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Kings of the Board

Silver High's champion chess team is mastering more than just the rules of a game.

Story and photos by David A. Fryxell

 

Down an anonymous, fluorescent-lit corridor of Silver High School, in a classroom whose pale-yellow block walls display a seemingly random mix of college and military recruiting posters, one of Southwest New Mexico's most successful high-school teams—the word "dynasty" comes to mind—is having its regular Thursday-afternoon practice. But there's no clatter of colliding shoulderpads or squeak of Nikes against hardwood, no grunt of exertion or swoosh of ball through hoop. The only sounds filtering out into the rapidly emptying after-school hallway are the slap of palms against clock buttons and the click of chess pieces.

Scott Edgar (left) and Noah Crowner play
while a lone fan looks on.

If you associate trophies only with hulking linemen or skyscraping forwards slick with sweat, the juxtaposition inside this classroom might surprise you. At a couple of shoved-together tables, a handful of boys—a band trip to California has depleted the ranks for today's practice—whisk pawns and knights, bishops and rooks, across plastic mats checked in white and dark green. The boys—yes, all boys, and there have been only three girls on the Silver High chess team over the past 22 years—look, well, ordinary, hardly the stuff of champions or Wheaties boxes. The dark-haired boy rubbing a captured bishop contemplatively between his palms looks as though Silver City's gusty spring winds could blow him away. Two other boys facing each other across the chessboard wear glasses.

The dialog that passes between these teammates, too, is hardly the stuff of "Friday Night Lights." When there's taunting—and there is—it has nothing to do with manliness; it's more about brainpower. The assistant coach who's sitting in on a game, Jason Collet, himself a graduate of Silver High and its chess program, prods the players with witty barbs, not screaming.

"It's time we started the dancing lesson for your bishop," he says.

A few moves later: "You're about to see the most annoying pawn in history."

But look beyond the chessboards and the banter of practice and you'll see, in the corner of the classroom, a virtual altar of trophies. They glitter in the fluorescents, rising in a pyramid to a tall trophy topped with a winged figure of victory, arms upraised. Only a close inspection reveals that the two trophies in the lower left are topped with the figures of a chess king.

Some of the trophies are new. In February, the Silver High chess team took first place in the New Mexico K-12 Chess Championship in Santa Fe; the second- through fourth-place schools were all from bigger cities, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Players competed as individuals, with scores then added up by school to determine the overall championship. Individually, Silver High 10th grader Scott Edgar came in fourth and 12th grader Cody Jackson finished sixth in the state. Other players from the Silver High team were 10th graders D.J. Pipkins, Ryan Wells, Korric Means and Ben Natharius and 6th grader Noah Crowner. Under a special New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) rule for chess, teams can reach down all the way to elementary school for players.

In March in Los Alamos, competing in the AAA-AAAAA large-school division of the NMAA High School Chess Championship, Silver High finished fourth behind Albuquerque Del Norte, Los Alamos and Santa Fe High School. In this tournament, schools compete head-to-head with six players each. Playing first through sixth boards for Silver High were Jackson, Edgar, 12th grader Matt Stott, Crowner, Pipkins and Natharius. Last year, the Silver High team was in contention for the championship right down to the last match and the last game, with first place hanging on the outcome of the second board; taking a loss there, they had to settle for third place.

Long-time coach Mike Giusto has taken two Silver High teams to national high-school championship tournaments and 20 to the state tournament. At least two-thirds of those 20 years the Silver High team has been seeded in the top five in New Mexico, he figures.

"It's a program based on consistency and developing through the younger kids," Giusto says simply.

When Silver High's football team recently won the state championship—and not against the likes of Albuquerque high schools—the town threw a parade. Is it fair to assume the reaction to the chess team's successes has been, well, more muted?

Giusto laughs, a twinkle behind his glasses, and runs a hand through his unruly salt-and-pepper hair. His moustache crinkles above a wry smile. "You could certainly say that," he replies.

"The administration has supported us really well," puts in Bob Edgar, a counselor at the school who agreed to join as co-coach this year when Giusto retired from the faculty. "They gave us motel money that we needed this year, and that was from the football coach, who's also assistant principal. But I'm not sure the chess team is understood much by the regular population of the school."

Edgar—his son, Scott, plays on the chess team—thinks about this a moment more and adds, "We have no cheerleaders." He turns to Giusto: "How often do we even have parents come?"

"We've never attempted to charge admission," Giusto says. "People would just laugh and we'd have to skulk away into a corner!"

 

Giusto, who says he "inherited" the chess team 23 years ago, didn't begin playing chess seriously himself until his college days at Southern Illinois University. "But I've loved board games all my life," he says. "I get an incredible juice, a rush from any competitive game, especially one that's timed."

Still, he notes carefully, "I don't know what they teach in football, but with our team, while we believe in competition, it's maybe not as strongly."

The life lessons that these young chess stars take away from their games, however, are arguably at least as valuable as those in sports that attract crowds of spectators.

"There are so many wonderful things that chess teaches," Giusto enthuses, rocking back in his chair as he begins to enumerate. "For one thing, if you screw up in chess, you can resign and then reset the board—you get a fresh start. You have to think through a situation logically. You learn to check important decisions for blunders. You learn that time is a resource that can't be squandered."

Tournament games, he explains, are played using a "double Swiss clock." When a player makes a move, he punches the button atop his clock to stop its motion and start his opponent's clock. A typical tournament game might allocate each player an hour and 15 minutes to ponder and make his moves. If your flag drops—indicating your time is exhausted—you lose, even if you're ahead on the board.

"It also teaches perseverance. If you stick it through, you can still wind up winning," Giusto goes on. "On boards three through six, you'll often see a player drop a significant piece"—that is, lose a piece more through your own error than the opponent's clever play. "Some people buckle under that. If you have the strength of character to keep playing, though, sometimes your opponent will make a mistake of his own and let you back in the game."

 

Edgar says it was his son's interest in the game that lured him into helping coach the chess team. When Scott Edgar started playing, at La Plata Middle School, he was no match for his dad. Now, however, his father concedes, "My son can beat me real easily."

Credit the Silver High chess team's twice-weekly—Thursdays after school plus Saturdays—training regimen. Part of each practice session is spent playing against teammates—that's the fun part—but hours are also spent learning fundamentals, mastering the opening sequences honed by masters over the centuries, and simply developing the discipline that can come so hard to a teenager.

"We stress the importance of double-checking everything before you make your move, so you won't be blind-sided," says coach Edgar. "Write down your opponent's move. Look it over. Why did he move there? Look at all your possible moves. Look again to make sure he can't come back at you in some way. Chess is really a thinking game—you're thinking four or five moves ahead.

"We try to slow down their game," he adds. "There's a tendency to rush."

Giusto chimes in, "Chess is a very complex game. We try to communicate the fundamentals, good openings, the six most common strategic mistakes. Then we teach tactics, which are like hand-to-hand combat over one portion of the board—how you might win or lose a piece in the next two or three moves. And we teach theory: Why is this diagonal better? This knight position? What's its relative value long-term?"

You don't have to be a genius to do well at chess, he emphasizes. "Chess can be intimidating, but if you have an average IQ, are a hard worker and come to practice, in a couple of years you can be a pretty strong player." Giusto's eyes narrow. He adds, "But it takes some hard knocks, losing most of your games. What separates the top boards from the middle boards is learning from the game even if you lose."

Some of the players on this year's team had never played chess before, which gives you a lot of opportunities to learn from losing. D.J. Pipkins, a 10th grader, joined last fall even though he was new to the game: "It just sounded good for my mind," he says. By November, he was playing in a tournament in Chandler, Ariz. As a "tyro"—a new player—he endured plenty of loses, but he won a game, too.

"I'll stick with it," Pipkins says. "The hardest thing? Not dropping pieces."

 

This afternoon, the action in the practice room is more frenetic than usual. With the school year's major tournaments behind the team, the coaches are letting them play a wild and decidedly unofficial chess variant called "Siamese": Players on the same side of the table at two (or more) boards are partnered, one playing white and the other black. When your partner takes a piece from his opponent, he passes the captured piece sideways to you; in lieu of a move, you can place that piece on your own board. Pretty soon, chessboards have two bishops on the same color squares, three rooks, 11 pawns and other ordinarily impossible configurations.

"We make them wait all year for this," says Giusto, watching from the sidelines before plunging into the game himself.

Noah Crowner, the small, dark-haired boy who turns out to be only a sixth grader, slaps an extra knight onto the board and teases his opponent, "You're getting annoyed. You're getting very annoyed."

Crowner can't recall exactly when he first took up chess, but thinks it was about the third grade. He swiftly found he was good at it. "Eventually, there weren't many hard players at my level," he says. "I got better, started beating people, and wanted to continue."

He cocks a look at his opponent and cracks, "Do you even know we're playing speed chess?"

"It's a competitive thing," says coach Edgar. "It's a strategy thing. It often goes with how much they get into strategic video games."

In recent years, of course, not just video games but computerized chess games have surged onto the scene. Over the past 25 years, Giusto says, he's seen the level of play go up significantly; while chess books have also improved, he largely credits computer chess for sharpening humans' games. In a small community, especially, the computer can sometimes be the only available opponent.

The "Siamese" game gains a third pair of players, and Edgar digs out a wooden clock for the added board. Collet, the assistant coach and alumnus, jokes, "Wow, that clock predates me! The earth cooled, and then there was that clock."

Giusto smiles. "Sometimes you can spot the chess ability within just a game or two or three," he says quietly. "You can see the carefulness, the analytical ability, the cleverness. You need to like to analyze, to use your mind. Competitiveness is important, but not always."

A good coach is important, too, he's too modest to add. Giusto's 23-year tenure at Silver High is among the longest in the state; the coach in Wagon Mound, he says, has been there a year or two more. Unlike, say, football, which school districts would never allow simply to fade away, chess teams often come or go depending on the availability and commitment of a coach. In this district, both Cliff and Cobre high schools have had chess teams in the past, Giusto says, but not today.

He adds, "We have a long history against Las Cruces schools, and generally got the best of it. Las Cruces High has a whole bunch of state trophies dating back to the 1950s. But they didn't have a team this year. We had a heated rivalry with Deming, too, for 12 or 15 years, until their coach retired and their program fell apart.

"It takes a love of chess to stay this long," Giusto says.

At the chessboard, young Noah Crowner straightens and eyes the arrangement of pieces anew. "Check," he says. "I think that's mate, actually."

 

If you're interested in a chess camp for children ages six through high school, tentatively scheduled for the last week in May, contact Robert Edgar at Silver High School, 388-1563 or 538-2553.

 

A chess player in high school and college, Desert Exposure editor David A. Fryxell recalls just enough to know not to call a knight a "horsie."

 

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