The teenaged members of the chess team at New York City’s Intermediate 318 are the Yankees of chess. They’ve won 26 national chess titles—more than any other school in the country, which is an especially impressive feat when you consider the fact that more than 70% of I.S. 318’s inner city students live below the poverty line. But unlike the bottomless-budget Yankees, thanks to state cuts, the school located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has fallen on hard financial times that put the future of its chess program in jeopardy. The chess team and their school’s financial woes are profiled in an education documentary called Brooklyn Castle that opens today in select theaters.
It would be hard not to fall in love with the five kids profiled in the film, which won the audience award at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. First, there’s Rochelle Ballantyne, the player to beat, one of few girls on the team, who is well on her way to becoming the first female African American chess master in the history of chess. Another superstar, Justus Williams, joins the team as a new sixth grade student, and at 11-years-old has already won some of the highest national honors possible for a young chess player. And Alexis Paredes, another of the team’s top players, who sees chess as a stepping stone to a career that will allow him to help support his immigrant parents.
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At the other end of the spectrum is Patrick Johnston, the lovable underdog with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who eagerly wants to improve his ranking on the team. At the beginning of the film he’s second-to-last, but hopeful about his chances. “Hey, at least I’m not last,” he says. And finally, there’s Pobo, the team’s backbone, biggest cheerleader and arguably the film’s star, who dubs himself “Pobama” and runs for school president.
Beyond telling the touching stories of these unlikely champions, Brooklyn Castle serves to raise a battle cry for funding for after-school programs. Midway through the film the school is hit by budget cuts that threaten to cripple the team’s ability to travel to competitions in other states. The students write letters to their Congressmen and hold fundraisers in attempt to secure their trip to nationals. (Pobo also campaigns for school president on a platform that promises to restore money lost in the budget cuts.) “It would be a shame if because of some corrupt bankers ruining the economy our kids couldn’t go on the trips,” John Galvin, assistant principal and chess coach, says in the film. “I teach the kids that for every problem on the chessboard, you have to find a solution.” Just one of many life lessons the team learns along the road to nationals in this touching documentary.