New time controls, new faces and a new schedule brought excitement to the first week of the U.S. Chess League. Fans saw a little bit of everything — a 4-0 sweep, an all-FM lineup, and plenty of cross-town and intrastate battles.
The defending champion Seattle Sluggers, now without last season's leader GM Varuzhan Akobian (who after three seasons with the team is now a St. Louis Archbishop), began their title defense by putting a strong FM atop their lineup. While GM Timur Gareev will fly in when possible, this week they rolled the dice with three FMs and one WFM, holding the Arizona Scorpions to a 2-2 tie.
The Scorpions top boards scored 1.5/2, but the match was evened on board three when FM Curt Collyer avoided a host of possible repetitions, allowed a promotion, but mated his opponent anyway.
The new divisional format means twice-a-year meetings between proximate teams, and the first battle of California took place between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Northern California took bragging rights by winning both of their Black games. Together with two draws, the Mechanics beat the Vibe 3-1.
Teenage IM Daniel Naroditsky took control of the dark squares to take the full point convincingly, but the Game of the Week nomination went to Siddharth Banik for finding his nirvana with the Marshall-esque finale 29...Qa3!.
The Miami Sharks have usually gone as far as league superstar GM Julio Becerra can take them, but this could be their year as the addition of another GM means Becerra can now play board two. GM Yuniesky Quesada joined the team, and the twin GMs promptly went 2-0 on the top boards against the lower-rated Carolina Cobras. NM Tony Arencibia slowly picked off a handful of pawns on board three to clinch the match, and despite dropping the bottom board, the Sharks won 3-1.
Akobian's new team, the Archbishops, began the season disappointingly, in addition to his personal slow start. Upcoming GM Conrad Holt dispatched Akobian on the top board, but the other new St. Louis grandmaster, Anatoly Bykhovsky, evened the score by winning on board two. From there, tiny FM Jeffrey Xiong put the Dallas Destiny back on top. He showed some pinache with the exotic 5.Na4!? but eventually won by breaking through much later on the dark sqaures to earn his team a narrow 2.5-1.5 opening week win.
The classic New York-New Jersey rivalry, which was just contested last week on the football field, was renewed on the chessboard this week. New Jersey's double-GM lineup didn't net a team victory but it did get them 1.5/2 on the top boards. GM Joel Benjamin led his team by slithering past GM Pascal Charbonneau's Snake Benoni-like opening system. The well-timed exchange sac netted him a Game of the Week nomination.
Even more exciting was IM Irina Krush - GM Boris Gulko on board two, which ended in a draw after the Knockout's veteran GM offered his queen to wrest the iniative away from White. The clever idea netted them both the third and final Game of the Week nomination.
But board four played a big part in the contest after young NM Nicholas Checa won and thus drew the hard-fought match.
The Amtrak Acela Bowl saw the Manhattan Applesauce easily get by last year's runner-up Philadelphia Inventors, 3-1. Like the Sluggers, last year's finalists will also play this season without their top horse as GM Sergey Erenburg is not on the team this time around.
The loss of Erenburg meant FM Tom Bartell had to try to keep strong GM Zviad Izoria at bay. For a while Bartell was successful until the Republic of Georgia native opened the h-file and found a two-mover. His opening idea 5.d3-d4 was very similar to the famous game Mikhail Tal-Vasily Smyslov from 1959, and proved just as successful for White.
The rest of the Applesauce added a win and two draws to get them off on the right foot with a painless 3-1 win.
The Connecticut Dreadnoughts, only in the their second year of existence, are trying to make the playoffs for the first time. They added a third GM to their roster, and he came through in his first-ever game in the USCL. Michael Rohde, a GM for 25 years but league newcomer, helped his team obliterate the Baltimore Kingfishers 4-0. The whitewash was particularly astounding for Connecticut, as amazingly nine of their 10 matches in their inaugural season finished without either team even getting to three points.
The final match had the Boston Blitz and New England Nor'easters play to a 2-2 deadlock. Longtime Blitz leader SM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun is gone, and his ex-team dropped the top board as GM Alex Ivanov (NE) took out IM Steven Zierk (Boston). SM Steven Winer, a former member of the Blitz, came back from a six-season hiatus to get a draw on board two, but NM Vadim Martirosov outplayed his opponent in a rook-and-pawn endgame to regain the balance.
All matches for the USCL this season will be Tuesdays and Wednesday evenings. A full schedule can be found at www.uschessleague.com.
To vote in the Game of the Week contest (which will count for 20 percent of the voting, along with each of the four other judges), visit the poll question on the right side of the Chess.com home page - the poll will be active weekly from Thursday at 4 p.m. Eastern to Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern. Also don't forget to tune in to Chess.com/tv for free live coverage of every match!