Chess Grandmasters often earn a crust by playing for clubs in the many leagues across Europe. Clubs hire these 'titled-mercenaries' to play for their teams in the fight for numerous National Club Championships. As with soccer, members take great pride in their clubs and seek to hire the strongest players - so it is not uncommon for a grandmaster to play for teams in the German, Dutch, French and Spanish leagues over the year, allowing them to earn a decent living wage.
While the U.S. boasts a large number of chess clubs, the country’s geographical dispersion has made it impossible to imitate a European League of weekend encounters. However, with the rise of online activity and internet innovation, for many years, there has been the U.S. Chess League - the brainchild of IM Greg Shahade - that successfully filled the void.
And last year saw the birth of the PRO Chess League, an internet start-up league funded and organised by chess.com now takes the franchise global; and in its opening season, it firmly captured the imagination of both the players taking part for their many teams as well as the thousands upon thousands of chess fans worldwide who regularly logged on each week to follow all the action.
For two years running, the Saint Louis Arch-Bishops (sponsored by Rex Sinquefield’s Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis) have been Champions of the U.S. Chess League - and now, with wins over Montreal ChessBrahs and Norway Gnomes, respectively, in the Championship Weekend played over Saturday and Sunday, they have now been crowned the PRO Chess League inaugural champions!
World #2, Wesley So, has carried the Arch-Bishops all season with a phenomenal performance on top board for his team. And up against world #1 Magnus Carlsen’s Norway Gnomes in Sunday’s championship match, So started with three wins to give his team an almost unassailable lead and, sure enough, the Arch-Bishops went on to beat the Gnomes 9-7 to take the title - but not before there first unfolded a dramatic showdown between So and Carlsen!
Despite the Gnomes - who had to field a weakened team in the final, as their captain and Norway #2, Jon-Ludvig Hammer was committed to playing in the Swedish league - losing, Carlsen extracted some form of personal satisfaction from the result with the classy manner in which he beat his main rival in the final rubber game for a 4/0 score that attracted an online ‘full stadium’ audience of nearly 74,000 individuals who logged in to specifically watch the showdown between the ‘big two’ - and Carlsen’s win also dramatically ended So’s unbeaten streak during the season.
Yet even in losing, the world champion’s win wasn’t enough to deprive So from taking the MVP Gold with his score of 35.5/41 for a performance rating of 2848, ahead of MVP Silver Carlsen, who scored 31/36 (performance rating of 2801); with Georg Meier (Stockholm Snowballs) MVP Bronze, scoring 34/44 (performance rating 2701).
Saturday, 25 March:
St. Louis Arch-Bishops* 8-8 Montreal ChessBrahs (Arch-Bishops win tie-break blitz playoff)
Norway Gnomes* 8-8 Stockholm Snowballs (Gnomes win tiebreak blitz playoff)
Sunday, 26 March:
St.Louis Arch-Bishops 9-7 Norway Gnomes
GM Wesley So - GM Magnus Carlsen
PRO Chess League Final, (4)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Bb4+ 4.Bd2 a5 5.a3 Bxd2+ 6.Qxd2 b6 7.Nc3 Bb7 8.g3 0-0 9.Bg2 Ne4 10.Nxe4 Bxe4 11.0-0 a4 A nice little timely move that stops So from expanding his queenside pawns with b4. Not only that, but later in the game, Carlsen utilises the a5 square for an imaginative rook lift that puts pressure on his rival for the top spot. 12.Qe3 Bb7 13.Qd3 f5 Having stopped the queenside pawn advance, Carlsen now clamps down on So having a central pawn advance. While there's nothing in the position, the world champion could be said to have 'won' the opening battle by achieving a no-risk Carlsen sort of position, where he can fight on with minimum risk of losing to try and pressure his opponent. 14.Ne5 Bxg2 15.Kxg2 d6 16.Nf3 Qf6 17.e4 Nc6! Carlsen gets in all the right moves at the right time, and now holds a little grip over White's position. 18.Rae1 So has to be careful and not lash out too quickly here, as the immediate 18.d5 could backfire to 18...Ne5! 19.Nxe5 Qxe5 20.exf5 exd5! and Black would have successfully succeeded in leaving White with two long-term pawn weaknesses on d5 and b2, where it will not be easy for White to coordinate his rooks to defend against. 18...Ra5! The imaginative rook lift, made possible by the earlier 11...a4, shows Carlsen at his very best here, as the world champion now effortlessly turns up the pressure on So's weak pawns. 19.d5 Although it makes long-term pawn targets on d5 and b2, So opts for trying to hold this rather than seeing Carlsen getting in ...exf5 and the rook jump with ...Raf5 with tremendous pressure bearing down the f-file hitting f3 and f2. 19...fxe4 20.Qxe4 exd5 21.cxd5 Ne7 22.Rd1 Qf5! Carlsen's forte is taking simple positions and making even his main rivals fight for their very survival. And here, So can't exchange queens, as it removes a defender of d5, which would soon fall, and with it, White's endgame will also fall. And faced with this scenario, So instead opts to put his king at risk - and the mounting pressure soon sees So crack. 23.Qxe7 Qxf3+ 24.Kg1 Rc5 Another nicely-timed move, as Carlsen's rook defends Black's only weakness on c7 and threatens ...Rc2 both defending and attacking at the same time. And in doing so, it is amazing how seemingly effortlessly Carlsen has maximised the activity of his rooks and queen to take full control of the board 25.Rd2 Essential, as ...Rc2 had to be stopped. 25...h6 This is an important chess lesson every player has to take note of - when you have an overwhelming position, you can't simply look for the quick killer blow, you first have to make a little safe-haven for your king to prevent your opponent salvaging a lost game. 26.Re1 Rf5 27.Re3 As Carlsen ratchets up the pressure, arguably So misses his best shot at salvation here with 27.Qe8+!? Kh7 28.Qxa4 Rfxd5 29.Rde2 Rf5 30.Qd1 h5 31.h4 where Black stands better and more coordinated, but it is difficult to see an immediate clear winning plan. 27...Rc1+ 28.Re1 Rxe1+ 29.Qxe1 Re5! So may have relieved a little pressure on his position by exchanging off a set of rooks, but now he has added pressure of having to defend d5 and his own vulnerable back-rank. 30.Qc1 b5! As So can't take on c7 due to the vulnerability of his back-rank, this is a deep move from Carlsen that's not fully appreciated until you see what the world champion has in mind. 31.h3 So has to be careful here, as after 31.h4 there comes 31...g5! 32.hxg5 hxg5 with the added threat of ...g4 and ...Rh4 forcing a mate on h1, forcing White into 33.Qb1 Kg7 34.Rd3 (Not 34.Rc2 Kf6! 35.Rxc7 Re2 36.Qf1 Rxb2 and Black has total control of the position.) 34...Qe4 35.Qd1 Kf6 and Black has successfully activated his king better for the ensuing endgame, and he will pick his moment to play ...Qe1+ forcing the exchange of queens and a winning rook ending. 31...Kf8 With So all tied down defending his vulnerable back-rank, now we begin to see the deepness reason we mentioned earlier behind Carlsen's 30...b5. His idea is to play ...Kd8 to defend c7 (and possibly ...Kc8 to give a little-added safety of flight square on b7 from any queen checks) and this will free up his rook from having to track back to defend with Re7. And if the queens do come off, he will also have at his disposal the added bonus of Kc8-b7-b6-c5 attacking d5. And faced with all of these mounting problems, it all takes its toll now as So cracks under the relentless pressure. 32.h4? The pressure was mounting, but So should have at least tried 32.Rd4!? g5 33.Rd1 to make Carlsen work hard for the win. And also note here that, because of 30...b5, White can't play here Rc4 targeting c7 that could well have saved the day. 32...Ke8 As mentioned in the earlier note with White playing h4, there's also the easy plan of 32...g5 opening up the possibility of a mate down the h-file that will force the exchange of queens and a winning rook ending for Black - but it seems Carlsen likes his own plan with his king taking the trek to d8-c8-b7 etc prolonging his opponent's agony. 33.Kh2 Kd8 34.Qh1 Qb3! With So's queen badly placed and out of the game, Carlsen is not in the least interested here in exchanging them off even for a big advantage in a rook ending. 35.Qg2 Superficially, at least So has stopped Carlsen's cunning plan of ...Kc8-b7, as he would have the life-saver of Qh3+ and Qd7!, but it comes at the cost of his queen now being out of the game and Carlsen having a domineering queen and rook. 35...Re1! After this, So now begins to run out of constructive moves he can make without further compromising his position. 36.Qh3 Qf3 37.Qg2 Qf5 Setting up a trap that So falls right into. 38.Qh3? So has a horribly bad position, but he should have tried his only hope here of grovelling on with 38.f3 g5 39.Qf2 Qb1 40.Kg2 but after 40...g4! threatening to open up the deadly e4-h1 diagonal, the end is going to come sooner rather than later 38...Rh1+ This wins the queen, and with it the game in what was a very intriguing, high-quality online tussle between the world's top two players. 0-1