Sports are glorified because sports are clean. There’s always a clear loser and a clear winner. In the thrill of the moment, when caught up in our favorite spectator sports, we Americans know who to root for. Michael Weinreb, in The Kings of New York, takes on the challenge of casting chess, the pastime of “geeks and oddballs,” as a spectator sport of such a caliber. A jacket blurb of his book screams “The Friday Night Lights of High School Chess.”
Because chess is a game where there’s no such thing as dumb luck, where every move counts, Weinreb posits that the game of chess epitomizes the idea of good sportsmanship. The good deserve to win and the bad deserve to lose. Weinreb places the Brooklyn public school Edward R. Murrow’s chess team firmly on the side of the good. These students are at the center of the story. To Weinreb, this team is the classic example of the American Dream fulfilled through hard work. Weinreb follows eight members of the Murrow chess team for a year, recording their trials and tribulations, building empathy for these boys – yes they’re all boys – and encouraging the audience to root for the team. The two stars of the team – and of the book – are Alex Lenderman and Sal Bercys, Eastern European immigrants with ELO ratings of above 2400. Sal, the 2003 U.S. Junior Open Champion, and Alex, a few games away from the International Master title, are the team’s biggest hopes to win the 2005 national title. Along for the ride are Oscar Santana, a Puerto Rican who sacrifices grades and graduation for chess, and Ilya Kotlyanskiy, team captain and the team’s best student.
Besides the students, another important character is Eliot Weiss, the high school math teacher who facilitates the chess club, raises money, and accompanies the students to tournaments. He is a mentor, a teacher, and a provider all at once. Weinreb paints his crusades for media attention and his success in cementing a meeting with President Bush as the work of a saint, whose only compensation is the pleasure he gains from inspiring students.
The other character is Edward R. Murrow High itself. The structure of the school, according to Weinreb, with its optimistic, unpretentious agenda to give students freedom in an environment of academic excellence, is what enabled Mr. Weiss to create a chess team in the first place. And just like that, Weinreb lays out the main protagonists of his chess drama.
All good stories need antagonists. As expected here, the natural enemies are the children of private schools. Weinreb paints these privileged few as people who were born into the best tutelage possible. The chess teams of elite schools like Columbia Prep and Browning can afford private rooms at the hotels where tournaments are held. Amazing how anyone could beat them. And yet they do. And for that, we, the readers, should cheer.
Unfortunately, no sport is actually so clear cut. Weinreb’s heartwarming story of triumph over obstacles is more complex than he lets on. It leaves the reader wondering about the true nature of chess and the characters. First of all, the protagonists are no saints. A few of the Murrow’s players are literally failing school. Others like to brood and separate themselves to declare an egotistical pride. Alex Lenderman, for example, refuses to travel to any tournaments where he could help the team, but can’t win much money or rating points.
But at least Weinreb recognizes these flaws, even if he just writes them off as one of the cute idiosyncrasies we’re supposed to love about these boys. There’s no analysis of how chess might be the catalyst for such idiosyncrasies.
One telling oversight is in Weinreb’s portrayal of the “bad guys” – among them, Princeton’s own Josh Weinstein. According to Weinreb, Weinstein, who “grew up on the Upper East side, the son of an art dealer and a fashion designer,” has played chess in the private schools he attended until Stuyvesant, and “has a winsome-smile…and the self-assured presence of a boy who has never wanted much for anything.” Weinreb doesn’t fail to mention Princeton every time he mentions Weinstein. At one point, Weinreb quotes Weinstein as saying, “If I play Lenderman, I’m going to bust out the new shit.” Weinstein does play Lenderman, but doesn’t bust out the new shit. Weinreb still slams him for it anyway, saying, “Weinstein has completely bombed with the new shit.” Although the two teams are portrayed as strict foes in the book, Weinstein says, “Our relationship as a school/team and individually with the Murrorow team/players has always been a friendly rivalry.” It makes me wonder how limited Weinreb’s perceptions of his other characters are.
Although I know Weinstein personally, and would vouch for his being a down-to-earth guy, all of this maligning would be acceptable if Weinreb had a message. Any message. No doubt, Weinstein is portrayed as a successful person. After all, he’s “Destined to become a congressman.” But nobody likes the smartest kid in the class. Ben Yagoda once wrote of Gary Smith, indisputably the best sportswriter in America, that “he favors obscurity over fame, complexity over simplicity, and humility over literary showmanship.”
Unfortunately, Weinreb does just the opposite. He chooses to highlight fame over obscurity, applauding Team Murrow’s meeting with President Bush at every opportunity. He simplifies the game of chess into an allegorical battle between the deserving and the undeserving. His style of writing is better suited for ESPN.
Indeed, Weinreb broaches on many serious subjects at several points throughout the book. Early on, it looks as though the book will be about the success of public education. But then we notice that most of the star chess players are terrible students. And Stuyvesant, an equally free public school, is much maligned. Weinreb then goes into a discussion of the lack of women in chess but fails to draw conclusions about explanations. Finally, Weinreb attempts to make the case that there are disparities between the haves and the have-nots in the competitive chess world. Those who attend elite private schools can buy $100-an-hour lessons; the Marshall Chess Club is $325 a year. But then why are some of the best students “the progeny of cabdrivers and hardware-store employees and laundry workers?”
Although Weinreb barely scratches the surface of social commentary, his themes of disparities between men and women, the rich and the poor, are topics with which Princeton students are familiar. Anyone who’s been on a high school debate team, anyone who attended an academically rigorous public school, will be able to relate to Weinreb’s protagonists’ struggles to balance life and chess, to achieve success by passionately participating in an activity, despite Weinreb’s imprecise language.
Although Weinreb doesn’t risk discussing the problems of chess in depth, he should be commended for avoiding clichéd messages about a sport’s ability to lift people up. There’s no glamour in chess. Yes, the boys got to meet President Bush, but no, they didn’t particularly enjoy it. All of their tournaments are lived in a caffeinated haze in cramped hotels in cities like Nashville, Tennessee. Weinreb fails to answer such questions as: why do the boys play chess, what is the power of chess, does chess emulate life?
Whether he intended it or not, the lack of a clichéd message makes the reader realize that chess is different things to different people. Although the game itself is black and white with clear winners and losers, the motives for playing chess and the effects of chess on each player’s life varies. Each chess player, like each of the moves in chess, is unique.