Building a Strong Chess Culture for Students in Southern New Mexico

On November 19, Camino Real Middle School hosted a chess tournament drawing in approximately 75 players from several schools throughout the district. Schools included Camino Real Middle School, Mesa Middle School, Monte Vista Elementary, Sonoma Elementary, Highland Elementary, Loma Heights Elementary, Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy, Zia Middle School, Vista Middle School, Arrowhead Park Early College High School, Organ Mountain High School and Las Cruces High School.

Caption: 1st Place -Camino Real Middle School Varsity Team

Individual Elementary

1st Manuel Castillo

2nd (tie, 2nd overall) Ilijah Horcasitas

2nd (tie, 3rd overall) Ezekiel Laos

2nd (tie, 4th overall) Larry Crotts III

2nd (tie, 5th overall) Benjamin Geiger

Team Elementary

1st Monte Vista (lead by Manny Castillo)

2nd Highland Elementary

3rd Mac Arthur Elementary

Team Middle School

1st Camino Real Varsity

2nd Vista Middle School

3rd Camino Real Junior Varsity

Team High School

1st Arrowhead Park Early College High School (APECHS)

2nd Organ Mountain High School Varsity

3rd Organ Mountain High School Junior Varsity

Caption: 1st Place -Arrowhead Park Early College High School Team

Chess became an NMAA sanctioned activity in 2015, with the help of William Barela. Barela is the coach from Arrowhead Park Early College High School, President of the Dona Ana Community College Chess Team (the most awarded club at DACC), SGA President at DACC, NMAA Regional Chess Director, NMSU Chess Club President and the President of Endgame Chess. Barela has been coaching students helping them fine-tune their chess skills during practice. Barela has been instrumental in linking community support from local sponsors for chess tournaments, securing a place to practice, and providing meals to students that participate in chess afterschool and on Sundays. Barela says students enjoy the time they get to spend with their peers, adding that they are always looking for more players to join.

“Everybody is always invited,” said Barela. “There’s so much more room to grow, even if we find a school that has one or two players, we’ll always make room for everybody to play.”

Since 2015, the game of chess has been gaining popularity with more and more students in the district joining from different grade levels. During matches, students silently learn lessons from strategic moves brought on by their opponents. This year, the game has been peaking the interest of more students from Elementary School. Students like Manuel (Manny) Castillo, a 5th grade student from Monte Vista Elementary who was dubbed New Mexico’s 2021 Elementary School Chess Champion.

While the popularity of chess has grown worldwide with the release of the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit in 2020, it is the work of nearly 20 dedicated volunteers and coaches in the district that deserve recognition for helping spotlight the game at the local level in schools. Volunteers like Manuel Castillo, the chess coach for Highland Elementary, Sonoma Elementary, Mesa Middle School, and Monte Vista Elementary. Castillo also runs after school programs under the Southern New Mexico Chess Academy. In recent years, Castillo had the highest turnout for chess players from different schools. Rose Vicario and Jesse Vick are volunteers that made it possible for Zia Middle School to attend chess tournaments. Joshua Wisner coaches students at Vista Middle School. Jesse Vick is also a DACC chess club member, the strongest chess player in Las Cruces, and supported the tournament by being a Tournament Director, ensuring accurate reporting, and answering student questions. Deborah Soffera is the chess coach for Camino Real. Michael Soffera facilitates the chess club at Organ Mountain High School

“I am excited with the progress our city has made with the support of these wonderful teachers, volunteers, and coaches that have helped students develop their skills and love of chess,” said Michael Soffera. “Without these coaches, students would not have a place to learn such a beautiful game that develops a student’s critical thinking, logic, attention to detail, problem solving skills, concentration, discipline, and most importantly collaboration. Players and coaches have been working together to help develop a strong chess culture in Southern New Mexico and we are finally seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Chess is offered to anyone interested in playing. The club is currently looking for sponsorships for upcoming chess tournaments. Students often practice during lunch if they choose and after school. With the help of many volunteers at LCPS, students are invited to meet on Sundays at 3:00 p.m. at the Corner Bakery on for practice, meals are provided.

On December 17, Organ Mountain High School will be hosting an individual chess tournament. For more information, please find the attached flyer.

— Samantha Lewis, LCPS Public Relations Coordinator, 575-635-9303,