Thursday, November 05, 2009

Playoffs 2009

The Mechanics' Institute finished the regular season with a draw against two-time defending USCL Champions the Dallas Destiny. Sometimes the final score doesn't give a good indicator of a match but this was fairly close all the way. Yian got the better of a theoretical Dragon battle with Bayaraa Zorigt, one of the League's all-time great board fours, and defeated her in a nice game. Vinay was the next to finish with a solidly played draw with IM Salvijus Bercys. At this point things were looking pretty good as our rival for second in the West, Arizona, was losing to Miami. We clinched second when Daniel drew a well-played game against Keaton Kiewra. This left Patrick in the sort of odd situation of playing a game that didn't have any effect on the standings as Seattle had drawn with Chicago clinching first in the West. His opponent, IM Daniel Ludwig, finally won in an up and done struggle in which the advantage changed hands several times.

This leaves the Mechanics' facing Arizona in round one of the playoff with draw odds. The team meet in a rematch of round seven of the regular season where Arizona won 2.5-1.5 in a crazy match that could have gone either way. Arizona, which is sort of two teams in one with players drawn from Phoenix and Tucson usually playing along side those from their own city, has benefited immensely from the addition of former Dallas Destiny team member GM Alejandro Ramirez. He played a key role in leading Arizona to a second half resurgence which included wins over the two teams with the best regular season records - New Jersey and Seattle. One of the best run teams in the league with extensive sponsorship (Chess.com from Silicon Valley among them), Arizona will be a formidable foe.

Congratulations go to the New Jersey Knockouts whose regular season record of 8-2 was the best in the league and and only half a point shy of the all-time record set by the Mechanics' 2006 team. Curiously the team with the season winner has had mixed success in the post season with New York in 2005 and Carolina, Queens and Miami in 2008 failing to make the final. San Francisco managed to get the job done in 2006 but only after defeating New York in a blitz playoff. The form charts only held in 2007 when the two teams with the best season records, Dallas and Boston met in the final with the former winning the championship in another dramatic blitz playoff.

One of the most interesting lineup decisions will be made by Seattle manager Eddie Chang who will have to decide whether to go with his 1-2 punch of GMs Hikaru Nakamura and Gregory Serper with NM Howard Chen on board four or a more balanced lineup with SM Slava Mikhailuk on board two and 2300 NM Josh Sinanan on board four. The thought at the beginning of the season was that the two GM lineup would be rolled out as the first option, but the unavailability of Chen, who rumor has it had high school tennis matches on Wednesdays, nixed that plan. Milhailuk and Sinanan rose to the challenge for much of the season (Slava defeating GM Shabalov) before cooling off. Sinanan, one of the USCL's premier fourth boards, lost his last two matches, but the results are a little deceiving as the loss in round 9 was in a position where he had to decline a draw because his team was losing in the match, but in doing so immediately found himself in a terrible position. Against Chicago he was doing well but stumbled and lost again - but in a situation where his result was unimportant for the team as they had already clinched the top seed in the West.

It's also not entirely clear who will be board three. Going into the season SM Michael Lee was the clear choice but a combination of some difficult games and possible unavailability led to Canadian ex-pat Marcel Milat being inserted into the lineup and he has performed well. All USCL team managers would love to have to ponder the choices that manager Chang faces. One thing that no doubt help him sleep well at night is that if Seattle makes it to the championship match and it ends in 2-2 he will have Hikaru for the blitz.

Boston, having come so close two years in a row, will be hungry as will New Jersey whose 1-2 punch of GMs Joel Benjamin and Boris Gulko have been near perfect this season. The West has won the league title three seasons running but either of these teams could bring the title back East.

Those who like underdogs might consider New York and Miami. Neither team had exceptional regular season records but both have a tradition of playing well come the playoffs.

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