PRO Chess League Semifinals: Meet The Turtles!
The Ljubljana Turtles in the PRO Chess League.

PRO Chess League Semifinals: Meet The Turtles!

MikeKlein
FM MikeKlein
Apr 2, 2018, 4:00 PM |
11 | Chess Players

"Can't stop these radical dudes/The secret of the ooze made the chosen few/Emerge from the shadows to make their move/The good guys win and the bad guys lose!"

Children of the 80s will immediately recognize the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' theme song, but for everyone else, you know them as the Ljubljana Turtles. These "heroes in a half shell" will be showing their turtle power in San Fransisco this weekend, as they qualified for the PRO Chess League's semifinals by becoming the Central Divisional Playoff Champions.

Chess.com caught up with the 29-year-old team manager and Slovenia's best player, GM Luka Lenič, to help bring his compatriots out of their shell.

Lenic

Lenič said that despite beating GM Magnus Carlsen in their head-to-head game, he doesn't consider that one victory worthy of making him the team's MVP.

"There were a lot of matches where one or two players stepped on the pedal and drove us through the match," he said. "If I had to name one player then that would be our fourth board. In the past year, we have played him in over-the-board games and we were well aware he is a very dangerous blitz/rapid player that's why we invited him to our team this year."

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Lenič's secret weapon: the nunchaku.

That star player just so happens to share a given name with the team's leader. Untitled Luka Skuhala isn't even over 2100 at present, yet this year he scored nearly 50 percent from the fourth board (18.5/41). Skuhala's performance rating was 2335, easily the largest jump from actual rating on the team. "He did really well, beating some GMs in crucial moments," Lenič said. "This may be a surprise to everyone else but we knew he was a very dangerous player that should not be underestimated." 

Skuhala

Whereas the team's five GMs all took Chess.com screen names based on the main characters of the t.v. show, Skuhala clearly didn't want to be the fixer "April O'Neil" even though she often helped them greatly. Instead, he went with the Gallic King Vercingetorix.

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Vercingetorix is still very popular in the Auvergne region of France, and now perhaps in Slovenia too. Photo: Wikipedia.

Despite being a latter-day folk hero in certain parts of France, the city of Marseille was not happy to see Vercingetorix in the quarterfinals. His impressive 2.5/4 day included a win against GM Yannick Gozzoli. And while he didn't defeat Caeser, he did draw GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave:

The captain said they didn't dwell on being the fourth and final seed from the Central Division.

"We really didn't think about San Fransisco at all," he said. "We just took it a match at a time. We knew it was going to be very difficult especially because we had to win our matches but we played some of our best chess when we were under pressure. One has to say we were lucky in some crucial games, where things could completely turn the other way. But I guess that is one of the charms of the PRO League: Matches are very unpredictable and that just adds to the excitement."

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Much more predictable: a snowy Ljubljana in winter. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Of course, we can't go too far into a preview by burying the lede more. What did Lenič have to say about his win against the world champion this season, which came on the heels of a draw last year?

"I was completely winning in that game and somehow he escaped into a draw," Lenič said about their 2017 matchup. "I am pretty sure he was well aware of our first game and that he knew I was potentially dangerous. We haven't played in an over-the-board game yet, but that might change soon since we are both playing first boards for our national teams on Olympiads and European Team Championships."

Whether or not that happens, it was indeed a "Super Sunday" for the top turtle on February 4. While Carlsen surprised opponents all season with irregular openings (often with great success!), it was the Slovenian who got to make the first wrinkle.

"I am sure 3...Nd4 was no surprise since it is one of the main moves in that position," Lenič said. "Maybe I surprised him with 5...Nc6 followed by 6...e5 where I did not allow him to transpose to a Sicilian that was not in my plan that day. I got a very comfortable position after the opening, arguably even slightly better for Black. I kept that initiative in the middlegame and then he missed Bd5 and he needed to play very precisely not to lose on the spot. He definitely missed Bd5, but the position wasn't all that easy anyway."

The win proved a little more elusive than it seemed.

"At first, I thought it is a trivial task to convert my advantage because endings with a whole exchange up are usually pretty easy to convert, but I could not really find a way where I don't allow him counterplay. I am sure there was an easier way but I was also low on time and he defended well. I think it was three-second increment [Ed: It was two. --M.K.] so you don't really get much time just moving around, so I was just searching for a way to break through and luckily I finally managed."

With all of the clutch wins comes a berth in the first-ever live chess esports event. It also happens to be the first trip to the United States for all of the team's members. Lenič said he's happy that the playing venue is in San Fransisco, however, the trip came up so suddenly that they didn't have time to plan out any other American travels.

"Maybe next year, when will be ready for a deep playoff push, we can make more long-term decisions about our trip to the finals!"

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The American embassy in Ljublana seems to be the closest these team members have been to the U.S. That will all change this weekend. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Why are they happy about the Bay Area? Turns out the basketball team is pretty good. While the only current Slovenian NBA player (Goran Dragic) plays for the Miami Heat, well, Steph Curry is Steph Curry.

"Most members of our team are great fans of the Golden State Warriors team...We are planning to attend the Warriors vs. Pelicans game if the finals' schedule permits us. This Warriors mania in our group was initiated by Matej Sebenik back in 2013 when the team started with its first major steps toward the top of the league."

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Krvavec Ski Resort in Northern Slovenia, a short bus ride from the capital. If the Turtles wish, they can similarly take a bus to the Lake Tahoe area, where more than a dozen mountains are still open for spring skiing. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

While most of the grandmaster Turtles consider themselves "semi-professionals," there is one of them who is vying for a second world title. Lenič won the U-14 World Youth Championship in 2002.

They are unique to many top teams in that didn't sign any "free-agents" despite each team being allowed to play one per week. Lenič kept the entire roster Slovenian, pointing out that even without free agents, only half of the eight rostered players can play in a given week.

The team doesn't have any sponsors, but that could all change if the team wins it all.

There is one advantage to being from a small country, however. Since only about two million people in the world speak Slovenian, Lenič said his team can likely just speak their native tongue to each other in preparation for each match, without fear of broadcasting their plans. But then he admitted that the Armenians and Chinese can likely do the same! St. Louis, you might need some secret hand signals.

Predjama Castle

Safety first for Slovenians: Don't forget to Predjama Castle. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

This year represented a change in mascot. Out went the "Direwolves" and in came the "Turtles." Lenič explained you can't take the boy out of the man.

"It was kind of an obvious choice for us. Our friendship and common chess-related activities head back many years when we were still young and pretty immature. But more idealistic. Some of this immature behavior among us remains even nowadays and that's why we can easily identify ourselves with cartoon characters. But most importantly: we are and will always stay fighters."

There was some common ground over which player got to be which character, while other choices were more contentious.

"There was some fighting about who should be group's 'bad boy' (Raphael), but Splinter was always an easy choice."

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"Also Donatello (the smartest guy in the group, a scientist) was never in doubt since Jure Borisek has doctor's degree in chemistry."

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