Indianapolis's `Masters of Disaster'. Rise of an inner-city chess team is documented in new film

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THERE were a lot of coaches who came to me and said, `Are you crazy? You're trying to take these ghetto kids and put them in a chess tournament?' '' The speaker is Bob Cotter, an elementary schoolteacher in Indianapolis. ``That just enraged me,'' he continues. ``I was furious.''

Mr. Cotter, whose determination, it seems, could drive through concrete, went back to his ``ghetto kids'' at PS 27 and communicated his outrage. ``It fired them up,'' he says.

Starting a chess team in this setting was not easy going. The fourth-graders knew nothing about the game and had enough trouble sitting still during school, let alone for another two hours afterward. ``It was painstaking -- agonizing,'' Cotter says of the first weeks. To keep the wheels turning he bought ice cream and soda, opened the gym after chess practice -- even paid the team members for learning certain moves.

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Three years later, in 1983, the team from PS 27 had beaten an elite private school in Manhattan for the elementary school chess championship of the United States. Now, the Audio-Visual Center at Indiana University has retold the story in a half-hour film called ``The Masters of Disaster,'' the name the team adopted as befitting its early performances.

The Masters are not sanitized sit-com characters but real adolescents who fidget and slouch and, on camera, don't know what to do with their hands. They range from Anthony Allen -- a pint-sized Eric Dickerson (the Los Angeles Rams' running back) with his glasses and shiny curls, who emerges as unofficial spokesman -- to Derrick (Rabbit) Thomas, who is the team's best player but also its toughest case. Rabbit, whose background could not be called ``advantaged,'' cradles his head in his arms during a Cotter pep talk, as though he could use a good night's sleep. But put him in front of a chess board and Rabbit is a study in concentration, moving imaginary chess pieces in the air as he works out his attack. Rabbit once beat a much more experienced opponent in a match that went until 3 a.m.

With their high-top sneakers and ghetto struts, the Masters brought an exuberance to the chess world that wasn't always appreciated. Len Wallace, the assistant coach, recalls that at their first major tournament, in southern Virginia, they scandalized the adults by pitching pennies with their opponents and playing basketball for quarters. They also ``stomped the field,'' which didn't endear them either.

Losers were not always gracious. In their final tournament -- this one for the junior high championship -- Cory Scruggs, the smallest Master, administers his coup de grace, and puts his hand across the table to shake. But his opponent, a clean-cut young man, is not about to concede to this little fellow who wears his baseball cap backwards. Cory shrugs, as though to say, ``OK, have it your way,'' and after the next move, rises and thrusts his arm across the table again.

At times like this, you want to give the kids a high-five. They keep on surprising people. After they won the elementary school championship, local businesses put up the money to send them to Japan. A reporter asked a member of the Japanese team, in the throes of a difficult game, whether these Americans were tougher than she had expected.

``Yes,'' she replied. Pregnant pause. ``Much tougher.'' The Masters won that match, too.

If the Masters are the stars of this movie, then Bob Cotter is the guiding force. After four years of studying to become a Roman Catholic priest, he forsook that path but, he recalls, ``I still felt a need to serve.'' He started teaching in the Indianapolis public schools ``to seek out these kinds of kids, and try to do something meaningful and constructive with their lives.''

Cotter threw the Masters into competition almost as soon as they had learned the game. They were creamed at the early tournaments, but the losses stirred them up. ``I wanted to come back and beat everybody I lost to,'' one told a newspaper reporter. ``I couldn't stand losing.''

Cotter kept working their competitive instincts, devising ratings within the group and posting them in the classroom.

``Bob is simply an incredible motivator,'' assistant coach Len Wallace says in the film. ``He has enthusiasm that is just catching.'' In one scene, Cotter has set the team the task of checkmating the king with only two bishops within two minutes. None of them can do it. ``I predict that by the end of the week, we'll be able to do it in less than a minute -- all of you.'' This, apparently, was the Cotter method -- set seemingly impossible goals, and then give the kids confidence that they could meet them.

The Masters were hardly a one-man show, however. Besides assistant coach Wallace, there was John Patterson, the principal of PS 27, who sometimes served as custodian so the building could stay open for practice, and who even took money from his own pocket when the team was short of funds. ``Knowing he had that kind of confidence in me spurred me on,'' Cotter says.

The movie only begins to suggest the difficulties these men encountered. Cotter and Wallace gave up afternoons and weekends for practices and tournaments, without pay. They drove the team hundreds of miles in their own cars, at their own expense, even paying for meals and entry fees themselves. The team did not always behave in a fashion that made these sacrifices gratifying. They would skip practice, or spend their meal money on video games. ``It was a high and low point of our lives,'' Wallace recalled in a phone interview.

When the Masters reached the pinnacle, they became media darlings. The mayor, the governor, even President Reagan, all got into the act. It was all well-intentioned, but some of that support would have been appreciated earlier on. ``There are people out there doing these kinds of things every day who will never get the attention or publicity,'' Wallace observes.

Today, Cotter and Wallace are taking a well-deserved rest and the the team has dispersed to several different schools. A number of the Masters are doing well, but Rabbit and one or two others are in academic trouble. The Indianapolis school system has not followed up with these talented youngsters, nor has it used their success to build a broad-based program.

``They missed the boat,'' says Patterson, who is now retired. ``I thought that maybe they could have done a heck of a lot more.''

It has fallen to Pat Wetmore, who produced the ``Masters of Disaster'' film at the Indiana University, to try to get the local Urban League involved in keeping these kids on track.

These shortcomings, however, only put into bolder relief what the Masters and their coaches have accomplished. The film has aired on various public television stations, and will appear in New York at The Museum of Modern Art on April 24th.

`Masters of Disaster' videocassettes are available from the Audio-Visual Center at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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