A trio of teams have now punched their tickets to the playoffs of the ninth season of the United States Chess League (USCL). New England lost its first match of the year but still backed in, while Dallas and San Francisco both clinched a spot with dominating performances in week eight. There are two weeks left in the regular season, and five playoff spots still up for grabs.
The Eastern Conference played Tuesday night, with a big shakeup when Manhattan Applesauce (4.5-3.5) puréed their cross-town rivals, the New York Knights (4-4).
Manhattan's victory evens the season series (all matches in week eight were rematches from week two). It also flip-flops the top of the Atlantic Division, which is the tightest in the league. The Applesauce have won three weeks in a row to overtake the Knights for first place. In that stretch, they are 10-1-1 in individual games.
GM Zviad Izoria has won four games this year; in all four games the Applesauce have won the match. He's won three in a row, beating GMs Robert Hess, Varuzhan Akobian, and this week Tamaz Gelashvili.
GM Zviad Izoria
The straighforward assault this week came via his c-pawn, which bulldozed all of Black's army into submission, while White's pieces fell in behind their fearless farmer. Izoria's refusal to allow any counterplay helped net him a Game of the Week nomination.
Manhattan continued to roll with wins on boards two and three. The only blemish was NM Ryan Goldenburg's draw, his first of the season. Along with Izoria, Goldenburg remains in the MVP hunt - he is 6-1-1 so far this year. The team has shown great flexibility, using four different players on board two.
The Knights could have slipped from first to third, but instead they only fell into a tie for second, as New Jersey (4-4) could only muster a split-point against Philadelphia (2.5-5.5). They were somewhat fortunate to even get that, as they fell behind 0-2 on the bottom boards before coming back to win the upper boards.
NM Alex Katz had no problem playing board two for the first time this season, taking out FM Dov Gorman after the provocative 4. g4!?. The comeback was complete when GM Alex Stripunsky, one of four Knockouts' grandmasters, showed some GM-technique in an instructive bishop-and-pawn endgame. On move 33 he fixed Black's rook pawn on h6, captured it 30 moves later, and beat newly-minted IM Tom Bartell by the narrowest of margins.
The Inventors, last year's USCL Runners-up, will need a lot of help to make the playoffs. They have to win both of their final matches by big margins, and hope that this week's New York-New Jersey matchup ends in a draw, and both of those teams lose in week 10.
The Northeast Division also played Tuesday. Although the previously unbeaten New England Nor'easters (6-2) fell to Baltimore (3.5-4.5) via a lone loss on board four, their five wins and two draws in the opening seven matches have officially made them the first team in the Eastern Conference to advance to the post-season.
GM Sam Shankland shunned easier methods, but still found a study-like draw on board one against the hard-to-beat IM Levan Bregadze. Draws on the next two boards meant the Kingfisher's Ralph Zimmer's win on the bottom board clinched the match for Baltimore, keeping their slim playoff hopes alive. Black's rooks got tangled up, first landing on g8 and h8, then completely relocating to a8 and b8. White's rooks proved more useful in the final position.
Even with the win, Baltimore is on the outside looking in at the playoffs. They are a distant third, and must win this week against Connecticut to have any chance.
Connecticut (5-3) retained its hold on second place in the Northeast, and essentially eliminated Boston (3-5) with a 2.5-1.5 win. The Blitz loss is what pushed the Nor'easters into the playoffs.
Early on, Boston had every reason to believe they would end the night on 4-4 and tied with the Dreadnoughts for second place. In one of the shortest games this season, NM Vadim Martirosov upset IM Jay Bonin in less than two hours thanks to an oversight by White. But the Dreadnoughts overcame the early adversity, as GM Robert Hess rebuffed IM Marc Esserman's all-out sacrifice, and Zachary Tanenbaum pounced on NM Ilya Krasik's late blunder.
The Dreadnoughts would have to collapse to miss the playoffs, and still control their own destiny in a chance to finish first.
Thanks to the division-heavy schedule this year (weeks 8-10 are all intra-divisional matchups), Connecticut plays leaders New England in week 10 and are currently only two individual games behind in the tiebreaks.
Wednesday did not produce as much drama, unless dominations are to your liking. The night saw one tight match and three blowouts - two 3.5-0.5 matches and one clean sweep.
San Francisco (5.5-2.5) left no doubt what is the best team in the Pacific Division. After a brief mid-season slump, they have begun their second winning streak by virtue of a 4-0 blanking of a depleted Arizona squad. An original USCL team, it was only the second shutout the Mechanics have ever won; the last was in 2007. San Francisco is the only team in the division with a winning record.
The Scorpions had several top members away at the Spice Cup Open, including their top player GM-elect Mackenzie Molner. They lost on the top board, and it took GM-elect Daniel Naroditsky only 16 moves to win as Black on board two. The rout was on.
The Mechanics' third board IM David Pruess played the King's Gambit against WGM Anjelina Belakovskaia, but had to win the game on the queenside.
IM David Pruess
The effort was the week's second Game of the Week nomination.
Arizona is still mathematically alive, thanks to Los Angeles (3.5-4.5) beating Seattle (3-5), but the odds of the playoffs are very slim. The Vibe switched standings with the Sluggers thanks to the 3.5-0.5 margin. The highest-rated player in the USCL and Seattle's lone grandmaster, Timur Gareev, was the only one to prevent the sweep.
In the South, Dallas (7-1) kept up its winning ways and extended its hold on first place to a full match by virtue of their 3.5-0.5 drubbing of Carolina (0.5-7.5). The Destiny now have the best record in the league, while the Cobras will need to win 1.5 out of their last two to avoid their worst-ever season record.
The final Game of the Week nomination goes to GM Conrad Holt, who invaded with a multitude of pieces to surround IM Jonathan Schroer's king.
GM Conrad Holt (photo courtesy St. Louis Chess Club)
Miami (6-2) could have also clinched a playoff spot, but their were unable to shake St. Louis (4-4) as the two teams played to a 2-2 tie. Still, the Sharks are now dormie, up two matches with two to play. Any win or tie from them, or anything less than two wins from the Arch Bishops, earns Miami the other playoff spot in the South.