Friday, November 30, 2007

2007 Board One All Stars

Greg Shahade and myself were the two judges who determined the players on the All Star Teams, with this season there being three All Star team members for each board rather than two like last year. Note that this process didn't work in exactly the same type of voting style as the Game of the Week selections, with both of us merely making our teams independently and then comparing our selections along with the reasons for them, and we then conferred to determine the final choices.

There is also a small bonus awarded to each All Star team member with those on the 1st team receiving $200, those on the 2nd team receiving $100, and those on the 3rd team getting $50. These are the criteria we used to determine the selections, in no particular order (also keep in mind that unlike the League MVP Award, the All Star Team considerations do include a player's playoff performance):

1. Win Percentage
2. Total Number of Games (with a five game minimum to be eligible)
3. Performance Rating
4. Rating; if a player is lower rated and does well, this leaves extra rating points for the team to use on the other boards and could be very important to a team's success.
5. Clutch Factor: Did this player come through in crucial situations?
6. Replacability Factor; do we think that the player's team would have greatly suffered if that player wasn't on the team?
7. Did the candidate take a draw for the team when they were likely to win? Did they lose a game they could have easily drawn because the team situation dictated it?
8. Head to Head results versus other candidates
9. Total Number of Blacks
10. Luck factor; did you win because you generally played well or because your opponent made some colossal blunders/oversights?


1st Team: GM Julio Becerra (MIA). This spot had to go to the 2006 and 2007 League MVP, Julio Becerra. Julio single handedly kept Miami in the running, and his fine play gave them a very improbable playoff berth. Julio was in some danger of losing this top spot after a lackluster postseason performance (one draw and one loss), however his competition didn’t perform quite well enough to strip him of this honor. He also played some very impressive games, with two definite Game of the Week caliber games against GM Alex Stripunsky and against IM Ron Burnett.

Record: 7 / 10 (70%)

Performance Rating: 2738

2nd Team: GM Joel Benjamin (NJ). It was a tight decision between the 2nd and 3rd All Star spots, but in the end it went to Joel, due to his impressive +3 performance and his penchant for winning when his team needed him most. Joel played a very tough schedule of opponents and maintained a performance rating above 2700. One of the main reasons he received this award was due to his clutch victories in Weeks 9 + 10 against GM Pawel Blehm and versus GM Pascal Charbonneau. While New Jersey just barely missed out on the playoffs, Joel surely did all that he could to make it happen and without his fine play it seemed very unlikely that New Jersey would have even been a factor.

Record: 6 / 9 (67%)

Performance Rating: 2734

3rd Team: GM Larry Christiansen (BOS). With a few playoff heroics, Larry had the chance to jump up to the 1st or 2nd team. However, he was only able to draw both his Semifinal and Final games and then came up short in the final tiebreak game against IM Boskovic (A win there, and he would have probably been on the 2nd Team while a win in the regulation match may well have been enough to propel him to the 1st Team). Larry faced a staggeringly tough field in 2007 with his opponents being: GM Hikaru Nakamura (twice), GM Joel Benjamin,
GM Pawel Blehm, GM Ildar Ibragimov, GM Sergey Kudrin, GM Gregory Serper, GM Alex Stripunsky, GM Patrick Wolff, and finally his first IM in the final match, IM Drasko Boskovic. This is the type of field that one would have expected to face in the US Championship back when it was closed to twelve players. Larry has to be given a ton of credit for going through the entire field without losing a single game and winning against two of them (Ibragimov and Wolff). His Game of the Week performance against GM Wolff was especially impressive.

Record: 6 / 10 (60%)

Performance Rating: 2719

Other Candidates: The two most notable omissions from the Board 1 All Star Team were
GM Sergey Kudrin (PHI) (6 / 10) and GM Gregory Serper (SEA) (5.5 / 9) . Both of these players had performance ratings of around 2675 along with similar records to Christiansen. While they obviously played well in 2007, the judges felt that the resume of the three above players was simply a bit better. Kudrin was hurt by only drawing his first round game to the much lower rated Marc Esserman, who was a late replacement for IM Blas Lugo, while Serper played in the West, where the competition on the top board was not quite as stiff. The simple fact was that Christiansen played a much tougher schedule overall than either of them (as evidenced by his much higher performance rating despite a nearly identical record). If either of these players had scored a half point more though, they likely would have made at least the 3rd team.

Stay tuned as in the next few days we will be announcing the All Stars for the other three boards!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Prediction Contest -- Final Standings

So Ron Young wins this year’s prediction contest, congrats to him. I suppose I can’t be too disappointed with a close second, but both Josh Gutman and I will be back next year to take another crack at it.

Final Standings:

Ron Young (+5 Playoffs): 96
Arun Sharma (+4): 89
Josh Gutman (+2): 69

NY over PHI 3.5 – 0.5

AS/RY: NY 2.5 – 1.5 +2

JG: Tie +0

MIA over SF 2.5 – 1.5

RY: Correct +3

AS: SF 2.5 – 1.5 +0

JG: SF 3 – 1 +0

BOS over NY 2.5 – 1.5

JG/AS/RY: Tie +0

DAL over MIA 3.5 – 0.5

JG: DAL 3 – 1 +2

AS: DAL 2.5 – 1.5 +2

RY: MIA 2.5 – 1.5 +0

DAL over BOS 2 – 2

JG/AS/RY: BOS 2.5 – 1.5 +0

Championship Game of the Week

This year for game of the week we have three judges, all ranking their top five games. For the postseason the judges will be ranking fewer games as there are less to choose from. The games are then given anywhere from one to five points, based on these rankings, and whichever game receives the most points wins the award. Also note that this year the winner each week will receive a $100 bonus prize. Our three judges are: IM Greg Shahade, NM Arun Sharma, and Jonathan Hilton. Click here for more details.


1st Place: SM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun (BOS) vs IM Davorin Kuljasevic (DAL) 1-0

Greg Shahade: I felt this was the best game of the night. It was exciting, with an interesting sacrifice in the opening by Kuljasevic. Throughout the game most fans, and the ChessFM commentators felt that Black had the edge and would win, but Jorge did a good job of defending. When he found 27. Qe4 with only 3 minutes on his clock, it was the real turning point of the game. Due to his low clock time many wondered during and after the game whether he saw the mating combination that would follow after 27... Bd5 28. Qxe5 Re7 29. Rxg7 Bxg7 30. Rxg7 Rxg7 31. Qe8# during the game or whether he just luckily stumbled into it. Personally I'd suspect that he saw it, as Jorge is known for his ability to calculate very quickly. The other regulation games had a few too many mistakes and the tiebreak games ... well, although some of them were interesting and dramatic, they were just blitz games after all. (1st place: 1 point)

Arun Sharma: Given that this week was the Finals part of me would really have preferred the Game of the Week victor to be from the winning team (or for one of them to at least share it). However, this game was so much better than any of the other choices that I felt it had to get the nod from me. A very exciting game exactly in the style Sammour-Hasbun has been dominating with all season; playing a somewhat shaky looking opening which seems to offer little chance for advantage but creates a very double edged position, the type where his tactical ability can shine through. After Kuljasevic's 16... Nxe5, the general consensus seemed to be that Kuljasevic had more than adequate compensation for the piece with Sammour-Hasbun's awkwardly placed pieces and open King. Unfortunately for him, as is often the case, it was just a matter of time before Sammour-Hasbun turned on the routine tactical magic which he did with 28. Qxe5!! managing to simplify the game into a fairly simple ending where his material edge shined through and enabled him to knock off the only player in the League who'd had an even better season than himself. Another impressive win from Sammour-Hasbun, though I'm sure he would have liked a team victory to go along with it. But with his 6.5 / 7 record this season, he really demonstrated himself to be a huge force in the League and hopefully he'll be back next season to put on more displays like this and perhaps help lead his team to the victory they are probably going to be craving even more next year. (1st place: 1 point)

Jonathan Hilton: I also considered Sammour-Hasbun – Kuljasevic. It was quite a wild game, but I just felt Black really lost the thread of the position as soon as the players started exchanging blows. a5 from Black a lot earlier (back before the piece sack, even!) would have helped; the piece sacrifice was entertaining, but not truly necessary, as White’s attack was not yet dangerous. (NR: 0 points)

Total Score of Sammour-Hasbun vs Kuljasevic: 2 points


Other Considered Games (judges' scores in parenthesis)

1 point (Jon 1): IM Jacek Stopa (DAL) vs SM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun (BOS) 1/2-1/2

Finals Recap

Although I wasn’t an in-person spectator for the USCL Finals this year, I doubt there were many out there who had the grit to sit through the entire six hour marathon that it wound up being so I figured I’d give you readers my impressions of the evening as a whole. I should note that I also wrote a prediction for what I thought might happen to occur during this match and for those who are bored enough, feel free to look through it and count the number of assumptions/predictions I made there which wound up being wrong as shown by the actual match, but be warned that that number might be higher than a lot of people can count.

Prior to the match beginning, while I knew it, like nearly all USCL matches, would be a very competitive match no matter what the final score wound up being, I was mostly just hoping this Finals could be even half as exciting as last year's in terms of the number of amazing number of twists and turns that really make the League all worthwhile. I’m quite pleased that my expectations wound up being more than fulfilled as this year’s Final may well have eclipsed last year’s in terms of the length of a book it would take to tell the whole story of it. While I’m not sure what was going through all the players’ minds during the whole ordeal, I will note that many of the spectators, including myself, who had the strength to sit through the marathon that it was found the whole match a very strenuous and draining experience, and if it had that effect on the spectators, I think you can imagine what the participants were going through.

Now while there could be plenty of analysis done about the games themselves, several more qualified and probably more inclined players will probably take on that task (FM Braden Bournival has already done so, and I would expect to see more in the upcoming days) so I’ll mostly focus on what us the general consensus of what was in us spectators’ minds while it was all going down in terms of our game impressions and what seemed to be the biggest turning points/most exciting moments. I should note that while the majority of ICC kibitzers (myself included) tend to be weaker than the League players, the weight of this match had many former and current other big guns in the League making an appearance for much of the match including: IM John Bartholomew, IM Vinay Bhat, IM Jay Bonin, IM Ron Burnett, IM Igor Foygel, IM Josh Friedel, IM Robert Hess, IM Irina Krush, GM Eugene Perelshteyn, IM David Pruess, GM Alejandro Ramirez, IM Bryan Smith, IM Eli Vovsha, IM Dmitry Zilberstein, and of course the Chess.FM coverage by IM John Donaldson and IM John Watson. I’m sure I forgot or didn’t notice some of the others so we had plenty of real analysis to go with our traditionally ridiculous opinions. Often times for those who don’t watch the match live, it can be confusing why certain things wound up transpiring the way they did (as John Donaldson logically pointed out on Chess.FM as to why Vinay Bhat didn’t take an easy draw as he could have in the Wildcard round against IM Blas Lugo) since the expected results of your teammates' games while you're playing can (and should) have a profound effect on what result you're aiming for in your game. Hopefully I can fill in some of those gaps for those of you who missed watching the Finals live.

The match in the early stages seemed to be trending the way many a match tends to in the USCL – drastically in one team’s favor, in this case Dallas. After a fairly early draw on Board One, each of the other boards seemed to be leaning towards them with Kuljasevic looked to simply have a better position despite the material deficit brought on by his sacrifice, Stopa after seeming to score a huge positional loss when he played 19. dxc4 had generated some great Kingside counter play which along with Shmelov’s miserable dark squared Bishop seemed to assure him of a better position, and Zorigt just looked to have a completely dominating position with an extra pawn and her super powerful d3 Knight.

Things just never seem to work out the way they start in the League though do they? In a twist very similar to last year’s where San Francisco seemed to be dominating their match early on only to have New York tenaciously fight back, Boston quickly soon made a similar comeback. Sammour-Hasbun, in a very tricky position, which had seemed worse for him for a long time pulled off his usual tactical wizardry, finding 28. Qxe5!! which liquidated the game into a fairly simple ending which he converted with little difficulty. Shmelov, at about the same time, who had been on the brink for the previous fifteen moves having a bad position and a very low clock shocked the crowd with the nice swindle 46... Rd8! (played instantly with under thirty seconds on his clock) where before it seemed he was on the verge of losing (the natural assumption as the general consensus including by those on Chess.FM was that Black had no choice but to allow White to trade off all the pieces on e7 which would bring about a trivially winning King and Pawn ending for White), and after this nice find the game did turn into a trivial ending, but this one just happened to be a draw and suddenly Boston had a 2 – 1 lead! So once again, just like last year, after everything seemed to be going Dallas’s way early on, suddenly they were in near dire straits in a must win situation on Board Four to even stay alive.

While the Board Four encounter had been going Zorigt’s way most of the middle game with Williams having a fairly uncomfortable position along with a pawn deficit, Williams really knuckled down and did a fairly impressive job of complicating matters playing some great defense and not allowing Zorigt many easy paths to victory. After Zorigt sacked the exchange what the correct evaluation of the position was seemed very unclear with Black having a powerful d-pawn, but White’s defenses seeming very tough to crack, and along with Black’s ill placed f6 Rook, it seemed it would be very hard for Black to gain the activity she’d need to garner the full point. However, time pressure can often cause strange things to occur, and just when it seemed that White had completely consolidated and might even have had the better position, in mutual time pressure, he finally slipped up after some great defense in allowing 48... Qb5! Even after that, it still didn’t look very easy for Black to win (if it was even winning at all), but perhaps flustered from his earlier mistake, White then committed a fatal one with 50. Rxf7? after which Black converted with little difficulty to send the match to the tiebreaker.

As I mentioned in my prediction, from a spectator’s point of view the blitz tiebreaker was obviously the most exciting way for the match to be decided, but many in the crowd voiced there general dissatisfaction towards this system from the players' perspective being used to decide the Championship due to the inherent random nature of it. While I agree it’s not the ideal way to do things, I definitely feel giving either team draw odds based on whatever factor isn’t a good idea and overtime systems for sporting events in general (whether you mean the NFL, NBA, or whatever) also have their many flaws and many vocal detractors to. The simple fact is that there just really is no perfect way to decide things when a match of any kind winds up tied at the end of regulation, and like most things everyone will have a different opinion about the best way to resolve it, and it's pretty much a matter of opinion as to what's best.

Boston got off to a quick start with Williams avenging his regulation match in fairly crushing fashion with Zorigt playing an inaccurate opening which Williams exploited with little trouble. The game between Stopa and Williams was quite a messy affair with Stopa seeming to be nurturing a small edge for most of the game until Williams uncorked the surprising 30... Nhf4?! While most people might not be a huge fan of trying something that appears so dangerous in a team event, I personally think you have to have a lot of respect for someone who’s willing to do so when the stakes are so high, and given Williams was out rated, had the Black pieces, and was doing this in a blitz game, it may well have been the best try (and I’m not just saying that because it happened to work out favorably). Williams soon found the incredible follow-up blow 36... Rf3!! which completely turned the tide into giving him a flat out winning position. However, once again strange things can happen in blitz chess as after some missed opportunities by Williams, Stopa really bore down and with some nice defense turned the game around again and managed to score the victory.

Shmelov stepped in for Williams, and we once again were treated to a struggle with some ridiculous turnarounds as Stopa seemed to get the best out of the opening with a Benko type position where he’d recovered the sacrificed pawn -- generally a sign that Black has the superior position. But then came the shocking 19... e5? (which I haven’t gotten confirmation was a mouse slip but the consensus seemed to be that it must have been) that turned the game completely upside down. Shmelov capitalized on this quite well just applying pressure to the weaknesses garnered by this, winning a pawn to get into what looked to be a fairly simple winning ending. Once again though, Stopa with the help of a crucial mistake, this time 39. Kf2?, managed to turn the game back around just as he had the last and soon had the better ending himself which he didn’t let slip from his grasp.

So then what most of the crowd had been waiting for came to fruition with Sammour-Hasbun stepping in for Shmelov. He didn’t disappoint expectations early on slowly but surely building up a better and better position. While Black seemed to be obviously better prior to losing his e-pawn, it still seemed anything but easy to really capitalize as nice as his pieces seemed to look. After the e-pawn fell the position seemed very unclear and like Sammour-Hasbun’s games often do, developed into something of a tactical melee where both sides missed some chances (it’s hard with ten seconds on your clock though even for a tactical wizard like Sammour-Hasbun) and again came down to an ending which rarely (at least compared to his two previous tiebreak games) Stopa had the better of. However, as Irina Krush wisely pointed out during the game "Stopa’s position isn’t bad enough where he can win" which turned out to be exactly right as Sammour-Hasbun managed to hold the balance.

I think it was at this moment that most of the crowd began to really realize that the Dallas team had a more than a minor shot to pull this match out as the mood prior to this as had been mentioned on many an occasion was "All of this is irrelevant, once Boston gets to Sammour-Hasbun and Christiansen they will tear Dallas up." But with one big gun out of the way suddenly the road to victory was much clearer: Just one blitz game victory against Christiansen. It sounds so easy doesn’t it? I doubt somehow that the Dallas team was thinking as such though as Christiansen hadn’t lost a game yet in the season (and once again not lost a single game in three seasons with the Black pieces) and like Sammour-Hasbun is known for his amazing blitz prowess.

The first encounter between Christiansen and Kuljasevic seemed to be a fairly up and down affair with both sides seemingly better at various stages which settled into a fairly peaceful draw. The second game was much trickier with Christiansen getting the better out of the opening with a menacing force aimed at Kuljasevic’s King and with the nice 26... Rxf3!, looked to be heading to victory. As usual though, it didn’t exactly turn out quite that simply with Kuljasevic finding the very dangerous looking 30. Rb4! after which suddenly Black is treading on thin ice even with his extra pawn. The game then (as every game tiebreak before had) went into a tough ending with Black having an extra pawn, but White having some nice pressure. I’m not really certain where the turning point in the ending really was, but Christiansen conducted the ending quite well and won cleanly.

Thus we wound up in almost the same situation as last year with Christiansen against Boskovic. Both teams down to their last player, in one corner a known amazing blitz player and in the other a player whose blitz prowess is much more in question. Despite the seeming inequity of the situation, the underdog prevailed last year and this year would be no different with the underdog pulling through for his team at the most important moment winning a game, which like every other tiebreak game, contained a tricky ending and with a very rare mistake from Christiansen, Boskovic brought the win and title of USCL Champions to the Dallas Destiny!

So in a nutshell that’s what this evening seemed to contain (though a rather large shell based on how long I think I’ve been writing this). Hearty congrats should go out to both teams, they both played great seasons and a great Final, and it’s almost a shame that not both of them could be the Champions as both of them certainly did play like ones all season. But additional kudos to the Dallas Destiny for appearing to defy the odds on more than one occasion in this match to score a well deserved Championship. I’ll now close with some of my personal thoughts on the Finals match and this season in general.

One thing that seemed to be a common misconception (at least in my opinion) amongst the kibitzers about the blitz tiebreaker was that the lower boards would really play no role in determining the Champion at that stage. While of course the last played game is very unlikely to be decided with any of the lower boards directly participating, I think the way the tiebreaker went down in this situation was evidence of just how important all of the games in the tiebreaker really are and that the lower boards can really play an enormous role in the final outcome. With no one debating the blitz prowess of Sammour-Hasbun and Christiansen, the simple fact is anything can really happen in a blitz game, and the more cracks you get at a person, obviously the more chances you have to pull off that one upset, and I think that’s precisely what happened here. With Stopa knocking out both the lower boards of Boston and giving them the three versus two edge, I think at that stage it should be clear how much Dallas’s chances overall had improved. Also, while I, like most of the audience, suspected Sammour-Hasbun might run through the entire Dallas team, the expectations on him were probably a bit unfair. Obviously, as amazing a blitz player as Sammour-Hasbun is, Stopa has shown on more than one occasion how strong a player he is in the League especially when he has the White pieces and for Sammour-Hasbun to be thrust into a situation like that, having the Black pieces against such a strong player, where the fans were going to view even a draw as a failure by him is really not a reasonable burden to put on anyone. Also, the simple fact is Christiansen ended up having to play three blitz games while it was Boskovic’s first (once again due to the way things had transpired on the lower boards), and it seems very likely that the fatigue caused by both that and the time that the match ended (2:00 am!) was a factor in causing the fatal error of the last game which decided the Championship.

Overall, I’m very pleased the way this season of the League turned out, and just like last year this Finals match, which I’m sure none of us will soon forget, was a great way to top it off. Just as Greg Shahade predicted at the end of last season, the League was better in basically every way this year, and I can only hope that we can pull off a similar feat next year.

I want to end by thanking everyone who took the time to play in or follow the League this year. Obviously each one of you is a big part of why the League has been able to progress to where it's at now, and when I see how excited people get because of it (as I saw on more than a few occasions yesterday and many a time throughout the season), that’s really what makes all of the work we put in to make it happen worthwhile. I hope you all keep up with the League during the off season (especially with the Game of the Year Contest and don’t forget to nominate your Wildcard games there!, along with the announcement of the two expansion teams), and I’ll see you all next August for the 2008 Season!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Finals Prediction

So Greg Shahade has gotten on my case for being lazy and not doing in-depth predictions for the first two playoff rounds. While my initial instinct, as always, was to just threaten to quit if he didn't get off my back, if I were to do so at this stage I might not get paid for this season and given I’ve put in at least twice as many hours of work as him this season (the guy who calls himself the commissioner hah!) that really would be a tragedy so I suppose I’ll oblige for the finals (even though at this point it's impossible for me to win the prediction contest).

We have the Boston Blitz taking on the Dallas Destiny. Aside from the fact that one of these teams is from the East the other from the West, these teams really could not be different in their makeup. Boston uses underrated players on the bottom two boards to stack the top two boards having virtually two players at the rating cap while Dallas is one of only three teams in the league without a GM, instead relying on the ability to use a 2400+ on Board Three. Also, as has been stated, Boston is almost certainly the most vocal team on the league with their numerous blog sites and video displays while Dallas is likely among the most reserved with almost none of those intangibles. In addition, Boston has been one of the favored teams from the league's inception (and especially favored this season) with their top heavy lineups, and they showed why last season with their 8 – 2 regular season along with repeating as division winners this year. Dallas on the other hand is the reverse to a large degree as they struggled mightily in their first season along with doing so at the beginning of last season before finally hitting their groove (and two players I think largely responsible for that turn around will be competing in the upcoming Finals, Kuljasevic and Stopa). I don’t think most people counted Dallas amongst the favorites this year though (likely since they don’t have any of the “big names” on their lineups like most other teams).

So we have two very different teams who will end up battling, and it seems the general consensus is advantage Boston, but as has been pointed out, the historical makeup of the last two league winners, Baltimore and San Francisco does seem to bode well for Dallas if history is any indicator and as always I would never be quick to jump to any conclusions. Let’s take a look at each board.

Board 1: IM Drasko Boskovic vs GM Larry Christiansen. Boskovic just knocked off league MVP Becerra in dramatic fashion and along with his very nice early season win against Stripunsky, it’s obvious he’s not a player to be underestimated. His results when he’s had White haven’t been quite as impressive (perhaps part of the reason why Boston chose Black for this match), and interestingly Christiansen hasn’t lost a single game with the Black pieces in all three seasons of the league! In addition, Christiansen hasn’t lost any games this season in nine tries despite facing some ridiculously tough competition (by far the hardest competition anyone in the league has faced this year I think, with his best games probably coming against Ibragimov and versus Wolff). I think I have to give him a slight advantage based on those facts. (Slight Edge BOS)

Board 2: SM Jorge Sammour-Hasbun vs IM Davorin Kuljasevic. As has been mentioned, these two are both having ridiculously strong seasons and will be playing for more than simply being USCL Champions (Board Two All Star, Highest Performance Rating, and a myriad of other things). Although having virtually the same record, stylistically they seem to be very different with Sammour getting into exciting tactical slugfests (like his last week’s Semifinal win against Charbonneau) with Kuljasevic’s victories for the most part seeming to stem from grinding his opponents down in a fairly methodical way (with the notable exception of his impressive win over Tangborn which perhaps should have won Game of the Week). What will happen when the styles of these two players collide? I really am not sure, but I’ll give the advantage to the one with the White pieces. (Slight Edge BOS)

Board 3: IM Jacek Stopa vs NM Denys Shmelov. This board, as mentioned, has been Dallas’s trump this season, and they will almost certainly need a good result here if they want to win this match. Stopa, a Board Two All Star last season, is obviously not a person any Board Three can enjoy sitting down against especially with the Black pieces. Although he hasn’t been quite as active this year as last, he’s still played some impressive games (the best of which I would venture to be his Week 1 win over Bereolos). He’s also probably not the easiest of opponents to prepare for as he’s showcased all of the opening moves 1. e4, 1. d4, 1. Nc3, and 1. Nf3 in his USCL repertoire. Shmelov, the most active player in the league this season, definitely has been no slouch either with his +3 score and definitely seems like someone who will be far from easy to beat with his ultra solid style. He’s also played some great games this year and though I’m not sure which was best, his brutally efficient (albeit somewhat short) victory against Yeager definitely springs to mind. Overall though, given how strong Stopa has seemed to be with the White pieces in his two seasons, I have to give him an advantage. (Edge DAL)

Board 4: NM Chris Williams vs WFM Bayaraa Zorigt. Williams sporting a 6 – 2 record this season is obviously quite a force to be reckoned with on Board Four (especially with White). His strength seems to be his great ability to often tactically outplay his opponents in tricky middlegame positions. His openings have looked a bit shaky at times, but I assume given what is at stake this match, he’ll take great care not to allow that to happen this week. I think his best game of the year likely was his win against Wilson really demolishing a player who’s definitely been amongst the best Board Fours in the league all three seasons. Zorigt seems like a trickier player to nail down as her league games have seemed very up and down. She seems to play well from behind (as witnessed by her first week’s nice save against Wheeler), but she’s also had some shaky moments committing some big oversights to cost herself winning positions. Overall, Williams has just looked too strong on the whole this season and while if Zorigt can really play her best game she has a good shot to score, but Williams has to have the edge here. (Edge BOS)

Over the board, I do agree with most that Boston has the edge (especially considering that if you go by the players’ August ratings, Boston’s team averages 2469 while Dallas is much lower at 2413). Naturally, it never comes down to just that simple fact when dealing with the USCL, but one other thing, which isn’t a factor in other league matches, can also come into play here: the blitz tiebreaker. While this, just like the overall match, can never be a certain result (I don’t think anyone will soon forget the epic battle which ended last season where I venture most would have thought New York had a big edge there due to Charbonneau’s blitz prowess). However, Boston really has two big guns in that regard as both Christiansen and Sammour-Hasbun are known to be phenomenal speed players, and I just don’t know if anyone on the Dallas roster can really match up with them in that category. While from a spectator’s point of view, I really wouldn’t mind seeing the match being decided in that fashion again, something inside me tells me it won’t happen this year. I think Boston wins 2.5 – 1.5.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Semifinals Game of the Week

This year for game of the week we have three judges, all ranking their top five games. The games are then given anywhere from one to five points, based on these rankings, and whichever game receives the most points wins the award. Also note that this year the winner each week will receive a $100 bonus prize. Our three judges are: IM Greg Shahade, NM Arun Sharma, and Jonathan Hilton. Click here for more details.


1st Place: GM Julio Becerra (MIA) vs IM Drasko Boskovic (DAL) 0-1

Greg Shahade: This was a no brainer. An exciting and action packed game in which the League MVP loses for the first time since last season. On top of it all it seemed relatively well played, given the circumstances (time trouble issues, the complexity of the position, and so forth). I am not even going to venture to think about what was going on in Mr. Sharma's head, when he decided to rank this game in 2nd place. Maybe he was bitter over Boskovic eschewing a chance at the first legitimate under-promotion in league history? (1st place: 2 points)

Jonathan Hilton: I’m predicting that all three judges will pick this as Game of the Week, hands down. League MVP Julio Becerra goes down in a spectacular struggle after Boskovic sacrificed an exchange for strong compensation. I have to say I was very impressed with White’s position after move 29, and I felt he was going to create strong threats on the queenside. It is possible that by taking the exchange with the c4-c5 push he cashed in his chips too early, but it was hard to find any other way to proceed! If White takes too much time preparing the push by defending d5 first, Black’s pawns will start rolling.

After Becerra took the exchange, the game was an absolute slugfest. My gut feeling was that White might be able to hold on, but it is hard to say exactly where things went wrong. White fought very hard to promote his own c-pawn and wound up letting up his guard on Black’s two passers, so an alternative approach trying to blockade Black’s pawns might have been better. However, by that point in time, Becerra surely knew that he needed to win at all costs to try to pull his team even with Dallas. Congratulations to IM Boskovic!
(1st place: 2 points)

Arun Sharma: Without a doubt the most exciting game of the Semifinals with it seemingly taking so many turns in to who seemed to be winning along with containing so many interesting tactical moments. I would have ranked this game first without question but for the facts that it ended somewhat anticlimactically with the overall match result having been decided long before this game ended, and it also seemed unlikely to me that Becerra would have lost the game had he not seemingly gone all out to win it earlier, probably due to the match situation. In reference to Mr. Shahade's comment about me not ranking this game first, I should note that a certain Game of the Week judge has gone on record making statements like "I've made terrible picks in at least half the weeks in this contest" along with "Who cares about quality just worry about fun sacrifices", and I'll give you readers a hint -- that judge wasn't me! (2nd place: 1 point)

Total Score of Becerra vs Boskovic: 5 points


2nd Place: IM Davorin Kuljasevic (DAL) vs IM Blas Lugo (MIA) 1-0

Arun Sharma: Although it doesn't greatly surprise me that this game didn't end up winning since it wasn't the most exciting of affairs, I'm quite surprised that neither of the other two judges ended up ranking it. Since we have a rather limited selection of games each playoff week, the fact that this was really the only game which I felt was really a very clean game, very well played by Kuljasevic who just won nicely and conducted the endgame flawlessly makes me think it definitely deserved more consideration then it ended up getting. The fact that it was really the only game which seemed without any major errors and that it was the win that clinched the match for the Destiny compelled me to give this game the top ranking. (1st Place: 2 points)

Greg Shahade: Quite honestly, I felt that it was so obvious that Boskovic's game was going to win, that I didn't really worry much about which game I'd rank 2nd . I agree with Arun that Kuljasevic's game was very well played by the White pieces, but whatever, Boskovic's game clearly deserved the award. This isn't to say he played better, but it was surely a much more entertaining game and still well played. (NR: 0 points)

Jonathan Hilton: Not Ranked
(NR: 0 points)

Total Score of Kuljasevic vs Lugo: 2 points


Other Considered Games (judges' scores in parenthesis)

1 point (Greg 1): NM Francisco Guadalupe II (DAL) vs Luis Barredo (MIA) 1-0

1 point (Jon 1):
IM Jay Bonin (NY) vs NM Denys Shmelov (BOS) 1-0

Monday, November 19, 2007

Game of the Year Contest

As this season of the League is nearing its conclusion, it's not too early to start thinking about the off-season activities that will take place, the most important of which will definitely be the Game of the Year Contest. The scoring for this contest will work very similarly to last year's contest with some important changes as well:

(1) There will be five brand new judges for Game of the Year (i.e. none of the three Game of the Week judges Jonathan Hilton, Greg Shahade, or myself will be voters) to ensure all of the judges will have a fresh and unbiased view towards each game in the contest.

(2) The prizes for this contest will be much better than last year's with the top five games receiving prizes (as compared to the top three last year) and there will also be $2000 in prizes this season with $1000 going to the top game.

and most importantly (at least from the perspective of my main motivation for writing this article)

(3) Instead of there being only the thirteen Game of the Weeks in this contest, there will be also be seven additional "Wildcard" games chosen by the three Game of the Week judges to be in the contest with each of us picking two of them and then conferring on the last one.

In reference to (3), I know there have been several weeks where many people have disagreed with our selection for Game of the Week. So all of you who think some game really deserved more credit than it happened to actually receive, let us know here! Please post in the comments section any and all opinions you might have about what game (s) you think should definitely be Wildcards in this contest. The selections for these Wildcard games will begin soon so if you want to nominate any game, now is the time to do so!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Semifinal Predictions

Even though my chance of winning this prediction contest is virtually nil at this point, Greg Shahade insists that there are some out there who might care what I think will happen so here's my guess.

Boston ties New York 2 2 (Boston advances)

Dallas over Miami 2.5 1.5

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dallas Rating Exception

The Dallas vs Miami match was moved at Miami's request and with Dallas's permission because GM Julio Becerra and IM Blas Lugo are competing in the SPICE International Tournament at Texas Tech University during the originally scheduled Semifinal date. Due to the change of date the player Dallas had planned to use on Board 4, WFM Bayaraa Zorigt, became unavailable to play on the new date, not allowing Dallas to use the lineup they had hoped to use for this match, at no fault of their own.

In consideration for the fact that Dallas was willing to move the date of the match, Miami allowed them to replace Zorigt with Guadalupe, who is only 20 points higher rated than Zorigt. This lineup is illegal under the normal rules though so we wanted to make sure that everyone understood why it was allowed in this special circumstance. Thanks to both teams for their flexibility, and we look forward to an exciting match!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Wildcard Game of the Week

This year for game of the week we have three judges, all ranking their top five games. The games are then given anywhere from one to five points, based on these rankings, and whichever game receives the most points wins the award. Also note that this year the winner each week will receive a $100 bonus prize. Our three judges are: IM Greg Shahade, NM Arun Sharma, and Jonathan Hilton. Click here for more details.


1st Place: FM Marcel Martinez (MIA) vs IM Dmitry Zilberstein (SF) 1-0

Arun Sharma: Even if the most surprising moves in this game were a result of home preparation, that really doesn't diminish how beautiful a game this was . It's quite rare to see moves as exquisite as 22. Bh6!! in the league and along with the efficient 36. Nc5! to end the game, this was clearly the best game of the week to me. The second huge win from Martinez in succession to lead the surprising Sharks into the Semifinals. Whether they can continue with this shocking run could well be determined by whether Martinez can put forth more performances like this. (1st place: 2 points)

Greg Shahade: A fantastic effort from Martinez. The opening phase of the game was brilliant and was possibly the best job of opening preparation in the history of the USCL. 22. Bh6! was an incredible and beautiful novelty that gave Zilberstein almost no fighting chances right from the start. On top of everything the entire game contained many short and sweet tactical blows. Martinez had a rocky early season, but he is really stepping it up lately. (1st place: 2 points)

Jonathan Hilton: A very nice piece of home preparation! This variation of the Ruy Lopez, in which Black sacrifices the pawn on b5, has been quite popular at high levels lately, and Martinez was well-researched going into this game. The tactics to conclude the game, such as 29. Bxg7+ and 36. Nc5, give this game a touch of class. (2nd place: 1 point)

Total Score of Martinez vs Zilberstein: 5 points


2nd Place: IM Irina Krush (NY) vs IM Bryan Smith (PHI) 1-0

Jonathan Hilton: I really do think this was the most impressive victory this week – Krush outplayed her opponent in all three stages of the game. I particularly liked the way she activated her Rook in the middlegame with Rg1-g6-e6 and also thought she displayed impressive technique in transforming her advantage to a winning endgame. The 3.5 - 0.5 win of New York is truly astounding! (1st Place: 2 points)

Arun Sharma: This was just a very smooth performance from Krush, winning in the style she often displays in the league; not with super flashy moves, just good, crisp technique via building slowly but surely on a small opening advantage and eventually forcing her opponent to succumb. (2nd place: 1 point)

Greg Shahade: While Krush played well, it seemed that her technique at the end wasn't perfect (it seemed as if she missed a few easier wins with moves like Bc6 when all of Black's pieces were tied up) whereas when Zenyuk got her winning position she won quite handily, so because of that I didn't rank this game.
(NR: 0 points)

Total Score of Krush vs Smith: 3 points


Other Considered Games (judges' scores in parenthesis)

1 point (Greg 1): WFM Iryna Zenyuk (NY) vs NM Elvin Wilson (PHI) 1-0

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Wildcard Predictions

Despite the percentages I gave for what I believed to be each team's chances to advance, I'm not necessarily going to stick with those for the prediction contest as I didn't know the lineups for the teams when writing that plus sometimes it's fun to cheer on a team you believe to be an underdog. Also, given my deficit in the contest at this point some controversial picks might not hurt if I want to maintain any shot at winning. Here's my guess for how the Wildcard Round will go.

New York over Philadelphia 2.5 1.5

San Francisco over Miami 2.5 1.5

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Playoff Preview

So as this new chapter of this season of the USCL is about to get underway (ie the playoffs), it’s once again time for me to try to give everyone some insight into what I think might take place. Despite the fact that more than a few of my previous predictions have been ridiculed by some (even by myself, as evidenced by my need to apologize to a team for one such terrible prediction), I feel the need to point out the fair accuracy of my preseason predictions (having five of six playoff teams correct and in the West where I had the finishing order of the teams nearly exactly correct). So it may be that I actually do have some idea of what might happen (or I could just be a lucky idiot) and thus here goes.


Wildcard: Philadelphia vs New York

This is a tricky matchup. In one sense, everything seems to favor Philadelphia as they had the better regular season record, swept the season series between these two teams, and have draw odds in the upcoming match. But of course things are just never that simple in the USCL as more than one time teams have overcome similar such seeming inequities (Miami’s upset of San Francisco in the 2005 Semifinals, and New York’s upset of Boston in the 2006 Semifinals just to name a couple). Based on pure statistics (ie ratings) New York is unquestionably the stronger team though, and the Knights really have momentum on their side as they seemed to be incredible long shots to even make the postseason but ended on a 4 – 1 run to make it. GM Hikaru Nakamura has been tearing up Europe the past few weeks which has caused him to miss the last two weeks of the regular season, but fortunately his team was able to qualify without him, and now I'm sure they hope he is back from Europe and ready to play. As for lineups, I would definitely expect New York to use Nakamura on Board 1 (if he's available) and Zenyuk on Board 4 with Boards 2 and 3 being a bit more unclear as I could see them using any of these combinations: Charbonneau + Bonin, Krush + Hess, or Krush + Bonin while Philadelphia I’m almost sure will use Kudrin + Smith + Costigan with the only uncertainty whether they use Wilson or Yeager on 4. Whichever choices the teams make in this regard, I think Philadelphia clearly has to have an edge based on their sweeping the season series plus the draw odds. I’m not willing to make it a very large one based on New York’s resilience and current momentum though. Philadelphia advances 55%.

Semifinals: Boston vs Philadelphia/New York

Boston seems like a team which is a bit easier to nail down as to what lineup they might happen to use based on the amount each player has played in the regular season. I would definitely expect to see Christiansen on 1, Shmelov on 3, and Williams on 4 with the only main question being whether Perelshteyn or Sammour-Hasbun ends up manning 2. Whichever choice they make there though if they are up against Philadelphia I definitely like their chances as they seem to match up well against Philadelphia’s lineups (as evidenced by their sweeping the season series) whereas against New York it seems very close to even on all boards. Boston does have draw odds on their side though whichever team they happen to play so my guess would be: Boston advances against Philadelphia 70%, and Boston advances against New York 60%.

So based on those estimations, each team’s chances to make the finals from the East are about:

Boston: 65%

New York: 18%

Philadelphia: 17%


Wildcard: Miami vs San Francisco

Unlike the Wildcard in the other Division, in this one, the winner of the season series was the lower ranked team as Miami won the only regular season meeting between these two. This match I’m sure will have several of the Mechanics players thinking back to the tough defeat they suffered in this same situation back in the 2005 Semifinals as there are more than a few players still on both teams who took part in that battle. As for lineups, for Miami I’m fairly certain they will use Becerra on 1 and Barredo on 4, but 2 and 3 are a little unclear as I could see them using any combination of Lugo, Martinez, Moreno Roman, and Espino. San Francisco is equally unclear as other than them using Bhat on 2, to me nothing else is really certain as I could see Wolff or Friedel manning 1, Zilberstein, Pruess, or Donaldson manning 3, and Naroditsky or Young manning 4. Whatever happens though, I think Miami will have a definite edge on 1 (Becerra with White) while I prefer the Mechanics on 2 and 3 with 4 being close. With draw odds, San Francisco advances 67% here.

Semifinals: Dallas vs San Francisco/Miami

If Dallas has any weakness it may be that their lineup for this match might be a bit easier to guess than their opponents’ as I would be rather surprised if they didn’t show up bearing Boskovic + Kuljasevic + Stopa + Zorigt. Although Bartholomew is certainly capable of filling one of the top two spots if needed, given Boskovic handled the top board nine times out of ten in the regular season and that Kuljasevic is really the unsung hero of the Dallas team this season with his 5.5/6 record, this lineup seems
by far the most likely. Should the Destiny take on the Sharks, I forsee a matchup very similar to Miami’s in the Wildcard, one where the Sharks are favored on 1 but underdogs on 2 and 3 with 4 being unclear. On the other hand, should the Destiny take on the Mechanics, like the other potential Semifinal (Boston vs New York), it seems likely to be a match where neither side has much of an edge anywhere, but I must take note that in that near exact situation in the regular season finale, the Mechanics triumphed. However, having draw odds from the start is a far different situation psychologically and based on all the factors I think Dallas advances against Miami 67%, and Dallas advances against San Francisco 58%.

So each teams’ approximate chances to be in the Finals from the West are:

Dallas: 61%

San Francisco: 28%

Miami: 11%


Now of course it’s rather difficult for me to make any predictions about what might happen here (given that I, you know, don’t even know which teams will be playing in the Finals) so I’ll just leave you with some estimations of what I think each team’s chances of winning the League at this point are.

Boston: 34%

Dallas: 28%

San Francisco: 16%

New York: 11%

Philadelphia: 7%

Miami: 4%

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Prediction Results -- Week 10

A reasonable week for all of us I suppose, but unfortunately with only five matches remaining in the season, my chances to catch Ron Young were dealt a fairly serious blow, and it will take some superb playoff predictions from me (or some superbly bad ones from him) to level the score. Here’s the way it looks.

Total after Regular Season:

Ron Young (+11 This Week): 91
Arun Sharma (+9): 85
Josh Gutman (+6): 67

BOS over PHI 2.5 – 1.5

AS/RY: Correct +3

JG: BOS 3 – 1 +2

QNS over BAL 3 – 1

JG/RY: QNS 2.5 – 1.5 +2

AS: Tie +0

NY over NJ 2.5 – 1.5

AS: Correct +3

RY: NJ 2.5 – 1.5 +0

JG: NJ 3 – 1 +0

CAR over TN 2.5 – 1.5

JG: Tie +0

AS/RY: TN 3 – 1 +0

SF over DAL 2.5 – 1.5

AS/RY: Correct +3

JG: SF 3 – 1 +2

MIA over SEA 2.5 – 1.5

RY: Correct +3

JG/AS: SEA 2.5 – 1.5 +0

Week 10 Game of the Week

This year for game of the week we have three judges, all ranking their top five games. The games are then given anywhere from one to five points, based on these rankings, and whichever game receives the most points wins the award. Also note that this year the winner each week will receive a $100 bonus prize. Our three judges are: IM Greg Shahade, NM Arun Sharma, and Jonathan Hilton. Click here for more details.


1st Place: IM Jay Bonin (NY) vs NM Mackenzie Molner (NJ) 1-0

Arun Sharma: Once again how quickly fortunes can change in the Game of the Week arena as Molner went to being the victory last week to the victim this week! I really feel when considering all the circumstances (ie the enormous playoff implications) that this is the best choice for Game of the Week as Bonin played a very good game topped off with quite a surprising piece sacrifice which he expertly executed to force near immediate resignation. A gigantic win from Bonin to propel New York into the playoffs, and after a tough 2006 season he has come up huge for the Knights on several occasions in 2007 and may well be called upon to do the same in the playoffs. (1st place: 5 points)

Jonathan Hilton: Bonin's best game of the year, and nearly a miniature at that! 18. Nxf7! was a hammer-blow. I love Bonin's unique approach to the opening and his creative exploitation of Molner's gambit� of the b5 pawn as Bonin managed to take Molner out of his usual Benko Gambit territory, something that does not come easily, because Molner's Benko Gambit is so well-prepared. (2nd place: 4 points)

Greg Shahade: I'm happy that this game won. Jay has been a great supporter of the Knights and it's only fitting that he should win a game to send New York to the playoffs. Most of all I'm happy that this game won despite my poor judging job as I really regret the pick I made for first place. I won't be too hard on myself however, as we have to judge 24 games within 24 hours, and we all try our best! (3rd place: 3 points)

Total Score of Bonin vs Molner: 12 points

Bonin - Molner

Jay went for the glory here with 18. Nxf7!! Rxf7 19. Nxd6 Rf8 20. Rb8, leading to a devastating bind that Molner was unable to escape from.


2nd Place: IM Dmitry Zilberstein (SF) vs IM John Bartholomew (DAL) 1-0

Jonathan Hilton: Of the games critical to match results, this is absolutely the best one of the week, and there is no comparison. Zilberstein's attack was creative, clean, and timely, helping San Francisco prove they have what it takes to defeat Dallas in the playoffs. The Queen maneuver which began on move sixteen Qe2-e4-g4 was cleverly conceived, and 30. Nd6! effectively ended the game. (1st Place: 5 points)

Arun Sharma: Just a very dominating win from Zilberstein unleashing a brutal attack against Bartholomew's King and finishing the game off nicely with some cute tactics like 34. Qxc4! and 45. Qxb8! A great performance from Zilberstein to cement the Mechanics having draw odds in the Wildcard and sending a message to the Destiny that they will need to be on their toes in the Semifinals even though they have draw odds. (2nd place: 4 points)

Greg Shahade:
Despite looking at this game a few times it just didn't stand out to me. I agree that Dmitry played well, but what can I say, it just didn't strike me. And as a judge, if a game doesn't jump out at me somehow, I probably shouldn't give it Game of the Week. (NR: 0 points)

Total Score of Zilberstein vs Bartholomew: 9 points


3rd Place: GM Patrick Wolff (SF) vs IM Drasko Boskovic (DAL) 1-0

Greg Shahade: Bad selection by me. I had already locked this game in, and I wanted to change my mind and lower it to 3rd or even 4th place. At first I thought it was a textbook example of how to handle the Sheveginanaingan defense but after reexamining the game I felt like taking with the knight on d5 instead of the Queen gave Black quite good defensive chances. Also the game wasn't really that exciting. I only gave it the first place ranking because I thought that it was very well played by White and because I have a lot of personal history in these types of openings. I still think that White played well but not enough to warrant my placing. Fortunately Hilton and Sharma bailed me out and gave the prize to a more deserving game. I do think that Bryan Smith played a very nice and clear game which should have been ranked higher though. (1st place: 5 points)

Jonathan Hilton: The only game I considered to be a threat to Zilberstein vs Bartholomew featured a stunning premature resignation from Boskovic. 33... Rg6!, in the final position, might have allowed Black to escape. After 34. Qxg6, 34. hxg6 35. Bxe6 exf4 36. Bxf7, White is somewhat better, but Black has some defensive resources at his disposal. Otherwise, quite a fantastic game, and an exciting struggle at that! (3rd place: 3 points)

Arun Sharma: While I really liked Wolff's creative play in this game, the reason I didn't end up ranking this game was mainly that I wasn't completely convinced that his ideas were truly sound as it seemed like Boskovic had some better chances to defend like 24... Nxd5 and as Jonathan pointed out, 33... Rg6. I could well be wrong in that assessment as I, like Greg, do not use a computer to analyze the games, and my amateurish impressions obviously can't compete with either of the two players actually playing the game, but that was the feel I got so I left this game on the sidelines. (NR: 0 points)

Total Score of Wolff vs Boskovic: 8 points


Other Considered Games (judges' scores in parenthesis)

5 points (Greg 4, Arun 1): IM Bryan Smith (PHI) vs GM Eugene Perelshteyn (BOS) 1-0

4 points (Jon 2, Greg 2):
IM Davorin Kuljasevic (DAL) vs IM Vinay Bhat (SF) 1-0

3 points (Arun 3):
FM Loren Schmidt (SEA) vs FM Marcel Martinez (MIA) 0-1

2 points (Arun 2):
IM Mikhail Zlotnikov (NJ) vs IM Irina Krush (NY) 0-1

1 point (Jon 1):
Luis Barredo (MIA) vs NM Michael Lee (SEA) 1-0

1 point (Greg 1):
NM Parker Zhao (QNS) vs WGM Katerina Rohonyan (BAL) 1-0