‘Brooklyn Castle': Today’s Chess Club, Geeks and All

By Mark Walsh — October 07, 2013 2 min read
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Early in “Brooklyn Castle,” a film about the championship chess team at high-poverty, racially diverse Intermediate School 318 in New York City, the principal observes that “in some schools, if you go by a stereotype, if you are on the chess team, you’re this pariah that no one wants anything to do with you.”

“In 318,” Fred Rubino, the principal, continues, “the geeks—they are the athletes.”

“Brooklyn Castle” has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, Oct. 7, on the PBS series “POV” (Point of View). (Check local listings.)

I.S. 318 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn expanded its chess program in 2000 under the guidance of chess teacher and coach Elizabeth Spiegel and assistant principal John Galvin. The school began sending its students to national tournaments, racking up more than 30 national chess titles.

“Some people compare us to the [New York] Yankees of chess,” Galvin says.

The film, directed by Katie Dellamaggiore, spotlights several I.S. 318 students, including Justus Williams, an 11-year-old chess prodigy who is one of the country’s highest rated players, but who is challenged by the expectations of his success. Meanwhile, Rochelle Ballantyne hopes to become the first female African-American chess master.

(The film makes an attempt, through some animated graphics, to explain the complex system of chess ratings; the important way to understand them is that Albert Einstein, a avid chess player, would rank fourth among the school’s players.)

Alex Paredes, 12, is hoping chess helps him on the test used for admission to New York City’s competitive high schools. After taking the test, he tells his immigrant mother his doesn’t think he did very well. But they will both be pleasantly surprised later on.

Patrick Johnston, 11, is on the lower end of the chess rating scale. He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and takes to chess to develop his concentration abilities.

The film is about more than just chess and the chess team, of course. It is about how the team motivates learning at the school even among non-players. It’s about budget issues in the New York City school system and what that means for after-school activities, including the chess team’s travel to out-of-town tournaments. And it’s about the modern middle school, with its rituals such as class elections and student dances.

The chess team members are shown participating in numerous competitions, from a snowy Amtrak ride to upstate New York for the state tournament, to national events in grand hotel ballrooms in places such as Dallas and Minneapolis. All the tournaments seem to give the winners and runners-up ridiculously tall trophies.

Through their dedication to chess, the students of I.S. 318 win a lot more than a bunch multi-tiered blocks of marble and plastic with winged angels on top.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.