Southampton chess champs lead team to historic first-place finish

Camacho, Halsey Call Checkmate

Southampton’s varsity chess team won the Suffolk County championship title for the first time in school history. Independent/Courtesy Southampton School District

Gabe “Macho” Camacho and Eli “The Hammer” Halsey have nicknames like boxers, and even think two or three steps ahead like most prize fighters would, but these Southampton students enjoy an entirely different type of battle.

Camacho and Halsey each won four out of five matches in the Suffolk County Chess Tournament last month to finish second individually and lead their Maters team to a tie for the top spot for the first time in school history. Remi Wesnofske provided two wins and two draws for three points, and Griffin Schwartz and Oscar Avendano both had two wins.

The Southampton team has finished third three times in the 15 years it’s been competing in the Suffolk County Chess League.

Independent/Southampton School District

“They’re bright, capable kids who like chess and have been playing it for a while,” AP English literature teacher and chess club advisor Barry Raebeck said. “And this year what separated these guys from the rest is their willingness to commit, especially to away matches.”

The Southampton players travel to schools like Bay Shore, Hauppauge, Northport, and Half Hollow Hills West. While the coach admits he’s not a great chess player, he teaches his students the fundamentals, and continues to compete against them. The strongest among the team members typically split matches with him, he added.

“They really like that,” he said, laughing. “All five of these kids were competitive with me, beating me more than I’d like to admit, especially Gabe.”

Camacho grew up playing the game with his dad, and while looking for school activities as a sophomore, he stumbled upon the chess club.

“When I first joined, there were a lot of kids that were really good at chess, but I wanted to be the best,” the second-place individual finisher said. “The varsity players inspired me, and this experience has been pretty eye-opening, because their level seemed untouchable, leaps and bounds ahead of where I was, but now I’m here competing at that very same level.”

His ability to look ahead, sequencing moves and executing a plan, is what separates the now-senior from some of his opponents, although he admitted to some pre-match jitters prior to competing in the all-day county tournament. Once he got a couple of quick wins under his belt, Camacho said he started to have a good time.

“Gabe has a good chess mind, in terms of seeing the patterns and having the concentration necessary to play quality chess,” Raebeck said. “It’s really kind of remarkable. It’s a mental marathon, and he’s impressive. I really thought he was a candidate to win the whole thing. He beat three of the No. 1 players on other teams, and had beat several throughout the regular season.”

Raebeck encouraged Halsey to join the team. The junior had played chess at the library, and beaten his mom at home so many times that she thought he deserved a more challenging opponent. After he won a match against his English teacher during a chess day in class, he decided to sign onto the junior varsity team.

“I thought he would be good at it based on his temperament and his brains,” Raebeck said of his then-sophomore.

Halsey started this season still at the junior varsity level, in the mix with a few other kids to earn the last of the five varsity spots. His ability to play offense and defense the way the game demands is what excited his coach. His student liked it, too.

“I like the strategy aspect — thinking ahead — predicting what my opponent is planning to do, and then countering that,” Halsey said. “I also like being a part of something bigger than myself, with people I share a common interest with. It’s been a great experience.”

desiree@indyeastend.com