International master Pascal Charbonneau competed very successfully as the first board for the Baltimore Kingfishers in the inaugural season of the US Chess League. He participated in all but one match, and in every game he played decisively, only drawing GM Alex Stripunsky on two occasions (in one of their contests Pascal conceded a draw in a much better position to ensure a victory for his team). Pascal is no stranger to team competitions, representing UMBC in collegiate championship events and accepting first board responsibilities in US Amateur Team competition. With the impending finals approaching (not only for the chess league, but more significantly in academic terms) Pascal agreed to impart some of his opinions about the league, his individual games, and how to prepare for critical situations over the chessboard.
Pascal was generally impressed with the US Chess League. "I think it was a success. It was a lot of fun and I was happy to be competing." He believes in the future of the league, but admits that "it would be nice to get sponsorship eventually." With the issue of sponsorship introduced, it becomes clear that financial restraints would significantly affect the league. "Average rating would become an issue if you can afford to pay more strong players." Hopefully, the popularity of the league will attract the interest of sponsors, and increase the geographic distribution of the teams.
When the league commenced in August, Pascal was ambitious, but apprehensive about making any bold predictions. "To be honest, I wasn't sure how our team would do, or which team would work better." Pascal acknowledged the stronger lineups of some of the other teams, and their potential to be more competitive. Baltimore would have to rely on veteran consistency. "We have solid players. They all have experience and get good results." Playing as a member of a team requires you to re prioritize the importance of your individual result. "You have to put the team result in perspective. I tried to do exactly what my team needed me to do, and I was really watching the other boards." The Kingfishers all convened in a computer lab for their matches, and each participant had independent access to a computer (as opposed to New York for example, who played on actual chessboards and relayed moves to a single computer). It is interesting to consider the difference between the tangibility of a three-dimensional chess set and the superficial quality of a two-dimensional chess board. Pascal had grown accustomed to using ICC as a medium for his games, but "for a lot of people it makes a difference."
After losing the initial match, and drawing the second match on the verge of defeat, Baltimore started the season at a sluggish pace. However, with four consecutive victories in weeks three through six, and two critical victories in the penultimate and final matches, Baltimore was riding high on momentum as they approached their playoff match with New York. As to their chances, Pascal candidly responded that he was "not so confident, draw odds offer a huge advantage." However, Pascal had faith in the team, and he was convinced that Baltimore had assembled "a perfect lineup to try and play for a win."
Pascal had clashed with GM Stripunsky on many occasions subsequent to their semi-final contest. In their two previous league matches, they had played exciting and unpredictable chess, entering many complicated positions. Each time the game ended peacefully, but not for lack of bloodshed. Their playoff match would be no exception. "I played an inaccurate opening, but later on I was not much worse. Even though we lost on board two, after I saw the last two boards I became confident at some point. I transposed into a drawish endgame once the position looked suspicious." Baltimore controversially elected to play with the black pieces on boards one and three, but this was a well calculated decision. "Stripunsky doesn't really play sharp stuff with White, so I wasn't afraid to play with Black. Besides, we felt it would benefit the team to have white on boards two and four." Baltimore defied the odds and defeated New York 2.5-1.5.
Pascal's opponent for the finals is GM Julio Becerra. In their first meeting this season, Pascal played from the black side of a very theoretical variation of the Sicilian Dragon, and the sharp consequences favored Becerra who was able to convert the full point. With the first move, Pascal is determined to steer this game in a more favorable direction, however this most likely will not be the result of excessive preparation. "I've been writing a lot of papers, the fact is I'm a student." The dilemma of the scholar-athlete is emphasized by Pascal who demands a lot from himself both academically and in competitive chess. But Pascal excels in positions that require creative intuition over rote theoretical memorization. Additionally, Pascal feeds off of Miami's flagrant attitude towards the match. "Miami is very confident, and that should serve to motivate us."
As a result of his appetite for full points, Pascal accumulated enough wins to receive the league MVP award. While Pascal is certainly honored by the accolade, it won't distract him from the task at hand, nor will it inflate his ego. Instead, Pascal approaches the match with a level head, and recollects fondly on the season that culminates on Wednesday with the finals. "It was definitely fun for everyone. The season had its ups and downs, and at times we were sort of inconsistent. But we showed something to get the best of New York, and we're ready for the finals."