John Henderson
By John Henderson

It is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you can never live down, and equally, no-one will ever allow you to live it down – even where you least expect it! I am, of course, describing the now infamous hallucination moment when US champion Sam Shankland resigned a completely drawn ending against Anish Giri at the just-recently concluded 81st Tata Steel Masters held in the quaint little Dutch coastal chess hamlet of Wijk aan Zee.

For that alone, Shankland is destined for the chess annals for many years to come – but you don’t expect it to ever come up in unexpected places. On his return home, Shankland tweeted that even the Border Control Agent at San Francisco International Airport – who apparently is a chess fan – commented to him “Do me a favor and never resign another drawn position” while stamping his passport!

That experience alone in a game in one of the biggest tournaments of your career can often haunt you or perhaps leave a deep and lasting psychological scar – but certainly not for Sam Shankland! The US champion’s redemption was swift and brutal, as he showed true character to immediately bounce back from that adversity with two inspiring back-to-back wins against top Russians in Ian Nepomniachtchi and Vladimir Kramnik, to end Wijk on a high.

From what could have been a disaster, Shankland finished with a very creditable 50% score of 6½/13 in his debut in a super-tournament that included amongst its all-star field not only the current world champion, but also his two immediate predecessors – Anand and Kramnik – not to mention four top 10 players (Ding Liren, Giri, Mamedyarov and Nepomniachtchi).

Shankland also picked up another note for the annals by being the last player of record to beat Kramnik in a classical event before the Russian ex-world champion announced his retirement earlier this week. And this isn’t the first time the US champion has spoiled a “retirement party” because, at the Tromsø Olympiad in 2014, he also rained on Judit Polgar’s parade by being the last player to beat the world’s highest-rated female player before the Hungarian announced her retirement.

Photo: “I have nothing to declare but my genius in my last two games!” | © Alina l’Almi / Tata Steel Chess

GM Sam Shankland – GM Ian Nepomniachtchi
Tata Steel Masters, (12)
Pirc Defence, 150 Attack
1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 g6 4.Be3 This is the standard position of the so-called “150 Attack”. In the 1980s, a new generation of English players – notably GM Michael Adams – began to experiment with this sharp line against the Pirc. The main idea is Be3, Qd2, Bh6, advance the h-pawn and then deliver mate. Naturally, this seemed too good to be true and was quickly dubbed the 150 Attack (a quirk of the English grading system, with 150 equating to an 1800 Elo), since it seemed that only a club player would use such a blatant caveman attacking system and expect the game to finish in checkmate. Over the years, there have been various refinements to the 150 Attack, mainly whether to play an early f2-f3 or h2-h3 and Nf3 – and Shankland heads for the latter. 4…a6 5.h3 e6!?! A solid but slower move, the idea being that Black plays for …d5 and transpose into a pseudo-French Defence set-up. 6.Bd3 Nbd7 7.Nf3 b5 8.e5 b4 9.Ne4 Nxe4 10.Bxe4 d5 11.Bd3 c5 12.c3 bxc3 13.bxc3 Qa5 14.Bd2 Qa3 15.Qe2 Bh6?! It’s a tough call, and Nepo attempts to trade his way to an acceptable position – but it is fraught with danger, and it all soon backfires on him with his dark-square weakness around his king. The more logical try was 15…Bg7 16.0-0 Rb8 and wait for White to indicate what his intentions are before fully committing to castling. Of course, this plan also comes with long-term problems, such as what is Black going to do about developing his light-squared bishop?] 16.Rb1! Shankland is one step ahead of Nepo here by challenging the b-file 16…Bxd2+?! This only compounds Black’s problems with the dark-square weakness – and in view of the debacle that follows, Nepo might have faired better admitting his original plan was flawed from the start, and try 16…Bg7 – but then again, no chess-player really likes to admit such guilt at the board by immediately moving the piece again. 17.Qxd2 c4 18.Bc2 Rb8 Capturing the a-pawn only compounds Black’s problems. After 18…Qxa2 19.0-0 Qa3 20.Ra1 Qe7 21.Rfb1. 19.Rxb8 Nxb8 20.h4! h6 With the sudden thrust into the action of “Harry the h-pawn” (as GM Simon Williams has now coined such attacks), the Black king is the one that’s looking the more vulnerable, with castling all but ruled out and a chronic dark-square weakness. Sure, Black can grab on a2 with 20…Qxa2 but after the subtle 21.Qc1! suddenly h5 is looming, looking to rip apart Black’s kingside, while 21…h6 22.h5 g5 23.Nh2! as happens in the game, and the knight is ‘going on tour’ to f6 (or just sit on the h6 weakness) via g4 – and White can also follow up with Rh3! and a very strong attack. 21.h5 g5 22.Nh2! Nc6 23.Ng4 Na7 24.Bd1 Amazing as it seems, but the game is effectively over here – there’s just no way Black can hold back the inevitable tsunami that’s coming his way. 24…Nb5 25.Rh3! [see diagram] This very French Winawer-type strategic rook lift both defends and attacks – but mainly it attacks! 25…Bd7 26.f4 gxf4 27.Qxf4 Qf8 28.Qf6 Take your pick: any of Qf6, a4 or Rf3 was equally crushing – and Sam likes to get in all three of ’em! 28…Bc6 29.a4 Na7 30.Rf3 Nc8 31.Bc2 Ne7 There’s nothing Nepo can do – he can only sit through the agony and wait for Sam to put him out of his misery. 32.Bg6! It never rains but it pours, as Sam quickly finds the crushing breakthrough that soon forces resignation. 32…Kd8 Even worse was taking the bishop, as after 32…fxg6 33.Qxe6 losing the queen and/or mate was coming. 33.Bxf7 Kc7 34.Qxe6 Nc8 35.Qf6 1-0

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