15 Teachable Moments from the Pro Chess League

Is classical chess dead? It’s no secret that this question makes me grimace. But it’s not because I am a “purist” who will balk at rapid chess. Rather, it is because such questions provoke a defensiveness on behalf of classical chess. This defensiveness, in turn, leads to dismissive attitudes towards rapid, particularly online rapid, chess.

“There are too many games to follow.” Sure, but you don't have to watch chess in real time to enjoy it. “Lots of games end in blunders or time scrambles.” Okay, is that any worse than quick draws? “Players play “joke” openings.” See previous answer. You name an excuse, and I’ve heard it. But I think this dismissiveness of rapid chess results in missing out on what I think are some of the most instructive contemporary games of chess played at any level.


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With colorful commentary and the world's sharpest tacticians, it's hard to not get sucked in (courtesy Chess.com)


Enter the new season of the Pro Chess League (PCL), hosted by Chess.com. The format, to nobody’s surprise, is a bit confusing: players don’t all need to live near their team’s host city, average ratings have loopholes and exceptions, etc. But the gist of the format is: teams of four players play all-play-all rapid matches that feature some of the best players in the world going up against each other.

More interestingly, we get opportunities to see some of these world class players show what makes them different than still-excellent lower-rated GMs, IMs, and up-and-coming FMs. We also get to see some of these younger, less established, players show off their stuff in front of a major audience. And with the condensed time controls, as well as the pressure of playing for a team, the result is a real opportunity to see how strong players’ intuitions differ from the world’s strongest players. And, of course, how these intuitions differ from our own. Which we can learn from.

So, rather than provide regular recaps of this season of the PCL, I’m going to highlight what I find to be the most instructional moments from the thought processes behind some of the games. But first, a brief overview of this season.


standings after week 2


16 teams are competing this season, and there are plenty of options to root for with five American teams in the league. The makeup of each team can vary from week to week, but the Saint Louis Arch Bishops regularly feature GM Fabiano Caruana and rising FM Alice Lee. The California Unicorns boast GMs Sam Shankland and Ray Robson. But that’s just the beginning: we haven’t even mentioned the only American team on 2-0-0: GM Hikaru Nakamura’s Gotham Knights.

Additionally, it is hard to not love the Charlotte Cobras, featuring GMs Daniel Naroditsky, Grigoriy Oparin, Andrew Tang, and Chess Life favorite Elshan Moradiabadi. The Garden State Passers, with GMs Sam Sevian and Abhimanyu Mishra, are also not to be taken likely. Hey, even the Canada Chessbrahs offer WGM Jennifer Yu playing alongside the likes of GMs Magnus Carlsen and Anish Giri. Again, there is no shortage of options vying for your heart.


Now, let’s start with our first major upset of the season.



Josefine Heinemann is a 25-year-old German WGM who plays board four for her home nation’s Berlin Bears. Here she is scoring the rare four-over-one upset over GM Hikaru Nakamura’s Knights.



Now, onto the teaching moments. The first set of games I want to focus on all feature on the stronger side launching an intuitive attack against an under-protected king. It’s worth reviewing these games to think about how the losing side ended up under such pressure, and what could have gone differently. In my comments, I try and focus on the logic guiding the attacking side’s moves.







While rapid chess thrives on intuition, there’s no shortcut for those moments where calculation is required. Here, I want to focus on a few positions that give us “clues” to look for that can help guide our calculation. Which lines are open? What patterns do you see? Which of our own weaknesses could generate counterplay for our opponent?








Finally, everybody loves a good endgame. Here, the main themes will be piece activity and counterplay. But don’t forget: there’s no rule that says you can’t be mated in the endgame, either.






Those looking for incredibly precise, accurate chess between super-GMs will have no shortage of classical chess to feast on in the coming months. I hear there’s even a match between the world’s second- and third-best players coming up in less than six weeks.

For now, I hope I have convinced you that it is possible to find joy, excitement, and even instruction in the mess that is tense, fast-paced rapid chess. The regular season continues for three more weeks, including this one, with three weeks of playoffs to follow.