At the age of 26 Sam Shankland suddenly stopped being a “solid 2650 grandmaster” to win the 2018 US Championship ahead of Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So and Hikaru Nakamura. That catapulted him into the 2700 club, and he followed up with a string of results that have taken him into the world top 25. It’s fascinating, therefore, to hear a recent lecture at the Los Angeles Chess Club where he talks about what changed, his ambitions for the future and what separates Magnus Carlsen from the rest.
At the start of the hour long lecture on February 16th 2019 in the Los Angeles Chess Club, Sam comments, “I’d like to inspire the next generation of American players and I hope I can touch some hearts today!” He then analyses the last round win over Awonder Liang that made him the 2018 US Champion, before going on to take questions from the audience. You can watch the whole video below:
Below we’ve transcribed Sam’s answers from the Q&A session:
How has his training and preparation changed as he’s risen and been more scrutinised?
I’m certainly trying to train the same way as I did before. If you’re getting better at chess that means something’s working. I’m sort of a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” kind of guy. It’s easy to get a little bit complacent, especially now that I make a ton of money that I didn’t before, but I’m motivated more by passion than anything else. I can definitely see how some people are like, “oh, now I’m making such a comfortable living I just want to take my foot off the gas a little”, but that’s not really who I am. As for my games being more scrutinised, I don’t really care. I play for the love of the game, not because I care what pundits have to say about them.
Has he played Magnus?
Yes, I played him a couple of weeks ago. I’ve worked with him and his team in preparation – I’ve sparred with him before, but I’ve only played one serious tournament game against Magnus. That was a couple of weeks ago – it was a draw.
How does it feel to spar with someone rather than play a proper game?
Well, it’s less serious and it’s more about learning than it is about sport, which makes it feel very different. I’m very particular about my routine before games, including what I eat that morning, what time I eat, what kind of preparation I do, what kind of position I aim for, what time I sleep, things like this, while sparring is much more low key. But you still learn a lot from doing it, especially if it’s done right.
What did he think of the Carlsen-Caruana match?
I think Magnus played really, really badly. Realistically, given the kind of positions he got, it should not have been close, but it almost was. It was a 6:6 match, so I guess you could say it could have gone either way. It was unfortunate that it was all draws, but the positions that Magnus didn’t win were astonishing to me. He clearly was not playing his best compared to what he normally is. Ultimately I’m really good at chess, I’m number 24 in the world, but that’s still a level a bit beyond me and I can’t really talk in too much detail about it, because there’s probably a lot of things I don’t understand.
What should people under 2000 do to improve?
That’s a tough question, because you say people under 2000 and I don’t know what your rating is – maybe you’re 1900 – but I can promise you you’re not 1900 at everything. You’re going to be 2100 at something, you’re going to be 1700 at something. All these random skills that you have mixed together might bring you to an average of 1900, but in general I believe if you want to be a good chess player you need to target specifically the areas where you’re weakest, because in chess you have to play every position that comes in front of you. If I were to make an analogy, if you’re great at passing the ball with your feet, if you’re great at running, if you’re great at shooting and all this stuff but you totally suck at stopping the ball with your hands, that’s great – don’t be a goalie. In chess you have to play every position that comes in front of you, so if you have a weakness in a phase of your game, you’re not playing as well as others, you want to target specifically that phase, so for a 1900 player let’s imagine he’s 2100 at tactics and 1700 at endgames – I would say, “study endgames”. If he’s 2100 at endgames and 1700 at tactics, I would say “study tactics”. So it’s very hard for me to give a one-size-fits-all approach, if that makes any sense at all.
What books helped him the most while learning chess?
The best book I’ve ever read by far is Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual. It’s definitely advanced, but Dvoretsky, may he rest in peace, was I think the greatest chess author, certainly of my lifetime, perhaps of all time, so his books I really liked. And then the Grandmaster Preparation series by Jakob Aagaard I think is very good as well.
What’s his goal in life, as far as chess goes?
My goal is to be the World Champion. I will almost certainly fail this goal because Magnus is darn good, and there’s a lot of other people competing with me, but I can guarantee you I will fail this goal if I don’t try and if I don’t apply myself to the maximum. And ultimately if you set your sights as high as they possibly can be even if you come up short you’ll tend to have still made it as far as you can. If I aim to be number 1 in the world and I top out at number 5 that will make me a happier person than if I aim to be number 10 and make it to number 10. So I believe in setting your goals high. My goal is to be the World Champion – unlikely to happen, but I’m going to do my best.
What’s his routine?
I have a pretty controlled diet during tournaments. Outside of tournaments I eat like a fatty, but luckily I work out a lot. Generally my routine – I live in Northern California, so still Pacific time zone – I’ll wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is get my laptop and check all the games, because there’s usually tournaments in Europe and Asia which are anything from 9 to 15 hours ahead, so I’m following the games, checking what’s been going on there. I’ll do a fair amount of calculation training throughout the day. I try to check my openings, particularly if there are relevant updates or developments from these games that I had just seen. I have people coming and training with me. I travel to Europe and Asia to train with them as well. It’s a lot of work, but it’s working for me so far, and you just have to be patient, because it never comes as quickly as you want – huge success, that is – but if you work hard enough it usually does.
What personal challenges has he overcome through chess?
My senior year of college I really had some trouble emotionally for reasons outside of chess, and I think that playing chess as much as I did and studying it and channelling, I guess you could call it negative emotions, negative energy, into the game and something positive, really made a positive impact on me both in terms of my overall happiness and in terms of my chess playing ability. In general, when you care about something so deeply as I care about chess, and a couple of other things, especially at that time, it hurts beyond belief when they don’t come, or when you come up short, or you fail or you’re met with disappointment or even devastation, and ultimately what chess and such life experiences taught me is how to take a punch.
I had a pretty easy life growing up. I’m from a reasonably well-to-do family, I was very talented at chess, I got better really quickly, I never really faced that many challenges in life, and when finally I really started facing adversity I learned to not let that crush me. It can scar you, but you can’t let it crush you or deter you from keeping on fighting, and I think the biggest example of this can be cited just a couple of weeks ago in Round 11 at Tata Steel. I had the most embarrassing moment of my career. I resigned a technically drawn position against Anish Giri. I thought I was lost – there was a saving resource that I didn’t fully understand. I resigned a drawn position that everyone and their computer understood was drawn. I was the laughing stock of the chess world, and then a younger me might have just collapsed. Now that I’ve been toughened up to some degree I came back and the next two guys I just tore their heads off, particularly the next game I played [against Ian Nepomniachtchi].
My opponent took some real risks early in the game, which I think was a very understandable decision, to try to hit someone while they’re down – this is sports, it’s what you have to do: capitalise on someone who’s in a huge amount of pain and not able to bring their all. Against a younger me this would have worked, but the way I was feeling that day I just… I crushed him, and this strength of character is something that chess has taught me, because at least for me it didn’t come naturally. I wasn’t always like that.
What’s your favourite variation?
I really enjoy the Semi-Slav, with both colours. I love that there’s all this tension in the centre that looks so solid but at any moment the position can explode and tactics can fly everywhere. In general I like games that are openings that tend to produce very solid positions, in general, that have the potential to explode very, very quickly, so that it’s not so much about preparation and the computers - because the positions that are open right away computers are sort of killing - but the more quiet ones that at some moment clearly will blow up, like the Semi-Slav. I really like those.
On the road to becoming World Champion
The Candidates to challenge for World Champion would be probably the second step of a 3-step plan for getting there. Step 1 is qualify for the Candidates. So the way the Candidates works is 8 players, I guess generally this is among the top 9 players in the world, because the World Champion doesn’t play, but it’s not strictly done by rating. I think this year there’s two rating spots [it seems there’s only going to be one rating spot, with one place given to a wild card], the top two finishers from the World Cup, the winner of the FIDE Grand Swiss and the loser of the previous World Championship match, and the two top finishers in the Grand Prix. I’m qualified for the World Cup and the Grand Swiss, so three of the 8 spots are potentially up for grabs for me. I’ll have to play out of my mind to get there, but it is within reach in the next cycle. I would just have to play really, really, really well. I was hopeful that more spots would become available to me and they almost certainly will be in 2022, but there is a universe where I could play the next Candidates.
Does he do more calculation training than when he was an IM or “just” a GM?
I started serious calculation training when I first met my current coach Jacob Aagaard – it was really great. I didn’t do much calculation training before that because I just knew I was really good at calculation, and in general it’s what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, what hurts you is what you do know that’s just wrong. I was not good at calculation. I believed I was when I was not and then when I went to Jacob and found out just how much there was to learn, and how much better I could get, I realised not only how poor I was but how poor just about everybody else was, and that if I could learn how to do this I was going to start killing people. I just decided I’m going to train calculation like no other.
Shankland's coach Aagaard talked about their work together on Ben Johnson's podcast
A good way to think about it is like the guys who write Komodo and Stockfish and these chess engines, they’re all 2000, 2200. Their ability to teach a computer how to evaluate chess positions and understand chess should not be higher than mine, but why are computers so much better than us? It’s just because they calculate so much better. This skill is the most important in all of chess and now I really regret not having trained calculation more when I was younger.
Has he beaten engines?
Not any good ones. By the time I really got good at chess we had clearly lost the war against computers. They’re just better than us, and I think I sparred with some old engines, some old Deep Fritz and stuff and I could take a game off it out of maybe 20 if I got lucky and I got the right kind of position, but against Stockfish or Houdini or Komodo or Leela, forget it.
Does he feel chess talent is something you’re born with?
Cosmic level questions like that of “are you as good as you are because you were born brilliant or because you’ve worked hard?” – ultimately humans will never know the answers to these questions. I choose to believe that it’s more about working hard, because that motivates me to work. Honestly, you look at the kind of natural genius that someone like Magnus has – I’m fully aware that it’s greater than anything I can imagine, but hard work makes up for a lot. I’ve always had a theory that if you really dedicate your life to something and pour yourself 110% into it day in and day out you can easily make it into the top 1% of absolutely anything you want, but beyond that top 1% you have to have the gift.
For example, if I quit chess tomorrow and decided for the rest of my life every day I’m going to motivate myself towards becoming the best basketball player I can ever be, I’d become an amazing basketball player… and I would not make the NBA. I think it’s clear that I don’t have what it takes naturally, but I would get really, really good if I dedicated myself like that and I think chess is the same way. I think just about anybody can make it to FM, maybe IM, maybe even GM if they’ve really dedicated their entire lives and made it basically their existence, the way I have. Beyond that, I don’t know.
How does Carlsen’s genius manifest itself?
If I knew what made Magnus the genius he is today maybe I would be the World Champion instead of him. He just has this way of looking at the board and he just knows what moves are most critical – not necessarily what moves are best, but what moves are most critical. He’s got this sort of Fischeresque thing when you look at him play. I saw some statistic that of the top 10 players in the world he matches the top choice of the computer the least of all of them… and he matches the top three the most, which essentially means that Magnus might not play the best move any more often than anyone else, but he always plays a good move, and just this lack of serious mistakes, because his natural feel is so great… Again, he’s so much better than me that it’s really hard to comment on it. Even at number 24 in the world there’s so much difference between the two of us. It’s hard for me to truly understand what goes on in his mind, because he’s just so much stronger.
What’s his opinion on the AlphaZero games?
AlphaZero against Stockfish didn’t interest me so much because it clearly was done behind closed doors and under different kinds of supervision, and AlphaZero clearly was much stronger but AlphaZero cannot run on the kind of computers that a normal person can have - it’s only on very specific hardware. I was much more interested that LeelaZero recently beat Stockfish, or at least took the lead over Stockfish, last I checked, in the TCEC [in the end Stockfish scraped a 50.5:49.5 victory]. Now it wasn’t demolition like AlphaZero, but still that the AI engine, I guess a weaker version, ultimately beat the Stockfish that humans developed - that was a much more interesting match to me, seeing the contrast in styles. I don’t know. I don’t try to spend that much effort on computer chess just because I’m more focused on beating humans. If you want to beat a computer, good luck!
Sam will attempt to defend his US Championship title in Saint Louis later this month, but first he's playing in the inaugural Prague Chess Festival Masters that starts at 15:00 CET on Tuesday 6th March. You can follow all the games here on chess24!
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