Kian Morgan, 7, of Taos sat on the bleachers next to his mom Monday licking his wounds and the icing on a consolation chocolate cupcake after being quickly dispatched to the sidelines in his second chess match of the day.

“I knew about that kind of checkmate,” the boy said, “but I didn’t see it coming this time.”

Kian, whose king bit the dust after only four moves, was one of about 120 students, including his twin brother Nitise, participating in the Northern Schools Chess League championship matches at St. Michael’s High School.

The kids, the great majority boys, from elementary, middle and high schools around Northern New Mexico sat facing each other over chessboards set up on tables in the gym for the first of their three games.

The youngsters, some of whom had come from as far away as Hatch, 250 miles to the south, were competing for a variety of individual and team trophies and medals.

After league director Andy Nowak announced that “if it gets noisy in here, tell me and I will try to quiet things down,” the games were afoot.

There wasn’t a lot of anything that could be called noise coming from the tables, but as the matches heated up, there was plenty of pencil gnawing, lip twitching, throat clearing, finger tapping, leg swaying and face-contorting grimacing.

The games were timed, each player having a total of 45 minutes (plus 5 seconds between moves) to launch attacks or mount defenses. After each move, the players hit timers, setting the other player’s clock running.

“It’s about time management,” said Bruce Nelson, a volunteer chess coach at Española’s McCurdy Elementary School. If a player uses all his time at the beginning of the match, the last few minutes can get pretty frenetic, Nelson said. “The time scrambling makes it very exciting. You have to allocate your time.”

If your clock hits zero before a checkmate or a draw, it’s the showers (or the cupcake table) for you.

Henry Poston, 9, of Española Elementary School, moved quickly, but he seemed to realize the end was near. In a back-and-forth battle for the crucial middle of the board, Elizabeth Wasilewska, 17, of Los Alamos High School, had just forked Poston’s king and a rook with her knight, dooming the rook.

Two moves later, Poston surrendered, tipping over his king, and the two politely shook hands. “I just got lucky,” Wasilewska said.

Max Lopez of Peñasco High School lost his first game to Kian Morgan. “I just got too excited when I saw I had him in a couple of moves,” Lopez said. “But I lost a rook when I tried to put him in check. … I just can’t let my nerves get the best of me.”

To keep him calm and focused during a match, Damian Gonzales, 12, of the Peñasco team, listens to Johnny Cash’s version of “The Battle of New Orleans” on CD headphones. “It keeps my mood in time with the beat, and the beat is what helps me play. Chess is like a war, and that’s what the song is about, so it fits in perfectly.”

An advantage of chess competition is that one doesn’t have to keep up with a lot of rule changes. It’s been played pretty much the same all over the world since the mid-1400s, about the time when the queen was given much more power and the pawns were limited in their moves, both changes meant to speed up the game, perhaps reflecting changes in medieval societal power structures.

One thing that has changed about the game, said Robert Mathis, chess coach at the Academy for Technology and the Classics, is the players’ complex notations and descriptions of moves. In the days of yore, said Mathis, a move might be noted thusly: “The bold knight strides forward to the king’s bishop’s third house,” which could quickly drain a player’s inkwell. Now, on a grid board composed of numbers and letters, that might be simply noted as knight to F3.

The driving force behind the school chess league is Nowak, 65, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory chemist and flood-control engineer for the state. He began the league in 1978 in Los Alamos and has been at it ever since.


Champion schools, grades 12 and under:

First place: Los Alamos

Second place: Taos High School

Third Place: Aspen Elementary A Team (Los Alamos)

Fourth Place: Academy for Technology and the Classics

Champion schools, grades nine and under:

First place: Los Alamos Middle School

Second place: Aspen Elementary B Team

Third: Taos Middle School

Fourth: Academy for Technology and the Classics