St. Louis Arch Bishops Win First USCL Championship

St. Louis Arch Bishops Win First USCL Championship

| 14 | Chess Event Coverage

Led by a pair of super-GMs and two other strong grandmasters, the St. Louis Arch Bishops topped the expanded United States Chess League in 2014. The chess capital of the U.S. now boasts its strongest team thanks to a tiebreak win over the Dallas Destiny.

Both the Arch Bishops and Destiny have benefitted greatly from siphoning players from nearby universities (for the Arch Bishops, 2700s Wesley So and Le Quang Liem and WGM Anna Sharevich; for the Destiny, GMs Conrad Holt and several others).

Dallas actually had a slightly better regular season (8.0-2.0) than the Arch Bishops (7.5-2.5) but was denied its third league title when GM Varuzhan Akobian (yes, another world-class GM!) took out the final two Destiny players.

Most of the 2014 USCL champions (photo courtesy Wesley So). 

"There was certainly some pressure since we had such a strong team," Akobian said. "If we didn't win this year, it would look bad, you know?"

The unique format of the finals tiebreaker pits the two fourth boards versus each other, with the winner moving on to face the opposing team's third-board, and so on.

Arch Bishop fourth board NM Spencer Finegold (son of fellow teammate and all-time St. Louis MVP leader GM Ben Finegold) won the first game and drew the second (eliminating both players).

The Destiny's wunderkind IM Jeffery Xiong got his team's lone win before losing to Akobian, who also went on to beat Holt, the last man standing for the Destiny.

The Arch Bishop's GM Wesley So never had to make a move in the tiebreak, but he did his part in the regular portion of the finals, checkmating Holt in a French Tarrasch.

The league's rules require the four-person lineup to average below 2401 USCF (with a few exceptions) so the champions could not start all their top players each week. Le Quang Liem, who won five and drew three in his eight games that season, sat in the finals in favor of Akobian, who flew from Los Angeles just for the match.

(The league's use of USCF rating also means that Le Quang Liem is higher rated than So, who is easily the highest FIDE-rated player of anyone in the league).

The move worked as Akobian (a past champion with his former team, the Seattle Sluggers, where he also flew to all the matches) did his part by winning as Black against Xiong.

The risk for these top-heavy lineups is not getting enough from the lower boards. Neither NM Matthew Larson nor (Spencer) Finegold, both about 100-point underdogs, could muster the necessary half-point to seal the title. This mandated the tiebreaks, in which Finegold greatly assisted his team by knocking out two Destiny players.

Akobian said in the final tiebreak game versus Holt, he luckily had just played the same opening versus So in a blitz game that day: "Playing with Wesley today helped me a lot to play confidently," Akobian said.

Here's the full interview with Akobian and a video recap of the finals from the team's host site, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis:

Video courtesy the St. Louis Arch Bishops and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

Still, the top of the lineup for St. Louis was nearly untouchable all season. Le Quang Liem (+5=3-0), So (+9=2-0) and the perfect Akobian (+4=0-0) tallied an undefeated and amazing +18 score in 23 combined games!

So won his final seven games of the season (including 3-0 against grandmasters in the three playoff weeks), and one semifinals tiebreaker game to boot.

The two finals teams also led the league in scoring with the black pieces -- both grabbed 12.5/20, or 63 percent (Dallas scored a league-leading 70 percent as White).

None of the other eight Arch Bishops players finished above .500, but they scored enough to provide support to the top GMs. The team was managed by Alex Marler and assisted by Tony Rich and Mike Kummer. The full lineup is here.

"I'd just like to thank team members again and Alex Marler for doing such a fine job managing the team and deciding the lineups for each match," So said in an email.

The league expanded this year with the addition of two new teams -- the Rio Grande Ospreys (made up of many more college players!) and the Atlanta Kings. The Ospreys, many of whom attend the University of Texas at Brownsville, made the post season in their first year. In a very limited sample size, they also have the best lifetime match winning percentage in the league.

Players aren't required to use a regular board, but Le Quang Liem prefers to use one (photo: CCSCSL).

The other divisional winners, the Manhattan Applesauce, won the Eastern Division but were upset by the Miami Sharks in the opening round of the playoffs. 

To see the entire playoff bracket, click here.

The Arch Bishops also collected the most prestigious individual honors. Le Quang Liem and his 2800+ performance rating this season took home first team honors on second board.

So's scintillating campaign (performance rating 2915!) netted him the overall MVP win (a system that gives points for wins and even more for doing so as Black or on a higher board).

Although the league has not announced it yet, he will surely also win first team on first board.

And So likes his regular board too! (photo: CCSCSL)

The league usually gives out best game-of-the-year prizes during the winter (full disclosure: I was a game-of-the-week judge for two weeks of the season but I'm not involved in the game-of-the-year voting).

So won best game four different times -- in both the semifinals and the finals and for his two draws in the regular season.

Akobian also won one in week two. He's already won game of the year once for this effort in 2010:

In case you want to know more about So, you can read the Death Match 30 announcement (versus GM Hikaru Nakamura) here and his pre-match interview here

All of the season's USCL games are replayable and downloadable here.

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