Monday, November 5, 2012
"You know, Okwe, good at chess usually means bad at life." - Guo Yi (Benedict Wong) in "Dirty Pretty Things"
As a bridge player, I've always viewed chess in an inferior light. There's no social or partnership element to the game, and the chess world has given us more than one example of lost souls whose "life of the mind" eventually disconnected them from real life.
But, as the highly uplifting and completely winning junior-high chess documentary "Brooklyn Castle" shows, chess has a great deal to offer to bright and motivated young people willing to devote themselves to become masters and champions.
What started out as a small side game among friends at I.S. 318 in Brooklyn has become, through the indefatigable efforts of the school's students, teachers and administrators, a juggernaut, winners of dozens of national titles and the best junior-high chess team in the country by a mile.
We get to spend one year with these adorable, inspiring whiz kids and their heroic coaches, as the school faces ever-deepening budget cuts and the kids balance chess with schoolwork and the standardized test that alone will determine which public high school they get to attend. Most of the kids are black - including Rochelle Ballantyne, on her way to becoming the first African-American female chess master, Pobo Efekoro, the charming and endlessly self-confident state champion who runs for class president and tutors the team's weakest link, a sweet white boy with ADHD, on weekends, and Justus Williams, a sixth-grader and recent master who transferred to I.S. 318 for the chess program. The chess room at I.S. 318 is a wonderful place where nobody cares about the color of your skin, only the quality of your game.
The movie's a delight from start to finish. Director Katie Dellamaggiore seamlessly interweaves the stories of eight to ten of the kids, the coaches who work every day of the week, the parents who want only for their kids to improve themselves through education. When we non-chess players need a bit of exposition, as for the scoring at the three major national tournaments, Dellamaggiore sets it forth clearly and intuitively.
We all have some bad associations from junior-high school, but "Brooklyn Castle" rekindles the good memories. You'll recall that feeling of having your own particular hangout, whether it was the chess club or the newspaper or a sports team. Mostly, you'll delight in the camaraderie of this diverse group of kids. They make it easy to care about and root for those in the young generation who challenge themselves and work hard and love to learn - and, it must be said, they make it real tough to give a shit about those who don't.