The New Seventh Samurai

by admin on September 2, 2015

Last year I wrote a post called The Seventh Samurai, in which I talked about the fact that the U.S. had seven people on the list of top 100 juniors (under age 21) in the world. Six of them were players I had heard about, but one name was unfamiliar. Akshat Chandra is by now quite well-known, but at the time I had never heard of him, partly because he did a lot of his improving in India before he came to the U.S.

Well, it’s a year later, and guess what? There’s a new Seventh Samurai, and once again it’s somebody I’ve never heard of. And this time I don’t have any excuse, because he’s been in New Jersey for his whole life. His name is John Burke, and he is #13 on the world junior list with a rating of 2601. An article in ChessBase notes that he is now the youngest player ever to reach a 2600 FIDE rating. There’s something funny about this, which I’ll get to in a second, but there is no doubt he has had some great results this summer in the World Open, the DC International, the New York International, and the US Cadet.

Let’s review the Seven Samurai from last year and see how they have done in the past year.

Ray Robson: #10 last year -> off the list this year

This is weird. FIDE seems to think that Robson is 21 years old (it shows his birth year as 1994). USCF seems to think he is 20 years old. Which is it? I tend to think that the USCF, as the more local organization, is more likely to have the correct information. If so, then we actually have Eight Samurai.

Daniel Naroditsky: #21 last year -> #9 this year. Hooray, Danya! Top ten!

Samuel Sevian: #63 last year -> #25 this year. Very strong year for Samuel.

Jeffery Xiong: #86 last year -> #28 this year. Xiong has made a lot of waves this year, with 3 GM norms and a victory at the Chicago Open.

Kayden Troff: #39 last year -> #40 this year.

Akshat Chandra: #81 last year -> #52 this year.

Darwin Yang: #47 last year -> #69 this year.

This is really impressive: five of last year’s Seven Samurai have made notable improvements, one is holding steady, and only one seems to be losing momentum.

Now let’s talk about Burke. He has benefited — hugely — from a change in the FIDE rating system last year that gives new players, under 18 years old, and with less than 30 FIDE-rated games, a “K-factor” of 40. Basically this means that their ratings move almost three times faster than the ratings of senior masters in the USCF system. So the same tournament that gives Burke a 30-rating point gain here will give him a 90-rating point gain in the FIDE system.

This discrepancy has created some interesting anomalies. For example, Burke’s FIDE rating is 150 points higher than his USCF rating! He is 2601 FIDE but “only” 2455 USCF. Until last year, such a thing was simply impossible. USCF ratings are typically about 100 points above FIDE ratings.

At the lower rating levels (under 2200) the differences can be smaller, and sometimes USCF ratings can be lower than FIDE. There’s a legitimate reason for this: in the U.S., at least, the majority of under-2200 players are not FIDE-rated, and so your FIDE-rated games will tend to be only the games against stronger opponents. If you’re the type of player who tends to “rise to the occasion” when playing stronger players, your FIDE rating will show it. I think that there have probably been brief periods when my FIDE rating was higher than my USCF.

But only by 5 or 10 points — never by 150 points!

Obviously FIDE did not make this change lightly. They want to make it possible for young players’ ratings to keep up with their ability. But I suspect they’ve overdone it. Is Burke truly better, right now, than Sevian, Xiong, Troff, Chandra, and Yang? Is he really as good a player as Wei Yi was when he set the previous record for the youngest player over 2600? I doubt it.

In addition to the temporary problem that some people benefit from the post-2014 rating boost and others don’t, the change in the K-factor will probably lead to rating inflation, at a time when people are already complaining about FIDE ratings being inflated compared to the past.

Okay, end of griping. Burke has still accomplished a great feat, but it’s just not quite as great as it appears. And of course, he can still prove he deserves his rating by maintaining it in future tournaments. We’ll see!

Finally, I want to point out how blessed we are in American chess at the moment. Chess Life earlier this year had a cover story called “The Golden Age of American Chess,” and it’s really true. Not only do we have Seven Samurai (or Eight Samurai?) in the top-100 juniors list, we also have Seven Samurai in the top-100 list for all ages:

#4 — Hikaru Nakamura

#5 — Fabiano Caruana

#9 — Wesley So

#54 — Gata Kamsky

#60 — Ray Robson

#77 — Alexander Onischuk

#97 — Samuel Shankland

Has there ever been a time before when the U.S. had seven of the top 100 in the world, both among juniors and among all ages?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Todd Bryant September 2, 2015 at 1:00 pm

From Gary Robson’s interesting book Chess Child:

“Ray Robson was born on October 25, 1994, in the US territory of Guam.”


admin September 2, 2015 at 2:05 pm

Thanks! So it seems as if FIDE jumped the gun in removing Ray from the junior list. Perhaps they just go by the calendar year of birth instead of looking at the date of birth (similar to the way that the age of a horse is determined).


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