No Giants here

by admin on October 28, 2010

Everyone is delirious in San Francisco this morning after the San Francisco Giants took the first game of the (baseball) World Series over the Texas Rangers, 11-7.

Everyone, that is, except for the chess players. Last night the San Francisco Mechanics lost to the Miami Sharks in the US Chess League, thereby failing to qualify for the playoffs. This is the first time in the league’s six seasons that the Mechanics have missed the playoffs.

I have not been following the play very closely, so it would be presumptuous for me to try to explain what went wrong for the Mechanics this year. On the other hand, that’s a fan’s prerogative, isn’t it? To voice opinions, preferably loudly, about things you don’t know anything about?

The strange thing about the Mechanics’ season was that it started out very normally. After five matches they were 4-1 and seemingly cruising toward the playoffs. Then, amazingly, they lost five matches in a row. The first three were very competitive matches against very tough teams — a 1½ – 2½ loss to Boston (#2 in the Eastern division), a 1½-2½ loss to Arizona (#1 in the Western division), and a 1½-2½ loss to St. Louis, which did not make the playoffs but in this match played their “murderers’ row” of Nakamura, Shulman, and Finegold. That was one of only four matches all year when St. Louis was able to field their “A” lineup, which had a preposterous average rating of 2521. (Remember that the teams are supposed to have an average rating of 2400 or less, although various loopholes make it possible to exceed that figure by a substantial amount. Nevertheless, 2521 is by far the highest average rating in league history.)

So I would call those three matches tough luck against some really tough opponents. But in the last two rounds, San Francisco totally collapsed against opponents they had beaten earlier in the season, losing to both Seattle and Miami by lopsided scores (½-3½ and 1-3). What happened? I don’t know. You’d probably have to look at the individual games. But it seems like kind of a snowball effect — once things start going wrong, they just get worse and worse. If the Mechanics had just managed to draw these two matches, they would have qualified for the playoffs.

However, even if they had made the playoffs, the Mechanics were not the dominating team of past years. I think the number one reason for that is easy to see: They missed Sam Shankland. Sam was a linchpin on the 2006 league champions and also an important player in 2008. He was the Mechanics’ “secret weapon,” the underrated player on board three or four whom they could usually count on for a full point. (In four seasons, he had a spectacular record of 20-6.) The Mechanics already missed him to some extent last year, when he was too high-rated to play very many times for them. This year, Sam was “traded” to the expansion team, the New England Nor’easters (actually, Sam is going off to college). He played very well for New England, scoring 3-2 against brutal opposition.

Of course, the Mechanics were supposed to have a new secret weapon on board four, Yian Liou, but Yian just didn’t have that good a season, and that really messed up the winning formula. He had one win (in week two), five draws, and two losses. The two losses came at the worst time, in the last two weeks, and they both came against lower-rated players. I know it’s pretty tough and heartless to blame the Mechanics’ failure on a pre-teen kid who was just doing his best. So I won’t do it. But definitely this was a difference between 2010 and previous seasons.

Also, for reasons I do not know, Vinay Bhat did not play for the Mechanics this year. In the past he has been a very strong first board, or sometimes second board, with a lifetime record of 20-10, and during the Mechanics’ glory years of 2006-2007 he was just about unbeatable. Nobody will ever forget the way he defeated Hikaru Nakamura in Hikaru’s debut game in the USCL in 2007. Without Vinay, first board was a revolving door for the Mechanics and no one really did well; the team’s combined record on first board this year was 4½-5½.

Now let’s put aside the Mechanics’ disappointing finish and look at the other major stories of the year. The biggest surprise of the year had to be the unbelievable performance by the New England Nor’easters, who went through the regular season with a record of 9½ points in 10 matches. That annihilated the record for the best team winning percentage, which had been held by the 2006 Mechanics, who went 8½-1½. What I especially love about the Nor’easters’ season is that they did it with a balanced lineup. No grandmasters, just a solid bunch of international masters. If there is any team in the league like the baseball San Francisco Giants, who have made it to the World Series with a lineup of journeymen and castoffs from other teams, the Nor’easters would be it. They are certainly the team I will root for in the playoffs.

The other remarkable story is the failure of the other new expansion team, the St. Louis Arch Bishops, to make the playoffs. I’ve already mentioned their stacked lineup, which includes the two highest-rated players in the league (Nakamura and Shulman) plus a strong grandmaster, Ben Finegold, on third board. The Arch Bishops were totally analogous to the basketball Miami Heat, the team that on paper appears to be a prohibitive favorite. But in chess as in basketball, ratings aren’t everything. The first problem for the Arch Bishops was that Nakamura and Shulman weren’t available every week, because of their busy international playing schedule. As it turned out, in one of the crucial matches of the season — against the Nor’easters — St. Louis was only able to field a team with average rating 2228, which for this league is ridiculously low. The second problem was that even when Nakamura and Shulman were available, they didn’t always find it easy going. In the four matches where St. Louis did have its “A” lineup, they were still nicked for two ties, and they won the other two by narrow 2½-1½ margins. Fourth board was, of course, a catastrophe for St. Louis, as they scored only three draws and seven losses in ten matches. For their “stacked lineup” strategy to work, they really need to find a class-A player on fourth board who can often hold a draw and sometimes actually win a game against experts or even masters. If they could do that, they’d be awesome. It’s hard to find people like that, I know, but there are quite a few of them in the San Francisco area. We’re not sharing, though!  😎

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

HA81 October 31, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Another example of the “hierarchy” in the USCL. Saying that the St. Louis team “really need to find a class-A player on fourth board who can often hold a draw and sometimes actually win a game against experts or even masters.” is throwing a player from another team directly under the bus. I don’t know anyone on the St. Louis team, I did play bridge with Ben Finegold in Portland a long time ago, but I have to say that I find this comment reprehensible. Your analysis of teams is fine, but directly calling out players on another team like this is not right. I personally would hope that some form of apology is forthcoming from the Mechanics or Mr. Mackenzie to the affected parties over this blatant insult. Also, if I were in St. Louis I would tell you that anyone with this type of attitude isn’t wanted in St. Louis, so sharing isn’t in the equation. Good title though… “No Giants Here” is right!


admin November 1, 2010 at 9:17 am

I’m sorry that this comment looked like an insult. It certainly was not intended as one.

There’s a subtext here that was probably not clear. In no way am I criticizing the St. Louis fourth board(s), who performed roughly as their ratings would predict and thus have nothing to feel ashamed about. What I was referring to was the common practice of finding underrated players to play fourth board. Very often such players are up-and-coming scholastic players. My last comment was referring to the fact that San Francisco (by virtue of its strong scholastic chess scene) has been fortunate to produce a lot of players like this in recent years — just look at Danya Naroditsky (world under-12 champion), Sam Shankland (world under-18 champion) and now Steven Zierk (world under-18 champion). When I said we’re “not sharing,” this was of course a tongue-in-cheek comment that means, in essence, that we are very proud of our homegrown talent. However, the irony is that we ARE sharing; in fact, Sam Shankland went to the New England Nor’easters this year and performed very well.

Hope this makes my intent clear!


HA81 November 1, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Thank you for clarifying that.


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