PRO Chess League Quarterfinals Primer: Who's in and Who's out?
Can MVL take the Marseilles Migraines to San Francisco?

PRO Chess League Quarterfinals Primer: Who's in and Who's out?

NapoleonBonaparteIV
NapoleonBonaparteIV
Mar 19, 2018, 8:51 PM |
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Well, we are now only one stop away from the PRO Chess League Semifinals in San Francisco. As anticipation builds for chess' biggest esports event, you maybe wondering: who's going to be there? I'm not a fortune teller, but as a general manager for the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, I hope I can give you some (unbiased?) insights as to who I'm picking to win each match-up and progress to the Folsom Street Foundry. Here's what each of the eight teams need to do on Wednesday to win! 

(3) Mumbai Movers vs (1) Armenia Eagles

Wednesday, 12:20 PM EST

Have to admit, I thought Delhi would be here. With Mumbai on a three-game skid at the end of the season, the Movers dropped from the first-seed to third, giving them the disadvantage against their cross-country rivals. Meanwhile, Armenia has proven its status as a 1-seed. Who moves on?

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If the Movers are to advance, they need another top-notch performance from GM Vidit Gujrathi

How Mumbai Wins

I really like how Mumbai has compensated for Vishy's absence this week. GM Vidit Gujrathi sits on top of the line-up, accompanied by newly crowned Reykjavik Open Champion GM Baskaran Abhidan on board 2. Abhidan's 5.5/12 regular season score isn't pretty, but he proved he was in good form in Iceland - even League outsider GM Anish Giri had something positive to say!

But what I really like is how balanced Mumbai is in the secondary. WGM Eesha Karavade and FM Raunak Sadhwani are both far north of 2300 and close out the line-up. With the tandem scoring 8.5/16 during the regular season, I do think these two can combine for more points than GM Diptayan Ghosh and WIM Dharia Parnali did last week (2.5). Haven't seen Sadhwani play? Me neither - needless to say I'm excited to see what he has to offer after this Super Sunday win against IM Edward Porper from the London Lions:

Now its worth noting that Armenia has draw odds, so Mumbai must score 8.5 to win the match. Here's where I'm worried - Armenia's board 4, CM Artak Manukyan has been a major asset for the Eagles, scoring 23.5/48 despite being a sub-2200 rated player. The more Manukyan scores, the harder it will be for Mumbai to hit 8.5. Keep in mind, Manukyan put up 2.5 from fourth board two weeks ago against this Movers team...

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Armenia's success could be determined by how GM Hrant Melkumyan performs against the Movers' top 2 boards

How Armenia Wins

Did anyone see Armenia's crushing win over Estonia last week? The Eagles have been one of the most consistent teams in the PRO Chess League this season. Having already beaten Mumbai, their confidence levels should be high as they look to soar on to San Francisco.  Sure, Mumbai is bringing a much stronger line-up, but Armenia also has its own upgrade in GM Hrant Melkumyan, and with the team having some playing experience against both GM Vidit Gujrathi and WGM Eesha Karavade, they should be ready. Melkumyan went 3/4 last week against Estonia, and his win over GM Jaan Elhvest was quite impressive:

On second and third board, GMs Zaven Andriasyan and Karen Grigoryan each have lots of games and consistently over-perform for Armenia - they'll need to hold their own against Mumbai's top two boards for the Eagles to win. If they can do that, they should be able to score points against Mumbai's secondary to win the match.

Then there's the final piece of the puzzle - the fourth board. Has anyone shown the importance of fourth board as much as Manukyan? The nice thing is I think if Armenia's top three can hold off Vidit and company, I think even a single point from the team manager could prove decisive in this match...

My Pick

I think the average rating difference between these two teams is negligible, and it promises to be a tight match. I'm somewhat hesitantly picking Mumbai, but I'm not here to back out of things, so let's go all in and bold and underline it: I'm picking Mumbai to win.

Why am I hesitant? This Armenia team is a little stronger than Delhi, and still has draw-odds. I watched the Round of 16 match between Mumbai and Delhi last week, and it felt like Mumbai had to win the match several times to put the Dynamite away. This Eagles team won't give the Movers a second chance, but I think a lot of people will overlook FM Raunak Sadhwani's 6/8 regular season score in the build-up towards this match... that is a very dangerous board 4. I think between a solid tandem in the secondary and strong performances from GM Vidit Gujrathi and GM Baskaran Abhidan, the Movers find themselves in San Francisco.

Mumbai Movers 8.5 – Armenia Eagles 7.5

 

(3) Ljubljana Turtles vs (2) Marseilles Migraines

Wednesday, 12:40 PM EST

Wow did Marseilles dodge a bullet last week when the Turtles upset the Stockholm Snowballs! Now in the wake of one of the biggest upsets in the Playoffs, Marseilles gets draw-odds as they try to book their tickets west. The Turtles our heavy underdogs, but their momentum could be an interesting factor as Ljubljana tries to avenge their 9-7 regular season loss.

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Luka Skuhala could be the one giving out headaches on Wednesday, as he scored 2/4 last week against Stockholm

How Ljubljana Wins

If the Turtles had draw-odds, I think they would be a popular upset pick, but the extra half point is going to call for a strong four-board performance. Luckily for Ljubljana, they've got the team that can pull off the upset. GM Luka Lenic for much of 2018 has been one of the league's leading point scorers, and GMs Jure Borisek and Matej Sebenik are going to give some consistency to a Turtles line-up that will need all the points it can get if it wants to win.

But Luka Skuhala could be the hardest shell to crack. The junior player has scored when the Turtles have needed him to, and his 2/4 performance against Stockholm is what put his team over the edge. Don't be fooled by his 16/37 regular season record, Luka is one of the few 2100 rated players that can swim with sharks in this league. GM Evgenij Agrest was the latest heavyweight to fall to the youngster, and he may not be the last:

To pull this off, the Turtles must score all four points against Marc Andria Maurizzi, as every half point they leave behind is another point they will have to chip off of MVL. Scoring four points here means only tallying 4.5/12 in the remaining games, and with this line-up, beating Marseilles doesn't seem like Mission Impossible anymore...

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On any other team Bacrot would be a board 1, which is what makes Marseilles a title Favorite heading into the Quarterfinals

 Why Marseilles Wins

This one the script seems to write itself, doesn't it? With GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and GM Etienne Bacrot handling the reins on boards 1 and 2, the Migraines look to build off a 9-7 Round of 16 win against the Cannes Blockbusters. Even more terrifying is that GM Yannick Gozzoli is on board 3 and has over-performed all season, scoring 18.5/27 with a 2631 TPR. Here's Gozzoli's win with Black over GM Loek van Wely a couple weeks ago:

While Marseilles is weakest on its fourth board, a fast start in the first half of the match can end the Turtles hopes. MVL has to be happy with his line-up, and if Maurizzi can manage to score even a half point, that should slow down the Turtles enough.

As clear favorites here, Marseilles needs to avoid blunders and wreak havoc if it wants to reach the semifinals.

My Pick

Trust me, I want to pick the upset. Ljubljana has all the components and the momentum, but this Migraines squad is really strong, and I just don't see Luka Skuhala scoring more than one point on Wednesday, and the Turtles need a 1.5+ point kind of performance to win. Call me back next year when the youngster has had more time to develop and is a much stronger player - then maybe I'll switch my pick. But for now, the better team wins, and Europe sends its best team to California in two weeks.

Marseilles Migraines 9 – Ljubljana Turtles 7

 

(4) Minnesota Blizzard vs (3) St Louis Archbishops

Wednesday, 9 PM EST

It seemed like this match-up was the upset of the season in Week 1, but who knew these two would face again in the PRO Chess League Quarterfinals? With raised stakes, the defending league champions will need to make a statement on Wednesday night.

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All of Minnesota's players are dangerous, but GM Andrew Tang's hyperbullet skills can give him an edge in time trouble.

 How Minnesota Wins

Underdogs sure, but let's not forget that these players have done this before. In that match-up, GM Andrew Tang scored 3.5/4, and with IM Daniel Gurevich's plus score of 2.5/4, the Blizzard knocked off the Archbishops in the season opener. The scary thing is that the Blizzard have gotten stronger since that Thursday night, now with GM Mauricio Flores on top of the line-up and GM Nikola Mitkov manning fourth board, Minnesota has the most balanced roster in the League.

While IM John Bartholomew's fans might have wanted their idol in the line-up, this Minnesota has the look and feel of the same team that upset Webster last week. Minnesota will have to do what Pittsburgh couldn't last week - win all four matches against NM Forest Chen, and stymie GM Vladimir Fedoseev. Holding Fedoseev to 2.5/4 and blanking Chen means that the Blizzard will need only need 3 points of the remaining 8 games against Akobian and Zherebukh to win the match.

One element I admire about the Blizzard is that their balance means they don't need a breakout player. If everyone on the Minnesota roster can match their regular season performance, 2+ points from every player should get the job done, reducing the pressure on Flores and Tang to score from the top. Speaking of Flores, did you see his move 33. Nxd6 against GM Alexander Shimanov last week?

I made the mistake of picking Webster to wipe out Minnesota last week, but their performance showed me that their loss to Montclair was a blip. Expect a close match...

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Pittsburgh's plan last week was to slow down Zherebukh. We couldn't, and his 3.5/4 pushed them to the Quarterfinals

How St Louis Wins

If you're familiar with my work, you may have read my article on GGgg vs GGGg line-ups last Friday, but just because Minnesota is bringing a GGgg line-up to the dance doesn't mean they've won the match! Being the manager of the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers, I saw first-hand how strong this Archbishops team in the Round of 16 last week.

I'm going to contradict what a lot of pundits have been saying. This team has somehow performed better without GM Fabiano Caruana ...how? This St Louis team isn't the same team that struggled early in the season with regular season losses to Minnesota and Pittsburgh. GM Yaroslav Zherebukh has hit his stride at the right time from third board, last week scoring 3.5/4 against the Pawngrabbers, and much more notably, going 8 for 8 in the second Super Saturday. Here was his win over our very own GM Awonder Liang last week:

While teams around the League have found ways to score from fourth board, St Louis is one of the few that have done it from board 3, and that's bad news for Minnesota.

But this isn't a one-man show! GM Vladimir Fedoseev has figured out how to be successful in the PRO Chess League, and despite his early regular season results, I think he is getting back on the right track. He might not be able to bring his final TPR over 2700, but he will do everything he can to punctuate this season with a PRO Chess League title... and that matters more than TPR.

With NM Forest Chen a big underdog in all of games, the match could very well be decided by how well GM Varuzhan Akobian plays on second board. A minus score he could easily fall into the very same GGgg vs GGGg dilemma I brought up last week...

My Pick

Don't get me wrong, St Louis is arguably the best team in the PRO Chess League right now. But Minnesota is playing like one too. A 9PM EST start time means its 4AM in Moscow, a not ideal time for Fedoseev, and he's going to need to cancel out Forest Chen's score. If it comes down to Zherebukh, St Louis will win but...

Minnesota Blizzard 8.5 – St Louis Archbishops 7.5

 

(4) Australia Kangaroos vs (2) Chengdu Pandas

Wednesday, 9:20 PM EST

While fans enjoy a night time Quarterfinal finale, it will be morning in both Australia and China. Australia comes off a resounding win against the San Diego Surfers, and the Pandas knocked off the Dallas Destiny, a team I pegged as a real title contender. Chengdu is the favorite on paper, but is it enough to see them through?

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Australia Blitz champ Brandon Clarke could be an X-factor on board 4, having gone 8/8 in the recent Super Saturday

How Australia Wins

It took some serious magic for Australia to make it this far. After failing to beat a relegated Rio Grande Osprey team in the regular season finale, the Kangaroos had to wait for Mammedyarov and the San Jose Hackers to fall short against the San Diego Surfers to claim a playoff bid. After barely qualifying, the Aussies then destroyed that same San Diego squad 10.5-5.5, tying for the biggest winning margin on the day. So who exactly are the Kangaroos?

Remember the Match of the Millennials where the World team beat the US by a staggering margin? Well GMs Alexey Sarana and Anton Smirnov are back, and the two-man tandem lead Australia on boards 1 and 2, respectively. These two 2500+ grandmasters are a combined 52/80 against strong Pacific Division competition - the impressive part? Both of these guys put up 3.5/4 against San Diego last week. Talk about winning big games!

The Kangaroos have gone with a different look than last week in the secondary, moving up IM Teymur Kuybokarov from fourth board to third to make room for FM Brandon Clarke on fourth board. I really like this proactive "risk" from the manager. While Clarke may be the lowest player on the Aussie's roster by nearly 100 points, he holds a 2546 TPR through 28 games for the Kangaroos - including an 8/8 Super Saturday run. Here's one of his wins from that streak:

If Australia is going to win, they need to score 4/4 against Chengdu's Chu Ruotong. While Ruotung has out-performed her rating by 100+ points with a 12/32 score, I think its important that the Kangaroos get a bulk of their points here. Furthermore, I think Australia will need more than 1 point from every player. In a dream world, Sarana and Smirnov both get 3/4, leaving Kuybokarov and Clarke with the task of scoring a combined 2.5/8... of course scoring 3/4 against the Pandas' team is no easy task.

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Chengdu leads a strong triumvirate of PRO Chess League superstars on their top three boards - Yu Yuangyi is just the first.

How Chengdu Wins

That Dallas-Chengdu fixture last week felt like a semifinal, and while both teams deserved to move on, the Pandas moved on through a nail-biter. If I'm Australia's manager, I'm a little nervous, as Chengdu's only losses thus far come to a team with a Super GM (Nakamura and Seattle, Mammedyarov and San Jose), something the Kangaroos definitely lack. Conversely, if I'm Chengdu's manager, I'm really happy - the Pandas beat the Kangaroos back in February 10-6, and the Aussies fielded the exact same line-up in that match.

Now Chengdu ups the ante with a much stronger line-up. GM Yu Yuangyi is on board 1, and is the only player in the entire league to have both played in 40+ games and have a 2700 TPR. On second board, GM Ni Hua is another 2650+ giant, who, despite missing last week's tilt against Dallas should be on top form Wednesday night (or Thursday morning for him!).

What intrigues me most about the Chengdu line-up is third board GM Xu Xiangyu. Outperforming his 2549 rating by over a hundred points, I got to watch him live in the first Super Saturday when Pittsburgh faced off against the Pandas. I'm really impressed with how he plays in equal positions, and he proved his worth again in his game with GM Daniel Naroditsky:

Chu Ruotong could be an Achilles' Heel for Chengdu, but any result from 4th board could decide the outcome. With everything on paper going the Pandas' way, that can only mean...
My Pick
China sends its first PRO Chess League team to the semi-finals. Nothing against Australia, but I find it difficult to believe that the Kangaroos can outplay a stronger Chengdu side than they faced earlier in the season. Kangaroos keep it close through two rounds, but can't keep pace to the Pandas and face a similar demise.
Australia Kangaroos 6.5 – Chengdu Pandas 9.5

 

Think I'm wrong about anything? Let me know in the comments! I'm curious to hear your take on each of the matches happy.png