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Let's get ready to Ruy Lopez - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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November 19th, 2010


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09:31 pm - Let's get ready to Ruy Lopez
It's November, which makes it chess season! I post about chess about once a year or so; you can see last year's post or previous years' posts for comparison.

In world chess news, Viswanathan Anand defended his world chess championship against Vesselin Topalov about six months ago, winning 6½-5½ in Topalov's home nation of Bulgaria. To win the title shot, Topalov had to defeat Gata Kamsky in a challengers' match; Topalov earned his spot in the challengers' match, more or less, as a hangover from having been champion back in 2005 at the tail end of the two-world-championship days; Kamsky won the 128-person single-elimination knockout 2007 Chess World Cup to get his place in world championship consideration. It is alleged that previous world champions Vladimir Kramnik and Garry Kasparov, and widely-presumed future champion Magnus Carlsen, helped Anand with his preparation at various points, possibly in response to Topalov and his manager having been terribly badly behaved during the world championship match that unified the two titles in 2006.

The next world championship match will take place in 2012, possibly in London, with a series of candidates matches to pick an opponent from eight possibilities. These eight possibilities include Topalov and Kamsky, by virtue of their involvement in the 2010 cycle; Boris Gelfand, the 2009 Chess World Cup winner; Levon Aronian, Teimour Radjabov and Alexander Grischuk, the three strongest performers in a series of tournaments called the FIDE Grand Prix; Vladimir Kramnik, by virtue of rating; and Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, nominated by the Azerbaijani organisers. It was planned to include two from the FIDE Grand Prix and two by virtue of rating, which would have seen Magnus Carlsen included rather than Grischuk, but Carlsen has announced an intention not to participate in this cycle by virtue of the rules having changed so much - and, by implication, by virtue of a lack of confidence that things will not change further. Can't say I blame him.

It's a surprising and risky move by Carlsen, but he has been #1 in the ratings more often than not in 2010 (though two points behind Anand in the most recent list) and seems to imply that he fancies his chances of building a chess career in the public eye on the basis of being top in the world ratings, rather than on the basis of being world champion. Certainly he does seem to have built up mainstream publicity in his home nation of Norway, and to some extent beyond with a surprising turn as a men's fashion model, alongside one Liv Tyler. I guess that's the sort of perk that arises from being the youngest ever world #1 and contributing like nobody ever has in the redefinition of chess as a young prodigy's game.

Carlsen had a dominant first eight months of 2010, though was merely good rather than great both when representing his country at the Chess Olympiad and by losing two games out of six in Bilbao. Anand has been there or thereabouts with his world championship match and with Bilbao. Levon Aronian of Armenia has also had a very fine year, an undefeated ideal team-mate in both the Olympiad and the European Club Cup and victorious at the recent Tal Memorial; other than that, Vladimir Kramnik and Vesselin Topalov have also been consistent at a very high level, with several from far Eastern Europe (or, I suppose, south-western Asia) snapping at their heels.

The next cab on the rank, in global chess terms, is the second installment of the London Chess Classic. Last year's tournament was highly critically regarded and Carlsen's victory there was the event that propelled him to the top of the world ratings for the first time. Last year's line-up included the British top four plus Carlsen, Kramnik, Hikaru Nakamura of the USA and Ni Hua of China, with the British players fairly heavily outgunned. This year's line-up is slightly stronger still, with the only change in the line-up seeing Vishy Anand replacing Ni Hua. It ought to be spectacular once again and Britain ought to be grateful for such a strong tournament taking place here. Many thanks to the organisers and to the patron. (I'm not sure if the patron has been formally announced, but I think I recall a suggestion that it was a chess fan who had sold a software copmany; evidently a successful one, but a business service company rather than a household name.)

Chess in Britain is on rather an upswing at the moment, with the London Chess Classic being one of the most impressive endeavours. Credit should also go to CJ de Mooi, possibly better known as one of BBC 2's Eggheads, who has been the President of the English Chess Federation for a year now and has done an extremely popular and active job in the role, possibly even one of the highest-regarded presidential terms in living memory. He attracted England's #1, Michael Adams, to play in the 2010 British Championship for the first time in many years and has guaranteed attractive conditions for many of the strongest English players to make the 2011 championships "the strongest and most prestigious for a generation". CJ also hosted a remarkable, star-studded dinner a couple of months ago which raised money for four good causes, not least the campaign to get Anatoly Karpov elected as FIDE President. Unfortunately the campaign proved unsuccessful; the result on the day was the re-election of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, but the courts may have the final word over some of the tactics used on election day.

One other strong driving force for chess in the UK - nay, the British Isles, is the continued success of the 4 Nations Chess League, or 4NCL hereafter. This is a face-to-face competition played, at international championship time controls, between teams of eight (or, in the bottom division, six) with eleven rounds played over five weekends. The league has been running for over fifteen years, has attracted (almost?) all the strongest players from these islands at some point or another and plenty of very strong players from elsewhere at various points.

This season has seen a little more change than most; I'm not sure to whom credit should be given, for the success of the league is a credit to the whole of the management board, but I think that the league has developed fairly considerably since Claire Summerscale assumed its chair. (Previous chair Paul Littlewood presided for ten years and saw massive expansion.) The 4NCL now has an annual rapidplay competition, additional to (but disconnected from) the main competition, it now has a junior competition run along similar principles to the main event but on a smaller scale and, in a particularly interesting development, this season it has introduced a subsidiary Northern League.

The 4NCL operates a promotion-and-relegation scheme, to try to promote matches between teams of similar strength for more intense composition. The top two divisions each have sixteen teams, played with teams of eight. The divisions of sixteen are operated on a slightly split schedule, with two equal-strength subdivisions of eight teams. Over eleven rounds, each team plays the other seven teams in their subdivision, before the two subdivisions split to form a "promotion pool" (or "championship pool") of the top eight and a "relegation pool" of the bottom eight. It's a system used elsewhere - for instance, in the top French chess league - and seems to work well.

The third division is different, being played as an eleven-round Swiss system tournament between teams of six. The Northern League is a parallel third division, except that four-fifths of the matches take place in the north of England; the Northern League is subsumed into the main third division for the final set of matches, so that Northern and non-Northern teams may meet to sort out disparities in strength of schedule and crown a national champion of the third division. A very clever piece of design, and one that should hopefully sort out some of the cost barriers to participation for northern teams.

Unfortunately take-up has not been vast in the Northern League's first season; while fifteen teams registered an interest, only eight have made it to participation, which isn't really big enough to make things work properly. Nevertheless I hope that the Northern League experiment is repeated, that it grows and that it might be considered worth repeating again, possibly to three or more parallel third divisions. Maybe even the higher divisions could be worth regionalising, though not quite in the same way; you could have two regional half-divisions of eight, with the first six matches played regionally, but the last match in the initial groups and all four matches in the secondary groups played nationally.

Taking this a shade further, I note that one Division 2 team voluntarily took relegation to the third division; it seems to me that Division 3 is not just a different competition but a different sort of competition altogether, with teams of six instead of eight, a lower standard of opposition, lower entry fees and no requirement to include at least one lady (or, sometimes, a junior) in the line-up. There would almost be some sense in spinning the two competitions off from each other completely, if ever it seems that teams who could put together a Division 3 line-up were ever disincentivised from participating because they didn't want to risk being promoted to play a different form of competition which might suit them less well.

The 2009-10 4NCL season was won by Wood Green Hilsmark Kingfisher 1, the 2008-9 champions. Their closest challenge was from a team called Pride and Prejudice, who started off as a neat reversal of the maxim that most 4NCL teams seemed to have a token woman, by being all-women except for a token man. The line-ups they have put out as they have climbed the structure seem to have fallen further and further towards the 4NCL standard, though, and I'm now no longer sure how they differ from any other not-particularly-connected, not-necessarily-particiularly-representative 4NCL team. The match between the top two teams was a draw; WGHK's title was due to Pride losing 2-6 to the third-placed, but perpetually strong challengers, Barbican team.

An innovative year and a good year for the 4NCL, then. They should keep doing what they're doing, and keep innovating to extend their brand further, confident that their innovations are proving successful. A 4NCL-branded online team league would very probably be a popular addition to the diverse line-up already. Not-so-incidentally, the British Go Association now have their own online team league which is going well, though it is run in an extremely laid-back fashion (players schedule their own games, teams don't all play at the same time, one game a month over the course of the year...) and with not much attempt to attract attention outside the players in the league. The second season is underway and there are three challengers left for the top division title: a win for Edinburgh over Leamington would win Edinburgh the league, Cambridge neat to beat Durham and have help from Leamington. Dundee have beaten both Edinburgh and Cambridge and could yet overtake them to win it all, but need to pick up the pace and conclude their other matches rather swiftly.

The main reason I'm making this post now is that we're getting to crunch time in one of my other slow-burning obsessions, the ground-breaking online United States Chess League. Now six seasons old, commissioner Greg Shahade has done a remarkable job at sticking with his original vision and bringing it to life, very ably assisted by Arun Sharma. They have achieved a considerable deal of what they set out to do to - heck, just keeping the show on the road and not burning out is success enough - and keep achieving to a more and more spectacular extent. Whether you like the league or love it will be determined by the extent to which you support their original premises.

This league has seen a greater shake-up in the team roster than any before it. First, the Queens Pioneers, who are a fine organisation with a history of extremely strong line-ups, have relocated to Manhattan, by virtue of convenience for their players. No objection to that, even if it is a little unusual having two teams playing in Manhattan, one representing Manhattan and the other representing the whole of New York, including Manhattan. The problem is that they have changed their nickname to something so bizarre that I shall not dignify it by repeating it here. I can see what they're doing, but it doesn't work for me. Second, as threatened last year, the Tennessee Tempo have discontinued their operation and the franchise has been replaced by one in Los Angeles, styling itself the Los Angeles Vibe and bringing strong new players to the league. Farewell with honour entirely intact and fond thoughts, Tennessee; you will be missed, and I would not mind a revival in the least some day.

Additionally, the league has expanded from fourteen teams to sixteen. One addition is a team from St. Louis, particularly timely after an unusually strong US Championship was conducted at the Chess Club and Scholastic Centre there. (They'll be hosting the 2011 US Championship as well, with a very handsome purse to attract the strongest talent.) Their nickname, the St. Louis Arch Bishops, is one of the cleverest of them all. They have an extremely strong roster, featuring Hikaru Nakamura and Yury Shulman, the two strongest grandmasters in all the league, plus GM Ben Finegold and a host of quickly-improving youngsters. While a rating cap applies to the strength of the team of four they put out, with concessions for featuring the very strongest players, St. Louis are strong enough to actually bring about the long-threatened, long-theorised "GGGg" line-up featuring three extremely strong grandmasters and one junior to bring the rating average within the cap. They haven't used this line-up every time; when they have used it, it has proved a strong tactic, but not an overwhelmingly dominant one, just because of the quality of the opposition they face. I'm glad the tactic exists and is strong, but that it doesn't break the league.

The other addition is the New England Nor'Easters, with a very interesting genesis. The idea of a second team in the greater Boston area had long been discussed; there clearly is the talent there, and the relationship between the two Boston teams is just as competitive as the relationship between New York and, say, New Jersey or Manhattan. Boston also seems to stick with a tried and tested (and very successful!) roster from year to year, whereas New England offered roster spots to five USCL first-timers, as well as giving an opportunity to Sam Shankland, previously a SF stalwart, when he moved from coast to coast for his education. Boston are playing at Harvard University and New England at the Boylston Chess Club, so there is a clear distinction between the two. Boston often like to use quite a top-heavy line-up whereas New England tend to favour a relatively balanced approach; while theory probably tends to favour the former, there are many teams that have had a tremendous record of success with the latter. New England have also had a flexible roster, supposedly being able to put out a different legal line-up of four in each of the ten (perhaps only the first nine?) regular season matches.

With sixteen teams, the league is divided into two divisions of eight. Some had called for further division into four divisions of four, but I'm not a particular fan of such extra division. There is one strong argument in favour of splitting; even restricting to the lower 48, the US spans four time zones and it is so much more convenient for two teams in the same time zone to play each other than it is for a team in one time zone to play a team in another time zone that splitting the league into an Eastern division, who entirely run on EST, and a Western division, who mostly run on Central and Pacific time. If the league gets up to twenty, I think there would be an argument for splitting into Pacific, Central, Northeastern and Southeastern, based mostly on time zones. (As the league was happy with six of ten making it to the post-season, there's an argument for twelve of twenty moving on - perhaps four division champs as #1 to #4 seeds, then eight league-wide wild cards forming #5 to #12 seeds and playing an extra round for the right to meet them in the final eight.)

So the league is clearly getting bigger, but the next question is whether it's getting stronger or not at the same time. I think this year's player roster is marginally outrated by last year's player roster, but that may not be the fairest comparison. 2010 sees six new GMs and seven new IMs play in the league for the first time, with the top ten all above 2500 USCF. The line-up of players who took part in 2009 but not in 2010 is, frankly, of similar strength; Shabalov and Ehlvest played for Tennessee, who are no more; I suspect that many of the others were just passing through their USCL cities, whether for educational or employment reasons, and I have a very strong suspicion that some of the missing players have been left out only for reasons of rating cap or availability, rather than due to antipathy towards the USCL. It's very strange to see San Francisco without Vinay Bhat and the league at large (most recently Miami) without Bruci Lopez, both five-season stalwarts.

I have produced a spreadsheet showing who was on which roster when, the progression of their titles (follow Ray Kaufman over the seasons - NM to FM to IM!), their August ratings and the ratings with which their teams declared them. Spreadsheets are useful and fun, not least because they are open to all sorts of data-sorting and further reinterpretation in all manner of ways that I had not previously considered. You can download it in Excel format from here, or - if you prefer a slightly freer document format, in .csv format from here. I produced the spreadsheet somewhat before I discovered the existence of the Historical Player Register, which is a bit of a shame, but the two things serve slightly distinct purposes; mine considers everyone ever listed on a roster, the Historical Register is more specific and requires players to have actually played a game for inclusion. While it may very rapidly become clear that I'm not going to pick up any freelance work for my spreadsheet design, I hope that it inspires some of you to do something useful with the data yourselves. (Sorry for using lousy Megaupload for now; Greg, would you be prepared to host the spreadsheets on the USCL site itself? If so, I'll change the links.) Errors and exceptions excepted; corrections welcome, preferably by e-mail.

This season has been a fascinating one. New England have been dominant in the regular season like no team before them, winning nine matches and drawing the tenth. (Again, they used either nine or ten different regular-season line-ups of four to achieve their wins.) Other than that, the most startling feature has been the remarkable degree of parity in the Western division, with all eight teams finishing between 4-0 and 6.5-3.5 - and mighty San Francisco and Dallas, with three championships between them, finishing seventh and eighth out of eight; this is the first time San Francisco has ever failed to finish in the top two in their division, let alone fail to make the play-offs. It's certainly not as if their roster has been any less powerful or less committed than ever before.

New England managed to keep their regular season form through to the play-offs, beating first New York and then Boston to win the Eastern division. They will be taking on Miami, who have won the Western division for the second season running, headed by Julio Becerra who has won the league MVP title for the third time this year and probably ought to get to keep the title in perpetuity as a result. Who will win? Crikey, don't ask me; the New England Nor'easters' championship preview is well worth a look, and there are a couple of other writers about. The grand final starts at 6pm Eastern time on Saturday 20th November and is set to be another classic. The last four championships have all gone to the cleverly-designed blitz tie-breaker; Miami are possibly favoured if this is the fifth one to do so, so New England may well take risks to stop it from happening.

One of the other big developments in the league this season has been the establishment of weekly blogging prizes; sometimes one prize per week, sometimes three, with rather generous sponsored prizes for the winners. I have deliberately waited for a week in which there is no such prize to make this entry, for this is deliberately an amateur pin-sticker's view and only fit to compete hors concours against people who truly understand and appreciate the game. Nevertheless, the standard of blogging has been very high, as far as I can tell, with intricate and dedicated analysis, often down into the sharpest variations.

The blogging has often shown the league at its best. The other regular prize, the league's Game of the Week competition, has been as fiercely contested as ever, but the discussion that has followed the prizewinners' announcements has - unfortunately - sometimes shown the league at its worst. There's an old saying that political tempers are at their highest when the stakes are at their lowest; while the Game of the Week selections will always be controversial because different people want to reward different things, and there's nothing wrong with that, the standard of discourse arising is often fractious and ugly. It's disrespectful; people's feelings are getting hurt. It's bad for the league. Tennessee were driven off by the bad feeling, Marc Esserman has announced his USCL retirement and Sam Shankland talked about quitting chess at one point, though happily I don't think that's on the cards any more. Someone claiming to be Hikaru Nakamura has announced an intention not to play in the USCL again, though citing some fairly technical issue rather than hurt feelings, and I'm not completely convinced that the unverified commenter is necessarily genuine in any case. It would be a sad way to lose the USCL's probable single marquee headliner if it were true.

If there is a way in which the league has disappointed this season, it's that there haven't been obvious moves over the past year to deal with the rough edges and the miscreants over the last year. I suggested this was the league's biggest challenge last year and it remains a major challenge. By way of a solution, I would point to the English Chess Forum, which offers best practice at the very least. Yes, there are less-than-thoughtful contributors and there are extremely pedantic contributors, but the moderators apply a fairly heavy touch and there's a very great deal of constructive comment among the brouhaha. The single biggest step in this direction is to require contributors to comment under their real names. I hope it's needless to say that, as much as I am glad for the existence of free speech, I set the bar fairly high when it comes to anonymous comment on this blog - and there are a few named commenters who have already made themselves unwelcome by their activity over time.

It was a delight to see the USCL expand from 14 to 16, bearing in mind how much extra work every further expansion involves for the already stretched organisation team. Greg has long suggested that the USCL might grow to 16-20 teams some day, and we're already at the lower end of this cap. It would take a spectacular application to push sixteen to eighteen, but St. Louis and New England show just how spectacular an application really can be. And, yet, if New England can manage it, might other areas pull the same technique off?

It's fun to try to predict where the USCL might expand next. The USCL now has representation in all the United States' very biggest metropolitan areas after the addition of Los Angeles, making it a national league to compare in scope with the biggest pro leagues. The most obvious suspects for expansion might well be the remaining "four-sport cities" - that is, those conurbations which are represented in football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey - which would be Atlanta, Washington DC, Detroit and Minneapolis. Being married to a Georgia girl, I would have instant sympathies for an Atlanta USCL team, but the state of Georgia is sadly not a hotbed of international chess talent. (The four million in the country of Georgia would be very, very heavily favoured against the nine million in the state of Georgia.) Detroit is not a desperately promising prospect, either.

Casting further afield, the top ten Nielsen markets not yet represented in the USCL other than those four, are Houston, Tampa, Denver, Cleveland, Orlando and Sacramento. (I use a slightly ideosyncratic definition of "not represented".) The next ten are Portland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Diego, Hartford, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, Columbus and Milwaukee. These are mostly well-storied sporting cities with a million or more residents from which to draw chess talent. However, if I was adding one other team to next year's USCL, where would it be?

1) Let's go to Texas, and head south. Keep going, way, way down south, about as far as you can go without actually getting to Mexico, to a town of less than 150,000 called Brownsville. I would pick little Brownsville ahead of all of the big boys above for one reason: the chess program of the - deep intake of breath - University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. Their chess scholarships have attracted some very fine players; their 2008 chess team is a formidable line-up, and their 2010 team is even stronger; in the US College Chess Final Four, their team of four included three of the ten players with the highest USCF ratings who have not yet played in the USCL. They are clearly well-resourced and have experience playing together, too. Forget your million-plus metropoles (metropolises?), my first addition would be Brownville, TX, a team who I would call the Rio Grande Browns. (Fun bonus: Brownsville is not much over a hundred miles from Monterrey, Mexico's third city, which may offer further possibilities. If Hikaru Nakamura travelled down from Vancouver in Canada to play for Seattle then that may suggest some precedent...)

2) And the reason why I would refer to them as Rio Grande rather than anything else is that, were I to add two other teams to the USCL next year, I would try very hard to shift the USCL's centre of gravity hard to the west by siting the second team in Lubbock, Texas. (This would have the knock-on advantage that it would finally - finally! - get Miami out of the Western division. Atlantic coastal cities really, really ought to be in the Eastern division, if there is any justice in the world.) Lubbock is almost unsportingly twice as large as Brownsville but is attractive due to hosting the Texas Institute of Techn... er, let me check that acronym... Texas Tech University, which plays host to, among other things, the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence, whose mission is (among other things) to "be the premier center for chess education, research, technology, and outreach in the nation". I'd say that such a goal probably ought to include hosting its own USCL team, the core of which might include some of Texas Tech's own Knight Raiders, who also made a strong showing in the final four listed above. It's interesting to note that the Knight Raiders included at least two Dallas Destiny veterans; much as the Boston area has so many strong players that one team cannot contain them all, the Texas area is similarly massively oversupplied. It would be delightful to involve Susan Polgar in the league further, if she were interested; the Queens Pioneers played at the Polgar Chess Centre, so there's certainly precedent. I would nod to the hosts there by naming such a team the Texas Spice.

3) You may have seen from the spreadsheet that there are 29 USCL players who last played for Dallas, which is a higher figure than for any other team; there is wild competition for the very few spots available. I think there is at least one more team that can be based around squeezed-out Dallas alumni; hear me out, it's a team that might represent... Minnesota. The Minnesota State Chess Association mentions the recent state championship, "perhaps the strongest ever held", featuring Dallas Destiny veterans John Bartholomew and Keaton Kiewra. I don't know whether the six players involved had to travel from afar or if they all hail from the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but with two IMs and strong support, there's plenty of room for Minnesota to put together a number of very competitive line-ups. I think the state seems to have its act together and could well be another strong potential addition to the USCL slate.

4) Searching a little further down the list of highly-rated players yet to catch the USCL bug, two GMs among the USCL's theoretical top eighteen targets are Gregory Kaidanov and Alexander Goldin. There aren't many pages that include both players' names, but I did enjoy seeing this list of Kentucky chess clubs, with unverified accuracy, which names a club that is purportedly "Home of Gregory Kaidanov and Alexander Goldin (they usually do not attend)". Perhaps the two GMs just might attend if they had a Kentucky USCL team to play for! They would certainly form the backbone of a potentially extremely strong line-up. Kaidanov is a keen coach, particularly from his Lexington, KY base; he might be able to pull the chess community together further if he could get representation in the USCL. And I'm going to go out on a limb and say something naughty: Nashville isn't so-o-o-o-o far from Kentucky, after all, by US standards, and I just miss the Tennessee Tempo. This might be a good way for some of the Tempo veterans to get another run.

5) Before I did my research and found out just what a seething hotbed of talent there was in Texas, it seemed to me that the most likely area to have the potential to "do a Boston" and spawn a second club just to take advantage of the many extremely strong players who get squeezed out by the rating cap would be northern California. When stalwart Vinay Bhat can't find room because rating caps are so tight, some teams are clearly trying to fill a pint pot with a quart. The prosecution also calls up Vince McCambridge as a witness and notes that John Donaldson has even had to drop himself from the Mechanics roster. Now players may come and go over time (for instance, Sam Shankland left SF to go and co-found New England) and for all I know I may have inadvertently committed a major solecism but the USCF's list of top-rated players in California is just stacked, stacked, stacked. Obviously I have no way of telling who's NorCal and who's SoCal, but I find it hard to believe that there couldn't be a very competitive NorCal II team out there, whether based in Oakland, San Jose or elsewhere in Silicon Valley.

6) Baltimore is the Dallas of the East. You may recall that the Final Four, in college chess, was made up of three Texas teams - but it was the team from the University of Maryland that finished ahead of them all! Half the Maryland team are Baltimore Kingfishers; the other half are, well, either future Kingfishers or potential future USCL players for someone else. Now commuting around the Beltway may well be horrific, but I wonder whether there is the potential for a Washington DC area team with this in mind? One Alexander Onischuk is based in Manassas, VA with a very tasty 2761 USCF rating and that's more or less in the catchment area. It would be a remarkable coup for the USCL if there could be a team with Onischuk running through it to the same extent that Joel Benjamin runs through New Jersey, Larry Christiansen runs through Boston and Julio Bercerra runs through Miami. Talking of whom:

7) Miami is the Dallas of the East. The USCF's list of top-rated players in Florida is also strong, as befits the fourth most populous state, and there are a lot of players who aren't being tapped. Miami may be a huge urbanised area, but there's also Tampa, there's also Orlando, there's also Jacksonville, there's also the Space Coast area... Lars Hansen moved from Denmark to start work at UCF in Orlando and brought a USCF way north of 2600 with him; perhaps an Orlando team might pack the Citrus Bowl, or at least Brighthouse Stadium. Ray Robson lives not far from Tampa and might appreciate some USCL experience before he goes to university in Dallas. (The Destiny are rubbing their hands already, I'm sure.) The Central Florida chess club also has plenty of strong local talent in their competitions. Florida could very well field a second extremely strong USCL team.

8) Looking at this list of top-ranked Canadian chess players, aren't a lot of them listed as being from Toronto? Greg has said in the past that he's prepared to consider Canadian teams, much as they appear in the NBA, NHL and MLB. There might have to be a bit of rating shuffling for compatability, but that would be a price well worth paying to add many more of the strongest players in North America to the league. Sure, just because they're listed as Toronto there doesn't necessarily mean that that's where they are today, but that list might well be missing real live Toronto residents who don't have CFC ratings. Additionally, Toronto is nearly as far West as Miami.

9) And aren't a lot of the rest from Montreal as well? One Pascal Charbonneau may now play in New York but he's listed there as Outremont, which is practically Montreal.

10) I bet there are enough strong players in the NY-NJ-CT area available for yet another team. Gata Kamsky plus three A N Others would be mighty, mighty fine.

In conclusion, people seldom push their volunteer projects as far and as successfully as Greg has done, with help, with the USCL. Greg has very strong opinions, not least on his blog, with his remarkable and unexpected attack on round-robin tournaments a case in point, similarly his views on volunteering. While I can't disagree with the logic of his viewpoint, his viewpoints are predicated on some aspects of large and complicated situations being more important and more relevant than other aspects. If you agree with his sets of priorities, his argument is irrefutable; if you don't, it's an interesting tangent. Similarly, the whole USCL is predicated around the concept of some aspects of league organisation, and some goals that a league might strive for. I think it would be very hard to do a better job than Greg and Arun do at running a league like the USCL, and as the volunteers behind the project, they get to set the goals that they're trying to meet.

Much as I would like to see the 4NCL continue with its evolution, innovation and expansion, I'd like to see the USCL continue to floruish and bloom in the same way. The whole chess world should respect the league for how much it has been able to achieve already and how well-placed it is to achieve more in the future; certainly it's got to a point where all the top players know about the league and have decided whether they want, and are able, to participate in it or not, now I'd like to see more fans be fannish and enthusiastic - but respectful! - about following the league as a sporting endeavour, to compare with other leagues they might follow because they're interested in sport. I'd also like to see the league attract more attention outside the specialist chess media; if a newspaper would report on New York vs. Boston, or Chicago vs. Los Angeles, in one of many other sports, I'd like to see them cover chess from a general perspective as well. I want to see Scorpions fans start singing "Who needs Aronian? We've got Altounian!" to the tune of La donna è mobile! While all the blogging is admirable, wider coverage of chess as a sport (no, as a spectator sport) would represent the next level.

And yet the 4NCL and USCL are trying so hard and doing so well already. Keep up the great work!

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