Reports Apr 30, 2018 | 10:00 AMby Colin McGourty

US Champs 10-11: Shankland in dreamland

Sam Shankland is the shock 2018 US Champion after winning his final three games to complete a stunning +6 performance that saw him gain 30 rating points and enter the 2700 club for the first time. The 26-year-old finished half a point ahead of Fabiano Caruana despite the World Championship Challenger scoring more than in his recent supertournament triumphs. The women’s title is still in the balance after 15-year-old Annie Wang lost to last year’s Women’s US Champion Sabina Foisor. She now faces a playoff against 2016 Champion Nazi Paikidze on Monday.

This is how much the US Championship meant to Sam Shankland! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Replay all the games from the 2018 US Championship using the selector below – click a result to open the game with computer analysis or hover over a player’s name to see all his results:

The final round of the 2018 US Championship had been set up perfectly by events the day before. In Round 10 there were first wins for teenagers Jeffery Xiong (vs. Aleksandr Lenderman) and Awonder Liang (vs. Zviad Izoria), as well, incredibly, as for 4-time US Champion Hikaru Nakamura, who beat Varuzhan Akobian and said afterward, “Var for some reason is just playing the French every game and just losing every game for no good reason”.

So and Caruana check out Shankland's game against Onischuk | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

The only draw, Robson-So, was significant, since it meant that after eight draws in a row 2017 Champion Wesley So could no longer hope to defend his title. The leading duo were just too hot to handle, with Fabiano Caruana playing the Sicilian and going on to score a thumping 31-move win over Yaroslav Zherebukh. That wasn’t enough to go into the final round level on points with Sam Shankland, though, since Alexander Onischuk spoiled what had been an equal position and then blundered with 28.f4?

Sam missed a killer tactic – 28…Nxf4!! 29.Bxf4 Qxd4+ 30.Kh1 and now 31…Qxf4! when the queen can’t be captured due to mate on the back rank. His 28…Qe8!, forcing the exchange of queens, would be hard to class as a blunder, though. He described it as taking the Boris Gelfand approach of playing the move with the greatest certainty of winning, regardless of how long it takes, since he’d seen that his knight would be a monster on d5 in the endgame. He commented of the missed tactic, “I think if I needed to notice it I would have”.

“It’s going to be awesome to call myself US Champion”

Going into the final round that meant only Shankland-Liang and Caruana-Onischuk mattered for the title, while what looked like a potential decider before the event, So-Nakamura, was a mere sideshow. The players came to the same conclusion and played out a 30-move draw. Wesley So had remained unbeaten, but finished with nine draws in a row after a bright 2/2 start. He was as shocked as everyone else by Sam’s result: “If you told me beforehand that he’ll be winning this tournament with +6 I’d say engine help!” Hikaru concluded, “more than anything I was just rusty” and pointed out he hadn’t played chess in the two months since Gibraltar.

Awonder got in the first punch, but Sam's counterpunch floored him | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Let’s get to the man of the hour, though! Sam Shankland went into the final round knowing that his fate was in his own hands – a win would seal the title without the risk of a rapid playoff against Fabiano Caruana. He later commented, “I certainly wasn’t going to try and provoke an enormous fight from move one”, but his young opponent played into his hands by going for the Caro-Kann and the “very direct” (Shankland) 7…e5!?, that had notably been played in a blitz game by David Navara in his match against Wei Yi earlier this year. Sam was ready, though, and instantly blitzed out 8.h3, which he called, “kind of a clever idea”:

This move had given Anton Demchenko a crushing 25-move win over Melih Yurtseven in the Portugal Open in February, but since Awonder now sank into a 16-minute think it was clear he’d been caught off-guard. That was bad news for him, since the situation was already critical. Sam revealed that, “Black really has to play 8…Na5”, when he wins a pawn in return for giving White “enormous compensation”.

Instead Awonder followed Yurtseven with the immediate 8…exf4 9.hxg4, when Sam felt he had the compensation without having to give up a pawn. What followed went so smoothly that Shankland described it as perhaps his best game of the event (his win over Ray Robson was his favourite). By move 23 Black was already in deep trouble:

Awonder here decided to give up his h-pawn to save his d-pawn with 23…Rhd8?! 24.Rxh7 but that was a decision born of desperation rather than hope. All Sam needed to do was keep his nerve and he knew he’d be the new US Champion. The moment finally came when Awonder resigned on move 43:

The handshake that confirmed Sam Shankland was US Champion | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

After a slow start – Sam said he was feeling “under the weather” and was happy to take two quiet draws – he put on a simply stunning run:

His performance rating was 2884, gaining him 30.4 rating points and seeing him break into the 2700 club for the first time in his career. That was bad news for his coach/publisher Jacob Aagaard, who had bet Wimbledon final tickets against Sam breaking into the 2700 club (check out the full story in Jacob’s blog):

It also saw him finish above the daunting trio of Caruana, So and Nakamura, making Sam perhaps the happiest and proudest man in St. Louis when he talked to Maurice Ashley:

It’s beyond my wildest dreams! I never thought I had a chance to win this tournament, even yesterday, playing Onischuk, when I saw Yaro’s position (vs. Caruana) was bad and I wasn’t better. For the longest time this is my life’s work. All the sweat, blood and tears from all these years, this makes it worth it ten times over!

He was almost lost for words as he added:

Things clicked at the right time and I don’t even know how it happened. It’s so surreal. I took it all one game at a time even today, but now it’s just all flushing in. I’m just… it’s amazing!

He summed up that, “this and the Olympiad gold are the crowning moments of my career so far,” though he had no doubt this was his “best result ever”. Sam, who already has individual and team Olympiad gold medals, will get another chance at glory this summer in Batumi, but for now he can savour the moment - “It’s going to be awesome to call myself US Champion!”

Check out the interview in full (as well as the rest of the day's show):

Caruana falls just short

Caruana and his nemesis | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

For Fabiano Caruana it was a curious experience. He’d beaten his +4 score in Berlin and Baden-Baden, but +5, achieved with a comfortable last round win over Alexander Onischuk, simply wasn’t enough:

In the end the needless loss to Zviad Izoria, where he turned down a draw in a drawish position and went on to lose, proved fatal:

I was half a point behind Sam after I lost that - I think he was +2 and I was +1. I couldn’t have expected that we would both go +4 in the last 7 rounds. I’m happy with my play after that game, but I didn’t expect it to be so costly. I was still pretty optimistic after I lost that game.

That was an opportunity for some well-timed trolling from the World Champion, who had employed Sam Shankland as one of his seconds during his match against Sergey Karjakin. If there was a first half to this tweet it would probably read, "How do you expect to win the World Championship if you can't even win the US Championship?"

In the bigger picture, though, it was yet another stellar performance from Fabiano, who despite playing three top tournaments almost without a break has increased his rating to 2822, 21.4 points behind Magnus. They’ll meet again in Altibox Norway Chess at the end of May.

The final standings look as follows:

As you can see, So and Nakamura ended up with respectable places, though they were a long way off the fight for first. Ray Robson perhaps deserves a mention for his recovery after at one stage losing three games in four. He also got to play one of the nicest moves of the final round.

Robson took 4th in a dramatic final game | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Jeffery Xiong made the mistake of playing fast in his opponent’s time trouble with 36.Kxg3?? only to run into: 36...Rg8+! 37.Kf2:

37…Rxg2+!! provoked resignation. 38.Kxg2 Qg4+! wins on the spot, since the only way to stop mate-in-2 is 39.Ng3, giving up the queen.

Annie Wang falls at the final hurdle

The battle now moves to a rapid playoff between Nazi Paikidze and Annie Wang in the women’s section, though it came incredibly close to ending in both the penultimate and final rounds.

Will Annie Wang or Nazi Paikidze be the 2018 US Women's Champion? | photos: Lennart Ootes, official website  

15-year-old Annie Wang missed one moment (17.f5!) when she could have got a big advantage against Anna Zatonskih, but given she’d entered the round with a 1-point lead the confident draw gave her great chances of overall success. After her game ended Annie had to leave to do her homework, but it looked very possible she’d be called back to give a winner’s interview as the new US Women’s Champion. 

Only White's collapse just before the time control stopped Annie Wang becoming champion with a round to spare | photos: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Nazi Paikidze’s winning attempts seemed to have backfired:

If Tatev Abrahamyan had simply consolidated here (38.Qe2 or a king move) it would just have been a question of whether she could convert her healthy extra pawn. Instead in time trouble she played 38.Ra5?, when Paikidze pounced with 38…Qf3! Suddenly the tables had turned 180 degrees, and after 39.Qf1 Nd2! Black is winning, though the game would at least have continued if Tatev had found 40.Kh1! with the last minute on her clock. Instead she played 40.Ne1??

40…Qd1! ended the game, since the white queen is attacked and can’t move without allowing mate.

That meant the gap had been cut to half a point before the final round, but the still unbeaten Annie Wang remained calm and built up a better position with Black against defending champion Sabina Foisor:

The computer recommends 19…Qh2 immediately or after 19…Nxc3, or Black could start attacking herself with 19…a5, but instead Annie went for 19…Nb4?, that only drove the white queen to a good square for the coming attack. There followed: 20.Qd2 Ned5? (20…Qh2 was still the move to at least pick up some material) 21.Nxd5 Nxd5 22.g5! and White was crashing through, with Sabina revealing she took some inspiration from Sam Shankland’s book on pawn power (and particularly how her opponent couldn’t take back the moves 7…h6 and 27…f6).

For the first time in the event Annie Wang needed some comforting | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

Annie commented:

I thought I was a lot better in the game, and then 19…Nb4? I don’t know why I played it, and then I just wasn’t good anymore.

That defeat could still have been enough for Annie to be crowned US Champion, since Nazi Paikidze got into some trouble in her game against Rusudan Goletiani, but she was able to shut things down in time:

I kind of can’t believe it because at some point I thought it was going to be the last day, because I was worse and Annie was much better, so I didn’t have any hope, and then I kept playing my game and suddenly I looked at her game and she’s completely lost. At that moment I had to do whatever it takes just not to lose this game, but at that point I had more or less equalised, and as soon as she resigned I offered a draw.

Paikidze's draw against Goletiani extended the 2018 US Championships by another day! | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website 

The draw was accepted, meaning Paikidze and Wang tied on 8/11, with Irina Krush in clear third a full point behind:

The playoff will take place on Monday at the same time as usual and feature two rapid games where each player has 25 minutes and a 5-second delay per move. If still tied they play Armageddon, where the time control is an unusual 5+2 for White vs. 4+2 for Black, with Black having draw odds i.e. a draw makes the player with Black the US Women’s Champion. What’s unusual is that normally there’s no additional time in Armageddon, at least up to move 61. As it stands the extra minute is likely to make less difference than usual, so it looks like a clear advantage to have the black pieces.

Tune in from 13:00 CDT (20:00 CEST), with live commentary from Yasser Seirawan, Jennifer Shahade and Maurice Ashley here on chess24.   

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