In Europe, the great chess staple where the game thrives is in its many leagues; and apart from the club player, there’s also a large professional element in many with the likes of the Bundesliga in Germany, the Russian league, French league, Spanish league, and the Italian league etc. These are mostly episodic in nature, taking place at regular intervals throughout the year, or, like some, in one long weekend event.
Here in the US, league chess has proved difficult due to the large geographical spread of the country. In the early 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 came up with a brainwave: The United States Chess League, with games played over the Internet. Much like baseball and football, there was a regular season and divisional playoffs for the winners of the East, West and South playing for the title - and teams named much-like those in baseball and football.
Now Shahade’s brainwave has gone global, with the new PRO (Professional Rapid Online) Chess League with 48 teams, over 400 players and over 100 grandmasters split into four divisions - Atlantic, Pacific, Central & Eastern - and its inaugural season now underway. All matches are covered live on www.chess.com/tv with top commentators and hosts taking you from start to finish!
And such has been the imagination and allure of the PRO Chess League, many of the world’s top grandmasters have signed up to play for their franchise - and on Saturday, not one, not two, not three but four (!) of the world’s top five players will be playing, with the main attraction being World Champion Magnus Carlsen (Norway Gnomes), Fabiano Caruana (Montreal ChessBrahs), Wesley So (St.Louis Archbishops), and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (Marseille Migraines).
Not only that, but the Norway Gnomes take on Montreal ChessBrahs, and we’ll see the world numbers one and two, Carlsen and Caruana (both making their league debuts) in the big online showdown. Check out the full week five pairings here, and you can follow the games on chess.com/TV. The Gnomes vs ChessBrahs is one of the early match-ups, starting at 7 a.m. PT, 4 p.m. CET.
The PRO Chess League has also retained many regular features carried over from the US Chess League, such as the popular game of the week, with the recent winner being GM Evgeny Shaposhhikov (Gorky Stormbringers), who beat Jon Ludvig Hammer (Norway Gnomes) in a very enterprising and exciting game.
GM Jon Ludvig Hammer - GM Evgeny Shaposhnikov
PRO League Eastern, (4)
French Tarrasch, Guimard Variation
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nd2 The Tarrasch Variation is a positional line against the French that was popularized much by former world champion Anatoly Karpov, and often leads to tense fights that end up in tactical melees. 3...Nc6 More usual here is 3...c5 or 3...Nf6 - but this is the very underrated Guimard Variation, named after the Argentinian Grandmaster Carlos Guimard who championed its cause. 4.Ngf3 Nf6 5.exd5 More testing is 5.e5 Nd7 with Black following-up with ...f6 and ...Qxf6 with dynamic play. I would imagine Hammer chose this line as it is not so well known. Either way, it shouldn't really trouble Black. 5...exd5 6.c3 Bd6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.0-0 Ne7 The knight quickly re-routes to free the c-pawn and challenge White's dominant bishop on d3 with a later ...Bf5 - and once ...Bf5 gets on the board, Black will have instantly equalised. 9.Ne5 c5 10.Re1 cxd4 11.cxd4 Bf5 Instant equality - and, if anything, Black may well feel he's emerged just a little better from the opening skirmish. 12.Nf1 Bxd3 13.Qxd3 Ne4 14.Ng4 f5 15.Nge3 Although the Black knight on e4 can easily be moved from its excellent outpost on e4 with f3, in doing so, White will have weakened the dark-squares around his king. 15...Kh8 Prophylaxis! Black just wants to avoid any potential problems in the future with king being pinned to the d5 pawn. 16.f3 Ng5 17.Bd2 Qd7 18.Nc2 Ne6 Black has definitely won the opening - and now, he looks to win the game by honing in on the dark-squared weakness in the White camp. 19.Re2 Nc6 20.Rae1 Rae8 21.Kh1 Bc7! Not so much looking to set-up a battery with the queen and bishop down the b8-h2 diagonal, but more looking to put the bishop on b6 to really highlight the pawn weakness on d4. If anything, White will have to grovel here by defending d4. 22.b4 a6 23.a4 Bb6 24.Bc3 g6 25.Qd2 Kg8 Yet more prophylaxis! Black now wants to remove his king from any possible pin from winning the d-pawn. 26.Re3 Ncd8 27.a5 Bc7 28.R3e2 Nf7 The Guimard knight has certainly been on a tour: c6-e7-c6-d8 and now f7! 29.Na1 Nf4! With White having weak pawns fixed on b4 and d4, Black is looking to exchange off all the 'heavy furniture' (queens and rooks) now to try to win the minor piece ending. 30.Rxe8 Rxe8 31.Nb3 Rxe1 32.Qxe1 Ne6 33.Nc5 Nxc5 34.bxc5 Getting rid of one pawn weakness on b4; but in the process setting up another now on a5 - and the pawn weaknesses on a5 and d4 is what decides the game now. 34...f4! Stopping the knight getting to e3 and hitting Black's only weakness on d5. 35.Qb1 Qb5! Now the queens come off, and Black can look forward to an endgame advantage by concentrating on a5 and d4. 36.Qxb5 axb5 37.c6! Hammer comes up with an "interference theme" to enterprisingly attempt to stay in the game, as he creates problems with an outside passed a-pawn. And if he doesn't play this now, then Black finishes the Guimard knight tour with Nf7-d8-c6 and pick off a5, as Black will also have ...b4 cutting off the support of the bishop. 37...bxc6 38.a6 Bb6 39.Bb4 Bxd4 40.Nd2 Bb6 41.Nb3 Ne5 42.Bc5 Nd7 43.a7 Bxa7 44.Bxa7 White may well have won a piece with his enterprising play - but it comes at the cost of Black now having an armada of passed pawns sailing up the board. 44...b4 45.Kg1 Kf7 46.Kf1 Ke6 47.Nc5+ Nxc5 48.Bxc5 b3 49.Ba3 d4! 50.Ke2 Kd5 51.Bc1 c5 52.Kd1 c4 53.Bxf4 c3 54.Bh6 d3 The diagram position makes quite a picture: three connected passed pawns storming home for a win. 55.Bg7 Kc4 56.Kc1 b2+ 57.Kb1 d2 58.Kc2 b1Q+ 59.Kxb1 Kb3 The final sting in the tail! Rather than "simply" queening his d-pawn for a win, Black does so with a forced mate. 60.Bxc3 d1Q# 0-1