A Personal Experience of the PRO Chess League

Hi everyone!  My name is Edward Song, and I just played for the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers in this year’s PRO Chess League season, currently in its final stage.  Unfortunately, as many of you may already know, Pittsburgh was eventually knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the defending champions St. Louis Arch Bishops, but this has of course been an incredible season for the team overall.  You can read more about Pittsburgh’s season as a team here from our very own team manager.

As for me, I had no less an incredible season, scoring a big 14/20 in the league with a 2543 performance, well over 200 points above my rating, which was no doubt just one of many important factors that helped Pittsburgh become one of the top teams in the league.  So how was I able to achieve this?  Let’s take a look at some important moments for me throughout the season.

The first match I played in was in the very first round, when Pittsburgh played the Buenos Aires Krakens.  Going into the match, I wasn’t sure what to expect, as even though I had previous experience in the PRO Chess League, this was a whole new season altogether.  I also had to pay attention on how my three teammates GM Alexander Shabalov, GM Awonder Liang, and IM Atulya Shetty would do, as this was a much stronger team compared to last year’s season.  At the end, we won 10-6, while I scored 1.5/4, which seems pretty decent for a board 4, but I was very disappointed with my play throughout the day, as I blundered at least something in every single game.  Even my only win that day was not a good game.

Song-Sanhueza 1-0

I had to wait several weeks to get another shot at playing for Pittsburgh, in the second Super Saturday, where I had to play 8 games against a 2218 average rating.  Looking at my opponents and their ratings, I felt this could be a day where I could score big as none of my opponents looked menacing, and eventually I scored 6.5/8 with no losses.  I played some good quality chess, and was only in danger of losing one game, against my strongest opponent of the day.  My favorite game from Super Saturday was against Dharia Parnali from the Mumbai Movers.

I was scheduled to play against Webster just a few days later, which sent out two strong GMs, Le Quang Liem and Tamas Banusz, along with two other strong masters Aaron Grabinsky and Joshua Colas.  Yet, against this lineup, I scored 3/4, which is of course an excellent result.  In the very first round of the match, I played the super GM Le Quang Liem in a very dramatic game, where I surprisingly managed to catch a mistake by Le Quang Liem early on and was up a clean pawn, but then I felt the pressure of playing against one of the best players in the world and started to get nervous and play not so well, while Le Quang Liem started defending tenaciously.  I realized the tide was turning, so I went for a safe route and found a way to simplify to a completely drawn endgame, only to blunder it away in a very embarrassing fashion.

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Song-Le Quang Liem PRO Chess League, position after 108…Nxg3+

Here I had a massive hallucination and blundered with 109. Bxg3??????, in time trouble forgetting that having the opposition does not matter when the opponent’s pawn is so far advanced.  The game concluded 109…Kxg3 110. Kg1 Kh3 111. Kh1 g3 112. Kg1 g2 0-1.

The blunder is even stranger considering I used the same concept in a game played just 2 months prior.

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Gandhi-Song Pan-Ams 2017, position after 92. Nf7

Here I played 92…Kd2!, with the idea of 93. Nxe5 Nd3+ 94. Nxd3 Kxd3 and black wins because of the far advanced black pawn.  Instead, white went 93. Kg2 and eventually swindled a draw.

Looking back at the game though, Le Quang Liem deserved to beat me.  All he made was one mistake in the early middlegame which I managed to catch, but for the rest of the game, although I had a much better position, he basically outplayed me and continued to put pressure, showing me what it’s like to be one of the best chess players in the world and stabilized over 2700 FIDE.

However, I was able to shake off this highly embarrassing game and bounce back with a convincing win over GM Tamas Banusz, which was surprisingly my first GM win, apart from a win in 2012 against the recently deceased GM Anatoly Lein.  I later won a very messy game against Aaron Grabinsky when the latter blundered a piece in a complicated and unclear position, and then I defeated Joshua Colas when he made too many weaknesses in his position.  This actually barely clinched us the match win at 8.5-7.5, allowing us to catch Webster on first place.

My last and final match was against the St. Louis Arch Bishops in the first round of the playoffs.  They had brought a monstrous lineup with super strong GMs Vladimir Fedoseev, Varuzhan Akobian, and Yaroslav Zherebukh, alongside Forest Chen, with whom I may be one of the few players in the league to have an interesting history when Forest was giving me some serious difficulties in a highly entertaining and wild game at the Denker Tournament of High School Champions played half a year prior.

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Song-Chen Denker Tournament, position after 47…b4

While I eventually managed to win, it was by no means an easy game, and I knew that Forest is very capable of doing serious damage against much higher rated players, as he has continuously showed throughout the league.

Even though I expected this match to be tougher than the one against Webster, as this is now a 3 GM lineup with an underrated board 4, I still somehow managed to score another 3/4.  In the first round, I played GM Vladimir Fedoseev.  Fedoseev, known to have the reputation as an aggressive and uncompromising player, played surprisingly timid against me, and got into a passive position early on.  My position was very easy to play as my pieces were always well placed, but when I was completely winning, I failed to find the killer blow.

Song-Fedoseev 1/2-1/2

That was a disappointing game, especially considering on the other end Forest Chen beat our very own board 1 Alexander Shabalov in a big upset.  By this point, we were already down 3-1, so I felt I had to make sure to stay solid and try not to lose any games.  The next round I had another tough match against GM Varuzhan Akobian.

Akobian-Song 0-1

That was a bit of a strange win since it seemed dead drawn for a long time until Akobian simply hung a pawn for no reason.  Anyway, our team scored 2-2 that round, which meant our team situation unfortunately didn’t really improve.  In round 3, I had to face GM Yaroslav Zherebukh, one of the top performers for St. Louis, and I had a feeling this would be my toughest match, as while I had been performing extremely well, Zherebukh had an over 2700 performance rating and just defeated our top two players Awonder Liang and Alexander Shabalov.

Zherebukh-Song 1/2-1/2

Our team was still down 7-5, which meant we needed to go 3-1 in the last round to win the match.  Unfortunately, we fell short, and although I managed to score a win against Forest Chen in another game that was far from easy to finish the day with another strong 3/4 performance, Awonder Liang and Atulya Shetty were forced to take some serious risks to compensate for Shabalov’s blunder in the last round, to no avail, and we eventually lost the match 10-6, ending Pittsburgh’s spectacular run.

What were some key factors that played into me massively overperforming my own rating?

1. Time management

During my first match against Buenos Aires, I was constantly getting struck by time trouble.  In my very first game against GM Federico Perez Ponsa, I made the very risky decision of going into a super sharp line without adequate preparation for a 15 2 game.  As a result, I started burning time early and fell into time trouble which affected my play later on as I blundered away a completely drawn endgame.  I eventually fixed this problem on Super Saturday, when I was only in serious time trouble in one of the eight games, and time management was definitely one of the reasons why I was able to score as high as I did on Super Saturday.

2. Opening preparation

When you’re playing a 15 2 or a 10 2 game, you don’t have much time to think for the whole game, so getting a comfortable opening position is important as you’ll know what to do for the next few moves.  This was not what I had in mind when I went into a wild position against Perez Ponsa, so I decided to change my approach to openings against GMs to suit the online environment and reduced time control which worked much better.  A wild game in a classical time control at an OTB tournament is permissible, but sometimes it may be too risky to try that in a rapid online game (unless you are Alexander Shabalov).  Thus, in general I was able to fix my approach in opening preparation from Super Saturday onwards, as the PRO Chess League is a special chess platform where openings have to be chosen wisely.

3. Take each game one at a time

When looking at my opponents for St. Louis, it may seem out of the world to score 3/4 against such an intimidating lineup with 3 GMs.  To make my match easier, I decided to focus on one player at a time.  When I was playing Fedoseev, I didn’t care that I had to play another two GMs Akobian and Zherebukh later in the day; I just focused on a good result against Fedoseev.  Eventually, I managed to score some points against all three GMs due to focusing on one player at a time and getting good opening positions against each GM.  Taking these three results separate from each other, now a big result seemed possible.  Thus, it may help to forget about the daunting task that would occur in the future and just focus on the immediate task first.

4. The ability to bounce back after an unwanted result

Every experienced chess player knows how important bouncing back after a loss or an unwanted draw is, but it’s easier said than done, and it comes with experience.  After the blunder against Le Quang Liem, it may be very difficult to recover, but when I played Banusz I thought I shouldn’t fear him even though he’s another well established GM as I had nearly held Le Quang Liem to a draw.  This mindset also worked in the St. Louis match, where after missing the win against Fedoseev I maintained my level of play and scored 1.5/2 against Akobian and Zherebukh.

5. High level of motivation

After my first match with Buenos Aires, I had a burning desire to return a second time to play another PRO Chess League match.  The result did not matter to me; though I technically overperformed my rating that match (which I thought was funny as I felt I was underperforming), I really did not like the way I played during that match and wanted to play more so that I could get some real good games.  Unfortunately, as I indicated earlier, I had to wait several weeks for my second chance, so during this gap, I ended up following every single Pittsburgh match.  I was extremely influenced by seeing how my overperforming teammates, particularly our star Awonder Liang, were able to continuously pull big results and upsets, and I also wanted to join the party.  This kept me motivated to work on time management and opening preparation to improve my results, which eventually all paid off when I started playing more matches.

6. Play underdog

In the PRO Chess League, GMs may often try very hard to beat board 4 of the opposing team, as that may seem as the weak spot.  Thus, those GMs might just refuse a draw at all costs as they may think if they don’t take off points from the opposing team’s board 4, where else would they get points?  As my FIDE rating is relatively very low, I tried to use this to my advantage by adding the pressure on my GM opponents to try to beat me and sometimes wait for my chance to try to play for the advantage whenever possible.  This happened in my games against Banusz and Akobian, where both players could’ve basically forced a draw early, but neither obliged so the game continued with a little imbalance which was enough for me to decide to suddenly play for the advantage in the middlegame and win.

In general, I feel that these six factors were key to helping me perform well in the PRO Chess League, and without them, my season would be much worse.  In any case, I would like to thank the PRO Chess League for organizing such an exciting event, and of course to the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers management team, most notably our manager Isaac Steincamp, for allowing me to play for the team and prove to everyone that I can still have some firepower, and I’m looking forward not only to next year’s PRO Chess League season, but also to proving myself OTB in future events with a very low but hopefully underrated FIDE rating.

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