Anish Giri scored 3.5/4 as a replacement for an unwell Magnus Carlsen, but the Canada Chessbrahs again struggled on the bottom boards as Alexander Grischuk’s Blitz eliminated them 9:7. The Saint Louis Arch Bishops knocked out the Croatia Bulldogs by the same score, with the heroes Fabiano Caruana, who scored 4/4, and 13-year-old Alice Lee, who defeated 2700-rated Bogdan-Daniel Deac.
The final week of the regular season of the 2023 Pro Chess League features only six teams and a simple scenario — either you win and make the 8-team Playoffs, or you lose and you’re out.
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The Saint Louis Arch Bishops won the Pro Chess League in 2017, 2019 and 2020, but they lost their first two matches in 2023, leaving them needing to win the next three on demand to reach the Playoffs. In the end it was mission accomplished, with two players largely to thank.
One was current world no. 7 Fabiano Caruana, who missed the first match but played the rest and saved his best result for the crucial final decider against the Croatia Bulldogs, where he made 4/4.
It wasn’t just about the score, but how impressively he played, starting with a stylish win over Polina Shuvalova, where Fabi had correctly calculated that his a-pawn was a monster. Many moves were winning at the end, but 39…Rd1! was the most brutally efficient.
Of course if you take the d1-rook then the a-pawn queens with check.
The final move against the Bulldog’s top player, Bogdan-Daniel Deac, was also memorable, with 44…Rxc6 a nice last try by Bogdan-Daniel. 45.Bxc6?? would be a huge mistake, since after 45…Bxc6 it would just be a drawish opposite-coloured bishops endgame. Fabi blitzed out 45.b7!, however, and it’s game over, since the pawn queens.
The player to capture the hearts of chess fans, however, was 13-year-old Alice Lee, who already had the scalp of Matthias Bluebaum in this year’s Pro Chess League. She added 2700-rated Bogdan-Daniel Deac after surviving a tough position and then spotting the chance to make her passed c-pawn unstoppable.
46.Nc5! was the key move, with the c6-pawn impossible to capture since the e5-knight is pinned to the king by the white rook.
There was no way back for Bogdan-Daniel as Alice clinched a hugely important win.
She almost repeated the trick against the Bulldogs’ no. 2 Aleksandar Indjic, but the 2600-rated Serbian found a fortress to survive. Those results put the Saint Louis Arch Bishops in a dominant position, and although Alice lost the remaining two games it made no difference to the overall result.
Going into a do-or-die battle against powerful opponents, the Canada Chessbrahs got some bad news. The World Champion Magnus Carlsen was feeling unwell and they were forced to replace him with… the world no. 5, Anish Giri.
Anish was making his debut with big boots to fill — Magnus had scored 4/4, 3/4, 4/4 and 3/4 in his four matches — and also a handicap. The line-ups are announced in advance, and the penalty for a late change was that Anish would start all of his games with a minute less on the clock than his opponents.
The conditions were therefore tough for Giri’s season debut, but he rose to the challenge, conceding just one draw, after playing the Berlin against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, to make it a Magnus-worthy 3.5/4, including a win over Alexander Grischuk.
That was only Grischuk’s second loss in 20 Pro Chess League games this season, but it didn’t matter, as his team Blitz went on to win 9:7 — their first win of the season without the need for a blitz playoff. Grischuk explained why they’d won:
Today we had a very stable team, everybody contributed greatly to the victory. That’s important. You really need all your four boards to score considerable points, because otherwise it’s just too difficult.
Today for Saint Louis, Caruana managed to score 4/4 on Board 1, but overall it will not be easy like this. You cannot go too far with trying to score four on Board 1. It will not work out. Everyone has to contribute more or less evenly. Like in basketball, you cannot have one guy consistently scoring 60 points if you want to win a championship. It should be all players contributing.
Jorden van Foreest scored a decent 2.5/5 for the Chessbrahs, including a memorable opening try against Grischuk…
…and finished on an unbeaten 6/8 for the season, but the Chessbrahs struggled on the bottom boards, with U.S. Women’s Championship Jennifer Yu ending on 0.5/12, though not without some chances for more. She was very close to escaping with a draw against Grischuk…
…and could have beaten Kateryna Lagno for one fleeting moment.
Kateryna had earlier correctly sacrificed a piece, but she struggled to find the best follow-up and here Jennifer could have solved all her problems with 33.Bg5! and, with Black’s attack over, she would be winning.
Instead after 33.h5? Rdd1! White had to try and force perpetual check, since after 34.Kh2? Rh1+ Kateryna went on to win.
Her husband Grischuk was asked if they strategize together before the matches:
No, not really. I’m just saying, “come on, let’s go!” like Doc Rivers. I’m the same type of coach.
On Friday there’s one more match to decide the 8th and final Playoff team, with Sam Sevian’s Garden State Passers taking on Arjun Erigaisi’s Team MGD1.
That match starts at 10:30am ET/15:30 CET/20:00 IST, and it’s notable that within an hour of the likely end of the match, Sam Sevian will be back in action facing Hikaru Nakamura in a classical game as the American Cup begins.
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