The Kings of New York   

Updated: June 20, 2007, 3:39 PM ET

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Editor's Note: Edward R. Murrow High School has long been one of New York's public-education success stories, a progressive school in a diverse Brooklyn neighborhood. At Murrow, there are no varsity sports. In fact, the closest thing you'll find to jocks are the members of the school's varsity chess team, which has won at least a share of the past four national high-school chess championships. In "The Kings of New York," Michael Weinreb -- a sportswriter and novice chess player --followed the members of the Murrow chess team through the 2005 season, from tournaments at private clubs to cash games at Washington Square Park to the Supernationals tournament in Nashville. A sports and social narrative in the vein of H.G. Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights" and Darcy Frey's "The Last Shot," the book explores the competitive subculture of the game, and profiles a team that is a multi-ethnic cross-section of New York: Immigrants and natives, blacks and whites, show-offs and shrinking violets.

The Kings of New York

To order Michael Weinreb's "The Kings of New York, click here.

Four days after Christmas, 2004, in a pin-drop silent hotel conference room with a panoramic view of a TGI Friday's and an adult bookstore, Oscar Santana nudges a black pawn forward, sweeps a white rook off the board, and presses the button atop his game clock with a faint click.

"This is not chess," mutters the man on the opposite side of the board. His name is Norman, according to the pairings board at the Empire City Open, and Norman is regarding Oscar with a slack jaw and a pair of bugged-out eyes. Norman is also wearing a black winter cap indoors, as if to conceal from the outside world the strings that command his puppet-like facial features. "This is not chess," Norman says again, and he is speaking far too loudly now, his voice piercing the white noise of ticking game clocks and humming air vents and muffled coughs.

Norman is approximately three times Oscar's age, and a good half a foot taller, and his choice of headwear, coupled with his tics and twitches and grimaces and the plaintive noises he emits through his elastic lips, lends him the appearance of a burglar trying to make an escape through a narrow air shaft. In truth, the board is shrinking on Norman; there are few safe places for his king to escape. His is, as they say in the sport, a lost game, and there is no worse feeling in chess than the realization that defeat is imminent and unavoidable.

Oscar Santana

Beware if Oscar Santana is sitting across from you at a chess board.

Norman shakes his head and says something utterly incomprehensible. Oscar just sits there, stone-faced, a pair of silver headphones clapped over his ears, a tinny hip-hop beat creeping out from underneath. Then he moves his rook to Norman's back row, to threaten his queen. The queen is the most potent piece on a chess board, the only one capable of moving any number of spaces in any direction, horizontal, vertical or diagonal, and if the queen is crippled, if the queen is retreating instead of attacking … and especially when Norman is already down a rook, because only a pair of rooks can begin to approach the queen in terms of strength … and who the hell is this kid, anyway? Norman has no idea. All he knows is that things have gone wrong, that a moon-faced seventeen-year-old in baggy jeans and FUBU sneakers has surrounded his king and endangered his queen and taken one of his rooks and rendered him into a stammering caricature.

But it's not just Oscar's age, and it's not merely the fact that his official United States Chess Federation rating, which determines the social order in chess, is nearly three hundred points lower than Norman's. More than all of that, it's the way this little brace-faced miscreant is beating him, using a bush-league tactic involving a knight and a pawn that even Oscar himself knows is a joke. It's the type of attack that makes very little sense to those with a thorough knowledge of the chess board. It defies all the conventional wisdom Oscar has picked up over the years: That you should make a concerted effort to control the center of the board in the opening moves of the game, that you should avoid unnecessary sacrifices of your own pieces, and that you should not rely upon tricks, especially against a higher-rated player. Oscar's tactic has holes so gaping that when one of his teammates asks a grandmaster about the possibility of using it, months later, the grandmaster will be tempted to dismiss him from the room for the mere mention of it. It makes little sense to Oscar, as well, but this is seemingly what made him try it. He's never been one to surrender to the tyranny of the ordinary.

Across a hall, in the free-form holding pen for competitors and their families known as the Skittles Room, there are stacks of books about the Ruy Lopez and the Sicilian and the Nimzo-Indian and the Caro-Kann defenses, pages and pages of diagrams and complex notations that resemble an organic chemistry textbook. But this is not the type of knowledge that Oscar concerns himself with. Oscar prefers to accumulate his knowledge through experience. He's never been big on studying lines of attack or complex variations or all those esoteric diagrams found in thick books of strategy authored by the masters of the game.

When Oscar was younger, when he was in middle school and he first learned chess, he became enamored of an elementary opening called the four-move checkmate, which essentially relies upon the fact that your opponent does not know how to play chess. When that began to fail, he memorized a conventional opening for the white pieces called the Ruy Lopez and a defense for the black pieces called the Sicilian (the fact that white moves first necessitates separate strategies for each set of pieces). He memorized just enough moves, maybe eight or ten, to get him through the beginning of a game, and then he came to rely on his wits, which is how Oscar would prefer to play chess. Sure, he could spend a few hours with one of those seminal chess texts like Nimzovich's My System, and he could commit the whole thing to memory -- he has this type of mind, whether he'll admit it or not -- but where's the fun in that? His old middle-school teacher has always told him that he has to keep progressing in his chess career, and this is why, in recent months, he has fallen in love with a completely illogical opening for the white pieces called the Orangutan. No doubt Oscar would have used that here, if he weren't playing with black, so instead he relied on this weird pawn-knight variation which harkened back so far in Oscar's chess education that Norman could have not have possibly seen it coming. Where the hell did this kid come from? "This is not serious chess," Norman is saying, but no one is listening, because their cerebrums are otherwise occupied with their own gambits, their own tactics, their own eager attempts to throw their opponents off guard.

This is the first day of the Empire City Open, a minor event at which first place in the under-2000 rated division, Oscar's division, will pay $375. The competitors sit side-by-side at long tables, squinting at their positions and stealing glances at the clocks next to their boards. Behind Oscar, near the window, at a row of boards overlooking the snow-dusted sidewalks of Eighth Avenue, Ilya Kotlyanskiy is recalibrating his vision. He does this most often by sitting up on one knee in his chair and peering over the board from above. Ilya is one of the few people in the room whose pants actually appear to have been pressed before his arrival. His hair is short and worked into neatly tended spikes, and his sweater matches his trousers. This is something that cannot be said for many of the other men in the room (and it is populated almost entirely by men), but then, Ilya has never fit neatly into this world. He has a small face and a prominent nose, and he hasn't eaten all morning, because he has yet to lose today, and Ilya cannot eat a proper meal until he is relaxed. This means that sometimes he'll go all day, through school and work, without ingesting anything except liquids. Right now, Ilya's match remains suspended in what's known as the middlegame, the precarious interlude between the opening and endgame when one ill-considered move can destroy the entire setup.

Chess tournament

Age doesn't always matter in chess -- a young player can take the most wily veteran out.

The Empire City Open engulfs an entire floor of a midtown Manhattan hotel, and on every door there are bright yellow signs urging visitors to turn off their cell phones and to keep quiet in the hallway. The pairings boards have been set up on oversized chunks of posterboard near the elevators; interspersed throughout the halls are hulking metal jugs of water with stacks of plastic cups piled high next to them. Parents sit on the floor staring glassy-eyed at paperback novels, waiting for their children to finish inside the room and chasing after their younger offspring as they toddle down the carpeted hallways, shushing them when they raise their voices.

While he waits for Norman to process his defeat, Oscar stands and walks toward Willy Edgard's table on the far side of the room, to look in on his classmate's game. Oscar's gait is slow and measured; if you look closely enough, you can detect a slight limp. It is not something Oscar would ever willingly betray, but it is there, and it's the reason his face has filled out since freshman year, and it's partly why he's spending his time in a room like this in the midst of his winter vacation. These days, given the dearth of private clubs and the prevalence of the Internet, tournaments like the Empire City Open are the last bastions of face-to-face competitive chess in America. And so they tend to draw all sorts, including those who reside on the extreme edges of the human psyche. Take, for instance, the pairing Oscar is looking in on right now: A bearded Duane Allman doppelganger wearing a trucker hat and a Humane Society T-shirt, with a bag full of sinus tablets and prescription meds at his feet, going up against a black man with a pile of Don King hair, outfitted in the closest thing to pajamas -- white Hanes Beefy-T shirt, shapeless gray sweatpants -- a human being can get away with in public.

At the next board over, Willy is playing three hundred points above his head as well, and he's bleeding pawns. He's down four of them, and this loss of material has grown to the point where he most likely can't extricate himself. Willy is one of Oscar's best friends; they met in the chess club at middle school, and they've grown up together ever since. Above the wispy goatee he's taken pains to cultivate, Willy's mouth is a straight line. He's wearing a pair of baggy sweats and a black long-sleeve T-shirt, and he's listening to hip-hop on his CD player, and deep down he harbors dreams of producing his own rhymes someday, if only he can figure a way to get into college, let alone pay for it.

Oscar returns to his table. By now, you can practically see the steam rising from Norman's cap; his face has wrenched itself into one massive contortion. With an hour remaining on his clock, Norman shakes his head one last time, and then he resigns. Oscar offers a customary postgame handshake, and Norman takes it, and Oscar scoops his down-lined North Face jacket from the chair and heads out into the hallway, where he lets out a quivering sigh.

"Wow," he says. "I don't know how I did that."

The previous spring, a math teacher at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn had faxed a press release to every newspaper and television station in the metro area, trumpeting his team's most recent national high-school chess championship. This is something he does virtually every spring, since, most years, his team manages to win a championship of one kind or another, at the local or the state or the national level. In this press release, the math teacher, Eliot Weiss, described each of his top players in a single sentence. Next to Willy's name: "One of several who will be helping our team." Next to Ilya: "Most improved chess player." And, next to Oscar: "Adding more knowledge."

Out in the hallway, Oscar talks to a friend of his named Steadroy about another one of his teammates, a Russian sophomore named Alex Lenderman. Nobody really knows what to make of Alex. Most of his teammates call him by his last name, a sign of their distance from him. He's barely five feet tall, and painfully shy among strangers, and he has disheveled hair and an inadvertent wisp of facial hair above his lip. More than once, Ilya's helped shoo away the bullies who pick on him in school. Alex is also the second highest-rated 15-year-old chess player in the United States, behind only his own classmate, Salvijus Bercys, and he's playing in the Open section, the highest-rated section, among grandmasters like Joel Benjamin, the balding former child prodigy who actually signed an autograph for an eager young player earlier this afternoon.

"You hear what Lenderman did?" Oscar says. "He won three games against nobody and then he took two byes. He didn't hardly play anyone. He comes up to me, and he says to me, with that quiet little Russian accent, 'I'm in the money.' He was guaranteed money. I guess he figured that was good enough."

Edward R. Murrow chess team

Intrigued about the Edward R. Murrow chess team? Then get the book!

Steadroy shakes his head.

"Why aren't you playing?" Oscar says.

"Saving myself up for New Year's," Steadroy says. In a couple of nights, Steadroy explains, there will be an all-night New Year's tournament at the Marshall club, the last of the city's major private chess establishments. The way Steadroy figures it, his youth will serve to his advantage in an all-nighter; the old men will be snoozing in their seats sometime past midnight, and he'll be going strong.

Oscar fishes a deck of cards from his jacket. Everywhere he goes, Oscar carries a deck with him. He has become a devotee of online poker websites, an inveterate small-time hustler. In the school cafeteria, he and his friends bet their dollars on a Russian card game called Stupid. Most of the time, Oscar comes out ahead.

Behind him, Ilya bursts out of the elevator, carrying a Starbucks coffee and a sandwich in a paper bag. "I could have won that game," he says, and he disappears into the Skittles room. A short time later, Willy emerges, defeated, making excuses for himself. Oscar shoots him down.

"Yo, I'm hungry, man," Oscar says. "You should have resigned."

Two flights down on the elevator, and then Willy and Oscar hurtle past clumps of disoriented European tourists and clatter through the revolving doors. A few weeks earlier, they'd stood in the Oval Office for a photo-op with the president, served up as shining examples of what a public-school system can produce when it nurtures its minority and immigrant youth, and so on, and so on. But all those plaudits were based on their accomplishments within the game, within an artificial hierarchy contained to nondescript hotel conference rooms and debated on websites and online message boards. Out here on the streets, where no one gives a goddamn about the silence and order contained within those sixty-four squares, where most people on Eighth Avenue can't even begin to comprehend the strange beauty of what Oscar has just accomplished, he's scratching together his cash to pay for a quarter-pounder.


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