SOCORRO, N.M. February 23, 2011 – The New Mexico Tech Chess Club maintained its perfect record against the University of New Mexico, winning the New Mexico Collegiate Chess title in December.

However, unlike previous years, the UNM team brought a competitive team and nearly ended Tech’s string of championships, which started in 2003.

Chemistry professor and Chess Club advisor Dr. Alexander Kornienko and club president Kenna Dunn show off the trophy for the New Mexico Collegiate Chess Championship. The trophy has never left Tech.
Mark Schwarman contemplates his next move. He is rated in the top five in New Mexico among all chess players. He is a graduate of New Mexico Tech and a longtime competitive chess player. At the next club meeting, Schwarman will take on all comers at once.  
Photos by Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

Faculty advisor Dr. Alexander Kornienko said, “In the past, we would win quite easily. This year, they nearly beat us.”

Each team fielded seven players, each of whom played twice. After 13 matches, Tech was winning 7-6. Tech’s No. 4 player, Olatokunbo “Tokunbo” Akanni, stood at a distinct disadvantage in the last match.

“Dante Archuleta, the president of the UNM club, had the advantage and we thought we’d lose for the first time ever,” Kornienko said.

With all other matches completed, all the team members from both schools gathered around the final board.

“There was so much pressure and so much nerves,” Kornienko said. “Dante had to bring his king to the center. He had to take a risk to win because a draw would not have helped them win the match.”

Tokunbo, who has since finished his master’s in petroleum engineering, took advantage of a small mistake.

“He slammed his queen onto the board and said, ‘Checkmate’,” Kornienko said. “We were all relieved to win, but we celebrated quietly. We didn’t want to get too excited.”

Tokunbo’s victory gave New Mexico Tech an 8-6 victory and sent the state trophy back to Socorro.

“They brought a really strong team,” said long-time club member Mark Schwarman, who earned his bachelor’s at Tech in 1999. “They brought some real gunslingers – the youngest, best players in New Mexico. They were motivated to win; the competition was high; this was the real deal.”

The Tech Chess Club was lead by No. 1 player Steve Harrington, a software engineer at the NRAO, and No. 2 player Schwarman. Harrington won one and drew one. Schwarman won both his games. Both of the Tech players faced off against co-champions from the last year’s New Mexico State Championships. Harrington played Silas Perry. Schwarman played Douglas Thigpen.

“Mark totally dominated. Both of his matches were one-sided,” Kornienko said.

Kornienko, the team’s No. 3 player, split his two games. No. 4 Alex Mikhalin, a master’s student, lost one and drew the other. Tokunbo, the No. 5 board, won both his games. No. 6 Connor Deuschle, a freshman, split his two games. And Kenna Dunn, another freshman and the president of the Tech Chess Club, lost her two matches.

Kornienko is a chemistry professor and is taking over as department chair. He’s won three individual tournaments in New Mexico in recent years, but still considers chess somewhat of a serious hobby.

“It’s hard to find the time to work at it,” he said. “That’s why when I go to tournaments and lose, I blame my profession.”

He organized the first Tech-UNM challenge match in 2003, when the Tech club offered up a traveling trophy to the winning team.

“We took the trophy to the first event and it’s been here at Tech and hasn’t left,” he said. “Socorro has the highest density of chess players in New Mexico. We have a number of very strong players here.”

As recently as 2009, the Tech club had more than 30 active members. At the last challenge match, each club fielded 12 players. Tech won 11 matches and drew the other. Since Kornienko took a sabbatical in 2010, the numbers dwindled. He, Kenna and other members are hoping to bring more students into the club this semester.

The club meets at 7:30 p.m. Mondays in the Lavender Lounge (Jones Hall 202). A typical meeting includes reviewing a famous international chess match, reviewing club matches and some speed play.

At this semester’s first meeting (tentatively set for February 28), Schwarman will take on all comers in simultaneous play. Schwarman is rated an “expert,” which is one step below a “master,” and is in the top five of all players in New Mexico.

“Mark is head and shoulders above the rest of us,” Kornienko said. “He will play everyone simultaneously.”

He’ll also play those games without looking at the board – his opponents will announce their moves to him and he’ll have to remember. In his last exhibition, Schwarman won four out of five games – losing to Mikhalin after losing track of one of Mikhalin’s pieces.

The Tech Chess Club has issued an invitation – or challenge – to other universities in the state, but only UNM has been willing to take on Tech. Kornienko is already planning a return trip.

“This match was so close that we’re thinking about doing it again,” Kornienko said. “It was clear to all that we could have lost. It was 50-50. We won fairly, but we should give them another chance.”

Kornienko is drawn to chess for the science, the art and the competition.

“One game can last six or seven hours,” he said. “If you invest that much time, you want to win so the effort is not wasted.

“Plus, it’s a science. Chess has been studied for centuries,” he said. “There’s algorithms and a science to it.”

Schwarman said chess is like war.

“Chess is a cruel game,” Schwarman said. “There’s no luck, no draw, no chance. Everything is out in the open. You make bad moves, you lose.”

Kornienko said, “And it’s an art too. A beautiful art. You can sacrifice all your material just to checkmate your opponent. It can be extremely exhilarating. When you study for hours and play at home, then go to a tournament and win, you see the results of your hard work.”

Club president Kenna Dunn started playing chess as a child and joined the team at Albuquerque Academy as a middle schooler. She was the top player on her team before transferring to a school that did not have a chess team.

She hasn’t played much chess over the past three years. Now that she’s at Tech, she’s excited to have the opportunity to be part of another chess team.

“It’s something that I really enjoy doing,” she said. “I like how you can strategize and see a few steps ahead. There’s a lot to think about when you’re playing.”

She said that playing against the UNM team reminded her how much she enjoys chess and the competition.

“Of course, I lost both my games, so it reminded me how irritating it is to lose the game,” she said. “But it’s also nice to get together with a lot of other people who like to play chess.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech