A 16-year-old Bronx native is in the running to become the second-only African-American chess Grandmaster —the highest status attainable in the game.
 
Justus Williams will compete in the 2014 U.S. Junior Closed Championship in St. Louis this weekend, an invitation-only tournament for players under 21. The winner will receive $3,000 and the coveted chance to compete in the 2015 U.S. Championship.
 
“Before a tournament I know I get a little nervous, but I’m just anxious to play,” Williams said. “So I try to keep as cool as I can.”
 
Williams became the youngest African-American ever to get a National Master status at 12. He was competing in tournaments by age 10, the same year he started playing.  And he plans on achieving his grand master norm (which accumulate to help a player climb in status) by his first year of college, he said. Competitors collect norms by playing against others above his rank.
 
The tournament at the Chess Club & Scholastic Center of St. Louis, which will conclude on Sunday, includes the country’s 10 best young chess players. Williams said playing against the formidable skills of his challengers, although slightly nerve-wracking, makes him a better chess player in the long run. Becoming a good chess player is all about dedication, he said, and being able to learn from your mistakes.
 
“It takes time and you have to put in a good amount of effort. You get out what you put in," he said. "If you keep at it consistently, you'll get far.”
 
Williams grew up in the Highbridge section of the Bronx and started playing in the third grade. He joined The Bronx Bombers at P.S. 70 Max Schoenfeld in Tremont – a school he really wanted to attend -- after making a deal with his mother that he could enroll in the school  as long as he joined its chess team.
 
At first he wasn’t very enthusiastic about the game but the more morning and after-school meets he attended, the more he enjoyed it.
 
“I started playing in my school. I would go to tournaments and come out with no points,” he said. “Gradually it got better.”
 
In fact, he improved quickly and led his middle school chess team to the national championship. This feat was included in the “Brooklyn Castle” in 2012.
 
But his success isn’t just luck of the draw, he said. Williams started studying with two city organizations and received private coaching on a weekly basis, he said. And in order to keep his mind in the game, he said he plays as frequently as possible as well as watches grand master matches.
 
“That’s why I got so good so quickly,” he said. Now, as he completes his junior year in high school, his friends have started to brag. “It's pretty cool.”
 
Some friends have even asked him to teach them how to play and Williams said one friend managed to win a 12th grade school tournament with his coaching and support.
 
Chess isn’t all the Bronx teen loves. He can also be found on the football field or practicing Muay Thai, a kickboxing form of combat, he said.  
 
Ultimately, however, Williams has big goals for chess -- and  he plans to play for a long time.