The educational benefits of playing chess are well documented. Chess has been shown to increase focus, improve memory, boost reasoning and problem-solving skills, and develop creativity. In the fall of 2015, Galen Farrington proposed making chess and its associated benefits available to the students at Ruidoso Middle School.
By December of 2015, a group of well over a dozen students were arriving at 7:30 a.m. every Friday morning to learn chess etiquette and strategy, battle with their peers in competitive chess games, and eat doughnuts.
For a long time I thought the doughnuts were the main draw to our Friday morning meetings. But, in the spring of 2016 it was becoming obvious that these meetings were mainly about playing chess and the doughnuts were just viewed as an added perk by the attendees. I think it was then that I started envisioning these club members turning into a chess team.
Knowing this group would have to formalize in order to become a competitive team, Mr. Farrington organized a club tournament to determine player seedings in the fall of 2016.
In order to play in a sanctioned tournament, a team’s players must be ranked. This ranking must be determined by the outcome of an inter-squad tournament.
The kids enjoyed the competitive, higher-stakes play against teammates, but they wanted to take on challengers from other schools. They wanted to test their skills against new opponents.
Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts and limited tournament opportunities kept the club from getting their chance during the 2016-17 school year.
One of my goals for this year was to get our kids in a tournament. I contacted the Northern Schools Chess League (NCSL) and asked them if a southern school willing to travel could join the league. They invited us in, and I was ecstatic.
We were finally going to get our chance to play some kids outside of our club. But, we were too late to get into the first round of league play in Los Alamos, so our first matches were going to be played during the second round of league play in Wagon Mound, N.M.
At 6 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 17, eight middle school boys loaded up in a Suburban and embarked on a four-hour trip to Wagon Mound for their first-ever chess tournament. Club members attending the tournament were divided into two teams, Ruidoso MS A and Ruidoso MS B.
The Ruidoso MS A team consisted of Mason Morgenstern, Bay Rabourn, Andre Almarinez and Ryley Duncan. Ruidoso MS B team included Alex Eakins, Brighton Chittenden, Everett Chittenden and Ezra Rabourn.
I anticipated it was going to be a very long day with our boys doing a tremendous amount of learning. Since I had never been to a tournament, I really couldn’t tell them what to expect. When we arrived, it was a bit overwhelming.
Fifty-eight teams, 232 players representing 22 schools lined up at tables for the first matches of the day. In rounds 1 through 8 of the NCSL, teams are not classified by levels or school size.
Elementary school teams play high school teams and middle school teams. Large schools play small schools. In the first round of the day (round four of the tournament), Ruidoso MS A squared off against the highly-rated Taos ES A, and Ruidoso MS B played Carlos Gilbert ES B. The round ended with the RMS A team earning a draw and RMS B being beaten.
We were wide-eyed during our first matches. It took time to get used to the crowded environment and all of the tournament protocols, but we settled down after a bit. I couldn’t believe the intensity of these games. The kids work so hard.
It takes an incredible amount of concentration and problem-solving. I was worried about them breaking down, but they played really well.
As the day went on, the RMS A team found its groove and ended the day winning 11 of its 16 matches, beating teams from ATC High School (ATC HS D team), Santa Fe Indian School Middle School (SFIS MS B team) and ATC Middle School (ATC MS B team).
The RMS B team consisted mainly of 6th graders and they struggled a bit, winning only one of its four matches.
It was an incredible experience for these kids. I am really proud of them.
The Ruidoso MS A team played well enough to earn the No. 5 ranking among the middle school teams in the NCSL and will be competing in the MS championship at Santa Fe Prep on Jan. 15.