In Praise of Finishing Third

by admin on February 19, 2020

Because I was in the midst of playing in the U.S. Amateur Team West tournament on Monday, I wasn’t able to write my usual timely coverage of the PRO Chess League. For any California Unicorn fans out there who were waiting for my post (How many of you are there? One? Two?), I apologize for letting you down.

Although I didn’t watch the games, I can at least give you an after-the-fact summary of what happened and why. The short version is this: Week seven went exactly the way the Unicorns wanted it to go. We had our largest margin of victory all season, an 11-5 triumph over the U.K. Lions. Team manager David Pruess tells me that everyone was in peak form this weak. Although the Lions were near the bottom of the standings, any team with Michael Adams and Gawain Jones is not to be taken lightly.

Because this was the last week of the season, I’m sure that everybody’s eyes were on the scoreboard. The Unicorns were trying to overtake the New York Marshalls and move into third place in the standings. The Marshalls (who were in third place going into the week) faced a tough match against the Canada Chessbrahs (who were in second place). If the Marshalls lost and the Unicorns won, then the Unicorns would move into third. No ifs, ands, or buts.

But…! It didn’t turn out to be that easy. The Marshalls actually pulled out an 8-8 tie with the Chessbrahs. Now who’s on third? The answer was pretty amazing. First, it was essential for the Unicorns to beat the Lions by a huge margin. Mission accomplished! Even so, it shouldn’t have been enough. The Marshalls should have beaten us by the slenderest margin, half of a point. They should have had 113.5 points to our 113 points, the closest margin ever in PRO Chess League history.

But…! One of the Marshalls players did not show up for the match with the Chessbrahs! I don’t know the reason. He probably had a perfectly good reason. But the league has a zero-tolerance policy toward last minute lineup changes. Preparing for your opponents is a big part of team strategy. If last-minute changes were tolerated, there would be chaos in literally every match, every week. So there is a mandatory 2-point penalty for every last-minute substitution.

The Marshalls had to accept the 2-point penalty because playing the match with only three players would be even worse. But the 2-point penalty reduced their season point total to 111.5 points, and that put the Unicorns into third place! The final standings for the Western Division were:

  • St. Louis Arch Bishops — 147 points (best in the league, too)
  • Canada Chessbrahs — 124.5
  • California Unicorns — 113
  • New York Marshalls — 111.5
  • Chicago Wind — 79.5
  • U.K. Lions — 57.5
  • Argentina Krakens — 48
  • Brazil Capybaras — 45

Wow! Although it’s a shame to win on a technicality, that shows what a nail-biting week this was.

So here’s the playoff picture. The top four teams in the division all qualify, automatically. Not only that, one of the three fifth-place teams also qualifies — the one with the highest performance rating for the season. As it turned out, the Chicago Wind came out slightly ahead of the Hungary Hunters (fifth place in the Eastern Division) and the Italy Gladiators (third place in the Central Division), so they qualify for the playoffs too.

So far all of our matches have taken place within our division. But in the playoffs, the focus shifts to interdivisional matches. The Unicorns will first face the China Pandas, a traditional powerhouse that didn’t do as well this season and finished fourth in the Eastern Division. If we win that match, we will go up against the Germany Bears, who finished first in the Central Division. If we win that match, we will qualify to play in the finals, which will be held in Norway. (Thanks to David Pruess for all of this information, which is unfortunately not so easy to find on the PRO Chess League website.)

Although it’s completely silly, I can’t help thinking that there were two significant thirds on Monday. My team, the Kolty Chess Club, finished third in the U.S. Amateur Team West tournament. And the team I root for in the PRO Chess League, the California Unicorns, also finished third. Who ever said that “winning is the only thing”?

Stay tuned for the Unicorns’ first playoff match, which will be played in early March!

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