Wednesday, April 18, 2012
IS 318 Wins Chess Championship
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
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.
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.
Chess is embedded in the culture of I.S. 318. All sixth graders take weekly chess classes and can continue chess as an elective for the next two years. Players from acclaimed elementary school chess programs like the one at Public School 31 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, feed the school, but the team also welcomes beginners. Chess banners line the hallways, and the school’s answering machine says, “Thank you for calling I.S. 318, home of the national chess champions.”
And when Ms. Spiegel, who started at I.S. 318 as a part-time chess coach, got her own classroom a few years ago, she took down the faces of the presidents from atop the blackboard and replaced them with a row of chess champions like Boris Spassky.
The walls are plastered with chess tips that read like maxims for living life: “When you don’t know what to do next, improve your worst piece” reads one, written in felt-tip marker. “If you’re winning, play safe and keep the game clean and simple. If you are losing, take risks and complicate the game.”
Chess, Ms. Spiegel said, recognizes many kinds of intelligence. Some top academic students excel, while others never take to it, she said. And some chess geniuses might have little interest in learning the map of Europe. She said the school viewed chess not as a competitive pressure-cooker but as a way to learn how one’s mind works.
“You do a lot of thinking about how you think, especially about how you make decisions,” she said. “You’ll hear a kid say, ‘I made this mistake because I was very emotional.’ ”
Most of I.S. 318’s 1,650 students are from the Williamsburg area, said John Galvin, an assistant principal. But some come for the chess, including the three top players, Justus Williams, from the South Bronx; James Black, from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; and Isaac Barayev, from Forest Hills, Queens.
James was 8 when his father brought home a chess set from Kmart, he recalled: “It had little cards explaining what moves each piece could make.”
His father, James A. Black, said he hoped chess would bring his son a college scholarship, and that it had already shaped his life.
“The group of people that he hangs with,” Mr. Black said, “it is everything. He thinks before he acts.”
The game has brought James and his chess colleagues a popularity that sometimes tickles and sometimes unnerves them.
“A lot of kids know my name,” James said. “I say, ‘How do you know my name?’ and they say, ‘I hear it on the loudspeaker all the time.’ ”
Maya and Mariah McGreen, twins from Bushwick who are on the team, said that after the victory, their friends — fans, not players — told them they must win at the girls’ national championships, on Friday in Chicago. One told Maya, “You so owe me a trophy.”
James aims to become a grandmaster, preferably before finishing high school. Sometimes, he said, he contemplates becoming a chess teacher: “It’s like being a professional basketball player — you do something you love for a living.”
The chess program is a labor of love for many supporters. Not least of them was the longtime principal, Fortunato Rubino, who died on April 2. Mr. Galvin, the assistant principal, said the team might present the new trophy to his wife.
Donors have stepped in to offset school budget cuts and rising costs; the travel budget alone is about $70,000, Mr. Galvin said. The program gets significant support from a nonprofit organization called Chess-in-the-Schools, which initially sent Ms. Spiegel to I.S. 318, and numerous other sponsors.
All that has made chess a fact of life in the school — not just for the chess elite but for beginners like Michael Grullon, 11, who said he admired the chess team but planned to “stay in the minor leagues,” and his opponent, Raymond Torres, 12, who taunted him: “Yo, dude, illegal move.”
Then there are the champions, like James. “You should totally take the G-4,” he told Ms. Spiegel as she faced off with Tommy Zhang, 13.
Ms. Spiegel, who is an expert, a level below James’s ranking of master, could not see what he saw on the board, and could not tell if he was helping or sabotaging. She threw up her hands and said, “I’m not sure if James is giving bad advice on purpose, or not.”