GM Alexander Shabalov
GM Alexander Shabalov
Photo Jennifer Shahade
If you're watching the first board of an open tournament, and the pieces are flying in all directions, it's a good bet that Shabalov is one of the players. The Latvian- born GM thrives on wild games. Shabalov himself said: "If the position after my move becomes more complicated then the game is going in the right direction." GM Nick DeFirmian demonstrated the respect fellow GMs have for "Shabba" when he called a position so crazy that only Shabalov or Fritz could play it well.

Alexander is from Riga, the birthplace of the Latvian wizard, Mikhail Tal. Tal is the most celebrated World Champion (with the possible exception of Garry Kasparov), because of his wonderful personality and his exciting, no holds barred chess. "He can only take them one at a time" Tal remarked once, when someone asked how he could leave so many pieces hanging. Shabalov and his famous contemporary Alexei Shirov had the luxury of studying with Tal personally and both inherited his thrilling style.

Alexander is well-versed in 1.e4 and 1.d4, and he usually picks the sharpest lines. As black, he's most known for his well analysed Kalashnkovs and Sveshnikovs, though he also plays the French, Double King Pawn, and other Sicilian lines like the Classical System, the Dragon or the Paulsen. Alex's laid-back personality might mislead you into thinking he doesn't do much homework. But these lines require hard work, and Alex is up to the job- he has even created totally new theory in the Kalashnikov Sicilian.

Shabalov rarely proposes or accepts early draw offers. In the 2003 U.S. Championship, there were eight Grandmasters vying for first place. After fifteen minutes, the stage was almost empty. All the other contenders had drawn their games, ensuring them a decent payday but depriving fans of exciting, high-stakes chess. Shabalov's game was the exception. He played a six-hour slug fest against Varuzhan Akobian, ending in a victory for Shabalov. In addition to the 25K he won for first place, main sponsor Erik Andersson awarded Alex and Varuzhan 5000$ each for their fighting spirit. Shabalov won clear first in the U.S. Championship four years later in Tulsa, Oklahoma, besting Kudrin in the final to edge out the defending champion, 2006 Champ Alexander Onischuk.

In 2003 Shabalov lived up to his championship title by placing clear first in the Chicago and North American Opens, and only tying for first in the World Open. Winning clear first with tournament points (not on tiebreak or blitz playoff) in a Chicago or World Open is rare; The hectic schedules and top-heavy entries in most American opens usually result in massive ties. Shabalov wins clear more often than GMs of similar strength, because of his uncompromising style and burning desire to take home all the clams.

The downside of his style is that Shabalov loses, even to lower rated players, more often than his rating would suggest. Check out the Chess Life Online article "How to Beat Shabalov" for more on this odd phenomenon.

Shabalov has enjoyed the chessplayer's lifestyle to its extreme. Travelling constantly throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean, he allows ample time for fun in the less serious tournaments. In prestigious events, like the Olympiad or the U.S Championship, he takes the games as seriously as anyone, though he can often be found several days after the tournament, renting a convertible to explore the best beaches and nightclubs.

Shabalov (white) reached this position against Varuzhan Akobian in the 2003 U.S. Championship. To clinch the title, Alex played a nice simplifying combination. Can you see what he played?