“At a Brooklyn School, the Cool Crowd Pushes the King Around”

A New York Times article:

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Chess master James A. Black (in track suit) with the I.S. 318 team and their national trophy.

By and
Published: April 17, 2012

The classroom at Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was filled on Tuesday with the thumping and clattering of a half-dozen high-speed chess matches, played with a rambunctious energy more reminiscent of a hockey game than of Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Sixth-grade chess players at I.S. 318, whose answering machine announces, “Home of the national chess champions.”

The school’s conquering heroes — its chess players — were blowing off steam. On Sunday, in Minneapolis, they became the first middle school team to win the United States Chess Federation’s national high school championship. The team, mostly eighth graders, beat out top high schools like Stuyvesant in Manhattan and Thomas Jefferson in Alexandria, Va.

The victory burnishes what is already a legend in the chess world. At I.S. 318, more than 60 percent of the students come from families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Yet each stairwell landing bristles with four-foot chess trophies, and the school celebrities are people like James A. Black Jr. A 13-year-old with twinkly eyes and curly eyelashes, James is not a football hero or a valedictorian, but a certified chess master who gently corrects his teachers on the fine points of strategy.

Watching over a particularly raucous game on Tuesday, James, wearing a black sweatsuit and a huge book bag, took notice of the moment when only kings and pawns were left. “Automatic draw,” he declared. “Insufficient mating material.”

I.S. 318 is a perennial powerhouse, often sweeping middle school national championships against exclusive schools where more students can afford private lessons. A recent graduate, Rochelle Ballantyne, has secured a chess scholarship to the University of Texas-Dallas — though she is still a student at Brooklyn Tech — and aims to be the first African-American female master in chess history. Even before the big win, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, was scheduled to visit the students next week.

But the new milestone means something more, say school officials, who express hope that it will help the program survive budget cuts that threaten chess and other after-school and elective programs across the city.

“The difference in mental development between a junior high school kid and a high school kid is impossible to overstate,” said Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s full-time chess teacher, who helped turn a small after-school program into a national contender, the core of the school’s identity and the focus of a recently completed documentary, “Brooklyn Castle.”

The school placed second in the high school competition in 2011. This year, I.S. 318 and Manhattan’s elite Hunter College High School tied for first, but I.S. 318 took home the first-place trophy because its opponents in the tournament won more games than Hunter’s.

Remarkable as it is, the accomplishment is not as unimaginable as it would have been 20 years ago, when players developed more slowly. But computers and better training methods have made 13-year-old masters less rare than they once were. Last year, a Chinatown elementary school, Public School 124 Yung Wing, placed first at the high school tournament, albeit in a lower-rated division.

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