by admin on January 21, 2020

Welcome to the first blog post written on my new laptop! I don’t have a chess program on my laptop yet, so I will have to do with some makeshift diagrams and no computer analysis. Maybe that will be a refreshing change!

While I was away, the fourth season of the PRO Chess League got started, and we are now into the third week of a seven-week regular season. As I’ve written previously, there were some major shakeups this season, specifically:

  • Fewer teams, 24 instead of 32. As I wrote before, when a league shrinks it is seldom a sign of good health, but we’ll have to see.
  • Only one team per country, except the U.S., which gets four. This seems a bit unfair, but perhaps understandable because the league grew out of the older US Chess League and the leadership is all in America.
  • My “home team,” the San Francisco Mechanics, are now part of a more amorphous team called the California Unicorns.
  • No rating limits. This is reportedly a change motivated by the desire to attract sponsorship. One of the best things about the old league was that teams had to find third and fourth boards who were strong, under-2400 players, and often this brought new young talent into the league. Now the league is just another GM showcase.
  • Unlimited “free agents,” but at most two (out of four) players in any given week can be free agents. For example, Canada looks to be a real powerhouse this year, because their free agent list includes powerful non-Canadians like Grischuk, Giri, and Firouzja. Wow! However, quite a few teams have opted to go “all-local”: Brazil, Argentina, China, France, India, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Turkey. Good for them!
  • Time control of 10/2, even faster and more chaotic than before.

Although my initial reaction to most of these changes is negative, in chess one should always evaluate the position by the pieces left on the board, not by the pieces that got traded off. If the product is still good, entertaining chess (and how can it not be?) perhaps the changes will be seen as a positive thing in the end. Certainly a league that prospers is better than one that dies due to lack of financial support.

Yesterday I watched the newly christened California Unicorns square off against the Argentina Krakens in a key early-season match for both teams. California was tied for fourth and fifth in the Western Division, while Argentina was just a little behind in sixth place. Only four teams per division make the playoffs, so California was right on the bubble.

Rating-wise, California was favored to beat Argentina. We had grandmaster Sam Shankland on board one, free agent GMs Alexey Sarana and Grigoriy Oparin on boards two and three, and GM Daniel Naroditsky on board four. This is an ironic return to the early days of the US Chess League, when the Mechanics used to have Naroditsky on board four as an up-and-coming young master, rated 2200 or so! Now Naroditsky is a GM rated over 2600, and still only on board four because the league is so much stronger.

In spite of the ratings, it turned out to be a really tough match, with lots of amazing turns of fortune. Here’s an example from round two:

Black to move.

Oparin, as Black, was playing against the lowest-rated player on Argentina’s team, IM Martin Bitelmajer (the only non-GM in the match!). Here I think Black’s best move looks like 1. … h4+, forcing 2. Kf3, and then 2. … Bd4 looks strong — in fact, it threatens mate in one! 3. Ne3 seems forced, and then I think that Black is practically winning after 3. … Be6. If 4. R3b8 Black will play 4. … Bxe3, which forces White’s king even farther from the h-pawn. If 4. Rb5 h3 looks decisive. And if 4. Rd3 Bb6, Black’s two bishops are completely paralyzing White’s rooks and knight. Eventually the passed a- and h-pawns should be decisive.

However, Oparin played another move that seems totally natural: 1. … Be4??, seemingly setting up a lethal pin on the long diagonal. Do you see what is wrong with this?

The answer was the shocking, out-of-nowhere 2. Rg8+!, after which White’s position suddenly goes from losing to winning! After 2. … Kxg6 3. Nxf6+ Kg7 4. Nxe4 White’s hungry knight gobbles up both of the powerful Black bishops! This is a truly impressive example of an aphorism that I made up a long time ago: “Knights in time trouble are worth double.”

Amazingly, Oparin managed to save a draw, but this was typical of the back-and-forth struggles in this match.

Going into the last round, the match was tied 6-6. In the last round the players face each other in order of rating, which usually makes for really exciting chess because there are no mismatches. (In the earlier rounds, you sometimes get mismatches, for example when each team’s board one plays against the other team’s board four.) But one after the other, the slightly higher-rated Unicorns wore down the slightly lower-rated Krakens. On board one, Flores sacrificed an exchange for no compensation against Shankland. On board four, Bitelmajer got into a terrible version of a Maroczy Bind against Naroditsky. On board two, Ponsa and Sarana played an absolutely berserk blunder-fest where each player was winning and each player was losing at least twice. But in the end, Argentina had a bagel for the final round — zero points — and California ended up with a 10-6 victory. The score makes it look like an easy win, but it was anything but!

In the day’s other matches (all in the Western Division), New York crushed the U.K., 13-3; Canada won a laugher against Brazil, 12.5 – 3.5; and St. Louis won an unexpectedly tight match against Chicago, 8.5 – 7.5. If I’m computing it right, the standings in the Western Division are now:

  1. Canada – 65.5
  2. St. Louis – 60
  3. New York – 49.5
  4. California – 46.5
  5. Chicago – 35.5
  6. Argentina – 29.5
  7. Brazil – 13
  8. United Kingdom – 12.5

Looks good for California so far, but there’s still a long way and lots of tough matches to go!

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