The Kings of New York
Most of the stars of Michael Weinreb's book share one quality: They play chess better than they do anything else. Some of them are not especially good at making it to class on time. A couple of them seem incapable of planning anything beyond the next move on the chess board. But, wow, can they play their game.
The Kings of New York is, in part, a celebration of the success that a particular group of students who attended Murrow High School in Brooklyn had at chess tournaments during 2005 and 2006. Beyond that, it's a plea for diversity and flexibility in educational settings, because part of the reason for that success was the high school itself. Murrow was set up for students who would flourish when they were allowed to goof off. Some of the chess players spend a lot of their spare time playing cards in the cafeteria. Nobody would call many of them "well-rounded." But they are awfully good at what they care about being good at.
Where will the expertise of these chess players lead them? It's an open question, and Michael Weinreb acknowledges that it's nearly impossible for even the best players to make a living at their game. But Bruce Pandolfini, a chess teacher, doesn't worry about it. "Their lives have already been made much better," he contends. "They're better problem-solvers. They're already tougher mentally. They're already more creative... The benefit will last for the rest of their lives."
Without contradicting Pandolfini, Weinreb suggests that the truth is more complicated than that. He points out that some chess prodigies have grown weary of the game, and that others have gone nuts. He presents the young men with whom he spent more than a year in all their glory and goofiness, inviting the reader to see them as intriguing and worthy of attention, both in spite of and because of their passion for chess.
Mad Hot Chessboard
New York Times, March 4, 2007
Book Review By James Kaplan
THE KINGS OF NEW YORK: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team.
By Michael Weinreb.
288 pp. Gotham Books. $26.
Approximately one million years ago, when I was in my early teens, I briefly dipped a toe into the world of competitive chess. Much of the action in those days (the mid-1960s) took place in the old Henry Hudson Hotel on West 57th Street: I sharply remember the deep hush in the second-floor ballroom on tournament Sundays, the long tables lined with green-and-cream-squared oilcloth boards, the soft ticking of a hundred chess clocks amid the miasma of deep thought. On the walls of the Manhattan Chess Club, also in the hotel, hung black-and-white glossies of visiting greats: Reshevsky. Denker. And, of course, with his plaid shirt buttoned to the neck, his long haughty nose and basilisk stare, the boy genius Bobby Fischer.
Fischer was my ideal, the towering prodigy who at 13 had destroyed one of America's top players in a match called ''The Game of the Century.'' He was brilliant and merciless, withering in his scorn for lesser players (which meant all other players), whom he called ''weakies'' -- also known as ''patzers'' or ''fish.'' (Soon enough, I would discover that far, far down the chess food chain, one of the fish, or rather minnows, was me.)
Chess was an exclusively masculine world, and largely adolescent. Fischer's boyhood style -- call it nerd-macho -- still set the tone when I played: shirts buttoned all the way up were in evidence, as were eyeglasses repaired with Scotch tape. Yet rather than haplessness or distraction, the quality most characteristic of chess nerds was ferocity. However awkwardly they might navigate the outside world, over the board they were killers.
The more things change, the more they stay the same ... with variations. In this thrilling, vigorously reported, deeply empathic book, Michael Weinreb, who has contributed articles about sports to The New York Times and Newsday, brings to vivid life a contemporary chess world suffused with its own updated version of nerd machismo, now wearing sweat pants and basketball sneakers and MP3 earbuds. It's a world over which the insuperably arrogant boy-ideal of Bobby Fischer still hovers -- only now there are girls.
Well, a few. In truth, during the year Weinreb chronicles (2004-5), the varsity chess team of Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn consists of eight boys. And while intellectual ferocity and social unease still prevail -- what would chess be without them? -- the players Weinreb profiles in ''The Kings of New York'' are considerably more complex and vulnerable than the bouncy subtitle would indicate. Chess may warp the mind a little (and the author makes the subtle point that there are competitive advantages to seeming a little more warped than one really is), but for boys on the short end of the socioeconomic stick, the game can also be a step toward better things.
Weinreb's young, Eastern European/Hispanic/African-American cast of characters owes its season in the sun to several historical factors. First came Murrow itself, founded in the mid-'70s with a nontraditional curriculum and selective admissions. Then, in the early '80s, a math teacher at the school named Eliot Weiss founded a chess club. In short order, a sharp spike in immigration from the soon-to-break-up Soviet Union brought an influx of brilliant young chess players to Brooklyn; a lot of them wound up at Murrow. And soon, thanks to Weiss's tireless fund-raising and publicizing, the school had a team, and then city, state and national championships -- and then a dynasty.
The author has a gift for getting into the skin of his characters -- moving in with them, in effect -- and making them completely sympathetic. Murrow's top two players also happen to be the two highest-ranked 15-year-olds in the United States: a slight, blond Lithuanian named Sal Bercys and a tiny Russian boy named Alex Lenderman. The two actively dislike each other yet seem locked in a perpetual, grudgingly respectful, competitive pas de deux. Third board belongs to a huge, monosyllabic, hip-hop-attired freshman named Shawn Martinez. ''Because of the way he looks, because of his sleepy visage and his slow drawl and the extra weight he carries, people have never taken Shawn to be much of an intellectual threat,'' Weinreb says. ''That's why chess matters to him as much as anything else in his life.'' It's also why Martinez is frequently able to outhustle opponents in his specialty, blitz -- lightning-fast chess, usually played for money.
The book vibrates with the energy of the outer boroughs. These boys have parents who work in nursing and civil engineering and plane-cleaning at Kennedy Airport. They live in walk-up apartments in blue-collar neighborhoods, apartments filled with chess trophies and hope. Yet, Weinreb writes, ''in few aspects of life do the boys from Murrow have the edge over anyone.'' One of the book's key clashes is a match, at the 2005 Supernationals in Nashville, between Shawn Martinez and Josh Weinstein, a highly ranked senior on another tough New York team, from Stuyvesant High School. Weinstein -- handsome, athletic, modest; a natural aristocrat -- is on his way to Princeton. Martinez, who would rather hustle chess in Washington Square Park than do anything else, hasn't given much thought to his future. The outcome of their match is heartbreaking. But then, this game isn't for sissies. And, as Weinreb asks, ''Where would Shawn be without chess? What would his life be like then?''
James Kaplan teaches magazine writing at the New School. He is working on a biography of Frank Sinatra.
Bill Littlefield & James Kaplan
Only a Game and NY Times
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