Remembrance of Times Future

by admin on April 28, 2018

In the spring of 2006, I organized a team of mostly Santa Cruz players to compete in the East Bay Chess League (also known as “Liga”). My team, called “Eight is Enough,” had two masters alternating on top board — Robin Cunningham, with whom I later won the U.S. Amateur Team West championship (2012) and newcomer Juande Perea, who had recently arrived from Spain. Juande was especially excited about playing in a league because he had also played in a league in Spain. “Team chess is good chess,” he told us.

We ended up winning the Liga championship. In the regular season we finished behind a team called “Mike’s Maters,” but we beat them in the playoff match. Our prize for finishing first was a plaque and a free entry into the next year’s Liga… which never happened. Such seems to be the fate of chess leagues in America — unlike in Europe, where they seem to be a thriving and common phenomenon.

Strangely, though, one of the things I remember best from that long-ago season was our match against a team called the “Fighting Knights.” On paper it looked like an easy win, as we outrated them on all four boards. And indeed, our third and fourth boards won quickly, while I drew a rather insipid game on second board to give us an insurmountable lead.

First board, however, was a different story. Juande got what he thought was a winning attack, but his opponent, some 14-year-old kid with an expert rating, came up with an unbelievable, out-of-the-blue queen sacrifice that not only stopped Juande’s attack dead in its tracks, but also led to a ferocious counterattack. In a wildly complicated battle, the kid came out on top.

I wish I had kept the score of the game, because that kid’s name was Sam Shankland. It was the first time I had ever heard of him. (In fact, the Liga gave Sam his first master’s rating — his rating after the event was 2201.)

Twelve years and two weeks later, a whole lot of people have heard of Sam Shankland. Today, he is leading the U.S. Championship with two rounds to go.

It’s not as if he is a complete surprise. He has had other great successes, like a gold medal for top alternate while playing for the U.S. team in the Chess Olympiad in 2014, followed by a team gold medal with the U.S. team in the 2016 Chess Olympiad. But he has not previously been in serious contention for a U.S. championship. He was especially not considered a contender this year, when Fabiano Caruana has just qualified for a world championship match. All the pre-tournament discussion was about whether Fabiano’s recent triumph in the Candidates tournament would enable him to distance himself from his closest competitors in the U.S., Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So.

Of course, there are still two rounds left and anything could happen. Sam has 6½ points and Fabi is right behind him with 6. The next three are trailing at equal half point intervals: Wesley So with 5½, Aleksandr Lenderman with 5, and Zviad Izoria (the other unexpected sensation of this tournament) with 4½. Nakamura has surprisingly turned out to be a non-factor this year, with only 4 points out of 9.

I’m thrilled with Sam’s success, and it’s natural to wonder: Could anyone have seen this coming? My answer is yes, and that’s why I wish so badly that I had the score of his game against Juande Perea. Because that game, to me, was the bolt of lightning of a true mega-talent announcing itself. It calls to mind Capablanca versus Corzo in 1901, or Fischer versus Donald Byrne in 1956. But I can’t show it to you. Even Juande doesn’t have the score of the game. So you’ll just have to take my word that it was really something special, like the queen sacrifices in those games.

What’s interesting is that in 2006, ratings alone could not have predicted that Sam would be a future U.S. champion. In October 2006, there were several other American kids who were either equal to him or ahead of him in rating and in age:

  1. Robert Hess (age 14) — 2457
  2. Fabiano Caruana (age 14) — 2445
  3. Marc Tyler Arnold (age 13) — 2316
  4. Ray Robson (age 11) — 2258
  5. Mark Heimann (age 13) — 2220
  6. Parker Zhao (age 12) — 2212
  7. Victor Shen (age 13) — 2209
  8. Alexander Heimann (age 13) — 2203
  9. Sam Shankland (age 14) — 2203

But Sam has passed all of these except Fabiano Caruana. (For what it’s worth, Fabi’s USCF rating of 2445 probably didn’t indicate his true strength, because he was at that time playing in Europe, so most of his games were probably not even USCF-rated.)

Predicting young people’s future success is next to impossible, because it depends so much on factors that don’t have to do with chess. In Sam’s case, I think that the biggest issue was growing up. When I saw him at age 14 and 15 and 16, he seemed to me loud, vulgar, and obnoxious — a typical teenager convinced that he owned the world and the world owed him. Now I look at him differently. What would you do if you had a brain like a Ferrari, and everyone else was driving Yugos? He just didn’t know how to express himself. I don’t think he realized yet how much he needed chess and how much chess needed him.

I could be wrong, but I think that he hit a turning point around age 18, when he briefly announced that he was “retiring” from chess because he was in a huff about a GM norm that he couldn’t qualify for on technical grounds. I think that crisis may have been a wake-up call for him in the end. He didn’t quit — thank God — but I think that he may have realized for the first time that chess is a struggle, that it’s not always going to be easy, and that is in fact one of the reasons why it’s so important to keep fighting.

That’s my amateur psychoanalysis, based on rather flimsy evidence. Anyway, I’m now I’m a total Sam fan, and rooting for him to continue to do the improbable. In the last two rounds of the U.S. championship, as luck would have it, he will play the two people currently in last and second-to-last place, Alexander Onischuk and Awonder Liang. Meanwhile, Caruana will play against the players in last and third-to-last place, Onischuk and Yaroslav Zherebukh. It seems rather unusual for the tail-enders to play such an important role in the last two rounds of the tournament; a lot will depend on how much fighting spirit they still have. The pressure will be on both Caruana and Shankland to win out, but on this level there are no easy opponents. Stay tuned to see what happens next!

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Michael Aigner April 28, 2018 at 12:28 pm

I knew Sam Shankland since he was a 1500 rated 12 year old playing up into the B section. Back then, nobody would have predicted this kid to participate in the US Championship (for the tenth time) and be in position to win it. Despite his relatively late start, Sam went on to earn gold at the World Youth U18. Few players make the quantum leap from late starter to Top 50 Grandmaster.

You pointed out some of the quirks in Sam’s personality, but what struck me the most (as a chess coach) was his impatience at the board. He once lost a rated game to a fellow master in 10 minutes, blitzing out the first 20 moves in the Dragon, yet mixing up two variations. The time control was 5 hours per round. Fortunately, Sam matured out of that phase of his life.

Winning the US Championship will not be easy with the World #2 hot on Sam’s tail. Nonetheless, let me say: Go Shanky!

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