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KRISTOF: Young chess masters face budget checkmate

  • Chess players at Intermediate School 318 with their United States Chess Federation's national high school trophy New York, April 17, 2012. Chess dominates the culture at the school, where most students come from families with incomes below the federal poverty level. (Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

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

Chess tends to be the domain of privileged schools whose star players have had their own personal chess coaches. 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 Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, became the first middle school team ever to defeat kids up to 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 black 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."

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