisi (58)
Armenia (56.5)
Moscow Wizards (46.5)
Mumbai (46)
Delhi (33)
Volga (32)
Estonia (20.5)
Moscow Phoenix (19.5)
Central Division
Norway (56)
Baden-Baden (51.5)
Barcelona (47.5)
Berlin (34.5)
Amsterdam (32.5)
Ljubljana (32.5)
Cannes (31.5)
Marseille (26)

Some general thoughts:

The numbers in the standings are a combination of game points and match points (10 points for a won match, 5 for a draw). At this early point in the season, you would get the same standings if you forgot about game points and just looked at match points. Seven teams have perfect 3-0 match scores: Montreal, New York, Australia, Chengdu, Tbilisi, Armenia, and Norway. Six teams have gone 0-3 so far: London, Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Estonia, and the Moscow Phoenix.

However, things will change next week with the first Battle Royale, when we will have eight-team all-play-all tournaments instead of the two-team matches we have seen so far. The bonus point schedule will be more complicated: 24 for first, 20 for second, 16 for third, 12 for fourth, 9 for fifth, 6 for sixth, and 3 for seventh place. (Eighth place, of course, gets 0.) This is sure to scramble up the standings quite a bit.

It’s amazing to me that there have been only three drawn matches so far: Baden-Baden vs. Marseille, Minnesota vs. San Diego, and Minnesota vs. San Jose.) This is quite surprising because the match format tends to produce close matches, and there have been tons of 8½-7½ and 9-7 results. If we call those matches “close,” then Norway, Armenia, and New York have all had nothing but close matches. This leads us to one so-obvious-it’s-stupid observation: with so many close matches, the teams that do well are the ones that can pull out that extra point or half-point consistently. And another, perhaps less-obvious observation: although we tend to pay attention to the headliners on board one, there are actually more points to be picked up on boards three and four, in my opinion. A 2800 player can’t really play very far above his rating, but a 2300 player can get hot and score at a 2500 or 2600 level.

The Atlantic Division is really weird, with five teams that seem super powerful and three that are struggling. If it continues, this trend could set up some interesting situations near the end of the season. Only four teams make the playoffs, so one of those five super teams (Montreal, New York, St. Louis, Montclair, Webster) won’t even make the playoffs. Two teams get “relegated,” and you can bet that the three weaker teams (London, Miami, and Pittsburgh) will be fighting hard to be the one that gets to stay in the league next year.

Now here are my thoughts on the teams that have gotten off to 3-0 starts:

Montreal Chessbrahs: Definitely the story of the season so far. Last year they finished seventh in their division and were “relegated,” meaning that they had to play in a tournament back in November just to qualify for the league. This year they are totally kicking butt, with the highest point score in the league, and this week they won a big showdown against the St. Louis Arch Bishops, a team that has Fabiano Caruana on board one and Wesley So on board two!

Why the big improvement over last year? I don’t know, because the PRO Chess website does not show last year’s rosters, but I suspect that a big ingredient has been the addition of free agent Ivan Saric, who has merely scored 11/12 (tied for best in the league so far) and has a performance rating of 2825 (compared to his FIDE rating of 2689). Also, Eric Hansen, the original “Chessbrah,” has been playing really well, with a score of 9/12. Here’s the scariest thought of all: Montreal has gotten out to the best start in the league without even having the services of their #1 player, Anish Giri! So far he has 0 points in 0 games.

But as I said above, maybe headline players are overrated. If you put in Anish, maybe you can’t play both Ivan and Eric (because of the rating cap of 2500 for the team). It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

New York Marshalls: As mentioned above, they have been winning the squeakers. Their game score is barely over 50 percent, so nobody jumps out as a star so far, but Sergei Azarov on board two has been a steady 8/12 for them.

Australia Kangaroos: They have to be considered a surprise story too, winning their matches by big margins. However, their Twitter feed says that their 10-6 victory over San Jose this week was a bit misleading, because they had “A LOT of luck.” Whether lucky or not, they have been helped hugely by Aleksey Sarana on first board, who has also scored 11/12 and way outperformed his FIDE rating (performance 2823, FIDE 2634), and also by Raymond Song on board four (5/8, with a performance of 2586 compared to his FIDE of 2305). One has to wonder whether this sort of performance is sustainable for them.

Chengdu Pandas: The Pandas have followed hard on the heels of the Kangaroos. (I’ll leave you to ponder whether this sentence could possibly make sense in any other context!) Chengdu has been the most democratic team in the league, fielding almost completely different lineups every week. Only Zhao Jun (6.5/8 on board two) has played in two matches. This makes it really hard to point to a star player for China, but the three-headed monster of Ding Liren, Yu Yangyi, and Li Chao (10.5/12 combined on board one) is pretty impressive. Chengdu made it to the league final last year, losing to Armenia in the end, and they have to be a favorite to repeat that performance this year.

Tbilisi Gentlemen: A newcomer to the league this year, and no, I don’t know the significance of their team name. They have been the exact opposite of Chengdu: they have played the same lineup in every match. Baadur Jobava has been good on board one, but the real stars have been Nika Volkov (6.5/12 on board four) and Giga Quparadze (8.5/11 on board three). They are exhibit A for my claim that there are more points to be gained on the lower boards; Volkov’s FIDE is 2115 but he has been playing at a 2535 clip. Not that this is necessarily surprising: his chess.com rating for bullet chess is 2777 and his blitz rating is 2731! He is clearly not your ordinary 2100 player.

Armenia Eagles: You would expect that the defending champion would be crushing their opponents, but every match has been a tight struggle. No board on their team has scored better than 7/12. Again, board four may be the difference maker, where Artak Manukyan and Anna Sargsyan have scored 6/12 against much higher-rated opponents.

Norway Gnomes: It’s remarkable to see Norway doing so well because their roster (unlike in past years) does not seem to include a certain World Champion. However, they have managed to win three close matches in a row with Jon Ludvig Hammer (3/4) and Aryan Tari (5.5/8) at the helm. No one else on the team has a score better than +1.

Will teams like Norway, Armenia, and New York continue to win the cliffhangers? Will powerhouse teams like Chengdu and St. Louis eventually dominate? Will the early-season surprises like Australia and Montreal continue to outperform their ratings? Stay tuned!

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