Meet the Champs

You see America and its education system in all their glorious, exhilarating, crushing, infuriating contradictions in our national high school chess champion team.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Nicholas D. Kristof

Chess tends to be the domain of privileged schools whose star players have had their own personal chess coaches since elementary school. Yet the national champion team comes from a high-poverty, inner-city school, and four-fifths of its members are black or Hispanic.

More astounding, these aren’t even high school kids yet. In April, New York’s Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, where 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, became the first middle school team ever to defeat kids about four years older and win the national high school championship.

The champs are kids like Carlos Tapia, a Mexican-American in the eighth grade, whose dad is a house painter and mom a maid. The parents can’t play chess and can’t afford to give Carlos his own room, but they proudly make space for his 18 chess trophies.

“Chess teaches me self-control” that spills over into other schoolwork, Carlos said in the I.S. 318 chess room, as a rainbow of students hunched over their boards, brows furrowed.

This will be my last column for a number of months, as I’m taking a leave to work on a new book with my wife. So I asked my Twitter followers what they’d like me to write about in this column, and one suggested I address: How do you do your job without getting incredibly depressed?

I promise, I’m not the Eeyore of journalists. The truth is that covering inequality, injustice and poverty can actually be inspiring and uplifting because of kids like Carlos. Just sprinkle opportunity around, and dazzling talents turn up.

This isn’t about chess. It’s about investing in kids in ways that transform their trajectories forever. The returns on capital would make Wall Street jealous.

Take Rochelle Ballantyne, who was raised by a single mom from Trinidad and soared on the I.S. 318 chess team. Rochelle, now 17 and aiming to become the first African-American woman to become a chess master, has won a full scholarship to Stanford University. She’s planning to attend even though she has never visited the campus.

“We were meant to break stereotypes,” Rochelle told me. “Chess isn’t something people are good at because of the color of their skin. We just really work very hard at it.”

That seems to be the secret. A part-time chess tutor named Elizabeth Spiegel arrived at I.S. 318 in 1999 and parlayed a tiny budget into a team that drills tirelessly. A dynamic, passionate teacher who volunteered much of her time, she nurtured a team that since 2000 has won more middle school championships than any other in the country.

One way of assessing what she has accomplished: Based on estimated chess ratings, Albert Einstein would rank third on the I.S. 318 team.

I wish the column could end on this triumphant note. But if these extraordinary kids are a reminder of what can happen when we invest in creating opportunity, they are also a reminder that budget cuts fall disproportionately on the needy.

“Funding for extracurricular activities has dried up,” said John Galvin, an assistant principal who oversees the 95-member chess team. The kids run bake sales, candy sales and walkathons to raise the $50,000 needed to attend tournaments each year, but on trips they sometimes survive on peanut butter.

Galvin has tried approaching corporations and hedge funds for donations but has had little luck. Budget cuts have already trimmed the after-school chess club to three days a week from five.

A moving documentary about the team, “Brooklyn Castle,” is scheduled to air on PBS later this year, and that may help with fund-raising.

But similar cutbacks are playing out all across America. In 35 states, inflation-adjusted school financing is below 2008 levels, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As of July, school districts have slashed 328,000 jobs since 2008, and budget cuts have devastated early childhood education that lays the foundation for children’s lives.

Affluent kids continue to enjoy nursery school and chess tutors, even as programs for poor kids are eliminated. Education is the best escalator out of poverty, but for too many kids it’s creaking to a standstill.

As we make historic fiscal decisions in the coming months, let’s not balance budgets by slashing investments in our future. That would be like economizing on heating bills by feeding the front door into the fire.

While on leave, I’ll be rooting for kids like Carlos to soar to another national championship — and far beyond. Given the returns, the question isn’t whether we can afford to invest in opportunities for kids but how we can possibly afford not to.

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