|Hilton Blogs on the USCL at the Halfway Mark|
|By Jonathan Hilton|
|September 27, 2008|
The U.S. Chess League is a team competition. There are Championship teams, team grudge matches, team managers, and team sponsors. But, sometimes—in chess, as in sports or war—the story of some individual will rise above the overall team battles, allowing us to focus on a narrow set of heroic acts that symbolize the ideals of the larger struggle. I’m talking, of course, about the two “Game of the Week” awards won so far this year by chess street fighter Jorge Sammour-Hasbun. |
Imagine, if you will, Sammour-Hasbun during a League match. His pupils are astutely scouring a backlit computer screen, searching his opponent’s encampments for some weakness, a weakness. He has already sacrificed two pawns and knows his ultimate breakthrough must come quickly. His sleeves are rolled up to his elbows; his muscular arms are crossed. The ruffles in his earth-colored shirt buoy the observer’s eye upward toward his thinly-trimmed beard. Like the ornate wooden helmet of a Viking is his gelled black hair.
But hark! He moves. With the swish of a mouse, he sends a knight flying into the enemy encampments: the noble sacrifice of a White steed breaches a dike of Black pawns, allowing the brave Sammour-Hasbun to spin thrice before hurtling his major pieces through the newly-opened holes in the enemy lines with the strength of a discuss-thrower...
Am I getting carried away? Perhaps. But the five games chosen so far to receive the honor of “Game of the Week” do symbolize the League at its best. In the description above, SM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun is leading the Boston Blitz to victory over the San Francisco Mechanics, capturing his second Game of the Week.
Sammour-Hasbun won his first Game of the Week prize at the start of the League, back in Week 1, when he defeated GM Alexander Shabalov in a wild and messy struggle. As one of three Game of the Week judges, I actually had this game ranked second myself, since—as Elizabeth Vicary has taught us—Shabalov is at his most vulnerable in round 1.
...Yet, after seeing how White attacked Black in this game, it’s clear even a first-round Shabalov must still be feared and respected. Fellow Game of the Week judges NM Arun Sharma and IM Greg Shahade were smart enough to make this game their first pick, allowing this game to cruise to first place and net Sammour-Hasbun the fat $100 purse.
Sammour-Hasbun’s team, the Boston Blitz, now stands at 3-2, putting it in clear third in the Eastern Division of the U.S. Chess League. Above it stands the New Jersey Knock Outs with a 3.5-1.5 record. Leading the pack of the Eastern Division, ahead of both New Jersey and Boston, the Queens Pioneers stand alone at 5-0. In fact, this puts Queens a solid point and a half ahead of any other team in the League, East or West. Let’s take a look at how Queens managed to dominate the first half of this year’s League.
In 2007, the Queens Pioneers finished with a 4.5-5.5 record, failing to even qualify for the playoffs. But this year, the Queens have swept the field. What changed? First, Queens added the solid IM Alex Lenderman to their roster. IM Alex Lenderman is another player besides Sammour-Hasbun who might go down as a U.S. Chess League hero. A newcomer to the League, Lenderman has won every single one of his first four games. Check out Lenderman's article from last week, including annotations of his win over IM Mark Ginsburg. (Lenderman sat out in Week 5, allowing GM Stripunsky, IM Schneider, and IM Vovsha to lay waste to the New York Knights.) He’s also leading the Most Valued Player competition with 13 MVP points, putting him 3 points ahead of San Francisco’s Josh Friedel. Yet Lenderman still has a long road to travel if he wants to top GM Julio Becerra’s record of 53 MVP points in the League, 23 in 2007. (To learn more about how the MVP competition works, see http://www.uschessleague.com/LeagueLeaders.html .)
Queens’ performance has also been helped by the young NM Parker Zhao, who has played for Queens twice. Zhao succeeded in pulling off much-needed victories both times: first against FM Danny Rensch of Arizona in Week 3, and then against FM Ralph Zimmer of Baltimore in Week 4. I voted to rank the former game the top prizewinner of Week 3; Zhao had to outplay his higher-ranked opponent in a 75-move slugfest to bring home victory for Queens.
Yet, as IM Ginsburg—who plays for Arizona—pointed out, the game contained some major inaccuracies by FM Rensch. The other two judges, NM Arun Sharma and IM Greg Shahade, both favored another game. Since I began judging in the 2007 season, I’ve developed a bit of a reputation as a maverick judge—in fact, I’m known to occasionally pick games nobody else in their right minds would—yet I’m glad that in this case, my peculiar tastes paid off. My patronage allowed this game to at least glean the $30 third place prize. (You can read the full article on the Week 3 Game of the Week judging.)
There is no clear leader in the Western Division. The Dallas Destiny and the San Francisco Mechanics are locked in a tie for first, both with 3.5-1.5. At 2.5-2.5 stand Miami, Chicago, Arizona, and Seattle. Bringing up the rear is Tennessee at 1-4, which has had difficulty producing results on their bottom boards, despite having brought in GM Jaan Ehlvest as their new top gun.
San Francisco had held a clear lead in the Western Division until it was decimated by Boston 3-1 in Week 5’s cross-division match. One star of the SF team is IM Vinay Bhat, who finished second in the MVP race last year. Bhat won a Game of the Week early on in Week 2 when he defeated Chicago Blaze’s IM Emory Tate in this dramatic struggle.
Western Division co-leader and defending champions Dallas Destiny has yet to produce its own Game of the Week masterpiece, but there is still plenty of time to do so.
If you’ve managed to read all this and are still dying to know more about the League, there is no shortage of new literature produced daily on it for your viewing pleasure. League Commissioner Greg Shahade links to nearly everything on the League site. There, you’ll be able to find links to League videos, blogs, essays, pictures, polls, and even poetry. From time to time, I wonder what inspires chess players across the country to produce so much content about the League. But, judging the “Game of the Week” competition each week, I’m reminded once again of how exciting chess can be. ♦
Be sure to follow the U.S. Chess League on the official website and the Internet Chess Club, which broadcasts live games. Look for more coverage of the U.S. Chess League, in two weeks when Chess Life Online editor Jennifer Shahade returns from the Mind Sport Games in China.