John Henderson
By John Henderson

Last month in St. Louis, Sam Shankland defied the overwhelming odds to somewhat surprisingly out-pace and out-score world title contender and big pre-tournament favourite, Fabiano Caruana, to become the new US Chess Champion. What’s more, the 26-year-old did so ahead of the elite trio of Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura, who between them had won the previous three titles – so a very memorable breakthrough victory indeed.

Apart from Shankland’s $50,000 first prize, the popular Bay Area grandmaster reached a milestone performance. He turned in a 2900 tournament performance, gained 30 ELO rating points, to firmly make a statement by breaking the 2700 barrier, to become only the seventh American to reach the super-grandmaster club. And with his new rating of 2701, he jumped to 44 in the world.

All of which must have boosted Shankland’s confidence ahead of his appearance in the 53rd edition of the Capablanca Memorial in Havana, Cuba. That’s because, in much the same way as he ended his memorable title-win in St. Louis, Shankland could now be on the cusp of notching-up a second successive big tournament victory in as many months!

At the halfway stage of the tournament, Shankland shared the lead with Russia’s Alexey Dreev, both tied on 3.5/5. But when play resumed in the six-player double-round-robin, Shankland went into over-drive with a further brace of wins over Aleksandr Rakhmanov and Laszlo Bruzon respectively to make it three-in-a-row, as the newly-minted US champion power-housed his way into the sole lead.

And with it, Shankland, it would appear, has made “The Leap” from average grandmaster to super-grandmaster. Since the beginning of the US Championship in mid-April, he has scored nearly 80% against tough opposition. And with his latest performance in Havana, he’s hit a new record-high live rating of 2715, jumping in the process another 14 spots to #30 in the world!

Standings:
1. S. Shankland (USA) 5.5/7; 2. A. Dreev (Russia) 4.5; 3. D. Anton Guijarro (Spain) 3.5; 4. A. Rakhmanov (Russia) 3; 5. Y. Bacallao Alonso (Cuba) 2.5; 6. L. Bruzon Batista (Cuba) 2.

Photo: Can Sam Shankland make it a remarkable two-in-a-row? |© Lennart Ootes (St. Louis Chess Club)

GM Sam Shankland – GM Aleksandr Rakhmanov
53rd Capablanca Memorial Elite, (6)
English Opening/Reti
1.c4 e6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 g6 4.Nf3 Bg7 5.d4 Nc6 6.0-0 Nge7 7.e3 0-0 8.Nc3 b6 9.Qe2 Ba6 10.b3 dxc4 11.Ba3! Far from the …Ba6 potentially pinning the queen down the a6-f1 diagonal, it turns out to be the queen that turns the tables by taking full advantage of pinning the …Ba6, as Shankland gets on with the job of developing his pieces on excellent squares. 11…Re8 Rakhmanov can’t bolster the defence of his c4-pawn. If 11…b5 12.Bxe7 Nxe7 13.Ne4! and the knight incursion into c5 will leave White with a strong advantage, where he will not only recapture his pawn but likely also pick off another on the wrecked queenside. 12.Rac1 Qd7 13.Rfd1 Shankland has clearly ‘won’ the opening. He’s completed his development, has his pieces on wonderful outposts, and has left his opponent to be the one worrying about how he deals with his miss-placed …Ba6. 13…Rad8 14.bxc4 Qc8 15.Nb5! The knight can’t be taken, as with the pawn on b5, Black’s queenside pawns will be permanently fixed – and with it a big liability, as not only will the pressure down the semi-open c-file be hard to deal with, but White will also have the strong rook lift of Rc1-c4-a4 available, targetting the a-pawn. In short, just an horrific position to defend. 15…Na5 16.Nd2 Qd7 17.Nb3 Nxb3 18.axb3 Nc8 What else is there? Black simply has a terrible position to defend – and it doesn’t exactly help matters that this is the only way to defend the a7-pawn. If Black can somehow get …c6 in, then he may have some hopes of consolidating his position – but Shankland is very quick to prevent this now happening. 19.d5! e5 20.Nc3 Shankland has easily the better position with all his pieces ideally-placed – and now he finds the correct way to capitalise on his big space advantage. 20…Nd6 21.Qa2! [see diagram] Shankland shows he has total mastery of this position. The obvious threat is Bxd6 either winning the Ba6 or the a7-pawn – but more importantly, the strategic threat with the queen on a2 is simply to roll the queenside pawns up the board. 21…Bc8 22.b4 a6 23.c5 Nb5 24.Nxb5 Qxb5 25.Qc2 e4 Black risked being bossed off the board – so rather than that, he tries to at least generate some space and scope for his bishops. The alternative was 25…Bf8 26.Bf3! and Black’s light-squared bishop is being squeezed for squares, while White will have menacing threats such as Be2 and looking to pile up the pressure on the a6-pawn. 26.Bf1 Qd7 27.d6! It’s powerhouse chess at it’s very best now from Shankland, as he looks to push his opponent off the board. 27…bxc5 28.bxc5 cxd6 29.Rxd6 Qc7 The weak a6-pawn is the least of Black problems, with White’s dangerous passed c-pawn unstoppable and supported by the active pieces. 30.Rxd8 Qxd8 31.Qa4 h5 32.Rd1 Qe7 33.c6 Qc7 34.Bd6 Shankland has not missed a beat by playing this game with great energy – and now something has to give, as Black is left clinging onto the wreckage of his position. 34…Qb6 35.c7 Re6 36.Bf4 g5 37.Rd8+ Kh7 38.Rxc8 gxf4 39.Qd7! Shankland finds the very clinical move to quickly kill the game. 39…fxe3 40.Rb8 exf2+ 41.Kg2 Qe3 42.Qxf7 1-0 The reason for 39.Qd7! On f7, the queen stops Black potentially saving the game – and now, with no way to stop the c-pawn, Black resigns.

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