Upsets at PRO Chess League Playoffs

PRO Chess League Playoffs, written by NM Dana Mackenzie

This week the PRO Chess League playoffs started with a rash of upsets. In five out of eight matches the team with the lower seeding beat the top-seeded team, and in one more match the favored team only managed to squeak through to the next round by virtue of their draw odds. That leaves only two matches where the favored team actually won!

The four matchups for next week are:

  • Mumbai Movers (featuring Viswanathan Anand) vs. Armenia Eagles
  • Marseilles Migraines (featuring Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Etienne Bacrot) vs. Ljubljana Turtles
  • St. Louis Arch Bishops (featuring Fabiano Caruana, although he didn't play this week for obvious reasons) vs. Minnesota Blizzard
  • Chengdu Pandas (with Yu Yangyi and Li Chao) vs. Australia Kangaroos

The four winning teams (I predict Armenia, Ljubljana, St. Louis and Chengdu) will then come to San Francisco for the last two rounds of the playoffs on the weekend of April 7.

I'm very excited about getting to see the world's four best chess teams live, and I would like to take this opportunity to claim for San Francisco the name "Birthplace of the PRO Chess League." Why? Because the San Francisco Mechanics were the very first team to sign up for the US Chess League, which was the predecessor of the PRO Chess League. So (even though San Francisco didn't have a team in the league this year) it's highly appropriate for the finals to be played there. Maybe San Francisco can become identified with the chess league playoffs in the same way that, say, Las Vegas is identified with the championship of American Ninja Warrior.

However, there are some questions about this rosy scenario. Specifically, top players like Vachier-Lagrave, Caruana, and Anand are already committed to playing in over-the-board tournaments that weekend. Caruana already had to miss this week's playoff match because he's playing in the Candidates Tournament. Shakhriyar Mamedyarov would have had the same problem if his team (the San Jose Hackers) had qualified for the playoffs.

And also, even among the players who are not super-GM's, how many players from distant countries can afford to spend the time and money to fly to San Francisco to play a few games of rapid chess? Nobody was told before the season that the playoffs were going to be held this way.

I'm sure it will all work out somehow, but I feel as if the results will be strongly influenced by which players happen to be able to show up, and not necessarily by who has the best team. St. Louis or Minnesota will probably have an advantage because they will be the only team coming from the U.S. and will not have as far to travel as the other teams.

But, you know, I don't want to overemphasize the negative. One of the great things about the PRO Chess League, and commissioner Greg Shahade who inspired it all, is that theyjust go for it. The result is never perfect but it's almost always better than you expect.

Finally, I want to add a link to a cool article on a non-chess website that explains all about the PRO Chess League and the broader phenomenon that it's part of, the rise of "streaming" chess, chess TV, and chess as an e-sport. It focuses on two people who are emblematic of the new era in chess. One of them is Eric Hansen of Canada, the original "Chessbrah" who is part of the Montreal Chessbrahs in the PRO Chess League. The other is John Bartholomew of the Minnesota Blizzard. Even though he didn't even play for them this week, Bartholomew is a big reason that the Blizzard are even in the league. As a new team, they had to qualify in a preseason tournament -- and it came down to a fan vote. (The top three teams qualified, and then teams 4-6 went to a fan vote to see which would get the fourth and last slot.) Bartholomew has a hugely popular YouTube channel, and so it was his social media presence, not his chess ability, that got them into the league!

Being a fan of the San Francisco Mechanics, who were outvoted by the Blizzard, I was disappointed in that result. But I'm glad to see that Minnesota has justified their selection by first making the playoffs and then winning in the first round. It's a brave new world in chess. How long do you think it will be before we decide the world championship challengers by a fan vote instead of by a Candidates Tournament?

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