Chess.com's 21st Death Match will have GMs Georg Meier and Imre Balog at the card table on Saturday, February 15 at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific. (GMT - 8) But who brings better cards to the casino?
Meier, FIDE 2636, has a chip lead. Balog, FIDE 2554, arrives as the short stack.
In fact, Balog was lucky to be invited at all (and not just because he is barely of gambling age in the U.S.). "I did not try to qualify," Balog explained. Unbeknownst to him, he was playing in a satellite tournament. Chess.com took several days just to track him down after he qualified. "I only got an email about it," he said. Meier's attempt was more concerted, and he targeted bullet, believing his chances to be better there.
GM Imre Balog
These two GMs were chosen to participate as part of the new qualification process, which will be open to all every other month. Balog and Meier got here thanks to their play in December, 2013, with Balog grabbing the spot through blitz and Meier from bullet. Similarly, April's Death Match will be based on February's play.
Like characters from the movie "21", both players are college students. Meier wanted to experience life in the U.S. - "it's economy, social life, politics and culture" . He enrolled first at Texas Tech, then transferred along with his coach, GM Susan Polgar, and nearly the entire program to Webster University in St. Louis. He said the two cities couldn't be more different.
"Texas Tech and Lubbock are very isolated and the desert climate there gives on the impression of living on a moon colony," Meier said. Perhaps he would fit right in if Death Match 21 was played in the similar climate of Las Vegas, but instead he'll be at his new home. "St. Louis's nature is in full bloom in spring and summer. From a chess point of view, it's very nice to live in proximity to the St. Louis Chess Club, which gives me opportunities to play in small tournaments or visit when there is a big one." In the U.S., St. Louis is quickly becoming "The Strip" - walk down the street and you'll find more chess.
Still, Meier doesn't plan to "double-down" on life in the U.S. "When my experience is over though, I'll be happy to go back to Europe." He also isn't "pot commited" to chess as a career. "I began to hate it when it was my profession for a short time." No different for his opponent - Balog is studying economics and predicted he will become a financial analyzer.
The two have never been "heads-up" before, at least not at a live table. They've played several times on Chess.com.
But what about the mysterious chip leader GM Phoenix that was collecting all the big pots in December? Balog, who was playing mostly blitz, never faced him, and said that he did not know his identity. Meier, playing mostly bullet, kept an eye on him, and feels more certain.
"I've played him on other servers before, netting his inevitable 'nice comments' after winning any game," Meier said, apparently confident of his speculation. "I also played him in real life." Let the database sleuthing begin!
Phoenix qualified above Meier but declined the invitation, at least this time around. Meier actually was above 2800 for a time but lost several bullet games due to connection issues.
Meier has advanced to the "final table" before. In 2011, his three teammates drew in the final round of the European Team Championship. He had "the button" and his win over a Super-GM allowed Germany to beat Armenia and outkick the rest of the field.
Balog is also keen on the French. But while he didn't defeat a Super-GM here, he did display a super-power - beating a Martian.
Both players come from good Death Match stock. Meier, who is German, brings his country's 2-1 record into this iteration (GMs Arkadij Naiditsch and Daniel Fridman won, while GM Leonid Kritz lost). Balog's native Hungary is a perfect 1-0, thanks to GM Judit Polgar.
Despite Balog being an "accidental" qualifier, he is a bigger fan of the monthly contests.
"I usually follow the Death Matches on Chess.com," Balog said. Meier scouted the format much less; he said he was too busy to watch any of his countrymen when they competed. "I only saw a bit of the Polgar-Short Match. Who doesn't like to see Nigel trashed by women?" he joked.
Balog said everyone in Hungary knows the Polgar sisters, though he learned more from the "old time advice from old Soviet books." He went to the Maroczy Central Chess School, the same as the similar-age phenom GM Richard Rapport. Balog cited three world champions as his favorite players - Smyslov, Karpov and Kramnik.
Of the format, neither player was clear who would benefit. Meier considered himself a "very fast and strong internet player, both in 3+0 and 1+0. Now I am somewhat weaker on the internet, but I still put up a decent fight." He said he needs to adjust to playing with increment (there's no calling "time" at the chess table). Balog, perhaps because he didn't expressly tried to qualify, said that he preferred 3+2 over 5+3. Unfortunately, neither is on offer at the Death Match table! The three standards are 5+1, 3+1 and 1+1.
Does either player have an "ace up the sleeve"? Like both combatants in the last Death Match, Meier's significant other is a strong chess player. His girlfriend is WIM Inna Agrest of Sweden. Of course, the match is the morning after Valentine's Day for him, so he may have to take her out to dinner after the match.
Balog's country has famous outdoor spas where men play chess while bathing. As we saw in November, even Magnus Carlsen likes swimming after winning championships!
GM Magnus Carlsen, soon after winning the world championship (courtesy his Facebook page)
But while an ace is usually a great card in either blackjack or poker, Meier may be best suited to chess. When asked what his favorite movie is, he replied, "Seven."
Follow all the action with live commentary, as IM Danny Rensch shuffles up and deals. He'll have some special guests and player interviews. Which player can transcend frivolous poker and card-game references? Tune in to Chess.com/tv at 1 p.m. Eastern, 10 a.m. Pacific (GMT -8) on Saturday, February 15 to find out!