Back On Track
Me with Markus Ragger, David Navara and Pentala Harikrishna. Photo: Petr Vrabec/Prague Chess Festival

Back On Track

Shankland
GM Shankland
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58

I finally got my life back on track.

One of my many shortcomings is being totally unable to fake a smile to show the world when I'm dying inside. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer, so I tasked my team to take over my facebook page and post my tournament results, book and lecture information, and general updates while I was going through the worst phase of my adult life. They did a great job, but the time has come for me, Sam Shankland, in the flesh and blood, to get behind my computer screen and address my fans that have been so supportive of me.

More or less everything that could have gone wrong last year did go wrong. A last minute change to the qualification rules for the FIDE Grand Prix left me stranded on the sidelines when I was counting on playing, watching in total disgust as most of the guys who did get invited made 15 move draws every other game. Yet another top-10 player switched federations to the USA, probably costing me my spot on the Olympic team that I had played so well and proudly for in the past. The packed tournament schedule led a lot of top players to decline some invitations, leaving me the top seed in multiple round robins where I was expecting a chance to play up, and instead watched my rating bleed away as I faced off with the drawish nature of the game itself. Away from the ugly world of chess politics, both of my parents had major health scares, I went through a heartbreak in my personal life, and a thick glass shard of a broken Pyrex container slashed through the flexor tendons of my left hand, leaving me disabled, in pain, and sleeping poorly for two months even after surgery, and during the two most important events of the year. When my suitcase mysteriously went missing at the transferring airport en route to the European Club Cup, costing me most of my wardrobe, I oddly felt elated and relieved to finally have a problem in my life that money could fix.

It would be easy to get complacent and blame my circumstances for what happened. After my early exit from Khanty-Mansisyk, one of my friends quipped to me something along the lines of "Cheer up, it's not your fault. How could you expect to play well in the World Cup when you traveled against medical advice and couldn't even tie your own shoes?" While I appreciated that he was trying to make me feel better, I had to disagree with him.

Adversity, even extreme adversity, is part of the human experience. I doubt there has ever been a person on earth who led such a blessed existence that they were never held back by factors outside of their control. When life smacks you in the face, there is a clear divide between how champions and losers handle themselves. Losers whine, make excuses, convince themselves that the world is out to get them, become envious of those more fortunate, and ultimately blame their circumstances for their inevitable failures, accepting no responsibility themselves. Champions grit their teeth, put on their big boy pants, fight through the adversity, and prevail despite whatever challenges they may face. This was the test placed before me last year.

And I failed. Not only did I fail, I failed spectacularly. Not only did I not win any tournaments, I hardly won any games. My rating took a plunge twice as big as anything it had done before. I found myself questioning my most core beliefs-- that hard work eventually would always prevail over natural talent, that my destiny as a player was within my control, that age is just a number and that improvement can be found at any phase in life.

2019 broke my heart. But it's a new year now. For nearly a decade, I have had mediocre or bad odd numbered years and good or great even numbered ones, and I think I should wait until 2021 to buck this trend. Today I won in the final round of the Prague Masters, joining a 5-way tie for first place. The tournament had its challenges and I left some very painful points on the table, but despite the mishaps, I finally played a decent event where I showed some degree of the strength I know I am capable of. My tiebreak math didn't work out, but I'm still counting this as a tournament victory, and more importantly, as a personal victory. I can only hope the same positive trend continues throughout the rest of the year. After a month off, next up is the US Championship, the tournament that created my legacy in 2018. With any luck, I'll be able to bring the same level I did here in Prague and then some.

Thanks to all of my fans for supporting me through thick and thin. I'm not a big social media guy, but seeing positive comments and encouragement on my page often brought a smile to my face when it was most needed and hardest to come by.


This blog was cross-posted from Facebook.

Interested in Sam's work? Check out his coaching at 365chessacademy.com and find his first two books on Amazon.