'Brooklyn Castle' families turn to chess, avoid checkmate by Sandy

'Brooklyn Castle" documentary film shows the inspiration chess can be for kids in life's storms – and they the kids say it even helped in Sandy and this week's nor'easter.

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'Brooklyn castle' trailer.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, parents struggle to help their children cope with the fact that their homes are no longer their castles and the uncertainty each new day brings. Last night some of the stars of the new documentary film "Brooklyn Castle" talked to me by phone while sitting in the green room of "The Daily Show." They reflected on how chess is their anchor for every kind of storm life throws at them.

 “Chess is about patience and strategy. That’s what you need to get through any kind of tough time, or challenge in life,” said  Pobo Efekoro who was 12 in the film and is now age 16. “We need that now with the challenges we face in this country. In chess, everything you do you need a plan, a series of plans actually. It’s a direct correlation between chess and survival.”

Oh, to be a parent, hearing a teen deliver such an insightful response because a board game helps him organize his mind and analyze what is thrown at him moment to moment!

"Brooklyn Castle" follows the lives of five members of the chess team at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, a below-the-poverty-line inner-city junior high school that has won more national championships than any other in the nation. In the film, the biggest obstacle arises not from other competitors, but from budget cuts to extracurricular activities at the school. After Sandy hit on Oct. 30, those funding issues will probably be the Grandmaster of all opponents and the thing they are fighting to save, is the very thing empowering them to fight. 

In the movie, Pobo then in 7th grade, parented his teammates when they were faced with losing games, funding and hope. It was Pobo who offered life strategies based on the lessons he’d learned playing chess.

Like many parents watching the film, I said a silent prayer that any one of my four sons would be so caring as to sacrifice his own game in the cause of helping others achieve greatness.

His mother, Christiana Inuwere was not surprised by his behavior in the documentary. “Chess made him more mature,” she said. “He always was a soft heart for everybody, but chess made him. It added more to him.”

One student who didn’t make it to the green room, is Patrick Johnston, age 11 in the film, now 15 and living in Neptune, N.J. He was not one of the school’s star players, but became one of my instant favorites as he fought his own nature, using chess as a weapon against ADHD.

The hurricane and following nor’easter this week, plus the failing economy has forced Patrick’s family to change the game repeatedly in order to survive. Chess has been his anchor in a storm-tossed life.

“I won’t lie, it’s been rough for us in a lot of ways. In the storm, the lights went out and stayed out and no sooner did they go on than the snow storm knocked them right out again,” said Lisa Johnston. The family moved from Brooklyn to Neptune just over a year ago when her husband lost his printing job there and was offered one in Jersey. When her husband was laid off from the new job, Patrick’s mom opened a small shop “On Point” in Point Pleasant Beach last year. “I really don’t have much hope that the area around the shop will come back soon enough to help us out,” she said. So far, life has had this family in "check."

Mrs. Johnston discovered chess “helped calm the (ADHD) hamster wheel in Patrick’s brain and got him to focus and find ways around daily problems.” It became her go-to parenting play ever since he first began to play in the 7th grade.

During Sandy, and again in the frozen nor’easter that again knocked-out their electricity, she said, “My house filled-up with kids. Patrick set up the chessboards. It was just soothing, a great comfort, to see this room in candlelight, and all of them so quietly occupied in chess.”

“In a way, the storm was a good thing for my son because no matter where he is there’s always chess as something that’s not only familiar, but something that he can teach others and that gives him confidence,” she said.

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Back in the green room at "The Daily Show in New York," I asked Pobo if, with his prodigious ability to look many moves ahead, he had foreseen sitting and waiting to be interviewed by Jon Stewart. Pobo laughed, “No way in the world! Wow, look where I am! Look where it’s taken all of us. Even for a chess player it’s a lot to take in.”

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