Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Brooklyn Castle

In late November, I saw the documentary Brooklyn Castle at the Landmark Opera Plaza.

Brooklyn Castle; directed by Katie Dellamaggiore; documentary; (2012) - Official Website

Brooklyn Castle tells the story of the IS 318 chess team.  New York City has always interested me with its large public school system.  Every school I went to was named after a person, religious icon or geographic entity.  New York with its PSs and ISs holds a certain fascination for me.  How much pride can you have for IS 318?  For one thing, I'd have a hard time keeping track of the numbers.  I still get cross streets mixed up in the numbered streets and avenues.  IS 318 (which seem roughly equivalent to Junior High in most school districts) is well renowned for its chess team.  As shown in the film, some students transfer to IS 318 for its chess program as other students may transfer to a school with a well regarded football or basketball program.

The driving force behind IS 318's chess program is Elizabeth Vicary who has subsequently gotten married is now Elizabeth Spiegel.  It was unclear what subject she taught since the film focused on her chess related activities.  IS 318 appears to have a classroom dedicated as a chess room.  I was on my high school chess team and we rolled out chess mats on lab tables in a chemistry lab.  The chess team faculty sponsor was the chemistry teacher. 

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that IS 318 seems to devote considerable resources to its chess club including sending several students to Dallas and Minneapolis for tournaments.  Recent budget cuts have forced fundraising and belt-tightening for the club....much as it likely has for other extracurricular programs throughout the nation.

Brooklyn Castle is supposed to be a feel good film.  I forgot to mention that the majority of IS 318's students fall within federally defined poverty levels.  The team isn't just good but it is overcoming the odds in being good.  The film follows a handful of players over the course of a year or so.  We see their triumphs and failures...on and off the chess board but I never really connected with the players. 

I have my own  theories about chess.  I'm not so sure chess success translates to life success.  I recently met a (former) chess grandmaster and she was telling me about her life plans which didn't involve chess.  I wondered how much chess mastery helps in her current profession.  Chess is about practice, recognizing certain positions on the board and understanding/memorizing appropriate responses.   At the highest levels, all the players have this common foundation which takes considerable time & effort to build and maintain.

I recall a story about Emanuel Lasker, a long-time World Chess Champion and noted mathematician.  No less than Albert Einstein chided Lasker for the time he spent studying and playing chess.  Einstein felt chess was deleterious to Lasker's skills as a mathematician and that Lasker was wasting his mental talent on chess.  In Brooklyn Castle, it was noted that some of Vicary's students had chess ratings higher than Einstein's rating.  I didn't get the sense any of these kids were going to be the next Albert Einstein.

Chess is a very specialized skill set like baseball or football.  As has been seen repeatedly, success in one area does not necessarily translate to success in another area.  For me, chess is a pleasant diversion...a mental exercise which has positive benefits like physical exercise.  Too much chess is like too much exercise - your life begins to revolve around the activity to the detriment of your life as a whole...perhaps like seeing too many movies.

The most interesting person in the film was Elizabeth Vicary who received less screen time than her students.  I wanted to know more about her than was shown on the screen.  Fortunately, she has a blog where she shares some of her thoughts.

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