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Sam Shankland and “that” fortress

I have felt a need for a while to talk about the Giri – Shankland game. But obviously I do not want to give an inside story. Those are dull anyway, it is always the height of the ceiling or this and that. Because this was not about chess or chess understanding, as anyone who knows anything will know.

I was sitting in the cinema watching THE FAVOURITE with Kallia, telling her Sam had made a draw. Then five minutes later she said he had lost. I did not believe it. How can you lose this position? Sam’s manager, I and any idiot on the Internet was able to see that this was a fortress, whether or not they had read a New In Chess pocketbook or not. But Sam had indeed resigned in the position I had seen.

Of course you should be careful with such sweeping statements…

As the path to c8 suggested by Jan does not work out that well in practice…

I hope this example will be an encouragement to people that even GMs have bad days and that it does not define them. On the next two days, Sam beat Nepomniatchchi and Kramnik and finished the tournament on 50%, winning six rating points. After Kramnik’s retirement, organisers have received statements from the Indian and Israeli Federations, not to have Sam play with Anand or Gelfand in the last round, as losing to Sam can be a career ending experience, as both Judit Polgar and Vladimir Kramnik can testify.
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  1. JB
    February 5th, 2019 at 17:13 | #1

    Even stranger was the repetition of this error in the Melkumyan Navara game in Gibraltar just a few days later. Even amateurs like me had the awareness of this fortress seared into our brains by the Sam debacle and the dangers of a pawn duo on b6 b7 or its mirror equivalent yet Melkumyan did it again. Very strange. At least he got a draw 😉

  2. Seth
    February 5th, 2019 at 18:39 | #2

    How about Magnus? Can we have Sam play Carlsen in the last round? 😉

  3. February 5th, 2019 at 23:21 | #3

    Thanks for exposing me to yet another form of PATHOS.

    Also, Inside Stories are never dull.

  4. Peter
    February 6th, 2019 at 04:31 | #4

    What a sad article… Kramnik, Anand, Polgar these were great players….

  5. middlewave
    February 6th, 2019 at 08:40 | #5

    I don’t understand what the reference to the “error” is; there was no such “error” in Navara-Melkumyan, only clever defence by Melkumyan?!

  6. Andrew Greet
    February 6th, 2019 at 09:54 | #6

    I assume JB was referring to Navara’s error of failing to anticipate the fortress. At some point in the endgame, he could have won by advancing his pawn along the a-file, rather than recapturing on b4 which allowed the clever defence.

  7. Jacob Aagaard
    February 6th, 2019 at 10:35 | #7

    If you look at the game. Navara played b4. If after axb4, he had played a4, the game would have been over immediately. Instead we had the same fortress…

  8. Jacob Aagaard
    February 6th, 2019 at 10:36 | #8

    Obviously this post is just a bit of fun and to show that humans make mistakes, and not just Americans 😉

  9. JB
    February 6th, 2019 at 13:10 | #9

    @Andrew Greet
    Apologies I did get the 2 players mixed up. It was just like Andrew noted getting a passed a pawn on move 61 won rather than the b pawn. Obviously Melkumyan knew exactly what he was doing though you could see the penny had dropped eventually with Navara due to some of the moves he made but it was too late by then.

  10. JB
    February 7th, 2019 at 16:22 | #10


    Sam was quoted at Wijk that he was leaving the opening prep to his team of helpers and concentrating on ‘calculation practice’ as his primary pre-game preparation. As someone who knows his regimen what does this calculation practice look like? Calculation can have a lot of meanings and yours/Sam’s personal definition may not be mine/anothers’ view. I can think of 3 flavours
    1.Endgame study like positions where there is one clear route to win or draw and it is a test of your ability to calculate this correct path and see the flaws in the alternatives
    2. Simpler CT-art/Puzzle Rush style tactics where you know there is a combination but you need to find it but are more like middlegame/opening positions
    3. Positions where there may be lots of red herrings eg hidden zwischenzugs, quiet moves , prophylactic moves but you need to not miss these in your calculations and needs some ‘out of the box’ thinking
    So what does Sam do- any or all of these or something entirely different?

  11. Frank
    February 7th, 2019 at 17:21 | #11

    I don‘t mean to be the wiseguy here, but you are familiar with Jacob‘s books right (Calculation, Attack and Defense etc.) I guess that he meant solving practice as in those books but then with exercises at his level.@JB

  12. JB
    February 7th, 2019 at 19:36 | #12

    Thanks… Have the books but Sam isn’t Jacob so he may have his own system. Jacob’s definition of calculation is a bit idiosyncratic.

  13. February 7th, 2019 at 21:59 | #13


    I can’t imagine how a response could be appropriate.

  14. Stigma
    February 8th, 2019 at 00:12 | #14

    JB :
    2. Simpler CT-art/Puzzle Rush style tactics where you know there is a combination but you need to find it but are more like middlegame/opening positions

    CT-Art has lots of endgame positions, a lot of them studies or parts of studies. More with each new edition it seems; most of the increases in the number of positions have come in this department.

    I also disagree that CT-Art is “simple”, but it depends on your level of course. I imagine even a GM could find some of it worth training with from, say, level 60 and up.

  15. Jacob Aagaard
    February 8th, 2019 at 12:27 | #15

    Happy to reply on this. Frank is 100% right. I worked with Sam before Wijk as I work with him all the time. We did two hours last night for example. I can share one secret, Sam is getting truly impressive. The rest is not secrets. The work we do is like the material in my books. But of course I am watching Sam closely and trying to tweak his approach, his methods, his psychology. And because I work so closely with him, what I write about calculation and other things is often a reaction to what I see him (and others) do right and especially do wrong.

    About idiosyncrasy. Yes, I have my own views. You will find them strongly represented in THINKING INSIDE THE BOX and in the book on Calculation I have been planning for ages, which I hope will be released as a part of a trilogy in 2020 (you all know our ability to predict dates, but please stop laughing!).

    CALCULATION and EXCELLING AT CHESS CALCULATION are not idiosyncratic. They are following the Mark Dvoretsky system. Mark helped structure CALCULATION – and EACC was based on his system with a few minor observations of my own added.

    Calculation and recognising basic tactics are two different things. My definition of calculation is to find the things you do not immediately see. For some levels, these tactical patterns are important, but for super GMs, there is not much new to them in CT-ART for example.

    What makes my books different to other “tactics” books, is that I base them on current top games. I spend a lot of time finding positions. And they are not “flashy” that often. I then give explanations to how they could be approached. This is high level stuff, of course. If you do not have your patterns in order, working on them as well is highly recommended. With many players stronger than I have ever been, this has given good results and they come back for the training so frequently that I am starting to have some confidence in what I am saying.

    Repeating this point: I especially want to move away from the aesthetic of “tactics” books, which is to have the most flashy solution possible.

    Online everyone with an opinion can sound arrogant. I eventually got tired of adding “as I see it” and so on to everything I said and stopped. I am not an especially confident person. I think this is an advantage, because I always double-check what I am saying and am open for other views as well. I do not claim to have “the truth” or a special system. When I write a book I am usually excited about sharing observations I find inspiring, hoping others do as well. Some people like to dismiss them as idiosyncratic and sometimes simplistic. This is fine. I like that chess is understood in many ways and played in many ways. I would not dismiss what others have done in earnestness, only say that it does not appeal to me.

    I have some observations that have helped some players improve. Sam is one of them. At age 21-22 he was rated 2590-2600. This made him probably 150 in the World. Looking at the players over 2700 recently, I did not find anyone else that did not make top 30 level at some point by the age of 21/22. Sam is the only one in the top 50 that has made that jump in his 20s. He is not a special talent. He is a worker. He has achieved it thought his own efforts. I have played a guiding/assisting part in this process and I am proud of that, although the achievement is his entirely. It has helped me say that “this is what I do” and if it works for you, fine. If not, I am sorry. I want to help, it is in my DNA, a strong urge I cannot suppress. But if I cannot, it is fine too. I do my best, but I am not gifted. I just try to do what I do a little better all the time.

    This probably sounds more defensive than I intended. I just like chess and I enjoy the moment where I feel I have helped someone improve. I am not trying to push books or sell a system. I like my lifestyle and it is naturally for me to share my insights, whether you like them or not 🙂

  16. Jacob Aagaard
    February 8th, 2019 at 12:30 | #16

    Btw. I always enjoy my ideas being challenged. Sometimes it makes it easier to explain them afterwards. At other times I alter my view. Both are wins. Here it gave me a chance to underline the difference between calculation and tactics once again, something I have not thought much about for years.

  17. JB
    February 8th, 2019 at 14:14 | #17

    Hi jacob

    Not challenging your views as wrong or right at all and the work you have done with Sam speaks for itself- its just interesting to hear whether his ‘calculation’program follows 100% your view of calculation as ‘finding the things you do not see’ as it seems to differ from most other chess books that seem to follow a definition of calculation as roughly the ‘seeing a tree of moves’ that you explicitly reject- that’s why I labelled it as a ‘bit idiosyncratic’- not necessarily wrong. That’s why I included the bulletpoint 3 in my original post which was meant to paraphrase your approach rather than other definitions of calculation that might be encompassed by bulletpoints 1 and 2- hence the ‘thinking outside the box’ in joke.
    But though you told us you do a lot of work with Samyou still never answered my main question- what was the ‘calculation’ practice Sam was talking about?- identical to many of the problems in CALCULATION and THINKING INSIDE THE BOX and explicitly not the tactical positions? And If so how do you differentiate a problem to be a ‘calculation’ rather than a tactical pattern recognition type of problem? Would it be from a real world example where a strong GM missed it, a problem that stumped you so probably would stump another GM or do you have some other way of categorising potential positions? Would Sam and Navara’s inability to spot the fortress draw be included in the future for example as that seems to be an example of moves…

  18. JB
    February 8th, 2019 at 14:14 | #18

    ….. they did not ‘see’

  19. Jacob Aagaard
    February 8th, 2019 at 21:25 | #19

    The fortresses in those games are indeed interesting. Sam missed it because he was tired. There is no reason to make an excessive chess analysis out of it. His manager and I both spotted it as drawn on our phones while doing other things. And neither of us had seen that fortress before.

    Navara never thought about a fortress I would expect.

    You ask about positions. The last one I have put in my files is the following:

    6k1/6p1/4p2p/p7/P4P2/RpK3Pr/1P6/8 w – – 0 39

    There are many and different type of positions. This one is not too difficult, but still quite a bit of fun. But it is certainly different from positions where you are looking for the biggest tactical stroke and/or triple sacrifices.

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