Tough Times For Snowballs At PRO Chess Finals

Tough Times For Snowballs At PRO Chess Finals

DanielRensch
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First, I must acknowledge a delay in telling this important story, and attempt to proactively answer your questions of "why wait to tell us this," before you start reading.

What I'm about to share truly is upsetting. It hurts not just for the chess community, but all of us as humans, knowing that these kinds of things happen to people we care about.

Second, a personal truth. I didn't really want to write this blog —because it's not easy to share tough news.

Third, perhaps the only logistics-based excuse is that in the interest of doing everything we could (legally and via insurance) before involving the community, these last two weeks Chess.com sought any sort of insurance compensation, which unfortunately failed.

And finally, I do think that letting the positives from the 2019 PCL Finals wash over all of us was the right thing to do, before bringing attention full force to something that was far from positive.

So what happened?

Upon arrival in San Francisco, the Baden-Baden Snowballs, a team that had fought so hard and risked much of its own personal and financial stake to journey across the globe, had its rental car broken into, with all valuables stolen in what appeared to be a professional burglary.

The tragedy not only left the Snowballs with no money, no visas, no passports, no laptops (with no backup drives containing years and years of hard work in chess preparation), no personal items (clothes, toiletries, etc.), but perhaps most terrible of all, no comfort or feeling of safety in a foreign land. The Snowballs' confidence was completely shaken.

How could they possible now focus on what they came to do: Win the 2019 PRO Chess League Championship? 

Chess players from around the world gathered to play in the Mechanics Institute Thursday night rapid, and it was there that I first heard what happened. My heart was most torn up by the (tear-stricken) story of the person who, in many ways, has always been the heart and soul of the Snowballs: Inna Agrest.

Mechanics Institute Rapid.

As Inna described, around midday on Thursday the team arrived at a restaurant for lunch in a seemingly nice neighborhood. With the parking lot not too far from the front entrance, and a front door that was secured by a welcoming doorman / security guard, the Snowballs decided it seemed safe enough to quickly grab a bite.

After eating, Inna was the first to decide it was time to return to the car and finish their journey to the official hotel in downtown San Francisco. Not aware of what she was walking into, it wasn't until she was right on top of the burglars that she realized what was going on. The thieves saw her coming, grabbed the last of the Snowballs' belongings and ran off. 

Inna was devastated by what she had witnessed, and frightened to find out all they had stolen. Most of all, as Inna recounted, she remained terrified by the thought of would have happened had she come up on the car faster, and perhaps not looked up a little bit later. What would they had done if she have bumped into them? How far would they have gone to harm her to ensure they got away with the crime? Would she have lost much more than her material belongings? 

Inna remained visibly shaken that night at the Mechanics Institute, and never quite seemed herself all weekend. Despite all of it, it was clear to anyone in the building on Saturday that her fight and strength had much to do with the Snowballs making it past the heavy favorite, the Chengdu Pandas.

Starting with that night, the Chess.com team did all it could to help the Snowballs during the weekend. From logistics with the embassy, to providing any other assistance we could such as advanced funds and laptops for preparation...and I share that not by any means to boast of doing the right and necessary thing for your friends during a tragedy, but rather to emphasize that really nothing we could ever do could help bring back what they really lost. 

More than even the obvious material valuables, they lost their hard drives. For chess professionals like Georg Meier, these little USB sticks (likely sold for pennies to a pawn shop by our robbers), represent hundreds and hundreds of hours of work needed to reach the 2700 levels of chess. This is something Georg, and his teammates, will never get back. For Alexander (Donchenko) and Dmitrij (Kollars), it felt especially bad that their first experience, not just in the U.S., but at a major Chess.com event, would have this memory forever attached to it. 

Now, this is where we expect the story to take a positive turn, and describe how our heroes overcame these odds to upset the heavily favored Chengdu Pandas (and indeed, they DID rally and DID overcome incredible odds to win their semifinal match), but the truth is, regardless of that victory, this trip was a tragedy for the Snowballs. In real life, there are rarely completely happy endings to stories like this, and here is no exception. 

The victorious fist pump after overcoming the odds.

After Saturday, you could see the adrenaline drained from the face of every Snowball. As a commentator, observing their mental and emotional exhaustion, it was everything I could do to avoid making excuses for them in their tough match vs the Arch Bishops on Sunday. While this by no means takes anything away from Fabiano Caruana and the Arch Bishops (who, as the Snowballs would admit, were the favorites to win it all regardless), but it also would be unfair not to mention just how much a toll the ordeal had taken on the Snowballs. 

Moving forward, where have things been for them, and where are we going now?

Well, despite our best efforts over the last 14 days, we have officially settled on the news that the travel agency and its insurance have ultimately refused to provide any coverage of the incident. And the truth is that, while neither Twitch nor Chess.com are liable for any responsibility for the incident, that doesn't mean we can't try to do what's right.

Integrity means doing the most you can for who you are responsible. You certainly cannot solve all the world's problems in a day (or a lifetime), and there's no denying that worse tragedies than this happen to our fellow man on a daily basis...but doing what you can for who can do it for is sometimes all you can focus on, and it's exactly what Chess.com intends to do.

Since the incident, Chess.com has already purchased all five of the victims new laptops worthy of their needs as chess professionals. Further, part of the purpose of this blog is an announcement.

On Saturday, May 25 from 11 a.m. Pacific to 1:30 p.m. Pacific, we are hosting a charity drive on Twitch.tv/chess, where Chess.com has agreed to match all donations (up to $5,000 U.S.) made by Twitch community members wishing to help the Snowballs recover what they can.

To assist in the effort, so many of our partners have rallied behind this cause. Many of them were on-site in San Francisco, and personally saw the hardship the team faced. While I won't reveal all that's been donated by our "chess celebrities" , I will say that the Chessbrahs, Anna Rudolf (she doesn't do private chess lessons , so take advantage of her offer!), Levy Rozman, Alexandra Botez, I and others are personally offering prizes and unique experiences for some lucky people willing to chip in.

Please consider tuning in on Saturday. Members of the Snowball team will be joining me to review some of their favorite games, tell their story, and play games vs viewers in "Subscriber Saturday" fashion. There will be chess, fun and hopefully an experience that brings us all together and helps the Snowballs move on from what happened during their trip. 

Thank you for reading.

UPDATE: The results are article is available here!

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