Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A loss in the semi-finals to Miami

Sic transit gloria mundi. Just after everything seemed to be coming together after defeating Arizona last week we collapsed in the semi-finals against Miami. The final score is not indicative of the one-sidedness of the match, one of the worst defeats the Mechanics' has ever been administered.

San Francisco 1.5 - 2.5 Miami

1. GM Jesse Kraai (SF) vs GM Julio Becerra (MIA) 1/2-1/2
2. IM Blas Lugo (MIA) vs GM Vinay Bhat (SF) 0-1
3. IM David Pruess (SF) vs IM Alejandro Moreno Roman (MIA) 0-1
4. NM Eric Rodriguez (MIA) vs NM Yian Liou (SF) 1-0

The opening here was a bit of a surprise as GM Becerra usually favors the Slav and King's Indian but Jesse's treatment of these openings ( dxe5 and cxd5) may have persuaded him to try something more active. At any rate his use of the Grunfeld quickly paid dividends. Jesse could have and maybe should have played 15.Bd3 planning Nc5 with a solid position where he wouldn't stand worse. Instead he lashed out with 15.f4. Maybe he could have salvaged his position with the computer like 18.Bf3 Qb6 19.Rd3 Rfe8 20.Rb3. He definitely was on the road to defeat after 18.Rd4.The half point at the end was just a gift to clinch the match for Miami.

Kraai,J (2552) - Becerra,J (2615) [D85]
USCL San Francisco vs Miami Internet Chess Club (12), 16.11.2009

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Bd2 Nb6 6.Nf3 Bg7 7.e3 0-0 8.Be2 Nc6 9.0-0 e5 10.Nxe5 Nxe5 11.dxe5 Bxe5 12.Qc2 c6 13.Rad1 Be6 14.Ne4 Bf5 15.f4 Bg7 16.Bc3 Nd5 17.Bxg7 Kxg7 18.Rd4 Qb6 19.Qd2 Bxe4 20.Rxe4 Rae8 21.Qd4+ Qxd4 22.Rxd4 Nxe3 23.Rf2 Rd8 24.Re4 Rfe8 25.Rxe8 Rxe8 26.Bf3 Nc4 27.Rc2 Nb6 28.Kf2 h5 29.Rd2 Re7 30.Rd8 Na4 31.b3 Nc3 32.a4 Ne4+ 33.Bxe4 Rxe4 34.g3 a5 35.Kf3 Rb4 36.Rd3 c5 37.Ke3 b6 38.Rc3 Kf6 39.h3 Ke6 40.g4 hxg4 41.hxg4 g5 42.fxg5 1/2-1/2

This game was the only bright spot for the Mechanics'. Vinay equalized out of the opening and when Blas chose 21.Nh2 instead of 21.Nf2 he was better and steadily increased his advantage and could have finished off in fine style with 33...Nf4! followed by ...g5. Instead things got ragged ( 35...Ng5? instead of 35...Nc5) and with 37.Bg4 White would have been equal - instead 37.Bd4?? lost on the spot.

Lugo,B (2351) - Bhat,V (2504) [C55]
USCL San Francisco vs Miami Internet Chess Club (12), 16.11.2009

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d3 Be7 5.Nc3 d6 6.a4 0-0 7.0-0 Bg4 8.h3 Bh5 9.Be3 Qd7 10.Nd5 Nxd5 11.Bxd5 Bg6 12.Nh2 Nd8 13.f4 exf4 14.Bxf4 Ne6 15.Be3 c6 16.Ba2 d5 17.exd5 cxd5 18.Qf3 Rfd8 19.Ng4 Qd6 20.Rae1 h5 21.Nh2 Bf6 22.Qf2 Be5 23.Nf3 Bg3 24.Qd2 Bxe1 25.Rxe1 Rac8 26.c3 Qa6 27.Ne5 Bh7 28.Bb3 f6 29.Nf3 Bxd3 30.Qf2 Bg6 31.Nh4 Be4 32.Bxa7 Re8 33.Bb6 Rc6 34.a5 Qb5 35.Bd1 Ng5 36.Bxh5 Re5 37.Bd4 Nxh3+ 38.gxh3 Rxh5 0-1

The famous game Steinitz-Zuckertort, London 1872, saw 8...Bc5 but IM Moreno Roman's seems quite playable as well. Maybe White had to try Rybka's suggestion of 10.g3 fxg3 11.Bg2 gxh2 12.Kf1. Instead David, who was working everything out over the board, played 10.Qe1 as seen in Chigorin-Mortimer, Paris 1900. Black's 10...Bxf3+ was a substantial improvement over 10...Re8+ as played by Mortimer and White never had a chance.

Pruess,D (2418) - Moreno Roman,A (2331) [C25]
USCL San Francisco vs Miami Internet Chess Club (12), 16.11.2009

1.e4 e5 2.f4 Nc6 3.Nc3 exf4 4.d4 Qh4+ 5.Ke2 d5 6.Nf3 Bg4 7.exd5 0-0-0 8.dxc6 Nf6 9.cxb7+ Kb8 10.Qe1 Bxf3+ 11.gxf3 Re8+ 12.Ne4 Qh5 13.Kf2 Nxe4+ 14.Kg1 Bb4 15.Qxb4 Qxf3 16.Qe1 Ng3 0-1 White forfeits on time

Yian was doing fine here ( and had a 50 minute advantage on the clock) but he should have played either 17...Nh5 18.Nxe5 Bxe5 19.Bd3 Be6 or 19...e4 with equal chances. Instead allowing White to capture on f5 and play e4 quickly led to an untenable position.

Rodriguez,E (2290) - Liou,Y (2149) [A85]
USCL San Francisco vs Miami Internet Chess Club (12), 16.11.2009

1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.Nc3 d6 4.Bg5 Nbd7 5.Qc2 g6 6.h4 h6 7.Bd2 e5 8.dxe5 Nxe5 9.0-0-0 Be6 10.Nh3 Qd7 11.b3 0-0-0 12.Nf4 Bf7 13.f3 Bg7 14.e3 g5 15.hxg5 hxg5 16.Rxh8 Bxh8 17.Nd3 Bg6 18.Nxe5 dxe5 19.g4 Qh7 20.gxf5 Bxf5 21.e4 Bd7 22.Bxg5 Qh5 23.Qd2 c6 24.Be2 Qf7 25.Qe3 b6 26.c5 b5 27.Rd6 Rg8 28.Bxb5 cxb5 29.c6 Bh3 30.Nxb5 a6 31.Rxf6 Qxf6 32.Bxf6 Bxf6 33.Qa7 1-0

Every team in the US Chess League is bit of a mystery to the rest. How they chose their lineups each week is based on insider information (who is in town, who is healthy, who is good form) that no scouting report is likely to predict, but this season much of the league might have guessed the Mechanics' were playing musical chairs. Seven of the ten players on the roster made trips to Europe during the season, some for prolonged periods. This was not fully anticipated when assembling the team roster and at times we were down to four eligible players ( i.e.. the court of last resort - Donaldson goes into the lineup). The plan was to field two of our four GMs, put Sam Shankland and his 2550 USCF rating on three, and 2300 strength NM Yian Liou on four.

The potential of this plan was shown the first four weeks of the season when we got off to a hot start with 3.5 from 4 including 3-1 wins over Dallas and Miami. Then we lost Sam who went to Europe in search of his last GM norm. Objectively speaking this was a serious loss as Sam's lifetime winning percentage in the league is over 80 percent. This meant the Mechanics' had gone from one of the most dangerous teams in the league to merely a good one. The change was immediately apparent as the team stumbled drawing only one of its next three matches to hover barely over 50 percent. Then came a good comeback with two consecutive wins and a draw to get the second seed in the West. A victory over Arizona left us only two matches short of the goal and with Sam back for the final match ( but Josh and Vinay out of town for the December 5 final) , but it was not to be as we lost to a Miami team that fully deserved their win

All things considered tying for third in the 14-team league ( + 6, -3, =3) was a respectable finish even if we still dream of what might have been. None of the successes we enjoyed would have been possible without team MVP Yian Liou. Before the start of the season David Pruess and I were uncertain how to put together the roster. Sam Shankland and Daniel Naroditsky were both substantially high rated than the year before. Many of our GMs were likely to be unavailable at different stages of the season so we knew there were few spots we could afford for board four. Greg Young, had played well in years past, and did again this season ( 2-0 !), but demanding high school academics and basketball met he could only play a few matches. Also his rating was too high to allow the two GM plus Sam lineup. Enter Yian Liou.

NM Michael Aigner, who has worked with so many of the promising young players to come up through the Bay Area ranks ( Shankland, Naroditsky, Zierk, Young, Schwarz, etc...) wrote to David and I telling us we should check out this 12-year-old kid from Walnut Creek who just might do the trick. This proved to be a slight understatement. Yian scored 6.5 from 10 for a performance rating that was over 2400 until the final match. He not only performed excellently and was extremely durable ( no one else on the team played more than 7 matches) , he did it with an assessed rating of 2019! That's good value.

Two other players came up big during the season. Former US Champion Patrick Wolff scored 2.5 from 4 for a performance rating well over 2600. He and Vinay Bhat stepped into the lineup the second half of the season replacing European bound GMs Josh Friedel and Jesse Kraai who had been struggling. Josh has been a steady performer for the MI in the USCL over the years but 2009 is a season I am sure he would rather forget with 1.5 from 5, his only win straight from theory. Jesse's final score of 3 from 6 was good for a 2500 performance but a little deceptive as it includes a gift half point from Becerra and scrapping out the bottom of the barrel for a draw and win respectively against Krush and Felecan in the regular season. Both Josh and Jesse are perfectionists who like to think which are not necessarily good qualities in the USCL where practical players reign supreme.

Daniel Naroditsky is also a perfectionist and for much of his USCL career has had a hard time. This season looked to promise more of the same as it started out with a pair of painful losses (particularly the one against Danny Rensch) but he really rose to the occasion the last part of the year. Filling in for Sam Shankland he scored an undefeated 3 from 4 down the stretch to play a key role in helping the team turn things around.

The future is uncertain for the Mechanics'. We lose IM (soon to be GM) Sam Shankland who will be attending Brandeis University next season but will have our young Tigers Daniel and Yian back plus a bunch of GMs and IMs, but how to squeeze them in under the rating cap? The quest will be on to find the missing link. Are there any Bay Area players rated 2000 on the September 2009 rating list that will be 2300 strength come next September? Let me know!

I would like to thank our loyal tournament director Payam Tanaka for performing his duties in exemplary fashion. Payam not only made sure all was proper and by the book but his statistical analysis of other teams was very useful in guessing lineups in advance. He also made sure no one suffered from low blood sugar by providing a steady supply of pastries and drinks. Thank Payam!

One of the reasons the MI has enjoyed the success it has is due to the cultivation of its junior talent. This season was no exception and I would like to thank Michael Aigner, Sam Shankland, David Pruess and Josh Friedel for helping Yian Liou prepare for his games throughout the season. Seeing Patrick Wolff patiently explaining the intricacies of an ending to Yian in a post mortem was watching the knowledge of a great player of the past being transferred to a future star right before my eyes. The hard work and willingness to share was greatly appreciated.

Friday, November 13, 2009


US Chess League Semi-Finals

The first round of the playoffs produced plenty of surprises with only New Jersey's victory going more or less as predicted. Who would have thought Boston would have scored 1.5 points on the bottom boards (Matirisov came up big) but lose the match with draw odds. New York's tandem of Kachesvili and Charbonneau played very well. Fourth board Sean Finn was huge for New Jersey winning with Black in only his third USCL match against a higher-rated opponent.

New York's lineup is easy to guess: 1. GM Georgi Kacheishvili 2. GM Pascal Charbonneau 3. NM Matt Herman 4. SM Yaacov Norowitz, but New Jersey's is harder. Joel Benjamin will definitely be on first and Sean Finn has earned himself the spot on four after his nice win last week and 2.5 from 3 this season.

Who they will select on boards two and three is harder to say. One choice is a repeat of last week with rock solid Dean Ippolito on two and Mackenzie Molnar on three. The other option is GM Boris Gulko (8 for 8 in the league !) and Victor Shen who is 3 for 3 this season including a victory the opening week of the season against Herman.

Both approaches have merit for New Jersey which needs 2 points to advance. Assuming New Jersey chooses White on boards one and three (as they did last week) the first plan leaves them with a clear advantage on three but as underdogs on two and four. Using this lineup it might make sense to use the White pieces on two and four . Ippolito with White is very tough to beat (with Black as well!) and can hold Charboneau. Taking White on the even numbered boards would also give New Jersey White on board four where they face their greatest rating differential. Molner gets Black in this scenario but he is also the only Knockout with a sizeable rating advantage. Several time US Champion Joel Benjamin is known for playing very well with Black.

Going with Gulko and Shen changes the picture as with a second GM in the lineup they can go either way with the colors. Using these two players they measure up better on board two but lose some fire power on three.

Looking at the regular season matchups New Jersey defeated New York 2.5-1.5 in weeks 1 and 4. Both times Kacheishvili and Benjamin drew on board one while Ippolito (as White) and Gulko defeated Charbonneau. It's definitely not easy to beat Pascal twice in one season. Molner and Shen both defeated Herman on three while Norowitz won both of his games on board four but not again Finn. The key for New Jersey is to keep on doing what they have done in the two previous matches - they might possibly get extra help on board four. New York would seem like it has to win four and a draw on three would definitely have them looking good. One thing is pretty clear - New Jersey will have to win at least one game to advance as 2-2 matches with all games drawn are really rare in the USCL.

Last minute notice - I just noticed New Jersey took White on one and three. Accordingly I expect Gulko and Shen to be playing and not Ippolito and Molner..

While the East pits a veteran team (New York has been to the playoffs all five years) against a playoff newcomer, the West is a much different story. The Miami Sharks and SF Mechanics' have a long rivalry dating back to the beginning of the league. The competitiveness of the two teams can be measured by the 6-5 lifetime score in San Francisco's favor. Both teams have enjoyed success The Mechanics' won the league title in 2006 while Miami was second in 2005. The M.I. well remembers being eliminated twice by Miami in 2005 and 2007 - both times by 2.5-1.5.

The two teams featured much different lineups in their week three and six matches this season (the Mechanics won the first 3-1 and the second was a draw) with the only players participating in both of them Julio Becerra, Jesse Kraai and Yian Liou. The semi-final match will see more personnel seeing action.

Miami has an assortment of riches starting with first board Julio Becerra. It would be hard to think of a better person to build a team around than the many time league MVP and first board-first team all star. Miami has three formidable number twos (the team scored 75 percent on this board the regular season) in Marcel Martinez, Bruci Lopez and Blas Lugo. The first two are younger and higher rated but the veteran Lugo has come through for them in the clutch, his performance against Seattle last week yet another example. Young master Eric Rodriguez has been very dependable doing double duty on boards three or four.

The lineup that Miami is using this round:

GM Julio Becerra
IM Blas Lugo
IM Alejandro Moreno Roman
NM Eric Rodriguez

has been their most effective this season. They tied Tennessee (Week 4)and beat Carolina (Week 5),Arizona (Week 10), and Seattle (Week 11)with it. Curiously it is only their ninth highest rated combination, but it works well as they are very competitive on all four boards.

The Mechanics' are countering with:

GM Jesse Kraai
GM Vinay Bhat
IM David Pruess
NM Yian Liou

The MI, finishing second in the Western Division to Miami's fourth, not only has draw odds, but got to chose colors selecting White on board one and three. Selecting White against Julio Becerra seems a prudent choice and it will be interesting to see how Jesse's scientific technical/positional style plays out against Becerra who can do everything but likes to mix things up whenever possible.

Board two will be a matchup between Blas Lugo, who does double duty as both a player and captain for the Sharks, and the Mechanics' Vinay Bhat. Here the MI will have a substantial rating advantage but Lugo is a very experienced and dependable team player who will benefit from having White.

Two IMs will meet on three. David Pruess of the Mechanics'has some rating advantage and the White pieces. Alejandro Moreno Roman had trouble showing his true strength in the USCL until the last two weeks when he put together back to back wins against Robby Adamson and Michael Lee.

Last, but certainly not least, two of the league's premier board fours meet. NM Eric Rodriguez of Miami and Yian Liou of San Francisco have turned in almost identical performances this season with the former scoring 7 from 10 and the latter 6.5 from 9, both with performance ratings around 2400.

This is a harder match to predict than that between New York and New Jersey as neither team has White and a huge rating advantage on any board (Rodriguez is currently 2320 to Liou's 2226 but the latter has played well over 2300 his last three events increasing his rating 87 points in just 17 games.

Past history says it will be close, no more than 2.5-1.5 for either team, and having draw odds might just be useful this time around.

This will be a tough match for the Mechanics' and we will need to play our absolute best.

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.

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 ( 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.