Carlsen, Caruana, So Vie For PRO Chess Champs This Weekend

Carlsen, Caruana, So Vie For PRO Chess Champs This Weekend

| 19 | Chess Event Coverage

Kill your TV but double-check your internet connection.

This weekend will decide which four teams will advance to college basketball's "Final Four," but the Professional Online Rapid (PRO) Chess League is one week ahead in its own version of March Madness. 

Both the semifinals and finals will be contested for the league's first-ever championship weekend. The four squads are already known.

The quartet that survived and advanced: the Norway Gnomes, the Stockholm Snowballs, the St. Louis Arch Bishops, and the Montreal ChessBrahs.

The grouping also contains the top three players in the world: Magnus Carlsen, Wesley So, and Fabiano Caruana. 

Fittingly, the bracket pits the natural rivals against one another in Saturday's semifinals. Norway faces the Swedes, the kingdom it battled in the early 19th century, then linked with, before finally dissolving their union in 1905. (Once GM Magnus Carlsen was asked at an event if he wished he could have been born during the Cold War like Bobby Fischer, thus having a bitter rival like the Soviets. Carlsen joked, "Well, we have Sweden.")

In the other Saturday semifinal, the Canadians face off against St. Louis, the chess capital of the U.S. Like the Scandinavian pairing, Canada and the U.S. enjoy close relations these days, despite a somewhat checkered history. The two have raised arms at least seven times, with the first invasion also including Quebec. (We will set aside GM Fabiano Caruana, who was born in the U.S., but is playing for Montreal!)

Let's take a look at the matches and the lineups in more detail.

Montreal vs. St. Louis (Saturday, March 25, 10 a.m. PDT, 1 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. CET):

If watching the best player in the world doesn't get you going, how about numbers two and three facing off in the same match? GM Fabiano Caruana, who just had his second-in-the-world ranking usurped by GM Wesley So, will get a chance to meet his fellow American in the final found of the all-play-all "Scheveningen" format.

Was b6! the best move GM Wesley So played during the PRO League?

Although they both won Olympiad gold as teammates last year, Caruana and So have mutually peripatetic chess careers. Caruana grew up in Florida and New York, then played for Italy for many years before returning home to the U.S. He actually has an apartment in St. Louis, but will be playing for Montreal against his home city on Saturday!

So grew up in the Philippines, but went to Webster University for several years, only to move to Minnesota and then represent the Arch Bishops. He then helped oust his former college in the quarterfinals of last week's St. Louis derby!

While Meier has the most game points of anyone in the inaugural season, So leads the league in performance rating at 2866. He didn't just squeak into that spot; So has tallied 28 total games, scoring an astounding 26 points. An extensive review of his games this season shows a ton of resourcefulness in worse positions, but also a willingness to grind away slowly in many closed positions. (This author recorded a video of the "Top 10 PRO League Moves Of Wesley So" which will be released before championship weekend.)

Caruana will be joined as teammates by two of the men he opposed in the final round while winning his gold medal in Baku! GMs Eric Hansen and Alexander Lesiege of Team Canada almost spoiled the American's party last September, but now the North American brothers will join forces as one. Elias Oussedik rounds out the team.

After his final-round loss in Baku last year, GM Alexander Lesiege will get a chance for revenge against GM Wesley So.

The Arch Bishops will be assisted down the mighty Mississippi by well-known American GMs Varuzhan Akobian and Ben Finegold, the latter of which has produced many videos of his PRO League games this season.

Check out this recent entry where he showcases a personal loss, but is assuaged by being a teammate of the man he calls "the best chess player in the world."

St. Louis will use the traditional method of pairing three GMs with a lower-rated player. But perhaps Nicholas Rosenthal has some advantage over the others. First, he's a few years older, but second, he'll always have Paris, or should we say, Marseille? Rosenthal's win over GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave from earlier this season may reasonably be the best he can ever do at the chessboard.

Norway vs. Stockholm (Saturday, March 25, 1 p.m. PDT, 4 p.m. EDT, 9 p.m. CET):

No surprise for the Norwegians as the world's most important Gnome continues to lead his team's playoff march. World Champion Carlsen will return for both the semifinals and the finals, should his team advance to Sunday's championship match. Interestingly, if that happens, the three teammates he joins with for the semifinals will all be replaced for the finals! (All four teams had to announce the lineups for both matches in advance of championship weekend.)

Here's the highest-rated player in history making chess look easy last week, again:

Before you go thinking that the team opposing Carlsen doesn't have a "snowball's chance in hell," you may want to consider the actual Snowballs. They will once again be led by the enigmatic and often brilliant play of GM Baadur Jobava. For those unfamiliar, his other-worldly Bh6! in the Olympiad earned number-two honors by this author in a video of the best moves of 2016.

Here he is taking out a top-flight player last week:

The Georgian has even had a graduation of status since last week. Unlike the quarterfinals, instead of being a "free agent," which teams can have only one of in their lineups in a given week, Jobava is now a "local" player. How so? He will be in Stockholm for the match! This is in accordance with rule A.3.2.2. Google Maps claims that it is a 48-hour car ride from Tbilisi to Stockholm, so you know his team wants him there!

Jobava will be "seconded" by GM Georg Meier, who boasts the highest performance rating on the team (2699) and seventh-highest in the league.

Meier also has a bit of a "home server" advantage. He is no stranger to success on the live interface -- Meier's six lifetime Title Tuesday wins are second only to a certain Mr. Nakamura. He also can boast a commanding lead for the most league points (29.5) of any player this season. 

Still not convinced that he owns in all formats? How about his 5-0 record in "10 second" chess this past week!? And not to pick on that same awesome GM, but last week he coolly rebuffed a 2800's attack:

Rounding out both teams are Norwegian Olympians GM Jon Ludwig Hammer and GM Aryan Tari, as well as the unheralded and untitled Daniel Nordquelle. Three strong GMs often need a rising junior to get their collective average below the 2500 threshold, but with Nordquelle's rating (2013) not even keeping pace with the year, he may be playing the most highly-visible games of any non-master in history!

Stockholm will also bring more Georgian heat (or is it ice?). GM Levon Pantsulaia is a countryman of Jobava, a former national champion, and will man third board. The Snowballs will also bring a talented junior to round out their team. Untitled but fellow "pants" man Milton Pantzar, the top under-16 player in the country, has one more year and 200 extra rating points on Nordquelle, his opposite sentry on the final board. 

Should Norway win the match, it will be the only team of the four to make lineup changes. Carlsen would stay, but would be joined by GM Kjetil Lie, IM Joachim Nielsen, and FM Sebastian Mihajlov.

As for the pundit panel, their season is over after these picks. NM Alex King had already sewn up the season-long contest before Championship Weekend began!

NM Alex King picks St. Louis to win it all.

Shaun McCoy is taking his pick to Gnometown.

IM Robert Ris thinks the Arch Bishops will win a nail-biter.

The finals of the PRO Chess League will be Sunday, March 26 at 10 a.m. PDT, 1p.m. EDT, 7 p.m. CET. (Note that daylight savings time in Europe occurs on the morning of the championship match, so plan accordingly!)

All of the championship weekend can be watched live at or

Read up on everything you need to know about the PRO Chess League:

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