“Brooklyn Castle”: All the Right Moves

Documentary follows school chess team from their New York home to the national tournament.

If Vice Principal John Galvin of I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, leans back in his chair, he can just make out the Marcy Projects, where the school's most famous alum, Jay Z, grew up. When Galvin first arrived at the school in the '90s, packs of wild dogs roamed the streets. Now I.S. 318 is home to the greatest middle school chess dynasty in America.

"Brooklyn Castle," a new documentary from first-time director Kate Dellamaggiore, follows I.S. 318's chess team as a changing of the guard is taking place, under the guidance of coach and teacher Elizabeth Spiegel.

The film follows the team during the 2009-10 school year, as they seek another national championship, while their best player, 13-year-old Rochelle, is striving to become the first female African-American chess master and win a college scholarship, and a new hotshot - 11-year-old savant Justus - is trying to adjust to the scrutiny his talent brings.

Dellamaggiore was inspired to make the film after reading "Kings of Brooklyn," about the chess team at Murrow High School in Midwood, where many of I.S. 318's kids end up continuing their chess careers.

As is often the case with documentaries, Dellamaggiore went to tell one story, and found another. She planned to start shooting just around the time the recession was taking its toll on New York City school budgets.

"I came here thinking I would find an exceptional program that was doing really great things against the odds, and that is definitely what I found," says Dellamaggiore. "But the story that revealed itself to us that we weren't expecting was the story about the budget cuts."

Before filming began, Galvin was so concerned about the possible effect of the budget cuts that he called Dellamaggiore to warn her that the school might not be able to afford to take the kids to nationals.

"But we're gonna make it work somehow. How can we not?" explains Galvin, who during the course of an interview found a year-old chess notation sheet tucked into one of his dress shoes.

"It's the basic promise we make to the kids: you work really hard and you'll get this reward, you'll be able to play against the best players in the country. And if that's not true, then it really is about money. If one of the best teams can't go and compete because they can't get there because of economics, and a team wins juts because they can get there? It's kind of depressing."

Galvin has played a huge role in the team's success, making sure it receives constant support and encouragement, and he credits former principal Fred Rubino, who passed away in April, for establishing a culture where things like chess were valued.

But the key to IS 318's success is Elizabeth Spiegel, who came to the school in the '90s as a coach before becoming a full-time chess teacher six years ago. In her first year at the school, the team won the national title for beginning programs. She's now in her fourteenth year.

Watching Spiegel in the film, one sees a tireless teacher and mentor who commands the kids' attention and respect. Watching her in person, working one-on-one with a student while overseeing another dozen or so kids spending their lunch period playing chess, it's clear the woman is a natural teacher. She effortlessly maintains total control over a roomful of kids even with her back turned to them, and is able to quiet them down or get them to clean up without raising her voice or sounding angry.

"I think there's a critical mass, once a lot of kids like, kids just assume it's great," said Spiegel over the sound of one chess pieces after another hitting boards across the room. "But I've never had any trouble selling chess. It's fascinating. It's the one thing in my life I've never been bored with. There are so few things that don’t get dull after a while, chess is so endlessly fascinating."

Both Galvin and Spiegel liken learning chess to learning a language, but Spiegel takes the analogy further.

"It's easy to remember things when they have a narrative behind them and they make sense to you. It’s the difference between remembering a series of random words and remembering a story."

In a school where most of the kids live at or below the poverty level, she's made chess—a classic symbol of nerdom--cool. The trick, according to Dellamaggiore, is that at 318, chess is more than two people alone in a room.

"I think John and Elizabeth have done a great job of making chess a social activity. The kids get to spend a lot of time with their friends and engage with each other on this intellectual, as well as on a social level," explains Dellamaggiore.

"And they get to travel with each other, and have these coming of age experiences, which is different from what most people think chess is. Most people think chess is this anti-social individual activity-and it's not like that here at 318."

Perhaps the ultimate testament to Spiegel's gift with kids and chess is the fact that since filming was completed, two of the stars of both the movie and the team, Alexis and Pobo, who have moved onto high school, return every Saturday to help Spiegel coach the nearly 100 chessplayers currently under her tutelage.

"Brooklyn Castle" opens Oct. 19

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