PRO Chess League Qualifiers: Croatia Secures Final Berth In 2020 PRO Chess League
Led by IM Tuan Minh Le, the Croatia Bulldogs stunned the Azerbaijan Wolves to advance to the regular season.

PRO Chess League Qualifiers: Croatia Secures Final Berth In 2020 PRO Chess League

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It took a mid-tournament surge, but the Croatia Bulldogs have now secured the 24th and final position in the 2020 PRO Chess League. Led by IM Tuan Minh Le, the Bulldogs clinched a final-round match with Azerbaijan Wolves and advanced with a 22-point tally.

This year's qualifier featured eight teams from around the world, including South Korea and Portugal, who made their respective PRO Chess League debuts. With eight teams, the qualifier brought back the Battle Royale format that gives every team the opportunity to make its impact on the tournament.

2020 PRO Chess League Qualifiers
Both South Korea and Portugal made their PRO Chess league debuts on Saturday.

The Azerbaijan Wolves may have entered the Battle Royale Qualifier a favorite, but after three rounds the Croatia Bulldogs claimed the top spot when top-board talent IM Tuan Minh Le beat Portugal's GM Luis Galego as Black:

The Bulldogs took a one-point lead over the field with the Serbia Aliens and Latvia Magicians tied for second. Le's performance was bolstered by strong performances from each of his teammates. IMs Leon LivaicJadranko Plenca, and Sven Tica each notched 3/4 scores in the event's first half that put Croatia's tally at 12.5 points.

The fifth round brought a critical pairing between the Iceland Puffins and the Azerbaijan Wolves. With each side needing to stay within reach of the Bulldogs' pace, GM Rauf Mamedov and GM Johann Hjartarson brought fireworks to the top board:

Because Hjartarson's upset win could have been a significant setback for Azerbaijan, wins from each of the Wolves' bottom three boards were critical. With the wins, Azerbaijan cut into Croatia's lead and moved into third place, trailing by only 1.5 points.

The momentum stopped there. In the Battle Royale's sixth round, Croatia had its first encounter with Azerbaijan. Le quickly pieced together a crushing attack against Mamedov by opening the kingside and exposing Black's king;

Livaic, Croatia's second board, toppled GM Vasif Durarbayli for another point, while Plenca drew GM Eltaj Safarli to help Croatia win the head-to-head match.

While the Bulldogs stole the event's spotlight, the Latvia Magicians quietly held second place for much of the Battle Royale. In the final round, they had their chances to punch their tickets to the event's final qualification match, but a win by Durarbayli over GM Arturs Neiksans flipped the script and catapulted the Wolves over the Magicians to battle with Croatia once again:

Croatia entered the final qualification match with the advantage and held a 19-18 lead over Azerbaijan, but Croatia's chance to advance seemed uncertain when Mamedov found his revenge by beating Le in their top-board rematch:

Croatia stabilized by holding draws on each of the remaining boards to keep the score even at 20.5-20.5 and forcing overtime. With the match now in blitz time controls, the Bulldogs found their stride. While Croatia's lineup may have been the only one without a grandmaster, general manager Vjekoslav Nemec had the foresight to recruit young, online blitz specialists.

Le delivered once more to open overtime by using his time advantage to outplay Mamedov in the endgame:

Holding a one-point lead, Croatia clinched a berth in the PRO Chess League when Tica drew with GM Vuqar Rasulov for a final 22-21 score:

Croatia now joins 23 other teams in this year's field after arguably one of biggest upsets in PRO Chess League history. With the regular season set to start in January, teams such as Croatia will use this time to bolster their rosters for the upcoming season.

2020 PRO Chess League Teams
The 2020 PRO Chess League field is set as Croatia becomes the 24th team to qualify for the upcoming season.

Commentary for this PRO Chess League Qualifier was provided by IM Danny Rensch and WFM Alexandra Botez. All shows and archives are available at Twitch.tv/chess.

Just learning about the PRO Chess League? Visit the site and check out the official information article.

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