I learned to play chess sometime in junior high. With the different ways the pieces could move and all the strategy involved, it quickly made checkers seem like a game for babies, while chess was clearly for smart people. The problem was that I mostly played against my older brother and my dad, and it soon became clear that they could think many more moves ahead than I could. And losing a chess match stung more than losing in other games, where you could often blame a loss on bad dice rolls, crummy cards, or simply bad luck. When you lost at chess, you were outsmarted.
The documentary Brooklyn Castle follows five chess players who probably would mop the floor with me, both then and now. They come from I.S. 318, a junior high in Brooklyn that has won more national chess championships than any other school in the country despite the fact that over 70 percent of its students live below the poverty line. Brooklyn Castle has won audience awards at both the SXSW and the HotDocs film festivals, which should at least earn it a spot on the shortlist for the Best Documentary Oscar. And I certainly hope that happens, because not only is Brooklyn Castle an inspiring story about brainy kids using chess to better their lives, it's also an impassioned call to save after school programs being threatened by budget cuts. Watch my ReThink Review of Brooklyn Castle below (transcript following).
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Chess clubs have traditionally been a place for socially awkward nerds. But not at I.S. 318, a junior high in Brooklyn that has managed to win more national chess championships than any other school in the country, even though close to 70% of the school's students live below the poverty line. With school districts across the country suffering painful budget cuts due to the economic meltdown, schools are being forced to eliminate programs that are deemed non-essential, which basically means anything other than science and math. But in Brooklyn Castle, we see that for many students, extracurricular activities aren't extra at all, not only teaching valuable skills kids will use for the rest of their lives, but potentially helping them pull themselves and their families out of poverty.
The film follows five students, starting with Rochelle, who's graduating 8th grade as the team's best player, which is notable since the team is almost all boys. But there's a question of whether she'll receive enough support to be able to continue with chess in high school and achieve her goal of becoming the first African-American woman to reach the level of master.
Justus is a quiet 6th grader and chess prodigy who enters I.S. 318 as their new top-ranked player. But his relative youth and inexperience reveals that he has a lot of development to go, particularly in how he handles losses when everyone expects him to win.
Pobo is a charismatic 7th grader and the team's unofficial leader, though that role sometimes causes him to neglect his own development as a player. But when news comes in about budget cuts that threaten extracurricular activities like the chess club, Pobo, a born politician, decides to run for school president to try to make back the lost funds.
Alexis is a 7th grader and the school's 2nd best player. He feels both external and self-imposed pressure to get into a top high school, which would then lead to a good college and a job that could help him pull his immigrant family out of poverty. But all that rests on his chess skills and how he performs on a single exam.
Then there's Patrick, a 7th grader and one of the team's lowest ranked players who sees chess as a way to compensate for his ADHD by improving his concentration skills.
Through these kids, we get a great illustration of the different ways chess betters their lives by keeping them out of trouble, developing their problem-solving skills, giving them confidence, allowing them to travel, and teaching them to think ahead and weigh the consequences of their actions. Through this, Brooklyn Castle shows why something like chess deserves just as much support as any sport. While chess exercises the brain instead of the body, both are great ways to develop skills that can be applied away from the games for the rest of their lives.
But the ones who come across as the film's real heroes are chess teacher Elizabeth Vicary and the assistant principal and chess coordinator, John Galvin. Their dedication to the students seems boundless, whether they're instructing them, comforting them, or inspiring them while giving up their free time to coach kids one on one, design lessons, and take them to tournaments. And when news of the budget cuts arrive, it's the school's principal, Fred Rubino, who reiterates the school's commitment to teaching the whole child and vows not to shortchange the kids out of the opportunities they've earned.
With Brooklyn Castle racking up festival awards and with great odds for an Oscar nomination, I'm sure some kind people will donate money to keep I.S. 318's chess program alive. The problem is that most school programs will never be lucky or successful enough to get that kind of exposure, meaning thousands of kids across the country may be at risk of losing that one activity that makes school worthwhile and opens their eyes to a bigger world. It's impossible to watch Brooklyn Castle and think that a program like this and the kids who benefit from it should be sacrificed so multi-millionaires can get a tax cut, so hopefully this scrappy, inspiring doc and its chess wizards get all the attention they deserve.
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