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USCL QUARTERFINALS: Saint Louis Seeks to Knock Out New Jersey

The Saint Louis Arch Bishops won the Southern Division of the U.S. Chess League and face the New Jersey Knockouts in Wednesday's Quarterfinals.

It’s playoff time for the 2014 U.S. Chess League, and Saint Louis is taking this win-or-go-home idea perhaps a bit too seriously. The Southern Division champions begin their playoff push in the quarterfinals, and the Arch Bishops aren’t just leaving losses out of sight, out of mind -- they’re leaving losses right out of the lineup.

On Wednesday night, the two-seed Arch Bishops will stare down last week’s wildcard-winning New Jersey Knockouts, and the Saint Louis lineup is delivering a clear message: Come find it. The four Arch Bishops representing the squad in the USCL quarterfinals combine for a 2014 regular season total of 13 wins, 5 draws -- and just a single loss.

Saint Louis returns to its power lineup, featuring both 2700+ GMs Wesley So and Le Quang Liem on the top two boards. The top-heavy strategy brought early success but was ultimately the cause of a midseason slump, when opponents began to gang up on Saint Louis’ sacrificial lower boards. That stop has been pulled in the playoffs, however, as the Arch Bishops hold draw odds over New Jersey and need just 2.0 points to advance.

In his first USCL season, So is performing to a 2865 rating that sets him far and away as the 2014 MVP leader with 28 points. He has secured Saint Louis’ top board since Week 3, scoring 7.0/8 with two draws -- both of which became featured USCL Games of the Week. On Wednesday, So will take white and attack New Jersey GM Alex Stripunsky, who has been trapped in a recent slump: The USCL veteran has scored only 4.0/11 this season, including just a half-point over the last five weeks.

On Board 2, Le Quang has scored 5.0 points from 6 games this season, and brings the Saint Louis lineup its second 2800+ performance rating. He will defend with black against another New Jersey veteran GM Joel Benjamin, who has turned in a successful season of his own. The brains behind Deep Blue is third in the 2014 MVP standings, turning in a solid 8.5 points from 11 games this season -- though he has slowed down the stretch, drawing against two FMs in weeks 9 and 10.

Beyond draw odds, Saint Louis’ armor finds continued strength thanks to a midseason lineup shuffle that delivered two lower-board players who could do more than hold their own. On Board 3, NM Matt Larson is a player on the up and showing no fear of playing up, performing like a 2410 -- that’s 200 points above his actual rating -- from four games this season. Larson holds the Saint Louis lineup’s only recorded loss from his first game in 2014, but has since turned in 2.5/3. On Wednesday, he takes the white pieces against New Jersey IM Alexander Katz, who won in last week’s wildcard round.

And Board 4 might be Saint Louis’ late-season secret weapon: NM Spencer Finegold. The son of Grandmaster Ben -- a “backup” on the Arch Bishops’ bench, along with GM Varuzhan Akobian -- was a last-minute week 7 roster addition and has scored 3/3 since joining, outrated by all three opponents. On Wednesday night, Spencer gets black against his first inferior-rated opponent by 150 points in Ethan Klein, an expert who has held several draws for New Jersey’s bottom board this season.

Wednesday’s USCL quarterfinal match between Saint Louis and New Jersey will go live at 7:00 p.m. Central, with live commentary by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis’ resident Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan. Club members may sit with Yasser and watch the games live at the CCSCSL, and online guests may enjoy his commentary on the live stream here.

Live commentary from GM Yasser Seirawan for Wednesday evening's USCL Quarterfinal match between the Saint Louis Arch Bishops and the New Jersey Knockouts will go live at 7:00 p.m. Central Time.