More than 100 top-quality chess players will have the next three months of their lives transformed in a single day. And that day is this Saturday.
The first-ever Professional Rapid Online (PRO) Chess League Qualification Tournament will advance eight teams to complete the 2018 season's field. The twin tournaments will be separated by geographic region and will qualify the final eight of the league's 32 teams.
Six squads will have clinched by day's end, while two others will be galvanizing support to try to win a fan vote for the final two spots.
The qualifier tournaments will begin at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. Pacific time on Oct. 28. The starting times were chosen to accommodate as many players in as many time zones as possible.
The Central and Eastern Divisions will go first. Nearly twice as many teams (26) signed up from this division, which covers Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the later qualifier, 14 Atlantic and Pacific Division hopefuls will battle.
The format is simple: Each team will consist of four players, with an average rating below 2500. Players compete as individuals toward a final team composite score. The tournaments are 15-round Swisses played at a time control of 3+2. At the end, teams tabulate the total of their four players for their final score (teammates are allowed to play each other in the tournament).
After 15 rounds, the top three teams in each qualifier have qualified for the 2018 PRO Chess League season. Fourth- through sixth-place teams will be entered into a fan vote for the final placement from each division.
Let's take a look at composition of some of the highest-rated teams.
In the Central and Eastern Divisional Tournament, the Estonians proved to be good at math. The Estonia Horses, which are apparently small but "strong and resilient against sickness," managed to field a lineup that averages 2499.5.
They are captained by native son GM Jaan Ehlvest, who now represents the U.S. but was briefly in the world's top five in the early 1990s. Not only has Ehlvest entered the building, but so has commentator extraordinaire GM Sergei Shipov, who is actually a few rating points higher. Both men once crested 2650+. Throw in two other high-2400 Estonian GMs and you've got a rare quad-GM lineup that is deserving of "favorite" status.
Who's gonna ride those Estonian Horses? GM Sergei Shipov will put down the microphone and pick up the pieces on Saturday.
With the Delhi Dynamite already one of the 24 guaranteed teams for next season, a few more Indian contingents are vying to join them. Teams from Hyderabad, Mumbai, Amaravati, and Guntur have all thrown their papadums in the ring.
(Yes, before you ask, several teams from all over the world are courting GM Viswanathan Anand. As of this writing, however, he is still unsigned to a team, but we know he doesn't like to get bored. Also accepting invitations to play on your team? Some former world rapid champion named "Aronian"! )
The Hyderabad Hawks clock in as the number-two team by average rating (2492.75). They are captained by GM Harika Dronavalli, currently the number-11 woman in the world. Teams are allowed to have one free agent, and her recruiting included a big "bird" -- the highest-rated member of the team is the Stanford University student GM Parimarjan Negi (2656). Distance from Hyderabad to Stanford, California: 13,539 km. The Cardinal-turned-Hawk flies far.
Hyderabad Hawk GM Harika Dronavalli will hope the "City of Pearls" gives her wisdom this weekend.
Sweden is also attempting to stack the division. With the Stockholm Snowballs already resting comfortably on the couch for next season, GM Nils Grandelius leads the Malmo Moomins this Saturday. The country's best player, who also seconded GM Magnus Carlsen at last year's world championship, must have been jealous that constant-rival Norway made to the PRO League finals in the league's first season.
Chess.com's graphic designers will have some fun designing a logo if the hippopotamus-like "Moomins" from the Swedish kids' book series qualify. Image: Wikipedia.
In addition, a second team from the largest city will try to create the chance for a Stockholm derby. The GM Grigor Grigorov-led Stockholm Wasabis will try to blend an incongruous Scandinavia-Asian fusion in the qualifiers.
GM Nils Grandelius will try bring the Moomins off the pages and onto the chessboard.
As for France, only the Riviera is assured representation in 2018, with the Cannes Blockbusters guaranteed to be chasing the PRO League's Palme d'Or. The Marseille Migraines, led by GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, will also return.
Attempting to join them will be a three-GM squad, the Paris Musketeers, and the Nantes Kingslayers, who are led by grandmaster born in one of the most unlikely places. GM Adrien Demuth was born in Réunion, an island region of France east of Madagascar. Then he learned to play chess as a boy in Tahiti, but will now represent a town in the Loire Valley, in an internet competition! A true 21st-century story if there ever were one.
GM Adrien Demuth's peripatetic life hasn't stopped him from becoming a top French player. | Photo: Mike Klein, Chess.com.
In the Atlantic and Pacific Divisional qualifier, which encompasses North and South America and also Australia and parts of China, the chances are much greater for teams to advance. Instead of a field of 26, only 14 teams signed up, but there are some much bigger top boards contending.
The highest-rated foursome is led by GM Hikaru Nakamura, who switches coasts this year: last year a Miami Champion, this time a Seattle Slugger. His team tops out as the only one with a rating above 2500. The 2507.75 average is allowed since any super-GMs only have their rating "counted" as 2700 for purposes of having the team average below 2500.
Like Shipov, frequent commentator/streamer IM John Bartholomew will let his moves do the talking this Saturday for the Minnesota Blizzard.
This will be the second time Nakamura takes his talents to the Pacific Northwest -- in 2008 and 2009 he also wore a Sluggers jersey in the U.S. Chess League. He will be hoping to rekindle some of that Starbucks magic. In 2009 Nakamura was the league's MVP.
Australia didn't field any teams in the PRO Chess League's first season. They seek to make amends for that with two teams entered Saturday. The nationalism is apparent as both teams have chosen the country as their location name -- the Australia Kangaroos (seeded second) and the Australia Blitzkrieg (seeded fourth).
GM David Smerdon (left) analyzing after his draw with GM Magnus Carlsen at the 2016 Olympiad. | Photo: Mike Klein, Chess.com.
Six of the country's top seven players will be competing for one of the two teams, with the most recognizable name for Chess.com members being GM David Smerdon. "Smurfo" has just moved back to his native homeland recently and will captain the Blitzkrieg as he tries to cull the Kangaroo.
Other notable teams and names include the Chengdu Pandas, captained by GM Yu Yangyi; the San Fransisco Mechanics, led by GM Daniel Naroditsky; and the Atlanta Kings, where GM Ben Finegold will attempt his second title with a different team. He also recruited GM Gadir Guseinov to "The Big Peach."
The winning St. Louis Arch Bishops won't need the qualification tournament, but they will have to do without the services of GM Ben Finegold (exact middle) this year. | Photo: Mike Klein, Chess.com.
Both qualifier tournaments can be watched with commentary on Twitch.tv/chess or Chess.com/TV. The Central and Eastern Divisions will be hosted by IM David Pruess and IM Anna Rudolf and will begin this Saturday at 8 a.m. Pacific (GMT-7), which is 5 p.m. Paris and 8:30 p.m. Mumbai.
The Atlantic and Pacific Divisions will be hosted by IM Danny Rensch and WGM Jennifer Shahade and will begin this Saturday at 1 p.m. Pacific (GMT-7), which is 4 p.m. New York, 4 a.m. Chengdu (Sunday) and 7 a.m. Sydney (Sunday).