Winning the U.S. Amateur Team East

When I first played at the U.S. Amateur Team East (also known as World Amateur Team) three years ago, I had never played a tournament with 285 players, let alone 285 teams. I never imagined my team, no matter how strong, could be the one to win the whole thing, let alone 6-0. There were always too many teams!

Still, the tournament was so fun that I went back every year despite the (many) inconveniences, but the the world’s largest team tournament continues to grow. This year, there were 324 teams, meaning the pairings would have to be drastically accelerated to just determine a winner. Just one draw could knock a team out of serious contention.

In 2017, Carnegie Mellon sent one of its strongest ever teams, rated 2154. We made it to 4.5/5 before falling apart in the last round, although we managed to win the Top College prize. After that, Grant and I started to more seriously scope out teams that could potentially take it all. It’s difficult enough to find four eligible strong players who are free for 3-4 days; even more so when limiting the selection to CMU students! We were lucky to pick up NM David Itkin, a first-year grad student from Canada. Ryan, an expert, who along with Grant and I had plenty of USATE experience, gave us a dream team with the maximum 2199.75 average! So our lineup for the tournament was

  • Board 1: NM Grant Xu (2403 USCF)
  • Board 2: NM David Itkin (2247 USCF)
  • Board 3: NM Beilin Li (2093 USCF)
  • Board 4: Ryan Christianson (2056 USCF)

Despite being the top seed (excluding ties), we couldn’t really expect to win, because there were so many strong teams (I’d estimate about 50 legitimate contenders out of 324 total teams). However, we knew Ryan was a very strong Board 4 and that David was likely underrated as he’s rated well over 2200 FIDE and 2300 CFC (Canada). As for myself, by USATE time I was on my way out of a slump, so I suspected I could perform a lot better than 2093 USCF. We accepted Grant might have the toughest time, but he has a lot of experience against opponents as strong as the ones he faced at USATE.

Day 1: Smooth Start

Rest and confidence are sacred in a tournament as long as the USATE. Besides simply winning, it was important that we didn’t end up totally exhausted by Round 3 and fall to the first team over 2100. Fortunately, we won our first two matches easily.

Despite a scare from Ryan in a sharp French line, we swept the first round 4-0. I scored a relatively quick, nice win on Board 3.

Li – Kupersmith, 1-0

My second game was stranger, consisting of 17 moves of theory, a few checks, and two moves where I spent 80 minutes trying to find a win before accepting a perpetual (apologies to my bored opponent!). It turns out the position was indeed a dead draw in every conceivable way. Fortunately, that was our worst game of the match; everyone else won to finish the match 3.5-0.5.

Changolkar – Li, 1/2-1/2 

Day 2: Competition Heats Up

Day 2 was a massive snowstorm, which made everything non-chess pretty miserable. Over the board, we stayed perfect against increasingly tougher teams, ending the day 4-0 alongside 6 other teams.

We woke up to find ourselves paired against the “Stable Geniuses,” led by my friend IM Alexander Katz, who surprised Grant with 1…c5 to induce the Smith-Morra (are they the only two 2400+ players with extensive Smith-Morra backgrounds?). Unfortunately, Grant messed up the move order and had a miserable game, but that was his only loss of the tournament. We snagged two victories from Ryan, who had a nice rating edge on Board 4, and David, who beat NM Andrew Ardito in the 4. h4 Advance Caro-Kann.

Ardito – Itkin, 0-1

However, this nice win was overshadowed by my extremely sketchy save on Board 3. I played a questionable opening and was totally busted, but my opponent overcomplicated matters by sacrificing a piece and I managed to slip out when time trouble got to him.

Li – Klein, 1-0

Apparently, this was the only USATE game published on U.S. Chess. I guess it was our most critical game (the closest we came to not winning a match), though I wasn’t exactly proud at the time!

Our competition got tougher on paper, as every team we played after that was rated 2190+. However, my game in Round 4 was settled fairly quickly after my young expert opponent blundered the Exchange on move 15. Soon after, David’s master opponent flagged in a complex position, and Grant clinched the match with a win over FM Brandon Jacobson before Ryan drew out to finish the match 3.5-0.5.

Jacobson – Grant Xu, 0-1

Day 3: Deciding the Winners

Going into Round 5, there were 7(!) teams at 4-0. I had no idea how they planned to make a winner from two more rounds, but all we could do was try to keep winning. Our next opponents looked pretty tough, though – two 2400s and two 1900s. My opponent was my 2nd-lowest rated of the event, but was 4-0 (he ended up 5-1 against mostly experts, gaining over 100 rating points). However, I was able to get one of my favorite Closed Sicilian lines and he soon developed too many weaknesses to hold on.

Li – Espinosa, 1-0

On the next board, Ryan faced a scary-looking piece sac out of the opening, but managed to consolidate despite time pressure. After we won, David decided to force a draw in a complicated position against FM Levy Rozman to clinch the match. IM Alexandr Ostrovskiy fought hard for a win against Grant, but he held and we won the match 3-0.

This left CMU, “Very Fine People On Both Sides,” and MIT tied at 5-0. MIT was the odd one out, and had to play the strange lineup of GM Oliver Barbosa, two 2400s, and a 900. Meanwhile, we seemed fairly evenly matched against our very fine opponents, and as is often the case, much of the match looked a lot closer than the final score suggested.

Ryan converted a good knight vs. bad bishop position without too much trouble, but David looked equal against his slightly lower-rated opponent, and Grant seemed to be in trouble against IM Jan van de Mortel. I ended up choosing the Hedgehog despite not playing it seriously before. Despite my inexperience, it seemed like I had the right ideas and had built up a nice advantage, when I missed a simple tactic and was very lucky to not be much worse. However, my opponent soon missed a tactic of his own a few moves later, and ended up flagging in time pressure.

Fiske – Li, 0-1

Not a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination, but 29…Qa8! was a nice way to top a great individual performance. Ryan won as expected, and David managed to outplay his opponent in the end. As a bonus, Grant managed to survive against van de Mortel, officially putting us at 6-0 for the weekend.

MIT, the only remaining perfect team, lost a close match to GM Barbosa’s team, who took clear 2nd. Tough luck for MIT on the last round pairing – it would have been extremely difficult for us to beat that kind of lineup. Congrats to both teams as well as VFPOBS on their strong performances!

There wasn’t too much to do after that, since we had to grab food and drive 5.5 hours back to Pittsburgh that night. However, we did realize that if Grant had lost all his games, we would have still won every match – either Grant is useless (nah), or that’s a lot of dominance for such an intense team event! David, Ryan, and I scored 5.5/6 individually, and Grant “only” scored 4/6, but performed well over 2500.


Aside from simply being a strong team, we can attribute our victory to a number of less obvious factors. We recognized our chances early on and prioritized things like proper rest a little more than usual (e.g. skipping the bughouse tournament for the first time in years!). Our exceptional team bond as students and friends from the same school was predictable, but critical to our success and enjoying the long event. David (probably the MVP if we had to pick one) was an incredible addition to our team, overperforming in a tough position and gaining 43 rating points, which is insane for someone of his rating.

For me, it was the ultimate highlight of my last year competing with CMU. I’d like to extend thanks not only to my 2018 teammates, but to everyone who’s competed with me at USATE over the last 4 years, as well as the perpetual organizers of the tournament. It’s never easy to manage any event with 1200 people!

Chess-wise personally, it was a very welcome boost. Since becoming a master 10 months ago, it’s been kind of a tough road as I’ve slipped in ways I didn’t foresee after such a big achievement. Earlier this month, I rebounded with a nice victory in Baltimore, but I didn’t quite get the feeling that everything was coming together. After a string of great results in such a long tournament, it’s starting to feel that way as I’ve gained 42 rating points (my largest gain in a serious event) to end at 2159. I’m not back to 2200, but for the first time in a while, I’m on the right track!


Finally, as the Team East champions, we’ll be playing in the National Playoff against the winners of the U.S. Amateur Team West, North, and South (probably in late March or early April) on ICC. They’re also very strong teams who won big over a long weekend, so it should be a great match!

* Credit to Vanessa Sun for our team picture

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Winning The Baltimore Open U2100

Having recently fallen back into the <2100 club, I decided to give the money sections one last try at the Baltimore Open last weekend, in case I wasn’t doomed to being embarrassed by 1800-rated kids!

I played in the fast schedule (Rounds 1-2 G/45+inc/30, Rounds 3-5 40/90 SD/30 inc/30) and went 4.5/5 for clear first. Overall the accommodations were pretty good and it made for a good U.S. Amateur Team East warmup. It was also an interesting throwback to my 1900 days, but I have learned a lot since then and it showed in a lot of the critical moments. The clearest example was the losing ending I defended in Round 3 (seemingly forever while down an hour of time) that I don’t think I would have contested as seriously 2-3 years ago. More than any other group I’ve observed, 1800-2100 sections seem to favor who avoids blundering in the wrong moments (and not necessarily the least). I still don’t get it.

Sidenote: so many kids! I was told there would be lots of old people (I think those were the 2000s who dropped off the map in Rounds 3-4), but only one of my opponents was age 16+.

Here are the games:


Round 1: Li – Chong

In Round 1, I won a (very) clean pawn early but time trouble made matters much more interesting than it should have. My opponent actually had a draw at one point, but alas he was low on time too and missed it. Most of the game was pretty squarely in my corner – too bad my technique leaves so much to be desired!

Round 2: Power – Li

The second round was even more embarrassing as I was apparently -7 (Stockfish) at one point. Some of these Caro-Kann lines are the stuff of nightmares and a good example of not blindly regurgitating thematic opening ideas. Even though I was down a few minutes to 20-30 throughout some dangerous positions, I managed to escape. Again, if you get a dire-looking position in the middlegame, don’t worry about your mistakes and keep a level head – my opponent had the win in his sights, but got too impatient at the critical moment.

Round 3: Li – Shoykhet

Unfortunately, my good luck had to come to an end… or did it? In the span of one game, I showed I still don’t understand the Closed Sicilian, then got a won position, then found myself in a lost ending with no time left. Somehow I survived time control at move 40 and then dug myself to equality in 25 moves, ending the day tied with five others at 2.5/3.


Round 4: Gorti – Li

Day 2 ended up a lot smoother because the end was near(er) and I didn’t mess up! I was paired against Atmika Gorti (FM Akshita’s sister), who despite being one of the lowest players was also undefeated. I got to execute the “normal” plans in a very familiar opening – structurally favorable Exchange Caro-Kann – so there weren’t too many surprises.

Round 5: Zhao – Li

Going into the last round, three of us had 3.5/4, including my opponent from Round 3. As the highest rated of the three, I faced off against my last co-leader. In the end, both of them just self-destructed — I was lucky to get a simple, positionally superior position in another familiar opening (Caro-Kann Panov), and my opponent just didn’t get any chances to unravel. On Board 2, Mr. Shoykhet – who had played a great tournament – played a bad opening and was lost early – too bad. The player who wins these sections is often the one that’s able to keep a straight face the whole time!

Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers Upset Defending Champs St. Louis Archbishops

Pittsburgh couldn’t have had a more exciting win last night, toppling none other than the St. Louis Archbishops, last year’s champion team, 8.5-7.5. Chess.com gave Pittsburgh only an 11% chance of winning the match (and even worse at halftime)!

St. Louis went all in on Boards 1-3 (GMs Caruana, Fedoseev, Ramirez), outrating Pittsburgh by more than 150 points on each board. The downside of that was having to play NM Forest Chen (rated under 2000 FIDE/2300 USCF) on Board 4, placing undeniable pressure on all the top boards to compensate. Chen’s score of 1/4 wasn’t the end of the world, but that probably should have been 0/4, and the top boards simply did not perform as they should have.

Of course, it’s hard to argue against playing GM Fabiano Caruana and GM Vladimir Fedoseev, both rated over 2700 FIDE. But to truly help the team, they really needed to run up the score against their (significantly) lower-rated opponents, and they didn’t quite get enough. The Pawngrabbers had a clear, if not easy, goal of picking points off NM Chen and holding down Caruana and Fedoseev a bit. This left GM Alejandro Ramirez as the deciding factor, and unfortunately for the Archbishops, he did not do so well last night.

Crucially, Pittsburgh managed to avoid the early disasters from the last two matches and kept the match close in the first half, losing the first matchup 1.5-2.5 and tying the second 2-2. They completely turned around the match by sweeping the third quarter 3.5-0.5, and picked off the last 1.5 points from a selection of good positions.

As a result, Pittsburgh is still 3rd in the Atlantic Division (behind Webster and Minnesota), but has widened its lead over its nearest competitors, including St. Louis. There are still a few tough matches, but last night’s victory bodes well for the Pawngrabbers’ playoff prospects.

Highlights of the night, in no particular order:


1. Awonder Liang defeats Fabiano Caruana

Awonder, somehow, remains undefeated outside of Super Saturday, scoring 3-1 for the night. Evidently, Awonder was not content with beating GM Hikaru Nakamura last weekend – he had to beat Fabiano Caruana as well.

He’s actually looking a lot like Candidates material…

2. Alexander Shabalov defeats Vladimir Fedoseev

GM Shabalov has been less consistent, although his worst performances are scoring even against slightly lower-rated players. When he is on form, he is easily one of the most appreciated players, at least among the chess.com commentators! Shaba delivered a surprising demolition of a 2731-rated Fedoseev in Round 3:.

3. Atulya Shetty defeats Alejandro Ramirez

Atulya scored a solid 2-2 for the night, and was well-rewarded for smoothly outplaying GM Ramirez from a seemingly equal middlegame. This game gave Pittsburgh a little peace of mind, bringing them to the safe 8 points.

4. Safal Bora swindles Alejandro Ramirez

Getting swindled by Forest Chen and difficulties over Caruana and Fedoseev did not make for a great night, but Safal was resourceful enough to snag what ended up a critical half point from a beyond hopeless-looking position. You never know when a lucky half point is going to decide a match!


The Pawngrabbers are all the better for this monumental upset. Our next match will be in one week, on February 14 against the Montclair Sopranos. Don’t forget to tune in on https://www.twitch.tv/napoleonbonaparteivfor Isaac’s live comments!

-Beilin Li, Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers co-manager

PRO Chess League: Pittsburgh Achieves Much-Needed “Draw” in Super Saturday

Three days after a narrow loss to the Minnesota Blizzard, Pittsburgh has eked out a half point from PRO Chess League Super Saturday, after a four-hour battle against their toughest opposition yet. Look no further than GM Awonder Liang, who had been undefeated but faced a daunting lineup that included Shakriyar Mamedyarov, Hikaru Nakamura, and other world-class grandmasters.

Each Atlantic Division team played each Pacific Division team in a series of eight G/10+2, 4v4 matches. Teams were ranked by total number of games won, allowing every player to focus solely on beating their fellow Board 1s (or 2s, 3s, 4s). At the end of the night, teams were awarded match points based on where they placed (1 point for teams 1-6, 0.5 for teams 7-10, 0 for 11-16).

IM Safal Bora made his debut for the Pawngrabbers on Board 4, behind University of Michigan teammate IM Atulya Shetty on Board 3. With GM Alexander Shabalov gone, GM Awonder Liang moved up to Board 1. The Pawngrabbers were fortunate to land IM Minh Le (better known to chess.com bullet as @wonderfultime) to play Board 2 from Vietnam at 5 a.m. local time.

Pittsburgh started off with a dreadful 0.5-3.5 against the Dallas Destiny, reminiscent of its similar start against Minnesota from which it never fully recovered (Fellow junior GM Jeffrey Xiong ended Awonder’s 12-game undefeated streak). By the end of the night, however, Pittsburgh was an even 16/32 in games and 9th place. Seemingly long-shot victories – every point and half-point – proved critical throughout the night. Just one game separated the drawing teams from the losing teams!

As usual, co-manager Isaac Steincamp provided 4 hours of non-stop commentary this week with NM Grant Xu replacing NM David Hua on screen this week.

What were the highlights of the night? In no particular order…


1. Awonder Liang

Awonder was outrated by all 8 of his opponents, but somehow finished the night with 4.5 points. Two of the biggest surprises: his upsets over GM Hikaru Nakamura and GM Leinier Dominguez-Perez, both rated over 2700 FIDE.

2. IM Minh Le upsets GM Rauf Mamedov

IM Minh Le, not being one of our local players, was a big unknown – would his online quick chess prowess outweigh being outrated (like GM Liang) by all of his opponents? Le – playing from Vietnam in the early hours of the morning local time – definitely proved his worth. His time management in a seemingly equal game proved critical to upsetting GM Rauf Mamedov of the San Jose Hackers en route to a respectable 3.5/8.

3. IM Atulya Shetty steals half a point from GM Anton Smirnov

It’s hard enough to swindle someone in a 2-pawn-down ending. It’s much harder against a grandmaster with 4(!) seconds left, but Atulya stole a draw courtesy of the wrong-colored bishop.

4. IM Safal Bora goes 5/8 on Board 4

With the Pawngrabbers heavily outrated on Boards 1 and 2, we expected to rely on the lower boards when it counted. IM Safal Bora, playing for Pittsburgh for the first time, despite some setbacks, posted the highest score on the team. Below is his last-round victory – and crucial 16th point for Pittsburgh – over IM Josh Sheng:

5. Revenge over the Las Vegas Desert Rats

Pittsburgh bounced back from a disastrous Round 1 with a 3-1 victory over the Seattle Sluggers, topped by GM Awonder Liang‘s upset of GM Hikaru Nakamura. However, losing the next two matches left Pittsburgh deep in the hole at halftime, struggling to make it into the “draw” zone.

By now, however, Pittsburgh is no stranger to long-shot comebacks, and turned its night around with a 3.5-0.5 blowout over the Las Vegas Desert Rats, who themselves beat the Pawngrabbers 12.5-3.5 last year. The Pawngrabbers pulled even or ahead in the remaining rounds went on to finish 9th.

Standings.jpg


We are live again on Wednesday, February 7 at 5:55 pm against the St. Louis Archbishops – don’t miss our stream at https://www.twitch.tv/napoleonbonaparteiv! Tonight’s stream is available here.

PRO Chess League: Massive Pawngrabbers Comeback Can’t Stop the Minnesota Blizzard

The Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers responded to an early 3-point deficit the only way they know how, staging a late comeback to force the Minnesota Blizzard back into business. Unfortunately, there are a few things you can’t do in a PRO Chess League match, and going down 3.5-0.5 early is one of them. Minnesota held its ground for a well-deserved 8.5-7.5 victory, emerging clear first in the Atlantic Division for the first time.

Given Pittsburgh’s history with the Blizzard, this couldn’t have ended with anything other than a close match. This year, Minnesota and Pittsburgh took early division leads over the likes of Webster, St. Louis, and the Montreal Chessbrahs despite not making the playoffs last year. Our two 2017 matches were decided by the slimmest of margins, 9-7 (Minnesota) and 8.5-7.5 (Pittsburgh).

Minnesota fielded a balanced lineup that is remarkably easy to underestimate. The bullet prowess of GM-elect Andrew Tang may prove more relevant than his OTB ratings in this rapid league. Of course, all eyes were on IM Sean Nagle after he went 4-0 as Minnesota’s #4 last week. Pittsburgh brought the same lineup as last week, with the exception of FM Jennifer Yu, who made her debut on Board 4.


Unfortunately, the match couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start as a few promising positions went astray and we went down 0-3. We were hoping GM Awonder Liang could close the gap, but time trouble got the best of him as IM John Bartholomew forced a perpetual to put the Blizzard up 3.5-0.5.

A 3-point deficit is nearly insurmountable and meant every opportunity would be crucial for the rest of the match – even if you have to play 23. Bxd6?!? like in a crazy game we’ve already recommended for Game of the Week. Since Awonder didn’t win that last week, I guess he just wanted to play another. Be sure to support us on Twitter when the GOTW poll goes up!

Although ending IM Nagle’s 5-game winning streak along with a win by GM Alexander Shabalov over IM Bartholomew is all well and good, barely tying the round 2-2 was not nearly enough to give us a fighting chance. GM Shabalov quickly recognized the dire situation and promptly demolished IM Daniel Gurevich’s Caro-Kann.

GM Liang followed up next, defeating GM-elect Tang in a classic battle of youngsters. Unfortunately, FM Jennifer Yu saw her edge against IM Bartholomew fall apart in time trouble, but IM Atulya Shetty ended the round in dramatic fashion with a swindle over IM Nagle.

It seems that Awonder wanted to play multiple Games of the Week. Not quite the rampage we saw in the round before, but 26. Nf5! is beautiful.

This left Pittsburgh down 5.5-6.5, needing 2.5 of the last 4 points for a tie and 3 for a win. This was a nailbiter all the way to the end. The Pawngrabbers looked down and out a few times, but IM Atulya Shetty scored an exciting win against IM Bartholomew (along with Awonder’s Round 2+3 wins, are these the best 3 games our team has played in a single match?) while FM Yu and GM Liang held their opponents to draws from very tough positions. Meanwhile, however, GM Andrew Tang was able to save the Blizzard with a win against GM Shabalov.

After three weeks, what can we say about the new Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers? The team is no longer outmatched by its competitors and has clearly earned its spot in the league. However, the players we’ve brought in, while very good, are still inexperienced in the league environment, and that does show in critical moments, usually through time trouble. It will be interesting to see how this develops as the season goes on and our players get used to playing 15+2 against other strong players.

If you’re itching to watch our next match, you won’t have to wait for long — we’re due for more this (Super) Saturday. We will be streaming on The Steincamp Show once more — once again, thanks to Isaac Steincamp, David Hua, and GM Eugene Perelshteyn for their contributions and commentary! Be sure to tune in next week!

Pawngrabbers Tied for Division Lead After Defeating Montreal Chessbrahs

The Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers are just one of two undefeated teams in the PRO Chess League’s Atlantic Division after tonight’s win over the Montreal Chessbrahs. The Pawngrabbers were solid throughout the match, increasing their margin over the Chessbrahs every round to finish 9.5-6.5. The other undefeated team is the Minnesota Blizzard, who edge us out in game points after pummeling Buenos Aires 11.5-4.5. We’ll have to fix that when we face off next week!

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14-year old GM Awonder Liang was the undisputed hero of the night, crushing the Montreal lineup 4-0. He was the only one to defeat GM Robin van Kampen in an overwhelming kingside attack. GM Eugene Perelshteyn joined NM David Hua and Isaac Steincamp on air to give his take on the game.

Awonder didn’t let up next round against IM Michael Kleinman, who was duly punished for an cheeky …Bh5 in a two-knights Caro Kann.

GM Alexander Shabalov didn’t quite live up to his performance from last week, but found a way to get the points when it mattered. IM Michael Kleinman managed to swindle Shabalov from a completely lost position in time trouble, but Shabalov returned the favor by swindling GM Aman Hambleton in the next game. Shabalov’s chances were also looking bleak in Round 4, but stayed alert to the end against GM Robin van Kampen to snag the fateful 8th point for the Pawngrabbers and end the night 2-2.
IM Atulya Shetty returned as Pittsburgh’s #3 this week, and scored a respectable 2-2 with wins over the Montreal IMs. Some solid technique on display against IM Michael Kleinman in a tricky ending.
Last week, Pittsburgh showed its strength in lower boards, and that didn’t seem to change much with the introduction of SM Mika Brattain, who replaced FM Edward Song as the Pittsburgh #4 this week and matched his score of 1.5 points tonight. The Pawngrabbers took the lead after Round 2 courtesy of Mika’s win over IM Renier Castellanos. Mika would go on to clinch the match with a last round draw against IM Michael Kleinman.
Besides GM Liang’s amazing performance, what were the keys to winning the match? One theme that kept popping up was time management – we were noticeably better on the clock all around, and most importantly were generally able to keep that without compromising our quality of play. In a few cases, it netted us some unexpected points, such as in Round 2’s Shabalov-Hambleton.
Several shoutouts this week, starting with the players themselves, and especially GM Awonder Liang for his 4-0 sweep – a difficult feat for any player. Thanks as always to Isaac SteincampDavid Hua, and GM Perelshteyn for another round of great commentary this week. Thanks also to Grant Xu for helping me with everything behind the scenes.
With just two weeks of the season down, there is still plenty of chess to be played and plenty of time for the standings to change, but the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers are in a very good spot at the moment with two strong wins. That said, next week we are up against the only other undefeated team – the Minnesota Blizzard, who we had two exciting matches with last season (we lost the first 9-7 and won the second 8.5-7.5). Both teams have proven their worth early on this season and we fully expect it to be a very tough match. Tune into our Twitch stream next Wednesday at 5:55 pm for the match!
-Beilin Li, Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers co-manager

PRO Chess League: Pittsburgh Starts Season with Resounding Win over Buenos Aires

The Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers couldn’t have asked for a better start to the 2018 PRO Chess League season, emerging clear 2nd in the Atlantic Division after defeating the Buenos Aires Krakens by a higher-than-expected 10-6 margin.

The Pawngrabbers look a bit different this year as they look for a fresh start to their second season. With fewer teams in the league this year, we were able to solidify our bench with several strong players from across the lake in eastern Michigan that will have plenty of chances to shine in the coming weeks. And just last week, Pittsburgh scored a huge victory with the addition of 14-year old free agent GM Awonder Liang, who, like traditional powerhouse GM Alexander Shabalov, requires little introduction.

Finally, our stream team (originally my co-manager Isaac Steincamp) now includes NM David Hua and GM Eugene Perelshteyn.


Unfortunately for Buenos Aires, their chances were severely hampered by poor performance on their lower boards. Untitled Cristian Sanhueza, rated 2298 FIDE, scored 0-4 as the Krakens’ #4, while GM Leandro Krysa, who suffered from chronic connection problems, posted a dismal 0.5-3.5 on the night. This was clearly a bit of an extreme case, but does suggest that the more “top-heavy” lineups (Buenos Aires also fielded GM Federico Perez Ponsa and GM Alan Pichot) may be underestimating the importance of the lower positions.

In contrast, the Pawngrabbers seem to be quite strong in that regard. Many of our players last year were heavily outrated by many of the IM/GM powerhouses they faced, yet managed to score a respectable number of upsets. As we saw last night, being blown out 4-0 can be more damaging than it looks at first, so scoring a point or two as a low board goes a long way. A 1.5-2.5 was a respectable result for Pittsburgh #4 FM Edward Song (especially given how close his other games were), while IM Atulya Shetty scored a surprisingly strong 2.5-1.5.

Finally, time to recognize the obvious: our top two boards GM Alexander Shabalov and GM Awonder Liang. It’s never easy to predict Shaba, but he showed no signs of nerves, obliterating his first three opponents before falling to the Krakens’ MVP, GM Ponsa. Awonder took a more solid route, scoring two draws and a win against the Argentine GMs to also finish 3-1.

Let’s take a look at some of the key moments of the match.


Pittsburgh went 2.5-1.5 in the “weird” round (1v4, 2v3, 3v2, 4v1). Edward, not fearing his highest-rated opponent, played what was probably the most exciting game of the round. Unfortunately, time trouble proved fatal in an equal ending.

GM Perelshteyn offers his take on White’s spectacular opening.

Round 2 was a bit shakier, but Pittsburgh scored 2-2 to stay ahead. Shaba spiced things up with a scary piece sac.

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Shabalov–Krysa, round 2

With the score so close, Round 3 was shaping up to be critical. Everyone was up to the challenge, and collectively scored 3-1, moving within a point of winning the match. Isaac and David recap the round below.

I have to repost another Shaba game14. c4! was a really nice find.

Ed promptly finished the match in style, clinching the match courtesy of an early tactic against the Krakens’ Sanhueza. Black was surprised to find that 18…Qc5?? loses the queen after 19. Bxf6! Bxf6 20. Rd8+!!.

And just like that, Pittsburgh had ensured victory over the Buenos Aires Krakens, a strong, 2017 Playoff team. However, now that Pittsburgh is a true contender for the league, tiebreaks matter, and Awonder and Atulya did well to pick up another point and a half, getting us to 10-6. A great start to the season for the Pawngrabbers!

Be sure to tune in next week/same time as we take on the Montreal Chessbrahs in what should be another tough and exciting matchup!

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