My Review of Brooklyn Castle (originally posted on The Huffington Post Entertainment)

It's always great fun to see visual depictions and analysis of activities I've studied. Unlike Dance Moms, the drama in the recent documentary Brooklyn Castle isn't manufactured. It brings an important story, and activity, to a broader audience-- in a way not done since the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. Below is my review of the documentary, originally published on The Huffington Post as "Cheering for a Mate in Two", but I wanted to add a few other thoughts.  Chess is one of the three competitive activities I studied for my dissertation (and now FORTHCOMING book!), Playing to Win. I actually met two of the stars of Brooklyn Castle when they were still in grade school. I've written about the Bryant twins (and Justus Williams, who is also a focus of Brooklyn Castle) before, but here I am with them the summer we first met. Hard to believe they are now thinking about college. With the Bryant twins back in the day

I wanted to quickly highlight some things in Brooklyn Castle that might surprise you, and say that these are totally consistent with all my research on scholastic chess.  These include seeing kids cry at tournaments, noticing that most of the kids have little to no desire to be professional chess players and instead want to be doctors or lawyers or involved in business, observing that most of the kids are scared to lose their ranking and rating (especially in a public way) and that this is especially true when it comes to competing against a teammate and not a total stranger, and noting that while it shouldn't matter how much money you have when you play chess resources clearly matter in terms of keeping kids off the streets and getting them access to the best coaches. All of this is competitive kid capital in action.


You might not know how to play chess. Or you might think chess is boring. But that shouldn't stop you from seeing a documentary about some special middle school kids who are pretty good competitive chess players and anything but boring.

Brooklyn Castle features a group of students and their teachers at I.S. 138 in Brooklyn. Approximately 65 percent of 138's students live below the federal poverty line. But the school offers them the opportunity to pursue about 45 different activities afterschool. One of those activities is chess.

And pursue chess they have. The school has won more national championships than any other junior high in the country. In fact, last year they became the first middle school team to ever win a high school championship.

Brooklyn Castle follows the school's chess club for one year, from spring 2009 to spring 2010. Students come and go but the supportive teachers and administrators remain the same. Over 100 kids vie for a spot to represent 138 at state and national championships; the team roster shrinks during the course of Brooklyn Castle thanks to the economic crisis and subsequent school budget cuts. It's serious stuff, but the filmmakers have made the students' and teachers' reaction to all the dramas entertaining.

Despite financial setbacks the students achieve a variety of personal and team goals both on and off the chess board. Eighth grader Pobo runs for school president and another eighth grader, Alexis, studies for the exam he must do well on in order to be accepted into a selective public high school. Eleven-year-old Patrick has more personal goals, like earning a high enough rating to represent his school at a chess tournament, which is particularly difficult for him given his ADHD.

In many ways Patrick is the most intriguing subject in Brooklyn Castle because he was the only one of the five featured students portrayed as a true underdog. While we are often told that the kids of I.S. 138 are poor and that the school faces serious budget cuts, what we see is slightly different. In the end the school finds a way to send its top players to multiple events throughout the year that require travel and hotel stays. These kids are coached -- sometimes privately -- by Grand Masters, an opportunity thousands of young chess players would relish. Alexis, whose immigrant family isn't well-off, is shown studying for that selective high school test with a prep book. Even if his family did not buy the book and it was donated, Alexis has access to a resource that tens of thousands of NYC students simply don't have. Because Patrick isn't one of the top players on the team, like Alexis and Pobo, he doesn't get as many extras and he has to look to fellow student Pobo to "coach" him to help achieve his chess goals.

Other documentaries have shown how young students cope with differential access to resources in competitive settings in more nuanced ways. 2002's Academy Award-nominated Spellbound focuses on middle school kids like those in Brooklyn Castle. In Spellbound we see a range of experiences from across the country -- from the West Coast kid whose dad pays people to pray for his son during the Bee to the East Coast girl who lives in one of the worst areas of D.C. -- and the ability to compare gives the viewer an appreciation for what each individual student accomplishes in the finals. Another documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom (shortlisted for a 2005 Academy Award), focuses on competitive ballroom dancing in the New York City public school system among elementary school students. Both Brooklyn Castle and Mad Hot Ballroom have similar messages in terms of the need to fund afterschool programs, but Mad Hot Ballroom never explicitly lays out the need to support the arts in schools the way Brooklyn Castle does. The economic climate has certainly changed since 2005, and film-goers have become accustomed to numbers and statistics in documentaries about education (as in 2010's Waiting for Superman [for my review click here]), but the understated yet clear message in Mad Hot Ballroom may have been even more effective in Brooklyn Castle.

The best spokesperson for the importance of chess is 138's chess coach, Elizabeth Vicary Spiegel, arguably the breakout star of the film. Spiegel's calm eyes, but energetic coaching and teaching style, make you wish you had a teacher like her in middle school. Spiegel cogently explains how chess can impact children's lives by teaching them particularly lessons -- like learning how to think through problems, how to be patient, how to make a plan, etc. She is shown supporting not only her top players, but also her weaker players, like Patrick. Spiegel appears to be able to zero in on what each student needs to work on both on and off the board to help them succeed in the present, and hopefully in the future as well.

We need more coaches and teachers like Elizabeth Vicary Spiegel in classrooms across the country. We need more characters like her on film. And, we need more films like Brooklyn Castle. This documentary is better than almost any reality television show on related children's activities (like dance or beauty pageants) because of the serious tone with which it treats its subjects. Even if you don't know how to play chess, trust me, and check out Brooklyn Castle. You'll find yourself cheering for a mate in two despite yourself.

Foot Perfect: A Review of Jig

One weekend I went shopping at a mall in downtown Boston—and was transported into another culture.  A hotel, connected to the mall, was hosting an Irish dancing competition (or “feis”). My friend turned to me and asked, “Wait, is this a child beauty pageant, or something else?”  With the bobbing heads full of Shirley Temple-like artificial curls, the tanned legs, the glitzy, flouncy dresses (that can cost around $2500), the make-up, and the anxious mothers and daughters, you’d be excused for thinking you might be at a child beauty pageant (And, indeed, I think the events might be distant cousins for historical and sociological reasons—but more on that another time. In the meantime, it's interesting to think how appearances in Irish dancing compare to the appearance of young, Irish Traveller girls). But you’d be wrong. Jig, a 2010 feature documentary just released to DVD, focuses on nine contestants competing at the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, held in Glasgow, Scotland.  The film shows the extraordinary hard work, practice, and athletic ability (including a serious cardio workout) that goes into creating a “foot perfect” contestant.  All contestants have already qualified for the Worlds and are in the final preparations for the big event. Jig concludes with the award ceremony in Glasgow.  Interspersed throughout are interviews with the dancers, their parents, and their teachers.

The stars of the film are its youngest contestants, three ten-year-olds.  Brogan from Northern Ireland is an especially well spoken, clever, and engaging young lady.  Her main rival, Julia O’Rourke from Long Island, is a serious competitor. Julia’s family (including her Filipino mother and Irish father who had never participated in Irish dancing before) invests in private lessons (aka “privates”) and physical therapy sessions to help give her an edge.  John, from Birmingham, England, is immensely talented and sweet, if a bit forgetful—a real-life version of Billy Elliott.

I had a harder time engaging with the three nineteen-year-old female contestants, and keeping them straight. Two teenage boys have interesting back stories (one boy grew up in California, but his parents moved to England to help him train as a dancer, with his father giving up a medical practice; the other is from the Netherlands, adopted by a Dutch family from Sri Lanka), but less interesting onscreen personas.  And the team of older Russian women were also hard to keep straight, especially because their story arc is fairly short in the film.

Not surprisingly Jig has been compared to two of my favorite documentaries of all time—Spellbound (about the National Spelling Bee featuring middle schoolers from the US and Canada) and Mad Hot Ballroom (featuring elementary school kids from across New York City participatingin a city-wide ballroom competition). While I really enjoyed Jig, it doesn’t reach the level of these other two films for me for two reasons.  The first is that many of the children draw you into their lives in Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom. When I saw the latter in the theater my fellow audience members and I cheered aloud together by the end of the film.  Partly due to the presence of so many characters in Jig, I felt this was harder to do. Then again, I loved that the featured dancers really showed how international competitive Irish dancing is, so it is a difficult trade-off.

The second way in which I found it more difficult to relate to Jig is that it is simply harder to understand competitive Irish dance. We know from Riverdance that the upper body is usually stationary.  But I didn’t understand why the face was often blank while dancing. And I certainly didn’t understand the intricacy of the footwork, and differences between hard and soft shoe style.  Even as someone who follows dance (and cheer, and gymnastics, and figure skating…), I couldn’t quite discern why some dancers were so far superior to others, even when they danced side-by-side (as they do in rhythmic gymnastics, for example).  I was certainly impressed by their skills, but with a bit more explanation of the technique I could have been blown away.

That said, the film highlighted many similarities between Irish dancing and other forms of competitive dance.  For example, as in Dance Moms, we saw teachers who yell, kids who give up aspects of their social lives (like missing birthday parties), and young dancers struggling with injuries.  You also see and hear about the ways in which family members invest in this activity, both financially and by making costumes.

More serious issues that affect many other competitive activities also came up—like judge tampering.  Another similarity across different competitive activities includes the language of getting drawn in by the competitive experience itself (Julia O’Rourke’s parents astutely commented that when they started they couldn’t understand why a family would drive to Connecticut to compete, but now they fly to foreign countries).

What I truly enjoyed about Jig is that it highlighted some important and powerful differences too.  Again, this is a very international activity, which was nice to see.  You also actually have to qualify for the Worlds (unlike many “Nationals” in the US, which for most activities are pay-to-play) and the Worlds appear to be quite a big deal.  Over several days you get about six minutes on stage dancing among 6000 other competitors and in front of 20-30,000 spectators who cycle through.  Finally, I loved the use of live music during the competitions, which is not common at all at dance competitions (even ballet competitions), or gymnastics, figure skating, or synchronized swimming events.

The end of Jig is a real highlight.  You can feel the tension in the room as scores are announced and revealed on a screen.  It was amusing to see the kids, parents, and teachers hold their heads in anxiety waiting to see the final scores—I kept shouting at the screen that all they had to do was add! I’m sure nerves played a role, but I know I would just bring a calculator or use an Excel spreadsheet to add up the scores quickly.  I guess that’s the social scientist in me… I also took particular delight that the top prize included a mirror-ball trophy. Maybe that is where they get the inspiration from on Dancing with the Stars?!

All in all, Jig is a delightful and objective portrayal of an impressive, but little understood competitive activity.  I hope this brings some deserved attention to Irish dancing, especially in the United States, and that we continue to receive updates on its stars (Note: Jig’s IMDb page has results from the 2011 World Championships for those spotlighted in the film).  But you won't be seeing them on Toddlers & Tiaras anytime soon.

Bingo-Bango-Bongo: A Review of Meg Wolitzer's The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

I admit that I am a Scrabble tournament virgin. I've only ever seen a Scrabble tournament while watching the documentary Word Wars, and I've read about this particular subculture in Stefan Fatsis' delighful Word Freak But in many ways the Scrabble tournament world doesn't seem to differ too much from its intellectual cousins, or "sports of the brain"-- the spelling/geography bee (if you haven't seen Spellbound, one of my favorite documentaries of all time, add it to your Netflix queue immediately!) and the chess tournament. This was one of my biggest take-aways after reading Meg Wolitzer's delightful foray into children's literature, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman.

Wolitzer, best-known for literary fiction like The Ten-Year Nap and this year's popular The Uncoupling, tries her hand at children's fiction here. This novel, directed at readers aged 9-12, has elements kids will love-- like a whiff of romance and a touch of magical realism. It also contains tips for aspiring Scrabble players including a list of two-letter words, "vowel dump" words, etc.  The main characters embody particular archetypes of competitive childhoods (the father who lost this Scrabble tournament as a kid and now wants his son to win, the girl who doesn't fit into her jock family, the homeschooled boy) while also capturing the sense of camaraderie that often develops between kid competitors.

As I said I have never attended a Scrabble tournament, but I did attend over 15 scholastic chess tournaments while doing research for Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. The biggest tournament I attended was the grade Nationals, where over 1300 kids converge each November/December.  These grade national decide who the top chess player is in each grade (K-12). Wolitzer's description of the fictional Youth Scrabble Tournament (modeled on the real National School Scrabble Championship, down to the $10,000 prize) resonated with my observations at chess nationals. She writes beautifully: "Players hunched over their Scrabble boards in intense, aching silence." (159).

Surrounding this intense, aching silence are the parents, roped off from the tournament floor (true for both chess and Scrabble).  As with chess, some Scrabble parents want their kids to be in the Scrabble Club thinking it might help their children get into college someday.  Since I wrote about some of my original research recently, I thought I would share this quote from a lawyer mom whose fourth-grade son plays tournament chess: It’s that ability to keep your concentration focused, while there’s stuff going on around you. As you go into older age groups, where people are coming in and out, the ability to maintain that concentration, a connection with what’s going on, on the board in front of you, and still be functional in a room of people, it’s a big thing. I mean to see those large tournaments, in the convention centers, I know it is hard. I did that to take the bar exam, and the LSAT I took for law school, and GREs. You do that in a large setting, but some people are thrown by that, just by being in such a setting. Well that’s a skill, and it’s an ability to transfer that skill. It’s not just a chess skill. It’s a coping with your environment skill. Playing in large, timed events-- whether they be Scrabble, chess, or something else-- is seen as having tangible, transferable long-term benefits for kids (note that this perspective even goes beyond college to graduate/professional school achievement).

Still the kids are at the heart of The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman just as they are at the heart of their own experiences in the real world.  Kids become part of the culture of their chosen activity, picking up lingo (like "coffeehousing" in Scrabble and "skittling" in chess). They worry about the costs of competition (both financial and social), but embrace the friendships that develop in a place where they feel they fit in and belong.  They also figure out how these competitive activities really work.  Wolitzer explains: “With Scrabble, Duncan saw, you didn’t need to be a genius. You didn’t even have to know what the words meant, though it could be more interesting—and sometimes useful—if you knew the meanings of some of the strange ones… You mostly had to know which ones were good, and which ones weren’t.” (101)

It's true that don't have to be a genius to be the best Scrabble player, speller, or chess player in your age division.  But you do need to be a genius to write like Wolitzer and have her level of insight not only about childhood, but also about parenting and relationships. For this reason, this book is worth a read by any adults with kids involved in competitive academic activities, or by any adults who themselves love Scrabble tournaments.