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USCL Week 7: Marler on Hot Seat as Arch Bishops Look to Stop Skid

In response to their three-game skid, the Saint Louis Arch Bishops are turning to National Master Spencer Finegold as part of a lower-board lineup shuffle. Finegold will take Board 4 for week 7 of the U.S. Chess League on Tuesday night.

Under normal circumstances, a half-point from a match between Grandmasters wouldn’t be considered half-bad. But lately, those draws have been making Saint Louis Arch Bishops general manager Alex Marler break out in a full sweat.

Marler finds himself square on the hot seat entering Saint Louis’ Week 7 matchup with the Boston Blitz, as the Arch Bishops -- who have scored just a half point over the last three weeks -- now cling to just a half-point lead of the hotly contested Southern Division of the United States Chess League.

Leading the list of complaints causing unrest with the manager's performance is a Marler-designed lineup strategy of stacking the squad’s top-two boards with two uber-elite 2700+ Grandmasters. Many argue the top-heavy strategy has been tried before, and with disastrous results -- though it’s a method that Marler stubbornly defends.

“Heading into the season, I had a more fluid lineup strategy prepared, but then we were contacted by Le Quang Liem (2785) and Wesley So (2743), and that changed just about everything -- how can I not start two 2700 players every week?” said Marler who, with a roster already featuring Varuzhan Akobian (2719), immediately fell into an embarrassment of riches. “But it’s not working out lately, these past few particular lineups aren’t working. We’ve been essentially sacrificing Board Four and putting too much pressure on Boards One through Three to win. It’s just not working out.”

Indeed, Saint Louis had a great start to the 2014 season, with Le Quang's especially hot 4.5 out of 5 games helping the Arch Bishops race out to a comfortable lead in the South. But opponents have adjusted over this latest three-week skid, taking their chances on draws against Le Quang, So and Akobian and scooping up points from Saint Louis’ Board-Four gambit. In the past six games, the Arch Bishops have collected zero points from its third and fourth boards.

“Everyone just expects the top two boards to win, because they’re just so much better than everyone else,” Marler said. “But we are playing chess, and draws are a huge part of the game. Even though Wesley might outrate his opponent by 300 points, he is still playing against Grandmasters .. there is always a chance that he draws. So this strategy of absolutely needing these top-two wins, and then needing a draw from board three or four, is proving difficult to implement.”

For many Saint Louis fans nationwide, Marler’s admission that the top-heavy strategy not being foolproof would be easier to accept were this not a clear-cut case of history repeating itself -- and from the Arch Bishops themselves. In 2010, the Saint Louis manager designed his lineup around the powerhouse talents of GMs Hikaru Nakamura, Yury Shulman and Ben Finegold -- all rated 2600+ at the time. But when “everyone underperformed,” as Marler stated, the squad never found traction, limping to a 5-5 record and failing to make playoffs.

Last year’s Connecticut Dreadnaughts also featured a GM-stacked lineup of Robert Hess, Mikheil Kekelidze and Michael Rohde -- and also featured a season short of expectations. The Dreadnaughts were able to make playoffs but found an early exit, eliminated by New England in the quarterfinals. This year, a better-balanced Connecticut lineup knocked off Saint Louis 2.5-1.5 in Week 4 to start the Arch Bishops’ slide.

Despite such clear forewarning, however, Marler vehemently defends his power-forward 2700-lineup and, despite the admitted extra pressure, continues to accuse his bottom boards of “underperforming.” Both So and Le Quang will again appear as Saint Louis’ top-two boards in Tuesday night’s match versus Boston, with new lineup changes coming on the Arch Bishops’ bottom boards.

“Matt Larson just played in the 2014 U.S. Junior Championship -- he’s pretty much our golden boy,” Marler said. “And we’ve got Spencer Finegold as a strong player on Board Four. That’s two good masters on our bottom two boards -- this should be interesting.”

For Marler’s job security as general manager, he had better hope so.

Week 7 action between the Saint Louis Arch Bishops and the Boston Blitz begins at 7:45 p.m. EST on Tuesday night, with the match being broadcast live with commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan.