There’s a thick silence in the room. Apart from the click of timers, the plunk of pieces moving and soft pretzel chewing, there is nothing but the quiet that comes with complete concentration.
And that’s an odd sound for kids ages 11 to 14, but it’s 3:00 pm at Intermediate School 318 Eugenio Maria de Hostos School in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the National Champion chess team is practicing. The team practices five days a week for an hour and a half and compete against other NYC schools most Saturdays.
The team is the subject of a new documentary, “Chess Movie,” that has been submitted to the TriBeCa Film Festival, and has been written up in the NY Times. Still, Principal Fred Rubino says that in the 12 years the team has been winning, Nydia Velazquez, the US Congresswoman representing the school’s district, has never seen them play.
“I don’t know why, but she hasn’t seen us,” Rubino says.
Upstairs, in a corner of one of the two rooms that the 80 student-strong club practices in, Chess coach Elizabeth Vicary is reviewing a game recorded in a notebook move by move, surrounded by students.
“I love this move,” she says, deftly sliding white and black pieces across the grid, “I love A4 or A6 for your bishop, Humzha, but look how you’ve left all of your pawns exposed with the next move. I feel like sometimes you move too quickly and need to think a bit longer about what will happen if you make a move. Don’t worry about the clock so much.”
Humzha Alboorati age 11 takes the advice and his notebook, as well as a second bag of pretzels on the sly and begins another round with Tommy Zhang, his opponent for the afternoon. Students are paired according to their rank outlined by the US Chess Federation.
With 80% of the 1600 students at I.S. 318 living below the poverty line, I ask Ms Vicary if the daily snack is a big incentive to join chess team. She looks at me as if I’ve just asked if students also play checkers and say, “They are here for chess.”
“Chess has taught me about everything,” says Humzh, as he takes Tommy’s rook. Unfortunately, he continues talking during the game, goading Tommy as he goes and in a final power move, Tommy traps Humzh’s king, “When you were talking all that trash, you didn’t see me,” he says grinning.
“The academic impact (of chess) is secondary to the social impact. Often times kids get to middle school and they kind of get lost, not finding a niche and so chess offers that to a group of kids that otherwise might get lost along the path of middle school.” Says Vice Principal and chess club advisor John Galvin. “Our chess kids have amazing attendance, a great group of friends, and whether or not it impacts how they do on standardized math test is secondary to building kids who love to come to school. And it shows that urban education can work.”