Mechanics Solid at Halftime
by IM David Pruess
Somehow, we are halfway through the regular season of the US Chess League already. Despite which, I feel like I don't yet have a handle on the strengths and weaknesses of any of the other teams; and little idea who the toughest teams will be in the coming weeks and in the playoffs. However, we'll get to the discussion of the overall season *after* a quick match recap of our week 5 match with the LA Vibe.
If you don't care how we did, or about the chess games we played this week, just scroll down to hear my ill-informed and idle speculations about the remainder of the season.
Before the match I expected us to win 2.5-1.5. I figured we'd win on boards 1 and 3 where we had white and score .5/2 with black on boards 2+4. I thought Eugene Yanayt on board 4 would be quite likely Yian's toughest opponent of the season. At the same time I was facing an opponent who is probably about as good as I, and I'm not very good with white. So one of us would probably lose and the other get a draw.
Check out Yian's game and you'll see that I was not wrong to have some concern there:
Ok, Yian managed to salvage that one. And even though throughout the match I was horrified when I'd look over at his position, I never gave up hope that he could score despite his position. Yian never gives up himself. Sometimes I think some of these young players don't have the positional understanding to realize how ugly their positions are; and therefore, not realizing they are crushed, they don't collapse. Maybe I could save a bad position once in my life if I ignored how bad my position was as they do.
Here are the critical moments from my game:
Ok, here's a good test for you guys: what should black do here?
Unfortunately, my psychology completely came apart after this point, in a way which is hard to explain. My opponent was down to about 1 minute, and I had about 30. Plus probably a winning position. The other three games in the match at this point seemed headed towards draws. I had to bear down to try to win the match. Instead, I produced a few limp moves, while running down some of my time without concluding anything useful about how to play this endgame. And then I blundered badly, allowing an instant draw.
One last puzzle; how did my opponent, playing off the 30 second increment, seize his chance here for a draw?
My blunder was returned by LA with a blunder by Casella in the following Queen endgame with Daniel:
And thus we won the match, and I was spared a lot of guilt over my blunder. Because I'm lazy, I'll sum up the Wolff-Kretchetov game briefly and with little regard to accuracy: Patrick seemed to be under the weather this day. Kretchetov showed up late, which was probably unpleasant and stressful for both of them. I think Patrick's mood was further damaged by Kretchetov playing well. And so, with the match in a pretty safe situation (we were probably not going to loes any games), Patrick agreed a draw in an equal endgame, leaving it up to either Daniel or I to try to eke out an endgame win. I think if he had been feeling spunkier on this particular day, he would have probably played on, looking to outplay the opponent eventually. Here's the game for reference:
This match could very well have finished as a 2-2 tie with all four games drawn, and that got me to thinking: USCL matches tend to be pretty balance, and within one or two moves of ending 2-2, but was it normal for all the individual games to be so close to draws? I thought to my own play: 2 draws and 1 win. Hmmm, don't I usually lose and win more than that? 2 draws is more than enough for a 9-round tournament for me! My idea formed, I hit the records to check if the Mechanics were having a more "solid" season than usual--
In 5 matches, we have played 20 games. 10 draws vs. 8 wins and 2 losses. Wow, we'd only lost 2 games all season, that was indeed low, as expected. But the 10 draws were a surprisingly high tally. To make sure these were not just the surprised reactions of someone without a memory, who is thus easily surprised by any event, I looked back at our previous season (2009, if memory serves):
In 12 weeks of play (including 2 playoff matches), we had 12 draws! That's only 2 more than at halftime this season, and 1/match rather than 2: half as many!! That's really an extraordinary stat. At this point last year, 5 weeks in, we had 5 draws to our names, half as many as this year. Personally, I have definitely played with less ambition this season than in the past, hence more calmly. Well, you could argue that leaving myself off the main roster last season, because I felt I was a worse value for the team than some other players, was the height of "low ambition," but it's a spurious argument since my 2-game reserve season did not contribute any draws to the team statistics.
Will we continue to be more solid this season? Hard to say actually. I think we may be a little more solid, but that our drawing rate should go down a bit. For one thing, I expect to see us win some more games on board 4. We are usually a solid favorite on board 4, and there are at least two board 4 games already this season, which I feel we ought to have won, but ended in draws. And in general (ok, for this theory, I did not even bother to look up any stats), I think board 4 is the most volatile board, with the least draws. We have 3 draws there in 5 matches, and I would expect 1-2 draws there in our last 5 regular season matches.
More importantly, are we going to win the league this year? Make the playoffs? Finish first in the West? Who is our top competition?
All good questions. The answers: no, yes, maybe, I have no clue.
Our team has always been a pretty good team. Once or twice I felt we had the best lineup in the league, but we were always at least pretty good. This year, one salient feature of our team is that we have NO really good lineup. We have several reasonable lineups, which can compete on any given day. And they have at least a 40% chance against most opponents. But we don't have any insane lineup-- I mean the lineups that have current average ratings of 2470 or 2480, when compared to the league maximum of 2400. That kind of lineup can often give you a 100 point advantage per board, which is an overwhelming advantage.
There are two ways you get such a lineup:
1. really high rated players. since the max any player's rating counts as is 2590, if you have a player rated above that, you get all their extra strength at no cost to the rest of your lineup! However, the best players in the bay area are only a handful of points over that number.
2. really quickly-improving players. you can use a rating supplement as old as september of the previous year for choosing your players. If a player improves by 100 points in that year, you are golden: those 100 points are your team's for free. If on the other hand they improve by 200 points-- yippee!! This has tended to be the basis of SF's best lineups: a steady stream of improving players.
Here are some monster lineups we created in the past:
2008: 2 GMs: Friedel/Wolff/Bhat plus Shankland and Naroditsky
2009: Friedel Bhat/Kraai Shankland Liou
Vinay's rating trailed behind his strength for a while, because he mostly played in Europe, and USCF ratings did not reflect the results which brought him the GM title. Sam Shankland rose from 2200 to 2500 about as fast as I've seen anyone do so, so we got the "yippee" scenario from him. Naroditsky and Liou also improved very fast giving us 100-200 points each.
This year we are not using a 2200 rated youngster who was 2020 last year, in order to load up on GMs on the top boards. And we don't have anyone who has shot up like Bhat or Shankland. Liou has gained 40-50 points in strength in the last year, which is good, but not enough to make a huge difference.
So we really don't have any lineup this year that has better than a 40% chance in a USCL finals match. Maybe as low as a 30% chance. So the odds of winning the league as miniscule. That said, we can put out a fair lineup every remaining week of the regular season. And we are already out in front with a 4-1 record, tied with Arizona for best in the west.
Here are our remaining matches and plausible results:
wk 6 Boston: lose
wk 7 Arizona: win
wk 8: St Louis: lose
wk 9: Seattle: draw
wk 10: Miami: win
which would put is at 6.5-3.5, comfortably in the playoffs. 5.5 is probably enough to get into the playoffs, so I'm pretty confident we'll make it. That said, it's hard to guess which team will win the west. It could be that 6.5 or 7 will be first, as there is no dominant team. It could have been St Louis, but they are at 2.5-2.5 and have one more match without Nakamura or Shulman, which they will lose to the east-leading Nor'easters. So even if they beat down their western rivals in weeks 6-9, they'll at best tie for first. The two top teams in the west according to the standings, Arizona and Chicago, are both a bit like us: not possessed of any ridiculous lineup. So I expect both of those teams will drop another match or two, and probably finish pretty close to SF in the final standings. And in fact, I think we are a slightly better team than either of those two. So, including ties, we probably have a 30% chance to finish first in the West.
While nobody has stood out in the West, which I follow, I have not been following the East this year. The league has finally reached a number of teams, where I can't keep up with the Eastern teams! All I know is that I've seen a few lineups that are absolute insanity this year, and I think most of them were from the NY Knights. I don't see where I can check that right now, but I feel like a few times this season, I glanced over at some lineup of theirs and thought "what??? is this for real??" Somehow they are second in the East, but my instincts tell me they are the strongest team out there. And Boston's rosters look pretty much like usual, so they are probably a bit better than the top Western teams as well.
This coming week is the only week of the season where Eastern and Western teams face each other (other than the league championship). Perhaps it will give us a better sense of the balance of power between divisions. Personally, I fear gravely for SF's result this week.
PS- I think that the New York and St Louis lineups this season may be cause for the league in the off-season to re-consider the two loopholes by which a team can drastically overshoot 2400.