Sam Shankland: "I was starving in the jungle"

by Alexey Root
3/18/2017 – Though a grandmaster of chess, Sam Shankland is a novice at surviving in the jungle. As such, he was one of ten novice contestants paired with survival experts. Shankland’s team was the third team eliminated. Although out of contention for the $500,000 prize for the winning team, Shankland says the experience was valuable and that he gained lifelong friends. Enjoy this report with comments and impressions by Sam Shankland.

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All photos courtesy of Jessica Zaccarello from Fox TV

As detailed in a previous ChessBase report, the jungle novices were a mix of ordinary people and minor celebrities, such as models, cheerleaders, and a chess grandmaster. To introduce Shankland’s chess to the viewing audience, there was a video clip of him moving chessmen at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco. On the first episode, Shankland said that he was a “Professional chess player, United States Olympic Team. . . . I don’t have the best social skills, I think you know. Maybe a little bit of a chess geek. . . . I hope . . . I become famous by winning a bunch of money.”

The survival experts watch the arrival of...

... the brigade of beginners they must team up with.

Color-coordinated pink and purple hair, clothes and suitcase, don't exactly scream 'Sheena, Queen of the Jungle'

Perhaps Shankland was naïve about the possible outcomes of his reality TV appearance because he had never watched such shows before. Being contacted by the casting director of Kicking and Screaming was a surprise. Shankland emailed, “I was recruited out of nowhere. I had never seen any reality TV before, and a casting director emailed me asking for a brief interview. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was starving in the jungle.”

Sam Shankland showed off his machete-wielding skills much to the hilarity of viewers and palpitations of his partner Caleb who saw it impale a tree inches away from his hand

Sam Shankland’s Kicking and Screaming partner was Caleb, an army special ops vet. Shankland noted that the show was on a first-name basis, so the rest of this article refers to Sam and Caleb by their first names. Caleb was initially disappointed not to be assigned a model or cheerleader as his partner, stating, “My ideal survival partner would be someone like me, sexy.” Upon seeing Sam, Caleb uttered, “Aaw, come on.” The show’s hostess, Hannah Simone, added “So as you might have guessed you are paired with your total opposite.”

Despite Caleb’s initial misgivings, Sam proved an able partner for the first challenge. In that challenge, team members swam together to a fishing platform, caught fish with their bare hands, and transported the fish via nets to buckets. Of the ten teams, Caleb and Sam finished third and were safe from the first elimination challenge, which involved the ninth and tenth place teams.

The experts assisted in tasks such as helping with pink suitcases and slingshots

Soon it was not nearly as clam and sedate

By episode two, Caleb was pleased to have Sam as a partner. The models and cheerleaders were squeamish about foraging and then consuming plants and insects. Not Sam, who ate his taro root without complaint. Caleb was pleased that his partner was not a “pampered princess.”
Unfortunately, Sam’s rivals also noticed his developing jungle expertise. Maxwell was on the team that won the first elimination challenge. As a reward for that win, he got to choose which team to put in the next elimination challenge. Maxwell said about Sam, “Sam is a chessmaster. I knew for a fact that he is smarter than me. We can’t have people who are that intelligent around.” Sam and Caleb were also the only two-man team, which the nine man-woman teams felt advantaged them. As one of their competitors stated, “Two dudes could be a stronger team.”

Shankland had to grab fish in this task. Since the show had been recorded before his participation in the ongoing Winter Classic. Prior to its start, he quipped: "I'll be playing the Saint Louis Winter Classic, a very strong and very young 10-player round robin starting tomorrow. I'm hoping my opponents will not be as slippery as this one!"

Eventually he and Caleb managed to net the fish

Unlike the first episode’s elimination challenge, which pitted the two last-place teams on the fishing-by-hand task against each other, the second episode’s elimination challenge had Caleb and Sam facing another strong team of Claire and Brady. The night before that second elimination challenge, Claire and Brady feasted on restaurant-quality food while Sam and Caleb made do with leftover taro root. (Watch the second episode, available on the Kicking and Screaming Web site, to understand how this inequity came about. Sam emailed, “This felt pretty unfair at the time, especially since we didn’t have a chance to even compete for the food.”)

The second elimination challenge was multi-part: Rappelling down a cliff while collecting ropes, diving near a waterfall for a key, using the ropes to construct a ladder to the team’s chest, unlocking the chest with the key, and grabbing the team’s banner from the chest. The first team to raise their team banner on a flagpole won. Sam recalled, “Caleb, Brady, Claire, and I had done nothing but perform well from the start, and then somehow all four of us were in elimination! This is reality TV, not chess. Looking back, I think I was very foolish to expect the kind of objective last and second last place routine from the first episode would have lasted very long. I certainly have no complaints about how it all went down and Claire and Brady did deserve to beat us, but it made me appreciate the pure objectivity of chess a bit more. I still have nightmares about forgetting to take the key at the bottom of the waterfall.”

The show's hostess Hannah Simone explains the next tasks to follow. Shankland explained, "I still have nightmares about forgetting to take the key at the bottom of the waterfall.”

Thus, after eight days in Fiji, Sam and Caleb were eliminated. Reflecting on the experience, Sam emailed, “It’s hard to compare competing in the Olympiad and surviving in the jungle. It was definitely a unique challenge, but I felt like I was only beginning to test myself and definitely could have kept going. I had an opportunity to overcome an entirely new set of challenges that I had never experienced before. I’m glad to have made lasting friendships with the other cast members (Caleb especially), and glad to have had the experience.”

One of the less inspiring moments for the participants...

Sam and chess players in general were thought of as smart, a positive stereotype. Hollywood housewife Claire said, “Sam is so smart. It’s like crazy. It’s like, it…it…literally scares me.” But negative perceptions of chess players also came up. Unlike his castmates, Sam refused to join in spontaneous dancing stating “Do I look like I’m here to mess around?” Rather than being shown as a fun guy, Sam came across as Bobby Fischer-style ruthless, stating “I like to win. . . . I make my living crushing people’s dreams. It’s what I do.” Via email, Sam responded to how the show depicted him and chessplayers, “I worry a little that the world will think chessplayers are arrogant jackasses because of my behavior in the second episode, but I was trying to intimidate my upcoming opponents with confidence (obviously this did not work). You can’t choose what kind of impression you make when 3-4 days have to be compressed into 45-minute episodes. I’m sure people watching the show on TV have a very different impression of what kind of person I am than my castmates do. At this point, I think they know me as well as almost anyone.”

On Facebook, Sam posted, “I’d like to thank FOX, Lionsgate, and Matt Kunitz for giving me this opportunity. Like anything else in life it had its pluses and minuses, but on the whole it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Many thanks to Sam Shankland for his frank and revealing comments on a unique experience. Be sure to check out his site for his new multi-part course on using tactics to achieve positional goals called "The Shankland Method".

Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.


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