US Chess League Nears Playoffs
By Arun Sharma   
October 16, 2009
USCLmainlogo.jpgWe are now getting down to the nitty-gritty in the US Chess League’s fifth season playoff hunt, with Week 7 of 10 in the regular season just having been completed.  I am going to start writing recaps for CLO, so that those who do not visit the league website or follow the games live on the Internet Chess Club can be informed about the most exciting weeks of the regular season. Single moves in the final weeks may make the difference between which teams go home and which move to the postseason. I’m going to give a brief rundown of how each team is faring thus far.

Eastern Division:

Boston Blitz (6.0 – 1.0): 
Having established themselves as one of the most consistent teams in the League, having made it to the Championship match the last two years and having won the Eastern Division two of the last three years, it’s really no surprise to see the Blitz at the top of the Eastern Standings again.  While many teams’ foremost goal may be to make the postseason, having locked their spot there with three weeks to spare is not likely to be very meaningful to Boston who will definitely be satisfied with no less than the division title which they will look to take a big step forward towards in their big Week 8 showdown against New Jersey.

New Jersey Knockouts (6.0 – 1.0):  Unlike the team they are currently tied with, the Blitz, the Knockouts are likely very relieved to be assured of the postseason already, with a late season collapse in both 2007 and 2008 keeping them a half of a match point out.  Especially sweet with this early clinching has to be the sweeping of the neighboring Knights, the team to knock them out of playoff position in the final week the last two seasons.  With first and second in the East almost assuredly being a battle between them and Boston alone at this point, the showdown between the Blitz and the Knockouts is crucial. It could well be a harbinger to a Semifinal rematch between those teams, with the victor in the regular season possessing both the psychological and draw odds advantage.

New York Knights (3.5 – 3.5): 
The Knights always come into the season with high expectations, plenty of star power and young talent in their roster. The Knights are one of two teams to make the postseason in each of their years so third place with a fifty percent record is a strangely ironic place for them to lie.  They scored a long string of victories at the end of the regular season in both 2007 and 2008 merely to nab the final playoff spot in the East so being in a solid playoff spot with three weeks to go is likely a welcome change.  On the other hand, with a team that definitely expects no less than a Championship, a fifty percent record is likely not something any of their players is proud about.  Whatever their mood, their team can certainly not rest on their laurels of currently being in playoff position as even if first or second in the Division is likely out of reach, many teams are knocking on the door with a potential to overtake the Knights for the third or fourth spot.

Baltimore Kingfishers (3.0 – 4.0):  
The very first USCL Champions from 2005 have not had smooth sailing since their Championship, never having even managed to return to the Playoffs, with their toughest season having come in 2008.  As such, like the Knights, their current position has to be somewhat of a relief and a disappointment at the same time.  But just as for every team, their mood must turn to the last few weeks, especially their upcoming Week 8 encounter with fifth place Philadelphia. They were poised to beat Philly in Week 3 before disaster struck on the bottom board, turning a likely won match into a loss.  Just as the Boston vs. New Jersey showdown is very likely to determine who comes out the top dog in the East, that match likely determines whether Philly or Baltimore will move beyond the regular season.

Philadelphia Inventors (2.5 – 4.5): 
Despite a rough 2008 season, things were look quite up for the Inventors in 2009, as with the addition of 2008 League MVP, GM-elect Alex Lenderman, to their roster, many were labeling the Inventors to be one of the favorites in the East this year.  Unfortunately, as often can be in the case in the League, things simply have not panned out the way they were hoping.  But however disappointed they might be with their current record, their team definitely still has it all to play for, being only a half match point out of a playoff spot at this point and matched up against the team currently leading them for it in the upcoming week.

Queens Pioneers (2.0 – 5.0): 
As the team which mostly dominated the Eastern Division in 2008, before slipping late and finishing second, the Pioneers too had to have high expectations for 2009.  An unfortunate mouseslip in Week 1 turned a likely drawn match against Boston into a loss. In their rematch with Boston last week, they seemed to have the better chances for a large portion of the match, before Boston turned the tide and won again. The breaks any team needs in the USCL just have not been there this season for the Pioneers.  While every team in the League with a losing record undoubtedly has more than one story of a close loss going against them to tell, just as for the teams right above them, Queens must concentrate more on the fact that their playoff hopes are still very much alive, even if their margin for error is almost zero at this stage.

Carolina Cobras (1.0 – 6.0):
  Having edged out Queens for the Eastern Division Title in 2008, the Eastern Standings this year have obviously incurred a curious flip-flop with those two teams now at the bottom.  Having not had a GM on their roster since 2005, the Cobras have often been a team which has had to play at a fair rating disadvantage in their matches, a statistic they admirably managed to overcome in 2008 with great consistent play from all of their players.  However, 2009 has seemingly seen the variance catch up to them as a combination of being outgunned and their players not able, to this point, to duplicate the play which produced their magical run in 2008 has caused a very rough season where their playoff odds are extremely long with three weeks to go.

Western Division:

Seattle Sluggers (6.0 – 1.0): 
Since their inception into the USCL in 2006, Seattle has always seemed to be a middling team – always in playoff contention, but never really at the top of their division late in the season.  That certainly has changed this year as with three weeks left, having clinched their playoff spot along and having a monster two match lead on their closest competitors in the West, Seattle is just a hair away from capturing their first Western Division Title.  With current US Champion and USCL MVP leader, GM Hikaru Nakamura, now living there and playing for them on a more consistent basis, it’s easy to see where this improvement has come from as he, along with GM Gregory Serper, have scored a whopping 6.5 / 7 on the top board for the Sluggers.

Arizona Scorpions (4.0 – 3.0):
  When the Commissioner called during the off season for more blogging in 2009, it seemed that Arizona answered the call with great vigor, and fortunately for them it seems to have paid off in their performance as well.  After missing the playoffs by the narrowest of circumstances in 2008, the Scorpions have to be very happy to be in second in the West on tiebreaks currently.  However, their position is far from secure with two teams only inches from overtaking them for second, and given how important playoff seeding is, with two of their last three matches being against the currently tied Sharks and the leading Sluggers, they are certainly not a team that will be coasting to any finish.

San Francisco Mechanics (4.0 – 3.0): 
Always one of the pre-season favorites, the Mechanics were blessed this season with the ability to put near GM, Sam Shankland, on Board Three together with NM, Yian Liou, on Board Four, a very rare commodity in the USCL which is very hard for any team to match.  This dynamite combination did not disappoint, jumping the Mechanics out to a strong 3.5 – 0.5 start, but unfortunately having been without Shankland in the last three matches, fortune seems to have turned against them, only managing a half point from their last three matches.  While still solidly in playoff position, the Mechanics need to find a way to turn this recent trend around soon if they are to avoid a very low seeding or even being outside the postseason, something that has not happened to them in four seasons of the league.

Miami Sharks (4.0 – 3.0):
  Last year’s Western Division Champions, the Sharks, like the Mechanics, started off on fire, but have also dramatically cooled down recently and likewise find themselves in a tremendous fight for both their playoff positioning and perhaps their playoff lives.  The Sharks have generally followed the results of their rock, four time All Star and two time MVP, GM Becerra, a rather good player to follow given his incredible league record.  Unfortunately, after having lost only one game in each of 2007 and 2008, he has for the first time since the league’s inception dropped two consecutive games.  The Sharks have a big test upcoming in Week 8 against the struggling two time defending Champions, the Dallas Destiny, who have ended the Sharks’ Championship dreams in the Semifinals for two consecutive years.  With a victory the Sharks would virtually lock up their playoff spot, and end Dallas’s chances of one. Given the history, it’s hard to imagine better motivation to win the upcoming showdown.

Dallas Destiny (2.5 – 4.5):
  The two-time defending champions find themselves in a very rare position, with their postseason hopes slipping away quickly.  In a League where in any given match, any team has a very realistic chance to score, it’s phenomenal that any team out of fourteen could manage to win the League two years in a row.  But it seems that that parity might be working against the Destiny this year, with many close matches going against them rather than for them.  While they are not out of it yet, they certainly have almost no margin of error left either, with this week’s rematch of their Week 1 defeat to Miami being a virtual must win to keep the dream of three-peat alive.

Chicago Blaze (2.5 – 4.5): 
The Blaze is another one of those teams which always seems to perform solidly but never can seem to get over the hump in stringing together several good victories.  While they, like the Destiny, cannot be happy with their current record, they are obviously cognizant of the fact that their playoff hopes are still very much alive after their most recent victory. It’s a fitting test that their upcoming match is against their fellow expansion team, Arizona, against whom they are scoreless in three matches.

Tennessee Tempo (2.0 – 5.0): 
After three seasons of playing many matches while severely out rated, the Tempo debuted in 2009 the double punch of GMs Ehlvest and Shabalov. So the Tempo, like the Inventors, had to be very optimistic about their chances in 2009.  A close win by Shabalov in Week 1 to give them a narrow victory seemed like a harbinger of good things to come.  Unfortunately, like Philadelphia, simple variance has not seemed to allow it go further in that direction, as after starting 2.0 – 2.0, the Tempo have lost their last three matches, all by the narrowest of margins, where with a break here and there their record might easily be 5.0 – 2.0 instead of 2.0 – 5.0.  The Tempo will need an ultra-strong finish and some help to achieve their postseason goal. Like the Blaze, to have any chance, they will have to overcome two of the three teams who have caused them the most hardship in the League to date, Seattle and San Francisco.

Week 7 Match Round Up (see for all results)

New York Knights (3.0 – 3.0) vs Philadelphia Inventors (2.0 – 4.0)

Philadelphia resting their top two guns, GM Sergey Kudrin and GM-elect Alex Lenderman, had many calling this a mismatch, but it proved to be anything but, as IM Bryan Smith scored a big upset win with the Black pieces against GM Giorgi Kacheishvili.


With the two middle boards both ending fairly uneventfully in peaceful results, the Inventors had a good chance to score a major upset, but it was not to be as NM Evan Rosenberg, in a worse position for most of the game, developed a battery on the eighth rank against young Kavinayan Sivakumar, winning him the Exchange and soon after the game to tie the match.


Carolina Cobras (0.0 – 6.0) vs Dallas Destiny (2.5 – 3.5)

While the season up to this point had not gone the way the Destiny had envisioned, they still had to like their chances to win against the Cobras who had yet to score any match points.  But as always, no match in the USCL can ever be taken for granted. Led by a wild, Game of the Week winning, Najdorf upset by FM Oleg Zaikov over IM Daniel Fernandez , the Cobras pulled off a surprising 3 – 1 upset.  While Zaikov’s games are generally not suitable for young children (as evidenced by his not having castled a single time in his last four games), this beautiful win bears showing anyhow.


Boston Blitz (5.0 – 1.0) vs Queens Pioneers (2.0 – 4.0)

Most statistical factors seemed to favor the Blitz all around.  It started out in that direction with SM Marc Esserman gaining a strong material edge right out of the opening against IM Yury Lapshun.  Lapshun fought valiantly, but Esserman played very smoothly, and the result was never really in doubt.


However, despite this quick start from the Blitz, the match for a good duration still seemed to be moving in favor of the Pioneers with IM Eli Vovsha gaining a strong edge right in the opening with Black against GM Larry Christiansen, IM Dmitry Schneider winning an exchange against GM Eugene Perelshteyn in the middlegame, and the Board Four result being very unclear.  However, young Andrew Wang outplayed his older opponent Jeff Kelleher in the sharp complications and with Perelshteyn achieving enough play to make a draw, the Blitz clinched the match even with Christiansen eventually succumbing to Vovsha in a wild endgame.


Baltimore Kingfishers (3.0 – 3.0) vs New Jersey Knockouts (5.0 – 1.0)

Another match where with Baltimore resting its two top guns, GMs Kritz and Erenburg, saw New Jersey start off with a big rating advantage, including having the undefeated GM Boris Gulko on second board.  The match started off in fairly natural form with White seeming to develop an edge on every board.  Likely realizing this, IM Albert Kapengut, in a very tricky position but with a big time advantage offered a probable team oriented draw which for the same reason, his opponent, Japanese Champion, FM Shinsaku Uesugi understandably declined.  Unfortunately, trying his hardest to win, the unthinkable happened: Uesugi flagged in a still very unclear but quite possibly winning position.


After this mishap, the wind seemed go out of Baltimore’s sails as Jared Defibaugh fell to Anna Matlin shortly after. Meanwhile, GM Joel Benjamin easily neutralized IM Tegshsuren Enkbhat’s minor edge to give New Jersey the match win.  GM Larry Kaufman fought valiantly in what seemed to be a very ugly looking endgame, even perhaps getting an edge at some point. Then in a fairly drawn position, in severe time pressure, the World Senior Champion fell into a swindle, losing the game and giving New Jersey a resounding victory.

Chicago Blaze (1.5 – 4.5) vs Tennessee Tempo (2.0 – 4.0)

Despite the Blaze having won all three previous meetings between these two teams, it would have been hard pressed not to consider the Tempo favorites in this match with their monster double GM lineup.  However, the Blaze’s mojo continued, led by a surprising tactical win by IM Jan van de Mortel, handing GM Jaan Ehlvest his first loss in fifteen games in the USCL


With two of the top three League performers facing off on Board Three, FM John Bick decided to try a very unusual opening against IM Angelo Young who responded in kind which led to a wild game where Young eventually rode his multiple pawns to victory.


These two wins, combined with a nice endgame comeback by young Trevor Magness against league veteran Gerald Larson were enough to give the Blaze the narrow win despite a win by GM Alex Shabalov against FM Florin Felecan.

Seattle Sluggers (5.0 – 1.0) vs Miami Sharks (4.0 – 2.0)

A much anticipated showdown, both in the match itself and on the top Board, a rematch from last year’s Quarterfinals which Becerra got the better of, eventually leading his team to victory.  Nakamura seemed headed towards avenging that loss early before Becerra managed to liquidate into a drawish ending. But a rare misstep by Becerra combined with sharp play by Nakamura still managed to net our US Champion the full point.


This win, combined with Seattle’s other big performer this season, NM Joshua Sinanan’s tactical win on Board Four against Miguel Recio, were the linchpins to Seattle’s victory.


Arizona Scorpions (3.0 – 3.0) vs San Francisco Mechanics (4.0 – 2.0)

The League website correctly described this as one of the most topsy-turvy matches in League history.  It began with NM Gregory Young seeming to have a major opening snafu against young David Adelberg, netting Adelberg a piece for two pawns with no obvious compensation.  Scorpion fans were undoubtedly chalking this one up as a victory when after a couple of missteps, the trivial endgame no longer seemed trivial, and then suddenly became losing, a shocking turn around.


With them seeming doomed on Board Four for much of the match, young FM Naroditsky looked poised to even the score with a nice strategic win over newly minted IM Daniel Rensch.  But in payback for Board Four, the unthinkable happened here also turning this result completely around also.


With Board Two having drawn early, it would all come down to Board One, a wildly complicated middlegame where it seemed that GM Vinay Bhat had a few real chances to get the better of the complications. With the players entering time pressure at that stage, both understandably went for a simplifying liquidation into what seemed like a fairly even ending.  But after all the drama on Boards Three and Four, this game was destined for something more special. It didn’t fail to deliver with White getting the better of the endgame. Though notoriously difficult to win against computers, Barcenilla managed to convert to give his team the narrow victory.

Watch round eight action live on the Internet Chess Club and check U.S. Chess League for blog links, games and more.