PRO Chess League Semifinals Preview: Beyond The Board

PRO Chess League Semifinals Preview: Beyond The Board

PeterDoggers
PeterDoggers
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20 | Chess Event Coverage

The PRO Chess League Finals are this weekend, with action beginning Saturday, May 4 and a champion crowned on Sunday, May 5.

Once again, the Folsom Street Foundry in San Francisco will host the live event. Tickets are almost sold out but there's still time to get yours today so you can watch these stars live.

In this preview we'll take a look at the teams that made it to the final four.

For the second year in a row, the best four teams of the PRO Chess League will be traveling to San Francisco to battle it all out, with two semifinals on Saturday, and then on Sunday a match for third place followed by the grand finale.

The two semifinals feature the Baden Baden Snowballs vs Chengdu Pandas and Saint Louis Arch Bishops vs Armenia Eagles. But which players will be there?

Chess.com recently sat down with all four teams and went Beyond the Board to learn more about their approach to this year's matches. Here are some highlights from the interviews:

Baden-Baden Snowballs logoBaden-Baden Snowballs

The Baden-Baden Snowballs will bring three grandmasters from Germany, led by GM Georg Meier on board one. His wife WIM Inna Agrest is a playing team captain on board four. The others are GM Alexander Donchenko and GM Dmitrij Kollars

# Fed Title Name Rtg PCL Record
1 GM Georg Meier 2639 36/50
2 GM Alexander Donchenko 2614 13/19
3 GM Dmitrij Kollars 2536 34.5/53
4 WIM Inna Agrest 2283 7/30

After the first 10 weeks of regular-season matchups and Battles Royale, the Snowballs finished in second place in the Central Division, behind the Norway Gnomes.

Their first playoff match ended in a narrow 8.5-7.5 victory against the Amsterdam Mosquitos. Then, in the quarterfinal, the Snowballs managed to take revenge for their loss in the 2017 PRO Chess League semifinal as they defeated the Norway Gnomes 9-7.

Here's Meier scoring a 112-move win against IM Lars Oskar Hauge:

There's no team in the semifinals who didn't have a bit of luck. Here's Kollars swindling against GM Jon Ludvig Hammer:

The Snowballs are the only team that didn't play in San Francisco last year. Donchenko said that it will take a bit of time to get used to the special atmosphere, in front of a cheering live audience.

"I would say, maybe in the first half an hour to an hour or how long it takes for us to get used to the atmosphere, it is probably going to be slightly unusual," said Donchenko. "But we have our team spirit and our strength to compensate for it, so I think we’re all set. I am actually looking forward to this because it is a fresh experience and I am going to be in the middle of it and it sounds like it might be fun."

Alexander Donchenko 2019 PRO Chess League

Meier gave an interesting and honest analysis of the difference between playing an individual tournament and playing on a team:

"Probably playing for a team is very well suited for my style of play because I play well when I just play relatively clean chess," said Meier. "When I play for myself I sometimes want to be someone else. I want to play more principled, more aggressive and so on, and I start to lose more games. I do things that I maybe shouldn’t do. But when I play for the team I am like: 'Let’s stick to what you do well, and this is what I do.'"

On his team's chances, Meier said: "Any match is a one-shot game. It doesn’t really matter if you think your are the favorite or the underdog; anyone who goes there has a chance. All the teams could in the end be the champion. All we can do is try to be in a good mood, sleep well for a couple of days, arrive rested, and try to play our best games. Oh, and I think Dmitrij is gonna stop everyone!"

Georg Meier 2019 PRO Chess League

Chengdu Pandas logoChengdu Pandas

Like their opponent in the semifinal on Saturday, the Chengdu Pandas are bringing three grandmasters: GMs Li Chao, Wang Yue and Zhao Jun. Their board four is the untitled youngster Zhang Di, who is just 12 years old. 

# Fed Title Name Rtg PCL Record
1 GM Li Chao 2708 9.5/12
2 GM Wang Yue 2681 21/30
3 GM Zhao Jun 2612 17.5/30
4 Zhang Di 1966 5/16

The Pandas qualified for the playoffs after coming third in the Atlantic Division, behind the Minnesota Blizzard and Dallas Destiny. The first playoff match was won 9.5-6.5 against Dallas.

This was the match in which Zhao Jun produced the checkmate of the year against Dallas' GM Razvan Preotu, using two knights to weave a beautiful mating pattern:

The quarterfinal match wasn't an easy one for the Chengdu Pandas. Even with its top two boards combining for 7.5/8 points, they Chinese team nearly went down against a balanced Minnesota team.

First, a win with the Evans Gambit for Li Chao against GM Andrew Tang:

Doing well on the lower boards, Minnesota was trailing by only a point and needed a win from IM John Bartholomew. Playing with White against Zhang Di, Bartholomew missed a critical chance to save the match:

Wang Yue is the only player in the team that was in San Francisco last year, as well. He told Chess.com that he will share his personal experience with the other players.

"The venue is phenomenal," said Wang Yue. "At first we were not very used to this kind of games and format, but I think gradually we were getting used to it. I will tell everyone what to do to make a better performance in those circumstances."

Wang Yue 2019 PRO Chess League

Wang feels the team is more ready than last year: "If we played the game on a real chessboard I would be more comfortable with the situation," he said. "Last year in moments of time pressure we made some mistakes. This year we are more prepared; we played more games online. I think we can win the championship; we are more likely to win this year."

Li Chao said that for Chinese players it's very natural to play better when they are playing in a team event: "It's in our minds; in our culture," he said. "This is more important. So that's why!"

Li Chao 2019 PRO Chess League

Saint Louis Arch Bishops logoSaint Louis Arch Bishops

Whereas Wesley So can't make it due to his participation in the Abidjan Grand Chess Tour event in Côte d'Ivoire, the Saint Louis Arch Bishops are bringing their other world-class player to the Folsom Street Foundry: Fabiano Caruana. The world number-two will be playing with GM Benjamin Bok, IM Nikolas Theodorou and the untitled Julian Proleiko.

# Fed Title Name Rtg PCL Record
1 GM Fabiano Caruana 2827 42/57
2 GM Benjamin Bok 2639 4.5/6
3 IM Nikolas Theodorou 2535 11/19
4 Julian Proleiko 2093 0/0

The Arch Bishops lived up to its promise and is the only team in the finals that won the group stage. They came first in the Atlantic Division, ahead of the New York Marshalls and the Webster Windmills.

However, their first match in the playoffs against Montclair Sopranos was a close one. So close, that eventually the score was 8-8, and Saint Louis advanced only on tiebreak.

The Arch Bishops then edged out the Webster Windmills 9-7 to become the winner of the Atlantic Division, and the first qualifier for the semis in San Francisco. Here's one of Caruana's games, in which he ground down GM Alexander Shimanov in an endgame.

Theodorou did well for the Arch Bishops as he trapped Illya Nyzhnyk's queen in the center of the board:

Team manager Mike Kummer has every reason to be confident, and he is: "We will have one of our 2700-players playing—as we did in 2017, when Wesley So rocked the house," he said. "And our team has always been built up by a lot of college kids, and they have a built-in camaraderie and accountability."

One of these "college kids" is Benjamin Bok, who has studying and living in St. Louis since last summer. The Dutch grandmaster is looking forward to the final:

"I am definitely very excited to play in San Francisco," said Bok. "Obviously we’ll be missing Wesley, because he led the team very well earlier in the season. But I am very confident in our chances because also Nikolas [Theodorou] is very good in rapid, and I am also confident in Julian. I think Mike did a terrific job throughout the season to put up a terrific team and I am very confident in our chances."

Benjamin Bok 2019 PRO Chess League

Kummer commented on choosing Julian Proleiko, who didn't even play for the team this season yet, over IM Hans Niemann: "A big part of that line-up is of course Wesley So," said Kummer. "So when you take him out, we don’t have another 2700 to replace him so that team would not do as well without Wesley in it.

"So now we got IM Nikolas Theodorou, who, even though he is an international master, plays high-level chess and has won a lot of our Saturday-night specials that have the same time control as the PRO Chess League format. So we were really excited to have him in the line-up," Kummer said.

Nikolas Theodoru 2019 PRO Chess League

"Julian Proleiko is a really good player as well," said Kummer. "He won a lot of tournaments at the chess club and he just won the April nights tournament. He is ready to go out there and shock the world just as Forest Chen did last year!"

Armenia Eagles logoArmenia Eagles

The Armenia Eagles will only be bringing one player who was part of the winning team last year: GM Zaven Andriasian, who again occupies board one. He will be making the flight from Yerevan together with GM Haik Martirosyan, IM Shant Sargsyan and WFM Anna Sargsyan.

# Fed Title Name Rtg PCL Record
1 GM Zaven Andriasian 2603 27.5/52
2 GM Haik Martirosyan 2597 26.5/42
3 IM Shant Sargsyan 2477 30.5/42
4 WFM Anna Sargsyan 2331 16/34

The Eagles finished in second place in the Eastern Division, behind the Tbilisi Gentlemen. They started their playoffs with a convincing 9.5-6.5 win over the Mumbai Movers.Andriasian was caught dancing on camera mid-match:

In the quarterfinal, the Eagles knocked out the Tbilisi Gentlemen, with Sargsyan giving an especially fantastic performance. He scored 3.5/4, and among his victims was the top Gentlemen player GM Baadur Jobava.

The fans saw top board Andriasian "photobomb" team captain NM Artak Manukyan's interview with IM Danny Rensch:

The Eagles will face St. Louis in the semifinal. Team captain Manukyan is not worried about Caruana:

"First of all, number two in classical and number two in rapid is a completely different thing," said Manukyan.

Manukyan said his lower-rated players can hold their own: "Even with lack of opening theory you can still have a normal position and sometimes win. I have at least three tremendous players and each of them can make this happen!"

Andriasian will bring the experience of last year to San Francisco. Manukyan is also confident about his other boards: 

"Shant [Sargsyan] became world champion U16 and has always played rapid very strong," he said. "This is how he got to our team. He is the vice champion of Armenia in rapid chess, and Haik [Martirosyan] is the champion. So for our team we are taking the players who are good in rapid chess."

Shant Sargsyan 2019 PRO Chess League

Martirosyan said his main strength is the mouse he was given by the team manager.

Manukyan explained: "It was a bet among our team. When we were facing the Volga Stormbringers I told my team that whoever will win, I will personally give the newest brand model of mouse. That match, Haik and Zaven won and the next match I kept my promise and brought them the brand new mouses. We will bring the mouses to San Francisco."

Haik Martirosyan 2019 PRO Chess League

The semifinals and finals will be played live at the Folsom Street Foundry in San Francisco on May 4 and 5 starting from 10 a.m. Pacific time (7 p.m. CEST) and will be streamed live on www.Twitch.tv/Chess and Chess.com/TV.

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