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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Chess King

Published: August 27, 2010
Section: Features

CHESS MASTER: Sam Shankland '14 comes to Brandeis after taking a year off to play chess professionally. A California native, Shankland won 21 chess tournaments in a row in 2007 and 2008, something he described as "the single best year any American ever had."
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Fresh off a July victory in the U.S. Junior Championships, Sam Shankland ’14 has decided to choose a different course.

After traveling the world as a teenager to compete in chess tournaments, Shankland is looking forward to living a normal college life.

Following high school, Shankland spent a year as a chess professional, competing in tournaments, giving lessons and writing about chess, all of which enabled him to earn a living and manage his own finances.

“I’ve just been at Brandeis for a few days now, and I can already tell it’s going to be a better life,” Shankland said.

As an 11-year-old, Shankland says he entered the competitive chess world far later than most other players. According to Shankland, nearly all of the best players in the world have been playing chess since age three or four.

A native of California, Shankland, who is an international master, tied for fourth place in the K-6th grade state championship, but quickly claimed prestigious victories, including the U.S. Junior Championships. He says his biggest accomplishment was tying for first place in the under-18 world championship in Vietnam in October 2008.

Shankland attributes his unprecedented improvement to what he believes is “the sharpest rating curve in American [chess] history, meaning I learned the fastest, I improved the fastest, I think of any American of all time.”

While most players improve their FIDE (World Chess Federation) rating by about 60-70 points aperyear, according to Shankland, he did that in just one month.

Although Shankland admitted he does not know for certain how his improvement compares to all other players, he said it was a quicker improvement rate than many of the best in history, including Bobby Fisher.

Shankland described a streak of 21 tournaments from August 2007 to October 2008 as “the single best year any American ever had.”

As part of that learning curve, Shankland has learned how to deal with losing in a much different manner than most other players.

“If you lost, there is a legitimate reason you lost,” Shankland said.

“I learned quickly how to analyze my own losses and try to correct my mistakes rather than sort of being in denial.”

But beyond the glory of being a chess champion, Shankland said that there is much of his old lifestyle that he will not miss. After the under-18 world championships in Vietnam, a tournament in which Shankland lost eight pounds due to the stress of competition and 12 hours of chess every day, he says that he thought about retiring.

“I worked myself way too hard. But I mean, OK there’s still nothing compared to the feeling of success I had at the end.”

After two months of spending no time on chess senior year of high school, Shankland decided to take a year off from school to play chess professionally.

In addition to playing and studying chess on the computer, a typical week for Shankland during his gap year included 20 hours of teaching per week and daily physical workouts to stay in shape.

At the highest levels, however, “at some point it’s very hard to figure out how to improve your game,” Shankland said, explaining that the improvements after you become a “98 percent perfect player” are so small, that any mistake can ruin a game.

Shankland explained the “politics” of chess have bothered him during his career. He is not a grandmaster because of “technicalities” he called “ludicrous.”

“I’m definitely glad I’ve gone as far as I have. I’m not sure I would do it again,” he said.

In order to become a grandmaster, a player must earn a rating of 2500 and three “norms.”

Shankland’s rating is currently 2513 and he has four norms, but one of his norms was not accepted by FIDE because an opponent he played, who recently defected from Cuba, was rejected by Cuba’s federation and also not considered an American. As a result, his game against her was not counted and he did not receive the norm. Another norm was not counted due to technicalities in a “semi-acceptable way,” he said.

After his appeal letter was rejected by FIDE, Shankland said that considering those politics, he was “getting increasingly sick of being discriminated against for being an American, for being male.”

“It was just driving me nuts, and I wasn’t very happy.”

Although Shankland said he “may come back to chess some day,” this year he will play in the U.S. Chess League as the top player on the New England Team.

As he finishes his first week here at Brandeis, Shankland said that he values the broadening experiences chess has taught him.

“Chess has also sort of made me learn to fight adversity a little bit better.” As a child and even during the beginning of high school, Shankland said he was “ruthlessly made fun of.”

“It definitely taught me to keep on fighting even if other people are making fun of you or whatever. Just believe in myself.”

Given all his accomplishments, Shankland admitted “I have a lot to learn about modesty. I’m not as modest as I’d like to be. It’s one of my big problems in life I guess or one of the problems with my character.”

He explained that it is hard not to tell people about his career if chess comes up in a conversation.

The world of competitive chess and college life may not have much in common but that doesn’t seem to bother Shankland.

He hopes that people will realize chess players are “just completely normal people who happen to be really good at this game.”