Meet the Knockouts
Hello again chess world! We're back for another exciting season of US Chess League action. 2 new teams, the Atlanta Kings and the Rio Grande Ospreys, have joined the fray with high-powered lineups, increasing the league to 18 teams. This led to a restructuring into 3 divisions of 6 teams apiece, the East (Boston Blitz, Manhattan Applesauce, New England Nor'Easters, New Jersey Knockouts, New York Knights, Philadelphia Inventors), the South (Atlanta Kings, Baltimore Kingfishers, Carolina Cobras, Connecticut Dreadnoughts, Miami Sharks, St. Louis Archbishops), and the West (Arizona Scorpions, Dallas Destiny, Los Angeles Vibe, Rio Grande Ospreys, San Francisco Mechanics, Seattle Sluggers). The top 3 teams in each division will qualify for the postseason, as well as the 4th place team in the strongest (as determined by interdivisional play) division.
The roster makeup rules have also been slightly adjusted, with each team starting at 9 players and adding 2 more throughout the season. But the most important change is that all the games have moved to the Internet Chess Club (ICC). I will still be using this blog for our team purposes (mostly because my technical ineptitude and the desire to be able to show chess diagrams don't mix well anywhere else), but the games won't be on the live chess server anymore.
Without further ado, let's meet the 2014 New Jersey Knockouts!
Grandmaster Alex Stripunsky has been a staple of the league for several years, sporting excellent results against the league's best. He is well known for squeezing the maximum opportunities out of every position, and his will to win games is unmatched. With a deep understanding of chess, he is able to bring home full points from positions that look completely balanced, all while playing against other grandmasters. For example, his game of the week winning effort from 2012 featured a 112-move grind in a seemingly level queen endgame against another strong grandmaster. His presence alone will ensure that NJ is a force to be reckoned with throughout the entire season.
Grandmaster Joel Benjamin has led the Knockouts since our inception in 2007. He is well-known for his work on the Deep Blue computer that defeated Kasparov in 1997, and has been a U.S. Champion not once, not twice, but three times. A highly resourceful player, he often employs offbeat openings to reach dynamic and unexplored positions. His games never fail to be entertaining, and most of them still make my head spin just thinking about them. Not only is his calculation prowess inspiring, as in this crazy game of the week winning match, his ability to squeeze the smallest of advantages into meaningful gains is also very instructive, as in his other (!) game of the week winner from last year. His universal style and vast experience in team play is a huge asset to the Knockouts, a combination that shoots the NJKO to the top.
It would be (more than) a little self-serving to say a lot about myself here, so I'll just refer to myself in the third person. International Master Alexander Katz earned his title by winning the 2014 North American Youth, and this season marks his fourth year of league play. Well known in certain circles for his unmatched swindling ability (after his opponent blundered a queen in a completely winning position, one youngster was heard describing his own play as "pulling a Katz"), he is often able to steal points from the most dire of situations. As others will certainly attest to, his play with one second remaining on the clock is unmatched, and he seriously needs to break his habit of giving away pawns in the opening. One of his first league games is a nice crazy example.
Christopher Wu will also be entering his fourth season this year, with only mediocre results thus far. However, he has made huge strides in his game since the last edition of the league, and is probably one of the only players in the world to sport the following rating:
More seriously, with consistently good results against titled players and an aggressive style of play, this season may well be his breakout year. Primiarily manning the third board, his improvement will undoubtedly show early on. His game of the week victory shows how dangerous he can be under the right conditions.
Dmitriy Volkov has not played much official chess lately, but this hardly means he should be counted out. As GM Rohde, Denys Shmelov, and IM Jay Bonin learned the hard way, when he does play he is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the best. A very solid player who rarely loses a game, his league debut is sure to be nothing short of strong. Another solid third board, he is not to be underestimated.
The young John Michael Burke makes his return to the league this year for the third time. With a deep theoretical knowledge as well as a good positional understanding, his improvement has been rapid and unmistakable, with his rating recently eclipsing the 2300 barrier. Don't let his league results fool you - despite being heavily outmatched in each of his games, he's played well above his level and deserves far more points than he's managed to get. But this year he'll get to enjoy the other side of things, likely being one of the higher rated board 4s in the league, and his score is sure to rise. Observe a fighting draw between him and myself where we remained in theory for over 20 moves!
Haik der Manuelian returns after a spectacular showing last year, scoring 50% against players outrating him by nearly 200 points, including a win over NY's prodigy Nico Checa through strong preparation. Equipped with strong opening knowledge and a good positional sense, he returns to his old board with an extra 150 rating points. Known for (quite possibly literally) living and breathing chess, his spare time consists of proving god does not exist, studying more chess, and telling his world-famous chess jokes. His only weaknesses are his uncontrollable nerves, but a year of experience under his belt should help to combat them. He will get to make the adjustment from one of the lowest board 4s in the league to a mid-level one, which can only help his results.
The young Aaron Jacobson has dramatically improved over the last year, raising his rating to above 2150. Known for extensive preparation as well as non-chess-related (and chess-related!) brilliance as well as strong tactical vision, his time management issues are likely the only thing preventing him from breaking the 2200 barrier. A valuable board 4 player who should be competitive right from the start, his style of play is well-suited towards the league and his results should show it.
Finally, rounding out the roster is "National Expert" Ethan Klein. Another rapidly improving player, his results lag far below his play and a correction to this is imminent. Though he does not score well against higher rated players, it is rare to see him not outplaying masters with regularity even if he later loses the thread. Another player whose time management is likely the only thing preventing a meteoric rise, don't be surprised to see him take out his much higher rated counterparts in key moments.
In other news around the league, the St. Louis Archbishops have undoubtedly established themselves as the team to beat, sporting not one, not two, but three players rated over 2700. Le Quang Liem, Wesley So, and Varuzhan Akobian are all extremely strong grandmasters on the international scene, and they've now banded together in an effort to crush the remaining teams into submission. The New York Knights aren't standing for this however, and have brought in their own superstar - U.S. Champion Gata Kamsky! The Rio Grande Ospreys have made clear that they are in it to win it as well in their league debut, bringing in GM Anton Kovalyov to the fray. But as has been demonstrated many times before in the USCL, it is impossible to count anyone out until the final weeks, and having top grandmasters is not necessarily the only recipe for success. All the action kicks off on Tuesday night at 7:00 PM (Eastern time) on the Internet Chess Club! Stay tuned for a preview piece before that match and a recap afterwards! Over and out.