There seems to be no stopping the ruthless winning streak of Sam “The Shank” Shankland these days. Building on the success of his surprise U.S. Championship victory in St. Louis a few weeks ago – and ahead of Caruana, So and Nakamura – the popular Bay Area grandmaster headed to Cuba and the 53rd edition of the Capablanca Memorial in Havana, where he again decimated the field to notch-up for himself a second, mind-blowing 2800+ result in as many weeks.
Shankland, 26, ended on a high by beating the Cuban bottom seed, Yusnel Bacallao Alonso in the final round, to win the title with a blistering, unbeaten score of 7.5/10, to finish a Fischer-esque one and half points clear of nearest rival Alexei Dreev of Russia. The turning point for Shankland came just before the midpoint of the double-round robin tournament, where (due to his advantageous pairing number) he had three successive games with the White pieces – and won all of three to storm into a commanding lead!
And en route to victory, Shankland also made a little bit of history in the long and storied Capablanca Memorial by becoming the first player to win the title flying the Stars and Stripes. His famous predecessor as US champion, Bobby Fischer, played in the tournament in 1965, but only via telex from New York, as the State Department forbid him to travel to Cuba, where handicapped he finished second equal behind Soviet ex-World Champion Vasily Smyslov. Also, Anatoly Lein and Boris Gulko respectively won in 1972 and 1976, but did so under the Soviet flag; and in 2014, Wesley So also won under the Philippines flag, before switching federations the following year to the US.
Now Shankland’s victory in Havana has further boosted his rating, climbing a further 16 Elo points on his U.S. Championship victory, to 2717 on the unofficial live ratings, and the #30 spot in the world – and with one more good tournament push, Shankland could be on a trajectory to become the fourth American player in the world’s top 20. And with Shankland in this form, it can only be good news for the US team – with a formidable force of Caruana, So, Nakamura and a turbo-charged Shankland – as it gets set to defend its Olympiad title in Batumi, Georgia, in September.
The next scheduled tournament outing for Shankland comes with the American Continental in Uruguay in early June – a commitment presumably made before his recent brace of big-tournament victories and rapid rating rise. But as hinted in our previous column, what Shankland really needs now to continue playing at this level is a big tournament invite, and it could come with a return to the St. Louis Chess Club for a wild-card call-up to the Sinquefield Cup in August.
1. S. Shankland (USA) 7.5/10; 2. A. Dreev (Russia) 6; 3. D. Anton Guijarro (Spain) 5.5; 4. A. Rakhmanov (Russia) 4; 5-6. L. Bruzon Batista (Cuba), Y. Bacallao Alonso (Cuba) 3.5.
Photo: With two mega-tournament wins, could Sam Shankland be rewarded with a Sinquefield Cup wild-card call-up? | © Lennart Ootes (St. Louis Chess Club)
GM Yusnel Bacallao – GM Sam Shankland
53rd Capablanca Memorial Elite, (10)
Semi-Slav Defence, Anti-Meran
1.Nf3 d5 2.c4 e6 3.d4 Nf6 4.Nc3 c6 The so-called ‘Triangle System’ lays the foundation for the very solid Semi-Slav Defence. 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Qc2 The 6.Qc2 Anti-Meran was once considered to be a sideline, though rose in popularity in large part to its adoption by ex-world champion Anatoly Karpov during the 1990s. The problem with this, is that it is relatively easy for Black to get equality from the opening. 6…Bd6 7.Bd3 0-0 8.0-0 dxc4 9.Bxc4 b5 10.Bd3 Bb7 11.a3 h6 12.Bd2 a5 13.Ne2 c5! This should lead to easy equality for Black, with his pieces better placed to take advantage of the space as the game begins to open up. 14.Bxb5 Qb8 Also an option was 14…Bxf3!? 15.gxf3 Bxh2+! 16.Kg2! (Slightly worse was 16.Kxh2 Qb8+ 17.Nf4 Qxb5 18.dxc5 Qc6 19.e4 Qxc5 20.Qxc5 Nxc5 21.Bc3 Nh7 and Black has an extra pawn and White has the crippled kingside pawns.) 16…Bd6 17.Rfd1 Qb8 with equal play. But instead, Shankland (rightly) assesses that his bishop has better prospects by exploiting the light-squares around the White camp. 15.Bxd7 White could, instead, have tried 15.a4 to keep his bishop on the board to challenge the light-squares. 15…Nxd7 16.dxc5 Nxc5 17.Ng3 Ba6 18.b4? As we can clearly see by the development of the pieces, Shankland has more than equalised from the opening, now has a niggling edge – and perhaps fearing being ‘rolled over’ after 18.Rfe1 a4! with his queenside pawns being fixed and vulnerable, Bacallao opts instead to press the ‘gamble button’ with a very dubious exchange sacrifice – and it all quickly backfires on the Cuban, thanks to a little finesse from the US Champion. 18…axb4! Was Bacallao banking here on 18…Bxf1 19.bxc5 Bxg3 20.hxg3 Bb5 21.Nd4 Bd7 22.Rb1 where he does have compensation for the exchange? If so, then he has badly assessed the position, because it didn’t take long for Shankland to find the big flaw in his opponent’s dodgy exchange sacrifice, by first capturing on b4. 19.axb4 Bxf1 20.Rxa8 I can only assume Bacallao analysis was indeed flawed, and perhaps he was ‘seeing’ 20.bxc5?? but not realising that his rook on a1 was now en prise – and this makes all the difference. 20…Qxa8 21.bxc5 Bxg3 22.hxg3 Bb5 23.Nd4 Bc6 The c-pawn is now very effectively blockaded and becoming more like an albatross around Bacallao’s neck, as Shankland goes about the process of infiltrating with his pieces to convert the win. 24.f3 Rc8 25.Qc3 Bd7! [see diagram] A clever little strategic retreat, and there’s no way to now stop …Qd5 unravelling his pieces, whilst at the same time ganging up on the c-pawn that White has to further compromise his position to defend. 26.Bc1 Qd5 27.Ba3 e5 28.Nc2 Ba4 Shankland’s pieces are now springing to life, and his opponent’s all awkwardly placed, trying to hang on to the c-pawn. 29.e4 The alternative was no better: 29.Ne1 Rb8! 30.Bb4 e4 31.f4 h5 and Black will soon squeeze White to death. 29…Qd1+ 30.Ne1 Rb8 31.Bb4 Qd4+! With the queens coming off, White is left helpless. 32.Qxd4 exd4 0-1 White resigns, as the queen was the only thing holding his position together. Now, after 33.Ba5, there comes the forcing sequence 33…Rb5 34.Bb6 Rb1 35.Ba5 (It’s much the same after 35.Kf2 Bb5 36.Ba5 Ra1 37.Bb6 Ra2+ 38.Kg1 Ra6 39.Kf2 d3 etc.) 35…Bb5! 36.g4 Ra1 37.Bb4 d3 38.Kf2 Ra2+ 39.Ke3 Re2+ 40.Kd4 d2 easily winning.