Streams

Middle School Chess Team Wins National High School Championship

Monday, April 16, 2012 - 10:15 PM

4:37 p.m. | Updated The chess team at Intermediate School 318 Eugenio Maria de Hostos in Williamsburg, a perennial powerhouse that has won so many championships that its coach can’t remember the number, managed to top its already-impressive record on Sunday by winning the National High School Championships.

The team’s victory is the chess-world equivalent of a scenario that was frequently tossed around by college basketball pundits several weeks ago: that the University of Kentucky Wildcats might be so good they could beat the Toronto Raptors or another of the worst N.B.A. teams. If anything, I.S. 318’s victory is even more impressive: they beat the best high school teams in the country.

“This is the greatest achievement we’ve ever had, and probably ever will have,” John Galvin, one of the coaches, said in a telephone interview from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The victory might be a first for a middle school chess team.

Bill Hall, the executive director of the United States Chess Federation, which organized the championships, said he had never heard of a middle school winning the high school championships. “To my knowledge, it has never happened before,” he said.

Officially, I.S. 318 and Hunter College High School are co-champions. They tied for first place, but I.S. 318 was able to take home the first place trophy because its team had better tie-breaker scores.

To achieve the co-championship, I.S. 318 beat several other city chess teams this weekend, including Stuyvesant High School and Edward R. Murrow High School.

The I.S. 318 team has won at least two dozen national championships of various types in the last 12 years, Mr. Galvin said. Two team members -- Justus Williams and James Black, both 13 -- are rated as masters. And the team is the subject of a new documentary, "Brooklyn Castle," which had its debut last month at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where it won the audience award.

Isaac Barayev, 13, an eighth grader who lives in Forest Hills, Queens, said he and his 17 teammates were ecstatic when they found out they won Sunday evening.

“We were very excited,” said Isaac, who learned chess from his grandfather and has competed in tournaments since the third grade. “We were jumping up and down. It was crazy.”

But he said the victory had not surprised him. “We knew we had to win this,” he said. “This was our last year for the eighth graders. We wanted it a lot.”

After they collected their award on Sunday evening, Mr. Galvin and the team hopped in cabs to catch a 9 p.m. screening of “Brooklyn Castle,” which happened to be showing at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival across town. It was the first time many of them had seen it.

“They were on a total high,” said Katie Dellamaggiore, the director, who helped to arrange the screening. “They came straight from the tournament to the film festival theater.”

“Brooklyn Castle,” which Ms. Dellamaggiore said she hoped would be released in the fall, examines I.S. 318’s chess culture. (About half the school’s 1,600 students take chess classes, said Leander Windley, the school’s principal.)

“The chess geeks are the heroes of the school,” Ms. Dellamaggiore said. “It’s cool to be really smart; it’s cool to be into chess.”

The film also looks at the challenges I.S. 318’s longtime principal, Fortunato Rubino, known as Fred, who died suddenly earlier this month, faced in maintaining the team through a time of budget cuts. A $25,000 grant from the Brooklyn Navy Yard Cogeneration power plant helped pay for this year’s travel, Mr. Galvin said.

The team will travel to San Diego next week for the National Junior High Championships, he added, but the contest may be less exciting for the team than in years past. “It’s almost anticlimactic at this point because we’ve already won the high school championships,” he said.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post had the incorrect spelling of Isaac Barayev's name. It has also been updated to better explain its co-championship status with Hunter College High School.

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