On Chess: Sam Shankland Says Hello To The Fun Of Chess | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: Sam Shankland Says Hello To The Fun Of Chess

Dec 10, 2014

If you haven’t before, today is a great day to say hello to Sam Shankland – especially when you know just how close he almost came to saying goodbye.

In 2010, despite being only 18 years old and one of America’s most-promising up-and-comers, Shankland threw his figurative hands in the air and announced that he was retiring from the King’s game. A young International Master at the time, Shankland’s frustration with the titling methodology of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) had reached over-boil. Clearly the boy felt that his game was strong enough to hang with men, and he deserved to be recognized as so -- though FIDE sometimes has a special interpretation of what it takes to become a Grandmaster.

The patented death stare of American Grandmaster Sam Shankland is being felt on the international stage.
Credit Provided by Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

Shankland had already passed the necessary rating threshold to become a Grandmaster but apparently struggled to collect his three “norms,” or superior performances in qualified events -- as deemed so by FIDE. He had collected two official norms, but the third had become elusive -- and not from a lack of superior performances, it seemed, but rather some questionable judgment calls by FIDE.

One particularly eye-rolling loophole that kept Shankland from earning his final norm was a requirement that he compete against players from three different federations in each event, a reflection of the international recognition of the Grandmaster title. This is a fairly well known prerequisite for norms, and one that Shankland accomplished without problem in an otherwise stellar, norm-worthy performance.

Unfortunately (says FIDE, upon his filing for recognition), Shankland had played against one opponent who had recently defected from Cuba. And defection from Cuba means defection from the Cuban Chess Federation and, (so sorry Mr. Shankland but), without that third federation, that performance just didn’t quite qualify as a norm. And for that, Shankland was not a Grandmaster. (Better luck next time?)

America has never been the land of plentiful norm opportunities, and watching such percentages squandered on ludicrous technicalities has a devastating effect on morale. So that was that: Shankland said goodbye.

Which would have been the end of this story, if it weren’t for those pesky morals of his.

Before officially calling it quits, Shankland said that he would first tie up all the loose ends of his obligations, finishing out his career playing the events to which he had already committed. And the White Knight of his career turned out to be the 2010 U.S. Junior Closed Championship, held in America’s newfound center of chess opportunity -- the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.

Having already been invited to the national championship for players under 21, Shankland begrudgingly postponed his retirement to play the event -- and an 0-2 start all-but signified that he was mailing in the end of his chess days.

Driven to rock bottom, and nothing much else to do except burn a free vacation in St. Louis, he abandoned everything about chess that he knew was “right” and started playing the game for (*gasp*) fun.

And a funny thing happened, playing the game for enjoyment again: He won. And then he won again. Six out of his next seven games, mounting an improbable comeback in the Junior Closed, forcing the championship to a playoff, and then sacking GM Ray Robson to win the national title.

From there, it was nothing but a snowball. The U.S. Junior Closed victory earned him a seat with the big boys in the 2011 U.S. Championship -- another visit back to St. Louis for another obligation he had to fulfill. There, he dazzled to a third-place finish, and with his mind suddenly off of ludicrous technicalities, the coveted GM title came soon after. Easily. Naturally.

And the rest? The rest isn’t even history -- it’s right now.

Shankland, now 23, has rapidly surged as one of the top players in America, one who is pushing our flag globally. He has appeared in two more U.S. Championships, including last year’s fourth-place finish, which ultimately earned him his first-ever spot on the U.S. Olympic team. He arrived at the 2014 Chess Olympiad this past August as the fifth-player reserve, but was called into action immediately when flight delays kept the U.S. No. 1 Hikaru Nakamura from making the event on time.

Pressed into action, Shankland caught fire and became a global star, winning an Olympic gold medal in Tromso, Norway, after scoring 9 points out of 10 games undefeated with a performance rating of 2829.

And today, the breakthrough-after-breakdown continues. After more impressive play last month, Shankland just crested his rating at a best-ever 2653, landing him for the first time in the top-100 players of the world.

A global top-100, Olympic gold medalist -- and one that was almost lost.

Hello, Sam Shankland.