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Books

April 28, 2007

Brooklyn's Unlikely Chess Champs

Author Michael Weinreb on his two years with the stereotype-shattering chess masters of Edward R. Murrow High School.

Nick Matros

In his new book The Kings of New York, Michael Weinreb shatters your classic image of the pocket-protected, thick-glasses-wearing, pubescent chess geek as he introduces us to each member of Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School team that he shadowed for two years. On Page One, we find Oscar Santana playing a highly unorthodox chess opening known as the "Orangutan" against a frustrated opponent, screaming, "This is not chess!" while bobbing his head to the hip-hop from his headphones. All this contrasts with the photo, on the opposite page, of the Murrow team, in jackets and ties, posing with President Bush.

Michael Weinreb/Photo by Samantha Weinman
"Five years ago, I would have thought myself more likely to write a thorough examination of the life of manatees than a book about chess."

Michael Weinreb/Photo by Samantha Weinman

In addition to following the everyday drama of high-school chess champions in a ('til now successful) experimental Brooklyn public high school, we also witness first-hand the difficulties public education faces in the wake of Bush's No Child Left Behind mandates. Weinreb has an ensemble cast at work, among them: the adolescent genius, the dogged and self-sacrificing coach, the Murrow school, and, in the end, competitive chess itself.

In the following interview—conducted by email, and edited for clarity—Weinreb talks about the book and explains why opposing coaches thought he was cheating on behalf of Murrow and why ESPN should televise chess. (Also, you can hear Weinreb and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, May 2, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: In your acknowledgments you state that, while working as a sportswriter, you ran across a fax from coach Eliot Weiss about his Murrow chess program, knowing "virtually nothing" about competitive chess. What was it about Weiss's fax and the Murrow story that compelled you to pursue this project?

Michael Weinreb: Ever since I read Friday Night Lights, I'd harbored a vague aspiration that someday I wanted to write a work of narrative nonfiction, probably revolving around some type of competitive pursuit. But a friend asked me the other day if I ever could have imagined, five years ago, that I'd write a book about chess, and I think I told him I would have thought myself more likely to write a thorough examination of the life of manatees.
But the truth is that I never saw this as a "chess" story, anyway. As soon as I read that fax, I saw a narrative, and as soon as I met Eliot and the kids, I saw a story—several stories, actually—that ventured well beyond chess. Which was good, because I really did know next to nothing. That first meeting of the school year, when Eliot was asking all the newest members of the chess club if they knew what En passant was, and they're all nodding as if they know precisely what he's talking about—well, I had no idea what he meant, either. (French? I have to know French?) And that was fine with me, because sometimes I think coming to these things with a blank slate almost makes it easier.

GM: When you took on the project, it seems you were made to do an awful lot of research into the finer points of the game. Can you talk a little about that learning curve? Are you, yourself, a player to be feared now?

MW: Well, here's how I looked at it: I never played football, and I couldn't begin to expound on the intricacies of the Cover 2 defense (though I use it often on the PlayStation 2), but I've covered hundreds of football games. So my goal was to learn enough to understand the momentum of the game. (For instance, if one guy has more pieces than the other, he's probably ahead.) I learned about positioning and about the basics of opening and endgame theory, and I looked at people's faces a lot, and when I needed to know more about specific games, I asked questions. And then I asked again. And then I asked again. I also spent nearly two months writing very little, and attempting to defeat a computerized chess engine that insisted on taunting me relentlessly each time it won. So went my chess-playing career.

GM: You give very little voice to the technical details of the game, perhaps mentioning a specific defense, or the unusual opening of the "Orangutan," but for the most part you avoid annotation of matches and opt for a much more dramatic and readable narrative, for example, Alex Lenderman's match at Supernationals:

With his twelfth move, he plays his knight to the c4 square, and with his thirteenth move, he shifts it again, to take one of Brownwell's pawns on e5. This goes against the book and against every logical unfolding of the defense Alex is playing. Now it's too late. He's made a mistake, and he knows it…"

Even though you offer the reader a diagram of the board, you elect not to bog us down with specifics, and instead to focus on character, and the drama of the moment. Can you discuss this choice, and had there been any precedent for this style of chess writing?

MW: As I said, I saw this more as a sporting narrative than a chess book. My editor at Gotham, Brendan Cahill, had published Adrian Wojnarowski's The Miracle of St. Anthony (the story of Bob Hurley Sr.'s New Jersey high-school basketball team, which is one hell of a read) the year before, and he saw it that way, as well. The only precedent in the chess world was Searching for Bobby Fischer—also a great book (before it was a great movie), but more of a memoir.
It's funny. If you amble into a Barnes & Noble, you'll find bushels of chess books, but most of them have titles like Understanding the Nimzo-Indian. There's almost nothing written for a general audience, which is perhaps one reason why chess has remained so far removed from mainstream American culture: So few people have addressed it as sport, in a way the general public could understand.

"Once the kids realized I was just some weird dude hanging around, they quickly forgot I was there, which is exactly what you hope for."
GM: It would also be a mistake to consider this a book solely about chess. It provides a unique lens into the restructuring of New York City public schools, and the effects of No Child Left Behind. Was this a topic you had anticipated tackling? How successful has chess been in improving underperforming schools?

MW: It was one of those cases where I just went where the story took me. Murrow High is a unique school with a unique atmosphere, and because of that, I learned, it's a very fragile atmosphere. If you tinker with it too much, the place will cease to exist. And I had some people at the school telling me that policies—like No Child Left Behind, and Mayor Bloomberg's movement toward smaller schools—were beginning to exert pressure on Murrow. Meanwhile, these kids are headed to photo-ops with various politicians—with Hillary Clinton, with George Bush at the White House, because what makes for a better photo-op than a high-school chess team?—and so it just made sense to explore these things.
As for improving underperforming schools, there's a chapter in the book about a middle school, I.S. 318, which is in an area of Williamsburg which has not yet been entirely overrun by hipsters (it's Jay-Z's alma mater, in fact). A few years ago, the school introduced chess as a required course in its curriculum—the kids who like it can take more and can compete for the school's traveling team, which just won the junior-high national championship—and the school has gone from average or below-average to far-above-average. So it works, no question. It's just a matter of getting people to realize it.

GM: As we follow the team's progress over the year, you offer glimpses of members' lives, their personal obstacles, the daily concerns of inner-city adolescents. The reader gets to know each team member, each of whom grows and changes and undergoes somewhat of a character arc, much like characters in a novel. We see how their individual relationships change, but we rarely are shown how they relate to you, the guy following them around taking notes on everything they say and do. Did you have any difficulty breaking down barriers? Did you develop any friendships?

MW: My editors and I made a conscious decision as I was writing to eliminate any first-person references—essentially, we figured it was better for me to get out of the way of the story. But once the kids realized I was just some weird dude hanging around, they quickly forgot I was there, which is exactly what you hope for. The most awkward moments came at chess tournaments, where several times, because I was hovering over games and writing things down, I was implicated by opposing coaches in some sort of grand cheating scheme. Which is funny, because most of the time I was writing down the color of someone's shirt.

GM: Although you portray each individual with some redeeming quality, the team members are not always painted in the most flattering of lights, at times coming off as arrogant, jealous, or hyper-competitive. Are you still in contact with any of them? How have their reactions been to the book? Or how do you imagine they will react?

MW: I tried to be extremely careful with the way I wrote things—I wanted to give complete portraits of these kids, but they're teenagers, and I do think when you cover high-school kids you have to give them a little slack. Plus, I liked them, and when you're spending this much time with people, you want to be objective but you also have to be a human being. So there were certain details of their lives that I purposely did not pursue. That said, I also didn't want to portray them as clichés.
I try to keep in touch with all of them, at the very least through Eliot Weiss—and some, like Sal and Alex, have done interviews and publicity around the book. As far as I know, none of them hate me yet, but that could change.

"I don't see why the national youth chess championships couldn't become an ESPN event similar to the National Spelling Bee. I mean, if people will watch televised darts, they'll watch anything, right?"
GM: In addition to taking on public education, and gifted adolescent psychology, you offer a concise overview of the history of competitive chess, its champions, its villains, the disproportion of men to women within the game, and finally the game's changes with the advent of computers. You allude to fears of cheating, to the death of private chess clubs, and the rarity of face-to-face matches in today's world. Where, in your opinion, is chess headed? And can it ever again enjoy the popularity it once had?

MW: Well, to be fair, chess has only burst through into the mainstream once or twice in the past 50 or 60 years: The Fischer-Boris Spassky match in 1972, which was precipitated largely by the Cold War metaphor of the whole shebang; and the release of the movie version of Searching for Bobby Fischer (and maybe the whole Kasparov-Deep Blue thing, too). But I do think the time is ripe for another of those moments. It's just a matter of the right people noticing. I don't see why the national youth chess championships couldn't become an ESPN event similar to the National Spelling Bee. I mean, if people will watch televised darts, they'll watch anything, right? It would take a good editor, and a great color commentator—someone like Bruce Pandolfini (the real one, not the guy Ben Kingsley played in the movie)—to make it happen.

GM: Can you speak a little about professional team chess, how does it work, how would one follow it? How are the New York Knights doing?

MW: Really? You're a Knights fan? And I am a Boston Blitz fan. How horribly awkward. I find it prophetic and sad that the Blitz lost to the Knights in last year's Eastern Division semifinals. I suppose it will take 86 more years before they break through.
Actually, this concept was invented by a very smart guy named Greg Shahade (who makes a couple of cameos in Kings). There are teams of four or five players in several cities, and they play against each other by computer for now (since the league currently has no sponsors). But if you check the website, it's pretty cool—each team has a logo (the Seattle Slugger is a knight with boxing gloves—has Disney ever made a movie about a horse that wins the light heavyweight title?), and there are statistics and standings (the season starts in August). There have been a lot of smart chess players over the years, but very few have figured out how to market the game to a mainstream audience. I give Greg much credit for giving this a shot.

GM: The ensemble nature of the book makes it ripe for screenplay or even stage -play adaptation. Anything in the works? Whom would you envision as a central protagonist? What actors could you imagine taking on the roles?

MW: At this point, the rights are still up for grabs. I'm not sure anyone in Hollywood actually reads, but I remain optimistic. You're the first one to suggest a stage play, however—but I guess if they can make a musical out of a spelling bee and the Billy Joel catalog, they can make a musical out of anything. Maybe Harvey Fierstein could play the coach (though Eliot Weiss, the actual coach, keeps telling me its either Brad Pitt or he's backing out of the deal). Who could play the kids? I don't know. Whatever happened to that little dude from Jerry Maguire? If he's not addicted to crystal meth by now, maybe he could play Sal Bercys.

GM: Do you consider this book a departure from sportswriting, or a continuation of it? What projects do you have in mind for the future?

MW: As I said, I see this in many ways as a sports book, which is why it felt like such a natural fit to me. I've just agreed to do another book with Gotham, but this one is a little more "traditional." I probably shouldn't tell you the specifics, since I'm absurdly superstitious and I haven't actually signed the contract yet, but since its already been announced, what the hell: It's tentatively called 1986, and its about how the events of that year kind of set the stage for all the growth and excess of modern sport.
Now I have to spend the next two years proving this theory makes sense.

Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.







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Article by Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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