Is chess cool? In my day, being in the school chess club was about as hip as being on the audiovisual squad and a full step lower than being in the marching band.
Times have changed, though. At least they have at Intermediate School 318, an inner-city school in Brooklyn, New York. Despite the fact that more than 65 percent of its students are from homes with incomes below the federal poverty level, this middle school has consistently trained the most-winning junior-high chess teams in the nation.
As inspirational academic stories go, it doesn’t get much better than this, which is no doubt what attracted first-time feature filmmaker (and Brooklyn native) Katie Dellamaggiore to make a film about I.S. 318. As a piece of filmmaking, “Brooklyn Castle” is not going to set the world on fire. Often scattershot, it frequently stops short of delving into the lives of the young chess mavens just when things are getting interesting. But the kids and their faculty coaches and sponsors are so spirited that this raggedness almost doesn’t matter.
Although the chess team has about 85 members, Dellamaggiore focuses on the five at the top, each highly individual. Rochelle, age 13, in eighth grade, is soft-spoken but determined to be the first African-American female to be ranked a master. She is shy about talking chess because she thinks it makes her sound “like a nerd,” especially in such a male-dominated world.
Justus, in sixth grade, has been selected to join the United States Chess Federation’s All-American team. Of all the kids on view here, he seems the most withdrawn, rarely cracking a smile. His focus is all on the board, and when he loses, which is not often, the distraught 11-year-old comes through loud and clear. Alexis, 12, in seventh grade, is the pride of his working-class immigrant parents. He hopes to support them one day by getting a good job, which, for him, means getting into a top-ranked New York public high school. Patrick, 11, in seventh grade, has a condition that has been diagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The discipline of chess has a marked positive effect on all aspects of his life.
And then there is Pobo, 12, in seventh grade, who is a born glad-hander. Calling himself “Pobama,” he runs successfully for class president, campaigning to restore budget cuts to after-school programs like chess. Budget cuts, beginning in 2009, when the film starts, are incessant throughout this story. At one point, in 2011, assistant principal/coach John Galvin uses $8,000 of his own money to cover the cost of the team’s trip to the nationals in Dallas.
Why is this particular school so good at cultivating terrific young chess players? Clearly Galvin, along with principal Fred Rubino and head chess teacher Elizabeth Vicary, has a great deal to do with the success. But the film leaves hanging the notion that great chess players are created rather than born.
What’s probably true is that the innate intelligence of these children, which might have been stifled otherwise, is brought to the fore by chess. It’s an intellectual discipline that, as we can see from the kids, is also a life discipline.
No wonder they fight so hard to keep the chess program intact. They know that there is much more at stake here than moving pieces around on a board. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)