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Shankland on his Rise From GM to Top Hundred: Part II Print E-mail
By GM Sam Shankland   
February 12, 2015
SamTata300.jpgGM Sam Shankland continues his series on breaking the top 100 players in the World. Read Part I here and also see his Best of CLO award.

6. One is never too good to ask a victorious opponent what his or her mistakes were

Post Mortems with strong players were always helpful for me in my youth, but I lost touch with them as I got deeper into grandmasterdom. It took a profound realization from a strong opponent for me to notice that when we get stronger it is even more important to ask our opponents where we went wrong after a loss. It's likely to be more subtle and less likely to be pointed out by an engine.

Shankland,Sam (2599) - Wang,Yue (2705)


When I played this move, I thought nothing could be more natural. But after the game, Wang pointed out to me that he thought this may have been my biggest mistake. The only purpose of f4 is to defend e5, which I thought I would have to do in response to Nc6. However, black has a better route for the knight: [14.Rd2 I'm not sure this is the best move, but it is the simplest one to illustrate the point. White does not lose time on f4 unless it is necessary, and he might even enjoy that square's availability for a piece. 14...b4 (14...Nc6 15.f4 Only now that black has committed to Nc6 does f4 make sense. White looks happy enough to me) 15.Ne2 Nd5 16.Nf4! And white has the more pleasant side of equality instead of the other way around.
14...Rc8 15.Rd2 b4! 16.Na4 Nd5

And the position is roughly equal though I think most people would prefer black. I was outplayed by my stronger opponent and subsequently lost. Here, it's clear that f4 was pretty much just a wasted move- black has no meaningful pressure against e5, and white would be much better off increasing his control of the d-file 0-1

7. One does not have to be a weaker player than someone to learn from them

For much of my development I naturally assumed that I should only be trying to learn from people who had made it farther in chess than I had, and that it was pointless to try to learn from others. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I don't even play blitz with my coach anymore because the score is so lopsided, but under his tutelage I have progressed at a rate I never believed I could.

In addition, at the end of 2013 I put together a group of ambitious young players to do opening work with me, and I divided the assignments so nobody would be working on the same thing at the same time. This meant I had to only select people I could trust blindly when I needed to and who were good enough to meet my high standards of analysis. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this has less to do with playing strength and more to do with ambition and work ethic. This work has shown up in plenty of places and proved itself to be invaluable, both in having a fearsome opening lab and in having more time to work on other elements of chess. Here is a recent example where I completely crushed a 2600+ player straight out of the opening... with analysis that came straight out of one of my workmate's laptops.


8. There is no such thing as a risk-free position, so don't aim for one

In recent years, I've found a lot of players are hesitant to enter complicated positions, in their preparation or ingame. I think this is unhelpful for one's overall development. Playing complicated positions gives our opponents more opportunities to make mistakes, and challenges us to make difficult decisions. If you look at even the most positional players at the top (Carlsen, Kramnik, Gelfand all come to mind), they played even maniacally aggressive chess in their developmental years, and they can still do it now when a position calls for it.

I've now gone 51 games in a row without a loss, including several 2700+ players. But my last loss was a good reminder that any thoughts of "I cannot possibly lose this position" or "I cannot possibly lose to this player" can lead to disaster.

Ramondino,Rendo (2236) - Shankland,Sam (2624)
RTU Open, 24.08.2014
Much of my calculation work recently has been focused on finding ideas, but as this game shows, it is not always easy. When one sees all the ideas in this position it is very simple to calculate 2-3 moves ahead, but a failure to look for hidden resources led to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


With both Nxe4 and Ne2+ threatened, I expected my opponent to resign here. [39...h5 or; 39...Kg7 Would leave black with very good winning chances]
40.Qc8+ Kg7 41.Qb7+
Black loses his queen, and the game. All I could do was resign and shake my head in disbelief

9. Play mainline openings, and don't be afraid to experiment
I was reading over a chess.com forum once debating the merits of sidelines. Countless people were posting some version of "I don't have time or don't want to learn tons of opening theory, so I play sidelines (insert one of: anti-Sicilians, London system, any opening with "exchange" in its name, etc).

They all had one thing in common- not one of them had a FIDE title. The stronger players were the ones who played the mainlines, and this is absolutely critical for a number of reasons. To begin with, higher rated players almost without exception would much prefer to avoid theory when playing with weaker opponents, so it is senseless to fear some devastating preparation in the mainlines.

Secondly, the rationale of "this subpar line works for me now but it won't when I get stronger, I'll fix it then" is very dangerous. The last thing a chessplayer needs is to reach a level where he or she can no longer get away with a poor opening, and have to learn a new one from scratch and play their first game in it with zero experience. Most importantly, however, is that playing the middlegames that arise from mainline openings is an incredible learning experience for which there is no substitute. I was able to make it to almost 2500 with almost no preparation, and I don't think I could have done this by playing sidelines.

After being an exclusive d4 player for 3 years, I finally gave e4 a try. The first few games were more experimentation- my preparation was obviously subpar and uneven. This did not stop me from winning two great games back to back against strong opposition:



As I worked e4 into my repertoire, I found it was a better fit for me. My results in rated games seem to agree:


10. Dynamic players absolutely must learn to be good defenders

In general I think it's very hard to make progress in chess without constant work on tactics, calculation, and other dynamics. They are always present even in the most subtle of games. But what I realized in particular is that when one follows the advice from 8th lesson and reaches highly complex positions, no matter how good one gets at dynamics, things can always go badly wrong.

When they do, it is absolutely critical to bring good defense to the board, to stay focused, and to never say uncle until there is not a single resource or trick available. I previously mentioned that I have gone 51 games without a loss- this is in no way due to playing conservative chess, as I managed quite a few good wins in this timeframe, plus 30 rating points. It has everything to do with defending resourcefully when ambitious play backfired. A clear case of my improved defensive skills can be seen in this recent game with a top-ten player:

Vachier Lagrave,Maxime (2751) - Shankland,Sam (2642)
Qatar Masters Doha QAT (8.3), 03.12.2014


After defending a slightly worse position all game, I reached a critical moment. Calculating the consequences of Kxb4 accurately could mean the difference between an immediate loss and accomplishing the draw with no further suffering or uncertainty. While after the modest Kd6 the result is still very much in question, a correct assessment of Kxb4 brings immediate clarity. After a long think, I came up with a very nice idea.
42...Kxb4! 43.Kd4 Nc6+!
This looks bizarre, but it has a hidden point: 43...Ne6+ Was the first move I considered, but after Ke5 I was not sure if black would hold or not. 44.Ke5 Nc7 45.Kd6 Ne8+ 46.Kxd5 Kc3 47.Bg4 Kd2 48.Ke5 Ke3 49.Be6 The computer shows black drawing a position like this, but it looked very shaky to be during the game.
44.Kxd5 Kc3!
And it turns out the knight on c6 is actually perfect. It's immune to capture, it prevents both Ke5 and Ke6, and should white retreat his king to save the kingside and hope to run to g8 with the bishop, the knight can hop to e7 on a moment's notice.
And a draw was agreed in view of Kd2-e3, taking all the white pawns

While this is the one I was most proud of, I managed to save quite a few unpleasant or even lost positions in the past year, even against GMs.





If there has one thing that has never changed throughout my entire career, it's that the better I get at chess, the more I realize there is to learn. While I'm very happy with my rate of improvement in the last year, the road to chess mastery never ends and I'm happy to say I think I have found the next thing I should put a lot of attention toward. Going back to the first lesson of questioning one's own success, I  found the first example of an unpleasant recent trend in one of my wins from early 2014.

Panjwani,Raja (2468) - Shankland,Sam (2602)
Northern California International,


This move was sort of played on autopilot. I had been at varying levels of better throughout the whole game and I finally thought that I had reached an easy technical win, but this optimism and laziness could have cost me a half point. [32...Rh4+! 33.Kg3 (33.Ke5 Rh5+) 33...Rxe4! It's always a shame to miss a basic tactic. With 2 pawns down white can resign]
All of a sudden white has serious saving chances
Keeping the king cut off- this was my plan when I played Rg2. I thought I will easily run the h-pawn down the board. But, with resourceful defense, white is able to relieve the laser along the g-file.
34.Rxg2 Rxg2

Letting black off the hook [35.Ke3! White prepares f4 and Kf3. With tenacious defense and some luck he may save the game 35...Kg7 (35...g5? 36.f4 g4 37.f5 White should have enough counterplay) 36.f4 h5 It's unclear what the result should be, but my guess is it's closer to a draw than a black win. After something like Kf3 Ra2 Rb1, I don't see a convincing way to make progress.]
35...Kg7 36.Kf4 h5 37.Re1
37.Ke3 It's too late for this now: 37...g5! 38.f4 g4 The pawns queen
37...h4 38.Rh1 g5+ 39.Kf5 Kh6 40.Ke5 Rf2 41.Rh3 Kh5 42.Kd4 g4 43.fxg4+ Kxg4 44.Rh1 h3 45.Ke3 Rg2 46.Rf1 h2 47.Rxf7 Rg3+ 48.Kf2 Rh3


This was a clear case of relaxing a little too early and letting up when it still required precision and focus to bring the point home. The fact that I ultimately won the game anyway is irrelevant, and probably even actively unhelpful. Had this game taken place six months prior, I might have completely missed the red flag that I should work on keeping my focus and improving my technique in superior positions. While I was aware this was an area that needed work, it somehow got pushed aside while I worked on other problems I felt to be more pressing. Another key example that I might have overlooked due to my victory in the game can be seen from the penultimate round of my best result to date:

Perez Ponsa,Federico (2541) - Shankland,Sam (2624) 
Olympiad, 12.08.2014

Going into this game I had 7.5/8 and was well on my way to a gold medal and by far the best result of my career. It would be easy to get arrogant and disregard the following oversight as unimportant, but this is why it's so important to critically analyze wins as well as losses.

After the game was over Alex Onischuk mentioned how impressed he was that I could just beat 2550 guys with black in a straightforward play with little to no risk. If my next move had been punished appropriately, his reaction may have been different! After making this move I thought black was seriously better, but I had miscalculated a critical line. [23...e4³ Leaves black with a very pleasant position
24.dxe5! would have turned the tables. I had calculated: 24...Nxg4 25.Nf4! (25.Rxf5!? This does not look bad either) 25...Nxe5 And thought white is just a pawn down. But, a simple search for candidate moves would have showed I should have calculated more precisely: 26.Nxg6! I completely missed this one. All of a sudden black will have to be precise to hold on 26...Nxd3 27.Nxe7+ Kd7 28.Nxf5 Nb5² Black faces an uphill struggle to make a draw; 24.gxf5? This is also poor 24...e4! 25.Bc2 gxf5µ Rdg8+ followed by Ng4 is coming. White's king is going to be harassed and his pawns are rapidly falling.
24...Nh5+ 25.Kg2 e4-+

White is strategically busted. I find black's position to be very aesthetically pleasing, with a 7 pawn long chain on the light squares complimented by the dark squared bishop soon to come to c7. White can do nothing while black improves his pieces to the maximum and prepares f4.

26.Bc2 Ne6 27.Bc3 Rh7 28.Bd1 Rdh8 29.Be1 Bd8 30.Ng3 Nhg7 31.Ne2 Bc7 32.Bf2 Kd7 33.Be1 Ke7 34.Bf2 Nh5 35.Be1 f4 36.exf4 Nhxf4+ 37.Nxf4 Nxf4+ 38.Kg1 Nd3 39.Bd2 Rxh4 40.Rxh4 Rxh4 41.Rf6 Nxb2 42.Be2 Rh2 43.Kf1 Nd3 44.Be3 Rh1+ 45.Kg2 Re1 46.Bxd3 Rxe3 47.Bxa6 Rg3+ 48.Kf2 Rxg5


Once again, I got lucky that my complacency went unpunished. But going forward, my luck started to run out. In particular my most recent event, the Tata Steel Challengers Group, saw several cases where I failed to convert advantages into wins. The most glaring example was my game with Valentina Gunina:

Gunina,Valentina (2538) - Shankland,Sam (2652)
77th Tata Steel GpB Wijk aan Zee NED (9.3), 20.01.2015


Black is up a clear exchange here and he can grab a pawn as well on c3. While his knights are a little clumsy, they should not take long to extricate. However, some combination of my relaxing too early and trying to keep it simple lead to one bad move after another, ultimately drawing a completely winning position

I thought I was being clever by forcing the bishop to trade for one of my stupid knights or relocate somewhere undesirable, but I had completely missed my opponent's next move. 24...Rxc3 was to the point and strong. White is completely lost.
Rxd6 is met with Bxd3 when the b2 knight is in trouble. Black is still winning but now it is tougher.

25...Rxd6 26.Bxd3
26.Bc5 Nxc5??
A ridiculous blunder caused by a desire to keep things simple. I thought I am trading off some pieces and after Qxc3 Nca4, I will win d4 and just be up 2 pawns. But basic calculation dispels this notion, calculation that I did not do. [26...Qa5-+ Would win in short order]
27.Qxc3 Nca4 28.Qb3 Qxd4 29.Qxb7!

All of a sudden things are not so simple

29...Rd8 defending calmly would still secure a clear edge, though of course allowing white to get this far was completely uncalled for
Now the position is equal. As horribly disappointing and frustrating as it was to mess up yet another winning position this tournament, if my opponent had found Nb3!!, it would have been doubly so... 30.Nb3!! This move, which I hadn't considered, wins instantly.
30...Qxd2 31.Qxc5 Nc4 32.Nf3 Qxa2 33.Rb7 Be6 34.Ng5 Qa6 35.Rc7 Qd6 36.Qb5 Re7 37.Rc6 Qe5 38.Nxe6 Rxe6 39.Rc8+ Kg7 40.Bxc4 dxc4 41.Qxe5+ Rxe5 42.Rxc4


Had I won this game and a couple of the other promising or even winning positions I had, I could have seriously fought for first place alongside Wei Yi and David Navara instead of settling for a very decent but unspectacular result. While this problem cost me more half points in Wijk Aan Zee than anywhere else in recent memory, it certainly did its damage in other tournaments as well.

Shankland,Sam (2634) - Gareev,Timur (2653) [B75]
ch-USA 2014 Saint Louis USA



My understandable desire to trade pieces with a material advantage was incorrect here. White's advantage is in the danger of his b5 pawn rather than a simple head count. Losing control of the a5 square gave black the time he needed to organize enough counterplay to save the game. 27.Nxa4!  was a much stronger move. Black's rook on a8 turns out to be unhelpful- white will get Na5 in no matter what, and the rook will lose time as the b-pawn rushes to b7. White should be winning 27...Bf4 28.Nc3 Black cannot stop Na5- he should just be busted.
27...Rxa4 28.Nxa4 Ra8 29.Nc3 Bf4 30.Be3
All of a sudden it is very difficult to get Na5 in and mobilize the b-pawn. White has lost a lot of his advantage
30...Bxe3+ 31.Qxe3 Nc4 32.Qd4 Nb6 33.Ra1 Rxa1+ 34.Nxa1 d5
And black has a lot more play than he deserved. While white is still a bit better objectively, accurate defense from my opponent salvaged him half a point.
35.Nb3 dxe4 36.fxe4 Qc7 37.Na5 e5 38.Qf2 Kg7 39.Nc6 Nbd7 40.Qd2 Qb6+ 41.Qf2 Qc7 42.b4 Qd6 43.Qe3 Qe6 44.Na5 Qd6 45.Nc6 Qe6 46.Na5

I will aggressively address the issue of my subpar technique in the coming months, but only time will tell if this will be what takes me to the next level or not.

To say I'm happy with my recent performances would be an understatement, but the road to chess mastery never ends. Now that I am solidly in the top hundred in the world, I feel as though I have finally made it to the base of Mount Olympus, and that the hardest part lies ahead- the climb. But, nothing easy is worth dedicating one's career to. With several great and challenging events coming up this year, including but not limited to the US Championship, World Team Championship, and World Cup, I'm looking forward to starting the trek right away.

Find out more about Sam on his official website, his facebook page and follow him on twitter.