You should avoid the “hard stuff”, so the killjoys say, as often imbibing on it can only lead you astray and into serious trouble. But try telling that to Sam Shankland, who unwisely reached for the Scotch in round 3 of the US Championship being held at the world-renowned Saint Louis Chess Club, but soon found himself not only in deep trouble but also hitting the rocks against rising star Jeffrey Xiong, as the Texas teenager inflicted a memorable defeat on the defending champion to storm into the sole lead with his second win of the tournament.
Although there were two solid, grandmaster-technique wins from Hikaru Nakamura (over Sam Sevian) and Leinier Dominguez (over Ray Robson), the game that brought the house down and had the fans cheering on every chaotic move was the pyrotechnic-fuelled affair between Shankland and Xiong that featured an old opening that forms a part of chess’ rich heritage – and an opening that was sensationally rehabilitated by Garry Kasparov during one of his legendary world title matches against an old foe.
In 1824, the newly-founded Edinburgh Chess Club, in what was then considered an impertinent gesture, had the temerity to challenge the all-conquering, all-mighty London Chess Club to a three-game correspondence match. The prize to the winning team was the losers having to pay for an impressive and expensive silver cup. Moves were to be posted by horse and carriage, an expensive proposition at the time – and such was the ferocity of the competition between the two city clubs, it involved a major controversy that even involved the postmaster!
London originally tried to retract a poor move in a critical position, even applying unsuccessfully to the postmaster for the return of the letter with the blunder. The postmaster refused with the Edinburgh club claiming that a posted move was the same as the hand coming off a piece. After four years, the upstart Edinburgh club won the match with two wins to one loss. This was the first time the Scotch opening was played, and to the victors went the spoils, and this is where the opening got it its nomenclature from.
The match is also hailed as the most famous correspondence matches of all-time; and the full history of that fabled 1824-1828 encounter between Edinburgh and London that gave birth to the Scotch can still be found to this day in the display cabinets at the Edinburgh Chess Club, where pride of place you’ll see online is “The Scots Gambit Cup” and the original pre-“Penny Post” correspondence between the two clubs.
If the story ended there, it would still be quite a tale for the annals. But after laying in the wilderness for the best part of a century at the top level, the Scotch was very suddenly and equally very dramatically rehabilitated by Kasparov, who scored 1½/2 with it against his archival, Anatoly Karpov, during their 1990 World Championship match that was split between New York and Lyon. In his post-match press conference, Kasparov then went on to say, in jest, that he wanted Scottish citizenship for doing his bit to promote the Scotch!
US Championship: 1. J. Xiong 2½/3; 2-4. W. So, H. Nakamura, L. Dominguez 2; 5-8. F. Caruana, S. Sevian, A. Lenderman, V Akobian 1½; 9-11. R. Robson, S. Shankland, A. Liang 1; 12. T. Gareev ½.
US Women’s Championship: 1. J. Yu 3/3; 2. A. Zatonskih 2½; 3-4. A. Wang, C. Yip 2; 5-7. M. Feng, T. Abrahamyan, I. Krush 1½; 8-10. E. Nguyen, A. Gorti, A. Eswaran 1; 11-12. S. Foiser, A. Sharevich ½.
Photo: Jeffrey Xiong storms into the sole lead, as Sam Shankland recovers from his Scotch hangover! | © Lennart Ootes / Saint Louis Chess Club
GM Sam Shankland – GM Jeffrey Xiong
U.S. Championship, (3)
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Qf6!? With Garry Kasparov blazing a trail for White in the Mieses Variation after 4…Nf6 5.Nxc6 bxc6 6.e5 Qe7 this newer, more modern approach with 4…Qf6!? has gained in popularity in recent years. 5.Nb3 Qg6 6.f3 Nf6 7.Bf4 Bb4+ 8.Kf2 Black actually wants to encourage White to play 8.c3 Be7 as it denies White Nc3 with a better grip of the centre and threats of Nb5 or Nd5. So with that in mind, Shankland tries to sidestep this. 8…0-0 9.a3?! It was almost as if Shankland was now drinking Scotch here rather than playing it! His opening mishap only forces the bishop back to a square it really wants to be on now. Better was 9.Bd3 Nh5 10.Bxc7 as there’s a big difference now after …d6 – and a crucial one at that, as we’ll all soon see. 9…Be7 10.Bd3 Nh5 11.Bxc7 d6 The difference in the sequence is that by carelessly throwing in 9.a3, Shankland has inadvertently chased the bishop back to where it really wants to be, and suddenly all havoc breaks loose with …Bh4+ threatened. 12.e5 With the Bc7 effectively now out of the game, there’s no time to be coy with 12.g3 as Black simply and easily completes his development with 12…Ne5 13.Nc3 Be6 and …Rac8 to follow and the game ripe to be ripped open. 12…Bh4+ 13.Kf1 Shankland looks set for certain death. There’s just no defence, even after 13.g3, as that crashes to the obvious sacrifice 13…Bxg3+! 14.hxg3 Qxg3+ 15.Ke2 (Alternatively, if 15.Ke3 there’s no holding back the tsunami of Black pieces piling in now after 15…Bg4 16.Bxd6 Nxe5 17.N1d2 Rae8 18.Ne4 Qf4+ 19.Kf2 f5! where White can think about resigning any time soon.) 15…Nf4+ 16.Kd2 Nxd3 17.cxd3 Be6 18.Bxd6 Bxb3 19.Qxb3 Qf4+ 20.Kc3 Rfc8 and the White king can’t survive the discovered check on the c-file. 13…Qh6 14.exd6 Re8 Not a bad move per se, but it is a hugely complex position, and very strong and persuasive was 14…Nf4! 15.d7 (There’s no hope left. If 15.Qd2 Bg5 16.h4 Ne6! 17.Qe1 Re8 18.Ba5 Nxa5 19.Qxa5 Bf4 and not only is the d-pawn dead, but the Black pieces massing now will also render dead the White king.) 15…Bxd7 16.Bxf4 Qxf4 17.Qd2 Rfe8! 18.Nc3 Qe5 and White is effectively left paralysed here, playing without his kingside rook, as Black will completely dominate the central files with …Rad8. 15.Nc3 Ne5 Again, 15…Nf4! was stronger – but as Dr John Nunn was wont to remark in such attacks against an opponent’s king: “Let’s invite everyone to the party!” 16.Nc5 Nxf3! 17.N3e4 Bg4?! A miss-step from Xiong – but I have to confess, it did “look” very good! However, it takes just a nanosecond for the unbeating heart of the playing engine to find the winning move of 17…f5!! 18.Qxf3 fxe4 19.Bxe4 Be6 that leaves White struggling for survival with his king in the open. But by missing 17…f5, the game now turns into an emotional rollercoaster for both players, as chaos ensues on the board and the advantage ebbing and flowing – and to add to the mix, Xiong was now also in serious time trouble after eating into his clock to expose Shankland’s king. 18.d7! And why not? In truth, this somewhat obvious and convenient move should have saved Shankland’s bacon. 18…Re5! The only possible move from Xiong to stay in the game – a game that is now on a knife-edge for both players! 19.Bxe5 Nxe5 20.Qd2 Qc6 21.h3? Shankland had to keep his nerves here, despite the menacing cluster of Black minor pieces loitering with intent. He had to play 21.Qe3! that seems to hold the balance amidst all the chaos. 21…Bxd7 Xiong had very little time on the clock and with still 20 moves to make – so I suppose we can forgive him for over-worrying about Shankland’s d-pawn. Perhaps with a little more time, he wouldn’t have been so quick to snatch the pawn, which is going nowhere anyway, and the über-calm 21…Bf5! would have allowed him to follow up with …Nxd7 to keep his bishop-pair on an open board. 22.Nxd7 Nxd7 23.Qc3 Qh6 Shankland’s king is still exposed to the elements, and he still hasn’t been able to get his Rh1 into the game, so Xiong has more than enough compensation for his sacrificed material – but he was down now to his last 5 minutes or so to reach the time control at move 40. 24.g4? A blunder that only adds to the agony for Shankland’s king. It’s time for desperate measures, and Shankland’s only hope of staying in the game was with 24.g3!? Bxg3 25.Be2 Be5 26.Qf3 where at least his king has protection. Black still holds all the aces, but White is far from dead yet. 24…f5?? If anything, Shankland’s blunder only seems to add to Xiong’s confusion in the time scramble. He could have left Shankland for dead after 24…Qf4+! 25.Kg2 Ndf6! that removes the vital cover of the g3 mating threats the over-worked knight was preventing. 25.gxf5 Re8 The result is all up in the air again – but not for long! 26.Qc4+? Here, the “never miss a check” chess maxim backfires – and big-time. Shankland had to play 26.Rh2 and now, if 26…Qf4+ 27.Kg1 Rxe4 28.Bxe4 Qxe4 29.Qd3 Qxd3 30.cxd3 we end up in a very murky ending of three minor pieces vs the rooks. 26…Kh8 27.Rg1 It may not be so obvious, but there’s a big difference now with the queen on c4, as Rh2 no longer works. After 27.Rh2 Qf4+ 28.Kg1 suddenly 28…Ne5! comes into the mix with the unstoppable winning fork on f3 27…Qe3 Just how do you going to stop …Rxe4 and …Qf2 mate? 28.Rg2 Nf4 29.Rh2 Nxh3 With just minutes on his clock, Xiong can be forgiven for not finding the clinical kill with 29…Nf6! 30.Qc5 (The point is that capturing on f6 is no longer with check, allowing the beautiful finish after 30.Nxf6 of 30…Qe1+!! 31.Rxe1 Rxe1# that would have been a very picturesque and memorable takedown of a defending US Champion and would have had the crowds cheering from the rafters.) 30…Qf3+ 31.Nf2 Qg3 and White will have to give up the rook, and with it, also the game. But Xiong pretty much now has this game won anyway – but it takes a difficult winning manoeuvre to find. 30.Kg2 Nf4+ 31.Kh1 Qf3+ 32.Kg1 Qg4+ A retreating, winning move is always the most difficult to find and to defend against, as it goes against all the rules of moving a piece away from the area of the attack. And here, the winning manoeuvre is 32…Bd8 and there’s no defence to …Bb6+. I am pretty sure Xiong had seen this, but with a couple of minutes left on his clock, he just repeats a couple of moves to gain some valuable extra increment time on his clock. 33.Kh1 Qf3+ 34.Kg1 Bd8! [see diagram] The silent, but deadly killer is going to re-emerge on b6 to sound the death knell for Shankland’s king – and there’s no way he can avoid it. 35.Rf1 There’s no way to stop the deadly threat of …Bb6+. If 35.b4 looking to stop it with Nc5, there comes the riposte 35…Rxe4! 36.Bxe4 Bb6+ and White is set to lose the queen and the bishop with a huge material deficit. 35…Bb6+ 36.Nf2 Qg3+ 37.Kh1 Qf3+ Again, Xiong is just gaining a few valuable seconds on his clock, and also wastes a few moves in the process, as he nudges ever-closer to successfully making the time control. 38.Kg1 Nh3+ 39.Rxh3 Qxh3 40.Qf4 Nf6 41.Bb5 Re4! 0-1 With the time control made, Shankland resigns in a hopeless position. And what a wonderful move for Xiong to force the resignation of the defending US Champion! After 42.Qh2 [If 42.Qb8+ Ng8 43.Be2 Rh4 quickly mates.] 42…Rg4+ 43.Kh1 Qf3+ and mate follows.