Sam Shankland: The American Dr. Who

While America isn’t known for its ability to produce world class grandmasters, there’s definitely been a recent trend of increasing strength in the states. Most players love to talk about Hiraku Nakamura and Wesley So, I think more people should pay attention to Grandmaster Sam Shankland.

I first watched Shankland play at this past year’s US Chess Championships when he upset then tournament leader Varuzhan Akobian to cause a late shake up in the standings. Since then, he’s been relatively unheard, despite a strong performance at the Tata Steel Challengers section this past weekend (3rd).

For today’s post, I wanted to share a few of his games so maybe you too can appreciate his style of play.

Shankland – Michiels (2015 Tata Steel Challengers, Round 6)

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6 4. e5 Nd7 5. Bd3 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Ne2 cxd4 8. cxd4 f6

9. exf6 By opting to play this line of the French, Shankland must effectively control the c5 and e5 squares. White should have relatively easy development, and a backwards pawn to attack on e6.

9…Nxf6 10. 0-0 Bd6 11. Nf3 Qc7 12. Nc3 a6 13. Bd2 0-0

14. Rc1 In a relatively equal position, Shankland takes the most principled approach. By putting his rook on the same file as the opponent’s queen, Black has some questions to answer.

14…Bd7 15. Re1 Rae8

16. Na4 A strong move. From a4, the knight controls c5 (a critical square) and b6, while opening up the rook. If Black isn’t careful, Shankland will have a nice outpost on c5.

16…Bc8 A slight inaccuracy from Black. In an effort to create more space on his own side of the board, Black neglects White’s ability to find active play.

17. Ne5 Rather than allowing Black to push and trade his backwards e-pawn, Shankland uses a common idea of a blockade by placing his knight here.

17…Qb8 18. Bf4 Nxd4

19. Bxh7+ A critical moment in the game. With this exchange, White stands better as he traded his isolated d-pawn for the h-pawn, weakening the enemy kingside while maintaining the e5 outpost in the center.

19…Kxh7 20. Qxd4 Ne5 21. Bg3 Rf5 22. Nf3 Nxg3 23. hxg3 Bd7

24. Nc5 Putting pressure on the backwards e-pawn and encouraging Black to trade away the bishop pair.

24…Bxc5 25. Rxc5 Qd6

26. Ne5 With no clear play, Shankland improves his position.

26…g5? Michiels intended to find some sort of play here, but opens up holes in front of his king.

27. g4! A great move! White blockades the g-pawn, while creating easy access for a rook lift to h3, fully exposing the king.

27.Rf4 28. Qd3+ Kh8 29. Qg6 Re7

30. Rc3 Paralyzing Black. After 30… Rh7, the game falls apart quickly.

30…Rh7 31. Qxg5 Re4 32. Rxe4 dxe4 33. Qd8+ 1-0

A good game by Shankland. By optimizing his pieces from what was relatively a equal position, Shankland was able to create outposts to help him limit Black’s ability to move.

Haast – Shankland (2015 Tata Steel Challengers, Round 13)

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3

5…a6 The Najdorf is a favorite opening in Shankland’s repertoire. Recently he made a video series for chess.com on the line, which you can watch here.

6.Be3 e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.f3

8…h5 Limiting any quick kingside pawn storm.

9.Be2 Nbd7 10.a4 Rc8 11.a5 Be7 12.O-O g6 13.Qd2

13…Kf8 A very interesting idea. By castling by hand, Shankland keeps his rook on h8, a much more appropriate file than the f-file.

14.Nd5 Bxd5

15.exd5 With this exchange, Black closes the d-file, hiding his backwards d6 pawn, which is the main weakness in many Najdorf structures.

15…Kg7 16.Ra4 b5 17.Raa1 Qc7 18.c3 Qb7 19.Rfd1 h4 20.Nc1

20…Bd8 With this move Black sets the tempo of the game. This bishop will slowly find its way to b8, allowing Shankland to connect the rooks while maintaining control of the c-file. White has wasted time with the rook maneuvers on the queenside, allowing for Black to play for a slight advantage.

21.Ra3 Bc7

22.Na2 White must solve the awkwardness in her position. The Women’s International Master’s pieces on the queenside are not coordinated, and will allow for Black to seize control of the c5 square.

22…Bb8 23.Rb3 Nc5 24.Rb4

24…Bc7 And now it becomes clear how messy White’s position truly is. With the a-pawn lost, White quickly grabs the h-pawn. While material may come out even, Black gets a strategic advantage by opening the h-file.

25.Bg5 Bxa5 26.Rxh4 Rxh4 27.Bxh4

27…Bb6 Now without the pawn on a5, Shankland takes full advantage of his repossession of the b6 square. By placing his bishop here, he forces White’s king off the dark square diagonal to the corner of the board…

28.Kh1 Rh8 29.Qe1 Qd7 30.Nb4 Qf5 31.Bf2 a5

32.Nd3?? After being outmaneuvered for most of the game, Haast makes her first big mistake, and Shankland finds a strong tactical blow.

32…Nxd3 33.Bxd3 Bxf2 34.Qxf2

34…Rxh2+! Using the h-file to create a king and queen fork. If White does not comply, Black has …Qh5, putting more pressure on the h-file.

35.Kxh2 Ng4+ 36.Kg1 Nxf2 37.Kxf2 Qc8 38.Ke2 Qc5 39.b4 Qxc3 40.bxa5 Qxa5 41.Rb1 b4 42.Bc4 Qc5 43.Bb3 f5 44.Kf1 Qb5+ 45.Kg1 Qd3 Completely outplayed, Haast resigned. 0-1

Like in the first game, Shankland uses his ability to maneuver pieces to active squares to outplay his opponents. In the first game, he attacked the c5 and e5 squares, and the second, the c5 square also played a big role. In both of the these cases a knight on these squares really limited the mobility of the opponent. Much like the Doctor, Shankland finds ways to inconvenience his opponents at exactly the right moment. Even if you don’t play the French or the Sicilian Najdorf, most openings have potential outposts. Your pieces are your sonic screwdrivers!

A pretty good tournament from Shankland this past weekend in the first super tournament of 2015. We’ll be seeing more from the Doctor in the near future!

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2 thoughts on “Sam Shankland: The American Dr. Who

  1. Pingback: Catching Up – A Season in a Post | chess^summit

  2. Pingback: Attack of the Youngsters: Benjamin Bok – chess^summit

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