PRO Chess League Semifinals: Meet The Arch Bishops!
The Saint Louis Arch Bishops in the PRO Chess League.

PRO Chess League Semifinals: Meet The Arch Bishops!

| 26 | Chess Players

They already span the Mississippi River, and now they're trying to have their championship success cross over into this season.

Unlike some of the other teams that qualified for the PRO Chess League's semifinals and finals, many of the Saint Louis Arch Bishops are reasonably well known to the community.

Exhibit A: They won the league in its inaugural season last year.

Exhibit B: Caruana.

While "Fabulous Fabi" won't be making the trip to San Francisco this weekend (Fabiano Caruana followed up his win at the 2018 Candidates' Tournament by immediately going to another very strong event in Germany), the reigning champs have no shortage of options. In fact, while one enduring debate in rating-capped team events will always be whether a balanced team does better than a top-heavy team, St. Louis has nearly no choice.

With eight GMs on the roster and not a single FM or IM, the Arch Bishops must play with a markedly lower-rated fourth board. Consider this: the gap between their bottom GM and the next player is nearly 400 points! Sorry average masters—there's no 2400s, 2300s, or 2200s on the roster to be found.

With that in mind, Forest Chen gets the call on the fourth chair. His team will be hoping he can run and run some more in the Bay Area. He's only 1950, but that allows for three 2600s to play. Chen's 10.5/36 record this season is a full 300+ performance rating points above how he was expected to perform.

forest chen pro chess league

Here's the first(!) of his two huge playoff wins over a GM in the quarterfinals:

The three grandmasters that will be joining him are Yaroslav Zherebukh and Dariusz Swiercz (teammates on St. Louis University's chess team) and Varuzhan Akobian, who all return from last year's championship squad.

GM Alejandro Ramirez, the coach of the SLU team, will be the attending as well and will likely help coach some of the players. Zherebukh, Swiercz, and Ramirez have additional experience working together in big team events, having recently returned from the Final Four of College Chess this past weekend. caught up with team manager Mike Kummer to get to know the Arch Bishops even more.


Last year's champions, the 2017 Saint Louis Arch Bishops. Manager Mike Kummer is far right. | Photo: Mike Klein/

Kummer, a longtime employee of the Saint Louis Chess Club, admitted there was added pressure this year on the team. After some close losses in the first half of the season, the Arch Bishops were in serious danger of missing the playoffs. They began 1-2-2 before rallying to win three matches in a row down the stretch of the regular season.

"It's better to be called the 'reigning world champions' than the 'former world champions,'" Kummer said. Or, as WGM Jen Shahade put it once, it's even better to call oneself the "two-time champion" as you never have to change that honorific!

The season turned around right after a big upset in American sports, which Kummer said made him reflective. "Once I witnessed the New England Patriots get upset by the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, I made it clear to every single Arch Bishop what the goal was not just this year, but every single year. Strive for excellence and be a winner. Luckily, the majority bought in."

Varuzhan Akobian

While Caruana played five of the nine matches in the regular season, he wasn't available for the opening rounds of the playoffs and again won't be available for this weekend's big matches. Still, grabbing him from the Montreal ChessBrahs was the major off-season move of the PRO Chess League. How did it happen?

"It helps that the chess club is located in the trendiest part of St. Louis," Kummer said. "You could say libations made this happen as Fabiano was enjoying a refreshment at Brennan's." While there may have been more to it than the cocktail bar adjacent to the club, it's hard to believe Caruana wasn't getting his drink of choice from the notoriously-partying ChessBrahs.

Even though Caruana was off at some second-rate event in Berlin, the team was wishing him well. They sent him an "encouraging note" just before he beat GM Vladimir Kramnik. "Hopefully, the team will have as great of a success as him," Kummer said.

Of course the team knew full well that Caruana would not be available for the later editions of the season. But like the Saint Louis Chess Club always seems to do, they planned ahead. For them, that meant a simple scan of the rating list.

Kummer explained: "Knowing that Fabiano would be competing in the Candidates' during the crucial play-off run, the team's assistant manager, Richard Pointer, came up with a great idea—sign a superstar GM that would not be participating in the Candidates'. We looked at the list and both determined [Vladimir] Fedoseev would be a great fit. Fedoseev performed well at the 2017 Winter Classic held at the club."

The numbers at season's end show that there was a clear fall-off from Caruana to Fedoseev. Caruana finished with 24.5/28 and a 2872 performance rating, while Fedoseev garnered one more point (25.5) but in 12 more games. 

Kummer took exception to harsh criticism of Fedoseev's season.

"Announcer GM Robert Hess once called Fedoseev 'the most disappointing player in the league.' It's just not the case. In spite of the time difference [Ed: Eight hours ahead --M.K.], he performed admirably. Anytime, you can have a player perform 2600+, they are doing something right."

Fedoseev's final TPR landed at 2612, even lower than Akobian (2641) or Zherebukh (2695).

Yaroslav Zherebukh

Here's a fun "CruelYaro" smash from last week with a funny mate at the end:

However you feel about his performance, Fedoseev is also not available for the finals; he is playing an event in China. Kummer thus called on Swiercz, who has only played one week this season but might be most famous to readers from winning the final Millionaire Chess in 2016.

"He has been performing exceptionally at the Saturday Night Special tournaments held at the club," Kummer said, adding that the time control for those events is also 15+2.

Dariusz Swiercz

From there, rounding out the team was easier.

"Var is a consummate professional, Yaro has been playing through the roof, and Forest Chen can beat GMs."

Kummer said he gets advice on team composition from Pointer and from the team's data analyst, but he also factors in "availability, matchups, momentum, ego."

"The manager better be the leader are any organization is going to crumble fast," he said. "Just ask the New York Giants."

About that earlier discussion point regarding whether to "balance" the quartet or "stack the top," Kummer simply said, "Nobody gets it right, on any front. Our results speak for themselves." 

When asked who the team's MVP has been, Kummer surprisingly named a player that was only on the team for half of the season and didn't even play a single game (sorry Fabiano, 2872 TPR wasn't good enough!). Here's the manager's explanation:

"Some could say GM Akshat Chandra. He transferred from the team, shortly after my 'put up or shut up' tirade following the Patriots' Super Bowl loss. At that time, the Arch Bishops were 2-3 and barely hanging onto the fourth and final playoff spot. His new team, the Minnesota Blizzard, was 4-1, comfortably in 2nd Place. By the end of the regular season, both teams were 5.5/9 but we eclipsed them for 3rd place due to more game points. As the fourth seed, Minnesota with the help of Akshat (he drew GM Le Quang Liem in the 1st round) knocked off the Webster Windmills. The Arch Bishops beat Pittsburgh. So, we met in the Atlantic Divisional Finals and the Arch Bishops as the higher seed received draw odds. And then, the inexplicable happened. To my delight, the Blizzard benched Akshat for the match. That decision baffled me. And the Arch Bishops won 10-6."  

Unlike some teams like Ljubljana that connect for each match virtually over Skype, the "local" Arch Bishops usually try meet to play each week at the club's board room. This time the location will be chosen for them, but Kummer expects to stay busy at the Folsom Street Foundry.

pro chess league final

"I'll be thinking ahead, foreshadowing any pitfalls so we can avoid them, playing all the angles."

One of his jobs? Making sure his secret weapon on board four doesn't repeat his inauspicious start to the season.

"In Forest Chen's first appearance in the PRO Chess League, he arrived at least two minutes late," Kummer said. "But he recovered and drew GM Jorge Cori of Webster."

Despite all of his manegerial responsibilities for his worldwide team, there's one thing that never gets old for Kummer.

"The most enjoyable part is the winning, so much winning. So much winning. And, I haven’t got sick of it yet."

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