Sam Shankland is the 2018 US Champion!

by Alex Yermolinsky
4/30/2018 – It was a fantastic final sprint as both Fabiano Caruana and Sam Shankland fought to win their games to deny each other the title. Sam Shankland won again, giving his rival Fabiano Caruana no chance to steal it, and thus became the 2018 US Champion with a near 2900 performance. Nazi Paikidze and Annie Wang finished tied and will decide the title in a playoff on Monday. Report and analysis by GM ALEX YERMOLINSKY | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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Open event

The United States has a new chess champion! Grandmaster Sam Shankland, the 26-year-old from Berkeley, CA became the first National Champion based out of the West Coast since Yasser Seirawan back in 2000.

Around that time I was living in the Bay Area and held a job at the Mechanics Institute Chess Club in San Francisco. I remember Sam as a teenager, who played in our weekend tournament, mostly rapids, and showed a great deal of talent, even if he seemed more interested in soccer than chess! Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, as Sam was taking chess at his own pace, without being “over-coached” and result-oriented as many kids tend to be.

Over the subsequent years Sam's commitment to chess was tested a time or two, but despite occasional announcements of retirement, Shankland never quit. His game was growing at a steady pace as witnessed by his great play at the 2014 Tromso Olympiad. Along with his trademark sharp tactical eye, came both solid grasp of positional principles and a well-oiled comprehensive opening repertoire. By all counts Sam Shankland was ready for a breakout and it came not a moment too soon!

It wasn't a cheap win, either. While two of the Big Three, Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So, struggled (the former to a greater degree than the latter), the remaining superstar, Fabiano Caruana, continued his hot streak from the Candidates and the Grenke Classic. The two leaders raced down the finish line at a breakneck speed.

Sam Shankland's performance was almost 2900, and it took him into the 2700 club for the first time | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Sam Shankland 1-0 Awonder Liang

[Event "ch-USA 2018"] [Site "Saint Louis USA"] [Date "2018.04.29"] [Round "11"] [White "Shankland, Sam"] [Black "Liang, Awonder"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "B13"] [WhiteElo "2671"] [BlackElo "2552"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "85"] [EventDate "2018.04.18"] 1. e4 c6 {A surprising choice. Awonder hasn't played the Caro a lot, but one should always expect a new opening from an up-and-coming youngster.} 2. d4 d5 3. exd5 cxd5 4. Bd3 {The old Exchange Variation, long ago favored by R. J. Fischer has made a bit of a comeback lately. It certainly was appropriate for Shankland's tournament situation to play for a small advantage without taking excessive risks.} Nc6 5. c3 Nf6 6. Bf4 Bg4 7. Qb3 e5 $6 {[#] While not a novelty, this is still a fresh idea. Despite Black's statistical success, it is too early to pass a verdict on the validity of this move. As they say: small sample size.} 8. h3 $1 {Shankland didn't look surprised at all. His move is, undoubtedly, the most challenging reply.} (8. dxe5 Nh5 {is the idea. The bishop is pushed away from defending the e5-pawn, and} 9. Be3 Nxe5 10. Bb5+ Nc6 11. h3 Be6 12. Qd1 Nf6 13. Nf3 Bd6 {Wei Yi-Navara, Blitz 2018 took the game into a Tarrasch French type of position.}) 8... exf4 ({Perhaps,} 8... Na5 $5 9. Qc2 exf4 10. hxg4 Nxg4 11. Qe2+ Qe7 {is the critical line to be investigated in the future.}) 9. hxg4 Qe7+ (9... Nxg4 10. Qxb7 Rc8 11. Bb5 Qe7+ 12. Qxe7+ Bxe7 $14) 10. Kf1 O-O-O 11. Nd2 g6 $2 {The hunter has become the hunted. Awonder finds himself in an unfamiliar position, and isn't able to hit on the right plan.} ({The sharp} 11... g5 12. Ngf3 h5 {appears to be the only way to handle this position,}) 12. Re1 Qc7 13. g5 $1 {[#] The weak d5-pawn will be cause Black headache for the rest of the game.} Nh5 14. Be2 Ng7 15. Ngf3 Ne6 16. Bb5 $1 {Unlike his opponent, Sam hits on the right plan. The key square is e5.} Bg7 (16... Be7 17. Qa4 Nxg5 18. Bxc6 bxc6 19. Ne5 Rd6 20. Nxc6 Qxc6 21. Qxc6+ Rxc6 22. Rxe7 {is a grim scenario for Black.}) (16... h5 $5 {deserved attention. At least Black would be able to use his h8-rook for better deeds than just protecting a weak pawn.}) 17. Qa4 Rd6 (17... a6 18. Bxc6 Qxc6 19. Qxc6+ bxc6 20. b4 Kd7 21. Ke2 {seems a difficult endgame for Black. If he's desperate enough he might even try} a5 22. bxa5 Ra8 23. Nb3 c5 {although I don't expect him to succeed.}) 18. Nb3 {[#]} b6 $6 {Weakening the light squares is just too accommodating.} ({For better or worse,} 18... a6 19. Bxc6 Rxc6 {just had to be played.}) 19. Nc1 $1 {A very Karpovian approach: calm piece improvement when the opponent is devoid of ideas. Sam Shankland's chess really grows on me.} Nb8 20. Nd3 Kb7 21. Nb4 Qd8 22. Ne5 Qc7 23. Qb3 $1 { [#] Now it's either d5, f7 or h7, one of them has to go. White's advantage is already decisive.} Rhd8 24. Rxh7 a6 25. Bd3 Ka7 26. Qa4 a5 27. Bb5 Kb7 28. Nbd3 Rg8 29. Nf3 Rh8 30. Rxh8 Bxh8 31. a3 Nc6 32. Bxc6+ Rxc6 33. Nde5 Bxe5 34. Nxe5 Rd6 35. Qe8 $1 {[#] This about wraps up Shankland's greatest achievement to date: his first US Championship title, along with the entrance into the 2700 Club. Well done!} Rd8 36. Qxf7 Nxg5 37. Qxc7+ Kxc7 38. Nxg6 f3 39. Nf4 Kc6 40. gxf3 Nxf3 41. Re6+ Kb5 42. Ke2 Ng1+ 43. Kd3 1-0

Shankland's final scoreline stands out as one of the greatest of late: Six wins (four of them with Black!) and five draws without a single loss. It could have been even better had Sam converted the big advantage he had against both Caruana and Nakamura, while I cannot recall a single game where Sam stood significantly worse, with the possible exception of the Akobian game.

Play the Exchange Variation against the Caro-Kann

The Exchange Variation (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3) is a simple and easy to learn answer to the Caro-Kann. By clarifying the central tension White gives himself a clear plan of attack using the half open e-file and the e5 square. This is far from easy for Black to meet as Bobby Fischer, Jan Timman, Walter Browne and other leading Grandmasters have demonstrated in their games. Black too has his resources but he needs to know what he's doing.

Along with the title come a nice check for US$50 thousand and over 30 rating points gained that propelled Shankland into the 2700 territory for the first time in his career. Fantastic job!

There was no shortage of chess fans to celebrate the event and their passion | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Caruana quipped that he hadn’t expected his +5 score not to cut it, but he was very gracious in offering his congratulations to the new Champion. Fabiano has every reason to be happy with his own play, the last round game included.

Fabiano Caruana scored non-stop at the end to try and take the title. His last-round victory over Alexander Onischuk was testimony to this. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Fabiano Caruana 1-0 Alexander Onischuk

[Event "ch-USA 2018"] [Site "Saint Louis USA"] [Date "2018.04.29"] [Round "11"] [White "Caruana, F..."] [Black "Onischuk, Al"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C78"] [WhiteElo "2804"] [BlackElo "2672"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "57"] [EventDate "2018.04.18"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O b5 6. Bb3 Bb7 {Having tried everything he could in this fateful event, all to no avail, Onischuk resorts to the Arkhangelsk Variation. This is the opening of his youth, greatly influenced by the late GM Vladimir Malaniuk, the best player in the Crimean Peninsula of the 1980's and 1990's.} 7. d3 {Modern players are not keen to bother with sharper lines where White goes for d2-d4. The reasoning is simple: since we often have to put the pawn on d3 to avoid the Berlin and the Marshall, why not be content with it now, when the black bishop is already on b7?} Be7 8. Re1 O-O 9. a4 Re8 {Alexander is still trying for the Marshall.} ({More commonly seen is} 9... d6 {where White owns his birthright 60% score.}) 10. Nbd2 Bf8 11. Nf1 Na5 12. Ba2 {[#]} d5 $5 {Here we go.} ({The restrained approach} 12... h6 13. Ne3 c5 14. Bd2 (14. Nh4 d5 15. exd5 Nxd5 16. Qh5 c4 { was unclear in Stefansson-Adams, 2002, although the Icelandic GM prevailed in a big upset.}) 14... b4 15. Qe2 d6 {is something I would expect from Onischuk in a different tournament.}) 13. axb5 {Fabiano finds an interesting solution, but it had a small hole in it.} ({A routine reaction would be} 13. Bd2 Nc6 ( 13... c5 14. exd5 {turns it into a real gambit, as the black queen is tasked with protecting her stray Na5.}) 14. exd5 Nxd5 15. c3 {which looks pleasant for White who has managed to keep Black from advancing his c-pawn, as Nc6-a5-c6 went for nothing.}) 13... axb5 14. exd5 Bxd5 $6 {Onischuk believed his fearsome opponent.} (14... Nxd5 15. Nxe5 {[#] just looks like a pawn up for White, but then the engines uncork a truly incredible move.} Nb3 $3 16. cxb3 Nb4 {winning back the hapless Ba2 with a great game for Black who has the bishop pair working against White's broken pawns. Can a human player find such an idea? Perhaps in a better situation Onischuk could have, but not here, not with his confidence shot to pieces.}) 15. Bg5 $1 {[#] This is what Caruana was playing for. The black queen is overloaded, having to protect both a8 and f6.} Bxa2 (15... Nc6 {fails to solve Black's problems.} 16. Bxd5 (16. Bxf6 Bxf3 17. Qxf3 Qxf6 18. Qxf6 gxf6 19. Bd5 Rxa1 20. Rxa1 Nb4 21. Bb3 {looks pretty good as well.}) 16... Qxd5 17. Rxa8 Rxa8 18. Ne3 Qe6 19. Bxf6 gxf6 20. d4 $14) 16. Rxa2 e4 {I don't think Alexander really believed this would work.} 17. Bxf6 ( 17. dxe4 Qxd1 18. Rxd1 Nb7 19. Rxa8 Rxa8 20. Bxf6 gxf6 21. Nd4 $16) 17... Qxf6 18. Rxe4 Rxe4 19. dxe4 Rd8 20. Qe2 Nc4 21. c3 Bc5 22. Ra1 g6 23. e5 Qc6 24. Ng3 Re8 ({Better was} 24... Bb6 {but then White builds up:} 25. h4 $1 (25. b3 Na5 26. Rd1 Rxd1+ 27. Qxd1 Qe6 {gives some hope.}) 25... Kg7 26. Rd1 {and in case of} Rxd1+ 27. Qxd1 Nxb2 28. Qd8 {his attack appears decisive.}) 25. b3 Nb6 26. Ra5 Bf8 (26... b4 27. Ne4 Be7 28. c4 $16) 27. Qxb5 {Snatching the second pawn spells the end.} Qxb5 28. Rxb5 Ra8 29. h4 1-0


Caruana takes home another rating gain, enabling him to stay within 20-something points of Magnus Carlsen. Soon they will be meeting again at Norway Chess, starting less than a month from now. Expect Magnus and Fabiano to go toe-to-toe all the way until their match in the fall, and what a great show that promises to be!

Although he did not win the US Championship, Fabiano Caruana can hold his head high with his excellent performance. In other years, his plus five score would have been good for the title. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

In his quiet, almost invisible ways the last year's title holder Wesley So coasted to a third-place finish. Two resounding wins in the first two rounds didn't inspire Wesley to try harder, and a promising start was followed by nine draws. The final tally of +2 actually cost So 7.8 points pushing him further down the live rating list. We can take that as normal fluctuations, but far more alarming is Wesley's apparent lack of ambition, often mistaken by well-wishers for tranquillity. I'm no expert in spiritual ways, but I know for sure that no one ever achieved anything great in chess without giving it 100%. Blood, sweat and tears, man. Blood, sweat and tears.

In that respect, I wouldn't worry too much about Hikaru Nakamura, even if his result was more catastrophic, -18 rating-wise. Hikaru was just in bad form, possibly caused by relative tournament inactivity of late. While his peers were slugging it out at the Candidates, Hikaru was reduced to spectating. Gone was one of his favourite events, the Zurich Challenge. Nakamura, however, did a remarkable job of promoting chess in far corners of the world — give him credit for that.

I think once the Norway Chess rolls along, closely followed by the new cycle of the Grand Chess Tour, Hikaru will find himself back in his element. As nice as it would have been for Hikaru (and the same goes for Wesley and Fabiano) to add another US Championship title to his collection, it's more like ‘been there, done that’. Bigger players have bigger goals.

Back to the subject. The last round at the 2018 US Championship had its normal share of quiet draws, as many players just wanted to go home. One exception was the following sharp encounter.

Jeffery Xiong 0-1 Ray Robson

[Event "ch-USA 2018"] [Site "Saint Louis USA"] [Date "2018.04.29"] [Round "11"] [White "Xiong, Jeffery"] [Black "Robson, R..."] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C53"] [WhiteElo "2665"] [BlackElo "2660"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "74"] [EventDate "2018.04.18"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Bc5 4. c3 Nf6 5. d3 d6 6. a4 a5 7. Bg5 h6 8. Bh4 g5 9. Bg3 O-O 10. O-O Ba7 11. Na3 Bg4 12. Kh1 Kg7 13. Nc2 d5 14. exd5 Nxd5 15. d4 exd4 16. cxd4 Nce7 17. Ne3 {[#]} Nxe3 $6 {Giving White the f-file and much-needed support to his isolated pawn, what else can be wrong with one move? } ({I fail to see anything particularly bad about} 17... Be6 18. Qb3 c6) 18. fxe3 Nf5 19. Qb3 f6 {[#]} (19... Nxg3+ 20. hxg3 f6 21. Ne5 $3 fxe5 22. Rxf8 Qxf8 23. Rf1 {crushes through, while Black's Ra8 and Ba7 watch it from the sidelines.}) 20. Rae1 $2 {Jeffery is just not looking at tactics.} ({The same shot} 20. Ne5 $1 {looked pretty good here.}) ({For those of you seeking positional solutions only there is} 20. Bf2 {preserving the bishop and getting to work on e3-e4.}) 20... Nxg3+ 21. hxg3 Bb6 {I actually prefer Black here, albeit by a small margin.} 22. Nd2 h5 23. Bd3 h4 24. gxh4 Rh8 25. Kg1 Rxh4 26. Ne4 Rh6 27. Bb1 Qe7 28. Ng3 Qd6 {[#]} 29. Rf3 {A rather artificial-looking attempt to confuse the opponent, as Ray was headed into his customary time trouble.} (29. Kf2 Rah8 30. Bf5 Bh5 31. Qe6 {was a consistent strategy.}) 29... Kh8 30. Nf5 Qh2+ 31. Kf2 Bxf3 32. Kxf3 g4+ $1 {Time on the clock or not, Robson always has an eye for the enemy king.} 33. Kf2 g3+ 34. Kf3 Rh7 35. Qe6 Qh5+ 36. Kxg3 $2 {It's sad that Xiong spent no time at all out of his remaining 20 minutes on this suicidal pawn grab.} ({In the meantime,} 36. Kf4 Rf8 37. Be4 c6 {would have given him time to protect the g2-pawn, and then} 38. Kxg3 {still keeps him in the game.}) 36... Rg8+ 37. Kf2 Rxg2+ {What did he expect?} ({it's your queen or your life after} 37... Rxg2+ 38. Kxg2 Qg4+) 0-1

If we could only combine Robson's tactical mastery with Xiong's positional skills, we would have had... another Sam Shankland! Jokes aside, I firmly believe both Ray and Jeffery haven't said their last words yet.

My Black Secrets in the Modern Italian

The Italian Game is considered a sound but quiet opening without early trades, giving rise to rich positions where plans are more important than forced variations. So shows black's plans on this DVD.

Final standings


Games of round eleven


Women's event

While the men have sorted it all out, two of the ladies out there have some unfinished business to settle over a small matter of the National Championship. The 2016 Champ, Nazi Paikidze, and the revelation of the 2018 event, Annie Wang, will be facing each other in a playoff match on Monday.

Nazi Paikidze and Annie Wang ready themselves for the crucial last round | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Annie was ahead by half a point going into today's game, but, in all honesty, her play in the final stretch was a little sub-par. Two wins over Sharevich and Krush could have easily been two losses, while the draws held against Paikidze and Zatonskih were good, but not decisive for the outcome of the tournament.

The moment of truth arrived as Annie faced the defending Champion, Sabina Foisor.

Sabina Foisor 1-0 Annie Wang

[Event "ch-USA w 2018"] [Site "Saint Louis USA"] [Date "2018.04.29"] [Round "11"] [White "Foisor, S...."] [Black "Wang, Annie"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "D61"] [WhiteElo "2308"] [BlackElo "2321"] [Annotator "AlexYermo"] [PlyCount "73"] [EventDate "2018.04.18"] 1. d4 e6 2. c4 Nf6 3. Nf3 d5 4. Bg5 Be7 5. Qc2 O-O 6. e3 Nbd7 7. Nc3 h6 8. Bh4 c5 9. cxd5 cxd4 ({A great many games that saw} 9... Nxd5 10. Bxe7 Qxe7 11. Nxd5 exd5 12. dxc5 Nxc5 {mostly ended in draws ever since the days of Capablanca.}) 10. Nxd4 Nxd5 11. Bxe7 Nxe7 12. O-O-O $5 {Sabina isn't leaving St. Louis without one last fight.} ({Boring is} 12. Be2 Nf6 13. O-O Bd7 14. Rfd1 Qb6 15. Qb3 {Wang Yue-Kramnik, 2017}) 12... Qa5 13. Nb3 Qe5 14. g4 Nf6 15. Be2 Bd7 16. h4 Rfc8 17. Kb1 {[#]} Nfd5 $6 {The beginning of a sudden slide that took Annie's position down in a matter of moves.} ({Better was} 17... Ned5 {with a clear plan of hitting c3 while keeping the Bd7 protected.}) 18. Ka1 Bc6 (18... Nxc3 19. Rxd7 Nxe2 20. Qxe2 $11) 19. Rhg1 Nb4 $6 ({The right way was} 19... Qh2 20. Ne4 Ba4 $1) 20. Qd2 Ned5 $2 {Black's play is going nowhere.} ({Seeing White poised to blast open the g-file it would make some sense to distract the white rooks with a tempting offer.} 20... Rd8 21. Qxd8+ Rxd8 22. Rxd8+ Kh7 { The resulting position is totally unclear to me. Say,} 23. a3 Nbd5 24. Nxd5 Bxd5 25. Rd7 Ng6) 21. Nxd5 Nxd5 22. g5 $16 hxg5 ({In such situations one is advised to pitch a pawn with} 22... h5) 23. Rxg5 Qf6 24. Rdg1 Ne7 25. Rxg7+ Qxg7 26. Rxg7+ Kxg7 27. Qd4+ f6 28. Qd6 $18 Kf7 29. Nc5 Bd5 30. Bh5+ Kf8 31. b4 Rxc5 32. bxc5 f5 33. f3 Rc8 34. e4 fxe4 35. fxe4 Bxe4 36. Qxe6 Bd5 37. Qf6+ 1-0

Kudos to Sabina, who fought like a true champion in a situation where it hardly mattered for her tournament standing | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Paikidze had White against her former and current countrywoman, Rusudan Goletiani. Both hailing from Georgia, both are attractive and articulate young ladies, and both are great additions to American chess. A tense fight was on. A typical Scheveningen Sicilian setup promised chances for both sides, but at the end, just before the time control, the position appeared to be about even. A draw was agreed, setting up tomorrow's showdown.

Don't miss the playoff between the two leaders to decide the title of US Women's Champion | Photo: Lennart Ootes

Thanks to all the players, organizers and everyone involved in the 2018 edition of the U.S. Championships for the great show these tournaments have been. I can't wait for the next year's events already!

Final standings


Games of round eleven



Yermo is enjoying his fifties. Lives in South Dakota, 600 miles way from the nearest grandmaster. Between his chess work online he plays snooker and spends time outdoors - happy as a clam.


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macauley macauley 5/2/2018 08:31
For those who don't get @ketchuplover's reference:
ketchuplover ketchuplover 5/1/2018 02:36
Just keep him away from machetes
KrushonIrina KrushonIrina 4/30/2018 06:55

US Champion, with the best score and TPR in decades
2700+ rating
World top 50 (45, to be precise)
Spot on the Olympiad team
Increased sales for his excellent new book

No wonder he cracked his second smile since puberty. (He smiled similarly after the Olympiad victory).

Seriously, much deserved. We in the Bay Area know how hard he works.
oldsalt7 oldsalt7 4/30/2018 06:35
Congratulations to Sam Shankland on a momentous victory. I am presently perusing his interesting book on pawn play 'Small Steps to giant improvement'.
stephen brady stephen brady 4/30/2018 03:09
wow, so impressive! Congratulations, Sam. This is a once in a lifetime achievement against the world's elite.
To Fabiano, you shouldnt enter a tournament thinking "Oh, +5, that should be enough". We need you to go to the table like Fischer, not wanting to give a single half point. Come on, man--eye of the tiger!
toronto toronto 4/30/2018 01:56
Thanks to the Yerminator! Very interesting commentary.
Lachesis Lachesis 4/30/2018 10:52
Excellent coverage by Yermo.