What a season it’s been! With the Pawngrabbers falling short against the St Louis Archbishops last Tuesday night in the Round of 16, a historic run for Pittsburgh chess has come to an end. As this year’s team manager, I decided I wanted to retell some of the great moments from the Pawngrabbers’ PRO Chess League season while providing some behind-the-scenes insights as manager.
While I might not cover every detail from the past year, I hope I can share enough to help you appreciate what our players achieved this year.
Pittsburgh Offered Immediate Qualification to the 2018 PRO Chess League Season
In the closing days of my European Chess Tour, I received a notification that Pittsburgh was invited to participate in the 2018 PRO Chess League. As the League was consolidating to a more competitive 32 teams, it wasn’t so clear that we would get the bid. While we had an engaged fanbase on social media, the only Grandmaster on the roster at the time was Alexander Shabalov.
After watching us start the 2017 season 0-4, a lot of the League’s spectators bemoaned our invitation, perhaps forgetting that we won each of our final three matches. It may well have been that our narrow win over the Minnesota Blizzard to close 2017 spared us from having to enter the PRO Chess League through the qualification tournament… who knew that match nearly cost one of this year’s quarterfinalists a berth in the League?
Needing to prove our place in the League, the search began for additions to revamp the Pawngrabbers’ roster. With the season’s new expanded local rules, we added NM Mika Brattain from the relegated Columbus Cardinals fairly quickly, while also signing FM Mark Heimann and NM David Itkin from the area. This alone increased our team’s average rating significantly – but likely not enough to avoid relegation. Luckily for us, through extensive note-taking and stream watching, October’s conclusion meant a whole new batch of players were looking for teams.
Following the conclusion of the League qualifier, we were able to continue recruiting 2300+ strength local players, thanks in part to Michigan’s failure to get a team in the League. With that, Pittsburgh acquired IMs Atulya Shetty and Safal Bora, as well as FM Edward Song, who debuted for us in 2017 as a free agent. Now as local players, my managerial team (Beilin Li, Grant Xu, and myself) could begin scouting Free Agent talent to complete the roster.
From the outside, you all likely know the story – Pittsburgh signed GM Awonder Liang days before the start of the season, and the Pawngrabbers took off. However, for a few weeks it seemed like we were stuck with the line-up we had, as time-zone differences and financial constraints were proving to be a constant limitation for us. It was during this time we developed various match strategies to compensate for a much lower average rating.
Breaking Down the Gs and gs in Line-up
If you’re familiar with the League, you likely know that a team’s line-up for any given match is limited to an U2500 rating. Of course there are certain exemptions from this, but since we’re talking about a generalized match strategy, let’s pretend the highest rated players in the world are exactly 2700. With the exception of our clashes with Webster and St Louis, this assumption held true for all of our regular season matches. To represent this symbolically, I will use ‘G’ to indicate a player roughly rated over 2500, and ‘g’ for all other players.
The GGGg line-up proved to be the dominant strategy in 2017 as St Louis employed it throughout the playoffs and against Norway in the Championship match which they won, 9-7. This makes sense – you field three top tier Grandmasters, and hope your board 4 notches a point somewhere, totaling to at least 8.5/16 to win the match.
But the consolidation of the PRO Chess League to 32 teams also meant the average rating for each team grew. Now with 16 fewer teams (and 64 fewer boards on any given week), the demand for a spot on a team drastically outweighed the supply of talented players. As we saw in the case of the Archbishops and the Gnomes, the GGGg format was not so invincible, as more teams had two (or even three) grandmasters to field on any given week. The match break down between a GGGg and GGgg lineup (assuming both teams optimized their line-up to fit the U2500 constraint) would look something like this:
Team A (GGGg line-up): 2700, 2650, 2500, 2150*
Team B (GGgg line-up): 2550, 2550, 2450, 2450*
*maximum possible rating, given average constraint set by the three preceding boards
Ideal match strategy for Team B is to win each of the four games against Team A’s board 4, meaning that now Team B only needs to score 4/12 for the remainder of the match to avoid a loss. Given the rating gap between Team B’s players and the 2150 on Team A, I’d say this is highly likely – heck, I could probably give the 2150 a reasonable game, and I’m not PRO Chess League material.
To compensate for this, Team A’s 2700 must offset their 2150 by scoring 4/4, which is far more difficult than Team B’s task of beating the 2150 four times with four different players – only one player managed to do that against our line-up this season, and he happens to be the 2013 World Blitz Champion, GM Lê Quang Liem from Webster.
For the sake of evaluating match strategy, let’s give the 2700 the benefit of the doubt and assume he succeeds scoring 4/4, regardless of the actually probability of that happening. Here are the players’ remaining number of games for both teams:
Team A (GGGg line-up): 2650 (4 games), 2500 (4 games)
Team B (GGgg line-up): 2550 (2 games), 2550 (2 games), 2450 (2 games), 2450 (2 games)
With the match (theoretically) tied at 4-4, Team A’s best player is a non-factor to the outcome of the match, while all of Team B’s players are still capable to continue contributing to the score. All the sudden, Team A’s chances are winning the match are drastically reduced – if their Board 3 scores anything less than 2/4, the 2650 needs to make up the difference.
In this set-up, it just takes one player on Team A to have a bad day, and as we saw in 2018, this strategy worked for Pittsburgh and Minnesota against St Louis in the regular season, and Norway even fell shy of qualifying for the postseason. In fact, this is exactly how the Blizzard toppled Webster in the Round of 16 last Tuesday.
When Awonder signed with Pittsburgh, we had our two G’s, but Atulya was our next highest rated player at 2403, meaning we could never match the desired line-up strategy on paper. Luckily, with Atulya consistently playing above his level, it meant that we just had to find a board 4 who could consistently score more than 1.5 points a game. This took all season, but in the end, we were surprised by how many players on our roster that could fit the role. I’ll discuss some of the shortcomings of the GGgg line-up in a bit, but lets start talking about actual results, and less about theory.
Pittsburgh Gets off to a Strong Start
We got to test our GGgg strategy immediately against the Buenos Aires Krakens, as the Argentineans fielded three strong grandmasters in Federico Perez Ponsa, Alan Pichot, and Leandro Kyrysa. Of course, Buenos Aires would eventually be relegated from the League, but given that they brought the same line-up to the 2017 quarterfinals, we held our breath for much of the season opener.
Two hours later, Pittsburgh had its fourth consecutive PRO Chess League win, overpowering the Krakens on all boards 10-6. Following the script, Pittsburgh held Buenos Aires’ 4th board to 0/4, and while Federico Perez Ponsa notched 3.5/4, the aggregated total between their boards 1 and 4 was 4.5-3.5 in favor of Pittsburgh. With Shabalov and Awonder each scoring 3 points, Atulya’s 2.5 were enough to clinch the match before taking into account Ed’s tactical shot in his fourth round win:
The win proved to be a confidence booster for the team, and it quickly carried over against the Montreal Chessbrahs in another decisive decision. Awonder won all four games and produced a masterpiece against GM Robin van Kampen – an early sign of things to come for the 14 year old US Junior Champion:
While IM Michael Kleinman notched an impressive 1.5/4, RvK’s 2.5/4 forced Montreal’s second and third boards to perform, and they fell short. Once again a victory for the GGgg line-up. Of course Montreal would also go on to be relegated, but at the time, they too seemed like strong League title contenders given their prior semifinal finish.
The Defining Stretch
The next three weeks proved to set the course for the season, as the then-Atlantic division leaders Minnesota Blizzard, Super Saturday, and the St Louis Archbishops stood in our way of the season mid-point. Three consecutive losses would have likely derailed our playoff aspirations, so the team’s performance was critical in these next three outings.
Despite some late game heroics from the team, Pittsburgh fell short to Minnesota in our only loss of the regular season, 8.5-7.5. The loss was tough, but Awonder produced arguably the PRO Chess League’s most entertaining game of the season with his sac-sac-mate win over surging IM Sean Nagle:
With Super Saturday approaching, we signed bullet specialist IM Tuan Minh Lê to join the team. While Minh’s heroics impressed against superior competition, it was Awonder who muscled the Pawngrabbers to a half point, with critical wins over Nakamura, Dominguez, and a draw against Yu Yuangyi. In just four hours, Awonder became an icon in the PRO Chess League.
GM Eugene Perelshteyn from ChessOpeningsExplained.com and I got a chance to review Awonder’s games days after the event concluded:
A draw was a fantastic result given Shabalov’s absence from the line-up, and the confidence boost proved to come at the right time as we faced off with St Louis. As a manager, this was the real test for the GGgg line-up, as we had designed this strategy specifically because of juggernauts like St Louis and Webster – we were never going to out-rate these players on paper.
St Louis brought top grandmasters Fabiano Caruana, Vladimir Fedoseev, and Alejandro Ramirez – two 2700+ rated players. At one point, chess.com predicted we had only a 9% chance of winning the match!
One of the downsides of the GGgg strategy is simply that you don’t know if you’ve succeeded in shutting out the fourth board until the match is over. Thus playing out the match on paper feels a lot different than in real-time, as on paper, you have the knowledge that Boards 1 and 4 cancel each other out with 8 games remaining. This distinct lack of knowledge always favors the GGGg line-up, as going into the last round, the GGGg line-up is always favored to score more points than the GGgg one.
Admittedly, I was pretty nervous as I ran a solo commentary stream that night, but in the end, the strategy worked exactly as it did on paper. With Awonder’s win over Caruana, Fabiano maxed out at 3 points, which when aggregated with NM Forest Chen‘s last round win, cancelled out Fabi’s contribution to the match. This left Vladimir Fedoseev and Alejandro Ramirez with the final 8 games, in which we won the aggregate total 4.5-3.5 to secure victory.
Even better, Pittsburgh had the lead going into the final round to account for the head-to-head on-paper advantage St Louis had. Brilliant. Shabalov put together one of the most crushing positional wins I’ve seen against Vladimir Fedoseev in the third round.
After the match, I congratulated him on his 3/4 performance on the night, to which he responded: “Safal won us the match”. IM Safal Bora had a tough night, only scoring 0.5/4, but his half point made the difference. Shaba was absolutely right – this was a team win. After this match, the focus of the team centered on the over-performing third and fourth boards – they were gaining confidence and had become an asset for the team.
Power of the Bottom Half
As the season progressed, it became clear that Awonder’s efforts needed to be supported by a strong secondary (“g” players). Atulya quickly did his part against Montclair, notching 3/4, including a win over Africa’s first ever 2700 rated player GM Bassem Amin.
Atulya had been a strong weapon for Pittsburgh, with a performance rating consistently north of 2500, but now with a playoff bid in sight, who would take on the role of the fourth board? There were too many options and not much time left, so the strategy shifted and the focus for the team became finding the right fit.
Super Saturday saw the Pawngrabbers clinch a playoff berth with a 4th place finish, despite missing both Shabalov and Atulya in the line-up. The early story of the event was the dominance of tandem Awonder Liang and Mika Brattain:
But by the end of the day, FM Edward Song impressed the most, scoring an unbeaten 6.5/8 from fourth board. Admittedly, he barely made the line-up for the event, but he got to spend the following four hours proving me wrong over the board. IM Tuan Minh Lê also returned for the Pawngrabbers, scoring an impressive 5/8 against Grandmaster competition.
His crowning highlight was this jaw-dropper against GM Helgi Olafsson:
Because of the limitations on number of Free Agent players during the playoff matches, this would prove to be Minh’s final event with the Pawngrabbers in 2018. Had we qualified for the semifinals in San Francisco, he would have been on the line-up (as allowed by League rules) – Shabalov, Awonder, Minh, and Atulya, chiming in at a 2496 average rating. Who knows what that line-up could have accomplished?
While upsetting St Louis will likely be remembered as our signature achievement this year, our next two matches were also quite noteworthy.
Despite Webster’s deep roster, our clash featured an all-GGgg match, and Pittsburgh won in a nail-biter, thanks to a 3/4 performance from Ed. His win over FM Joshua Colas is most memorable for me, as he swiftly dismantled Black’s Sicilian:
Discounting his (narrow) loss to Lê Quang Liem, Ed was now unbeaten in 11 consecutive games and his time management had improved drastically. The match win broke Pittsburgh’s extended losing streak to Webster – one that extended far beyond the PRO Chess League.
The closing week match-up against Miami presented us with the toughest challenge we had all season as Shabalov, Awonder, and Minh Lê were all unavailable. Thus in one week, we had to plan out the gggg vs GGGg strategy. We knew Miami, trying to avoid relegation, would bring their best possible line-up, which boasted Iturrizaga, Quesada Perez, and Becerra.
In the gggg vs GGGg pairing, it is absolutely critical that the gggg outfit score 4/4 against against the opponent’s lone “g”. Failing to do this makes the likelihood of winning close to impossible, which among other things, is one of the main reasons why this kind of line-up is inferior and not sustainable long-term.
However, rather than focusing on cancelling out the top board, the gggg strategy now calls for every player to score 1+/3 in the remaining pairings to get to a minimum 8 points.
The team held on tight, and thanks to FM Mark Heimann’s 3/4 debut, Pittsburgh hit an 8-8 draw, as Miami rightfully avoided relegation. With Minnesota getting bashed by Montclair, Pittsburgh locked up the second seed heading into its Round of 16 clash with St Louis.
House of Cards
Unfortunately, you all know how this one plays out. St Louis got out to an early lead, and with a 7-5 advantage in the last round, and Pittsburgh failed to score three points to take the upset. While a 10-6 loss does seem like a blowout, the match was actually a lot closer on paper. NM Forest Chen’s lone win cancelled out Fedoseev’s 3/4, leaving Akobian and Zherebukh for Pittsburgh.
Even with Ed putting up another monster 3/4 performance on board 4, Zherebukh continued his dominant League form with 3.5/4, and Pittsburgh couldn’t close the gap on Akobian. Shabalov had a tough night on the top board being an underdog in three of his games, and the Pawngrabbers couldn’t seem to catch a break for the entirety of the match.
You can rewatch the match in full here:
This match was humbling as it showed some of the shortcomings of the GGgg vs GGGg match strategy. Thinking long-term, our line-up did ask our players to consistently over-perform, and while they succeeded for much of the season, inevitably there was some burnout. This makes sense – while a player may initially score a few upsets, over time that player’s performance rating will regress to their expected performance level.
For our “g” players, we managed to avoid this by constantly rotating them. Funnily enough this was intended to decide which player we wanted on board 4 for the Round of 16, but it benefited all of our players in the long-run (at least on paper).
Does this mean the GGgg line-up is impractical? No, I don’t think so, and for the PRO Chess League format I think both the GGgg and GGGg lineup have their distinct advantages. As teams continue to get stronger, I think at some point both of these strategies will become obsolete – ratings in long-time controls don’t truly represent how a player does in an online rapid format, and it will be up to team managers to decide which players are too highly rated and which players are diamonds in the rough. At some point, teams will feature a GGGg line-up, where “G“ is a hybrid player – a “g” rated player who consistently performs at a “G” level with no burnout.
Finding such a line-up will take a few seasons of data, and naturally runs the risk of said “g” rated player becoming “G” rated. That is the fun of the U2500 average!
Outlook for Pittsburgh
Okay, this is turning out to be a longer article than I envisioned, so let’s put aside the theoretical “improbability” of Pittsburgh’s success in 2018, and talk about next year’s potential. Even with the abrupt end to our season, I think Pittsburgh will be much stronger force next year in the League. FM Edward Song finished the year on a high, but NM Mika Brattain and FM Mark Heimann also showed they are more than capable of playing at a high level this season. IM Atulya Shetty will continue to give the Pawngrabbers an anchor.
At the rate she’s improving, I think FM Jennifer Yu will also become a much more frequent member of the Pawngrabbers’ outfit in 2019… and that only rounds out the potential for boards 3 and 4!
Of course its much harder to predict what will happen on the top boards during the offseason, so I will rightly keep my mouth shut about our options and new enhanced match strategy we are already developing for 2019. Stay scared, PRO Chess League, Stay scared.
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