"Brooklyn Castle": the teachers really give of themselves in building the nation's best public school chess team

Can you make an exciting movie about chess?

Brooklyn Castle, by Katie Dellamaggiore, managed to keep me on the edge of my Landmark seat as it traces the performance of several middle school kids through national public school chess championships in Dallas, Saratoga Springs, Columbus, and Minneapolis. The camera does focus on just a few positions, including one from the same Two Knights Defense that I lost horribly with recently on my own return to tournaments (I'll pick that up later). The title of the film refers to the fact that a Rook (the chess piece that moves along rows or columns only) is sometimes called a "castle", and that castling is a way to protect the King in the opening.

The surface story, of course, is how the teachers, parents and kids at I.S. 318 (Intermediate School 318) in Brooklyn (the Williamsburg section) faces drastic budget cuts and manage to keep their 'Yankees of Public School Chess' team funded and able to travel the country, and how they even keep the extracurricular program going. Several teachers and guidance counselors are presented, including one buzz-cut, balding young male teacher who also coaches the kids for their placement exams, and a young woman with a slight Eastern European accent, who actually teaches chess after school almost as if it were an academic course. (In undergraduate school, we used to wonder what a major in chess would look like: freshman courses in all the groups of openings, a year course in the middle game, courses in specific kinds of endgames).

The young woman, when teaching chess strategy and tactics, makes interesting observations on how decisions about chess moves parallel issues in real life. Is that isolated pawn (as resulting from, say, the Tarrasch Defense to the Queen's Gambit) a weakness or a strength? That question parallels the modern debate on whether hyperindividualism has been carried to far; in an 'endgame', socially isolated 'persons' can get plucked off easily and a whole community can fail. The film at least hints at that idea.

The role of the teachers as personal role models is particularly persuasive. They attend and chaperon the kids in the hotels on the cross-country trips (leaving for Dallas at 3.15AM in one scene). I worked as a substitute teacher for a while last decade (after 'retirement'), and that 'stumbled', as I have detailed elsewhere. Had I put myself into it, given up self-publishing and become a full-time teacher, would I have been game for this kind of interaction with kids, when I have not been married or had kids myself?

A local church here (the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington DC) did sponsor a DC school tournament in February 2004 (before the days of Michelle Rhee), as I recall, holding the entire event in the basement Fellowship Hall. I did volunteer at that event as an assistant director. To do that consistently, I need to become a better and steadier player again myself (and I just recently rejoined the Arlington Chess Club, as I mentioned above).

The documentary does explain the USCF (United States Chess Federation) rating system. Generally, 1500-1800 is 'club strength'. Above 2000, players have real skill. But chess is a little bit like pro football. In any one game, anything can happen. Upsets are common. I have beaten a master rated 600 points higher than me (he just got careless with a sacrifice -- that was when I was in the Army in 1969) and lost to people 600 points lower. The character Patrick finds that out in the film.

The film also mentions the Continental Chess Association, which sponsors many big tournaments around the country (particularly in the Northeast). When I was active, Bill Goichberg directed these tournaments.

The movie shows a tournament in Dallas, but doesn't specifically show the Dallas Chess Club, in which I was active in the 1980s, and could spin some tall tales about. The Dallas Chess Club used to meet in a big space in East Dallas before moving north to a more compact space on Forest Lane. I don't know if it is still there.


The production company for the film is Rescued Media, and the distributor is PDA. The official site is here.

There have been a few other important films about chess. One was Paramount's 'Searching for Bobby Fischer' (Paramount, 1993, directed by Steven Zaillian, with Ben Kingsley and Joe Mantegna, which I believe, as I recall, starts with games in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village the book is by Fred Waitzkin, and there's a great line from the boy, 'They're just pieces.' Another is AE's 'Knights of the South Bronx' (2005, directed Allen Hughes), with Ted Danson. See also HBO's bio "Bobby Fischer Against the World", June 6, 2011.

So, can chess be like 'Moneyball'? Well, maybe if some major league players also became chess masters. (I wonder if any of the Washington Nationals actually does play chess. It's a good game for baseball managers and football coaches to know. ) I think it's more about character than action.

For today's short film, see 'Soulfire: The Mission in Belize' on my drama blog. (not yet restored)

Posted by Bill Boushka at 8:55 AM

Labels: chess, films about schools, indie documentary, sports, SXSW

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