In a dramatic and fitting final finale to the 2018 PRO Chess League season that was played out before a packed and excited house last weekend in the redeveloped Fulsom Street Foundry e-sports arena in downtown San Francisco, the Armenia Eagles, winners of the Easter Division, not only clinched the Championship title, but in doing so, they could well have made a little bit of e-sport history for chess in the process.
After the Eagles narrowly beat defending champions St. Louis Arch Bishops in the first semifinal, and the strongly-fancied Chengdu Pandas overcame the Ljubljana Turtles, to see both teams reaching the final, their epic clash proved to be a nail-biter that went the distance, and then some. And in what can only be described as the chess equivalent of triple overtime, after the match was tied at 8-8, the Eagles, in ‘the long run’ – and by a very convoluted overtime playoff process – went on to defeat the Pandas to take the tile.
Greg Shahade, the PRO Chess League commissionaire, never makes things easy, and it worked like this: the fourth boards would play, with the winner going on to play the third board. In case of a draw, both players get eliminated, and the next board up for each side would play. The Chinese fourth board won but then lost to Armenia’s third board. Then the third boards drew and eliminated each other; likewise the second boards. Then the first boards drew their first game and the second one too before, at long last, Zaven Andriasyan defeated Wang Yue to clinch the title for underdogs the Eagles.
And with their win, the Eagles won $20,000 in prize money and the bragging rights to the new e-sports chess title. The second, third, and fourth-placed teams (Chengdu Pandas, St.Louis Arch Bishops, and Ljubljana Turtles) won $10,000, $4,000, and $2,000 respectively.
Throughout, the players wore headphones to cancel out the noise, while the crowd got louder and louder without disturbing them. Organised by Chess.com, the finals weekend was also streamed live on Twitch.tv, the official broadcasting partner’s channel (and also the main sponsors of the event). And just like in franchised professional sports, such as baseball, football, and basketball, the teams wore official jerseys with their logos engraved on them – all of which could pave the way for a very lucrative global league.
So with it, a little history was made with this year’s PRO Chess League Final. The entire weekend was played out in front of a large live audience, and coming with grandmaster-level commentary, and with the broadcast technology now common practice among the world’s top e-sports events, that also attracted a large viewing audience of 20,000+ that could well see chess enter into a new phase of professionalism, franchising, marketing and sponsorship potential.
The victorious Armenia Eagles team consisting of Player/manager CM Artak Manukyan, GM Samvel Ter-Sahakyan, GM Zaven Andriasyan, and GM Karen Grigoryan win the 2018 PRO Chess League title.
GM Zaved Andriasyan (left) and GM Wang Yue contest the dramatic tiebreaker playoff. | Photo: © Mike Klein/Chess.com.
GM Wang Yue – GM Zaven Andriasyan
PRO Chess League Final (Playoff)
English Opening, Botvinnik System
1.g3 e5 2.Bg2 Nc6 3.c4 g6 4.Nc3 Bg7 5.d3 d6 6.e4 This is the English Botvinnik system; pioneered and named after the first Soviet World champion, Mikhail Botvinnik. By conceding an apparently permanent weak point at d4, White gains a firm grip on the center and hopes to keep Black’s activity to a minimum while seeking a break with b2-b4 or f2-f4. 6…Nge7 7.Nge2 0-0 8.0-0 Be6 9.Nd5 Qd7 10.Bg5 Also an option is the “flashy” 10.Bh6 taking advantage of the Nf6+ fork, that once almost knocked me off my chair during a mid-1990s Scottish Championship encounter. But it all fizzles out to nothing, after the simple 10…Nxd5 11.Bxg7 Nc3 12.bxc3 Kxg7 and easy equality. Indeed, if anything, White’s chances are better with the light-squared bishop staying on the board to support f4 or even d4. 10…f6 11.Be3 f5 12.f4 Rae8 13.Qd2 Nd4 This is all pretty standard play from both sides in the Botvinnik system. 14.Nxd4?! More accurate first for White would have been 14.fxe5! Nxe2+ (Not 14…dxe5? 15.Nxd4 exd4 16.Bg5! and White has the better position.) 15.Qxe2 Bxe5 (Again, wrong is 15…dxe5? 16.Nxe7+! Qxe7 17.exf5 gxf5 18.Bxb7 winning a pawn with the better position.) 16.Nxe7+ Qxe7 17.exf5 Bxf5 with equal play and chances for both sides. 14…exd4 15.Nxe7+ Rxe7 16.Bf2 fxe4 17.Bxe4 Bxc4! The simple tactic allows Black to take control of the e-file and to build on a winning endgame advantage. 18.Bxb7 Be6 19.Bg2 c5 20.Rfe1 Rfe8 21.b3 h5 22.Re2 Bf5 23.Rae1 Bf6 24.Rxe7 Rxe7 25.Be4 White has a difficult position to defend, and his best hope is to try to trade off as many pieces as he can now. 25…Kg7 A handy little move, that not only gets the king ready for the endgame but also plays a vital role in defending the weak h5-pawn. 26.Bxf5 gxf5 27.Rxe7+ Qxe7 28.Qd1 Kg6 29.Kg2 d5 Given half a chance, Black will push on with …c4 to create a potentially dangerous passed d-pawn. 30.h3 Qe6 31.Qe1 Qc6! Black takes full control, and now the ..c4 push is a big danger. 32.Qe2 c4 33.dxc4 dxc4+ 34.Qf3 Qc8?[It’s always difficult to assess such endgames during the heat of battle, and especially in a big playoff decider – and, very crucially here – with little time left on the clock, but trading queens was the clean, clinical way to win. After 34…Qxf3+! 35.Kxf3 now 35…c3 36.Ke2 c2 37.Kd2 d3! 38.Be3 Bb2 39.Kxd3 c1Q 40.Bxc1 Bxc1 is winning easily. But leaving the queens on the board is not so easy, and White misses a good, practical saving shot. 35.bxc4 Qxc4 [see diagram] 36.Qa8? Calamity! Wang simply had to play 36.g4! to open as many lines to the Black king as possible. Now there may very well be a tricky way to win here for Black, but after 36…hxg4 (There’s no profit in pushing the pawn and hiding the king with 36…d3 37.gxf5+ Kh6 as White has the finesse 38.Kh2! (preventing …Qe4+ and …Qxf5) 38…d2 39.Qg3 Qf7 40.Qd3 Qxa2 41.Qg3 Qf7 42.Qd3 Qa2 43.Qg3 and a repetition.) 37.hxg4 d3 38.gxf5+ Kxf5 39.Qh5+ Ke6 40.Qe8+ it is not so clear, as White is getting a lot of checks in and – if the worst comes to the worst – he could always sacrifice the bishop for the dangerous passed d-pawn. And all of the above offered excellent chances to save the game and keep the Pandas’ title playoff hopes alive – but now it is hopeless, as Black easily picks off another pawn to create a second passed pawn of his own, and with it, in triple overtime, the Eagles win the match and the title. 36…Qxa2 37.Qe8+ Qf7 38.Qc6 Kg7 39.Kf3 a5 40.Qb5 Qe6! The little matter now of the threat of …Qe4 mate comes as an added bonus! 41.Qd3 Qd5+ 42.Ke2 a4 43.Qa6 d3+! Forcing home the win, as White can’t allow the trade of queens. 44.Kd2 Qa2+ 45.Kxd3 Qxf2 46.g4 Qf1+ 0-1