PRO Chess League Semifinals: Meet The Eagles!
The Armenia Eagles in the Pro Chess League.

PRO Chess League Semifinals: Meet The Eagles!

MikeKlein
FM MikeKlein
Apr 4, 2018, 1:00 PM |
12 | Chess Players

The bald eagle is the official bird of the United States, and this weekend, the Eagles are flying home. By virtue of becoming the Eastern Divisional playoff champions, the Armenia Eagles are soaring to San Francisco for the PRO Chess League's semifinals and finals.

Player/manager CM Artak Manukyan couldn't have known about the avian symbiosis at the start of the season, but it is almost as though his more famous countryman did. GM Levon Aronian said recently that his favorite movie is "Mimino," which translates to "sparrow hawk." It seems no matter what, Armenians are birds of prey.

Ramirez

GM Alejandro Ramirez and his Arch Bishops squad will need to watch out for sharp beaks in the PRO Chess League's championship matches. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

The Eagles had plenty to feast on this season. They were the only #1 seed to advance to California, meaning they were both the Eastern Division champions in the regular season, and won the divisional bracket in the postseason. The opening round of the playoffs saw them cruise over the Estonia Horses 10.5-5.5, while in the quarterfinals they used their top-seeded draw odds to get by the Mumbai Movers after an 8-8 score.

Manukyan said that it was the team's first match against Mumbai that he regarded as the most important of the season. Before the playoff tie that still allowed Armenia to advance (higher seeds go through in case of a drawn match per league rules), the Eagles showed they were faster than the Movers in the final week of the regular season.

Manukyan

"Manuka" honey is very valuable and so is Artak Manukyan to his team.

The Armenians won 10-6 in early March, which vaulted them over Mumbai in the standings heading into the playoffs. This leapfrog also gave the team the tiebreak advantage, which they would need to get to San Francisco. Top Mover GM Viswanathan Anand couldn't cast his net in either match against the Eagles.

Who flew at the front of the formation for the Eagles? According to their manager, since "unlike teams like Norway Gnomes or Marseille Migraines we do not have any superstar/super-GM on board [one]," the team's results aren't tied to any one player. Manukyan added that this element "brought some stability and flavor to our team."

He mentioned GM Karen Grigoryan, who scored 66 percent (16/24) and punched above his weight in performance rating.

Karen Grigoryan

Manukyan didn't name himself as a potential team MVP, but maybe he should have. Despite the ongoing debate about what's the best makeup for a team, one common thread runs across most teams that have made a deep playoff run—an over-performing fourth board.

Manukyan has done just that, playing all 52 games this season! (No other player in the semifinals has played more than 44 games.) That's four games per week for seven normal matches, both super-Saturdays (eight games each), and both playoff weeks. The former Armenian under-18 champion went 25/52 for a performance rating of 2379, well above his league rating of 2196. 

Here's his comeback against GM Swapnil Dhopade from that pivotal final regular-season match (where he went 2.5/4 against two GMs and two IMs):

When it comes to specific games, Manukyan finally called his own number, mentioning his key final game against the Movers in the playoffs. They needed every one of his 1.5 points in the quarterfinals; here's his inspired attack that pushed them through to San Francisco:

He also said that the clutch final-round draw by GM Zevan Andriasyan was huge; otherwise his personal win wouldn't mean as much.

GM Zevan Andriasyan

Playing against top Mover GM Baskaran Adhiban, who had won six straight PRO League games up to that point and was 3-0 that week, the lead Eagle survived a space deficit, a backward d-pawn, and a giant hole on e6.

It's well know how much chess culture exists in Armenia, where chess is a compulsory subject. Manukyan: "Chess in Armenia is like hockey in Canada."

When the country wins Olympiad gold, the country's president often flies in just for the awards ceremony (Manukyan is not banking on a surprise trip by Serzh Sargsyan to San Francisco though!). The president also attended last month's Candidates' Tournament to wish Aronian well.

Sargsyan

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan plays 1. c4 at the Candidates', a common start for Aronian. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

"Considering the Armenian history and painful events in 1915 there are a lot of old generation and new generation Armenians all over the word," Manukyan said. With estimates ranging from a quarter-million to a half-million people, the largest ethnic Armenian community outside of the former Soviet Union is in the Los Angeles area. GM Varuzhan Akobian, who will be playing in the PRO League semi-finals for the Saint Louis Arch Bishops, used to live there.

"Armenians positioned themselves as a hardworking and creative nation so there is no surprise that we do have a lot of strong chess players either born in Armenia, or coming from diaspora like (Sam) Sevian."

The manager doesn't expect his president to fly to California, but he did say that he is "more than sure" that if Armenia wins the PRO Chess League that the team will be hosted by the leadership of the Armenian Chess Federation.

Like the Movers with Anand, the Gnomes with GM Magnus Carlsen, and the Migraines with GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, the Eagles tried to get their country's best. Unlike those other teams, they couldn't find a way to make it work with Aronian's busy schedule.

Manukyan has his own season-long retrospective planned with full annotations of key games by the Eagles. He singled out these are some of the best games played that he will flesh out in his own report.

Here's his own win against the Delhi Dynamite's GM Salem Saleh (who continues the bird theme -- he's "Arabicfalcon" on Chess.com):

Another fun one was Melkumyan's win over GM Helgi Olafsson on Super Saturday:

One other way Manukyan can help manage his team: navigating the U.S. He's been here several times before, and has even won a tournament on American soil! As a visiting professor he often finds the time to play in a few chess events during his visits.

In 2010 he helped train the University of Delaware (the Blue Hens—another bird!!) for a team event. He followed that up by winning a tournament at the famed chess-turned-basketball college University of Maryland, Baltimore County (his current US Chess rating is 2410, well above his FIDE rating of 2196).

"For the rest of the team it is the first visit to the U.S. All of them are interested to know U.S. and its culture a bit closer, so we will try to extend our stay in U.S."

Just like they often do in St. Louis with Aronian, Manukyan expects some Armenian-Americans from Glendale (near Los Angeles) to make the trip to Northern California to support his team.

Aronian

Just like with GM Levon Aronian's events, the Eagles expect the Armenian diaspora to come support their countrymen. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

He's not sure if locals will stay up late to watch the games and commentary like they do with Aronian. Manukyan does think one fan will be online for sure.

"My mom puts a candle and prays to God during each match," he said.

Manukyan has his own tradition. Before each game, he writes in the chat, "Good luck to everyone," before adding, "Especially to us."

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