GM Sam Shankland: Concrete Calculation and Opening Sacrifices

Welcome back readers!

For my third article, I would like to talk about concrete calculation with respect to sacrificed material early in the game. This theme can come up in any number of openings. One side or the other will give up a pawn, and the main questions to answer is 1. Can they get the pawn back and 2. If they cannot, do they have enough compensation? I’d like to analyze a game of mine from some years back to illustrate this point.

Diagram 1

At this point, white has just taken on c5. Black could certainly recapture the pawn immediately with 7. … Bxc5, but this would allow white to expand on the queenside with a gain of tempo by playing 8. b4. After Be7 9. Bb2, I think white should be a little better.

Instead of all this, black continued with

7. … a5!?,

trying to forcibly prevent white from achieving b4. I played

8. Bg2,

and here black really should have taken back on c5. Instead, he played

8. … Na6?,

which was a serious error.

Diagram 2: Position After 8. … Na6?

I would suggest to my readers to try to find white’s move here before moving on to the next paragraph.


Black clearly is trying to recapture the c5 pawn under more favorable circumstances, but he has actually allowed white an important option by blocking his rook’s access to the bfile. White can continue with

9. b4!,

pointing out that black cannot take twice on b4 due to the pin to the rook on b8. At this point, white has solidified his c5 pawn and if he can complete his development, he will be a clean pawn up. But, black will not just roll over and die without a fight- he found the best try in

9. … b6!

Diagram 3: Position After 9. … b6!

It might seem unusual to be calculating very concrete lines this early in a quiet looking Catalan setup middlegame, but black is putting very direct pressure on white’s extra pawn. Should he be able to recapture it, he will have a totally fine position. I’d like my readers to stop here and really try to find the way for white to hold on to his extra material before moving on.

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This is the only way for white to save the c5 pawn. It looks suspicious after

10. … axb4

(of course not 10. … Qxb6? 11. b5 and white is a very solid pawn up)

but the point is that following

11. axb4 Bxb4

white has the tactical resource

12. Ne5!

At his disposal, opening up an attack on the a8 rook. 12. … d5 is well met by 13. Nc6, so black must play

12. … Rb8.

And there follows the key point:

Diagram 4: Position After 12. … Rb8


This will force black to abandon the defence of the a6 knight. After

13. … Bxb7 14. Bxb7,

Black cannot take back on b7 due to the hanging knight on a6. But after

14. … Nc5!,

the crux of the problem is reached:

Diagram 5: Position After 14. … Nc5!

White is now a full piece up, but has a lot of hanging stuff. The bishop on b7 is loose, Bc3 is in the air, and white is not yet castled. Given a couple moves to consolidate white will win easily, but he has to find his way. I’d recommend to all my readers to set this position up on a physical board, set the clock to 30 minutes, and try to figure out white’s best way to hold his position together. The correct move is 15. Bg2!

(In the game I played 15. Bf3?, which allows black a beautiful resource: 15. … Qc7!!, and the knight on e5 is very hard to defend. It cannot retreat to d3 because of 16. … Nxd3+ 17. exd3 Qe5+, and 16. Bb2 is well met by 16. … Nb3!, when the knight on d2 is lost. This is a very tough move to spot, but once one sees it, it is easy to dismiss 15. Bf3.)

Instead, after

15. Bg2! Bc3

16. Nef3! Bxa1

17. Ba3!,

white is momentarily down an exchange, but he will soon win a piece and have two pieces for a rook.

I find that many games are very similar to this in their early phases. If one side leaves theory with a pawn down, the battle can become very concrete in its nature as the pawn down side struggles a little to restore material equality. In these positions, accurate calculation is needed early in the game, and as I demonstrated, this is not easy for Grandmasters either!\


Samuel L. Shankland (born October 1, 1991) is an American chess grandmaster (2011). He was California State champion in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012, Champion of State Champions in 2009, World U18 championship bronze medallist in 2008, and US Junior Champion in 2010. As a member of the United States team, Shankland won the gold medal for the best individual result at the reserve board at the 41st Chess Olympiad in 2014. He also was member of the US team at the 42nd Chess Olympiad in 2016 where the United States won gold for the first time in forty years.  In September 2016, he was ranked 57th in the world.

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