Brooklyn Castle Review

I got a nice email from the people who were promoting the movie Brooklyn Castle asking me if I would like a free review copy.  One of my newsletter subscribers had given him my name.

I work for the company releasing the critically-acclaimed documentary, BROOKLYN CASTLE. On the off chance you haven’t heard of the film already, it’s an incredibly uplifting film about some very impressive young chess players in Brooklyn who, in addition to winning competitions left and right, prove that chess is cool. I’ve attached information on the film to this email, but let me know if I can send along a DVD – I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film!

I said “sure!” and the DVD came quickly in the mail.

BrooklynCastle

I got a chance to watch it last night with my girlfriend, and wanted to share some of my thoughts on the film.

I am not a professional movie critic, but I am an avid chess player.  If you want to read a professional movie review, here is Roget Ebert’s review, where he gave the movie 3.5 stars.

Onward…

The movie has a truly inspiration story – the children live in an area where 70% of the people live below the poverty line.  Despite the odds against them, the school has dominated the scholastic chess world for years. 

The movie does a great job trying to make chess interesting and exciting, which is not easy to do.  They explain the things that most people might not understand, such as getting 1 point for a win, 1/2 point for a draw, and 0 points for a loss at a tournament.  They don’t go into explaining all of the rules of chess, and you don’t really need to know how to play chess to understand or enjoy the movie.

The characters in the movie are very interesting.  One girl is trying to become the first Black female to become a chess master.  One boy travels all across the city to attend this school, and is very gifted at chess.  Another boy had challenges like ADHD, and chess may be able to help him.

There are multiple story lines in the film, such as the kids, the parents, the teachers, the chess tournaments, exams, etc.  It does a great job of showing what life is like for these people.  I had no idea about some of the things – like kids taking tests to determine which high school they can go to.

The only thing I didn’t like was the contradictory idea about how the school is facing a budget crisis, but at the same time it seems like the children have an unbelievably good chess program at their school.

It seems like the producers needed a “bad guy”, so this became the people threatening to slash the school budget.

The budget story line reminded me of the reddit.com group “First World Problems”, where users post the “problems” they are having, such as…

firstWorldProblems

In the movie the chess team is facing their budget is being cut, which threatens the chess program existence.

OK, this does sound like a bad problem, but then you realize how extravagant some of the expenditures are for these kids, and it turns into a kind of “First World Problems” mockery.

  • My school’s budget is being cut, so we can only afford to have two famous international masters coaching our team.
  • The government cut our budget, so we can only send 56 kids on a 5 day trip to Minnesota for a tournament.
  • Budgets are tight, so we can only stay in a 4 star hotel during our week long trip to Dallas.

etc.

The great thing about chess is that it hardly costs anything to play it.  You buy a board, and some pieces, and you can play.  If you need books, there are normally dozens at the public library.  If you want a clock, that costs a little more, but still a very small cost compared to sports like hockey, golf, football, etc.

These kids in the movie however are at the complete opposite of the chess luxury spectrum. 

They have professional coaches and trainers.  They travel all across the country.  And not just the really strong players – even the kids with ratings of 400 travel to these huge tournaments!

I remember when I was in high school.  I wanted to be on the golf team.  So I tried out, didn’t make the cut, and so I wasn’t on the team.  The end.

Now it seems that EVERYONE is on the team.  The Brooklyn school doesn’t just send their best players to these out of state tournaments – EVERYONE gets to go.

Rated 100, and just learned the game yesterday?  GREAT!  Pack your bags!  You are headed to Nashville for the Super Nationals!

Of course I am exaggerating (slightly), but seriously?  Do 56 kids need to go to Minnesota and Nashville and Dallas to play in huge tournaments?  With all expenses paid?

The ironic thing is that these kids already live in a chess Mecca – New York City is one of the best chess cities in the United States.  They can probably get rated games there 7 nights a week.  There are probably a ton of huge tournaments all the time there.  Even if the budget was shrunk to zero, these kids should be able to play as much chess as they possibly want.

I am not trying to sound like Ebenezer Scrooge, or the guy who had to walk “3 miles to school in the snow, uphills both ways”, but I just didn’t feel “sorry” for all these kids.  It seemed to me like they had it quite good, and for a public school, where 70% of the people are poor, it seemed like they had quite a lot of privileges, and sense of entitlement.

Most of these “poor” kids all had smart phones, iPods, chronos chess clocks, etc.

At one point things got “so bad” they actually had to do a fund raiser!

GASP!

Oh the HUMANITY!

I know there are not any schools here in Colorado that have famous international masters coaching at their school.  There are no schools programs where you can get free private lessons from a Grandmaster.  There are no giant entourages flying to huge tournaments, on the tax payer dime.

Here in Colorado we might send TWO kids to ONE National tournament – the very best kids (one boy and one girl).  And we hold fundraisers to help that kid be able to go.  If a kid rated 400 wants to go – they can pay for that themselves.

It kind of reminded me of the “Big Bird” argument that Mitt Romney brought up.  Just like everyone loves Big Bird, most people like chess, and feel it is beneficial.  The question is – what role does tax payer money have to do with it?

I think it is great and wonderful that all these kids are going to huge tournaments, but is it really necessary when the government is going bankrupt?

If chess is beneficial (which I think it is), isn’t it just as beneficial if you are playing in local tournaments?  Or is it only beneficial when you are competing for trophies at National tournaments?  Do you have to travel across the country to benefit?

I don’t really even have a problem with tax payer money being used to support the best kids to go to the tournaments.  If some kid is super gifted at chess – they should nurture that gift.  Just like kids with special needs get extra attention, the gifted ones should also. 

But I do think it is somewhat unnecessary that this one school is sending 56 kids to Minnesota.

Then when the budget cuts come along, we are supposed to scream “But what about the children!!!!”

I have spent the majority of my career working with the US Government, and I have seen so much bloat and waste that it is ridiculous.  There is almost always some “dead weight” that can be cut from any budget.  There is almost always 1% that isn’t really needed.  So I didn’t really feel sorry for these kids or the schools being forced to make cuts.  Just like work contracts or expands given the amount of time to do it (Parkinson’s Law), the spending will contract or expand depending on how much money is given in the first place.

I thought there were some other story lines that could have been explored more.  Like why were these kids so good?  Were they geniuses?  Were they hard working?  Was it good coaching?  Was it a fluke?  How can other schools see the same results? etc.

This to me would be much more interesting than a “victim” story line about budget cuts.

OK enough ranting about the budget story line.  I understand the movie needed some kind of “bad guy”. 

It is similar to the Kasparov against the Machine documentary.  They tried to make IBM the “bad guy” with accusations of cheating (which was quite absurd, and unproven).  To me the idea of a computer beating the World Champion was enough story, without trying to introduce additional drama.

The kids were interesting and memorable.  I would be interested in some kind of followup about how they are doing now, and some of this was mentioned in the credits.

They tried to show how good the players were, since ratings are kind of hard to understand to someone who doesn’t follow chess.  They showed kind of a staircase diagram, where a Master is better than an expert, who is better than an 1800, etc. 

This was effective, but I think that it also would have been good to show a “Bell Curve” just to show how rare it is to be a Grandmaster, International Master, etc.  It didn’t really visually show that a 10 year old rated 1900 is at the 99.9 percentile for kids his age – just that there were all these ranks above him.

The film itself is very professional, and I did enjoy watching it.  My girlfriend, who is not a chess player, also enjoyed it.  We had a lot of discussion afterwards, which is also good.

I would certainly recommend it to any chess player, and would love to hear your thoughts on it.






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