Championship droughts are no laughing matter. And there’s no doubt things have been feeling a little stale around here lately: It’s been three whole years since St. Louis touted a championship title.
Tonight, however, our great city’s sport sufferings may come to an end.
The Saint Louis Arch Bishops are one step away from completing the path to prophecy, having advanced to the 2014 Finals of the United States Chess League. The city’s finest chess talent has been assembled in one of its best squads to date, entering tonight’s match as the favorite to win over the Dallas Destiny.
Launched in 2005 with eight teams, the nation’s nerdiest professional league has grown to represent 18 cities around the U.S. and is run just like any other legitimate national sports union. Each city boasts a 10-player roster, manipulated by a team manager who must balance a weekly starting lineup of four players. Teams collide weekly in these four-board competitions over a 10-week season, playing together in the flesh and meeting their opponents online through the Internet Chess Club.
The USCL has featured many of America’s most-recognizable chess stars at one point or another, including U.S. Champion Gata Kamsky, U.S. Women’s Champion Irina Krush, as well as the brains behind the infamous chess-playing super-computer Deep Blue, Grandmaster Joel Benjamin. Even GM Hikaru Nakamura has competed in USCL seasons past; America’s No. 1 and the World’s No. 9 chess player no doubt proved to be a desirable free-agent, first appearing on the roster of the New York Knights and then hopping to that of the Seattle Sluggers -- and even played for a stint with the Arch Bishops, when he lived in town in 2010.
That was the first year of the St. Louis franchise, joining the league after the opening of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, which serves as the home venue of the Arch Bishops. But despite the city’s growing reputation as a chess mecca, the competitiveness of the USCL didn’t exactly offer the same recognition: The Arch Bishops failed to make the postseason in three of the past four seasons, and was bounced in the first round of the only playoffs the squad had seen.
But this year is different: the prophecy is about to be realized. The Arch Bishops put on a show in the regular season, performing to a 7-2-1 record to win the Southern Division and clinch one of the playoff’s top seeds. A first-round bye immediately set a new playoff distance record for the squad, and two more postseason wins have put the St. Louis team right on the brink.
Sure, some will attribute our roster rotation of four Grandmasters on the top four boards as a clear flexible strength, the least of which is the arrival of Webster University GM Wesley So to loft the Arch Bishops into juggernaut status. Currently ranked as the World’s No. 11 best chess player, So has been fantastic in his first-ever USCL season, far and away the league’s MVP leader after not losing a single game all season. His performance has been so commanding that the only blemishes to his record -- two draws -- were both voted as Highlight Games of the Week by the league.
The secret behind our success, however, is something the Arch Bishops have never had before -- and something most might not expect to be found in competitive chess: Team spirit.
“We’ve had strong teams before, but this team is more like a team in that everyone here is local and pretty familiar with one another, and how they play,” said local GM Ben Finegold, who has played for the Arch Bishops since the squad’s inception. “You want your team to win the match, so you want to do well not just for yourself, but also for the other players. It creates a kind of camaraderie, that you’re playing as part of a team, and you can feel that within your individual game.”
With points available from all four boards, Finegold says strategy can change at any moment, from any position. If the board of your teammates all look promising, changing to a solid style of play might guarantee you a draw -- and the half point that your team needs to win. But seeing your teammates on the ropes might mean your half-point won’t get the job done, forcing you to shift your individual plan to one that is more aggressive.
Having a world-elite player like So on the top board sounds great in theory, but the reality of the USCL’s average rating cap puts matters in a new light: The Arch Bishops’ lineup pays for that advantage in their bottom boards. This has put pressure on a rotation of different players on St. Louis’ boards 3 and 4 this season -- most of whom have struggled as underdogs.
Two National Masters have answered that call in the late season, however, with Crossroad’s College Prep 17-year-old Matthew Larson and Finegold’s son, Spencer, playing well up against the odds. Both solid, up-and-coming players have proven the ability to hang against stronger opponents, stealing away half points that the squad needs while So scoops up the victories.
“I think it just makes everybody more confident when our top boards are players like So and (2014 U.S. Championship runner-up) Var Akobian,” Finegold said. “Those guys just make the others play better; they feel sort of safe to know that the top players are showing up.”
Finegold will not be in the Wednesday night starting lineup, instead providing commentary while the games are played live in the Central West End chess club. The Dec. 3, 2014 USCL Finals will begin shortly after 7 p.m., and the games, along with Finegold’s commentary, can be watched live at www.saintlouischessclub.org.
Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.