Hard on the heels of Fabiano Caruana’s dramatic last-gasp victory at the 6th Altibox Norway Chess tournament, comes further good news for US Chess with Bay Area native Sam Shankland continuing his phenomenal run of back to back tournament successes by now capturing the American Continental Championship title in Montevideo, Uruguay, to add to his impressive recent haul of convincing US championship victory, and equally convincing win at the Capablanca Memorial in Havana over the past couple of months.
Like Caruana, Shankland finished strongly with two big clutch wins – over fellow countryman GM Jeffrey Xiong and Argentinian IM Tomas Sosa respectively – to snatch the $5,000 first-place prize outright with his unbeaten score of 9/11. Crucially, Sam’s latest conquest also comes with the added bonus of an automatic spot – along with GMs Diego Flores, Jorge Cori and Emilio Cordova – into the 2019 World Cup, and a potential shot of a place in the next world championship cycle.
Quite remarkably, Sam Shankland has gone from zero to hero with his meteoric rise up the world rankings, going 60 classical games without a loss since he was last beaten by Anthony Bellaiche in the 8th round of the Biel Masters back in the summer of 2017. And with that streak, Sam has boosted his rating to the prosaic heights of 2727 to also be world #27 on the live rating list – and set on a trajectory to become the fourth American player in the world’s top 20.
Sam’s form of late is also going to give the USA a massive boost playing on the bottom board – behind Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura – ahead of the upcoming Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia in September, as the USA team gets set to defend their title. There’s also heightened speculation that before then, Sam will also be further rewarded for his remarkable run with the wild card spot for the Sinquefield Cup in August.
Photo: Sam Shankland picks up a third successive victory | © Federación Uruguaya De Ajedrez
GM Jeffrey Xiong – GM Sam Shankland
13th American Continental Championship, (10)
Sicilian Najdorf, Adams Attack
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.h3 The Adams Attack is named not after England’s Mickey Adams, but the early 20th century US master Weaver Adams (1901-63), and was a big favourite of the young Bobby Fischer. Nowadays, it’s been added to the arsenal of Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand. 6…g6 The usual Najdorf route would be 6…e5 – but taking the game into a Dragon set-up is also good. 7.g4 Bg7 8.Be3 0-0 9.Qd2 b5 10.Bg2 Bb7 11.a3 Nbd7 12.g5 Nh5 13.Bf3 Ne5 14.Bxh5 gxh5 I think Shankland missed a big shot here with the complicated 14…Nc4!? 15.Qe2 Nxb2 16.Bg4 Qa5! 17.Bd2 (Worse was 17.Qd2 as it only invites a further sacrifice after 17…Nc4 18.Qd3 Rac8! 19.Bxc8 Rxc8 20.0-0 Nxe3 21.fxe3 Rxc3 22.Qe2 Bxe4 23.Qf2 Bd5 and Black already has a decisive advantage.) 17…Bxd4 18.Nd1 b4! 19.Bxb4 Qxg5 20.Bd2 Qb5! and Black looks to be emerging from the chaos with a big positional and material advantage, as White’s pawns on a3, c2 and e4 are all weak and likely to fall. I can imagine Shankland looked at this possibility but had his mind set on the upcoming sacrifice. 15.0-0-0 Rc8 16.Kb1 Rxc3! The thematic Sicilian exchange sacrifice – although White’s pawns haven’t been wrecked, it was really an obvious sacrifice for Black, as not only does the e4 pawn fall, but in its wake his light-squared bishop becomes a monster. 17.Qxc3 Bxe4 18.f3?! A difficult move in a difficult position. White certainly stood worse after 18.Rhf1 Nf3 19.Qb3 Bxd4! (the knight on f3 will be like a bone stuck in White’s throat) 20.Bxd4 Qc8 and, long-term, the h-pawn will likely fall, and Black’s h-pawn will becoming a major threat. Recognising this, Xiong opts to instead give up his f-pawn, hoping he can perhaps have some counter-play down the f-file as he mobilises his pieces – but he has badly assessed his chances because, positionally, White is just busted. 18…Nxf3 19.Rhf1 Qd7 Also good and strong was 19…Qa8! followed by …Rc8 and an attack on the White king. 20.Qb3 Ne5 Shankland’s pieces dominate the centre of the board and he’s now ready to launch an attack on Xiong’s king. 21.Rf4 Bg6 22.Rdf1 e6 This leads to a slower, positional strangle – but more clinical was 22…Nc4! 23.R4f2 (The h-pawn is doomed, and there’s no way to protect it. If 23.R4f3?? Bxd4! wins on the spot, due to the …Nd2+ family fork.) 23…Qxh3 24.Bc1 Qxb3 25.Nxb3 Be5 and the h-pawn will run up the board. 23.Rf6 Xiong sees that his big problem is going to be how to stop Shankland’s bishops from ripping apart his king, so he tries to offer back some material to stop this – but such is Shankland’s dominant position, he simply ignores it. 23…Rc8 24.Bc1 Rc4 25.Qe3 Qa7 Stronger was 25…Qc7 as it forced 26.Rxg6 hxg6 and Black is two pawns and a position up. 26.Nf5 Qxe3 27.Nxe3 The queens being traded may have stopped any mating possibilities for Xiong to worry about for now – but it all comes at the cost of his h-pawn. 27…Rh4! 28.R6f4 Rxh3 29.a4 h6! Nicely solving the problems of his doubled h-pawns, as 30. gxh6 Bxh6 will win back the sacrificed material and then some. 30.axb5 axb5 31.Rb4 Nd3! [see diagram] Shankland now comes in for the kill with this winning tactical blow. 32.cxd3 Bxd3+ 33.Ka2 Bxf1 34.Nxf1 Rh1 35.Rf4 hxg5 36.Rf2 The alternative 36.Rf3 only encourages the pawns to be pushed further up the board with 36…g4 37.Rf2 h4 38.Bf4 e5 39.Bg5 g3 etc. 36…Bd4 37.Be3 Rxf1! The final tactical twist from Shankland, as Xiong can’t do anything against his opponent’s armada of pawns running up the board. 38.Bxd4 Rxf2 39.Bxf2 h4 40.Kb3 f5 41.Kb4 h3 0-1 Xiong resigns, with Shankland’s easy winning plan being 42.Bg1 f4 followed by …f3 and …f2 allowing the h-pawn to queen.