Week 10 of the United States Chess League (USCL), the last of the regular season, ended with most teams pretty much where they began. Several historical highs and lows were set along the way. Players did not end the season quietly as 27 of the 32 games were decisive, the most combative week of the season.
In the only post-season slot still outstanding, New York drew to quash any fleeting hopes of New Jersey making the playoffs. In three of the four divisions, the team leading retained their standing. Only in the South did the two playoff teams swap positions.
The big question of the week came early on Tuesday - could New Jersey resurrect their season by winning big over Manhattan? Unfortunately for the Knockouts (4-6) they could not overcome the Applesauce (6.5-3.5) who still had much to play for.
Manhattan's fifth-consecutive match victory, this one by the margin of 2.5-1.5, puts their second-half combined record at an astounding 16.5-3.5. Their only loss in that time was this week, and that was on a mouse-slip. GM Izoria was a perfect 5-0 in that span, beating four of the top eight USCL grandmasters and one IM-elect. This week, GM Alex Stripunsky was the victim. Izoria's season-long performance rating was 2903; in the second half it was 3041!
The Applesauce actually had two heroes this season, with board four NM Ryan Goldenberg going 8-1-1. Izoria and Goldenberg finished second and third, respectively, in the final count of the League MVP race. This week Goldenberg had to go for broke to get the win.
When you throw all of your pieces at your opponent, and you win, that's often a recipe for a Game of the Week nomination, which Goldenberg duly earned. White was holding on decently until 33. c3, which allowed Goldenberg to finally break through.
Since New Jersey could not overcome Manhattan, New York's (5.5-4.5) split with Philadelphia (3-7) proved not to be needed, but the Knights nonetheless made the playoffs for the ninth time in nine USCL seasons.
The Inventors closed the season with one bright note - IM-elect Tom Bartell scalped his third GM on board one.
His win over GM Tamaz Gelashvili put him in the mix for Game of the Week honors. After Black made the brave decision to capture the shelter-pawn on h6, Bartell made him walk the plank.
Manhattan will take draw odds into their quaterfinals match with New York on Tuesday.
Goldenberg and Izoria both could have won top individual honors in another season, but this year the MVP Award goes to FM Jeffery Xiong, the only non IM or GM to win (although he will soon be officially an IM).
He won his game again in week 10, pushing his total MVP points to 29.5, which ties the record set last year by IM Priyadharshan Kannappan. He is also the youngest champion ever (13), had the best record ever (8-0!) and is the only MVP to play some on board three (three of his games were played there). He sealed the title yesterday, his birthday.
Need more proof of Xiong's eminent rise? The former World-Under 10 Champion had a 2013 performance rating of 2773 (stretching things - if that were a real FIDE rating, it would be top 10 in the world). Out of the eight previous USCL MVP seasons, only GM Hikaru Nakamura in 2009 had a higher performance rating.
Commentators actually had him as the favorite in his latest game, even though he was playing a GM. The pundits were right!
This week he beat his third GM of the season, but it was not enough for the Destiny to hold off the Sharks. Dallas (7-3) lost to Miami (7.5-2.5) and in doing so dropped to second in the South Division. The two will meet again in the quarterfinals Wednesday, with the Sharks enjoying draw odds.
The final score this week was 3-1 for Miami, with the all-grandmaster top board living up to its top billing. First it was GM Julio Becerra's wandering knight - it moved four times in five moves in the opening, once putting itself en prise but staying alive for quite some time. Later, around 30 moves were played with no checks or captures, while GM Conrad Holt took his king on a sojourn. Needing to win, Holt finally captured the now well-posted knight, and after a few more repositioning moves, forced a breakthrough on the queenside. Shortly thereafter, Holt's rooks got tangled up, and Becerra won one of the longest games of the season, and led his team to the division title.
Connecticut and New England faced off this week, and no matter the result, the teams were guaranteed a rematch in the first round of the playoffs. New England held a half-game lead over their divisional rivals, and after this week's 2-2 tie, that's where they remained. The Nor'easters (7-3) will take draw odds over the Dreadnoughts (6.5-3.5) in Tuesday's playoff rematch.
With the score knotted at one, and GM Alex Ivanov silghtly worse against GM Robert Hess, teenager NM Mika Brattain saved the division title for New England. He held a tricky knight-versus-bishop endgame by snookering IM Jay Bonin's king. The draw, combined with Ivanov's hold, leveled the match and preserved first place for the Nor'easters.
In the final divisional race, San Francisco (6.5-3.5) did not need to win their match to ensure first place - they only needed to win a single game to ensure superior tiebreaks. They did more than that, again showing their superiority in the West by beating last year's champion Seattle (3-7) by the score of 3-1.
Longtime Slugger's Manager Eddie Chang got special permission to play his first-ever USCL game, but after playing well he missed a counter-tactic that would have given him good chances. Also of note was board one, where GM Jesse Kraai played classically against FM Costin Cozianu's double-flank attack. The Tony Miles-type strategy did not pay off, as Kraai eventually exposed the black king. Cozianu resigned rather than lose his knight or have White barrel down the c-file.
The only team to back its way into the playoffs was the L.A. Vibe (4.5-5.5). Resting some of their titled players, the loss against Arizona (4-6) did not affect their second-place standing.
They will be underdogs against the Mechanics on Wednesday in the quarterfinals. Making the USCL playoffs with a losing regular season record is not unprecedented. It has happened five times previously, and amazingly three of those instances were in 2006. Of those five teams, only the 2006 New York Knights (4.5-5.5) were able to advance past the opening round (they eventually lost in the championship match).
Arizona missed out on the playoffs largely due to finishing last in the league on board three (2/10), which offset their strong play of WFM Amanda Mateer on board four. She finished the season on 4.5/5 and a 2426 performance rating.
In week 10 she had an intra-marital theme match of sorts. While newlywed husband GM-elect Mackenzie Molner was dispatching the Benoni on board one, she was winning with it on board four (the Benoni was also played on board three!). The respectability of the opening has always been questioned, so this must be the chess couple's version of the "eggs or pancakes" breakfast dilemma. Since Mateer won, they both get to say they were right, and marital bliss is restored. But she got the Game of the Week nomination, proving that no relationship is completely 50/50.
This year's tough-luck team is St. Louis, who had the bad fortune to be in the same division as Dallas and Miami. The Arch Bishops (6-4) won again, beating Carolina (1-9). St. Louis ends with the best record in league history for a team that did not qualify for the playoffs (unlike most years, there were no wildcards this year). Carolina almost salvaged a tie, but by virtue of this week's 2.5-1.5 loss, they end with the ignominious mark for worse-ever single-season record.
In a match for third place in the Northeast, Boston (4.5-5.5) beat Baltimore (3.5-6.5), but the Blitz will miss the playoffs for the second season in a row.
The Eastern Conference quarterfinals are on Tuesday night, beginning at 7:00 p.m. Eastern and look like this:
The Western Conference quarterfinals are on Wednesday night (time to be announced) and look like this:
2013 USCL Final Regular Season Standings