Pro Chess: In a 'league' of its own

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Pro Chess League is nothing like you would imagine a regular sports league to be. Players can log in from their home computers with little apart from the hum of the air conditioner cutting through the silence, waging battles against those several time zones away in this rapid chess tournament league. For five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, who is in the middle of a brief family break in Chennai before heading to a whole battery of tournaments around the world, this fits perfectly. It's also the first time that he's part of an online chess league.

"The rest of the day is normal, you go through your usual routine," Anand tells ESPN. "The only thing is at the back of your head you know this evening you've got to play and there is a tussle within you of whether you should prepare a lot or little. You want to be relaxed since the format is very unpredictable but you also feel some warm-up is needed. So typically, I get into my room an hour before the match starts to mentally imagine playing chess a bit further."

Broken into four divisions -- Eastern, Central, Atlantic and Pacific, on time zones -- with each division having eight teams and the top four teams in each division making the playoffs, the league is now only into its second year. While online chess itself is a popular, dog-eared concept with millions logging in every day, to be structured and packaged into a league format and get a majority of the top players -- including reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen -- on board is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Each team has a total of eight to 16 players, of which four are chosen to compete in each league match. Three of the four players must be local, or have some connection with the region they play for, while the fourth can be a free agent, who can be from any part of the world. Each match is a four versus four all-play-all format, so each player plays every player of the opposing team in a match and the team with a score of 8.5 or more wins. The time control is two minutes plus a two-second increment. Partially owned by chess server Chess.com, the league runs till April 8.

What is striking in this set-up is the total absence of physical proximity between team members, unlike other team-based chess events such as the Olympiad. "Here you don't get together with the team the previous night to discuss strategy, so it's far more improvised," says Anand. "In all leagues you play one game a day. Here you play four, so you're very alive to the evolving score. What is interesting is that the league is structured well and in a way that you cannot get too many hired hands. There has to be a certain proportion of rated players so no team can have too many Super GMs. Also, lot of local players from every city or region get a chance and it's also an opportunity for chess fans to watch and root for them."

"Here you don't get together with the team the previous night to discuss strategy, so it's far more improvised. In all leagues you play one game a day. Here you play four, so you're very alive to the evolving score."

Viswanathan Anand

The average rating of the four players in each match must be under 2500. So if a team is fielding its big names -- like Carlsen (world No. 1, team Norway Gnomes, ELO rating 2843), Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (world No. 2, San Jose Hackers, ELO rating 2814) or Anand (world No 9, Mumbai Movers, ELO rating 2779) -- in a match, they would have to even it out by fielding three much lower-rated players. Players are required to turn on their webcams during matches and are free to access video streams of all participants. Only two Indian teams -- Delhi Dynamite and Mumbai Movers -- find representation, and Anand, who has been roped in as a 'free agent' for Mumbai Movers, feels it suits the balance of an international league like this well. Movers currently lead the Eastern Division with 60 points, while Carlsen's side Gnomes are on fifth position with 58 points.

"I think it's better not to have too many teams from one country, which gives it a good mix and flavour," says Anand. "I think a nice online chess league is an idea that can be replicated within India."

Anand, who had decided against participating in the first edition of the league, had a change of heart sometime last year when he was struggling with the faster time controls and was yet to win the world rapid title. "I felt it would be a great chance to practise rapid and blitz chess for free," he says. "Also, it's convenient to just play from home and that too for an Indian team. The motivation also was to step out of my comfort zone and I told myself that if so many top players of the world are playing this must be enjoyable. I'm a little apprehensive about playing in these late hours but matches finish around midnight, so it's not too terrible."