Thursday, August 21, 2008
2008 Season Predictions Part 1 -- Eastern Division
With the fourth season of the USCL sneaking up on us, it's time once again for you readers to be subjected to another strong dosage of my incoherent babble. Traditionally, this whole process begins with me making preseason predictions and since that has worked so well in the past (or has it?), there seems to be little reason not to follow that same trend this year. As has been the case the last few seasons, it seems very clear that this coming season should be the best one yet given the huge increase of top players competing along with the two additional teams. Last year we were treated to new displays like a double GM vs. double GM match, and I would only guess that such things will be amplified further this season along with several new things like perhaps one team using a lineup of four IMs (read further to see what I mean!). To try to decipher what teams have the small advantages this year to help them overcome the general parity of the league and rise to the top, I will again use the same general system I used last year (East and West predictions from 2007) to try to rank them. However, as more and more seasons of the league are completed, certain trends become apparent which naturally forces me to somewhat reexamine the exact way I evaluate the teams, and here is how I will do it in 2008.
Strength / Flexibility: Last year I had each of these aspects as an individual category, but I feel it's appropriate to combine them this year. In terms of strength, since all teams are capable of submitting rosters near the rating cap, to me this has always been more a question of being able to be able to do that while also being able to "stack" a particular board. This sort of goes hand in hand with flexibility as the ability to do that naturally hinges on having many possible lineups which are near the rating cap. The larger issue of general flexibility to me lies in being able to use a near maximal lineup even in the absence of any one of your players since as the league grows stronger and stronger, invariably more of the strongest players will have to be away for other chess obligations. On the other hand, history somewhat suggests that that advantage may become somewhat unimportant in the later portions of the season as the majority of the more successful teams seem to settle into one or two specific lineups in the later matches, probably based mostly on what has carried them to their success in the early part of the season. This might perhaps render such lineup flexibility to be somewhat irrelevant at those later stages, but as the league players become more and more familiar with one another as more matches are played, another issue in being flexible may well lie in being able in an appropriate situation to switch between players of similar strength when you feel one is a better matchup against the player you expect the opposing team to use in the same spot.
Underrated Players: This may well be the most important factor. Simply put, due to the rating parity of the league, having players who for whatever reason are clearly stronger than their "league rating" is an obvious advantage. The three most natural ways this occurs is with players above 2590 who count only as 2590 when determining lineup legality, female players who count as forty points lower, and most importantly young players who have the greatest ability to capitalize on this edge with their current strength often being a hundred or even more points higher than their league rating.
Dedication: Again, teams who put extra preparation to their matches are naturally likely to have a distinct advantage. I know some would likely be skeptical of how important this might be, but I feel the near Game of the Year Winner, Martinez vs Zilberstein, from last year's Wildcard Round clearly demonstrates how much home preparation can really pay off. In addition, I think team unity is another aspect of this general concept which is also quite important. Once again, I know some would disagree with that since even though the USCL is at heart a team event, when it comes time to play the matches, the players play individually at that point. But once again, based on history, teams which display such unity just generally have seemed to perform better. I'm not sure if that's merely psychological or the more natural assumption that teams with more unity are far more likely to prepare together, but it's clear to me that it's a factor to be considered.
Other Factors: Now that the league has at least a semi-reasonable amount of history to look back on, many teams and individual players have definitely developed some unique advantages. These of course vary greatly amongst the teams (as will be noted when I discus them), but certainly in a league which is so uniform any small edge can be a huge boost. One general factor I included in this last season was "schedule strength", something that seems quite debatable as to its importance as with all teams now being able to have lineups of near optimal rating, in most senses no team's schedule should be much easier than another's. So while I might mention that factor on occasion, I will never view it as more than a very slight advantage.
So once again, I will assign each team a score from one to ten in the four above categories and use that to rank the teams in each division and project their record. Remember also that when I list a team's strongest lineups, that will only be players from their main roster as since alternates cannot play in the post-season, their role is pretty limited overall.
1st Place: Boston Blitz
1st / 2nd: Two of Christiansen / Perelshteyn / Sammour-Hasbun
1st: Christiansen / Perelshteyn / Sammour-Hasbun
2nd / 3rd: Two of Vigorito / Shmelov / Riordan / Esserman
1st: Christiansen / Perelshteyn / Sammour-Hasbun
Strength / Flexibility: Boston, as always, comes bearing a very strong lineup, very stacked at the top. While they might not have quite the sheer power they had last season with the two vastly underrated players Shmelov and Williams, they still have plenty of strong lineups with many possibilities up top. They only really lack real flexibility in the bottom spot, as Krasik by necessity will almost certainly be forced to hold down that spot in the vast majority of their matches. Score: 8.
Underrated Players: One might think that after this category was likely Boston's biggest trump in 2007 that they really don't have much to boast about here in 2008, but that really doesn't seem true to me. Of course, both of their GMs counting as 2590 is a natural benefit and after sporting a 2833 performance rating in 2008, it would be difficult to not ascribe Sammour-Hasbun as an asset in this regard. Esserman's recent results and current rating also clearly place him as such an asset and if Krasik can perform at the level he did in 2006, he can definitely be one as well. Score: 7.
Dedication: This has likely been the major thing that has allowed the Blitz to capture the East in the past two years as they are definitely one of the teams that puts a good amount of preparation into their matches, and when it comes to team unity, it's hard to think of a team which can best them in that regard as evidenced by their numerous videos and interviews from last season. Score: 9.
Other Factors: After two close but not quite finishes in the past two seasons, I doubt any team will be hungrier for the USCL title this year than Boston. As I've stated before, with Boston doing a bit better each season than the last would be a very good trend for them to follow once again if they wish to realize their dreams this year as that can have only one outcome if they do so. However, the big thing in their favor is very simply the fact that they've won the East Regular Season title in both of the last two years, and in a league as tough as balanced as this, that clearly shows they are doing something right so I see little reason not to follow that trend further. Score: 8.
Projected Record: 6.5 – 3.5
2nd Place: Queens Pioneers
1st / 2nd / 3rd: Three of Stripunsky / Vovsha / Schneider / Lenderman
1st / 2nd: Two of Stripunsky / Vovsha / Schneider / Lenderman
4th: Thaler / Katz
Strength / Flexibility: Queens again has a very powerful roster with many possibilities on basically every board. One weakness they seemed to have in 2007 was Stripunsky and Vovsha being forced to play nearly every match on the top two boards, which clearly is something they have solved for this season. Strangely, the place Queens might be a tad lacking is in the Board Three spot – basically being forced to either stack that board or be out-rated on it (I say strange since last year Queens had three players in the 2300 – 2400 range on their initial roster; players who essentially tend to be ideal for Board Three in most teams' makeup). Score: 7.
Underrated Players: Queens is definitely one of the most armed teams in this regard with Stripunsky well over 2600 and Vovsha based on last year's performance and recent showing at the New England Masters almost certainly such an asset also. Most importantly though, Queens has a nice array of young talent: recent IM norm scorer Zhao, current master Thaler, and National Elementary Champion Ostovskiy, all now well above their league ratings. This to me is where Queens might really have a notch up on several other teams. Score: 9.
Dedication: Again as a team which probably functions a reasonable amount as the lower boards being students to the higher boards, they will always have an intrinsic edge both in preparation purposes and team unity. Score: 8.
Other Factors: Queens narrowly missed out on a playoff birth in their first season and with a year's experience, I have a feeling this may be a break out year for them. Although Stripunsky had a sub-par 2007 season, if he can return to the realm that he scored in 2005, Queens will be a super strong team. In general though, after being a fairly one dimensional team in terms of lineups in 2007, they seem to really have expanded greatly on that which bodes well for them. Score: 7.
Projected Record: 6 – 4
3rd Place: New York Knights
2nd: Krush / Braylovsky
4th: Herman / Zenyuk
(can't use Krush + Herman here)
1st / 2nd: Two of Fedorowicz / Charbonneau / Krush
3rd: Braylovsky / Bonin
4th: Herman / Zenyuk
(can't use Fedorowicz + Charbonneau + Braylovsky + Herman)
Strength / Flexibility: With the league's first triple GM roster, New York obviously has no shortage of strength. Having such an array along with Krush and sometimes Braylovsky to handle the top two boards, they definitely have a good amount of flexibility in stacking the top couple of boards also. They really don't seem to be lacking sufficient possibilities for handling the bottom two boards either; there only real issue to me is with several of their players likely to be away for several events (Miami Open and Mind Games Olympiad in China). Nevertheless, given the large number of choices their roster really seems to afford them, I think New York is probably the strongest team in the league in this regard. Score: 9.
Underrated Players: While New York may not have the 100+ point underrated players that other teams boast, they certainly have some real assets in this category with Shabalov a frequent super 2700 player along with both Herman and Zenyuk whose league results and current ratings definitely establish them as beyond their league ratings. Those factors, along with having two females who will likely be very active roster members definitely give the Knights a nice boost here. Score: 8.
Dedication: Given the fairly large changes to the Knights roster, it's clear that the manager (Krush) has taken strides to sew up any problems she might have perceived last year. It's rather difficult to know if this largely new team will be able to display the appropriate unity to rise to the top, but with Shabalov residing in a different state, and Charbonneau hard at work for on many days, it's hard to imagine that they will be able to match many of the other teams when it comes to preparation. Score: 7.
Other Factors: I have a feeling most will be surprised by predicting the Knights to not finish in one of the top two spots, especially with the league's first triple GM roster. However, like their arch-rivals, the Boston Blitz, I really feel history should not be an overlooked factor as the Knights have greatly struggled in the first half of their season in both of the last two years. While some might consider it ridiculous to consider that pertinent when this year's roster is so different from last year's, I've been proven wrong too many times by ignoring the league's, albeit short, historical evidence. Score: 5.
Projected Record: 5.5 – 4.5
4th Place: Philadelphia Inventors
2nd: Smith / Bartell
3rd / 4th: Two of J Shahade / Yeager / Costigan / Wilson
(can't use Smith + Yeager + Costigan here)
Strength / Flexibility: As shown last season, Philadelphia's typical roster with Kudrin manning the top board is quite strong, and given it really didn't change this season, there's no reason why it won't be this season. Plus with the addition of Bartell to give them a little more flexibility on second board along with a different way to stack the roster, they definitely have a good improvement in that regard. While they still suffer with being forced into a suboptimal roster should Kudrin need to miss a match, it's hard to see them really lacking in any other regard here. Score: 7.
Underrated Players: Philadelphia basically has the same trumps here as last season with Yeager now well above his league rating and Costigan and Wilson both continuing to perform above their league ratings. Score: 6.
Dedication: The Inventors still have the handicap of having a GM not in the near vicinity, but things do look up for them this season with Bartell, a friend of Smith's, joining and with J Shahade returning after a long layoff trying to prepare for China, I have a feeling she'll be quite dedicated also. Score: 7.
Other Factors: The Inventors have always had the advantage that my almost universally picking them to finish in last has undoubtedly served as great motivation. Now that they don't have that edge this season, it's very possible that they will just collapse completely without it and finish in last. On a more serious note though, one disadvantage I really felt the Inventors had last season was their being rather one dimensional in nature – all of their lineups basically being of a very similar shape which seems to be something they have definitely expanded on with the addition of Bartell. The Inventors mostly have tended to rely on the extensive experience of their veteran players, but recently have taken strides to utilize some of the other key advantages like have a better variety of lineups and also using the rating advantages both a female and a youth can provide. Now that they have moved into the current times in those regards, they may now really have what it takes to compete for the League Championship. Score: 8.
Projected Record: 5 – 5
5th Place: New Jersey Knockouts
3rd: Ju / Molner / Shen
1st: Benjamin / Gulko
1st: Benjamin / Gulko
2nd: Ippolito / Friedman
3rd: Ju / Molner
Strength / Flexibility: Having added Gulko to their campaign, the Knockouts definitely have a wider variety of top lineups to wield, something I felt they were a bit lacking in 2007. As noted above, New Jersey seems to have four different lineup styles, all of which are quite powerful and should give them a good amount of flexibility. While they can't use the lineup with a GM on the top board and Ju on the bottom; something which served them quite well last season, the additional new possibilities likely more then make up for that. Score: 8.
Underrated Players: This might be one category where the Knockouts aren't quite up to par with most other teams in the league. While they do have two 2600+ GMs and a good amount of youth, it seems for the league ratings their youth really aren't far off from their current ratings. Score: 4.
Dedication: Benjamin by most indications, in addition to being their top board, seems to also have taken on a semi-role of preparing the team. Given that he's also something of a pseudo-mentor to both Ju and Shen due to the recent US Chess School, I would only expect that to be amplified this season. The Knockout players in general seem quite dedicated to the team in general given the large number of annotated games by the players themselves from their last year's matches and so New Jersey seems quite strong here on the whole. Score: 7.
Other Factors: With Benjamin's wife expecting a baby soon, it's really unclear if he might suddenly become unavailable for some portion of the season. While in one sense, the Knockouts definitely have a few very good lineups they could still use in that circumstance, given his position as the general team leader, it seems quite likely that his being unavailable would adversely affect the team beyond him simply being unable to play. Score: 7.
Projected Record: 4.5 – 5.5
6th Place: Baltimore Kingfishers
3rd: R Kaufman / Zimmer / Kahn
1st: Erenburg / Blehm
3rd: L Kaufman
1st: Erenburg / Blehm
2nd: Enkhbat / L Kaufman
3rd / 4th: Two of R Kaufman / Zimmer / Kahn
Strength / Flexibility: The Kingfishers are a squad who I've often criticized for not having any youth on their team, but they have changed that this season with two young players Defibaugh and Low (one as an alternate) who will allow them to use their probable most favored lineup of GM + Enkbhat + L Kaufman (incidentally the lineup that essentially was used in their 2005 League Championship). In addition, they are also one of the few teams who can use a current 2300+ on their Board Four with them having several lineups with Zimmer manning the bottom board. I definitely think Baltimore has a great deal of flexibility more than last season. Score: 8.
Underrated Players: Baltimore has mostly been lacking in this regard the past couple of seasons, but this year they definitely have two big assets with R Kaufman recently achieving his third IM norm and Defibaugh now well above his league rating. Score: 6.
Dedication: This was definitely a place where I felt the Kingfishers likely weren't quite up to par in 2007 with R Kaufman not being on the main roster, and just in general having several team members who only played one or two matches all season, naturally suggested that they didn't have a great deal of team unity. This year's roster definitely seems more conducive to them being better in that regard this season but how good remains to be seen. Score: 7.
Other Factors: Once again I feel I must dock a bit from Baltimore here based on recent history, having finished last in the East each of the past two years (on the other hand, the reward for this is mathematically the easiest schedule of inter-league opponents). It might seem ridiculous to deduct based on this given that a loss in the last week each year has been the difference between a playoff spot and finishing last, but I still feel having that winner's mentality from the start is never a bad thing (which is why I continue to rely on past performances when making judgments for the teams in general). Score: 5.
Projected Record: 4.5 – 5.5
7th Place: Carolina Cobras
3rd: Zaikov / Simpson / Jones
4th: Dana / Bapat
1st: Milman / Schroer
Strength / Flexibility: In terms of strength, Carolina on paper is certainly a fine team, but realistically when looking strictly at their players, the fact that they are unable to use the lineup they used nearly all of last season really sticks out. Given they failed to qualify for the post-season when mostly using that roster, in the sense that that lineup is no longer legal, their roster seems to have somewhat decreased in power. Given that most of the other teams have seemingly increased their strength, the Cobras seem likely to be fighting an uphill battle this season. Score: 6.
Underrated Players: Unfortunately, I see the Cobras extremely lacking here as their two main trumps in the past in this regard, Zaikov and Jones now have increased to the point where their league ratings are probably fairly close to their actual strength (as mentioned, their ratings have increased enough that their traditional lineup from last season doesn't work anymore). Score: 3.
Dedication: Carolina's main roster seems to be quite disparate in profession with Milman and Zaikov both students while Schroer and Jones the opposite (ok, of chess, but you get the idea). That does seem to naturally make it difficult to mesh well for team preparation in general. Carolina does on the other hand have a very similar roster to last season, and hopefully that can give them some edge in the unity department. Score: 7.
Other Factors: I'm sure Milman was not the most pleased individual to hear of the Cobras return to the East given him personally performing much better against the West. On the other hand, both Zaikov and Jones performed very well in the East in 2006. Granted both of them will likely have to play different roles this season compared to then, but if the Cobras want to find something to build on, perhaps it can start with the two of them. Score: 7.
Projected Record: 3.5 – 6.5
Stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3, where I will try to break down the West and then the Playoffs!