Shanghai Tigers, California Unicorns Post Comfortable Wins

As the first week of the 2023 Pro Chess League came to a close, two teams, the Shanghai Tigers and the California Unicorns became the final teams to secure victories in their opening fixtures.

The Shanghai Tigers, who fielded world number 29 GM Wei Yi as well as women’s world champion GM Ju Wenjun, ran away with their match against two-time champions the Saint Louis Archbishops with an impressive 10-6 score. Wei was particularly impressive for the Tigers and scored a perfect 4/4, the best of which was his deconstruction of GM Leinier Dominguez.

For the California Unicorns, a professional showing was required to take down the Croatia Bulldogs and several marginal round wins meant that the Unicorns were able to defeat the Antonio Radic (Agadmator)-led Bulldogs with a score of 9-7. GM Dariusz Swiercz and Pro Chess League mainstay GM Georg Meier were the standout players for the Unicorns, both scoring 3/4 with neither losing a game.

The second week of the Pro Chess League will continue on Tuesday, February 21, 2023, at 7.30 a.m. PT/16:30 CET.


Saint Louis Arch Bishops 6 – 10 Shanghai Tigers

The Saint Louis Arch Bishops had a tough start to their 2023 title defense being paired with one of the strongest teams on paper, the Shanghai Tigers. Boasting a well-rounded team of players rated over 2500, the Tiger’s biggest asset is undoubtedly Ju who captain GM Ni Hua will back to pick up more points than other team’s women’s players.

In round one, the Tiger’s strategic selections paid off and while three boards were drawn, Wei was able to highlight the 400-point rating disparity between himself and FM Alice Lee as he scored an important win.

Underestimating the strength of Lee would have been a mistake given her age and recent results and in round two she came within a whisker of producing a shocking upset over the women’s world champion. Playing with the black pieces against the Kings Indian Attack: Yugoslav Variation, Lee struggled early on but kept the game imbalanced enough to retain the chances of a result. In a completely winning endgame but with mere seconds on the clock, Ju blundered but in the chaos, Lee missed her chance to cause a 200-point upset.

Due to a second win for the Tigers on Wei’s board, the pressure was on the Arch Bishops to keep the match alive and a grinding opposite-colored bishop endgame conversion from GM Benjamin Bok kept the defending champion’s hopes alive.

With the match score now at 5-3 in favor of the Tigers, the Arch Bishops needed their luck to turn around in a major way, but it wasn’t to be and a 3-1 win in the third round left the Arch Bishops with a seemingly insurmountable deficit to recover from. Wei kept up his perfect run as he outwitted Bok in a game that could have swung either way, while GM Xi Yu once again highlighted the rating advantage of the Tigers by overcoming Lee on the black side of the Queen’s Gambit Declined: Ragozin Defense.

Requiring a 4-0 win in round four, the Arch Bishops fought tooth and nail to procure as many decisive results as possible but eventually had to settle for a 2-2 result. Bok and GM Nikolas Theodorou both found ways to win against their respective opponents but it was the might of Wei, who defeated Dominguez, who got the Tigers over the line. 

Wei was once touted as a future world champion at the age of 15. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Known for his creative middlegame play, Wei’s triumph over the world number 13 was a game like no other. While the encounter wasn’t the most accurate, a black rook that found its way to h1 in a closed position was the piece de resistance that made this a unique candidate for Game of the Day. GM Rafael Leitao has annotated the artistic gameplay below.

With this 10-6 victory over the defending champions, the Tigers have announced themselves as a frontrunner to take home a share of the $150,000 prize fund on offer.

Croatian Bulldogs 7 – 9 California Unicorns

With a population of just under four million people, Croatia is a country of remarkably talented sportspeople given their size and in chess, things are no different. Although they were missing GMs Sasa Martinovic and Ante Saric, the Bulldogs managed to field a team with an average rating of 2545 and included strong internationals in GM Bogdan-Daniel Deac, IM Bardiya Daneshvar, and IM Polina Shuvalova.

On the flip side, the Unicorns were able to take advantage of the severely underrated WGM Sabina-Francesca Foisor and combine the likes of GM Ray Robson, Swiercz, and Meier who make a formidable lineup.

The first round was a tight affair and after both board ones beat the opposing board fours it came down to the game between Meier and GM Leon Livaic to decide who would get their nose in front. Cited as “the world’s leading expert” in the Catalan Opening with white on his Chess.com top player page, it was no surprise that the Uruguayuan representative opted to unleash it in round one. By move 17 he had built a decisive advantage and never let go, eventually claiming a 2.5-1.5 victory for the Unicorns.

All four games were explosive in the second round as both teams tried to push ahead in the match. With brilliance, blunders, and brain explosions aplenty, a 2-2 draw was a fitting result in the circumstances.

Robson, the board one for the Unicorns, faced several ambitious opponents on Friday. Photo: Lennart Ootes/Saint Louis Chess Club.

While the game between Meier and Deac featured 12 misses and ended in a draw by repetition despite White holding a +5 advantage, it was barely the most surprising result. On board two Foisor outplayed Livaic on the black side of the Slav Defense: Exchange Variation but had to settle for a draw after resolute defense from her Croatian opponent.

Meanwhile, Robson found himself in a worse ending against the 2502-rated Daneshvar and made matters worse when he mismanaged his opponent’s knight that hopped into his position and wreaked havoc.

The only game of the round that adhered to expectations was the game between Swiercz and Shuvalova, the former of which found a trick that resulted in black losing a pawn and shortly thereafter, the game.

Round three was the pivotal round for the Unicorns on Friday and a 2.5-1.5 win put them in the box seat to confirm their first match win of the season. Robson and Swiercz both picked up wins against Livaic and Deac, the latter coming after the Romanian GM forgot to promote to a queen and lost his winning passed pawn, leaving commentators Naroditsky and Hess gobsmacked.

The two-point edge for the Unicorns proved too much to handle for the Bulldogs and in the final round they split the points 2-2 and locked in a match score of 9-7.

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.


Previous coverage:


https://www.chess.com/news/view/2023-pcl-week-1-tigers-unicorns

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