WEST LOOP — Sam Schmakel is a Senior Master, and he's only 17 years old.
The Whitney Young senior is Illinois' top high school chess player and a five-time national champion. Earlier this year, he earned the title of "Senior Master" — awarded by the United States Chess Federation. The honor, the highest given by the foundation, is bestowed to any player who has a rating more than 2400.
"I am very determined to help Whitney Young defend the high school state chess championship," said Schmakel, of North Edgebrook.
Schmakel, who won his first national title in second grade, is the fourth-ranked 17-year-old in the United States. In Illinois, he's the seventh-ranked player, regardless of age.
In April, Schmakel will be competing in the National K-12 High School Championship in San Diego, and he will represent the U.S. in the World Youth Championships in Durban, South Africa in September.
Schmakel's coach, Paul Kash, said his top player's greatest strength is "his will to win."
"He never goes down easy," said Kash, of Archer Heights. "The coaches and players on the team consider ourselves very lucky to have the opportunity to play such an amazing talent most every day of the week."
Schmakel's mother, Eileen, said he learned about chess in preschool after watching older children play the game at nearby Leaning Tower YMCA in Niles. On the way home, she bought him a chess set.
In kindergarten, Schmakel started to hone his skills in a chess program at Edgebrook Library.
"He became fascinated and memorized how the pieces moved," Eileen Schmakel said.
He has continued to have a passion for chess in his high school years. Schmakel wakes up at 6 each morning and doesn't come home until 7 p.m. due to school and chess commitments. His daily round-trip commute via the Blue Line and buses is 2-1/2 hours.
Weekends are usually booked with chess tournaments, and Schmakel spends free time teaching others how to play.
"What most people don't understand is that the commitment to attending Whitney Young and playing competitive chess has not been easy, but it is worth it," Eileen Schmakel said.
Schmakel, who hopes to be an engineer, has applied to Princeton, Stanford, Yale and the University of Illinois. The Illini chess team, which includes some of Schmakel's friends and former Whitney Young teammates, recently qualified for its second straight national semifinals.
The two-day, seven-round IHSA state finals features 140 teams, including No. 2 Northside College Prep. Although he didn't want to sound too overconfident, Schmakel said Whitney Young, which also prevailed in 2011, is the favorite because of its "track record and depth of our team."
"We practice and train almost every day after school," he said. "The more that we play, the stronger we get.
"This is my last year of playing high school chess, and I would like to be part of the state championship team."