Brooklyn Boro

OPINION: Changing the legacy of chess in Brooklyn

May 11, 2016 By Peter Barba For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Peter Barba is an undergraduate student-athlete on the basketball team at Columbia University in New York. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Peter Barba

The game of chess exists completely in reality, calculation and strategy; chess players are rarely described as imaginative. Bobby Fischer, for example, learned the game of chess in a cheap apartment at the intersection of Union and Franklin streets in Brooklyn as a child of an immigrant Russian mother. Fischer is known as the best chess player of all time, and he has garnered the attention of the media in recent years as films and documentaries about his life gain popularity, such as “Pawn Sacrifice,” starring Tobey Maguire. After rising to the top of the chess world, Fischer faded into the depths of the unknown, as he made many controversial comments that caused the masses to label him as insane. Fischer spent his later years as a recluse in Reykjavik, Iceland until his death.

But why did Bobby Fischer go mad? On the outside, someone so talented in a strategy based game would seemingly be able to apply this to success in real life. G. K. Chesterton, however, wrote in his most famous piece, Orthodoxy, Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.” Did Fischer go mad because of chess? Or was he checkmated by society?

Everyone sees the beggar crouched on the street. Everyone has heard of the rumors of the “mole people” who supposedly inhabit the NYC subway system. But not everyone knows the plight of the chess-hustler. If you have ever stopped on the street to play one of the people set up with a chess board, you understand that they are extremely talented and nearly impossible to beat.

Many chess-hustlers ask for a simple donation, a small fee, or even food in exchange for playing a quick match. Yes, these chess-hustlers are extremely talented, but why have they been reduced to playing matches on the street for money? Every chess game must end with either a checkmate or stalemate, and as these chess prodigies and hustlers who can see so many moves ahead go further into their games of life, they see themselves losing a Pawn, then a Bishop, then a Knight, Rook, Queen, and lastly their King is cornered.

The chess-hustler playing for money on the street and Bobby Fischer have a lot in common: both are extremely talented, but neither finds him or herself in a position to have success outside of the 64-square chessboard. This has been a problem throughout history for American chess players; as Fred Waitzkin’s “Searching for Bobby Fischer” expresses, “professional players in the United States are bitter about their poverty and lack of recognition.” So the question arises: How can society learn from the Bobby Fischer and the chess hustler?

Brooklyn’s own I.S. 318 seems to have learned from history during its transformation into a national powerhouse, winning more chess championships than any other school in the country. A documentary titled “Brooklyn Castle” that recently appeared on Netflix shows the school, its financial troubles (it is a title 1 school which means that poverty is above 60 percent), and the students’ journeys through life.

These students, unlike Fischer, balance chess with their schoolwork and other extracurricular activities. While Fischer would be described by G.K. Chesterton as living solely in reason and therefore at risk of going insane, the students of I.S. 318 have a support system full of creativity around them that helps not only on the chessboard, but in real life as well.

Chess-In-The-Schools, a non-profit organization that has helped I.S. 318 a great deal, has assisted these students in maintaining their chess program even during difficult financial times, and the program has also helped send these kids to different chess matches around the world. I.S. 318 is winning chess tournaments and developing well-rounded young adults at the same time, and therefore changing the legacy of chess in Brooklyn.

Bobby Fischer, Brooklyn’s onetime King of chess, was checkmated not by any singular opponent, but by living solely within the game of chess. Today’s chess prodigies of Brooklyn’s I.S. 318 balance chess with other activities, and will hopefully carry their winning ways on the chessboard throughout all aspects of their lives.