Kids Take It to the Chess Board

By Mindy Zhang

The dismissal bell rang at 2:42 pm. As the majority of I.S. 318’s student body rushed out the exits, a group of 35 children ran wildly into Room 319 for chess club.

When people hear the word chess, some might picture bitter, old white men, or nerds wearing Napoleon Dynamite’s glasses with Steve Urkel’s suspenders attached to pants that expose their socks. A more accurate image would be players ranging from 8 to 25 years old without any resemblance to nerds.

Due to technological advances and cheaper travel, there has been a surge in rating inflation and young chess prodigies. New computer chess programs allow young players to analyze their games, learn new strategies, and play practice games. Cheaper travel prices give players more opportunities to compete in national and international tournaments.


Students compete in a tournament. (Photo by Ron Boocock)

I.S. 318, located at 101 Walton St. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has shaped a few chess prodigies since their chess program was first created in 1999.

John Galvin, a seventh grade Social Studies teacher turned assistant principal explains, “When we first started, our team was really, really small. We weren’t quite as good as we are now. We had smaller goals and as we met those goals, we kept increasing the level of those goals.”

“We started winning in the lower divisions called the ‘Under 700’ and ‘Under 1000’ sections. Now, 10 years later, I think we are the best scholastic team in the United States. Now, kids actually travel all over New York City to come to this school,” he says.

Their current highest rated player is Justus Williams, a sixth grader with a 2,114 rating classifying him as a Chess Expert. Justus lives in the South Bronx and commutes to Brooklyn daily to attend I.S. 318.

Justus only started playing chess three years ago when he was 7 years old. According to Justus, he first got into chess when his mother forced him to “do something [productive] in the morning and the only club available in the morning was chess.” His first rating was 311.

“I would have quit at that time because I wasn’t that good at it, but looking back, I am glad I didn’t,” says Justus.

Within two years, he gained more than 1,800 rating points by attending approximately 150 tournaments. Justus can analyze nine chess moves in advance (something known as “chunking”). His tremendous achievement has made him the featured topic in several newspaper articles and television news reports.

“Just last week, I.S. 318’s camera crew and Katie Schultz came over to my house twice in the same week to interview me and my family.” When asked about all the attention he receives, he replies, “I do like the attention, but sometimes it just gets annoying. Sometimes you just want to sit back, but people just keep bugging you.”

I.S.318: The Brooklyn Knights from Mindy Zhang on Vimeo.

I.S. 318’s chess club would not become what it is today had it not been for Galvin. When Galvin was still a teacher, he managed the after school chess club. Even as an administrator now, he is still immensely involved with chess.

“As the assistant principal here, I have a lot of duties that I have to take care of. I am partly in charge of the budget for the whole school, all the after school programs, our Gift-and-Talented program, but the program that I enjoy most of all is our chess program,” states Galvin. “That’s the program that still keeps me connected to the kids in this school.”

“Sometimes when you’re an administrator, you forget that the reason that you’re working in the school is not just to manage the adults and work on the curriculum—all of those things are important to the running of the school—but what I find most enjoyable about my whole job is still working with the kids on the chess team because we have new kids every year,” he continues.

A new addition to I.S. 318 is James Black, who is also in the sixth grade, with a rating of 1,871. Similar to Justus, James only started playing chess three years ago when his father saw people playing at Fulton Park and asked him if he would like to learn. His first rating was 900.

James sporting a cowboy hat at Dallas, TX for Grades Nationals (Photo by Elizabeth Vicary)

James sporting a cowboy hat at Dallas, TX for Grades Nationals* (Photo by Elizabeth Vicary)

James is currently the second highest rated sixth grader, and ranks fifth overall in the school.

“I picked chess [over other sports as my hobby] because it has to do with my daily life. Not only can I play chess, but I can use and express it in different things such as school,” says James. “Other sports like football—you don’t get to do the same, because you don’t get to run around in school except for recess.”

James’ most memorable tournament is Super Nationals V in Nashville, TN. Super Nationals occurs every four years, bringing players from all K-12 grades. James stayed in Nashville for five days, playing in the tournament for only three of those days. He finished 30th in his K-5 section.

“After our rounds when we tried to forget chess, we went swimming in the hotel.”

An up-and-coming chess prodigy is Emanuel Ogunremi who is currently in the third grade. Emanuel attends P.S. 20, but gets dropped off at I.S. 318 almost everyday for chess club. His rating is 1,285.

“I don’t mind coming here instead of going home to watch TV,” says Emanuel. When asked why, he answers jubilantly, “Because! Because I like chess and I like the people here!”

Emanuel’s role model is Justus. When asked about his idol, Emanuel’s face lit up. “Justus is my role model because he is in the sixth grade and he is already rated over 2,000. He is the best player in New York.”

Justus, James, and Emanuel have different ratings, but they put the same hard work and dedication into earning those numbers. They all attend chess club where they play 30-minute games with other members, solve chess puzzles, challenge people on the Internet Chess Club (ICC), attend weekend tournaments, and compete in state and national tournaments.

To non-chess players, this may seem to be too “hardcore” and they may start to picture these children as a cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Steve Urkel, but rest assured that chess is not all work and no play with these kids.

“I don’t think that chess is for geeks and nerds, because a lot of popular people [in our school] play it,” says James. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘geeks’ to describe chess players; they are just people who are interested in the game.”

Justus and James also play football in their spare time. “We have one [chess] player who is a really good football player so he can’t come to any of the tournaments from September to November,” states Galvin. “It’s hard for him because during that period of time, he doesn’t improve on his chess, and when he comes back, all the other kids have passed him.”

“We encourage our kids to be well-rounded, but for our top kids whose passion is chess—in order to be really great at it, you have to work really hard,” Galvin stresses. “That’s one of messages that we try to promote with the kids: If you want to be great at something, you have to earn it. And one way of earning it is to work really, really hard.”

Justus admits, “Sometimes reading [chess] books and watching lectures just get boring so I just play .”

“I don’t think I fall into the nerd category because I don’t get deep into my school work even though I put effort into it,” says Justus. “I think kids are geeks and nerds if their parents force them to be.”

The definition of a “chess prodigy” remains subjective. Some may view Justus and James as chess prodigies whereas others simply believe they are just a hard worker.

“It’s not clear to me what exactly a chess prodigy is. I think a prodigy somehow implies that the child is a genius and I don’t really know what that means,” says Galvin. “[Justus] is certainly much better than I am in chess, and I have been trying to improve for over 10 years. He is only 11 years old and is much better than I will ever be so it is a little unclear because he has only been playing serious chess for the 2-3 years and only in the last [year] has his rating really shot up.”

Justus practices with IM Greg Shahade before his round (Photo by Elizabeth Vicary)

Justus practices with IM Greg Shahade before his round (Photo by Elizabeth Vicary)

“So you never really know what the potential is for anyone, but Justus is one of the best sixth grader in the entire United States. I don’t know if that makes him a prodigy, or is he just really talented or a hard worker, or some kind of combination, but we are sure glad that he’s on our team.”

When James was asked if he thinks he could be a chess prodigy, he answers, “I don’t really think I’m a chess prodigy, but I could be getting there.” He adds, “As of now, no I’m not a chess prodigy.”

A lot of schools wish their chess program is as successful as I.S. 318’s, but it is far from perfect.

“We always try to improve the team, and it’s been difficult in the last few years because the economy has taken a big hit, and funding the team on the same level has been a bit of a challenge,” explains Galvin. “We spend a lot of more time selling candy trying to fundraise, and other activities that aren’t chess related.”

“Five or six years ago, we used to be able to pay for the kids’ food, and the trips were free. The school was able to pay for everything for the kids, but now the kids have to pay for their trips. There is actually a limit now to how many kids we can take to the Nationals.”

Galvin is currently keeping the chess program up-and-running by bringing the kids to Chess-in-the-Schools (CIS) tournaments. CIS is a nonprofit citywide educational organization “dedicated to improving academic performance and building self-esteem among inner-city public school children,” according to the organization’s Web site.

CIS gives money to the school that wins its Grand Prix (points are given to teams based on their performance at each tournament). I.S. 318 is currently in first place with 1,425 points with Frederick Douglass Academy (FDA) trailing behind with 1,095 points.

When asked about how he feels towards the chess players are nerds stereotype, Galvin replies, “Well, the reality is, in the century that we’re in, is that the ‘geeks and nerds’ are the ones who will rule, I think, the country and the planet.”

Finally, when Galvin was asked what his favorite piece was, the corner of his lips slowly moved towards the corner of his eyes.

“My favorite piece would be the king,” he says. “Because the king is the one piece on the board that you can’t play without.”

*James won first place in the sixth grade section (6.5/7) and the K-6 blitz championship (11/12) at Grade Nationals in Dallas, TX.