N.Y.C.'s youthful masters of the chessboard
Some years ago, I visited a children's summer chess camp in a tony New York suburb. Indelibly stamped in my memory is the image of a towheaded 6-year-old, kneeling on the seat of his chair to better reach the board, nearly routing one of the highly ranked adult instructors.
Almost equally unforgettable, however, was the air of affluence that surrounded these young chess enthusiasts. Many enjoyed private lessons and one-on-one tutoring from experts throughout the school year. I didn't have to see the Mercedes SUVs into which these children scrambled at the end of the day to understand that theirs was a world apart.
These are not the players profiled in Michael Weinreb's The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team. Weinreb's subjects are largely the children of immigrants – scrappy, New York City public school kids. Their parents have no money for private tutors or summer chess camp.
Then again, they don't actually seem to need such help. These boys (and one girl) are already among the best of the best.
Their school – Edward R. Murrow, a Brooklyn public high school – won its first city championship in 1989 and has never since ranked lower than second. This book chronicles the Murrow team's pursuit of its sixth consecutive state championship and its second national title.
How did these kids get here? And, in the end, does it matter?
For this is not a feel-good story of young geniuses leveraging their chess skills into high grades, big cash prizes, and grand careers. On the contrary, some of these teens are struggling just to finish high school.
Their accomplishments, Weinreb explains, are lauded "within an artificial hierarchy contained to nondescript hotel conference rooms and debated on Web sites and online message boards." Outside such confines, however, Weinreb watches one young chess master slip out of a winning match alone. Here on the city streets, Weinreb notes, "where most people on Eighth Avenue can't even begin to comprehend the strange beauty of what Oscar has just accomplished, he's scratching together his cash to pay for a Quarter-Pounder."
"The Kings of New York" is a terrific read. Weinreb, a sportswriter who knew little about chess until he stumbled onto this story, examines not only the development of the Murrow team, but also the history of chess in New York City schools.
He looks back at Bobby Fischer's 1972 chess match with Boris Spassky, which energized chess enthusiasts throughout the United States and sparked the idea of what he calls "chess as charity," eventually bringing the game to city school kids. (A free in-school middle school program accounts for the development of about half of Murrow's best players.)
He also tells of the amazing influx of fresh talent that poured into New York City with the crumbling of the former Soviet Union. (The other half of Murrow's stars are the children of East Bloc immigrants.)
Weinreb melds such history lessons with thumbnail sketches of an unusual cast of characters: the young players themselves, the adult talent who nurtured their love of chess, and the different donors who – for various reasons of their own – have kept these programs afloat.
The result is a book that reads like a Robert Altman film – quick cuts of quirky, intertwined story lines. Odd characters step in and out of a narrative that's taut and energetic and eschews any easy sentiment.
Don't imagine, however, that as a reader this will prevent you from feeling for these kids. On the contrary, you'll be surprised by the degree to which you'll find yourself perched on the edge of your chair, aching to see one of the most winning young chess teams in America pull it off yet again.
Chess can seem a remote and esoteric pursuit – but not when glimpsed through these eager young eyes.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe