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Original Issue

The Heart of the Game

A powerful new documentary follows the moves of an inner-city school's championship chess team

For all the hype the Nets' move to Brooklyn has generated, it will take more than an elegant logo to produce a championship season. Still, the borough already has a true competitive powerhouse, located just northeast of the Barclays Center in Williamsburg in the form of I.S. 318's middle school chess club.

Brooklyn Castle follows the Chess Nuts, as the team is known, from 2009 to '11, as they defend their position as one of the nation's best scholastic chess programs. With 65% of the school's students living below the poverty level, the program depends on public funding, and when the recession hit in late '08, budget cuts threatened to eliminate the program entirely.

These story lines give Brooklyn Castle all the ingredients for your standard underdog sports film, but with 30 national titles since 1997, the kids at I.S. 318 fit that label about as well as they do the classic chess-nerd cliché, which is to say not even a little. Top-ranked Rochelle sports iPod earbuds as she bulldozes opponents, each win bringing her closer to becoming the first black female master. There's brooding prodigy Justus, 11, who hones his talent at the Marshall Chess Club (where a 13-year-old Bobby Fischer famously checkmated master Donald Byrne in 1956) while sporting a black Rocawear hoodie. And then there's Alexis, whose Ray Lewis--like intensity is born of a desire to one day provide for his immigrant parents.

The film's release in this election season gives the rhetoric of class warfare a much-appreciated face and name (quite literally, too, when 12-year-old Pobo, known as Pobama, runs for class president on a platform of restoring the club's budget) and the film a sense of deeper import. Ultimately though, director Katie Dellamaggiore avoids preaching, choosing to focus on this extraordinary group of kids learning under great pressure to make the right moves.


"That's just the Brady Bunch. This is a defense."


Seahawks cornerback, comparing the Patriots' offense with Seattle's D, after picking off quarterback Tom Brady during Seattle's 24--23 victory over New England.