ORINDA -- The most important thing 21-year old Grandmaster Sam Shankland knows about the game of chess is the importance of losing.

Nothing else -- not his father, who taught him the basics, or the mere two years it took for him to become rated higher than all of his instructors at Berkeley Chess School -- has honed his vigorous, furious assault on the sport more than coming up short of victory.

And with a spot as one of only 24 players now competing at the 2013 U.S. Chess Championships in St. Louis, it's no quip to equate chess with an athletic event.

"I've had three months without playing a tournament so I have new ideas and I'm better prepared," the Orinda native says, in a phone interview from Brandeis University near Boston, where he is completing a degree in economics. "I'm going to the gym, running and in better physical condition, which is important."

Shankland's sprint to top-tier chess-playing began at age nine. Within two weeks of commencing formal lessons at Glorietta Elementary School's BCS after-school program, he could no longer play his father because, he says, "I won all the time: what would be the point?"

At the age of 14, he won the gold at the 2008 World Youth Championships in Vietnam, then placed third in the 2011 U.S. Championship. He became the youngest-ever California state champion at the age of 16.

Recently, he won the Frank P. Samford, Jr. Chess Fellow, an $84,000 reason to purchase expert coaching, entry to elite chess competitions -- and to dive into more potentially losing opportunities.

"The first thing I'm going to do is to quit teaching. It's excess energy away from my chess work. I can hire a coach and pay for hotels and entry fees at tournaments where I am not invited but have to pay to play."

His purpose, in both selecting better-playing coaches and entering the higher-level competitions is to face more robust opponents.

"Looking at the games I've lost has taught me more than any one person," he says. "I enjoy the way you know you are going to get exactly what you deserve. It's meritocratic: all that matters is whether or not you play better than your opponent."

His full-out, sharply-decisive, risk-taking attack style of play is something he can't explain, but knows was a part of him from the start.

"I can remember the entire game my first instructor showed me. "Sneaky Sam" and "Foolish Freddy" were the players. But the game was ridiculous," he laughs.

Working with a training partner who teamed up with Shankland to improve his own game, instead of to help Shankland's, has helped him overcome a stall he experienced.

"I took a year off between high school and college; put a lot of pressure on myself. I improved, but not as much as I wanted to."

Computers assisted his more recent climb up the chess ladder. Watching international competitions online, especially the Eastern European players he says are the best in the world, is fine-tuning his skill set.

Shankland, with his 2612 rating (on the "Elo Scale," a world-class level), says live tournaments are here to stay. If there's online excellence, he points out, there could also be online cheating. Hiring proctors to oversee 200 players would be cost-prohibitive.

"It would only take one person cheating to destroy the field of play," he says. "And really, there's nothing like sitting across from your opponent and playing a game of chess."

Sam Shankland at the U.S. Chess Championships
Various aspects of the 2013 U.S. Chess Championships in St. Louis, which began Thursday and are set to conclude May 13, can be followed at http://www.uschesschamps.com/