At only age 11, Eli Embrey showed tremendous chess prowess by winning the top spot in his age category in the inaugural End of Year Gallup Chess Tournament held recently at The University of New Mexico-Gallup.
Embrey, a Tobe Turpen Elementary graduate and soon-to-be Chief Manuelito Middle School student, won three of his games, lost one game, and drew one game against a player three times his age during the five-round tournament, which is believed to be the first of its kind in Gallup in at least a decade.
“I was scared for a bit,” Embrey said of his game against UNM-Gallup Associate Professor Matt Mingus, which ended in a draw. “I knew I messed up for a bit.”
But Embrey didn’t resign and found a way to stalemate his opponent in the endgame despite being down material. His prize for coming out on top in the 12 and under youth category: a new chess set courtesy of the Octavia Fellin Public Library and the Revolution Chess Club.
“I’m ecstatic," Embrey’s father Brian Donnelly said of his son’s final result. “My father was an excellent chess player… but my dad would make me sit down and play. We never forced him (Eli). For him to want to do it, I was getting teary-eyed a few times. When I saw his game from a year ago to now, it’s just been incredible. I’m very proud of him.”
“It’s awesome,” his mother Dusti Embrey added. “It’s nice to see him developing. His critical thinking skills are really on point.”
Eli Embrey said he has been playing chess for about a year and a half. He mostly learns from playing consistently with the Octavia Fellin Public Library Chess Club, which meets every Tuesday and Friday at the Children’s Branch.
Starting a chess revolution
Octavia Fellin’s Youth Services Librarian Phil Neilson organized the chess tournament while Brendan Moore, the library’s chess coach, and Rodney Brown, founder of Revolution Chess, served as tournament co-directors.
Neilson said there have been chess clubs at the library in the past, but Moore was the driving force behind the current iteration of the club, which started in August 2022. Neilson said the high level of interest in the club inspired him, Moore and Brown to work on hosting a local tournament.
They then approached UNM-Gallup Zollinger Library Director Markos Chavez and Sr. Public Relations Specialist Richard Reyes to see if they wanted to get involved. Chavez and Reyes facilitated the use of the Student Services & Technology Center on campus as the tournament venue.
“This is definitely one of the best spaces, even of other tournaments I’ve been to,” Moore said.
“For sure,” Brown added. “This is one of the nicest I’ve ever been, and I’ve been to a lot of tournaments.”
UNM-Gallup also has its own student chess club, the Lobos Chess Club. Mingus serves as one of the faculty advisors along with Assistant Professor Andrew McFeaters, and Reyes helps coach. Club Vice President LaDre Wero was one of 27 players, ranging in age from 5 to 77 years old, who participated in the tournament.
“I don’t think it could have gone better,” Moore said after the conclusion of the event. “We had excitement. Those tie breaks (at the end) were really close. We had a lot of skill, even in the younger categories. I couldn’t be happier with how it went.”
‘The competition was excellent’
The tie-breaks that Moore mentioned happened between the top two overall players, Jacob Walters and Bronson Huber, as well as the top two players in the 13 and over category, Cash Long and Austin Cervantes.
All four players ended the tournament with 4 points each because they each won four games and lost one during the five rounds of play.
In the end, Walters beat Huber to earn first place overall, while Long beat Cervantes to earn first in the 13 and over category.
“It always feels good to win,” Walters said after the match, “but I feel lucky as well because the competition was excellent. All of our players here were great, so I feel blessed to have the opportunity to play.”
“It didn’t really matter to me,” Long said of his win. “As long as I had fun and played, it was good.”
Huber said it was still awesome earning second place overall in his first-ever chess tournament.
“It was nerve wracking, but I’m an adrenaline junky working for the fire department, so I love those feelings of angst and having to make the right move and make it on time,” Huber said.
‘Chess is also kind of like life’
Bronson Huber’s daughter, Riley Huber, also played in the tournament. Despite losing all five of her games, she said she enjoyed the experience, particularly because of the quiet atmosphere during play.
Bronson Huber said both he and his daughter have attention-deficient/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), so he loves what chess does for their brains.
“We’re just able to get lost in it,” he said. “All the noise stops when you’re just focusing on that board, so it’s really cool. I really love chess. I’ve been playing for just a couple years, and she’s starting to get into it. She’s starting to see how that works and how it helps with the ADHD.”
“I feel like chess is also kind of like life,” Riley Huber added. “Life is an order of moves. So is chess.”
Walters said he loves chess because of the satisfaction in finding astounding sacrifices and little tactics that appear to be mistakes but end up winning the game.
“It’s just a beautiful game,” he said. “And the better you get at the game, the more you appreciate its beauty.”
Benefits of playing chess
Neilson said playing chess teaches children a lot of life skills, such as patience, analytical thinking and planning. There is also the satisfaction of figuring out puzzles, thinking things through, and finding order and control.
Brown said chess may also help kids with their reasoning, math and spatial skills in addition to their creativity and initiative. There are also life lessons, such as not resigning and playing though to the end — just like Eli Embrey did in his drawn game against Mingus.
Neilson said the game can also teach sportsmanship and how to lose gracefully. He said he was particularly struck by how positive and supportive everyone was during the tournament, even if they didn’t place or win a prize. He credited Moore for setting that tone in the library’s chess club.
“One of the things Brendan said way early on in the chess club was, ‘One of the best ways to learn chess is to lose at chess,’” Neilson said. “To play something where losing is a good thing is really important. I just felt that in the tournament. There was that sense of positivity and losing graciously.”
Get involved, play chess
Neilson said that he hopes this tournament was just the starting point for bigger tournaments in Gallup in the future.
Inspired by the success of the tournament, UNM-Gallup’s Zollinger Library is starting a new weekly event called Summer Chess Duels from noon-2 p.m. every Monday, starting June 12. All ages and skill levels are welcome.
The UNM-Gallup Lobos Chess Club is inactive for the summer, but it will start up again in the Fall 2023 semester. All ages are welcome to the club’s weekly Chess Jam, but 75% of the club’s membership must be UNM students.
The Octavia Fellin Chess Club remains active during the summer. All ages are welcome, but it is targeted at the 8-18 age range. The club meets from 4:30-5:30 p.m. every Tuesday for lessons/practice and from 4:30-5:30 p.m. every Friday for open/casual play.
For more information about the Zollinger Library Summer Chess Duels, contact Markos Chavez at 505-863-7531 or email@example.com.
For more information about the UNM-Gallup Lobos Chess Club, contact Andrew McFeaters at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the Octavia Fellin Public Library Chess Club, contact Phil Neilson at 505-863-1291 or email@example.com.