The great experiment known as the Professional Rapid Online Chess League is about to return to an Internet near you! The world-wide chess league debuted last January with 48 teams, and ultimately came down to a thrilling match between Wesley So's St. Louis Arch Bishops and world champion Magnus Carlsen's Norway Gnomes. Although Carlsen beat So in their individual game, St. Louis won the match, 9-7.
This year the league will be smaller, with only 32 teams instead of 48. This is not due to lack of interest but because league commissioner Greg Shahade found it too hard to handle forty-eight teams spread over twenty-four time zones.
Shahade has announced 24 of the returning teams, who qualified either on the basis of their results last year or because of their active fan bases. That leaves eight slots open for qualifiers. On Saturday, chess.com will host two qualifying tournaments, with 26 teams vying for the four Europe/Asia positions and 14 teams competing for the four positions in the Americas.
In an interesting twist, the top three teams in each qualifying tournament will receive positions in the league. The fourth position, however, will be based on a fan vote among the teams that finish 4th-6th in the qualifying tournament. The teams will have 48 hours to plead for all the votes they can get -- which means that not only do the teams have to plan for a chess tournament, they also have to plan for a social media blitz afterwards!
One of the teams on the bubble is the San Francisco Mechanics, who are one of two teams in my geographical area (the other being the San Jose Hackers, who are among the 24 already qualified). I have a special interest in the Mechanics this year because David Pruess, one of the team owners, has asked me to be a staff writer/communications expert for the team this year. That means that, if they qualify, I will devote at least one blog post a week (and probably more) to their matches. I'm really excited about this, and I hope that readers of this blog will enjoy it too, because I will be much more "in the loop" than ever before and perhaps I will be able to give you inside information about the Mechanics or about other goings-on in the league.
But I'm sure you noticed that big "if" in the last paragraph! We have to qualify first.
The Mechanics' lineup for this weekend consists of the following four players:
- The Scholar: GM Daniel Naroditsky (2628), former world under-12 champion, and author of two chess books while still in his teens, as well as Chess Life's endgame column;
- The Secret Weapon: GM Vinay Bhat (2519), probably the most valuable player on the Mechanics team when they won the US Chess League championship in 2006, as he played to a stratospheric 2700-plus performance rating;
- The Computer Guru: IM Yian Liou (2414) has not been playing very much in chess tournaments lately. Why? Maybe it's because he is an engineering student at UC Berkeley, and participated this summer in the Cambridge 2 Cambridge cybersecurity challenge. Let's put it this way: you may be able to beat him with a kingside attack, but you won't be able to beat him with a cyber attack.
- The Kid: FM Rayan Taghizadeh (2374) seems to have been playing in the Bay Area forever, but he's actually only 15, and the number five 15-year-old in the country. He has done it the hard way, starting out in 2008 with a rating of 220. Now he's over 2400 (USCF)!
The games will last from 1 to 4 pm Pacific time and will be broadcast (with commentary by GM Sam Shankland as well as Pruess and Alexandra Botez) at http://twitch.tv/dpruess. In case the Mechanics finish in the 4th-6th spots, come back here for information on how to keep them alive.
Why should you vote to keep the Mechanics in the PRO Chess League? In a word, tradition. They were THE founding member of the US Chess League -- the predecessor of the PRO Chess League -- and they were its second champion, in 2006. There is a possibility that Sam Shankland will re-join the team this year, which would reunite the team's nucleus from the "glory days" of 2006-2009, when they had Naroditsky, Bhat and Shankland. (Liou was also on board for 2009.)
Also, unlike many PRO Chess League teams, the Mechanics might be 100 percent local. Each team is allowed to have one "free agent," who can come from anywhere in the world, with no connection to the host city. However, Pruess says, "If Danya and Sam are available to play a lot of games, we could be competitive without any free agents."
Stay tuned tomorrow for news about the qualifier and whether we need your votes in the popularity contest!