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Shankland on Brazil: Focused on the Knockout Print E-mail
By GM Sam Shankland   
November 1, 2014
It’s now been a couple days since I made the 34 hour door to door trek back from Pipa to San Francisco, and I’ve had some time to reflect on what was a successful yet thought provoking trip. The first leg was a relatively short stay in Las Vegas for the Millionaire Open, a radical new tournament that many have written about. I’ll only add that I also had a wonderful time at this amazing and iconic event, and while my play was not stellar enough to bring home the big bucks, I hope to play many more such events in the future. Once it was over, there was no rest for the wicked as I headed off to Brazil early the following morning, accompanied by fellow US representatives GMs Kaidanov and Shabalov.

GM Sam Shankland, Photo Claudia Aquino
After a few relaxing days on the beach with a formula more appropriate for a vacation: rest, wake, churrasco, caipirinha, beach, repeat, it was time for the real work to begin. Very quickly I found myself oblivious to my surroundings and entirely focused on the chess.

I came to Brazil for one specific reason, with one goal in mind and only one priority- qualify for the World Cup. I love the concept of knockout style tournaments and I think this is the best way to run pretty much any individual sport (I cite tennis as a prime example), both for the fans and for the players. Everyone loves filling out a bracket, matches go down to the wire, and the high stakes “win or go home” kind of game makes for some real excitement. In addition, there is no problem with boring draws: players can make as many draws as they want as fast as they want, but in the end every match will produce a winner and a loser.

Finally, the generous purse, insanely strong field, and fond memories of knocking out Peter Leko as a teenager rated 2530 in the first round also contribute to my favoritism of the World Cup. After a hugely successful 2011, I was really disappointed when I badly underperformed in the 2013 US Championship and had to watch from the sidelines as my compatriots got down and dirty with the best players in the world. I vowed never to let this happen again.

Thankfully the US Championship is not the only place Americans can qualify for the World Cup- there is also the Continental. With four spots available to the top four finishers in a giant frenzy of great players from all throughout the Americas mixed into one huge open with no class sections, the tournament was unlike any I had ever played before. I knew before going that I’d be unlikely to face any of the top seeds until the end of the tournament, and that it would largely be about taking care of business against guys 100-200 points lower than me. While normally I would avoid such a tournament, it all goes back to that one goal- the World Cup. I did not care about playing good chess, challenging myself, raising my rating, playing with strong players-- all things I normally prioritize-- all I wanted was one of the four coveted spots. As such, I played very differently than normal. One example can be seen when looking at the following two positions:



One of these games was immediately agreed drawn in the above position, and the other one continued for over sixty more moves, ultimately concluding with a white victory. This would not be unusual at all, except in which game was which...

I made more short draws in this event than I have in all my other tournaments combined in the past year and a half. I love chess and I have a well deserved reputation for being a fighting player, which is largely due to my priorities. Winning prize money is nice, but for now the purse of a tournament almost never enters my mind when considering what events to play. Instead, I think about how much I can challenge myself by playing with very strong players and how much I can learn. But once again, this tournament was a different story. All of those priorities went out the window, and my moves and decisions were more influenced by “How can I maximize my chances of getting into the World Cup” rather than my usual, “Do your best to find the best move over and over again, and this process will make you a stronger player.”

The first position shown was reached in round 3 against a 2400 IM, and he truly played a brilliant game. He found an over the board novelty that improved upon Aronian-Grischuk from this years candidates tournament, and he played the middlegame fearlessly, energetically, and strongly. 

After some brief time trouble I managed to escape into this completely equal endgame, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Carlsen and Nakamura it’s that you can always keep playing and wait for mistakes. This endgame was completely equal but it was also the best position I had seen all day. I also got to thinking, “if this guy can find a new and strong opening idea over the board deep into a line and then outplay me with black in the ensuing middlegame, how can he only be 2400? Maybe he is not the best endgame player.” I then proceeded to squeeze blood from a stone.


Julio Granda Zuniga, Photo Claudia Aquino
The second position was from my final round game with Julio Granda. Normally after playing down over 100 points for ten games in a row to make a ten minute draw with white against a 2680 would seem ridiculous to me, but again, this tournament was different. One goal only... World Cup. I had worked out the possibilities and realized making a draw was a much better choice than taking my chances. With four players tied for first and seven half a point back, I knew a draw would guarantee me a tiebreak where there would be at least one spot for every two players, and probably more. It turned out there would be four spots for six players, and these are much better odds than just playing one game (against the #2 seed no less) where losing means you’re gone.

I cruised through the six player rapid tiebreak without much trouble and got one of the four spots. But I felt almost sick to my stomach the way it happened. I got what I came for, but I had to betray everything I stand for as a professional chess player by making quick draws in over a quarter of my games. I had never realized until this tournament how important and strategic early draws can be, instead I always just assumed people made them because they were too nervous or lazy to play with strong opponents. Such draws are a real problem. Not only are they unappealing to fans, but they also are unfair. When four spots are up for grabs, trailing players need the higher ones to post decisive results, so they can pass one of the players and not the other.

 As a professional player it is my job to do everything I can within the rules to maximize my chances for success, so I feel no guilt in making these draws. But chess organizers, TDs, and promoters have the job of writing rules to make chess as fair as possible for the players and as appealing as possible for spectators. I would suggest to always have at least a 30 move rule in place to avoid these kind of destructive situations where GMs have to choose between worsening their own tournament chances or killing chess for the fans. It both levels the playing field and keeps things interesting. As I mentioned before, knockout tournaments do not have this problem...

Finally, I’d like to share the critical moment of the tournament for me. After 8 rounds I had 6.5/8, half a point behind Shabalov in clear first with 7.0, and I was white against GM Gilberto Hernandez. My form in the previous rounds had been appalling, but I picked an excellent moment to finally play a really nice game. After some back and forth, the following position was reached after the 23nd move:

And after a very long think I uncorked a powerful sequence. 

Shankland,Sam (2633) - Hernandez Guerrero,Gilberto (2531)  
American Continental 2014 Praia da Pipa BRA  

Well calculated. I took almost 30 minutes on this move, but it's really strong. If black gets one or two moves to blockade the d6 pawn he will be doing great, so energetic play is called for. Incidentally this is one of those rare cases where I found a best move in a non-blocked position that engines could not. 
24...Rd8 25.Nf3! Nf4 26.Ne5! Ne2+
This looks very natural but it doesn't solve black's problems. I think he may just be in trouble 
26...Nd7 27.Nc6 
This also is very difficult for black 
27...Re8 28.Ne7+ Kf8 29.Bc6 Rd8 30.Bxd7! Rxd7 31.Nc8! b5 32.Nb6 Rd8 33.cxb5! axb5 34.a4± 
White's pawns are very problematic for black to deal with; 26...Kf8 27.d7 Black has nothing better than Ne2+ anyway; 26...Nxg2 27.Kxg2 Nd7 28.Nxd7 Rxd7 29.Kf3!+- Just in time 29...f5 30.Kf4 Black is one tempo too slow to stop the king from invading] 
27.Kf1 Nd4 

At first it might look like white is just losing a pawn, but he has a nice resource: 
The point. I was really nervous when I calculated d6 because if I missed something here I will just lose my pawn and the game, but black can't do anything. Bh3 is coming black black is almost lost 28...h5 28...Nxd7 29.Nc6! Re8 30.Nxd4 cxd4 31.Rxd4± White was able to greatly activate his pieces, and his queenside pawn mass will quickly mobilize. The once dead g2 bishop is now a monster; 28...Nh5 29.b4 Nf4 30.Rxd4! cxd4 31.c5; 28...g5! This was the last chance to resist 29.Bh3 g4! (29...h5 30.Rxd4! cxd4 31.Bf5) 30.Bxg4 Nxg4 31.Nxg4 Kg7 32.Ne3 Rxd7 33.Nf5+ Kf6 34.Nxd4 cxd4 35.Ke2 Black has some saving chances here, though obviously the ending is still very difficult for him; 
28...Kf8 29.Bh3 h5 30.b4! 29.Bh3 Ng4 
Losing immediately but I suspect the game was beyond saving anyway [29...g5 30.Rxd4! cxd4 31.Bf5+- With complete domination. The knight can never move due to Nc6, the king can never get to e7. White can just walk his king to the d4 pawn and start running the queenside] 
30.Bxg4 hxg4


I had only seen 31. b4 when I played 24. d6, but once I got here I realized this is much stronger [31.b4 f6 32.bxc5 bxc5 33.Rxd4 fxe5 34.Rd5 Kf7 35.Rxe5 Rxd7 36.Rxc5± Excellent winning chances but obviously the game continuation is more convincing. 
31...cxd4 32.b4 Black resigned. 
The pawns crash through: 32...f6 32...d3 33.c5 d2 34.Ke2 f6 35.c6 fxe5 36.Kd1! (36.c7?? d1Q+ 37.Kxd1 Rxd7+) 33.c5 fxe5 34.c6 Kf7 35.c7 Ke7 36.c8Q! 1-0


With this victory I moved into a tie for first, and the rest of the tournament was a breeze. 8.5/11 turned out to be enough for a share of first as well as a World Cup spot, so even though I played quite poorly, everything worked out in the end. I definitely needed some luck- I had two completely lost positions early on and made 1.5/2 in those games- but a pretty clever chess player from the Americas once pointed out that a good player is always lucky!

The US had another bright spot in Shabalov’s performance, also tying for first with 8.5/11 after leading the whole way. Unfortunately he did not manage to get through the tiebreaker, but he had a very strong result nonetheless and won a lovely game over third-seeded Axel Bachmann:


On the whole, it was a really productive and successful trip. I’m absolutely ecstatic to be back in the World Cup, I had a great time on the beach along the way, and I also was very happy to realize that even when I’m playing well below my capabilities I can still string together solid, if unspectacular, results. The next adventure will commence in Qatar at the end of November. For now I’m happy to be home for a month to rest up and train. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank USCF for choosing me as an official representative, and until next time, I bid the reader adieu.

Follow GM Sam Shankland on his official website, http://www.samshankland.com/