PRO Chess League Semifinals: Meet The Pandas!
The Chengdu Pandas in the Pro Chess League.

PRO Chess League Semifinals: Meet The Pandas!

| 25 | Chess Players

Chinese philosophy brought us the concept of "yin and yang." So too does their national treasure, the panda bear.

Pandas look soft and cuddly, but as you may also know, they can also be "death-loving oxygen thieves."

As for the Chengdu Pandas, the Pacific Divisional playoff champions of the PRO Chess League, the four of them competing in the semifinals and finals began playing chess at the ages of four, five, five, and eight. All cute as button, no doubt, but since then they've developed their tactical claws.

For much of the season, enemy pawns and pieces were merely bamboo.

Wang Yue

GM Wang Yue, the highest-rated Panda landing in California, seen here at the final round of the 2014 Olympiad while GM Ni Hua looks over his shoulder. | Photo: Peter Doggers/

For much of the season the Pandas had the best record in the league in this, their inaugural season. They faltered slightly down the stretch (even bears need naps) before advancing in two close playoff matches to earn their ticket to California.

They ended the regular season with 104 game points, the most in the league. Often, the Pandas maximized their lineup by using super-GMs and females alike, both of which get special ratings consideration. In one extreme week that strategy allowed their average rating to rise to 2560, easily the highest-ever in PRO League play.

They ended the season with no fewer than seven(!) players on performance ratings of 2500 or higher, with five of them north of 2640.

So with a bevy of options, whom did they choose to complete their quartet?

One top play attending will be GM Ni Hua, the elder statesman of the four but still only 34. That would be Olympiad gold medalist Ni Hua.

GM Ni Hua

Ni actually got a "late" start compared to his teammate, having learned the game at the age of eight. He became a GM at 21 and is the three-time Chinese champion.

Here's some cute creativity by Ni this season. It's not quite as good as Karpov's 11...Ke7 against Kamsky, but pleasing nonetheless.

Taking board one will be GM Wang Yue who just last week turned 31. Olympiad gold? Yeah he was a part of that too. Top board even.

Recall perhaps the most famous "bro-hug" in the history of chess:

Wang learned the game at five and famously became the first Chinese player to break 2700 and also to nuzzle his way into the world's top 10. For a long time, his 2756 rating was the highest in the history of Chinese players.

He only played 12 games this season, but many of thise were wild affairs. Consider that these two games were played back-to-back in week six:

And then right after, this crazy follow-up:

GM Xu Xiangyu is from Taiyuan in Northern China, the same city as Wang. He also began playing at five—his mother wanted him to learn to do something that was quiet. After his first chess club visit, he became enamored with the rook since it reminded him of a castle, and that was all it took.

GM Xu Xiangyu

His name may be worth a few hundred points in Scrabble, but it was his undefeated 2.5/4 points in the quarterfinals that his team cherished the most. After drawing his first three games, he scored the full point in the final round:

The Pandas cleverly used a female player (or two!) nearly every week, giving them some rating cap exceptions. They've decided to bring Chu Ruotong, 17, to San Francisco.

Chu Ruotong

Chu was their most-used fourth board, playing 36 games, scoring just above 25 percent (12.5 points). Like the other teams making the semifinals, the final player punched above her weight by outscoring her real rating by more than 100 performance points.

The most precocious of the bunch, Chu learned to play at age four. Girls do mature faster after all, and it seems Pandas do too. She didn't go for the rook, but being a fan of horses, instead loved the shape of the knight.

According to team captain GM Li Chao, who led the team with a 2767 performance rating but won't be calling his own number in the semifinals, the most important match win they had this season was their week five win over the Australia Kangaroos. (Li and GM Yu Yangyi were not available to travel due to other chess commitments.)

The Pandas jumped out to an 8-4 lead that week before splitting the final round to win 10-6 and pushing their match record at the time to a league-best 4.5-0.5. As it occurred with other teams, the reverberations within their division only became important much later.

One unique way that the Pandas come together is that the entire team coming to California is coached by Li Chao and Wang Yue. In fact, they meet nearly every day. It seems not all Pandas abandon their young!

"We unite more closely and understand each other better in the matches," Li said. "The main reason for our success is unity."

All except Chu have been to the U.S. before, although the other three came when they were children. One nice advantage—the players' host hotel is a mere eight-minute walk from the first "Chinatown" in the U.S., which they plan to visit if there is time.

Since two of the players are from Shanxi Province, maybe they'll be on hunt for "cat's ear." Not to worry, it seems to simply suggest the shape of the noodle. Pass the dumplings, please.

On the extreme other end of distance measuring, the Chinese are coming quite a long way for the competition. But Chengdu actually isn't the farthest city competing, although it's pretty close. As the crow flies, Yerevan, Armenia is about 200 km farther away. All of the international squads are coming an extra day early to help cope with the jet lag, which Li said is a "very big problem" for his team.

The Pandas do plan to sightsee in their limited time. Before they return for the national A-grade team matches, they hope to see the Golden Gate Bridge. A fair warning to the Pandas: sometimes that's Mother Nature's choice, not yours!


The Golden Gate Bridge in its "normal" foggy habitat. | Photo: Alexey Schekin.

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