With the final week of the 2019 PRO Chess League regular season complete, the playoff picture is set as 16 teams saw their season come to an end. Notable omissions include the Montreal Chessbrahs and the San Jose Hackers, as both teams did not perform well enough in the Battle Royale to progress to the knockout.
Given the strength of the top boards in each group, fourth-board performances were crucial, as teams like the Montclair Sopranos and Minnesota Blizzard won with strong performances from IM Thomas Bartell (6/7) and IM John Bartholomew (6.5/7), respectively.
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Battle Royale #9: Montclair Stuns Atlantic Division, Eliminates Chessbrahs
With the Montreal Chessbrahs outplaying the Montclair Sopranos last week, the New Jersey squad entered the final Battle Royale with slim chances of making the postseason. Unlike previous weeks, the Sopranos decided to shift up GM Nicholas Checa a board to play higher-rated players on third and fourth board.
Checa, who was officially awarded his grandmaster title last week, started the tournament with a convincing win as Black against Webster’s GM Vasif Durarbayli:
The Montclair second board would finish the day with a 5.5/7 score, outscoring players like GM Wesley So and GM Eric Hansen. The managerial decision truly paid off the Sopranos when IM Thomas Bartell scored 6/7 from fourth board, the highest in the group by a full 1.5 points. Despite arriving late and forfeiting his first game, Bartell won each of his remaining six games, outclassing his opponents.
Bartell showed his resolve when he beat NM Josh Bloomer from the Saint Louis Arch Bishops:
The dominant performance was capped off with a final-round win against the Montreal Chessbrahs, who had started the day in a PRO Chess League playoff spot. With the momentum in the Sopranos’ favor, it was Montreal who was sent packing at the conclusion of the Battle Royale.
— Montclair Sopranos ( @MntclrSopranos) March 12, 2019
With the conclusion of Atlantic Division action, Saint Louis, New York, Webster, and Montclair each booked spots to the PRO Chess League playoffs, which start next week. Fans will be treated to rematches in the Round of 16, as the Sopranos will seek revenge against the Saint Louis Arch Bishops, and the Windmills will do the same against the Marshalls.
The Battle Royale’s conclusion means that both the Pittsburgh Pawngrabbers and the London Lions will be relegated, as the Miami Champions narrowly dodged the cut in the final weeks of the season. Both the Pawngrabbers and the Lions will be missed, as the two teams will have to re-qualify for PRO Chess League action this fall.
Battle Royale #10: Minnesota Wins Pacific Division with Battle Royale Heroics
The stars aligned for the Minnesota this week, as both Chengdu and Dallas were not able to score enough points to stay on pace with the Blizzard. Minnesota, which spent much of the season in third and fourth places in the standings, not only won the Battle Royale, but won the Pacific Division as well.
Minnesota’s super-solid line-up saw each of its four members score 50 percent or better across all seven rounds. Most notably, IM John Bartholomew notched an impeccable 6.5/7, the highest score for in the whole group by a full 1.5 points. The Minnesota fourth board gave some insight into the regular-season success:
Bartholomew will have a lot of great memories from this Battle Royale, but perhaps he will most fondly remember his win in the Scandinavian against WIM Zhu Jiner, who had previously beaten him in January:
Winning the Pacific Division means the Minnesota will have the overall tiebreaker in the Pacific, as the Dallas Destiny, Chengdu Pandas, and Australia Kangaroos round out the division.
Unlike their counterparts in the Atlantic Division, the San Diego Surfers and Seattle Sluggers entered the night knowing that relegation was a likely outcome. Seattle’s top board, GM Hikaru Nakamura, made the most out of the situation by becoming first player in PRO Chess League history to play blindfolded:
It doesn’t seem to impair his ability to draw arrows and highlights! pic.twitter.com/BQuZEOflYg
— PROChessLeague ( @PROChessLeague) March 13, 2019
Nakamura wasn’t able to win against GM Jeffrey Xiong or GM Daniel Naroditsky blindfolded, but certainly had the most entertaining stream of the night.
Battle Royale #7: Tbilisi Edges out Armenia for Division; Delhi Relegated
All eyes were on the Eastern Division Battle Royale, as the clash between the Armenia Eagles and Tbilisi Gentlemen was set to determine the regular-season division champion. Fans would have to wait until the final round for the head-to-head clash, as the teams were within reach of first.
The Gentlemen pulled away when GM Luka Paichadze knocked off Armenia’s top board, GM Zaven Andriasyan:
Tbilisi finished with 19 points, with each of its four boards scoring four points or more.
Even tighter was the race for relegation. The Delhi Dynamite and Volga Stormbringers had a comfortable lead heading into the Battle Royale, but a strong performance from the Moscow Phoenix meant only two points separated fifth and seventh place.
Ultimately, relegation depended on the final-round clash between Delhi and the Phoenix, where GM Pavel Ponkratov was able to squeeze out a win against GM Vaibhav Suri:
The Phoenix jumped the Dynamite by a half-point, sending the India-based team to the relegation zone. Delhi, a team that reached the postseason in both 2017 and 2018, will have to re-qualify this fall alongside the Estonia Horses.
Battle Royale #12: Norway Clinches Division; Berlin Escapes Relegation
The only perfect score of the week came from the Gnomes’ IM Tor Fredrik Kaasen, who notched 7/7 in his 2019 PRO Chess League debut. The standout board four, backed by strong performances from GM Johan-Sebastian Christiansen (board 2, 5.5/7) and IM Lars Oskar Hauge (board 3, 5.5/7) was enough to clinch the Central Division title.
Kaasen beat NM Kevin Bordi in the event, but his most memorable game was his win against Amsterdam’s FM Jasel Lopez:
With Norway locking down the top seed in the division, Baden-Baden, Amsterdam, and Cannes followed suit, leaving the Marseilles Migraines out of the playoff picture. The division’s biggest surprise was Berlin escaping relegation, thanks to a strong performance on top board from GM Jacek Tomczak. The Bears’ first board scored 5.5/7, including his second win of the PRO Chess League season against GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave:
The Bears’ third-place finish meant that the Barcelona Raptors, who started the season as one of the league’s most exciting debutants, will have to re-qualify again next year alongside last year’s semifinalists, the Ljubljana Turtles.
Commentary for this week of #prochess was provided by Robert Hess, Alexandra Botez, Anna Rudolf, Levy Rozman and Daniel Rensch. All shows and archives are available at Twitch.tv/chess.