Snowballs, Arch Bishops Advance To PRO Chess League Finals
The Baden-Baden Snowballs celebrate just after clinching their spot in the finals. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

Snowballs, Arch Bishops Advance To PRO Chess League Finals

MikeKlein
FM MikeKlein
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27 | Chess Event Coverage

There is indeed a "Snowballs chance" of winning a PRO Chess League championship, but will have to go through some Arches.

After the Baden-Baden Snowballs took out the Chengdu Pandas in overtime in the first of the 2019 PRO Chess League semifinals, GM Fabiano Caruana went 4-0 to also lead his Saint Louis Arch Bishops into the finals. They beat the defending champion Armenia Eagles.

The capacity crowd filled the Folsom Street Foundry. Photo: Roger Alien/Chess.com.

In tomorrow's final, the German squad will be trying to find a way through Caruana in the later match, while in the morning bout there will be a rematch of the 2018 final. Unfortunately for the Pandas and Eagles, only third place will be on the line for them.

Baden-Baden's star performer came on board two, where GM Alexander Donchenko went 3.5/4, and the team needed every one of those points. Their match ended in an 8-8 tie, necessitating a blitz tiebreak. Donchenko's performance helped his foursome overcome the popular assessment that Chengdu was the team to beat in San Francisco. After all, the Chinese squad had an embarrassment of riches (three 2600s, two of them knocking on 2700) amongst their embarrassment of Pandas.

Chengdu Pandas
The Chengdu Pandas look on in the match's waning moments. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

The Snowballs also overcame adversity away from the board. As we found at media day yesterday, their car was broken into on Thursday and most of their electronics and several passports were stolen.

Everything went relatively according to form in the opening two rounds today, with the top players taking out the lower players and the matches with more parity ending in draws. The score was tied 2-2, then 4-4, before the Snowballs took a lead in match three of the Scheveningen format.

Donchenko Li Chao
Alexander Donchenko (far right) led the Snowballs in scoring; here he faces Li Chao. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

That edge was thanks in large part to "Donny" taking out top Panda GM Li Chao with a long-term exchange sac in the first game of the round to finish. Meier said later on that even though Black hung the h5-pawn, his teammate's position was so good that it simply didn't matter.

It looked like China might pull even with Germany right away, but instead Baden-Baden extended the lead when GM Dmitrij Kollars fought off the tactical wizardry of the youngest player in the event, 12-year-old Zhang Di.

China then kept it close when GM Wang Yue took out GM Georg Meier, but the Snowballs still had gathered a 6.5-5.5 lead going into the final section.

Still, it was Baden-Baden who quickly found themselves on the verge of defeat in the final quartet of games. Meier and Li Chao drew without incident, but then GM Zhao Jun turned in this nice queenless gem over Kollars to even the score:

In the all-critical matchup on board four, where both bottom boards were trying to contribute in some way to their team's scoring, Zhang Di got the best of WIM Inna Agrest. That put the Pandas up one point with now only a single game remaining.

Zhang Di
Zhang Di, the young star, made a few waves for his team but couldn't tip the balance. Photo: Roger Alien/Chess.com.

Enter Donny Darko again, who came through when his team needed him most. Actually, Donchenko's only issue was his restless leg. He was excited enough in the middlegame to accidentally kick his CPU under the table and turn it off. After a reset, he was back in business, and his win pushed the match into extra time.

The tiebreak format pits the two board fours against each other, with the winner staying against the other team's board three, and so forth. The team that beats the other team's board one takes the match. 

Zhang Di took out Agrest, but was then taken out himself by Kollars. Then in a matchup of mutual board threes, a draw meant that both players exited. Ditto for the two board twos, as they also drew, expediting the matchup that everyone wanted to see: the team leaders facing off with everything on the line.

Georg Meier
Georg Meier, match hero. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

Meier seemed to be in some trouble with a suffocated queen, but he then turned the tables and dispatched both Li Chao and the rest of the embarrassment of Pandas.

With her longtime boyfriend bailing her out after a winless day, Agrest said, "I'm relieved. It was a very good team effort in the end."

Meier Li Chao
Georg Meier and Li Chao in the deciding game of the playoff and the match. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

Here's the moment that Meier clinched, after which Agrest gave him a well-deserved hug:

Meier called Donchenko's win over Wang Yue  as the best game of the match. 

"We have real team spirit," he said.

Georg Meier Alexander Donchenko
Alexander Donchenko is the first to ascend the stage to greet teammate Georg Meier as he reaches in the air in celebration. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

In the later match, no such extra time was needed, as the Arch Bishops advanced to the first place match by a score of 9-7. They avenged last year's semifinal loss in which they also played the Eagles.

Armenia got out of the gates a little more quickly, thanks to the mini-upset of IM Shant Sargsyan holding GM Benjamin Bok to a draw in the opening frame. The Eagles led 2.5-1.5 as a result, but then Saint Louis squared the match at four in the next section.

"We got off to a little bit of a slow start but we persevered," Arch Bishops manager Mike Kummer said with his usual gusto.

Mike Kummer
Mike Kummer, who needs very little encouragement to let you know how he's feeling. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

Actually that slow start also likely included an elevated heart rate for Kummer. That's because in the very first move of the very first game, Caruana answered WFM Anna Sargsyan's 1. d4 with 1...f6?!? He wasn't trolling her, but it was also determined it wasn't a mouse slip. Despite bringing their own top-of-the-line computer mice to the match, Caruana's mouse glitched and wouldn't register any moves correctly according to him.

The Eagles' manager seemed to accept the explanation, and both managers even made light of it.

Eagles' leader Artak Manukyan: "To be honest, he should play 1...f5 at least!" (Caruana told Chess.com he would have done that if he had been required.)

And Kummer: "Why don't you just played 2...Kf7 next too!" The game was instead restarted, Caruana put his knight on f6 instead, and balance was restored to the world. He won without issue.

Caruana
Fabiano Caruana soaks in the action with teammate Alejandro Ramirez and also Tatev Abrahamyan, who is a friend but was rooting for the Eagles. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

The comeback in round two began when first IM Nikolas Theodorou held top Eagle and world top-15 blitz player GM Zaven Andriasian to a draw. Then Caruana wriggled out of a tight spot against Shant Sargsyan (no relation to Anna). After the day concluded, the world number two called this his closest escape.

"The second game was really tough," he said. "It was surprisingly difficult. I didn't even know objectively what was going on."

Theodorou
IM Niko Theodorou's draw against the top Eagle was the first step in the Arch Bishop's comeback. Photo: Roger Alien/Chess.com.

In the third round, Saint Louis really opened things up, taking the frame 3-1 and making life very difficult for Armenia's title defense. Caruana, Theodorou, and Bok all won, giving the Arch Bishops a two-game lead going into the last four games.

Bok's win over the top Eagle was particularly important, and well played.



In the last segment, Armenia was already in a spot they weren't used to: having the fourth frame matter. In last year's semifinals, they had already clinched the match before the last section.

Anna Sargsyan
Anna Sargsyan, far right, and other Armenia supporters show the tension of the final moments. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

It was universally agreed that Anna Sargsyan needed to assert herself in the board four clash. While she missed a two-move tactic that would have netted her a rook (and a subsequent two-move defense quashed her mating ideas), she eventually notched the full point.

The deciding game was, fittingly, taken by Caruana. He reproduced an opening idea (...h6 and ...g5) from GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, then produced a mate on board against Andriasian, who finished a disappointing 1.5/4 on the day. To add insult to injury, his king had to run clear across the board in the process.

"I definitely brought the right crew to help me out," Kummer said about his squad. 

That same crew will be back in action Sunday for the finals.

Caruana Andriasian
Zaven Andriasian resigns the game and the match and congratulates Fabiano Caruana. Photo: Eric Rosen/PRO Chess League.

The finals and third-place match will be played live at the Folsom Street Foundry in San Francisco on Sunday, May 5 starting from 9:30 a.m. Pacific time (6:30 p.m. CEST) and will be streamed live on www.Twitch.tv/Chess and Chess.com/TV.

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