Pandas, Eagles Reach First PRO Chess League Live Finals

Pandas, Eagles Reach First PRO Chess League Live Finals

MikeKlein
FM MikeKlein
Apr 8, 2018, 12:28 AM |
12 | Chess Event Coverage

At Saturday's PRO Chess League semifinals in San Francisco, it was a good day to be bullish on bears. First, the Chengdu Pandas bounced into the finals, then the Armenia Eagles celebrated a last-minute victory with bear hugs.

Amidst it all, chess is now officially an esport.

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At the end of a historic day for chess, several hundred people watched the action in person. Even more are expected tomorrow when those two teams will battle for the title of 2018 PRO Chess League Champions.

For once, cell phones were just fine, and cheering was too. The Folsom Street Foundry hosted quite a bit of cheering in the semifinal, where the Eagles narrowly got past the defending champion Saint Louis Arch Bishops, 8.5-7.5.

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The players await the first-round pairings in the morning. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

With the score knotted at 6-6 going into the final round, the players matched their board-number-opposites at the steampunk-inspired playing venue. Fans grabbed a fresh drink and apprised themselves of the tiebreak procedures as the results came in.

Armenia Eagles

Team Armenia looks on to see their fate. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

One by one, all draws. First from board one, for once not the main attraction. Then one of the day's biggest stars, 15-year-old Arch Bishop NM Forest Chen, reduced to 10.8 seconds, accepted CM Artak Manukyan's offer. The split point completed a remarkable day for Chen -- four draws, three against grandmasters, and one of the few undefeated players of this Saturday.

With the bookended games done, only two games remained. Second-board Eagle GM Samvel Ter-Sahakyan took a peek at the projection screen and saw his teammate one board lower, GM Karen Grigoryan, in a desperate position. Then his buddy pulled an eagle out of a hat and split the point.

"When I saw him make a draw, it was pressure to me," Ter-Sahakyan told Chess.com.

Samvel Ter-Sahakyan

Aronian who? Armenia has a new national hero -- GM Samvel Ter-Sahakyan. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

All the while he had been thinking a win over GM Dariusz Swiercz would push the match to a playoff. In a moment, he realized the finals were suddenly within reach if he could navigate his advantage with dwindling time.

"Nf5 is maybe not so good but it's something I have to do," Ter-Sahakyan said. It also got in-person spectator GM Jon Luvig Hammer's instant seal of approval, which usually doesn't hurt:

His teammates took a front-row position to see him close it out:

"As a manager I would like to sit here and not be a part of the game," Manukyan said of his personal draw, which turned him from chess player to cheerleader.

Contrast with the visibly nervous Arch Bishops Manager Mike Kummer, whose similar comments were more of a lament: "When you're on the sideline, you can't really control much." Team coach GM Alejandro Ramirez was even blunter: "This is the worst job ever. This is really stressful."

"I was betting on him," Manukyan said about his teammate's clutch performance.

Some things tend to happen in one's native tongue -- dreaming, cursing, yelling. Manukyan explained in the video above they are shouting "Come on!" and "Keep it going!" in Armenian.

They can do this because all of the players active in games wear headphones with white noise or classical music piped in (some April Fools' jokes come true it seems!). For his part, Ter-Sahakyan was so focused on the game, he couldn't sense or hear the cacophony right behind him.

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After it was over, the Eagles discussed their fraught final round. Left to right: GM Samvel Ter-Sahakyan, CM Artak Manukyan, GM Zaven Andriasyan, team strongman GM Karen Grigoryan. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Ter-Sahakyan's exact vantage mattered. The teams played half of the rounds facing the audience, then switched to have their backs to the audience for the other two rounds. It happened that the Eagles faced away from the crowd for the final round, so Ter-Sahakyan had no idea of the raucous finish. He was completely enamored with those final moves.

The minute Swiercz resigned, that all changed. He took off his headset right as the other Eagles mobbed him, with Grigoryan jumping over the ropes and hoisting his hero in the air. It wasn't quite Rudy, but it was a new era of chess and fandom.

The bear hug only lifted Ter-Sahakyan a few inches off the ground, but he had lifted his squad into the finals.

"Armenia's getting tired," Kummer prophecized going into the final round, but the elation above surely didn't show it.

Armenia's win spoiled a fantastic day by Chen, the young fourth board who earned his national master title mid-season.

Forest Chen

NM Forest Chen did all he could to help his Arch Bishops repeat as PRO League Champions. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

While a common thread of the four teams qualifying for San Fransisco had been an overperforming final board, in the early matchup of the day, the two lowest-rated players could only muster a solitary draw, and that was against each other (as with the regular season, the playoffs are an all-play-all event).

But no so for Chen in the afternoon. He began by drawing top Eagle GM Zaven Andriasyan, then followed it up with another draw against Ter-Sahakyan, and yet another against Grigoryan before that aforementioned final draw with Manukyan.

That one standout performance wasn't enough to overcome middling performances by the more experienced members of the squad.

As the leader, Akobian notched three draws but only win, and that was against the bottom Eagle. GM Yaroslav Zherebukh started 0-2 and also only won against Manukyan. He then failed to close out the final game with the bonus pawns.

Armenia never trailed on the day, opening 2.5-1.5, holding that same margin after round two, and then slipping back into a 6-6 tie heading into the deciding round.

Arch Bishops Eagles Zaven Andriasyan Samvel Ter-Sahakyan Karen Grigoryan Artak Manukyan 8.5
Varuzhan Akobian 2.5
Dariusz Swiercz 1.5
Yaroslav Zherebukh 1.5
Forest Chen 2
7.5 2.5 3 2.5 0.5

Let's switch back now tothe morning round, where no one knew what to expect. Indeed, even the pairings weren't set to start the day. By design, the PRO Chess League kept the squads in the dark about who would play who in the opening round.

Emcee WFM Alexandra Botez took the microphone shortly after 10 a.m. local time and informed Chengdu that by virtue of having the most game points of any team in the semis, they would get to hand pick their opening-round opponent.

Oh, and they only had three minutes to decide.

Chengdu Pandas

GM Ni Hua, GM Wang Yue, and GM Xi Xiangyu consult after a round. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

The Pandas chewed on the decision quickly and chose the Ljubljana Turtles, who weren't unhappy to be picked, or picked on. Besides, they were used to it.

"We were underdogs throughout the season," team captain and top board GM Luka Lenic said. "Everybody wanted us.

"I thought we had some good chances against Chengdu. In particular, since they didn't travel with their best two players."

"They picked us, probably they had their reasons to do so," GM Matej Sebenik said. "It's up to us to prove them wrong."

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The Turtles look on from the VIP area. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

The Turtles qualified for the trip to the U.S. with an incredibly balanced attack in the two opening rounds of the playoffs -- a balance they didn't have today. In the first round and quarterfinals, five of the eight individual performances netted 2.0/4 scores, with the other three just slightly above 50 percent. But that's enough to win a match or two.

Today the Turtles didn't end up like in the fable. Slow and steady did not win the race.

Both teams' players cited one key moment from the opening round as having reverberations for the final three matches. In the game GM Xu Xiangyu - GM Jure Borisek, the Panda's player said it was his hardest game.

"If my opponent saw 42. Kg2, he would [instead] play 40...Rc7," Xu said. "His knight is really strong and he will win."

Xu Xiangyu

GM Xu Xiangyu, board three but today the alpha-Panda. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Instead, Borisek played what seemed to be a neat tactic, only to see it coolly rebuffed by that subtle king juke.

"It was also very important for Jure (Borisek) to get his confidence," Lenic said about the critical game.

That would-be full-point reversal set the stage for the day. The Pandas jumped out to a 2.5-1.5 opening-round win, then continued with two more rounds in a row by the same score, before closing it out without drama to win 9.5-6.5. (You can decide if that score is a big enough margin to satisfy GM Hikaru Nakamura's prediction, which came while the score was at 5-3, that "I think it's probably going to be a blowout.")

The flip side also proved true. Xu actually did get his confidence and parlayed the first-game fortune into more of the same later. He finished with a team-high 3.5/4.

The only round Chengdu didn't win was the final round, but they had entered ahead 7.5-4.5 and had already clinched when top board GM Wang Yue spoiled his perfect score by losing to Lenic.

Here's Wang squeezing every drop out of his endgame in round three:

As for Xu, fittingly it was his game that put them over the top. Entering on 7.5 going into the fourth round, GM Ni Hua quickly got a draw to get the Pandas to 8.0.

Then Xu got to the needed threshold with more knights forking rooks. Although not entirely necessary, it never hurts to finish with some style, especially in front of a dynamic live audience:

Xu clearly made that final liquidation based on pure chess motives, but it doesn't hurt that the crowd got a fun finish. And although the setting was new to chess, Xu knows a little bit about these types of events.

"I really like the experience because it was like gamers," he said. "I like the atmosphere." Xu plays Dota 2, although he's never competed in a live setting.

Luka Skuhala

Fourth-board Turtle Luka Skuhala didn't feast on any GMs today. Instead, they forced him to overheat. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

There does seem to be one area where the Turtles "win." The Pandas planned to go back to the hotel to watch the afternoon match online (they had unsurprisingly already visited San Francisco's renowned Chinatown, which they thought was bigger than expected). But Ljublana made good on their wish to catch a Golden State Warriors' game.

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Alexandra Botez speaks Mandarin and so was able to interview fourth-board Panda Chu Ruotong. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

The Experience

With this being the first chess esport event, players and fans alike (Chess.com staff too!) didn't quite know what to expect.

For the players, they wore headphones with white noise or classical music (mostly Chopin) to pick from. This reporter found most of the white noise selections to be unlistenable except for the "waves crashing" -- most players experimented with the choices before play began and opted for the music.

"I listen to classical music at home, so I thought it was an advantage!" Lenic said.

Still, there was one game where the playlist progressed to a song he didn't care for, and with only one minute remaining on his clock, Lenic toggled over mid-game and advanced to the next song.

Chess.com and Twitch staff tested the system extensively, and, at best, players could hear garbled noise but not really anything concrete. Lenic said the setup didn't bother him at all.

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The final round commences. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

One other player did report that during song breaks, a few seconds of decipherable sound came through, including the commentary on speakers. But since IM Danny Rensch was mostly telling stories and not suggesting moves, the player didn't get anything out of it! (This reporter's April Fools' article accounted for this fictional scenario, not knowing music would actually be added, and indeed next year there is already talk of players getting to bring their own playlist. And that's not an April Fools!)

For the fans, at the peak, about 100 were in attendance, with probably double that number filtering in throughout the day (there were no tickets or entry fees). The spectating area had a mix of bar stools, chairs, and couches. A bar served drinks and fans could hear the commentary while watching the players -- normally not possible. Cell phones were just fine, for once. 

Plenty of titled players dropped in, too.

Wang Yue

Panda GM Wang Yue looked more relaxed than the spectators most of the time. | Photo: Mike Klein/Chess.com.

Still, for the most part, fans reverted to slightly-elevated golf-level talking voices, until the heated moments of the games. It's going to take more than one day to erase centuries of chess spectating tendencies. Most matches did end in cheering or clapping of some sort and in general, the chess was very much the focus.

Turtles Pandas Wang Yue Ni Hua Xu Xiangyu Chu Ruotong 9.5
Luka Lenic 3
Jure Borisek 1.5
Matej Sebenik 1.5
Luka Skuhala 0.5
6.5 3 2.5 3.5 0.5

Tomorrow's action resumes at 10 a.m. Pacific with the third-place match. The Turtles face off against the Arch Bishops. At around 2 p.m. Pacific, the championship match will feature the Pandas against the Eagles.

Catch all of the action live at Twitch.tv/chess and read the FAQ for more questions and answers. Also, follow the live blog on the Chess.com homepage.

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