Sam Shankland: My most memorable game

by ChessBase
5/22/2020 – In this new series, we ask professional chess players to share the most memorable game from their careers. Anybody who has ever participated in a competitive event knows that the emotional value attached to each contest is vastly more relevant than the pure sportive achievement. In the first instalment, Sam Shankland shares his first-ever victory over a grandmaster, ten years before winning the US Championship. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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MMMG #1: Lucky to play black

Sam Shankland was born October 1st, 1991 in Berkeley, California. Compared to the prodigies of our time, Shankland was a late bloomer in chess, as he earned the grandmaster title "only" at age 19. The Californian did not let his delayed ascent stop him. Well known for being extremely hard-working, he slowly but surely climbed up the rating ladder until having a breakthrough year in 2018, when he won the US Championship, the Capablanca Memorial and the American Continental in succession.

In an interview with Vignesh Panchanatham, Shankland synthesized his philosophy:

Play for the love of the game, and don't be too worried about things that are outside of your control. [...] A late start is a handicap, but I hope I have showed that it is not as big a handicap as some seem to believe.  

Below we present the highlights of the annotations sent by the author. The full analysis can be found in a replayable board at the end of the article.

For everything one does, there is always a first time. My first ever victory over a grandmaster was a very memorable one. I was never a child prodigy, I only discovered chess well into my childhood, playing my first tournament at age 11, and had never even encountered a grandmaster until I was 15, much less played with one or learned from one. They seemed much more like mythical creatures to me than I'm sure kids nowadays see them. I felt so accomplished after beating one (and a strong one at that) for a first scalp.

Shabalov, Alexander vs. Shankland, Sam 
World Open, 2008

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.c3

I have to think that Alex only chose this timid move because he was facing a younger and much lower rated opponent. In subsequent years he always went into the Open Sicilian against me.

3...Nf6 4.Bd3 Nc6 5.0-0 Bg4 6.h3?!


White's idea of course is not bad. But as soon as I saw this move, my thought was that castling queenside and launching the g-pawn became a possibility.

6...Bh5 7.Bc2 e6 8.d3 Be7 9.Nbd2 Qc7!


Black is preparing to castle long, and g5-g4 can potentially shred the kingside pawn cover keeping the white monarch safe. White is probably not worse just yet, but Alex's next move clearly showed he felt a little uncomfortable.

10.Qe1 This is very anti-positional, but White clearly was looking to avoid g5.

10...0-0-0 11.a3 Kb8


This move looks absurd to me in 2020. Why was I worried about my king on c8? Probably I was giving too much respect to my esteemed opponent.

12.b4 h6 13.b5 Na5 14.c4 g5


I was pretty optimistic about my attacking chances here, but the position is closed enough that White is probably okay. At some point, the knight on a5 may become a concern after Bb2-c3.

15.Bb2 Rhg8 16.Nh2 g4! 17.Qe3 gxh3 18.Qxh3 Be2!


A very refined move for me at this phase of my chess-playing days. I could calculate reasonably well and had a good feel for the initiative in the right kind of position, but subtleties such as provoking the rook to a slightly worse square before playing Bg4 was not something I normally think 16-year-old Sam was very good at.

19.Rfe1 Bg4 20.Nxg4 Nxg4 21.Bd1 Ne5 22.Nf1 Bf6 23.Ra2?


An understandable but poor decision. I don't think the rook will be too helpful along the second rank. Instead White should have put it on b1 so that I would have trouble getting Nb3 in and freeing the d1-bishop.

23...Qe7 24.Bc1 h5!


Fearless and strong. Black need not fear the loss of the h-pawn as the open h-file would spell White's doom, and he is rapidly gaining more space and tightening his grip on the kingside.

25.Nh2 At this point, it was pretty clear to me that he wanted to play f4. So, I stopped him. 



Black takes even more space. f4 is prevented due to Rg3 ideas.

26.Nf1 Ng6! If I can get Bg5 in next, the exchange of the dark squared bishops should more or less end the game as moves like Nf4 will become impossible to prevent. Understandably, White went for f4 anyway to prevent this, but I was ready for it.

27.f4 Bc3! 28.Ree2 Qf6! 29.Qf3


At this point, Alex actually did me a big favor by offering a draw. I think he did so hoping that I would immediately see the forcing continuation Ng6-e5, forking the queen and d3 pawn, and then queen back to h3, and knight back to g6. I probably would have found that idea on my own anyway, but his draw offer made me immediately note the possible repetition, and helped me find the way to improve on this idea.



This is a counterintuitive move because it allows g3, securing the g-pawn and White's kingside in general. But, once you start to think about why Ne5 does not work immediately, you realize that White absolutely needs the resource Qf3-h3. By provoking the pawn to g3, this becomes impossible.

30.Nh2 hxg2 31.Be3 Bd4 32.Rf2 Bxe3 33.Qxe3 Qh4 34.Bg4


I guess he was hoping for Rxg2 next without allowing Nxf4. Black is winning every which way and certainly could play something simple like Nb3-d4, but the finish was much more aesthetically pleasing.

34...e5 35.fxe5 Nxe5


If the bishop moves, Black can finish the game with Qxh2+. Alex resigned, and I had finally defeated my first grandmaster! Oddly enough, looking back (although forward from the time of the game), I was quite lucky to play the black pieces, as Black won every single one of our decisive games for the next 9 years until I finally beat him with white in 2017. I blame my horrible lifetime score against Alex on the terrible luck of getting White in most of those games!

Full annotations



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