We’ve become accustomed during these strange Covid-19 times to witnessing big-money online tournaments with many household grandmaster stars. But the template and trendsetters for the professional online format with top grandmasters was arguably Chess.com and IM Greg Shahade’s brainchild of the PRO Chess League, which recently ended in bitter acrimony and controversy as the newly-crowned 2020 champion’s, the Armenia Eagles, were disqualified and stripped of the title for cheating.
After beating the Canada Chessbrahs in the semis, the Armenians (GMs Tigran L. Petrosian, Parham Maghsoodloo, Haik Martirosyan and Raunak Sadhwani) defied the odds to go on to beat the strong favourites for the final, the Saint Louis Archbishops (led by the much higher-rated top USA Olympiad stars Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Leinier Dominguez and Jeffery Xiong) 9.5-6.5 to clinch the title and $20,000 first prize.
But it didn’t take long for the Armenian team’s celebrations to turn sour after Wesley So began to hint strongly at accusations of cheating in the direction of the Armenia Eagles’ talismanic performer Petrosian, who proved to be the MVP in the finals, not only beating Caruana, So, and Dominguez, but also top-scoring with an undefeated 3.5/4.
The accusations were that, throughout the finals (and allegedly also in the semis), on the live video feed, Petrosian could be seen continually glancing downward at something on his computer desk, the suspicions being that it was one of the top playing chess engines running on a smartphone. Petrosian and So then got involved in what turned out to be a very heated and acrimonious online spat, with accusations, vehement denials, and childish chess challenges being issued.
The organiser’s had to step in, and a few days after the final, following an investigation and examining Petrosian’s games, a statement was released through the offices of PRO Chess League Commissioner IM Greg Shahade: “After a thorough investigation, Chess.com’s Fair Play team determined that GM Tigran L. Petrosian, who played for the Armenia Eagles, violated fair play regulations during games in both the semifinal and final matches that took place on September 25 and 27, respectively.”
Commissioner Shahade further added: “It’s always unfortunate when the league is presented with evidence of fair play violations, but we stand behind the evidence presented from Chess.com’s Fair Play team.”
Subsequently, Petrosian has been given a lifetime ban on Chess.com and the PRO Chess League, and his team, the Armenia Eagles, temporarily banned from participating in future PRO Chess League seasons. On Friday, alongside his team manager, Artak Manukyan, Petrosian publicly rejected the serious charges being levelled against him during a live Facebook press conference. And determined to clear his name, Petrosian is also now threatening to take legal action.
Now the $20,000 first prize has been awarded to the Saint Louis Archbishops, giving them a third title and their second successive championship. Also, both the Canada Chessbrahs and China Pandas will now receive $10,000, half of the sum of the second, third, and fourth place prizes.
GM Wesley So – GM Raunak Sadhwani
2020 Pro Chess League Finals, (3.3)
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.g3 g6 The Slav/Grünfeld Defence is a notoriously tough nut to crack open, as it usually involves a lot of long-term strategic plans and nuanced manoeuvres. 5.b3 Bg7 6.Bb2 0-0 7.Bg2 b6 8.0-0 Bb7 9.Nc3 Nbd7 10.Qd3 Overprotecting e4 to prevent Black moving his knight there. 10…e6 11.Rad1 Qc7 12.cxd5 exd5 13.b4 Just when Black was readying himself for So perhaps looking to bust the game open with e4, So now switches his attentions to the queenside that somewhat bamboozles his 14-year-old Indian opponent. 13…b5 Slightly better would have been 13…Rfe8 and trying for play on the e-file, perhaps back to the plan of planting the knight on e4 – and if White plays b5, then you can hit back in the center with …c5 looking for active play. 14.a4 a6 15.a5 So’s strength and experience now comes to the fore, as he strategically outplays and out-manoeuvres his inexperienced young opponent. 15…Rae8 16.Nd2 Bc8 17.Rfe1 h5 18.Qc2 Qd6 19.Ba3 Ng4 20.Nf3 f5 21.e3 Bb7 22.Ne2 So’s regrouping of his pieces is a little like a cat playing with a mouse before killing it. 22…Bh6 23.Nf4 Kh7 With Black committed to the “Dutch-like” …f5 set-up, if 23…Bxf4 24.exf4! White will simply plant his knight on e5 with an easy game, as Black can’t play a reciprocal …Ne4, as it will get kicked with f3. 24.Nd3 So rules the strategy, having Black worried about how best to cover the c5 and e5 squares. 24…Bg7 25.Rc1 Now, to lethal effect, So declares his hand by dominating the half-open c-file – but c6 is protected, right, so what’s the worst that could happen for Sadhwani? 25…Bf6 Black really has to quickly come up with some sort of counter-play, otherwise So is just going to squeeze the very life out of the position. I think what he should have tried was 25…Qe7 with the possible idea of …Rh8 threatening …Kg8 and …h4. White will likely hit back with h3 and possibly h4 to stop any tricks on the h-file – but at least the …Ng4 will be able to retreat to the better square of f6. 26.h3 Nh6 27.Nde5!? This is a gutsy move, a gamble, the sort you play when you sense your opponent may well be beginning to fear a breakthrough could be on the cards. 27…Nf7?! Black freezes with the thought of seeing ‘ghosts’, something happening on the long a1-h8 diagonal – but this was the critical moment of the game, and Sadhwani really had to meet it head-on with 27…Nxe5 28.dxe5 Bxe5 29.Nxe5 Qxe5 30.Bb2 Qd6 31.Qc3 Rg8 32.Qd4 Nf7 33.h4 where sure, White is the one with all the threats, but he is a pawn down in a position where Black can easily defend the major threats down the long diagonal, and added risks will have to be taken to open the game up any further. 28.Nxf7 Rxf7 29.h4 Just stopping the annoying …h4. 29…Rfe7 30.Re2 The next phase of the game is simply a So masterclass on how to make the crucial breakthrough in a seemingly blocked position – a blocked position that perhaps Black wrongly thought he could easily hold. 30…Bg7 The obvious weak point in Black’s game is the c5 square, preventing the White knight getting there via e1-d3-c5, but so long as the …Nd7 stays put, this isn’t a worry. But So has a cunning plan to exploit the pressure on the c-file. 31.Qd1 Kg8 32.Rec2 Kh8 33.Rc3 Bf6 34.R1c2 Kg7 35.Qc1! The fabled ‘Alekhine’s Gun’ stratagem, the powerful priyome (as the Russians would say) of doubling rooks on a file with the queen supporting from the rear, which often exerts enormous pressure on the enemy position. The story goes that the term was coined by a magazine editor after the fourth world champion, Alexander Alekhine, used such a manoeuvre to overwhelm potential title-rival Aaron Nimzowitsch at San Remo in 1930. 35…Rc8 36.Ne1! This time heading not for c5 but rather f4, as So gets ready to fire the ‘gun’ with a big tactical coup de grâce. 36…Ree8 37.Nd3 Kh7 38.Nf4! The threat is the big tactic of Nxd5! and a triple capture on c8 – but in defending against this, Sadhwani falls into the crosshairs of the ‘big gun’. 38…Qf8 39.Rxc6! [see diagram] The bullet wound is fatal because when d5 eventually does fall, Black’s position will collapse with it. 39…Bxc6 40.Rxc6 Nb8 41.Rc7+ Rxc7 42.Qxc7+ Bg7 It’s academic now, but slightly better was 42…Re7 – but Black won’t hold out all that much longer after 43.Qc5 Qd8 44.Nxd5 Re6 45.Nf4 Re7 46.Qb6! etc. 43.Bxd5 Rc8 44.Qb7 Re8 45.Bf7 1-0