It’s Their League …

by admin on October 13, 2019

… But we don’t have to like it!

The PRO (Professional Rapid Online) Chess League officially announced that its fourth season will start on January 6, and there have been some major changes. The big ones are:

  • The league is contracting from 32 teams to 24. This is the opposite of what they said last year that they would do. I challenge anybody to show me an example of a professional sports league that became better by contracting. No, contracting is what you do the year before your league collapses.
  • No rating caps. Previously, for the entire history of the PRO Chess League and its predecessor, the US Chess League, teams could not exceed a certain average rating. (I believe it was 2400 for the US Chess League and then went up to 2500 for the PRO.) Rating caps were a huge part of what made the league fun and unique. They guaranteed that teams from smaller cities could be competitive. Also, very importantly, underrated young players on board four became a key to success. This meant that young players got a unique opportunity to play against superstars like Magnus Carlsen, Fabiano Caruana, and Hikaru Nakamura. There will still be some kind of cap on the number of players over 2700, but that is far less effective at democratizing the league. It just means that 2600s can play. Big deal.
  • Teams are now given country names and are “considered to be representing their country.” And yet… The U.S. gets four teams. (Every other country gets only one.) And yet… Free agency will still exist. In what sense will, say, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov be representing his country if he plays for Italy? This change is so bad that the PRO Chess League is undermining its own decision.
  • No relegation. At last a change that I somewhat agree with. In previous years, teams that finished in the bottom two of their division were “relegated” — they had to re-qualify the next year or else they were out. While this is a familiar concept to soccer fans in Europe it seems strange to any American sports fan, and I think that the PRO Chess League management is probably right that the drawbacks (lack of continuity) outweigh the benefits (teams that are out of the running for the playoffs have something at stake in the final matches of the season).
  • Larger prize fund. This is probably what’s driving the other changes: What the sponsors want, the sponsors get. But I don’t think that it is worth ruining your product and changing your “brand” in order to make a few people wealthier who are already wealthy anyway.

The comments I’ve read on chess.com about these changes are almost 100 percent negative. It’s clearly their chess league (i.e., the commissioners, the sponsors whom we don’t know much about), not ours. They can run (or ruin?) it in any way they see fit, whatever the fans might think.

Presumably there are some good reasons for these changes. We don’t know what is happening behind the scenes and what it takes to run a league. I hear that Chess.com’s commissioner, Danny Rensch, is keen on making chess attractive for television (think ESPN), and I totally agree that this is a direction that chess should go. It kills me that poker gets so much coverage on ESPN and chess doesn’t. Supposedly the folks at ESPN would not understand rating caps, and they think that the audience will only tune in to see the best players.

If that’s the argument, I disagree. Audiences like fair competition, and they love an underdog. Why do so many people watch the World Series of Poker? Because an ordinary guy in a loud suit (think John Hesp) can get on a good run and challenge the best pros. Because chess doesn’t have a luck element, we can never duplicate poker in this respect. But we can require teams to have a junior player and/or a woman player.

Or we could, you know, even educate fans about the rating system. It’s not that hard. Other pro sports have incredibly elaborate systems for leveling the playing field – salary caps, rules on how much you can pay a rookie, a second-year player, etc. Most fans, I think, just tune these out. They know that the rules are there, and they appreciate the fact that the rules make the leagues more competitive, and beyond that they don’t need to know the details.

In chess we’re lucky that we actually have a direct way of measuring playing strength. But if the rating system is too complex for fans, then we could go back to money, which people understand. The rules could go like this: You can pay a 2800 player up to $3000; you can pay a 2700 player up to $2000; you can pay a 2600 player up to $1500; you can pay a 2500 player up to $1000; and so on. You have a team salary cap of $6000. Now go and put together any lineup you want. (I have no idea if these figures are reasonable, I’m just throwing the idea out.) Tell the fans that there is a salary cap system in place, and let the details be public record for any wonks who really care about it. I don’t see how ESPN could have any objection to this.

In conclusion, I would like to ask for a moment of silence in honor of the following teams that are now dead, though no fault of their own. Maybe they should form a new league.

  • Estonia Horses
  • Volga Stormbringers
  • Riga Magicians
  • Oslo Trolls
  • Marseille Migraines
  • Cannes Blitzstreams
  • Ljubljana Turtles
  • Reykjavik Puffins
  • Miami Champions
  • Montclair Sopranos
  • Minnesota Blizzard
  • Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers
  • San Diego Surfers
  • Dallas Destiny
  • Australia Kangaroos
  • San Jose Hackers
  • Seattle Sluggers
  • Rio Grande Ospreys
  • Las Vegas Desert Rats
  • Tbilisi Gentlemen
  • Moscow Phoenix
  • Barcelona Raptors

There is still one – count ‘em, one – space left open for a qualifier, so one of these late lamented teams may get a chance to rise from the grave. I’ll be rooting for the Tbilisi Gentlemen, because they were the best team in the regular season last year. Of course, they’ll have to be renamed the Georgia Gentlemen because of the rule that teams outside the U.S. have to represent a country. If the players on the Minnesota Blizzard want to move to Antarctica, then I’ll root for them.

And in addition, I’d like to welcome the following new or new-ish teams, even though I don’t quite understand why they deserve to be in the league and Tbilisi (Georgia) doesn’t.

  • Hungary Hunters
  • Israel Counsellors
  • Spain TBD
  • Turkey Knights
  • Italy Gladiators
  • Poland Pierogies
  • France Roosters
  • Chicago TBD

(TBD = Name To Be Determined. I’d suggest calling the last team “Chicago WTF” because I don’t understand why the U.S. gets a fourth team that has never even been in the league before.)

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Roman October 14, 2019 at 5:39 am

Israeli soccer league became better when it contracted from 16 teams to 12, and then worse when it expanded from 12 to 14. There wasn’t enough talent for 16 teams.

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