Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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A tale of two chess leagues

If it's Autumn, it's time for the US Chess League season. I took a look at it back in 2005 and last year as well so am pleased to see it rolling along once more this year. When so many start-ups fade and die so quickly, continued existence earns major kudos by itself.

The changes from the second season of the USCL to the third have tended to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, which implies to me that the league is more or less in the form that it's set to take for good. The 2007 league represented an expansion of the 2006 league by a further two teams. On the plus side, these teams have added another three strong GMs to the league and a couple more IMs as well; on what I consider the minus side, their locations in New Jersey and the Queens borough of NYC pull the USCL's centre of gravity further to the north-east still, so that the famously Occidental region of Carolina moves back to the Western division to join Miami. (Arguably, the Western division is at least half Southern, with teams from Carolina, Tennessee and Miami. Can't we call it the National division?) The Queens team is based at the Susan Polgar Chess Centre, which seems like a very wise place to host a team, but I still can't help feeling that the team should have been the Queens Queens. (Maybe just the Queens.)

That said, the addition of further strong players means that the league is getting stronger and stronger still, with the USCL roster including just over half (10 of 19!) of the players with USCF ratings over 2600 and about half (23 of 47) of the players with USCF ratings over 2500, counting the USCL's alternates list. Now USCF ratings are not the same as FIDE ratings and the relationship between the two is not always straightforward (take your pick of USCF = FIDE, USCF = FIDE + 50, USCF = FIDE + 100 or something not strictly linear...) but GM and IM titles are legitimately global. There are 13 GMs and 25 IMs among the 12 teams' rosters, so a typical strong-ish team might have a GM and two IMs to call upon. In practice, the distribution among teams is uneven and that would be a strong line-up.

The Boston Blitz went 8-2 last season to win the 2006 Eastern Division, but were beaten in the play-offs by the New York Knights, who faced the Western Division champs the San Francisco Mechanics in the championship match. This championship match turned out to be a 2-2 tie so the rather elegantly designed elimination blitz play-off tie-breaker came into effect and IM Josh Friedel won in the final play-as-many-games-as-needed-until-there's-a-result round of the tie-breaker to win the 2006 USCL title for the San Francisco Mechanics.

Between seasons, the New York Knights recruited Hikaru Nakamura (USCF 2742, FIDE 2647) and new player-manager Women's US champion Irina Krush to bolster their line-up; given in the past I've noted that the league's commissioner's sister managed the NY Knights, I should point out that she now no longer does and instead has moved to play for Philadelphia. (Whose manager also happens to have the surname Shahade, but hey. No malpractice then, no evidence of malpractice now.) Philadelphia recruited GM Sergey Kudrin to act as their top board, but instead lost current world #94 (and, arguably, one-time world #7) Jaan Ehlvest who played four matches for them at the end of 2006 and scored 3½/4.

Five games in - or half-way through the regular season - the Boston Blitz have retained their hot league form of last season to go win-win-win-draw-draw and lead the Eastern Division, with the New York Knights bringing up the rear of the division despite their stellar line-up. In the West, Dallas are +3 =2 -0 to lead the field ahead of last year's two standout Western teams, San Francisco and Seattle. Seattle are the only one of the four expansion teams so far to have quickly got up to speed; New Jersey and Queens clearly have bags of potential. (Look how many of the other top chess players not currently on the USCL roster are within the conurbation!) Tennessee - being polite, as the people certainly deserve it for being nice - are setting themselves up as role models for how a smaller market can join the league, struggle heavily at first and eventually come good. Trouble is, they are yet to come good. Give them time, but it may take ten or twenty years.

The other major development between seasons is that there has been an inauguration of a Blogger of the Year prize worth $100 for, oddly enough, the best blog over the course of the season in an attempt to get people writing about the league and its progress. Consequently, there seems to be much more written about the league this year than ever before. I'm not sure whether the existence of the prize had much to do with it, but if so then it's probably the best $100 spent yet by the USCL.

As stats-obsessed people are wont to do, there are all sorts of power rankings, predictions and miscellaneous numerical geekery. David Glickman of the Boylston Chess Club posts his own quantitative power rankings; I note with a smile that it only took some wise-guy a few hours to respond, referring to the Glicko rating system, "Where's Mark Glickman when you need him?". David Glickman also posts this list of USCL-themed blogs and I guess I'd probably put him in the lead if I were to post some USCL Blogger of the Year Power Rankings, by the very slim margin of four Haloscan links and a blogroll to three game diagrams and a customised forum.

What else has changed this year? Well, there was mention of the league in a New York Times article. These things tend to be rather transient so I shall fair-use an excerpt from it concerning the philosophy behind the USCL:

Chess leagues are popular in Europe, with grandmasters often hired to play for teams. Shahade said the problems with those leagues is that the richest clubs usually win and that the teams are often made up mostly of foreign players. "I don't even understand why that is interesting," Shahade said. "They have nothing to do with the community." [...] In the United States Chess League, the players live in the areas they represent. The players’ average ranking for matches, called their rating, cannot exceed 2,400 - the level of a strong master, but below a grandmaster. Shahade said that rule ensured that teams with access to deep talent pools, such as those in New York and San Francisco, did not have an advantage.

And there, I think, you have the crux of the matter. If you can buy into that philosophy, then you can love the USCL. If you can't, then... well, at least one prominent chess blogger has been rather snooty about the USCL in the past, but even he points out when a game in the current World Championship starts off following a game in the USCL. (Chess games in "following each other for the first few moves" shock. Film at 11.) And that's the last you'll hear me mention of the current World Championship, because I find it much easier to root for a town I might have visited and a team with a story behind it than I do to root for an individual player. (Well, OK, except if any of the players are as British as Mickey Adams, as young as Magnus Carlsen or as female as Judit Polgar.)

From there we segue ever-so-neatly to discussing chess leagues in the UK, as the my-how-you've-grown over-the-board eleven-rounds-over-five-weekends 4 Nations Chess League goes into its fifteenth season. Last season, the top two places were taken by Guildford-A&DC 1 and, er, Guildford-A&DC 2. A&DC here refers to Assessment & Development Consultants Ltd., founded in 1988 by chess IM Nigel Povah. Who is the captain of Guildford's 4NCL squad? You're ahead of me here: it's one IM Nigel Povah. Well, it's undoubtedly generous of him to put money back into chess, and he clearly is a consumate clubman; for instance, he plays top board for Guildford in the Surrey Main League.

Nevertheless, it is a demonstration of the importance of sponsorship in the 4NCL, and not necessarily in a good way. There are sixteen GMs on the Guildford roster alone, though in Guildford 1 vs. Guildford 2 (last year's top-of-the-table clash, lest we forget!) we had 7 GMs and a female strong IM against 1 GM and 3 IMs. The top half of the squad won 6-2, oddly enough. Guildford 1 are clear favourites to retain their title, in a season which - if anything - looks rather weaker than last year's.

See GM Nick Pert's report of the first weekend of the 4NCL, peppered with comments about how teams did not have the same sponsorship as in previous years. It's a well-written, well-analysed, affectionate and fascinating report, but in a few places it seems to take the existence of sponsors a little for granted. A particular paragraph towards the bottom reads "Sponsorship is so important these days, and hopefully the league will see more in future years to generate some interest. Some players stick to their teams, but most professionals are forced to go with the money. I have to admit I’ve moved around several times in the past, having played for Wood Green, Barbican, Betsson.com, Slough Sharks and now Guildford! The teams that are able to maintain the same players often do the best as Guildford’s relatively unchanged squad proved last season."

It's interesting to reflect upon whether sponsorship money is more wisely spent upon a team or upon a competition. Sponsoring the team gives you the chance to associate your brand with a bunch of winners; sponsoring a competition will generate a much broader base of (potentially rather less intense) goodwill. A case in point is football philanthropist Brooks Mileson, who hedges his bets by not only backing Gretna on their rags-to-riches ascent through the Scottish hierarchy, but also by backing the Northern League.

This isn't a case of saying "4NCL bad, USCL good"; far from it. There's got to be a good reason why Jaan Ehlvest didn't come back for a second USCL season, after all. Yet 4NCL teams can tend to fall into the trap of being one set of hired mercenaries against another set of hired mercenaries, and it's hard to know why there should be any loyalties there. Now plenty of teams don't have that problem - for instance, Cambridge University are entirely respectable in their focus, and I'm pretty sure that several of the other 4NCL Division 1 sides are club teams as well; Division 2 teams and below are almost certainly club teams. A sidenote observes Pride and Prejudice in Division 2, with many of the strong women players in the country and two token male GMs, at least one of whom is the husband of one of the ladies. Coincidentally, or not, that lady happens to be the new chairman of the league. (Her use of chairman, not a gender-neutral term.)

I do find the USCL more interesting to follow, though, possibly in part due to my fascination with all sports organisations (continental) American at the moment. The 4NCL also lurches from weekend to weekend, months apart, losing momentum between five quanta of chess activity rather than a week-by-week living, breathing, developing product. It's not even as if I don't have a natural rooting interest in the 4NCL - Oxford, naturally! - even though in Division 1, the "got to root for people I know" factor points me towards favouring the Cambridge University team, and that just strikes me as wrong. The USCL's "Game of the Week" prize has also gone a very long way to encourage fighting chess through its money and its prestige; very few of the short "grandmaster draws" here.

I raise the comparison between the leagues in the context of pondering whether there's any interest in comparing teams' strengths. I would guess that there are probably between four and twelve 4NCL squads that could produce a USCL roster that would be competitive over time, though whether these rosters would be interested in competing or not under the existing financial regime is another matter. Conversely, I think the San Francisco roster of eight would be competitive in 4NCL Division 1 as it is and I suspect other US teams could produce highly competitive alternative rosters if they were trying to maximise their ratings, rather than to maximise their flexibility working with the USCL rating cap. Imagine, if you will, how strong New York United could be if it wanted to.

It's probably more interesting to compare USCL teams not to 4NCL teams but instead to teams in the English Chess Federation's National Chess Club Championships, where a rule states "Each player in a club's team must be a bona fide active member of that club, taking a full part in normal club activities. For the purpose of this rule, a bona fide active member is one who regularly represents the club in competitive matches outside this competition." Opposing teams can challenge team line-ups if they suspect this rule is being breached, so clearly National Chess Club Championship teams reflect their clubs as strongly as USCL ones do. The open section only got five entries (though graded sections received many more than that) but the final still saw a GM-GM-GM-IM-GM-FM Wood Green team take on a 2-FMs-and-more Ilford line-up. Yeah, Wood Green could probably put together a dangerous USCL roster if they wanted to.

Looking a little further afield, the Cathcart A line-up in the Glasgow League, a local league in Scotland, looks quite tasty: 2 IMs and a third board who went 8½/9 against his opponents. I dread to think how you might start going around comparing Scottish gradings with USCF ratings - Scottish gradings seem to be slightly lower still than FIDE ones! - but there's probably enough of a backbone in the Cathcart squad to form a respectable USCL roster. If there is a GM in Glasgow who doesn't play in the local league but would come on board a USCL-style team - not impossible for a conurbation of over two million people - then they'd look very solid already.

The one thing I will say in the 4NCL's defence is that this looks set to be a weird season for them in a way that none of the previous 14 have been in that there is a massive structure change from this season 15 to next season 16. Season 15 sees three eight-board all-play-all divisions of 12 teams ahead of a six-board Swiss division of 32 teams; season 16 will see two eight-board divisions of sixteen teams ahead of the usual six-board Swiss division scrum. The format for a 16-team division has been used before in the 4NCL; the division splits in two by chance, creating two eight-team all-play-alls which split into upper and lower halves. You carry your results forward from teams in the same upper/lower half of your all-play-all and play the teams from the same upper/lower half of the other all-play-all, thus guaranteeing you results against either all the teams in "the upper half" or all the teams in "the lower half". They've used the structure before; it works OK in practice. Having 32 eight-board teams instead of 36 will probably lead to these teams being more reliable, as well as solving some space issues.

The movement from the current structure to the new structure is problematic for the usual promotion and relegation system. This season's implementation is problematic in that teams cannot get relegated, so there's no penalty for struggling teams to try to avoid. Instead of the season 16 first division being composed of all 12 teams from season 15 first division and 4 teams from season 15's second division, I'd rather see the distribution be 11 and 5, with the lower teams in season 15's division one competing to avoid a single relegation place. Likewise, perhaps a single relegation place in season 15's second division - and not into an eight-board third division as at present, but into the six-board Swiss third division scrum - might concentrate the minds of the second division as much as the minds of the third division are being concentrated. It's all a little strange, but should work itself out in time for next season.

Another 4NCL weirdness that the USCL avoids is having multiple teams from the same squad in the same competition, which really doesn't work. (For instance, see the rules about players moving from team to team in the same squad, which some squads use and some squads ignore.) I'm certainly not opposed to major concentrations of talent having lots of representation; I wouldn't mind seeing the Boston Blitz, based at the Boylston Chess Club, take on the Cambridge Charge Somerville Surge, whether they're based somewhere else in Somerville or they're also based at the Boylston Chess Club, in the USCL some day, if the rivalry between the two teams were to be as intense as the rivalry between AC Milan and FC Internazionale Milan, both based at the famous San Siro. The ratings cap means that that's probably the only way for an area with too many GMs for one team to have all their GMs play.

As a special attraction for all you lucky, lucky readers, here follows an exclusive interview, via e-mail, with USCL commissioner Greg Shahade. (Really, why should brigbother have all the fun with his game show interviews - see the "Miscellaneous" section - at Bother's Bar?)

  • Chris Dickson: Are you enjoying acting as Commissioner? Is it getting easier and more enjoyable to run the USCL as the seasons pass and you become more experienced at all the things you have to do, or is the expansion of the league - not just in terms of number of teams, but in terms of the increased amount of league business - making things harder for you?

  • Greg Shahade: Yes, I’m definitely enjoying it more now. In the first season, I used to write all the match recaps myself. Now, because of the growing popularity of the league, I have to write almost nothing. Also you can tell that with each passing season, the teams take the league more seriously.

  • What have the highlights - and, if you dare, the lowlights - of your office as commissioner been so far?

  • Highlights:
    1. The final match between San Francisco and New York last season was fantastic.
    2. It’s tough to single things out, because the format of the league leads to almost every match being extremely interesting. It’s extremely tough to predict who is going to win, and very often things aren’t clear until very late in a match.
    3. Arun Sharma helping me run the league, made my job about 100 times easier.

    1. There was a spat last season between myself and a manager that became very public. This was likely my worst experience with the league.
    2. The way that Carolina qualified for the playoffs last year (Tennessee losing on time in a completely winning king and pawn ending) was really tough on the Philadelphia team. One of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen happen in a chess competition.

  • What were the biggest problems you overcame in getting the USCL off the ground and how has the league in practice differed from the way you envisioned it?

  • Hmm, getting the original eight teams to believe in the vision of the league. I’m sure a lot of people try to put together really ambitious projects but don’t always follow through. I was fortunate that I had a good reputation for following through on stuff because of the successful New York Masters, so that probably made things easier.

    Honestly I don’t know how I envisioned it. I just knew that it would be fun as hell. I think I was right about that, and am happy about the direction it’s heading.

  • How did you decide upon four as the optimal number of boards to play in a USCL match? Do you imagine ever reconsidering this decision - and, if so, is this more likely to be up or down?

  • I feel that four is clearly the best number. First of all, in a 6-8 board match, each individual game becomes less important. So when someone pulls a big upset or plays a brilliant game, it doesn’t really matter that much. However when your result is 1/4th of the entire result, every single game is so crucial, thus making the league a lot more exciting. I want the games to matter, and for every single player to know how important they are to the match. Also it makes it much easier for smaller cities to compete when its just four boards. So there is practically zero chance that we will ever change the four-board format.

  • I really enjoy this season's increase in the quantity and quality of content generated by the USCL players and teams; the league is starting to build a wonderful momentum of its own accord. What has been the most surprising development to you over the three seasons that has been outside your control?

  • Surprising development? That’s tough. Honestly I felt right off the bat that we had a great product and that things would only get more involved as time went on and more people heard about it. I’m not surprised whenever someone finds the games, matches, blogs and rivalries interesting. I suppose one of the great things about the league is how many “retired” chess players take part. A great example is GM Patrick Wolff, an ex-US Champion who almost never plays in organized chess tournaments, yet he was excited enough about this event to get back into the action.

  • Please describe the things you have to do on a typical game day. I imagine you must be busy between about 5pm and well after midnight, should a Western game run long.

  • At the beginning of the season, when I only remember the horror stories from the year before, I freak out about how everything is going to go wrong, all the boards are going to get disconnected and how half the Internet connections will go down and there will be mouse-slips left and right. In practice, once things get rolling, it’s actually quite easy. I have to set up a few things, but I have a lot of help from the ICC admins and can honestly just show up 10 minutes before the matches begin and it’s no problem.

    During the Wednesday matches it’s very difficult for me to watch the action. There’s so much going on that I need to keep track of (disconnections and etc) that it’s tough to get too immersed in a game. Also I now do all the website update during the round. So as soon as a game ends, I try to enter the game in chessbase, and put it on the site as soon as possible. My partner Arun also updates the standings for me as soon as a match ends. This saves me valuable time after the round is over, so that I don’t have to stay up too late and the task of updating the website isn’t too daunting. Often I write the new headline story before the games are completely over, usually by predicting a few of the results. I try really hard to have the entire website updated in full as quickly as possible after the games.

  • One of the most distinctive features of the USCL is the rating cap on teams, though there is a long history of team competitions with such caps. Possibly the most famous such competition is the long-standing US Amateur Team championship events. Did you play in them often? Are you a big fan of their format?

  • I did play in many Amateur East Team Championships and I think the format is okay, but not perfect. Firstly I hate how chess tournaments are such a grind. You can theoretically play chess for 10 hours a day (because you play two games per day), 3 days in a row. You cannot possibly eat well during this time, so you get sick extremely easily, and get very little sleep and have virtually no time to exercise. The tournament halls are usually freezing, and if they aren’t freezing, they are way too hot. All available restaurants usually close at around 11 PM, while your game can go till midnight very easily. Chess tournaments in America are extremely unhealthy and I find them extremely unpleasant in almost every way. This may explain why I’ve played about one chess tournament in five years, which happened to be the US Open, a relaxing one game per day tournament that was in a luxurious resort in Phoenix. Hopefully I can eventually do something to change this.

  • You have acknowledged that the ratings used by the USCL may not always accurately reflect players' current strengths, particularly for younger players. Are you concerned that players might sandbag their performance out-of-season and shrink their ratings in order to help their team within-season?

  • I don’t believe this is a problem yet, nor do I think that anyone has ever done it. I can foresee situations in the future where the league will need to retain the right to adjust someone’s rating based on “perceived strength”. It would be a very difficult task to do this fairly however. Right now all of our managers would never encourage their players to do such a thing, but you never know what will happen in the future. Hopefully we continue to find managers who would never stoop that low.

  • Do you believe the ratings cap does its job effectively?

  • Yes, very well. The league is ultra competitive, with almost every match giving chances to both sides.

  • Do you feel it is more important, in order to run an interesting competition, to reward a team who play chess best or a team who play the USCL rulebook and rating requirements best?

  • I’m a bit confused by this question? I just don’t know what you are asking. 11/12 teams can field a team of over 2390, so it really comes down to which of these teams play the best chess. There are some teams that can have slightly higher ratings because they have GM’s who don’t count fully, women, or underrated players, but in general the teams are all pretty close to the max rating.

  • I was highly interested in your recent comments quoted in the New York Times about the philosophy behind the rating cap and the sentiment that he rule “ensured that teams with access to deep talent pools, such as those in New York and San Francisco, did not have an advantage”. While I support your desire to link a team and its players to its community, why shouldn't an area be rewarded for having strength in depth? Are your feelings on the matter more complicated than can be fit into a soundbite that's the right length for the New York Times?

  • First of all those weren’t my exact words. Clearly the cities with a larger talent pool will have a slight edge no matter what rules you come up with. These cities should have an edge, but it needs to be a surmountable edge. Right now, I think you could go through at least 75% of the teams in the league, predict that each one could be the League Champion, and no one would laugh at you. There are some teams that are definitely favored, but the format of the league means that if your team makes the playoffs and plays inspired chess for 2-3 weeks, you can walk away with the title. This is what Baltimore did in 2005, and what New York almost did in 2006, after a lackluster regular season. If there were no rating cap, the league would be completely uncompetitive, which would make it uninteresting for the teams, fans and players, as there would be virtually no drama in certain matches. Right now you can make an educated guess that one team will beat another team perhaps 70% of the time, but you can never be 90% sure that a team will win. OK, I admit there is one team that has struggled, but that’s just one team, and this season after four weeks, they are playing much better in my opinion.

  • Which major sports leagues do you feel are run particularly well? What have you learnt from them? What are your feelings on salary caps in other sports?

  • In my opinion the NFL is clearly the best run league. It’s not even close. The NFL has a short regular season, and then a relatively short playoff structure, with an appropriate number of teams – approximately 38% – qualifying for the playoffs.

    I have some problems with baseball for a few reasons, mainly because you play 162 games, and then decide your season based on a few extremely short series, in which the outcome is mostly determined by luck. Meanwhile you have sportswriters all over the country talking about what their team needs to do to get over the hump, because they amassed a 105-57 record, but somehow lost 3-2 in the first round of the playoffs, which was probably going to happen at least 35-40% of the time. When this happens the fans and the geniuses in the media think that this means you have to start making huge trades, firing managers, making giant front office moves and so on.

    Basketball also has a few problems because the regular season games are virtually meaningless. You fight so hard just to get home court in the 7th game of a series? It’s completely absurd to have a 60-22 record and play a team with a 40-42 record and your only advantage is one extra home game. You have proven that you are a drastically superior team to them over a pretty large sample size, and now you have to prove it again with only an extremely small advantage? The NBA season should be about 40-50 games maximum in my opinion OR only the top 6 teams in each conference should qualify for the postseason. Also I find that the NBA suffers from a lack of rivalries. The schedules used to be set so that you played teams in your division much more than other teams. This is no longer so in today’s NBA, as the maximum you play any team during the season is 4 games. The only real way to begin a rivalry is to meet a team in the postseason a few seasons in a row. The NFL is fantastic at cultivating rivalries, as a large percentage of your games take place against teams in your division. Meanwhile every regular season game is of the utmost importance. It’s also the only major American league to utilize byes in the playoffs, as if you have one of the two best records in your conference, you get to skip the first round of games.

    OK, so the lessons I have learned and incorporated into the league are as follows:

    1. Make every regular season game very important. We have accomplished that because the gains that you receive in the postseason are extremely relevant (draw odds). Also because there are just 10 games, every match is crucial.
    2. Give a big edge to the teams that perform well during the season, but make it possible for other teams to win. We have done this, as currently if you win your division, you only have to play one match to make the finals, and you even have draw odds in that match. Strangely enough however, only one of four division winners has made it to the finals. This is just a statistical aberration however, and in general they should be making the finals about 60-65% of the time with the current rules. Please note that I think this figure is somewhat too high, especially with just a 10 match season, and that when we expand to 14+ teams, we are likely going to have 4 playoff teams per division, eliminating the first round byes, and try to change it so that the division winner will be expected to reach the final in the 40-50% range.
    3. Cultivate rivalries. We also do this by making sure that you play the teams in your division a lot, either twice or once every season. Because teams only play the opposite conference twice per season, it adds a lot of mystique to those match-ups, and also to the USCL Championship.
    4. Appropriate number of teams should make the postseason. This one is tough for us, because the most important thing for this league is that teams stay involved as much as possible. Once a team can no longer qualify for the playoffs, they have a lot less incentive to give it their all and put forward their best lineups, especially as they aren’t receiving a huge monetary compensation for playing. Because of this we feel compelled to err on the side of more teams qualifying for the postseason than less. So when we expand to 14 teams, 8 of 14 will qualify for the postseason, but of course the teams with the better regular season records, will have a significant advantage, a lot more significant than many people realize.

    For instance if you have 4 teams playing to reach the final, where the team with the better record gets draw odds in each match. The odds of each of the four teams, if all is equal, qualifying for the final should be approximately: 1st place: 42%, 2nd place: 30% 3rd place: 15%, 4th place: 13%. As you can this gives the best finishing teams at a monumental advantage, and these numbers can nearly be proven. They may be off by a very small margin but it’s unlikely that the top finishers have lower chances than this. Add to this that the top teams usually are slightly better than the teams finishing in 3rd and 4th, and you should expect the above figures to hold true.

  • You have taken a deliberate decision to encourage teams to use female players by permitting a rating cap bonus as a result, presumably to encourage diversity in team line-ups. I think this is a great decision. Have you considered encouraging teams to draw from other segments of the chess-playing population - for instance, the unusually young, the unusually old, the blind or the mobility-impaired - in a similar way?

  • Well we already have a built in huge bonus for extremely young players. Currently you can use any rating list from October of the previous year, until August of the current year. Many junior players see their ratings rise by 100-200 points in that time period. Because of this, when you use one of these juniors on your team, they often count as just 2150, but in actuality are currently rated 2250-2300. A few examples of that from this season are Chris Williams (Boston), Michael Lee (Seattle), Daniel Naroditsky (San Francisco). To give them even more of a bonus would be just too much.

    In regards to giving bonuses to senior players, I’m sure this is extremely politically incorrect, but no one really gets excited about watching seniors play. Female players are always more popular with the fans, and that’s who we are trying to appeal to. We don’t really have these female bonus points to encourage women’s chess. We do this so that teams will have more women on their rosters, so that the fans will have a more enjoyable product to watch.

  • Take a look ten years into the future. How do you envision the USCL in 2017?

  • I envision the following:

    1. Each team receiving at least $500 per match from the league. Right now this figure is just $100. This is the number one priority.
    2. Many teams having their own sponsors as well.
    3. 16-20 teams.
    4. More of everything…. more blogging, more popularity, more fanbase etc etc.
    5. Perhaps a minor league at some point?
    6. Game of the Week winners receiving $500, with 2nd and 3rd place each week getting $300 and $200.
    7. Perhaps a 12 week season at some point, but I’m not sure about that. It creates some logistical problems with teams like Dallas that are college based and have semesters end right around the end of the season.

  • I'm particularly surprised by your suggestion that in ten years' time, the USCL will be no larger than 16-20 teams. How many clubs do you think there are around the Americas that would be capable of producing a consistently competitive, and occasionally play-off contention calibre, USCL line-up? Is your thought of limiting the league to 16-20 more an administrative one than anything else, or would you prefer to have a league that is consistently reasonably competitive throughout rather than a larger league with teams who struggle to get to 3-7 four seasons out of five? Do you think that other major sporting leagues are too large for their own good?

  • Well honestly, I don’t know for sure, it’s hard to look that far in the future. In a perfect world there could probably be about 20 teams right now, but…it’s hard for people to become organized. There are a few very obvious cities that should have teams that don’t because the players haven’t been organized enough or motivated enough to put one together. Probably I don’t see it getting larger than 16 teams for a while, especially if the season remains at just 10 matches. It’s always good to have a demand. You want there to be a few teams who really want to join the league, but can’t for whatever reason. But okay, I could see 18 or 20 also, although we’d have to go to 4 divisions most likely. I think we are years away from that though. I expect that when we reach 14 or 16, we will take at least a year or two break from expanding. Next year we plan to expand for sure.

  • Do you know of players who have been approached to play for a USCL team but declined due to lack of sponsorship? Would increased sponsorship of USCL teams be a better incentive to get strong players who do not currently participate involved, or to inspire players to improve their strength and then become involved?

  • Yes, I’m sure players have refused to play due to lack of sponsorship. I’m sure that if we get more sponsorship, even more top players will want to compete. However I have to admit we are doing pretty well in the strong category player so far. As I said earlier, until we get 100k in sponsorship and each team gets at least $500 per match, my vision for the league is not complete.

  • There is a team from Toronto in the major leagues of each of baseball, basketball, ice hockey and soccer. Would you welcome an application from a Toronto team, or a team elsewhere in the Americas but outside the US, to join the USCL? Is your focus on the United States so far due to patriotism, due to pragmatism with regard to international business legislation or due to pragmatism with regard to time zones?

  • Yes we would be fine with a Canadian team. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if it happened someday. It would be tricky with rating conversions, and we’d definitely be on the strict side so that they don’t gain an unfair advantage, but I think it would be great to have a team from Canada someday. I don’t want to be too much more exotic than this. I want this to be an American league, but because all the other major American sports leagues include Toronto, obviously it won’t look bad if we did.

  • Who would be in your fantasy all-time USCL team?

    1. Pascal Charbonneau
    2. Vinay Bhat
    3. Irina Krush
    4. Chris Williams

    This team is rated 2404, which is legal because of Irina’s bonus points. I think this is what I would go with using all the players from this season. However there are many options. Charbonneau has played at a very high level despite only counting as 2530. Bhat never loses, Krush on board 3 would be amazing (shes currently over 2500 USCF), and Williams has played extremely well on board 4 so far.

  • If you were the manager of a USCL team, what would you do that actual USCL managers do not currently do?

  • I don’t know, it depends how cutthroat you want to be. I think that most managers are doing a pretty good job, and have gotten used to some of the strategies needed to succeed in the USCL. One day I’m sure there will be a superpower team in which the top three boards are all GM’s and the fourth board is a young and rapidly improving 1800 player, whom is up to 2000 on a current rating list. Of course this team would still be very beatable, as many other teams field two GM level players on 1+2, and then they would almost surely have an edge on board 4.

  • Do you get to play much chess yourself these days? What do you do when you're not being the commissioner of a chess league?

  • I don’t play much. People always ask me when I’m going to start playing seriously again as though this is something that I should be doing, but I think they are out of their minds. Isn’t it completely obvious that I’m much more valuable to the chess community as an organizer than as a player?

    In regards to what else I do, I play poker. Poker allows me all the free time I have to run events like this.

And this seems as good a time as any to conclude the interview by reflecting that the USCL is sponsored by Poker Stars - and if I don't turn that into a hyperlink then I don't contravene my own aesthetic sense of advertising on my own weblog.

I would, incidentally, tend to suggest that interested would-be USCL teams might consider themselves spurred into action by the thought that USCL expansion is not going to continue apace forever; while I haven't asked Greg Shahade about this, it seems reasonable to me to assume that any would-be team who were able to get sufficiently organised during this season to put together a roster, a web site, sort out the technology now and succeed in playing a match against one or more existing USCL teams would make an impressive case for inclusion in the 2008 expansion round. Heck, there are definitely six teams who are going to be looking for opponents when the play-offs are taking place, plus teams may well want to stay together and practice play under USCL conditions during the long off-season. If the two most important things that the league is searching for still are enthusiasm and organization then this would be a good way to prove you've got them.

Heck, like I said last year, there's no reason why the USCL has to be the only league in town; if starting yourself a team is not enough, or if you want to start a team but not play in the USCL, get some other like-minded folk together to start a league the way you want it. It happens all the time in other sports; perhaps it's a silent tribute of respect to the effort Greg puts in if it doesn't happen in chess...
Tags: chess, uscl

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