Best of Three Sets: Tennis Players Ju and Esserman in Death Match

Best of Three Sets: Tennis Players Ju and Esserman in Death Match

| 32 | Chess Players

In the 1990s, when Pete Sampras dominated Wimbledon, he would sometimes win entire matches without a rally longer than a few hits. Expect the same this Saturday, as two energetic blitz specialists (and talented tennis players) lace up for Death Match 23.

IM Marc Esserman and FM Evan Ju will play for three straight hours live on starting at 12 p.m. Eastern (GMT -5), 9 a.m. Pacific on April 12. They both qualified based on their blitz prowess in February's Death Match qualifier.

Esserman played top singles for the club team while attending Harvard. He is known for fearsome attacks on the chess board, and he hits the fuzzy yellow ball the same way.

"A friend of mine once joked that if I were to have any serious chance in tennis I should forget about spinning the second serve in and just hit two first serve bombs," Esserman said. "No risk, no reward - ultimately ground into submission."

In the chess world, he is best known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Smith-Morra Gambit, on which he authored a book. "The Morra is like a 155 mile-per-hour first serve, a thud, then silence." Esserman said that it reminds him of Paul Morphy and Romantic chess. He said he doesn't think anyone else in the world knows as much about the opening as he does. "I hope not for their sake."

IM Marc Esserman

His tennis game might be enough to belittle 99 percent of all chess players, but curiously his opponent in the match is also qualified to oppose him at the net. Ju played tennis for his college too.

The two have never met on the court. Esserman said his United States Tennis Association (USTA) ranking is either 5.5 or 6.0, while Ju claimed either 5.0 or 5.5 - both would make them "master level" if tennis had such a distinction.

The Death Match is three hours of chess with different time controls: 5+1, 3+1 and 1+1. But could there ever be a combination of tennis and chess in the same event? The players differed on their preferred format.

Ju said he wanted a system that resembled chessboxing: "A few games of tennis, a few games of chess. Rinse and repeat." The winner would be the first to win a certain number of games of either discipline. "This type of format caters to those in good physical shape and those that can play chess well under pressure with an elevated heart rate." Perhaps Ju has already begun training - he has written on his blog that his likes to do 25 pushups after each loss.

FM Evan Ju

Esserman continued to show his love for the first-serve bomb. He said fastest serve or fastest checkmate should win. As a bonus feature, he suggested setting up chess boards in positions that he loathed and firing tennis balls at them (the worst offender apparently is 1. e4 c5 2. d4 cxd4 3. c3 d3?). 

"64 balls are fed to each competitor separately," he began. "Whoever knocks the most chess pieces through the chain-link fence wins. Pieces that remain knocked down but do not go through the fence do not count."

He said that he tried to play a "simul" once, challenging an Expert to blindfold blitz for money while also hitting tennis balls against a wall. "I beat the 2000, but succumbed to the wall, so it was a draw."

So how did Esserman balance his love for tennis and chess while at one of the best universities in the world? The eclectic mix was seemingly no problem.

"In college it was school, chess, and on Friday nights the Berlin Defense at Sorority balls," he joked. "When I grew and learned to serve 130 mph, only then did I realize that I could play tennis like the Morra Gambit..."

His studies continued that balance. "I majored in History with a minor in Soviet Chess. In fact, my thesis was supposed to be 'How and Why the Soviet Union Developed a Chess Program' before the department realized it belonged in a chess journal."

The two have played more than 100 times on (bound to happen when Ju has played nearly 40,000 games lifetime!). Esserman has a minuscule +2 lead.

"I think Marc and I have very similar styles in blitz and bullet chess," Ju said. "He is strong tactically, generally fast, and has a good sense of pre-moving technique. The only potential weaknesses I can discern are he sometimes sacrifices too much positional technique for speed and his openings can be predictable."

Ju in Laos

Esserman didn't offer such a nuanced analysis of Ju. "[100 games] is not enough to truly know an opponent. Only in a true 'Death Match', like my 660-game marathon versus DragonB70 in 23 hours, no food or water allowed, can one begin to understand the vagaries of 'style.'"

Esserman did offer some advice to his opponent, even if it was a tad self-serving. "I know he plays the French Defense. Evan, switch to the Sicilian, it's more your natural style, plus it wins a pawn."

Ju seems unlikely to heed this "advice" on Saturday. "I have no intention of taking on his Smith-Morra Gambit," Ju said. But he left the door slightly open. "However, I have prepared one special line against it just in case things are not going so well with my main openings."

Esserman didn't expect he'd get to play his pride and joy, "unless, to quote Bagger Vance, Evan finds his one, true, authentic swing - the Sicilian."

Here's what happened when a Super-GM tried to swing at Esserman's "free" pawn:

Sometimes 26 moves is too much like a baseliner. Here he ends the point more quickly.

So Nd5 is surely his favorite move, right? Not so fast says Esserman. Instead he prefers the "trick shot" Ke2 - "a leap of faith which has never let me down, especially in open positions." Esserman goes further. "In fact, Ke2!!(N) has not only refuted Alekhine's Defense, but also the Sveshnikov."

A bold statement - here is his evidence.


If you've played on long enough, chances are that you've been beaten by Ju, or you've at least seen one of his attacking victories. He was coached by GMs Joel Benjamin and Boris Gulko, who taught him how to play unabashedly. "They both helped form my aggressive and active mentality that is now a critical part of my chess identity," Ju said.

That bold style was on full display here against an IM:

And against a GM:

Both of those opponents were former Death Match players, so Ju clearly has the skills, if not the higher title.--

Ju played for the U.S. several times in World Youth Championships. His favorite memory was playing soccer in Belfort, France in 2005 on a free day. "My friend ended up kicking the ball into a castle moat and it was lost for all time. That is a story you can never replicated in the United States."--

These days he doesn't play over-the-board due to a lack of time. He spends many afternoons and evenings here instead. "I like that is free, the community is entertaining, and the social engagement is top notch compared to other chess sites," he said. "The interface here has improved tremendously over the past few years."--

What about that strange, yet now eponymous, username "Eilyisum"? "I originally wanted to use Elysium. However, this name was taken and I hastily changed around some letters because I just wanted to start playing!" Ju has been using this account for three years. He said he is now studying to work on Wall --Street.--

Esserman said that these days he is a "professional chess hustler who moonlights as a player and coach." As such, none of the time controls in the upcoming Death Match is his favorite. "Everyone knows I'm a street hustler with my eye on two things - the money and the flag. The increment prolongs the tussle, which prolongs the hustle."

Esserman in his "other" office

When asked if was making a run at GM, Esserman said, "I'd call it more of a meandering walk."

Perhaps this match could be the beginning of a rivarly between the two - they are oil and water when it comes to tennis heroes. 

"My favorite player is Rafael Nadal," Ju said. "In my opinion, he is the greatest competitor in all of tennis. He gives 100 percent on every shot and every point and does whatever it takes to win."

"Roger Federer is my favorite of all sportsmen," Esserman said. "He plays like Morphy, Capablanca, and Kasparov all in one. If you are a Nadal fan, #@$%@#%!"

Esserman said that he once nearly got "double bageled" against an Australian tennis player who was ranked around 200 in the world. After being taunted during the changeovers, he finally picked up a game to lose 6-0, 6-1. He promises that if you beat him 6-0, 6-0, then he will sign your shoes (in the last Death Match, GM Erwin l'Ami actually did start out 6-0 against GM Jan Smeets!). No word if this offer is transferable to chess!

Tune in to watch Death Match 23 live on Hosts IM Danny Rensch and GM Ben Finegold will serve and volley for three hours, beginning at 12 p.m. Eastern (GMT -5), 9 a.m. Pacific.

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