The World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, and his on-form U.S. title-challenger, Fabiano Caruana, are not having it all their own way ahead of their November title match in London. Both are playing in rivaling tournaments on opposite continents, the 5th Vugar Gashimov Memorial in Shamkir, Azerbaijan, and the U.S. Championship being held at the Saint Louis Chess Club – and both title combatants are being a little overshadowed by surprising performances from two outsiders.
After round six in Shamkir, another four draws sees the Bulgarian ex-World champion veteran, Veselin Topalov remain at the top with a slim half point lead over Carlsen, who today drew with Russian former title-challenger Sergey Karjakin – but now joining Carlsen in second place is Dutchman Anish Giri, who benefitted enormously from a bizarre blunder in an equal position from the Czech Rep. No.1, David Navara, for the only win of the round.
Meanwhile, over in St. Louis, after his shock fourth-round loss to GM Zviad Izoria, Caruana has re-found his mojo, playing again with a noticeable swagger, to storm right back into contention for a third successive major tournament victory, with impressive back-to-back wins over Ray Robson and Varuzhan Akobian respectively, and he now joins unlikely frontrunner GM Sam Shankland in the co-lead, as the venerable national championship heads down the home straight.
In the last three rounds, though, Shankland has been the talk of the tournament. With a series of ‘small steps and a giant improvement’, the popular Bay-area grandmaster has had Caruana on the ropes, only to let him slip away with a draw; from an inferior position, he went on to beat his fellow co-leader, Akobian, to take the sole lead in the tournament; and now he’s easily drawn also with Wesley So, the defending champion.
San Francisco-born Shankland, 26, was one of the mainstays of the 2016 U.S. Olympiad gold medal-winning squad, and almost immediately after that, he shot to TV fame by competing in the first season of FOX’s reality TV game show Kicking & Screaming, where he came in eighth place with his survivalist partner Caleb Garmany. But through most of 2017, Sam has not been as active tournament-wise than we’ve come to expect from this young grandmaster.
With his inactivity, this has led many to speculate what was the inspiration for his current run of good form at the U.S. Championship. The reason could well be found in the pages of a highly recommended new chess book that just hit the market at the end of March – and Sam hasn’t been vociferously reading it, he’s been the one busy writing it!
His new book for Quality Chess (the Scottish-based top chess publishing house), titled Small Steps to Giant Improvement, is an unexpected little masterpiece that expertly dissects how crucial pawn play can be to winning games. Apparently, Sam set himself a task of writing a book that he could also learn from as he wrote it – and it looks very much like he’s succeeded! And despite it being released less than a month now, many are already tipping Small Steps to Giant Improvement to be a leading candidate for chess book of the year.
Gashimov Memorial standings:
1. V. Topalov (Bulgaria) 4/6; 2-3. A. Giri (Netherlands), M. Carlsen (Norway) 3.5; 4-7. T. Radjabov (Azerbaijan), Ding Liren (China), R. Mamedov (Azerbaijan), S. Karjakin (Russia) 3; 8-9. S. Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), R. Wojtaszek (Poland) 2.5; 10. D. Navara (Czech Rep.) 2
U.S. Championship standings:
1-2. S. Shankland, F. Caruana 5/7; 3. W. So 4.5; 4-7. A. Lenderman, V. Akobian, Z. Izoria, Y. Zherebukh, 3.5; 8-10. H. Nakamura, J. Xiong, A. Liang 3; 11. R. Robson 2.5; 12. A. Onischuk 2.
Photo: Small steps to giant improvement for Sam Shankland | © Lenart Ootes/CCSCSL
GM Varuzhan Akobian – GM Samuel Shankland
U.S. Championship, (6)
Nimzo-Indian Defence, Capablanca variation
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Qc2 d5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.Qxc3 dxc4 7.Qxc4 b6 8.Nf3 Ba6 9.Qa4+ Qd7 10.Qc2 The reason for the little queen shuffle from a4 to c2, is that white want’s to stop black playing c7-c5 – and this would be achieved with the knight on d7. But now the black queen is preventing …Nbd7. 10…h6 Shankland deviates from a famous Akobian outing with this line, when he faced Vishy Anand in last year’s World Rapid Ch. in Riyadh. Whatever Shankland had in mind, it didn’t work – and Anand’s approach with 10…Qc6 11.Qxc6+ Nxc6 12.Bf4 0-0-0 13.Rc1 Kb7 14.g3 Rhe8 15.Bg2 Nd5 looks far safer. White is a little better here, though Anand went on to win in 42 moves. 11.g3 Bb7 12.Bg2 Be4 13.Qd1 Nc6 14.0-0 Rd8 15.Be3 0-0 16.Rc1 Qd5 17.Qa4 Ng4 18.Rc3 Nxe3 19.fxe3 Qd6 20.Nh4?! “I outplayed him and I got a big advantage,” Akobian said in his post-game interview. “I don’t know why I didn’t play 20.Rfc1! …If this was a blitz game I would just play it immediately. For some reason, I’m just overthinking my moves.” 20…Bxg2 21.Nxg2 Ne7 22.Qxa7 Nd5 23.Rc2 Ra8 24.Qb7 c5 25.dxc5 bxc5 26.Qb5?! All the ‘armchair grandmasters’ following the game live, believed Akobian had missed a sure-fire win here with 26.Rxf7! Yes, all the engines quickly spotted this tactical shot, but Akobian’s excuse was that he “overthought” the miss on f7 – but it didn’t even register for Shankland at all that he’d missed this trick! It’s certainly better for Akobian than the difficulties he now faces, but it is far from clear it’s winning for him at all. After the forcing 26…Rxf7 27.Qxa8+ Rf8 28.Qa5 (The only move. Both 28.Qb7 and; 28.Qa7 lost on the spot to 28…Nc3!) 28…Qe5! 29.Qd2 (If 29.Qxc5 Qf6 30.Nf4 g5! and again it starts to get dangerous for white, who has to resort to 31.h4 gxf4 32.exf4 Qf5 33.Kh2 where his pawns should be enough to hold the draw.) 29…Qf6 30.Qe1 Qe5 it’s not so clear white can try to win this with two extra pawns, as black’s dominant queen, rook and knight offer more than enough compensation – and likely we’d see the game ending here in a repetition with 31.Qd2 Qf6 32.Qe1 Qe5 etc. 26…Rfb8 It’s all becoming rather awkward for Akobian now, as black’s pieces spring to life – “I woke up at the right time,” Shankland wryly commented on surviving the missed tactic. 27.Qd3 There are no easy answers here for Akobian – and even trading queens is fraught with danger. If 27.Qxc5 Qxc5 28.Rxc5 Rxb2 29.Ra1 Rxe2 30.a4 Nxe3 31.Nxe3 Rxe3 32.a5 Ra6! the a-pawn is blocked, and with it, black should easily engineer a way of bringing his king across the board to replace the rook a6, freeing up his own rooks, and the a5-pawn must surely fall. 27…Qe5 28.Rxc5 Qxb2 What’s not to like here? White’s pawns are crippled and look set to drop off, and Black’s pieces are all co-ordinated and very active – but at least give Akobian credit for making a fist of trying to stay in the game despite all the difficulties he faced. 29.Rfc1! The back-rank threat gives Akobian a little breathing space – not much, but a little. 29…Rd8 30.Qe4?! Better first was 30.Qc2 Qxa3 and now 31.Qe4 looking to take the fight from here. But with 30.Qe4, Akobian allows the e2-pawn to fall, leaving the a-pawn for afters. 30…Qxe2 31.R5c2 Qb5 32.Nf4 Nf6 Trading knights only offers white hope of saving the game, as his knight is still lacking scope on f4, and with less of a threat to the e-pawn. 33.Qb4 Qe5! If Akobian is touting to trade queens, it’s going to come at the cost of the a-pawn. 34.Qc5 Qxc5 35.Rxc5 g5 36.Ne2 Rxa3 37.Rc8 There’s nothing left for Akobian to do, other than try to exchange off some pieces, and then hope for some sort of way to hold the endgame – his best hope being to get it down to a rook and pawn ending or even a knight and pawn ending. But Shankland avoids this possibility. 37…Rxc8 38.Rxc8+ Kg7 39.Rc3 Ra1+ 40.Kg2 Ra2 41.Kf1 Ne4 Shankland’s knight just dominates the center of the board – and in its wake, it leaves a path for the Black king to come into the game. 42.Rd3 g4 An important move as it fixes both White’s h- and g-pawns. 43.Rd4 f5 44.Rd3 Kf6 With black’s pieces so dominant, and white’s pieces in a huddle trying to stave off defeat, all Shankland needs to do now is find the way to win the game – which he does! 45.Rd8 Ng5! [see diagram] It must have been so, so tempting just to leave the knight on its central e4 outpost, but Shankland has carefully worked out that sometimes, just sometimes, that the knight on the rim is not so dim as we’re often told! 46.Rh8 Ra1+ 47.Kg2 Nh3! Now the omnipresent threat of …Rg1 mate, forever ties Akobian pieces in a knot. All he can do now is play a series of passing moves, as he waits for the inevitable breakthrough. 48.Rb8 Re1 49.Rb2 Ke5 50.Ra2 Ke4 51.Ra4+ Kxe3 52.Ra3+ Ke4 Quicker for sure was 52…Kd2 – but Shankland had spotted a clever tactical route to victory by retreating. 53.Ra2 Ke5 54.Rb2 Kf6 55.Ra2 e5 56.Ra6+ Kg5 57.Ra2 Kh5! 58.Rb2 f4 59.gxf4 Rxe2+ 0-1 The knight fork on f4 leaves black with an easily won king and pawn ending.