St. Louis Arch Bishops Win Inaugural PRO League Title

St. Louis Arch Bishops Win Inaugural PRO League Title

| 107 | Chess Event Coverage

GM Wesley So carried his team all season in the first year of the Professional Rapid Online (PRO) League. Today, his teammates sealed the win.

The top St. Louis Arch Bishops player won his first three games in the championship match to help his team build up a big lead over the Norway Gnomes. Then, after losing only his second PRO League tilt in the much-hyped final-round matchup with the world champion, GM Varuzhan Akobian's second exchange sac one board lower got St. Louis over the hump to the necessary margin.

[Edit -- see below for winners of individual awards, added 3/27/17.]

The St. Louis Blues have nary a championship in 50 years of professional hockey, but the Arch Bishops needed only one season to break through in the PRO Chess League.

After two 8-8 scores in the semifinals yesterday, the Arch Bishops deprived chess fans of extra time and instead won in regulation today, 9-7, spoiling GM Magnus Carlsen's personal 4-0 day.

"We’re world champions," GM Wesley So said (that's about as immodest as the humble world number-two gets). "I have a great team. This is a huge, huge win for us."

"Wesley, the best chess player on earth, was totally awesome every match and always made the team confident of victory," GM Ben Finegold said of the presumptive league MVP.

Both So and Akobian netted three points from four games. The final three came from the two bottom boards, Finegold and NM Nicholas Rosenthal, who both started slow but came up big in the end with 1.5 each. All but one half of their collective points came in the latter half of the match.

Like every player of the Arch Bishops finals quartet, GM Varuzhan Akobian had to play a grueling 13 rapid and blitz games in about 24 hours.

Starting at the beginning, all went according to form in the opening 90 minutes, with the leaders taking control early. Carlsen won the first game, and So answered seconds later.

A draw by Finegold represented the only mini-upset of the first two rounds, since he was a three seed drawing GM Kjetil Lie, Norway's second player. In fact, despite being down a piece, Finegold was eschewing draws late before finally accepting that was the safest course of events.

Norway nearly laid claim to an unexpected half-point of its own in the opening round when Akobian let FM Sebastian Mihajlov back in the game.

After record numbers in the live server actually led to a delay in beginning the match, persistent fans and late-comers alike kept bumping up the viewership to a site-record of 7,000+ simultaneously on and about 75,000 unique viewers overall. As the numbers swelled, the chess Richter scale registered early in round two when Finegold sent the world champion's king packing.

Two groups were not worried: theoreticians and world champions. Not only did Carlsen get the point, he only shaved 90 seconds off his clock at game's end.

With St. Louis closely protecting its narrow one-game lead, the Arch Bishops broke things open in round three by winning 3-1, making the lead nearly insurmountable.

So had his potential discovered attack answered by his opponent's discovered attack.

Rosenthal produced the first full-point upset by a lower-seeded player when he beat Norway board three IM Joachim Nilsen. Carlsen kept his team with a faint pulse by unlikely means. He used the Exchange French for the second day in a row, this time to beat Akobian (the final clock reading was nine minutes against only 16 seconds).

But with bottom board Mihajlov about to atone for Rosenthal's flipped result, he let Finegold back in the game.

"It was a one-move trick that Black invited," commentator IM Danny Rensch said. You can of course isolate any number of moments that decide a sporting event, but this one proved especially visceral for the Gnomes.

The team on the Mississippi was thus floating nicely and only needed a single win in the final round to wrap up the $20,000 USD first prize.

But Carlsen delayed the party by handing So only his second loss of the season (in 30+ games). So chastised his 14. Ne5 after the game, saying that it was a waste of time after getting kicked back home.

All eyes turned to the three lower boards to see if an unlikely comeback could continue, but the Gnomes couldn't keep things going when Akobian played like fellow Armenian-descent GM Tigran Petrosian. Like the former world champion, Akobian knew just when a rook was worth less than an important minor piece.

In an intentional malaprop, Rensch said: "I always say, don't play the baloney." (Akobian went 2-0 against the oft-maligned opening on Sunday.)

The win got the Arch Bishops to 8.5 points, and another half-point by NM Nicholas Rosenthal made the final score 9-7. Norway had won the final half hour battle 2.5-1.5, but not the war. 

So went into championship weekend with the highest performance rating of anyone in the league (2866) and played nearly every week for his former hometown team. When asked if he felt like the most valuable player in the league (which carries with it a cash prize), So demurred and said, "It's not for me to decide."

In perhaps the worst-kept classified information of the season, PRO Chess League Commissioner IM Greg Shahade chatted in the live show, "Secretly I would say his chances are pretty good."

"This team that played today is basically the same one that won three years ago in the U.S. Chess League," So said. "But this one is more memorable."

The sun shined on the Arch Bishops at season's end.

Even though he makes his permanent home in Minnesota, So said he's been traveling to St. Louis a lot this past year. "Starting last year we built a training base here in St. Louis," So said.

As for Norway, it didn't bring boards two, three, or four back from the semifinals. Its "Olympiad" team of missing GMs Jon Ludvig Hammer and Aryan Tari were unavailable due to another chess event. Commentator IM Anna Rudolf called it the "B-team." Hammer said Carlsen played eight of the dozen Gnomes matches, the most of any player, only missing some early matches that clashed with Tata Steel Chess.

Despite losing his head-to-head game against Carlsen and still never having won against the world champion with White in any time control, So was asked about the possibility of a future clash.

“I don’t look that far ahead," he said. So would only mention what tournaments he had upcoming in the upcoming weeks. Well, there was one event he was willing turn more calendar pages for.

"Next year we’re going to be ready to defend our title."

St. Louis Arch Bishops Manager Mike Kummer posted a celebratory photo to Facebook.

Championship Weekend Best Game And Move Polls

Here are the individual award winners, announced Monday by the league:


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

FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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