The absence of wildcard playoff spots in season nine of the United States Chess League (USCL) has allowed most of the playoff picture to clarify, even with one week remaining. Following the second-to-last week of the season, seven of the eight post-season tickets have been punched. However, no team has been able to lock up first place in its division.
The only divisional race remaining is the Atlantic, where New York (5-4) and New Jersey (4-5) are separated by a single match. In order for the Knockouts to advance, they must beat the division-leading Manhattan Applesauce (5.5-3.5), who still have first place to play for (and therefore a better playoff seed and tiebreak advantage). They must also hope that last-place Philadelphia (2.5-6.5) can overcome the Knights, and even then New Jersey must hope that the margins of victory are great enough to offset the current two-game individual score deficit.
Barring all of this happening, New York will stay perfect, advancing to the playoffs for the ninth time in nine seasons (they have won the league title twice). New Jersey has only made the post-season once in six seasons.
The Knockouts went into week nine not expecting the situation to be so dire. They were tied for second with New York entering play Wednesday night, and had the strong one-two combo of GMs Alex Stripunsky and Joel Benjamin on the top boards.
Stripunsky's failed piece for three pawns idea failed quickly, as he fell to GM Tamaz Gelashvili in under 30 moves. Then the big surprise - SM Matt Herman, who is having a subpar season, swindled Benjamin as Black after being down a pawn with minimal compensation for the final 25 moves of the game.
SM Matt Herman
His c-pawn was becoming a big target, so he simply ditched it, hoping his light-squared bishop would find daylight. It took most of the game, but the plan finally paid off.
Although NM Alexander Katz drew the higher-rated opponent FM Michael Bodek as Black, and the Knight's NM Nicolas Checa mouseslipped away his queen on board four, the Knights won the crucial match to gain the inside track for the playoffs.
If Philadelphia could beat Manhattan, that would have thrown the division into chaos, as no team would have qualified for the playoffs and the entire division would only be 1.5 matches apart from top to bottom. That drama did not unfold, however, as the Applesauce stayed a half-game clear of the field in their 3.5-0.5 win. They clinched a birth in the post-season by virtue of winning their fourth-consecutive match. Philadelphia is officially out.
Once again leading Manhattan was GM Zviad Izoria. He has won all four individual games during his team's streak (putting him in second-place in the MVP race, just behind the 7-0 FM Jeffery Xiong).
GM Zviad Izoria
In one of two Benko Gambits on the night, Izoria's worked to perfection (the other game, not as well). As is often the case, it took him most of the game to recover the pawn, but once he did, Black stood better. In the final position, the clever interpolation 41...Rb5 ensures victory, since 42. Kd4 is then met by 42...c2 43. Rc1 Rb1 and the white king is now too far away to help.
On board two, IM Faria Mandizha posted his knights on b5 and g5 by move eight! Still, they were quickly repulsed. Despite a wayward king, he picked up the full point nearly 70 moves later. On board four, NM Ryan Goldenberg kept up his winning ways to seal the match. At 6-1-1, he is in third place in the MVP race. No third or fourth board has ever won the league's top individual award.
NM Ryan Goldenberg
In the Northeast Division, both Boston and Baltimore needed small miracles, but neither found them in week nine. They are both at 3.5-5.5 on the season and without post-season aspirations after the Kingfishers got speared by Connecticut (6-3), which eliminated them both. The Blitz drew the Nor'easters (6.5-3.5), but without the help they needed, the result did not matter. After making the playoffs in six of their first seven seasons, Boston will miss out for the second season in a row.
Both the Dreadnoughts and New England are in, and they play each other in week 10 to decide who will finish atop the division. Individually, NM Lawyer Times moved to 6-0 on the year and up one notch (fourth) in the MVP race.
NM Lawyer Times
Like Goldenberg, he retains an outside chance to become the first board-four player to win the award. He's efficient too, only needing 15 moves to dispatch NM Jake Miller. Transferring the knight to b6 was unusual, but taking on e4 was a meltdown. At least he got to show his humor at the end.
The Western playoffs are completely decided, but all the Game of the Week nominations come from here this week. For the first time in 2013, two came from the same match.
Seattle and Los Angeles had the closest battle for advancement, and now we know that single slot goes to the Vibe (4.5-4.5), even with just a .500 record. Seattle (3-6) lost to Arizona (3-6) by the score of 3-1, thanks to two Scorpion wins on the lower boards. FM Robby Adamson gave his team their first win of the season on board three, while WFM Amanda Mateer moved to 3.5/4 on the year as she won the first all-female game in the USCL this season (against WIM Megan Lee).
WFM Amanda Mateer
The Scorpion's loss means that neither of last season's finalists will get back there this year. That also happened in 2011.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles handled their end of the bargain, beating upstate rival San Francisco (5.5-3.5). They used the opposite method - winning on the top two boards. Despite not having as strong of a record as most of the other division leaders, the Mechanics are in the best spot to win their division. They can clinch even with a last-week loss, as long as they win at least one game. Even if they are blanked, the Vibe would need to win 3.5-0.5 or 4-0 to overtake them.
Miami's (6.5-2.5) tie against last-place Carolina (1-8) was not disappointing, as it came with a playoff birth and eliminated St. Louis. The Cobras sang a familiar tune - losses on the top two boards but wins on the bottom two. They will need to win in week 10 to avoid setting or tying the mark for worst USCL single-season record.
Here is FM Marcel Martinez ripping open NM Diego Garcia's king. The pleasing finish, with the bishop returning home to c1, is the first Game of the Week nomination.
FM Marcel Martinez
The best play from week nine came in the Arch Bishop's (5-4) win over Dallas (7-2). The Destiny are still in first in the South, but are smarting after the 2.5-1.5 loss. St. Louis stands to be the best team that will have their season end next week, but that didn't stop GM Varuzhan Akobian from finding tactics with his limited army.
GM Varuzhan Akobian
37...exf5 allows White to win a piece as in the game, but the bleakness of 37...Bxd4 38. Qh8+ Ke7 39. f6+ Kd7 40. exd4 was not appealing either. The game is the second Game of the Week nomination.
One board away, GM Ben Finegold nearly made it a two-for on the Mississippi, but bailed out into a draw against GM Giorgi Margvelashvili, partially to help his team ensure match victory. Still, the exciting draw earns the final nomination.
GM Ben Finegold
GM Giorgi Margvelashvili
Week Nine Standings: