Albuquerque’s Hidden Chess Scene

Simon McCormack
5 min read
Aaron Lewis (left) and John Baxter settle down for a game at the Frontier. (Tabatha Roybal)
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As I listen to 13-year-old Ian Jones rattle off phrases like "dynamic attack," "releasing the tension" and a "fully formed endgame," I become less and less confident in his previous assertion that chess "isn’t just for super geniuses."

Jones is one of the younger competitors who have come to participate in the Coronado Chess Club’s weekly chess games at the Frontier. Roughly 30 competitors have gathered in the restaurant’s back room to network, chat and prepare for future tournaments. The Coronado Club has been around for more than a quarter century, serving as a cornerstone of the New Mexico chess community.

Groups like the Coronado Club rely on new blood like Jones to keep the game alive through the age of computers, Internet, and more and more complex video gaming systems. "Chess hasn’t been exhausted yet," Jones explains. "You know, they’ve actually found a way to exhaust the possible outcomes in checkers, but in chess, something different happens in every game. As the famous chess quote goes, ‘it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.’ I’ll play with anyone who’ll sit down long enough."

Jones’ competition this evening is 82-year-old Coronado Club President Richard Sherman, who has occupied the club’s highest position for nearly 20 years. Sherman is exceptionally sharp and, for his age, quite quick on his feet as he shuffles from table to table conversing with fellow players. After decades of chess play, Sherman’s primary goal is to teach others like Jones about the game. "I always remind people to play the board and not the player," Sherman says. "People can get caught up in a player’s skill level and lose sight of the game itself."

With his wisdom and amicable nature, Sherman is a key asset in the quiet battle waged by the New Mexico Chess Organization (NMCO) to bring chess to the forefront of our culture. "Right now, when people think about the things Albuquerque has to offer, they might mention the symphony or the Isotopes or the museums, but I bet you if you went out on the street and asked a bunch of people about culture in Albuquerque, not one of them would mention chess," says John Baxter, NMCO’s vice-president. "My goal is to make chess one of the things in people’s minds that makes Albuquerque a great city."

While he says he knows chess isn’t the most popular activity in the world, partially because it’s not a good spectator sport, Baxter is also confident the game still offers something unique and beneficial to the community. "I’m a chess player who loves the game, but watching people play chess is like slow death," Baxter says. "Still, playing chess is actually a great deal of fun and, even though it’s not for everyone, I think a lot of different types of people can enjoy it."

Baxter is also counting on the New Mexico Scholastic Chess Organization (NMSCO) to get the word out about chess in Albuquerque by promoting the game and setting up chess clubs in the city’s schools. NMCO President Silas Perry’s skill and interest in chess is largely due to NMSCO’s efforts. "I was the state champion when I was in high school," the 21-year-old Perry says. "It was fun to emerge from the crowd and kind of rise to the top. I love the competition in chess. That’s one thing the Coronado Club provides–even though it’s a very friendly atmosphere, we’re still competing."

Having grown up with three brothers, NMCO webmaster Jeff Sallade knows all about competition. "We competed over everything in my family," Sallade says. "It’s a real good group of people here at the Frontier, and it’s great to go to war on the chess board with them."

As he sets up the pieces for his first match of the evening, a fellow Coronado Club member stops to talk with Sallade, lamenting a previous loss. "I thought I had you last game," Sallade’s former competitor says. "Not in the endgame though, I guess," Sallade shoots back with a grin and a look on his face that displays his playful but roaring competitive fire.

For Sallade, the Coronado Club is a place to sharpen his game before he competes in one of the city’s tournaments. "When I first moved here, I played in some tournaments and lost a lot of games because I would go in without practice," he says. "I learned my lesson and now I’m climbing back up the ladder."

As far as he’s concerned, that climb could last the rest of his life as he settles into old age and becomes a well of knowledge like Sherman, who Sallade greatly admires. "It’s a pleasure to play against him," Sallade says. "If you’ve been trying out some moves and you’re not sure if they’ll work, he’s a good person to test them on. You’ll find out real quickly if they’re good or not because he’s studied the game. I look forward to when I can retire and spend my time like him, studying the chessboard. I’m always amazed by how much action you can get out of a little eight-by-eight board."


Whether you’re a seasoned expert or a chess newbie, NMCO is sponsoring a pre-Thanksgiving Blitz tournament on Saturday, Nov. 17, that should spark your interest. Blitz chess requires competitors to make decisions quickly and is one of the more engaging forms of chess to watch. Entrance fee is only $10. All of the receipts will be returned as prizes. Registration runs from 8 to 8:30 a.m. at the Rio Rancho Meadowlark Lane Senior Center (4330 Meadowlark) and the tournament begins at 9 a.m.

Baxter makes his move.

Tabatha Roybal

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