End of Season Blues

by admin on March 12, 2019

Tonight was the final night of the regular season for half of the teams in the PRO Chess League. For the San Francisco Mechanics, it was our last chance to make an improbable comeback and qualify for the playoffs.

To recap the whole season to this point, we started out the year very badly with three consecutive losses to San Jose, Australia, and Seattle, which left us in last place in the Pacific Division. But the season is long, and we finally found some lineups that were able to win some matches. Undoubtedly the star of the year was our first board (for most of the matches), Daniel Naroditsky, but also Steven Zierk on second/third boards and Andrew Hong on fourth board demonstrated an amazing amount of resilience.

Gradually we crept up in the standings, from eighth to seventh place and then to sixth place. We had two goals: reach fourth place to qualify for the playoffs, or failing that, at least stay in sixth place or above to avoid “relegation.”

Week nine was our moment of truth, and we were not able to rise to the challenge. In a match against the Minnesota Blizzard, we led 8-4 with four games to go and needed only a single draw in those four games to win the match. Had we done so, we would have moved up to fifth place in the standings and would have been in an excellent position to fight for a playoff spot in the final week.

Unfortunately, we had an epic meltdown – all four players lost and we ended with an 8-8 tie. Going into this week, we still had a mathematical chance to qualify for the playoffs, partly because the Battle Royale format of the last week is conducive to large moves in the standings. The team we had to catch up with was the Australia Kangaroos, and we would need a really strong performance to do so.

Unfortunately, it became clear very early on that it was not going to be our week. We lost to Australia in the first match, 1.5-2.5, falling farther behind the very team we wanted to catch. After an okay 2-2 tie against Chengdu, we had absolute disasters against Minnesota and Dallas, losing both matches by 0.5-3.5. After that, the playoffs were out of our reach and our main concern was to avoid falling behind Seattle and back into seventh place.

Fortunately, Seattle was also having a rough night, and when reports started appearing in the chat window that Hikaru Nakamura (their #1 board) was playing his games blindfold, it became clear that the Sluggers were running up the white flag. Despite the format of the Battle Royale that was intended to keep the suspense going until the very end, the last three rounds were strangely anticlimactic. All four teams that were leading in the playoff race remained comfortably ahead of their pursuers, and the two teams that were fighting to avoid relegation (Seattle and San Diego) never put up much of a fight. In the end, these were the results of the Battle Royale:

  1. Minnesota – 19.5
  2. Australia – 17
  3. Dallas – 16
  4. San Jose – 13.5
  5. San Francisco – 13
  6. San Diego – 13
  7. Chengdu – 10.5
  8. Seattle – 9.5

The big surprise was the very poor performance by Chengdu, which looked like the best team in our division for most of the season. Minnesota deserves a lot of praise for their victory, which also propelled them to first place in the final standings for the regular season:

  1. Minnesota – 219
  2. Dallas – 214
  3. Chengdu – 200.5
  4. Australia – 198
  5. San Jose –175.5
  6. San Francisco – 164
  7. Seattle – 136.5
  8. San Diego – 112

In many ways, I would say that Minnesota had the kind of season that we were hoping to have, after our brutal start. Minnesota likewise got off to a not very good start, losing in the first week and drawing in the second and third weeks. But they found their form after that. It’s particularly noteworthy how well they performed in the three Battle Royales, the eight-team round-robin tournaments that awarded a lot of extra points in the standings. Minnesota won two Battle Royales and finished second in the other, which might make them the best Battle Royale team in the league. Unfortunately for them, the playoffs will not be Battle Royales but head-to-head matches, in which they were less dominant.

As for the San Francisco Mechanics, our season is done. In the end, it was pretty disappointing. Our good play from weeks four to eight gave us hope, and if only we could have begun the season over again I think we might have been a playoff team. But we were so far behind after three weeks that we could only make the playoffs if everything broke almost perfectly for us. That emphatically didn’t happen. The epic collapse against Minnesota was the worst, but there were lots of points that got away from us in the other matches too, especially this week.

I’ll show you one crazy finish that kind of epitomizes what kind of a night it was for us.

You’d think that after half a century of playing chess, with thousands of games played and watched, there would be nothing that could happen on the chessboard that I had never seen before. Think again! This game is, I believe, the first time I have seen a check immediately answered by a checkmate, at least in a game between two grandmasters. (If anyone else can think of another example, let me know!) This game was between Daniel (Danya) Naroditsky, playing the Black pieces for us, and Fidel Corrales, the first board for the Minnesota Blizzard.

Black to move.

FEN: 3r3k/p6p/1p3R2/4Q3/4b1pq/1BP5/PP6/6K1 b – – 0 1

Danya seemed to spend the whole night playing wild sacrificial attacks that petered out into draws. And that is what should have happened here, after 1. … Qh1+ 2. Kf2 Qg2+ 3. Ke1 Qd2+, with perpetual check on d2 and g2. (In this line 3. Ke3?? would be suicidal because of 3. … Rd3+ and 4. … Qg3+.)

However, Danya opted for tragicomedy and played 1. … Qe1+?? However, his opponent missed the punch line, which would have been 2. Rf1 mate! Instead, White played 2. Kh2?? Now see if you can find the win for black!

The answer is 2. … g3+!!, when the pawn is taboo because of 3. Qxg3 Qh1 mate! And 3. Kh3 isn’t much better, because 3. … Bg2+ picks up White’s queen due to the discovered attack.

I’m sure that Danya would have found this variation if he had any time on his clock, but he was down to 6 seconds. I don’t care how good you are at Puzzle Rush, I don’t think you’re going to find 2. … g3+ in 6 seconds.

Instead, Danya played 2. … Qh1+?? 3. Kg3 Rd3+? And this time Corrales, given a second chance, found the correct idea, 4. Rf3 mate!

Yes, you read that right. The last two moves were … Rd3+ and Rf3 mate. Check answered by checkmate. I have to say, I was just as stunned as Naroditsky must have been. (The people watching his livestream reported that he punched the table twice.) I was looking at my computer screen, wondering, “Why is it saying White wins when Black still has 6 seconds left? And why does it say White wins when Black is so obviously winning?” It only gradually dawned on me that while Black may be winning, he is also in checkmate and so technically, according to the rules of chess, he has lost.

What a crazy finish to a crazy year, huh? From a draw to a win to a loss in four moves, and even when the game is over the fans can’t tell who won. Only the computer knows for sure!

This wraps up my coverage of the San Francisco Mechanics for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! Certainly I enjoyed the chance to write about the Mechanics and to get more involved with the best example of a truly international sports league that the world has ever seen.

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