Minority chess jocks dominate the game, but social realities prove tougher opponents.
Sportswriter Weinreb documents a year with Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School chess team—a dynastic powerhouse that has come to dominate the sport (yes, sport) since its formation two decades ago. Murrow’s success is made particularly noteworthy by the makeup of the team; these young geniuses are not the product of privilege and private education, but inner-city youths from low-income immigrant families. Weinreb deftly explores the quirky personalities of the team’s stars: wry, mordant Sal, a Lithuanian prodigy approaching grand-master status; intense and self-punishing Ilya, the team’s under-confident Russian captain; irrepressible Oscar, a genial and unpredictable gambler who’s family hails from Puerto Rico; and the worrisome Shawn, also Puerto Rican, a hulking, unmotivated talent who employs chess as a method for avoiding school work and hustling extra cash in the park. The set-up seems ripe for a standard inspirational Stand and Deliver narrative, but the book is compelling in its ambivalent view of the role of chess in these young students’ lives—their brilliance does not translate into stellar grades, and the future educational and professional prospects of the Murrow team are anything but secure, an irony driven home when the championship team, diffident, distracted and directionless, are congratulated in a photo-op by George Bush. Weinreb paces the action expertly—the individual chess matches are rendered as exciting as any NCAA nail-biter—and the season’s ebbs and flows intermingle with the prosaic details of inner-city adolescence to singularly lyrical effect. Weinreb gives much attention to the academic culture of the “alternative” public Murrow school, where individuality and personal responsibility for one’s education are emphasized; a double-edged sword for these gifted but at-risk students, who all too often abuse the school’s laissez-fare policies. Accounts of Murrow’s recent trend toward more conventional operations yield only more ambivalence: Fewer children are “left behind,” but the cost may be an end to the nurturing environment that has brought forth such frustrating, eccentric genius.
A fascinating subculture sensitively brought to light, along with some troubling questions.