Shankland on the World Cup: Making the Most of Luck
By GM Sam Shankland   
September 6, 2011
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Peter Leko and Sam Shankland at the World Cup

I've always believed in the principle that when one gets lucky, he or she has the responsibility to take advantage of that luck or it will go to waste. This past year and change I've done my very best to make use of the amazing luck that I've had, and it's led to some very good results. I got massively lucky to win the US Junior Championship in July 2010. After losing my first two games it seemed impossible, even going into the last round while trailing two competitors, one by a full point. From there I got to the US Championship, and with a bit of luck there I managed to qualify for the World Cup (Khanty-Mansiysk, August 27-September 20) , which I was recently eliminated from. I'll now progress to the road from Saint Louis to Khanty-Mansiysk, but the tale of how lucky Shanky got is far from over.

Once I qualified for the World Cup I knew that I would have to take a few measures to try to ensure my success. Flying from California-Siberia all at once was certainly not on my agenda, so I wanted to be in Europe for some time prior to the start of the event. I also would have to prepare for my opponent (who I would later learn would be GM Peter Leko, a former World Championship Challenger).

Upon learning my pairing, I had to come up with a gameplan. Leko is notorious for being nearly impossible to beat, making a lot of draws and playing it pretty safe, although he will certainly punish mistakes. I hadn't recalled too many games where he lost to someone under 2700 (or even under 2800!). One of the most fearsome elements of his game is his ability to target weakness, and he knew exactly how to prepare. I wasn't yet old or strong enough to grasp what was going on in his 2004 match with Kramnik, but playing through the games with some annotations led me to believe his preparation was on a different level even than the world champion. So, I decided that I would throw some slightly different stuff than my normal repertoire at him, to try to avoid his prep. The only big advantage that I felt I had was that I had much fewer games in database than he did, so I could zero in on specific lines and already have a pretty good idea of what I would be facing. Meanwhile, if I played something outside of my normal range, he would have no idea what was going on.

What really complicated things was that if I was to keep the surprise value of my prep, I would have to avoid playing it in my upcoming events. I played two strong swisses in Biel and Dresden prior to the event, and I was much more liberal about experimenting with my openings and playing lines where I had little to no prep. I did this in part to hide what I was up to and in part to try to throw a monkey wrench into Leko's game plan (he would have seen a whole bunch of new lines). I also wanted to force myself to calculate and evaluate very well from the start of the game, without having preparation to assist me.

I was expecting my results to be somewhat subpar. To the contrary across the 20 total games I performed at level over 2600, and I actually produced some wins that I was particularly proud of, having to think on my own from very early in the game and/or fight back from worse positions.





 

After these events concluded and a short stay in Luxembourg, it was time to head off to Siberia. Just making it to the tournament felt like a miracle because there were some complications with my visa and I actually didn't get it until seven hours before my flight was scheduled to leave. Furthermore, just after taking off from Luxembourg, I came down with a really nasty flu. I had to spend the night at the Munich Airport before flying to Moscow, and I didn't manage to get any sleep. Sprawling out on a few chairs while running a 102 degree fever wasn't quite cutting it. The next couple of days were pure agony, and I was really suffering even after arriving in Khanty-Mansiysk. However, as I said before, luck was on my side.

I felt too sick to review any of my prep or do much of anything in the few days preceding the first game, but the morning of game one I woke up feeling like a new man. I wasn't completely healthy, but compared to the previous few days it was like a new concept of heaven. I felt that with all the luck I had gotten to be able to show up and play my game in decent health meant that I almost had a newfound responsibility to do well, otherwise all of that good fortune would have been for naught. And sure enough, do well I did.

I won my first game against Leko with the black pieces.



I wish that I could write some amazing story with brilliant annotations as to how I pulled it off, but there really isn't that much to say. Out of the opening I emerged a tiny bit worse, with a symmetrical structure and my opponent holding the bishop pair, but they were not active yet. A certain tool that is used to hit nails into wood and I had agreed that black seemed more or less OK, but slowly but surely I was outplayed by my more experienced and stronger opponent. My position was never objectively lost, but it certainly got to the point where white's advantage was abundantly obvious to the naked eye.

However, I defended very well and I viewed this as one of the best achievements of my chess career, gradually equalizing against one or the most masterful pressure-putters in the world. After equalizing, I would have offered a draw to anyone around my own rating, but against someone rated so much higher and who was better for most of the game I felt it would be inappropriate. However, Leko started to play some subpar moves and let his clock run down, and eventually I was able to outplay him and win an endgame that surely should have been drawn.

Game 2 was pretty easy for me- Leko has always been a big believer in drawing with black, and he has one of the most solid repertoires I've ever seen. However, playing for a win on command with black was certainly not his cup of tea, and it was clear that he was out of his element. After 20 moves or so my position was completely winning, and I'm sure I would have won the game 90% of the time but I decided to accept his draw offer to clinch the match and save energy. I was not there to show off or to make my opponent look bad; I was there to get the job done. As it is, I felt I only deserved to draw game 1, so the score of 1.5-.5 did seem like a fair representation to me.

 

Unfortunately, after upsetting Leko, I had some issues with Gupta in round 2. After making a very easy draw with black in game 1, game 2 can be summed up  by one move:
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Position after 17...Nc6


18. e3????

One question mark for the quality of the move, one question mark for the thought process behind it, one question mark for the amount of time I took to play it (way too long), and a final question mark for not trusting my instincts, which told me never to make a weakness on d3. I felt that I had a slight edge coming out of the opening, but it dwindled and the game had become completely equal. I should have just accepted this, made a neutral move, and offered a draw, as my opponent had done in game 1.

Sam350.jpgBut I felt a responsibility not to waste my white pieces, and to not do my part in making chess a much more boring game, thinking about all the short draws in the candidates matches. But this was a faulty thought process on the highest level. The color of your pieces does not matter when the opening is over, all that matters is the evaluation of the position. It was equal, and I should have accepted it. Furthermore, in terms of making things interesting, I should not have been thinking about this. Even considering I was, making a draw would not have been a boring end to the match because we would have rapid tiebreaks the next day, which are actually much more exciting.

And lastly, the move itself is totally stupid. I had notions of exchanging dark squared bishops, putting my queen on the long diagonal, and shoving my dpawn down the board. Indeed, if black were to play a move like Qd7, after Bxg7 Kxg7 Qc3+ Kg8 d4 followed by d5 my move would have been totally justified. But after the strong response Qe7! I was unable to achieve d4 without exchanging queens, and a queen exchange would remove my attacking potential while still keeping the weakness of the hanging pawns. As a result I had suddenly made a weakness in my position without getting anything in return for it. I had also spent so much time doing it that I was in time trouble when I desperately needed time to figure out my best defensive plan in a position that was only slightly worse. One error led to another, and although after time control I found some very good defensive resources, I was unable to save the game.



So this ended my experience at the World Cup. Although the second match was very disappointing, I still was happy with my play on the whole and I hope to do better next time. Other Americans had good results too, as I'm writing this Kamsky is playing (I think he will lose because his position is awful) his second game with GM Nepomniatchi after winning game 1. (Editor's Note 9/8/11)- Kamsky went on to defeat Nepomniatchi in the tiebreaks, but lost his match to Peter Svidler 0-2.)

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On the tiebreak day, when Kamsky defeated GM Nepomniatchi


Ivanov got a free ride to round 2 but played solid chess then against a higher rated player, only losing in tiebreak. Ray lost in round one to GM Bacrot but not without a serious fight, going all the way down to the wire and holding his ground against his 2700 opponent for the first four games. Shulman succumbed only in tiebreak to GM Potkin, the current champion of Europe. Onischuk had a tough match with GM Navara but he played a great game against GM Ivanisevic in round 1 that I particularly enjoyed:



I enjoyed Khanty-Mansiysk, it was a nice little village. I liked the food and it was a great town for jogging. The town square was populated by some of the fattest pigeons I had ever seen which resembled little walking grey balloons, and they were completely not intimidated by humans- very different from the pigeons I am used to! Seeing that a lot of great events have been held there and will continue to be held there, I hope to become a much more frequent visitor.

Until then I'm happy to be back in America. Now it's time to rest up and get back to college! 

Watch the World Cup whittle down from 16 to 8 at the official site. Find out more about GM Shankland including his bio and lessons on his website, http://www.samshankland.com/.