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For Your Consideration: 'Brooklyn Castle'

Chess is important here chez Ionarts, a longtime obsession of your moderator and a shared passion with Master Ionarts, with whom I regularly play the matches diagrammed in the last few weekly newspaper columns devoted to the game: Lubomir Kavalek, formerly (much beloved) of the Washington Post and now of the Huffington Post, and Dylan Loeb McClain in the Sunday New York Times. So Brooklyn Castle caught my attention immediately, a new documentary directed by Katie Dellamaggiore about the competitive chess program at Intermediate School 318, a public junior high school in Brooklyn, which has won 26 national national chess titles, more than any other junior high school in the country. Right at the beginning of the film, the school's principal briefly encapsulates the story of chess at I.S. 318, beginning in the 1990s. At the school, he explains, the chess players are "the athletes," not the nerds. This is a school with 75% of its students coming from families living below the poverty level.

The story begins in 2009, just as the team's top-ranked player, an eighth-grade girl, is leaving, and a sixth-grade Wunderkind is starting. The U.S. economy has gone into the crapper, and state and local governments are dealing with enormous budget deficits. Schools, of course, will face cuts, and extracurricular programs -- like the intensive chess program at I. S. 318 -- will take a hit. The school, trying to figure out how to do what it does with a large reduction to their budget, slashes support for two programs: chess and marching band. The story is a familiar one all across the country, and doubly heart-breaking because the chess team at I. S. 318 had such remarkable success over the years. The school's eighth-grade team became the first ever to win the national high school chess tournament earlier this year.

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As the film shows, though, the real success is not only in winning trophies but in giving kids many people might write off as hopeless a way to transcend their circumstances. The documentary shows the students not as shining ideals but as normal kids who make mistakes along the way. Doing well on the chess team gives them the chance to travel, to see the intellectual possibilities elsewhere in the world, to win college scholarships and dream of great achievements. That top eighth-grader has a shot at becoming the first black female ranked as a chess master in the world. As their inspiring coach, Elizabeth Vicary Spiegel, puts it, chess teaches students how to approach problems that may not have a set answer and how to keep changing their strategy even when things seem down. The fact that I. S. 318 is otherwise noted for scholastic integrity makes the struggle of these teachers even more tragic. They deserve better than the support they are getting from the government. The story is compelling, if the story telling is less so, but only because the narrative is honest about the normal kinds of kids and adults these people are. The chess-obsessed (like myself) would enjoy more closeups or diagrams of the games and details on the openings and defenses the students are learning, but that is the sort of shop talk that would likely bore those not obsessed with the game.

This film opens today at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

Free tickets to see Brooklyn Castle are being offered by the E Street Cinema (555 11th Street NW). Show a valid Teacher ID, Union Card, or pay stub at the box office to get your free ticket. Offer is good for one free ticket per teacher to see Brooklyn Castle through Thursday, November 8. This offer was made possible by the generous donations of supporters. Make a tax-deductible donation to help fund future community screenings and tickets for teachers and students through the film's Web site.

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