As I write this, we are just hours from the opening pawn pushes of the 8th US Chess League season. And what an exciting season it will be! One of the major innovations of the season is that the games will be shown on both ICC and Chess.com, and there will be live commentary on every single USCL match, from today until the Championship match on December 1st; thus creating the possibility for many more fans to enjoy the scintillating play the league has offered for years already. But enough of that, this is the place for my personal evaluations of the teams.
Before I begin, I want to make one disclaimer: I am obviously "biased" in favor of the West and of San Francisco, having played for the Mechanics in all preceding USCL seasons. Kevin Wang may well have just won a large East Coast Open, and have another 100 rating points coming his way, and I'd be none the wiser. But I am quite aware that Samuel Sevian has earned 2 IM norms in the past three months. (also for anyone who gets confused about mentions of Fantasy Teams and Drafts-- I am running a fantasy USCL competition, and we held our draft this past weekend; the research for that draft largely informed these predictions).
There are six criteria I will use to evaluate the strength of a team, in order of how important I think they are: 1. Under-rated kids 2. Big guns 3. USCL over-performers 4. Teamwork/attitude 5. Strong lineups 6. Flexibility.
1. Under-Rated Kids
Traditionally in the USCL, given the 2400 rating cap on lineups, the best way to get extra value was to have a player who had recently improved dramatically. Since you could use the rating list from the previous September, those players (usually kids) would have had an entire year to improve, and their ratings might be 200 or even 300 points out of date. In past seasons players like Sam Schmakel, Yakov Norowitz, Michael Bodek have been huge assets to their teams. As one example, last year Schmakel counted as 1920 towards his team's average rating, was already rated 2200, and performed 2400. That is the kind of player that makes a team!
But this year, the earliest legal rating supplement is January, a good adjustment, which will reduce the importance of these under-rated players a little bit. Still, it will be an important factor, but I think it will be similarly important to having "Big Guns," whereas in past seasons it was clearly more important. Here are some of the up-and-comers this season that could provide decisive boosts to their teams:
Joshua Colas (CT), Chakraborty (AZ), Samuel Sevian (SF), Jeffery Xiong (DAL), Alex King (MAN), Yian Liou (SF), Michael Bodek (NY, again!)
There are certainly others that I have overlooked, but these were the top ones on my radar going into the draft, and I managed to nab 5 of them
I want to mention one other detail about these under-rated youngster. In many cases, they don't fare great in their first USCL season, needing to gain comfort and familiarity. And then afterwards they have break-out performances. So to me youngsters who already have a season of experience, but are still under-rated, are the most valuable commodity in the league.
2. Big Guns
A player can not count as more than 2600, when averaging the strength of a lineup. So if you have any player rated above 2600, they are immediately providing extra value. A player like Robert Hess, rated 2717, provides an extra 120 points of value, comparable to some of the most under-rated kids. Additionally, a "Big Gun" can simply provide an unanswerable threat on board 1, and inspire their entire team. Of note: the average rating of first boards in the Eastern Division is *much* higher than in the Western Division. This means that during the regular season, an East board 1, has to be much stronger to stand out as a valuable "Big Gun," than a Western board 1. In the east, in addition to Hess, I see Shankland and Lenderman as the other stand-out board 1s. Lenderman will often play board 2 for NY, behind Kacheishvili or Gelashvili, despite his 2700 rating. And with his sterling USCL record, I think he was probably the #1 pick for Fantasy USCL. In the West, Becerra and Akobian are the two big questions. Becerra, despite being lower rated than Nakamura, Hess, Lenderman, Shulman, Akobian, or Shankland, dominated the USCL for the first 6 seasons, before an off-season last year. Being in the West helps, and I think that as manager of the Sharks he is committed to this season, so I expect a resurgence. Akobian only played 3 games for the Sluggers last year, flying from L.A. for each match. If he played a lot, he obviously has the class to totally dominate the West. However, I expect him to once again play little, and be a non-factor, in how the West breaks down.
3. USCL Over-Performers
There are some players who routinely outperform their rating in the USCL. They are perhaps more comfortable playing online, more comfortable playing with an increment, or care more about the USCL than other people. Players like Will Fisher, Conrad Holt, Lenderman, Shankland, Becerra, Esserman, and Vinay Bhat spring to mind. Having one or more of these players on your team is a big asset, as several of these players are able to sustain performance ratings well above their actual rating. However, when I actually looked up some numbers I found that there were a lot of players who had a single season with a huge performance (Lenderman, Fisher, Holt), but that over the course of 3-4 seasons, nobody really performed more than 80 points above their rating, so the impact of having someone who performs better in the USCL is less than having under-rated kids or big guns. For example, Becerra who has dominated the West throughout his USCL career has a career perf of 2673 v. a rating of 2616-- clearly less important than the extra value one gets on a Sam Schmakel.
that's a #1 Draft Pick!
4. Teamwork and Team Attitude
Whether the team prepares together, whether the stronger players help out the weaker players, whether the players tend to take the time to prepare at all, whether the players like each other, and whether the team has confidence going into their matches, are all factors that can have some value for the team. But I don't want ot rank this element too highly, because I think largely it is a produce of the previous three. To whit:
People like winners. If you have some USCL heros on your team, the other teammates will like them, because they are winning. Then you have a team of people who like each other. Then they'll enjoy their matches, prepare more for them, and help each other out. ==> Good attitude!
5. Strong Lineups
How good is this team's strongest 2-3 lineups? The monster lineups of the past years were 3 GMs plus one 300-400 point under-rated kid. Having access to one of those lineups could mean a team with an average rating of 2490 in the playoffs facing another team with an average rating around 2410.
Sometimes you have several really good players, strong, underrated, good USCL performers. But your lineups just don't quite work.
Here's an example of how important it can be for your ratings to work out:
Based on who are under-rated and will be good USCL performers, Dallas would love to run the following lineup:
but this lineup comes in at 2402 so it's just barely illegal. Since they have no player lower-rated than Gater, they could be in trouble. What if they had to substitute Getz at 2415 in place of Chirila? They'd be losing over 100 points in strength. This could be very awkward. However, they have Puchen Wang perfectly positioned at 2523 to take Chirila's spot in that lineup, and make it legal at 2398, and one of the stronger lineups in the West.
Some teams have one good lineup, or have 4 good lineups, but all those lineups are built on one player. Over the course of a 10-week season, will their key player or 2-3 players always be available? Usually not. Such a team will bit-by-bit lose out to a team that has many different reasonable lineups.
Now here are my predictions for the results in each division:
Overall, the west is quite a bit weaker than the east this year. This appeared really clear to me when I was preparing for my fantasy league draft, with the exception of two teams in the West which I think are on-par with teams in the east. Thus my strategy in drafting was to get as many players as possible on those good western teams, as they would frequently be matched up with the teams which I consider weaker, allowing me to cherry-pick easy match-ups.
1st place - Dallas Destiny
This team has several potentially under-rated players: Jeffery Xiong is phenomenally good; they are getting him at a 75 point rating discount on his current rating and in a month or two it'll be more. Alec Getz tied for first in his group in the U.S. u-20 championships this summer. And on the bottom three boards they have 3 teenage masters; the odds of one of those three finding their stride and being a good asset for Dallas are quite high. They have three GM players between 2540 and 2580, all of whom are a good value for that rating, and give them flexibility in choice of lineups. As I mentioned earlier, their dream lineups are not quite legal, but I still think they have equal firepower to SF, and will edge SF out based on team spirit: there is a really positive chess community in Dallas.
2nd place - San Francisco Mechanics
SF is somewhat similar to Dallas in their make up: they have several rapidly improving kids on boards 3+4: Sevian and Liou who are each approaching IM strength both weigh in at good-value ratings. Additionally, they have already got the experience of playing a season in the league, which I've found for youngsters is often necessary before they have a great performance. Wheeler is a newcomer, but is also an under-rated kid. Perhaps he won't deliver anything for SF till the 2013 season, but one can't be sure. SF's top 3, Kraai, Bhat, and Naroditsky are all strong, seasoned USCL performers who will tend to be slightly favored on boards 1 and 2 against most of their opponents. Again, Sf has a few strong lineups like:
Kraai-Bhat-Sevian-Wheeler, which is legal but is already 2430 in today's ratings. This would not be spectacular in the east, but few can match it in the west-- and I think Bhat and Sevian definitely bring even more value than their current ratings. Along with Dallas, SF is the only team with more than one reliable board 1, and with the flexibility of many near 2400 lineups.
There's a reason that I put SF below Dallas, but I won't betray my teammates by revealing it.
There's quite a drop-off from these two teams to:
3rd place Miami
Miami, like many other Western teams, needs their top board to play in order to be competitive. But Julio is manager, and I'm counting on him to have a very committed year, after 2011 was his only off-year. So I snapped him up with my second draft pick, expecting him to play a ton of matches, and score heavily against a lot of western teams that will send IMs out to battle him. I'm also expecting assistant manager Eric Rodriguez to play a lot. He is a good USCL performer, and so I also grabbed him for my fantasy team. Basically, the only way Miami does well this year is if they frequently play the very strong lineup: Becerra-Perez-Rodriguez-Rosenthal (the low-rated Rosenthal has actually provided some good value in past seasons for the Sharks, winning two playoff games in 2010, so he is quite reliable). This lineup is probably as good as the Dallas and SF lineups (I say probably because I am not sure how strong the rapidly-rising Perez is), but because they lack flexibility I doubt they can keep up with those teams in the regular season. That said, finishing third is good enough to get them into a playoff match with SF, which, like always, they will then win, using their strong lineup.
4th place L.A.
L.A. relies on Khachiyan to play board 1 for them, though they also have some balanced lineups with a mix of 23-2400 rated players. Those lineups are not as good as the best lineups however. Balancing out your lineup to have a 2300 on board 4 does not make up for missing GMs on 1 and 2, if the opposing team has an 11 year old 2200-2250 on board 4. While I can see Khachiyan playing a fair amount, and Kavutskiy doing a good job of picking lineups, and keeping the players motivated and focused, overall their lack of under-rated youngsters and USCL stars means they don't have the firepower to improve on last year's performance. They get overwhelmed in the semis by Dallas.
5th place Arizona
This team is just a step behind L.A. On paper they may actually be a bit better, with Chakraborty providing 100 points of under-rated value (I scooped that up too!), and Altounian finding a killer stride last year, and having the makings of a possible USCL star. But this team plays from two locations: Tuscon and Phoenix, and this means that their flexibility is badly hurt. Without much power on the top boards, and perhaps a bit of lack of team cohesion/spirit, I expect them to get disappointed at some point in the season, and fall behind L.A. and Miami, even though I consider these 3-5th teams to be in the same tier.
Their strongest legal lineup, btw, is Molner Altounian Mohandesi Chakraborty, and though they'd be outmatched on 1+2 vs. SF or Dallas, they might have an edge on 3 and/or 4, and Molner and Altounian are both coming off good seasons, and very capable of buckling down and scoring against higher-rated opponents.. But I don't know how often they will play this lineup.
6th Seattle Sluggers
If Akobian played every week, Seattle would be a top team-- maybe *the* top team. But last season he played 3 games, and I expect him to play a similar number this year (he has to fly from L.A. to Seattle for each match), so even though he has the class to dominate board 1 in the West, I did not want him on my fantasy team; I wanted whoever was going to play *against* Orlov or Cozianu. Seattle did a good job in getting Feng and Lessler, two very promising young masters, but on boards 1-3 they will usually be playing players who are no better than their ratings. Not good enough to finish in the top 5 this year!
7th Carolina Cobras
When you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all.
Just kidding. These guys are awesome, and consistently outperform their ratings. I am convinced they really love playing in the league, and I would not be that surprised if they managed to leapfrog two teams to 6th place. But then again, on paper it looks like 7th would be a good result for them.
8th St Louis Archbishops
I'm disappointed. The city that brought us the U.S. Championships, Junior Championships, and Women's Championships. The team that brought us Naka-Yury-Finegold-Finegold. I expected more from the chess capital of the U.S.! All I can think when looking at their 2012 roster is that they have lost interest in the USCL. Therefore, even though you may be able to construct strong lineups for them, I did not even have the heart to try. I expect them to semi-give up at some point early, and not put out whatever those strongest lineups are.
Chances of reaching the playoffs:
Dallas 100%, SF 100%, Miami 70%, L.A. 66%, Arizona 64%, others 0.
Semis: Dallas beats L.A. (or Arz); Miami beats SF.
Finals: Dallas beats Miami, and advances to tie New York with a record 3 USCL Championship match appearances.
Tomorrow I will preview the deadlier Eastern Division!