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Pawn stars: RRHS state championships extend to chess

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RRHS junior Corbin Gustafson makes a move during a practice match last week against teammate Blake Burke, a senior and the team’s captain. (Rio Rancho Observer—GARY HERRON photo)

RRHS junior Corbin Gustafson makes a move during a practice match last week against teammate Blake Burke, a senior and the team’s captain. (Rio Rancho Observer—GARY HERRON photo)

Rio Rancho High School junior Corbin Gustafson isn’t one to boast of his accomplishments.

If you haven’t heard of this guy, a state champion, it’s because his title wasn’t won in front of a Star Center audience, in The Pit or on a football field.

Instead, his championship came indoors, when he parlayed his brief chess career into a victory at the State Scholastic Chess Championship.

Says his coach, long-time chess devote Mitchell Robison — who admits he can’t beat Gustafson — “Corbin Gustafson is a remarkable chess player who only started to pursue chess seriously about two years ago. … he has represented the school on board one (meaning he’s the top player) for two years.”

Robison, on the other hand, has been playing the game for most of his life. He basically fell into it when he sprained an ankle, was laid up and figured he’d check out a library book to pass the time until he could walk well again. That book happened to be about chess.

When you can squeeze a few words out of Gustafson, who previously attended Cyber Academy and The ASK Academy before deciding RRHS was best for him, he’ll reveal he’s been playing closer to two and a half years and he’s played about 5,500 games online the past year and a half.

“The State Scholastic Chess Championship for New Mexico is comprised of two separate chess tournaments scheduled about a month apart,” explained Robison. “The first event was open to any student with a USCF (United States Chess Federation) membership and was held in Santa Fe on Feb. 15.

“Sixteen players registered in what is called the ‘Open section’ of the tournament; there were many other students playing the lower categories,” Robison continued. “Corbin’s USCF chess rating (1,070) was well below his actual playing strength when he registered for the event, a consequence of playing in too-competitive a section in a local tournament in 2013.

“In fact, his rating was so low that the tournament director called Corbin’s father (Ken Gustafson) and asked if he was certain that Corbin wanted to play in the ‘Open’ section, since only players with a lot of tournament experience were in that section and that Corbin was the lowest-rated (by far) of anyone in the open. His father was certain his son wanted to play in that section and the stage was set for something remarkable to happen.”

Remarkable it was: Gustafson finished that qualifying tournament in third place.

“The final tournament was with the top eight finishers of the previous event,” Robison said, and held at Menaul School on March 29.

By then, his USCF rating was 1,276 — “I’m an ‘A’ player; my rating is 1,895,” Robison noted — and he faced three opponents.

“His first match of the day was against Harch Bhundiya, a student from Santa Fe Prep and rated 1,714,” Robison said. “Corbin, playing black, opened with his favorite Sicilian defense, gained an exchange of knight for rook and then in a series of sharp tactical moves, won more and more material until his opponent resigned in a hopeless position.

“Round two was against an old nemesis, Thomas Mathine, Albuquerque Academy’s top player and one that had beaten Corbin twice last year,” Robison said, setting the stage for his ace’s victory over the 2013 state champion, who had a rating of 1,896, and was checkmated, Robison counted, “in only 24 moves.”

But one more match remained, “against the highest-rated player and one that had gone 3-0 in Santa Fe: La Cueva’s Albert Zuo, rated 1,957, (who) seemed invincible.”

Robison said, with scoring accumulated using the earlier tournament in the Capital City, Gustafson was a half-point behind Zuo and needed to win — not draw — to take the title.

In the language that only chess players might understand, Robison explained, “Albert played the Sicilian dragon variation against Corbin’s e4 opening. Albert didn’t play the opening precisely however, and Corbin won a pawn.

“Pieces were exchanged and both players entered the end game with two bishops each and pawns. Corbin applied more and more pressure to the position and Albert’s bishops became poorly placed while Corbin’s were flashing power across the board like light sabers,” Robison exaggerated. “Corbin’s king penetrated into the weakened Black queen side, won another pawn and was threatening to promote a pawn when (Zuo) resigned.”

It’s not over yet

Gustafson’s season isn’t over; he and the RRHS chess team will compete in the state chess tournament Thursday and Friday, when again Gustafson will be seated at board one “and face the best competition in the large high school section,” Robison said.

“We are very glad to have him at the head of our team — he is a modest, talented and relentless chess player. His rating will continue to climb and I’m certain that he will reach master level while still a young man.”

As the state champion, Gustafson, whose family moved to Rio Rancho from Virginia five years ago, qualified for a trip to the annual GM Arnold Denker Tournament of High School Champions in Orlando July 26-29, where he’ll be competing for a $1,500 scholarship.

The attraction

So, what is it about this ancient game that manages to attract 21st century youngsters? Don’t they all like playing video games, with that instant gratification — slaying the enemy or stealing cars, etc. — rather than enjoying the satisfaction of winning a long, and maybe tedious, board game?

The Observer wanted to know and dropped in on a practice session at Robison’s home Tuesday evening. Not all of the chess club members were there; one recently dropped out because of grades, another had a project he was working on over spring break; the Swedish exchange student was busy elsewhere.

  • Freshman Duncan Ahlen said he just started playing “seriously” this year: “The whole feeling of it; it’s easy in comparison (to video games). Chess is different each time.”
  • Brandon Burke, senior captain said he’s been playing “too long,” but said he’s fascinated with the game because “it’s strangely calming. (I like) being able to sit around and think about one thing for minutes or hours.”
  • Harrison Lee, also a senior, said he’s been playing the game a long time and likes the game because “you have to think. And there’s problem-solving — it’s like a puzzle, a competitive puzzle.”
  • Junior Benjamin Fogg, who’s been playing chess for almost two years, was more than candid: “To be honest, I’m not particularly fond of it, but I like opportunities for intelligent validation.”

They all find that at Robison’s home on Tuesday evening.

“I do believe they see the benefits of it; they enjoy the game,” Robison said, noting that when chess club membership dwindled a few years ago, he almost decided to quit as the club’s sponsor at RRHS. He’s not a teacher there, but his love for the game supersedes any compensation.

By day, he’s a technologist at Sandia National Labs.

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