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Samuel Shankland, 17, makes a move on the chess board at his home in Orinda, Calif. on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008. Shankland, a senior at College Prep, was recently named an international master in a five-way tie for first place at the World Youth Chess Championship in Vietnam. (Sherry LaVars/Contra Costa Times)

The Summer Olympics ended in August, but Orinda resident Samuel Shankland's spot on the world stage ended just last week.

Shankland may not be able to outswim Olympic medalist Michael Phelps, but he could outmaneuver him — or almost anyone — in a game of chess.

At this year's World Youth Chess Championship in Vung Tau, Vietnam, Shankland achieved the rank of international master, tying for first place with four others in the under-18 category — something no other 17-year-old American has ever accomplished.

After playing some of the world's best players — many of them from India, Russia, China and Vietnam — the high school senior at College Preparatory School in Oakland said he was especially impressed by the players from Iran.

"Iran has two very strong players," Shankland said. "I had the honor of playing one of them and I was impressed, given the current conditions (of their country)."

Competition at the world championship level is based on a player's rating, which can go up or down based on winning or losing to a higher- or lower-ranked player.

Shankland succeeded in beating Vietnamese grandmaster Quang Liem Le in the final round of the 10-day tournament and received a bronze medal in the "Open 18" division during a tiebreaker.

Shankland often takes home monetary prizes. The higher the ranking, the higher the winnings.

"The under-18 (category) is a totally different accomplishment because most (players) are, more or less, already professional chess players," said Vladimir Naroditsky, a friend of the Shankland family and father of another successful player in a younger age group, Daniel Naroditsky.

"(Sam) shares first place with people who are basically professional chess players," Naroditsky said, "It's as difficult as it gets."

Preparing to compete in international chess competitions is no small feat. Shankland discovered his extraordinary talent for chess as a fifth-grader at Glorietta Elementary School in Orinda, where he took an after-school chess class.

"I was beating the established best player in the class," Shankland said. "I was not beating the teacher, but (it was) enough to see that (I) could take it somewhere."

Shankland's father, Jim, said his son was a late beginner, as most professionals begin mastering the game at a much younger age. Jim said much of his son's success has been a result of his own drive.

"We really never pushed him. He really had done all of this himself," Jim said, admitting that he initially thought his son's interest in the game was a phase. "I've kind of given up on him losing interest in chess. I'm happy and proud that he found something that he is passionate about."

On his way to the world tournament, Shankland received top honors at statewide CalChess tournaments at age 16 — another first for players in his age group. As one of the best young chess players in the world, Shankland sometimes finds it hard to share the magnitude of his successes with his friends and family.

"You can't make ordinary people understand world-class chess," said Shankland, adding that his family and friends are always supportive of his interest in the game.

When he doesn't play chess, Shankland says he is "just another American teenager." He also plays soccer and lacrosse.

Local chess teacher Michael Aigner, who has known Shankland since he was 12, characterizes him as "more enthusiastic" than most young people he knows in the chess world.

After he finishes his senior year, Shankland hopes to take time off before entering college to pursue the Samford Fellowship — a chess program that provides for living expenses, training, as well as opportunities to travel and compete in tournaments at the highest levels.

Reach Aaron Morrison at 925-943-8326 or amorrison@bayareanewsgroup.com.