Monday, November 09, 2009

The regular season and playoffs are always two different things in the US Chess League. Winning the regular season requires consistency. Four board matches and a 2400 rating cap require bringing the strongest possible lineup to each match, week after week. Depth and availability are where it's at.

The playoffs are different. Here all you need is one good lineup . Yes there are perks that go with having a stellar regular season in having draw odds and getting to choose colors, but the margin for error is small so every team has a fighting chance - just some more than others.

Boston - New York

The rivalry between New York and Boston is one of the highlights of any USCL season and this match should only add to the tradition. This year the teams met only once at the end of the regular season with little at stake - Boston won 2.5-1.5. Looking at their records the Blitz would seem to be a clear favorite but that does not take into account two factors. The first is that New York, as in the past, had trouble putting together consistent lineups during the regular season and the second is the Norowitz factor.

Looking at the top two boards for each team the predicted result would be 1-1. All four players are strong experienced GMs and its likely they will balance each other out. The pairing on board three was a surprise for me. Matt Herman was to be expected for New York. He has been a fixture in their lineup this season, playing against higher opposition with reasonable results, which enables NY to utilize its Norowitz factor on board four.

Vadim Martirosov has been an important role player for Boston for several seasons but the question that has to be asked is where is IM Marc Esserman? The rating cap means that teams that want to have outstanding results need to consistently play well above their ratings (a tough trick to pull off - think Carolina in 2008) or they need to have a substantially underrated player (someone who showed significant rating improvement the past year. Usually such a player is a kid and a fit for board four. Esserman has morphed into a strong IM and would have given Boston a definite edge on three. Unfortunantely for Boston, for Esserman to fit into the lineup with the two GMs it means Expert Andrew Wang would have to play on board four. Which combination - Esserman-Wang or Matirisov-Krasik, would yield more points, is a tough call. Esserman's absence means board three is a pick-em.

This now leads us to board four where New York reveals its not so secret weapon Yaacov Norowitz, the likely reason Esserman was not included in the Boston lineup. Presently rated 2431 but counting for only 2212 Norowitz is about 90 percent fast twitch muscle fiber and a true product of the ICC. He has not lost a game in scoring 6 from 8 this season but has not been as dominating as the rating differentials would have suggested. Norowitz's positional skills are still catching up to his considerable tactical ability and at times this season he seems to have been at a loss what to with his often considerable advantages on the clock. His opponent, Ilya Krasik, a USCL playoff veteran (this is Norowitz's first season), has been playing well this year and will have White so another tossup.

Boston should have just enough firepower to advance to the next round in their quest to make it to the finals for the third year running.

Boston 2 - New York 2


New Jersey - Baltimore

This looks like a total mismatch on paper as the playoff team with the best season record (New Jersey) faces the only team that with a losing record ( Baltimore). Don't bet heavily on New Jersey if you have to give any odds. The Knockouts had a phenomenal regular season and they did it in interesting fashion with tremendous scoring on the top three boards with several time US Champion Joel Benjamin holding down board one ( 5/9) followed by GM Boris Gulko ( 5/5 !), IM Dean Ippolito (3.5/5), IM Albert Kapengut (2/2 !) and NM Victor Shen ( 3/3 !). The first half of the season New Jersey had terrible problems on board 4 scoring 1 from 5 but using a platoon system the second half of the season turned things around big time scoring 4.5 from the last 5 matches.

Unlike Seattle that has a clear maximum lineup ( 1.Nakamura 2. Serper 3.Lee 4.Chen) New Jersey doesn't have anything quite comparable. Playing their big frontline of Benjamin, Gulko and Ippolito leaves only Anna Matlin or Arthur Shen eligible for board four. Both are young improving Experts, and New Jersey might go with a lineup including them in a later round, but for the moment the manager for the Knockouts has opted to go for a more balanced approach which could be called the law of 200 rating points, the same law the Boston manager is following this round. Basically this law calls for not giving up more than 200 rating points on any board - to try to preserve realistic possibilities to win any matchup. Of course this is the USCL and anything can happen in any match, and even more so in any individual game, but past performance factors in somewhere along the line.

Baltimore has a tough regular season but look at how they match up. Board one is strong GM versus strong GM. Joel has White so give New Jersey a slight edge though note Sergey Erenburg has yet to lose a match this season . Board two Tegshuren Enkhbat is solid and experienced as is Dean Ippolito and a draw the normal result between these two players. Board three is likely where New Jersey is counting on Molnar to come through strongly with White. He will likely need to as 21-year-old Expert Sean Finn, with only two USCL matches under his belt, faces a stiff challenge in Tsagaan Battsetseg who plays much better with White and is a tested USCL playoff veteran.

New Jersey advances 2.5 - 1.5.

Seattle - Miami

Once again this looks like another mismatch with Miami out rated by almost 100 points a board. Seattle has come to the playoffs with one of the highest rated lineups in the history of the league. This is the second time this season that Seattle has unveiled it's fearsome foursome. The first time out New York went 2-2 with Charbonneau beating Serper on board two as White. This time Seattle, with both draw odds and the choice of colors in the first round, elected to take Black on first board giving Serper White.

Seattle could take of business by winning on the first two boards but 2400 Michael Lee and 2200 NM Howard Chen aim to help the case. Lee, who gained his SM title this past summer, is a tremendous talent, but has not enjoyed great success in the USCL in his four seasons. Miami will definitely be going after him and Chen on board four. The latter is a mystery for USCL fans as a high school tennis matches limited him to only two regular season matches. Facing him on board four is NM Eric Rodriguez who had a fine regular season (6.5 from 9 for a 2420 performance).

Its easy to figure out scenarios where Seattle wins - for Miami it is a bit trickier. Clearly Lugo as Black is a serious underdog against Serper but he will do what he can. Should he pick up a half point Seattle might be in trouble. Moreno has played little this season but came through against Adamson in the last round of the regular season and he has White. Should he and Rodriguez both win anything is possible. More realistically they might get 1.5 points. In any case they need help from above.

GM Julio Becerra, the 2006-2007 USCL MVP faces the current titleholder Hikaru Nakamura. Hikaru was near perfect this season, with 5.5 from 6 ( 2719 PR) while Julio had his worst season in the USCL ( a still very respectable 4.5/9, PR 2586). Their regular season match saw Hikaru avenge his loss in the 2008 USCL playoffs. Here Julio gets White as in last season's playoffs. This might well be the most exciting game of the first round.

I go with Seattle 2.5 -1.5 but end with the following caveat - Miami is a very tight knit group that play well together. If the Sharks smell blood they will be ready!

San Francisco - Arizona

The final first round match up features the most evenly matched teams both by average rating and season record. They met once in the regular season with Arizona winning 2.5-1.5 in a contest where either side might have scored 3.5 points! Neither team is at complete strength. The regular season Arizona fourth board David Adelberg is in Turkey playing in the World Youth. For the MI GMs Josh Friedel and Jesse Kraai and IM Sam Shankland are worshipping Caissa at the rate of one game a day in Europe.

The absence of Adelberg means that the Scorpions will be playing the equally strong NM Leo Martinez on board four but have to make up for this by playing IM Rensch on two and FM Adamson on three (instead of GM Barcenilla/ IM Altounian on two and Rensch on three. The result is a match that looks highly competitive on every board. Going board by board I see a slight edge for White in every instance and therefore 2-2 is the expected result with San Francisco advancing on draw odds.

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