John Burke newest American GM

May 2, 2018

A friend of mine makes it a point to go to as many high school drama productions as he can, in order to brag one day that he once saw Meryl Streep play Emily in “Our Town” or Lin-Manuel Miranda as Curly in “Oklahoma.” Catch ’em while they’re young and on the rise is his motto.

Chess is called the “Royal Game,” but it can be the most democratic of pastimes. In big-money Swiss events, the top-ranked competitors may be up on a stage, but many top players regularly find themselves playing among the hoi polloi, rubbing elbows with their ratings inferiors.

I will never be paired with Roger Federer or play a competitive round with Tiger Woods, but I was the sacrificial lamb the highest-rated player of the second half of the field in an actual rated game at a weekend Swiss tournament in Arlington against a young Alex Sherzer, shortly before the then-IM from Fallston, Maryland, went on a tear and nearly won the 1993 U.S. championship. (I got crushed, but still...)

I thought of my friends advice upon realizing Washington-area fans regularly got some up-close-and-personal looks at America’s newest grandmaster, New Jersey’s John Burke, 17, as he played in local tournaments and rocketed up the ratings charts. As a young expert, Burke gave a foretaste of things to come at the 2013 Continental Class Championship in Crystal City, with a nice Round 1 win over higher-rated New York expert Pieter Bierkens.

In a Ruy Lopez Exchange, one small hint of the chess mastery to come can be seen in Black’s 11. d4 Bg4 12. Ba3 Bxf3!, a surprising decision that takes advantage of the fact that a queen recapture would cost White the d-pawn.

As the fight develops on the kingside, Bierkens’ bishop proves to be badly misplaced on a3. When the game opens up after 16. Qd2 f5 17. Rad1 Nh4 18. Qc3 (dxe5 Nxf3 19. Qxd6 Qxd6 20. Bxd6 Nxg1 21. Rxg1 Rf7 22. e6 Rxd6 23. exf7+ Kxf7 24. exf5 Rd2 leaves Black better for the endgame), it’s Black who’s clearly better placed for the battle. The holes on the White kingside prove decisive in the final play with White’s unfortunate bishop playing no role in the outcome.

Thus: 19. fxe4? (tougher was 19. dxe5 Rxf3 20. Qd4, though Black holds the edge on 20...Nf5 21. Qxe4 Rxf2 22. e6 Qe7 23. Rdf1 Rxf1 24. Rxf1 g6) Nf3 20. dxe5 (Rg3 Nxd4 loses a pawn with no compensation) Qh3! 21. Rg2 Rf4! (very precise; White already has no defense) 22. e6 Rg4!, and the desperation defense 23. Rdg1 (Rxg4 Qxh2 mate) runs into 23...Qxh2+! 24. Rxh2 Rxg1 mate. Bierkens resigned.

Burke was back in the area at last August’s the 6th Annual Washington International tournament in Rockville, Maryland, including the game we pick up from today’s diagram.

There was an upgrade in the quality of competition veteran Belarus’ GM Sergei Azarov is playing White and in the difficulty of the struggle, as Burke as Black spent a good part of the game fending off White’s scary kingside initiative in a Sicilian Najdorf. Now, however, after White’s 42. Ka1-b1 (see diagram), Black finally switches from defense to attack with devastating results.

There followed 42...b4! (just the right time for a pawn break) 43. cxb4 axb4 44. a4 (axb4 Rxe5! 45. Qxe5 Qd3+ 46. Ka1 Ra8+ 47. Qa5 Rxa5+ 48. bxa5 Qb5 49. Rc1 Qxa5+ and Black is winning) b3!, locking the White king in along the back rank. Azarov tries 45. Nf3?! (tougher was 45. Qe3 [and not 45. Rg3?? Rd1+, leading to mate], but Black’s clearly winning after 45...Rd8 46. Nc4 Qb4 47. Qc3 Qxc3 48. bxc3 Bxg5) Rb8 46. Rc1 Rb4 47. Qe3 ( Rc4 Rxc4 48. Qxc4 Rd1+ 49. Rxd1 Qxd1+ 50. Qc1 Qxf3; or 47. Rc8+ Bf8 48. Qe3 Rd3 49. Qe2 Rxa4, with the nasty threat of 50...Ra1+! 51. Kxa1 Qa6+ 52. Kb1 Qa2+ 53. Kc1 Qa1 mate) Qa6!, blocking any rook checks on c8 while setting up deadly a-file threats.

It’s over on 48. Rgd1 Rxa4 49. Qxb3 Ra1+ 50. Kc2 Qe2+, and White must lose material after 51. Nd2 (Rd2 Rc5+ 52. Qc3 Rxc1+ 53. Kxc1 Rxc3+ 54. bxc3 Qxf3; or 51. Kc3 Rxc1+ 52. Rxc1 Qd3 mate) Rc5+ 52. Qc3 Rxc3+ 52. Kxc3 Qc5+ 53. Kb3 Rxc1; White resigned.

Bierkens-Burke, Continental Class Championships, Arlington, Virginia, October 2013

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. d3 f6 6. O-O Bd6 7. Nbd2 Ne7 8. Nc4 O-O 9. b3 b5 10. Nxd6 cxd6 11. d4 Bg4 12. Ba3 Bxf3 13. gxf3 Ng6 14. Kh1 Qd7 15. Rg1 Rad8 16. Qd2 f5 17. Rad1 Nh4 18. Qc3 fxe4 19. fxe4 Nf3 20. dxe5 Qh3 21. Rg2 Rf4 22. e6 Rg4 White resigns.

David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email dsands@washingtontimes.com.