Documentary 'Brooklyn Castle' Turns Chess Nerds into the Cool Kids on Campus

Posted by Liz Dwyer

When you stroll through the streets of New York City and stumble across chess players, it's hard not to stop and admire the strategic intensity involved in moving queens and pawns across that black and white-squared chess board. It turns out that for the past 13 years, students at Intermediate School 318, a 1,600 student public middle school in Brooklyn's Willamsburg neighborhood, have been bringing that same intensity to the game, racking up more national chess championships than any other school in the nation. Now we get a taste of their success through Brooklyn Castle, a must-see documentary about a year in the life of five members of I.S. 318's chess team.

What makes Brooklyn Castle especially inspiring is that the students don't come from backgrounds we might stereotypically expect of chess champs. Most of the kids involved in chess team come from low income, minority backgrounds—kids who aren't usually seen in most media as having exceptional academic skill or talent. But students like 11-year-old sixth-grader Justus, who has been selected for the United States Chess Federation’s prestigious All-American team, may cause you to rethink your assumptions.

I.S. 318's transformation into a chess powerhouse didn't happen overnight. In the early 1990s, the seed was planted on campus when a group of "chess nuts" began playing there. This loose collective blossomed in 1999 with the arrival of Chess-in-the Schools coach Elizabeth Vicary. That first year Vicary coached just 10 students during after school hours, but her efforts—and the sharp playing skills of the students—earned the school a national chess championship title. What's also amazing is how the chess team has made chess—and achievement in general—cool for their peers.

While I.S. 318 has dozens of chess trophies triumphantly on display, the staff and administration have also recognized that not every child wants to be a chess champ. They're now providing exceptional after-school learning opportunities in over 45 areas—including robotics, botany, and tennis—and have become a real model of what's possible when learning between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. is approached with a new lens. I.S. 318 has become one of the more academically successful middle schools in the city. No wonder the program's slogan is "chessucan."

The film opens in select theaters on Friday, October 19. To ensure that Brooklyn Castle is shown in your community, spread the word about the film and donate to help the filmmakers bring screenings to additional theaters and schools across America.