Closing Thoughts on the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers’ 2018 Season

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

2018 Announcement

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.

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NM Mika Brattain was one of the first new additions to the Pawngrabbers, and he finished 2018 with a 2430 performance rating.

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.

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IM Atulya Shetty proved himself to be an extremely solid board 3 for Pittsburgh, scoring 50% against much stronger competition.

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.

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2018 proved to be quite the year for team chess in Pittsburgh, as Carnegie Mellon won the USATE in February. Photo Credit: Vanessa Sun

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.

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GM Awonder Liang gave Pittsburgh the second “G”, making the Pawngrabbers a much more formidable force in the Atlantic Division

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.

PittBuenos_FinalScore

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!

StLouisLineups

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.

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Alexander Shabalov–Vladimir Fedoseev (PGH vs STL)

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.

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Bassem Amin–Atulya Shetty (MCR vs PGH)

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.

PittWEB_FinalScore

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:

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Edward Song–Joshua Colas (PGH vs WEB)

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.

MarkHCard Debut
Unable to play for much of 2018, Mark will enter 2019 as one of Pittsburgh’s newest weapons

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 GGGline-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.

JenniferCard
FM Jennifer Yu only played one match for Pittsburgh in 2018, but she may see more action as she continues to improve at an impressive rate!

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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Pittsburgh Gets a Point in Super Saturday; Clinches Playoff Berth

The Pawngrabbers are in! With 19.5 points and a 4th place finish the Pawngrabbers are guaranteed a spot in the 2018 PRO Chess League Playoffs! On a day that featured a Pittsburgh Line-up without GM Alexander Shabalov and IM Atulya Shetty, the Pawngrabbers squad showed how deep their roster is with over-performing Board 3/4 displays from NM Mika Brattain(3.5/8) and FM Edward Song (6.5/8). GM Awonder Liang (4.5/8) and IM Tuan Minh Lê (5/8) starred on Boards 1 and 2 to bring home the result. The Pawngrabbers unit clinched the win half way through Round 7 with 5 games remaining in the competition.

Fielded against teams from the Central and Eastern Divisions, Pittsburgh had 32 games scheduled, and things got out to a fast start when Awonder and Mika both put together big wins against the Volga Stormbringers, 3.5-0.5. GM Eugene Perelshteyn stopped by to give us his thoughts on the two games.

Next up was the Mumbai Movers, and even without the Former World Champion (or Current Rapid World Champion!) Vishy Anand on their line-up, the GM Baskaran Adhiban-led squad squeaked by Pittsburgh 2.5-1.5. Even with the head-to-head loss, Pittsburgh’s fast start kept them ahead of the pack, and were propelled into the the next round with this tactical shot and conversion from FM Edward Song.

Notable absences from European Division teams proved to be their downfall, and a Marseilles Migraines team without Maxime Vachier-Lagrave or Etienne Bacrot proved to be particularly toothless, only scoring 5/32 and finishing dead last in the event. Pittsburgh cruised by with a perfect 4-0 score, thanks to Awonder’s win over GM Jean-Marc Degraeve.

In what proved to be a growing theme of the day, Awonder punished another risky opening choice! Awonder followed this attacking win by crushing GM Luka Lenic from the Ljubljana Turtles. Lenic was one of the League’s top scorers going into Super Saturday, so the win, along with a 3-1 score in favor of Pittsburgh was a big achievement for the Pawngrabbers.

Following a 2-2 draw with Cannes, Pittsburgh was solidly in the top six in the standings, and solidified their position with a 3-1 head-to-head victory over the Reykjavik Puffins. Awonder once again played a great game, but it was Minh Lê from Board 2 that gave Pittsburgh the nicest moment of the round with this crushing blow against GM Helgi Olafsson:

Did you see that coming? From Board 2 Minh held his own, scoring 5/8 playing from Hanoi against higher rated opposition. The 22 year old has proven himself to be a strong free agent behind Awonder, as he’s scored an impressive 8.5/16 in his rookie season against a Grandmaster-level schedule.

Now three hours into the match, fatigue began to play a factor as Pittsburgh fell 1.5-2.5 to the Armenia Eagles. However, even with the loss, Ed’s win over the Eagles’ manager CM Artak Manukyan was enough to clinch the win and playoff bid. Ed put together a 24 move miniature with mate on the board.

Pittsburgh dropped the last round to the Delhi Dynamite 1-3 with draws from Mika and Ed, totaling 19.5 points for the team and clincing 4th place behind St Louis (24 points), Chengdu (23 points), and Montclair (21.5). If you missed the commentary, you can watch it with NM David Itkin and CM Isaac Steincamp in full here:

With the Playoff Picture set, Pittsburgh fans had to wait to see how Atlantic heavyweights Webster and Minnesota stacked up. Losing to the Norway Gnomes in the last round, Webster finished with 19.5 points with a 4th place finish and a win, but Minnesota was jumped last second by the Estonia Horses on tiebreaks, leaving the Blizzard with only a half-point on the day. With Minnesota slipping, Pittsburgh got some breathing room in the standings, sitting at clear second by a full point:

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Pittsburgh has little time before the all-Atlantic clash on Wednesday night with the Webster Windmills (5:55 PM EST). While both teams have claimed spots in the playoffs, the match will likely decide 1st place in the Atlantic Division and serve as a litmus test for Pittsburgh before the postseason.

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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.

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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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