Two teams, Blitz and the Gotham Knights, emerged triumphant on Thursday in the Pro Chess League after wins against Team MGD1 and the Berlin Bears, respectively.
Both matches featured seismic comebacks for the favorites after tough starts. Despite having two former world blitz champions on boards one and two—GMs Alexander Grischuk and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave—Blitz was on the verge of losing the match ahead of round four. But the mostly French team fired on all cylinders to take the match to the blitz tiebreaker, where they won.
In the second match, the Berlin Bears started with a 3-1 lead after WGM Josefine Heinemann upset GM Hikaru Nakamura. The Gotham Knights bounced back with full force to spin the match around though, led by Nakamura and GM Liem Le who each put up three points in four games.
The Pro Chess League continues on Friday, February 17, 2023, at 7.30 a.m. PT/16:30 CET.
Team MGD1 9.5 – 10.5 Blitz
Thursday’s first match featured Team MGD1, a powerhouse all-Indian team led by 19-year-old super-GM Arjun Erigaisi, against the mostly French team Blitz, which boasted two former world blitz chess champions and FIDE top-20 players and former 2800-players, Grischuk and Vachier-Lagrave.
Blitz’ boards three and four, IM Mahel Boyer and IM Deimante Daulyte-Kornette, were just as instrumental in the overall match victory by the end of the day.
Blitz was the community favorite on Twitter, but this storyline was considerably put to the test in the first three rounds of the match.
Who will win Thursday’s early match?
⚔️ Blitz vs Team MGD1 ⚔️
— ProChessLeague (@ProChessLeague) February 16, 2023
In the first round, the teams exchanged even blows as all the favorites scored in their games. Not to say that the games were simple, but there were no surprises in the results.
One highlight was Team MGD1 board two GM S.L. Narayanan slamming a checkmate on the board against Blitz board three Boyer, prompting Hess to say: “You have to laugh; otherwise you cry.”
In round two, the Indian team took a one-point lead. A major contributor was GM Guha Mitrabha holding Blitz board one Grischuk to a draw.
As for wins, Erigaisi flexed his board-one muscles and took down Boyer, and Narayanan continued to capture the commentators’ attention as he sacrificed his f3-knight for a huge center and a lead in development.
Although Black achieved equality in the endgame, a blunder on move 44 shows why it’s often best to avoid placing pawns on the same color as the opponent’s bishop, especially in same-color bishop endgames.
In the following round, Mitrabha and Erigaisi scored wins while Narayanan neutralized Grischuk to another draw. After round three, Rensch praised the “unstoppable” Erigaisi, who defeated the fearsome French number-two with the black pieces in a shockingly one-sided affair.
Going into the last round, Team MGD1 needed just 1.5 points out of four games to achieve match victory. The final round also featured exciting matchups between players and their seeded equivalents (board one vs. board one, board two vs. board two, etc.).
Blitz pulled off exactly what they needed to by scoring 3-1 and tying the match. In fact, they nearly won the match outright then and there. They even had their chances to blow Team MGD1 away with a 4-0 score as all their boards achieved huge advantages at one point or another, although this did not transpire.
They scored two wins. Board-four Daulyte-Cornette scored her first victory in the match against WIM Savitha Shri, and Vachier-Lagrave brought Blitz the full point against Narayanan with the black pieces.
Grischuk, who was in his characteristic time trouble, allowed a draw when he had winning chances with two rooks against a queen. The most nerve-racking moment, however, came in Boyer-Mitrabha, where Black allowed a seemingly deadly discovered attack. Although White managed to play a tactic winning the exchange, Black found a miracle draw with a rook sacrifice, saving the match from a complete steal.
Had this game been decisive in either direction, it would have decided the match without tiebreaks.
With an 8-8- score after four rounds, the match was decided by a blitz tiebreaker. The same players repeated a game against their round-four opponents, but they switched colors and played games at the 3+2 time control.
The majority-French team completed the comeback arc as they won the tiebreaks 2.5-1.5. Grischuk defeated Erigaisi on board one, while IM Boyer outplayed his GM opponent, Mitrabha, to score the second win. With a draw on board two in Vachier-Lagrave-Narayanan, the match was already decided before Daulyte-Cornette lost to Shri on the last board.
Boyer’s win was the spiciest, where he achieved a decisive attack straight out of the opening. Although he started with a piece sacrifice, he won three pawns in return and an enduring attack that finally won an inconsolable amount of material.
Allaient la Frooooooonce 🇫🇷🇫🇷🥐🥐 https://t.co/Jdf3M6UYdr
— MVL (@Vachier_Lagrave) February 16, 2023
Berlin Bears 7 – 9 Gotham Knights
The following match featured the German team, Berlin Bears, against the Gotham Knights. The top two boards of the latter set the team as the favorite: Nakamura (who hardly needs an introduction) and Le, the world number-24, former world blitz champion, and head coach of the prestigious Webster University chess team.
The advantage of the Berlin Bears’ lineup was that their ratings were more “flat”—that is, more evenly distributed. Note how board three GM Frederik Svane is a 2568 grandmaster compared to his 2447-rated counterpart, the 13-year-old IM Andy Woodward.
Round one was a shocker as the Berlin Bears took a 3-1 lead.
GM Rasmus Svane (yes, the brother of Frederik) defeated IM Nataliya Buksa, an expected result between board one vs. board four; GM Dmitrij Kollars beat Woodward, another expected result, although prodigies are often full of surprises; and the highlight of the round was board four Heinemann’s win over Nakamura.
While he was much better earlier in the game, the American legend misjudged the pawn push with 22…g3, and suddenly his attack evaporated. Understanding that she could parry his only mate threat on h2 with a later Nf1, the German WGM ultimately made two queens and threatened a checkmate of her own, prompting resignation.
GM Rafael Leitao has analyzed below.
Le was the only player to score a point for the Gotham Knights in round one, against Frederik Svane.
But after a tough start, the Gotham Knights rebounded with doubled strength. They won the following with a 3-1 score and took a one-point lead.
Nakamura was the first to win, beating Frederik Svane, and Le avenged his super-GM teammate with a win against Heinemann. But the critical victory had to be Buksa’s against Kollars, where the grandmaster overextended in the heavy piece endgame and allowed an unstoppable checkmate. The team’s board four earned a valuable extra half point.
The Gotham Knights took a 7-5 lead after round three as Nakamura also beat Kollars and Le scored his third consecutive win against Rasmus Svane, continuing a perfect streak.
The Vietnamese number-one was in top form on Thursday and, as Rozman put it, was “vaporizing the opposition” in the first three rounds. The following game featured an instructive pawn sacrifice to break through. The pawn push 33.d5!! caused the black position, which seemed solid enough, to collapse like a house of cards.
Like the early match, the Gotham Knights needed 1.5 points in round four to claim the match win—and they achieved it. Their bottom two boards held down the fort as Heinemann drew her IM opponent, Buksa, and Woodward drew his nearly 2600-rated GM opponent, Frederik Svane.
Although he ultimately only needed to draw, Nakamura won the only game of the round (as Le lost to Kollars), concluding the match in favor of the Gotham Knights.
Reflecting on some of the other stacked teams after the match, Gotham Knights captain Levy Rozman talked about how hard it is to win a match in the PCL: “Every team is so good and these matches come down to these little scrambles… . Every player is important on these teams.”
On Friday, chess fans will enjoy the Saint Louis Arch Bishops vs. Shanghai Tigers and Croatia Bulldogs vs. California Unicorns.
The Pro Chess League (PCL) is the number-one online global chess league for teams from all over the world. The event features 16 teams playing rapid games for their piece of the $150,000 prize fund.
The main event will continue throughout February and March and features top players like GMs Magnus Carlsen, Daniel Naroditsky, and Hikaru Nakamura.