Considered the rulers of the grade school chess world. the kids of I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, NY live and breath the game of chess. While many schools focus on after-school programs related to sports or music, chess has its own sense of celebrity at this middle school. Consistently competing in national championships, the kids regularly bring home individual and grade-level trophies. Leading the way are Elizabeth Vicary (coach/chess teacher), John Gavin (assistant principal/coach) and Fred Rubino (principal). As a way to allow their students the chance to study the game and get to a level of competition, these educators allow the kids a chance to replace a few of their classes each week with chess. This helps them continue their dominance in competitions and high reputation in the world of chess.
The students that are the focus of this documentary are at all skill, class and background levels. Seeking an opportunity to be the first black woman to earn the title of chess master, Rochelle anchored the 8th-grade team to start the film. After graduating to high school, she found herself in a difficult place of not yet having achieved her chess master goal but trying to balance her continued chess practice and competitions with her rigorous academic work. Stepping in as the leader after Rochelle’s departure, Pobo balances his passion for chess and his desire to get politically engaged. Pobo serves as the emotional leader of the group while also earning the honor of representing the student body as the student president. Alongside Pobo is the extremely talented Alexis. Dreaming of a chance to get into a great high school, chess appears to come fairly easily to him but he worries about needing to pass the standardized exam for acceptance to a top high school. Patrick is a newcomer who is battle ADD and self esteem issues in order to show improvement at the game. His goal rests upon simply showing progress in his ability to win at chess. Finally, Jutus had already achieved a high status prior to joining the chess team. His biggest struggles happen to be his own expectations, as he feels like all eyes are on him.
While the film focuses mostly on the impact of chess on the students’ lives, there are a number of threats they are facing to their success. The biggest of all of the threats happens to be the economy and the effect on the school’s budget. Before the cuts, the team traveled to 3 major tournaments and a host of smaller local competitions, bringing back a number of accolades after every one. After the budget cuts, they had to drop on of the major competitions and reduce the number of kids that could go to nationals. Pobo worked with Gavin and Rubino to get students and families to meetings to discuss how to get the attention of politicians and attempt to raise some money. The efforts manage to accumulate some gains and help to support the chess team, but additional cuts have continued to threaten the funding for the team.
Katie Dellamaggiore’s approach to this story was to really make the viewer pull for these kids, even though they were like the Yankees of the chess world. Each of the kids are highlighted for both their successes and challenges. Rochelle left the school on a high after her final 8th-grade competition but she was met with the challenge of losing the structure of the I.S. 318 team. Alexis and Pobo both get chances to exhibit their desires outside of chess to achieve other goals. Meanwhile, Patrick revealed his challenges with ADD but also shared how playing chess allowed him to focus and stay more in check. The camerawork is a little funky at times with choppy movements, but the cameras definitely capture the fluctuations in energy levels of the students as they practice and compete.
This is a wonderful little documentary that provides a compelling narrative while proving the importance of the need to advocate for more support for educational activities. The learn more about the story behind the film, click here.
Dan’s Rating: 4.0/5