In arguably one of the most amazing individual performances in the long and storied history of the venerable US Chess Championship, Sam Shankland defied all the pre-tournament odds in the Saint Louis Chess Club, with the popular Bay-area grandmaster sensationally outpacing Fabiano Caruana, the world championship challenger – not to mention Top 10 elite stars Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura also – to claim victory and his first US title.
The 26-year-old Californian went into what could well have been a nerve-wracking final round, having just a half point lead over the pre-tournament favourite, Caruana – but Shankland showed his mettle right to the very end, as he ruthlessly demolished the leading US Junior star, Awonder Liang, to secure not only the title but also the $50,000 first prize, for the biggest pay-day of his career.
And Shankland’s remarkable +6 unbeaten score of 8.5/11 (and a phenomenal performance rating of 2886) not only won him the title ahead of Caruana, but also saw a remarkable spike in his rating, as he jumped 40 rating points and 25 spots to enter the 2700 club on the unofficial live ratings for the first time in his career.
It all proved to be a very emotional experience for Shankland, who was finally rewarded for all the hard work and graft he’d put into improving his game over the last few years. In his post-victory interview, after being congratulated on winning the title, he claimed “This is my life’s work. All the sweat, blood, and tears, from all these years, this makes it worth it ten times over.”
And with superb timing, Shankland’s surprise success has inadvertently boosted sales of his new book, Small Steps to Giant Improvement, for the Scottish-based publishing house Quality Chess, with the publisher today claiming sales of Sam’s book to be “robustly healthy!” in the aftermath of his historic victory.
U.S. Championship final standings:
1. S. Shankland 8.5/11; 2. F. Caruana 8; 3. W. So 6.5; 4-6. H. Nakamura, A. Lenderman, R. Robson 5.5; 7-8. Z. Izoria, J. Xiong 5; 9-11. A. Liang, Y Zherebukh, V. Akobian 4.5; 12. A. Onischuk 3.
Photo: Nothing but sweat, blood and tears – but all worth it, as Sam Shankland becomes US Champion! | © CCSCSL
GM Sam Shankland – GM Awonder Liang
US Championship, (11)
Caro-Kann Defence, Exchange Variation
1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.exd5 cxd5 4.Bd3 The Exchange variation against the Caro-Kann became extremely popular in the early 1970s after it was adopted by Bobby Fischer who, en route to winning the world crown, used it to beat former World Champion Tigran Petrosian in the USSR vs Rest of the World Match in Belgrade in 1970. 4…Nc6 5.c3 Nf6 6.Bf4 Bg4 7.Qb3 e5?!? A risky line that soon backfires on Liang! In my day, in the Exchange Variation, it was automatically either 7…Na5, 7…Qc8 or 7…Qd7 that was played. 8.h3! A novelty from Shankland that now puts a big question mark over black’s double-edged reply. Previously seen was 8.dxe5 Nh5 9.Be3 Nxe5 10.Bb5+ Nc6 11.Be2 Nf6 12.Qxb7 Bd7! with black having compensation for the pawn, with lots of open lines and possibilities of pushing on with …d4. 8…exf4 9.hxg4 Qe7+ 10.Kf1 0-0-0 The position is difficult for black, who is saddled with the very weak, isolated d-pawn. Long-term, this pawn is not easy to defend – and coupled with it, there’s also a weakness on h7 with the h-file being opened early. But on the other hand, the alternative of 10…Nxg4 looked somewhat ‘dangerous’ after 11.Nd2! The major threat is Re1, and …0-0-0 now falls into the trap pf Bf5+ picking up the loose knight on g4. Leaving only… 11…Qd7 12.Ne2 (Also 12.Re1+ Be7 13.Ne2 0-0-0 14.Nf3 Kb8 15.Nxf4 g6 16.Bb5 looked good for white.) 12…0-0-0 13.Nxf4 Kb8 there’s not much in the position – but certainly, the more pieces traded off here, the bigger the headache will be for black defending his weak d-pawn. 11.Nd2 g6 Liang has to now waste a move to stop the threat of Bf5+ – and in doing so, Shankland seizes a decisive initiative now. 12.Re1 Qc7 13.g5 Nh5 14.Be2! Black would have a permanently crippled pawn structure if he allowed Bxh5 – so he has to waste more time retreating his knight. And with it, Shankland has a big positional advantage with pressure down the e- and h-files, and full control of the vital e5 square. 14…Ng7 15.Ngf3 Ne6 16.Bb5 Bg7 Liang has strayed into a very difficult position – and this move perhaps indicates his frustrations. On g7, the bishop has no scope and biting granite. But then again, it is difficult to suggest an alternative plan for him. 17.Qa4 Rd6 18.Nb3 b6? 19.Nc1! Shankland was merely bluffing about playing Nc5 – and Liang panicked with 18…b6? that just creates a self-inflicted weakness on his own white squares. But Shankland’s big idea was not heading for c5, but the clever strategic retreat with Nb3-c1-d3 and total dominance of the e5 square. 19…Nb8 20.Nd3 Kb7 21.Nb4 The long-term plan is total control of the e5 square and threatening the vulnerable pawn on f4 – but for now, Shankland simply frustrates Liang by preventing him from playing …a6 to shift the strong white bishop. 21…Qd8 22.Ne5 Qc7 Black is now reduced to abject passivity – and this position must have been nothing but pure torture for a free-spirit, such as Liang. 23.Qb3 Something now has to give for black – either d5 falls or h7 falls, and neither is any good for his prospects. 23…Rhd8 The engines prefer 23…Bxe5 but after 24.Rxe5 Qd8 25.Rxd5 Nxg5 26.Rxd6 Qxd6 27.Bc4 f5 28.Bd5+ Kc8 29.Rh4! there’s no easy answer to the threat of Nd3 picking off the f4-pawn. 24.Rxh7 a6 25.Bd3 Ka7 26.Qa4 a5 27.Bb5 Shankland’s pieces are now moving in for the kill. 27…Kb7 28.Nbd3 Rg8 An ugly concession of a move for Liang to have to play, with the threat being the simple Nxf4 and Rxg7. 29.Nf3 Rh8 30.Rxh8 Bxh8 31.a3 The game is effectively over here as a contest – we just have to wait for Shankland to take his route to victory and the title. 31…Nc6 32.Bxc6+ Rxc6 33.Nde5 Bxe5 34.Nxe5 Rd6 35.Qe8! [see diagram] And this effectively does the business! The queen infiltration soon targets the weakness on f7. 35…Rd8 What else is there now? If 35…Nxg5 36.Nxf7! and the threat of Re7+ will force resignation. 36.Qxf7 Nxg5 37.Qxc7+ Kxc7 38.Nxg6 The good news is that Liang has successfully managed to simplify the position to avoid being crushed – the bad news is that it comes at the cost of finding himself in a hopelessly lost ending! 38…f3 39.Nf4 Kc6 40.gxf3 Nxf3 41.Re6+ Kb5 42.Ke2 Ng1+ 43.Kd3 1-0 Liang resigns. It’s not that he’s just two pawns down here, it’s the fact that his rook is stuck defending d5, and his knight can only come back into the game via g5, where the simple Re5 will pick off the weak d-pawn. Well played, and congratulations to Sam Shankland, the 2018 US Chess Champion!