Brooklyn Castle

Revenge of the nerds

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Intermediate School 318, a public middle school in Brooklyn, has an unusual distinction. Not only does it have a chess team, but the team also dominates national competitions the way UCLA used to dominate college basketball. It’s won 26 national chess titles. “In 318,” the school’s principal proudly says in Brooklyn Castle, “the geeks, they are the athletes.”

Katie Dellamaggiore’s lively and affecting documentary introduces us to a cast of characters that’s very winning (in both senses of the word). John Galvin, the assistant principal, has a Noo Yawk accent and savvy demeanor that’s part monsignor, part cop on the beat. Elizabeth Vicary, the coach, has the slightly otherworldly intensity (and underfed physique) of Patti Smith. “The total brains of the operation,” Galvin calls her. Vicary is as much an avatar of chess as Smith is of rock ’n’ roll. The biggest complaint about Brooklyn Castle is there’s not enough of her. A presence as magnetic as Vicary’s demands more screen time.

Even more compelling are the kids. Rochelle is on the verge of amassing enough points to become the first African-American female master—and she’s not yet in high school. Pobo, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants, wants to be president some day. One of the documentary’s subplots is Pobo’s campaign for school president. Alexis is like Pobo turned inside out: wiry, withdrawn, wary. Justus commutes all the way from the Bronx because of chess. A couple of years younger than Rochelle, he’s already amassed more points than she has. Patrick, the runt of the chess litter, has ADD.

What with so much high-powered talent in the program, it’s easy to overlook that school encourages participation from all.

We see at least three of the kids weep after a competition. The pressure’s that intense—and it’s easy to forget they’re barely in their teens. Trying to console one of them, Galvin says, “You’re harder on yourself than anyone else can be, right?”

Losing a match is only part of it. More than 70 percent of the student body is from families below the poverty line. The abilities chess encourages can help get them into one of New York’s examination high schools (dealing with the city’s Specialized High School Admission Test is another subplot), which can get them into a good college, and then a good job.

The documentary follows the team through the 2009-10 academic year. Because the school has been hit by severe budget cuts, the team has to cut back on travel (the year before, it went to the nationals in Dallas, and lost). Only Scrooge McDuck’s accountant could root against these kids. But it is striking to what extent the team travels (the climactic competition is in Minneapolis). If a middle school basketball team, say, had as much money spent on it, surely some eyebrows would be raised.

That’s in no way to detract from the amazing accomplishments—on many levels—of Vicary, Galvin, and their charges. But it does indicate one of the few shortcomings of Brooklyn Castle. Observation never becomes scrutiny. With such great material to observe, that’s understandable. Recognizing a gift horse (or knight, as the case might be), Dellamaggiore chooses not to look it in the mouth.

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