This past June, the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis held the strongest U.S. Junior Closed Championship (an invitation-only event reserved for the highest ranked juniors under 20 in the U.S.) in its history.
Much has already been said and written about the event's generous prize fund, superb conditions and impressive list of titled and highly rated competitors. The tense race for first place remained undecided until the final round when International Master Akshat Chandra emerged victorious.
This eloquent and modest 15 year old New Jerseyan has managed to quickly progress as a junior in such rapid speed that he was almost unnoticed on his route to becoming an elite player.
Some leading U.S. juniors such as Grandmasters Sam Sevian, and Kayden Troff, and Grandmaster-elect Jeffrey Xiong, are marked as prodigies years before they become household names in the chess arena. Chandra's name became known to most only when he already established himself as a formidable force.
While the aforementioned titlists were playing in high profile events and representing their country in youth world competitions, young Chandra climbed exponentially in the local scene. Only in the past two years did he become impossible to miss: winning national scholastic competitions, scoring Grandmaster level performances in strong events and gaining titles.
Now, with the newly published rating list by FIDE (The International Chess Federation), a new, nearly anonymous name has come onto the limelight: John Michael Burke. John Michael, also from New Jersey, held a rating of 2258 (a level of a decent master) and elevated it to a rating of 2538 (a level of a decent Grandmaster)! This astonishing rise of nearly 3 playing levels was achieved after a series of strong performances in tournaments versus strong opposition. John Michael, 14, already has two of the three needed International Master norms (required performances criteria for achieving the title) to his name and a pleasant score against title holders.
Burke was bitten by the chess bug at age 6, after picking up Chess For Dummies at his local Barnes and Noble store. Having “devoured” the book, as his dad described it, more chess books quickly followed to fulfill his “insatiable appetite for the game.” At age 8, he competed in his first official tournament, scoring 3/5 points in the NJ Scholastic Championship.
John Michael started learning by going to a local expert who instilled much of his initial foundations. Then he began taking Internet lessons with a Romanian International Master who further elevated John Michael's level and rating. After meeting U.S. Champion Grandmaster Joel Benjamin at the U.S. World Youth Championships in 2012, John Michael has been under his wing ever since.
With enthusiasm for chess that only keeps growing and a list of upcoming tournaments to play in, only one question remains. Is J.M. is indeed the hottest new addition to the impressively growing list of young American chess hopefuls? His results and dedication seem to support that theory!
Aviv Friedman is a FIDE Senior Trainer who has been coaching amateurs at all levels for more than 30 years, including two decades as the head of the U.S. Youth Delegation in world events. His camp, the Schein-Friedman Scholastic Recognition Program, has given away tens of thousands of dollars in awards to promising American juniors, helping to offset some of the financial burden posed to younger champions who strive to improve and dedicate themselves to chess. On Chess is provided through the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.