09 Nov

A League Of Their Own

In Europe, the great chess staple where the game thrives is in its many leagues; and apart from those for the club player, there’s also a large professional element with the likes of the Bundesliga in Germany, the Russian League, the French League, the Spanish League, the Italian League, and the UK 4NCL etc. These are mostly episodic in nature, taking place at regular intervals throughout the year, or, like some, in one big long weekend event.


But in the US, league chess has proved difficult due to the large geographical spread of the country. In the 1970s there was the National Chess League (an inter-city league where the games were contested by telephone and “runners” relayed the moves) that proved popular for a while during the height of the Fischer boom, but soon ended due to the impracticalities. But in the online era, the ever-resourceful IM Greg Shahade had a brave brainwave: The United States Chess League (USCL) played over the Internet!

It started ten years ago, with a first-season roster of eight teams, and is now the only nationwide chess league in the United States, with its popularity leading to an expansion and now twenty teams in the franchise, whose members include some of the highest-rated players in the US, playing for the likes of the New York Knights, New Jersey Kockouts, Miami Sharks, San Francisco Mechanics, Philadelphia Masterminds, Boston Blitz, Seattle Sluggers, Carolina Cobras, Dallas Destiny and the reigning 2014 champions, the St. Louis Arch Bishops.

The USCL is  hosted live on the Internet Chess Club, with teams playing from the one location and a league approved TD on hand at each venue to safeguard against cheating. Much like baseball and football, there’s a regular season and divisional playoffs for the winners of the East and West for the title. The regular season has now ended, and last week the USCL entered its wild-card playoff round, where four teams in each division vie for two spots in the quarterfinals - and you can see the results of those playoffs by clicking here.

The Quarterfinal lineups this week will be:

New Jersey Knockouts vs. New York Knights
New England Nor’easters vs. Manhattan Applesauce
Dallas Destiny vs. San Francisco Mechanics
Las Vegas Desert Rats vs. St. Louis Arch Bishops

One of the highlights of the USCL is their featured “Game of the Week” competition, which is democratically voted on by anyone who wants to register to take part. And today’s game comes curtesy of one of the finalists taken from the wild-card playoff, as SM Kapil Chandran (Connecticut Dreadnoughts) beat NM Levy Rozman (Manhattan Applesauce).

Kapil Chandran - Levy Rozman
USCL Wildcard Round
Leningrad Dutch
1.d4 f5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 g6 4.c3 Bg7 5.Qb3 The idea behind this system is to prevent Black playing 'normal' Leningrad Dutch set-ups with castling kingside, followed by d6 and e5 etc. 5...d5 6.Nd2 Nc6 7.Ndf3 This looks funny, but it is another familiar theme in the Dutch Defence, as White goes for control of the all-important e5 square and allows the kingside knight to probe for weaknesses with the knight hop h3-f4 (and perhaps to d3 to bolster e5). 7...e6 8.Nh3 Ne4 9.Nf4 Qe7 10.h4 0-0 11.h5 g5 12.h6! Bf6 13.Nh5 Bh8 14.Nd2 Nd6 15.Qc2 b6 16.Nf3 Ne4 17.Be3 e5 18.dxe5 Nxe5 19.Nxe5 Bxe5 20.f4! Bh8 Taking on f4 could well lead to an easy attack on the Black king: 20...gxf4 21.Bxe4! fxe4 22.gxf4 Bh8 23.0-0-0 and the White rooks will soon hit hard don the g-file. 21.Bxe4 fxe4 22.fxg5 Black would rather give up a pawn here rather than the game opening up for the rooks as in the previous note. 22...Bf5 23.0-0-0 Rad8 24.Nf4 c6 25.g4! Regardless, White is going to bludgeon open the g-file for the rooks. 25...Bxg4 26.Rdg1 Bf5 27.g6 Be5 28.gxh7+ Kh8 29.Rh5 Threatening Rxf5 followed by Ng6+. 29...Qf7 30.Qd2 c5 Forced, as 30...Bxf4 31.Bd4+! wins quickly.  31.Rgg5! the rooks have become a potent force; Black has to find a way to exchange them off. 31...d4 32.Rxf5 dxc3 33.Rxf7 It's hard to be judgmental as this wins, but more clinical would have been: 33.bxc3! Rxd2 34.Rxf7 Rxf7 35.Ng6+ Kxh7 36.Kxd2 with an easily won ending, a piece to the better and the big pawn on h6. 33...cxd2+ 34.Bxd2? But this is an error that almost snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. He had to play: 34.Kd1! Rxf7 35.Rxe5 and then e4 and d2 will soon fall with an easy win for White. 34...Rxf7? Its a mutual error in a critical position; most likely down to a time scramble. Instead, after: 34...Bxb2+! 35.Kxb2 Rxd2+! 36.Kc1 Rxf7 37.Kxd2 Rxf4 38.Re5! Kxh7 39.Re7+ Kxh6 40.Rxa7 and Black is marginally better in the notoriously drawn rook and pawn ending. 35.Ng6+ Kxh7 36.Nxe5 Rf2 37.Rg5! The pendulum has again swung back in White's favour, as Black is forced into exchanging off a set of rooks. 37...Rg8 38.Rxg8 Kxg8 39.Kd1 In essence this should be an easy win, as the minor pieces dominate the rook, and he still has that 'big pawn' on h6. But full credit now to Black, who attempts to stay in the game now with a cunning stalemate plan. 39...b5 40.Nd7 Rf5 41.Ke1 b4 42.b3 a5 43.Be3 c4 44.bxc4 a4 The only way to confuse matters is to create a passed pawn. But full marks to Black if he spotted all of what now comes. 45.Nc5 b3 46.axb3 a3 47.Nxe4 a2 48.Bd4 Kh7 49.Kd2 Rf4 The game is hopelessly lost, but the White pawn on h6 is key to Black's cunning plan, so it stays on the board. 50.Nf6+ Kh8 51.Bc3 Rd4+! (See Diagram) The shock value is wonderful; and in a time scramble, this just might all have worked - but a little time and careful calculating, White marches his king up the board and through the stalemate maze. 52.Ke3 a1Q! 53.Bxa1 Rd3+ Again, if the rook is taken either by the king or pawn, its a stalemate. 54.Kf4 Rf3+ Ditto. 55.Ke5 Rf5+ 56.Ke6 Re5+ 57.Kf7 Re7+ 58.Kg6  1-0 There's no more stalemating attempts left, and now White has an easy win. White took the honours, but Black deserves credit for his ingenious study-like attempt to force stalemate.

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