On my way from the A train to Saraghina last night for dinner (highly recommended, by the way), I came across this sight in Fulton Park.
Thirty or so men and boys all entranced by the game of chess. The soundtrack was a boombox blasting Gold Digger by Kanye West – not exactly concentration music for me, but hey, to each his own.
I make no bones about being a bit of a nerd, and I used to play chess competitively (until I was convinced that it was “lame” in seventh grade), so it was only because I was running late that I didn’t have a look at some of the action. But it did remind me that I.S. 318′s chess team needed some help. (It also made me jealous that I didn’t go to a school where the geeks were cool.)
Why I.S. 318? If you need to ask, do yourself a favor and watch Brooklyn Castle. They’re like the Yankees of middle school chess without the salary cap – they’ve won an absurd number of national championships, yet 65% of the school’s students live below the poverty line.
In June, I went to a screening in East Williamsburg, hosted by the St. Nicks Alliance. A few of the film’s personalities were on hand for a Q&A. I was happy to inform Pobo, now a 300-pound high-school shot-put star and clearly always the life of the party, that in the 19th century many great chess-players were also bodybuilders.
The kids and the assistant principal, John Galvin, who serves as the head coach, were very personable – far from the social-skills-free template one would expect from this crew. (Yes, they had their quirks – but don’t we all?) One thing was clear: chess has had an enormous positive effect on their lives.
Thanks to budget cuts, which play a role in the documentary, I.S. 318′s ability to fund its team has fallen. This year they have no money for chess. At all. So they turned to the kind folks of the Internet for help, launching a DonorsChoose page and hoping to raise $67,785 by the beginning of the school year.
As of Friday at noon, they had secured just over half of that total. By the end of the day, the drive was over. Pretty amazing what a great story can do for a great program.
One of the top players in the film, Justus Williams (no relation to yours truly), won the under-16 national championship last week. With that title comes a full ride to the University of Texas at Dallas, which has a serious team. Justus commuted over an hour each way from the Bronx to attend I.S. 318. Now his future is bright with possibilities.
Although the campaign is complete, you can still give to the team by going to their website. I’m sure they could always use more money so that more kids can travel. You can also follow them on their Facebook page.