by GM Joel Benjamin
The New Jersey Knockouts find itself in an unaccustomed position. We weren’t quite prepared to clinch a playoff spot midway through the season, not after the brutal finishes to our first two seasons. And clinching the Eastern Division title with a round to spare…we kind of had to pinch ourselves after that. So we go into the playoffs with the top seed, giving us draw odds and choice of colors in the opening round. Our opponents, the Baltimore Kingfishers, are a formidable squad with a strong first board and good balance in their lineup. You can throw out the regular season records when you get to the playoffs, a point driven home to me by the Sunday Sports section of the New York Times. They assessed the strength of all 27 World Series Champion Yankee teams, rating the 2000 team as the worst, one of the worst World Series winners in history. That team, which won only 87 games, defeated my beloved Mets in five games. So while we remain confident, we temper our optimism with caution.
Lineups are affected by player availability. Probably every team will be kept from its ideal lineup at some point in the playoffs by logistical concerns. Both teams will have one of the two grandmasters on the roster in the match. Sergey Erenburg beat me twice last season, so I will be particularly determined to make a good showing on Monday night. We are going with Dean Ippolito and Mac Molner, two of our core players from the beginning, on two and three. Both of them played a bit less than in the past this year, but will be primed for the playoffs. Our fourth board, Sean Finn, was added to the roster late in the season as insurance for the playoffs. He looked good in two games for us—a draw with David Adelberg of Arizona, and a win over Jennifer Shahade of Philadelphia—so we think he’ll do a good job as well.
As the top seed, we got choice of colors. We had to choose before we knew their lineup, though they are fielding pretty much what we expected. With some teams, in may be clear on which boards you want the White pieces, but not always. I think the conventional wisdom is to choose White on one and three, on the theory that color makes a bigger difference for higher rated players than lower rated players. That seemed as good a reason as any to choose white on the odd boards. Indeed, New York and Arizona made the same call, with only Seattle choosing Black. I’m not surprised by the Sluggers’ decision, as Nakamura feels he can beat anybody with either color. If I were that good, maybe I would feel the same way. (If we make it through to the final against Seattle, we will have choice of color.)
The Kingfisher trio of Enkhbat, Uesugi, and Battsetseg are not particularly well versed in opening theory, but they are scrappy players who can be strong if they get the right type of position. On paper the teams are pretty even, but only needing to score two points to advance should make us a slight favorite. Hopefully we will be able to “reel in” their kings (or any other Baltimore-themed phrase in Bioniclime style) and advance to the Division finals.