By Elias Savada | December 1, 2012

“There are more possible chess games than there are atoms in the universe.” — Diego Rasskin-Gutman.

Who knew? I didn’t. For me the game is still as hard to comprehend as the fiscal cliff.

Spelling Bees (1999’s “Spellbound”). Rock ‘n’ Roll (2007’s “Girls Rock!“). Ballroom Dancing (2005’s “Mad Hot Ballroom“). And now (drum roll)… Chess (“Brooklyn Castle,” in case you missed the headline). The competitive spirit for today’s youngsters has indeed evolved.

As this heartwarming documentary opens, ordinary-looking students file into the building on a bright, sunny day. They take their seats without incident. You can’t tell that Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, New York, USA, a public junior high school, has won 26 national chess titles, until that fact is flashed on the screen. The school’s chess program is just a dozen years old as the “story” begins in 2009.

p.s. No other American j.h.s. has won more.

Proud talking-heads follow, including Fortunato “Fred” Rubino, the exuberant principal, and straight-shooting assistant principal/chess coordinator John Galvin, while the camera pans across the myriad trophies, plaques, and banners which nearly command a separate wing of their own. Rubino gladly offers that “the geeks are the athletes” at his school. Elizabeth Vicary Spiegel, the teams’ red-haired, über-dedicated teacher/coach pushes her 85 sedate, yet fierce, scholars onward through various competitions, beginning with the U.S. Chess Federation Super Nationals, held in April 2009 in Nashville, and moving through the Grade Championships (Dallas, December 2009), the Continental Chess Association New York State Championships (snow covered Saratoga Springs, February 2010), then back, full circle to the 2010 Junior High Nationals (taking 57 players!) in Minneapolis.

After each succeeding tournament, they can be easily compared to New York’s celebrated baseball Yankees (but without the sky-high salaries), although the emotional disappointments the team suffers in some of its matches bring some players to heartbreaking tears. Is it something in the Big Apple drinking water that makes these kids so naturally talented, proud, likable, well-spoken, yet still human?

Director-Producer Katie Dellamaggiore lives not to far from the subject of her film (her first feature), which she made with her husband, Nelson Dellamaggiore, who produced and edited, and her brother, Brian Schulz, also a producer and the film’s cinematographer. Mrs. Dellamaggiore takes the time-honored documentary approach of following select subjects (13-year-old Rochelle Ballantyne, 6th grader Justus Williams, and Pobo Efekoro, Alexis Paredes, and Patrick Johnston, all 7th graders). Each one shines in a special light, whether dealing with their chess-specific duties, life in their still young world, or visions of their future. When the crew films at various student’s homes, most have his or her own horde of honors adorning their walls and shelves, while across the room stands a proud and supporting parent, often a hard-working immigrant who wants the best for their child.

When Rochelle graduates to high school at Brooklyn Tech (on a stubbornly proud and hopeful road to college), the school welcomes an incoming 6th grader, 10-year-old Justus, then rated the 6th best player in his age group by the United States Chess Federation, who will trek in from the Bronx. As for Rochelle’s separate, post-I.S. 318 path, she appears destined to become the first American African-American female chess master. Ever.

The film’s dedicated approach doesn’t bog down with the game’s technique, which works well for someone like me, who has never picked up a pawn or rook or bishop, except to marvel at some of the craftsmanship used to create an ornate chess set. Graphics are kept simple and informative, especially when Albert Einstein’s 1800 chess rating is placed in perspective with those of I.S. 318’s top rated players. He’s in the fourth spot, 161 points below No. 1 Rochelle, who marvels that she has done so well in what appears to be a male-dominated activity.

The filmmakers also don’t shy away from portraying the realities of many students’ anxiety-inducing desires to attend specialized high schools (requiring a good test score) or the real world problems, such as the economic difficulties that, in 2009, slash NYC’s extracurricular programs, that could sink the whole chess project in the snap of a finger. The educators and students ruminate on the cutbacks to the school’s programs, whether in academics or sports. The twist here is that born politician Pobo Efekoro, popularly running for school president (and, in 2032, the presidency of the United States), vows to help restore the large school deficit. An email campaign is successful enough to keep the chess and marching band programs alive, but the pro-active students, parents, and teachers are still forced to constantly correspond with their elected officials to get every budget-cut dollar restored.

With “Brooklyn Castle” it’s really nice to see so many young, positive minds at play in the world, and to cheer on so many smiling children dreaming of enlightened futures.

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