"The United States needed a high level chess league"
Grandmaster Joel Benjamin, three-time United States champion, stares at the chessboard, pondering his next move. His team, the New Jersey Knockouts is up against their United States Chess League Eastern Division rivals, the Boston Blitz. Slowly, with a deliberate cadence practiced so many times, Benjamin reaches for his bishop, and draws it back to e3.
By Robert N. Bernard
His Boston opponent and good friend, Grandmaster Larry Christiansen, responds to the move by sliding his own bishop to h6. It's a blunder, and Benjamin realizes it. He looks up, across the board to gauge his opponent's reaction. Only he sees nothing... nothing but the soft glow of the computer screen in front of him. Christiansen is hundreds of kilometers away, warmed by the soft glow of his own monitor.
It's just a typical Wednesday night in the United States Chess League (USCL), now in its fourth year of existence. In the USCL, all games are played over the internet, using the Internet Chess Club (ICC) as the medium. Fourteen teams, from all across the USA, compete in weekly four-board matches against their opponents on either Monday or Wednesday nights. Players travel to their team's playing site, where their games are supervised by USCL arbiters. The ten-week season runs from late August to the end of October, followed by the playoffs for three weeks in November.
Members of the New Jersey Knockouts prepare for their match. From left to right,
Victor Shen, Mackensie Molner, Arbiter Mike Somers (back to camera), GM Joel Benjamin,
IM Dean Ippolito. | Photo ?Ç¬© Robert N. Bernard
The USCL is the brainchild of International Master Greg Shahade. Shahade (29), who lives in Philadelphia, has organized several high-level chess events in the USA, including the New York Masters, and previously served on the Executive Board of the United States Chess Federation.
"The United States needed a high level chess league," Shahade said. "I tried to make it more fan friendly [than the European leagues], and based more off of American sports leagues. Teams in European leagues without money are not competitive, and I just get the sense that it's a bunch of hired guns playing a bunch of hired guns, with no allegiance to the area or club they are playing for."
The league currently has fourteen teams, from cities and regions all across the United States. Most of the players on a particular team live near the city or state for which they are playing. Top US players compete in the league, including GM Hikaru Nakamura (Seattle Sluggers), GM Jaan Ehlvest (Tennessee Tempo), GM Alexander Shabalov (New York Knights), and GM Boris Gulko (New Jersey Knockouts), just to name a few. "I have tried to create a league that allows for very strong players while also keeping the competitive balance in check," Shahade said.
GM Hikaru Nakamura (front) plays first board for the Seattle Sluggers, which also includes GM Gregory Serper (middle) and Michael Lee (back). | Photo ?Ç¬© Eddie Chang
GM Larry Christiansen of the Boston Blitz ponders his next move in this game versus
GM Joel Benjamin of the New Jersey Knockouts. | Photo ?Ç¬© Chris Bird
GM Hikaru Nakamura of the Seattle Sluggers signs an autograph
for a young fan. | Photo ?Ç¬© Eddie Chang
While the league has added two teams every year, Shahade doesn't believe that the league will be expanded beyond sixteen, so an expansion next year might be the league's last. "Sixteen just feels like a good number, and if we go too much further than that, we may have a few teams that just aren't competitive enough," he said.
Limited average rating
Much of the high-rated talent in the USA is located in the Northeast. Shahade had to take that into account to maintain a competitive balance in the league. To maintain that balance, Shahade has limited the average rating of a team's weekly lineup to 2400 (US Chess Federation rating) or under, and any player with a rating 2590 or more is counted as 2590, which encourages the top players to play without pushing a team over the rating limit. Teams can use any rating supplement from the previous year to create their list, which leads to highly underrated and improving junior players.
"I always give preference to the younger players," said the afore mentioned GM Joel Benjamin, captain and first board for the New Jersey Knockouts. "With the opportunity to use an old rating list for the team, they are even more likely to be underrated. So we have the best players in the state and the best juniors, always a good USCL combination."
Andy May of the Seattle Sluggers moves his opponent's piece. | Photo ?Ç¬© Eddie Chang
FIDE time control
Even though all the games are played over the internet, most contests use the FIDE-standard game in 90 minutes plus 30 second increment time control, which typically leads to three and four hour games. Internet chess is known for blitz and bullet time controls or correspondence-like controls, not slow controls. Still, the players have adapted to it quite well. "Obviously, you don't have an opponent [in front of you] to give you visual feedback, and you don't give any off as well," Benjamin says. "But I don't think the Internet is a much of a factor to my approach or style of play."
Game of the Week
The USCL features a "Game of the Week" contest that Shahade and two other Master-level players judge. Each Game of the Week receives a cash prize to the winner, and is entered into a Game of the Year contest. The results of last season's Game of the Week contest were announced over several months, with one game being eliminated every week. At the end of last season's contest, the winner of the Game of the Year received one-thousand dollars.
Here are the prize winning games in the first five weeks:
Each week, hundreds of spectators tune into the games on the Internet Chess Club, and Shahade knows that these fans are the key to the league's success." [It is] most important," Shahade said, for the league to be "exciting and interactive for the fans." To that end, the US Chess League website links to all sorts of different information about the league and the teams. Most teams have their own blog. Four bloggers make weekly predictions and the results are carefully tracked, posted, and discussed. Team power rankings have been developed and are debated, an unofficial rating system has beendeveloped, and there's a wide selection of merchandise available for sale.
Denys Shmelov is deep in thought, with all four games of his Boston Blitz team
projected on the wall nearby. | Photo ?Ç¬© Chris Bird
The United States Chess League season has reached its midway point, and the undefeated and untied Queens Pioneers are in the lead in the Eastern division, while the Dallas Destiny and San Francisco Mechanics are tied for the lead in the Western Division.
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