'Brooklyn Castle': Boy Fights Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) With Game of Chess

PHOTO: Patrick Johnston, 11 when "Brooklyn Castle" was filmed, learned concentration and perseverance with the game of chess.PlayCourtesy Elizabeth Spiegel
WATCH 'Brooklyn Castle': Trailer

Patrick Johnston is surrounded by a legion of champions at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the after-school chess club players have won 26 titles, more than any other junior high in the country.

At 11, he struggles with attention deficit disorder and is the lowest-rated player on the team. But he has ambition. He practices his skills seven days a week, hoping to reach the modest goal of ranking at a middle level.

"I just want to win," the bespectacled kid with the intense eyebrows says.

For Patrick and his teammates, it's more than a game as their trophies and banners fill the hallways of I.S. 318 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Chess requires patience, long-term planning and the knowledge that every move has a consequence.

"Chess is fantastic for kids in a world where you can't concentrate for more than 10 minutes," fulltime chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, the "brains of the operation," says. " It makes it a valuable tool."

Spiegel's team -- a multiracial collection of kids for whom chess is both a passion and a way out of poverty -- are the central characters in "Brooklyn Castle," a documentary that is now showing in 14 cities and is a hopeful contender for the Oscar short-list this week.

The film follows Patrick and four other players, starting three years ago, through their triumphs and losses against the backdrop of budget cuts at I.S. 318, a public school where more than 70 percent of the families live below the federal poverty level.

Unlike many disadvantaged schools, where chess players would be a "pariah," "the geeks are the athletes" at I.S. 318, principal Fred Rubino, who died in April and to whom the film is dedicated, said in the film.

He and assistant principal John Galvin were the driving force at the school, fiercely protective of the after-school programs that pay for children to have opportunities their parents could never afford.

Since 1997, the chess club has grown from 10 to 80 players in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades. And until their travel funds took a hit, the team criss-crossed the country by plane and train, winning one competition after another.

In her first solo film, director Katie Dellamaggiore said she didn't set out to crusade for teachers and after-school programs.

"I didn't have an interest in chess at all, and I wasn't looking for a story about public education," she told ABCNews.com.

Dellamaggiore, a 34-year-old Brooklyn native, had read about a talented chess player at a local high school, but was steered instead to I.S. 318, where younger players were aspiring winners.

With young, exuberant players, "It was so much richer in material," she said.

She began interviewing in 2008, but the narrative took an unexpected turn when the economy tanked and, as a filmmaker's side bonus, the school was required to make $1 million in budget cuts.

Parents, teachers and students rallied to raise funds.

"You have to put a human face on what might be seen as a line in a budget," Dellamaggiore said.

Justus Williams had a natural gift for chess and had already rated in the highest range at age 11. He was selected to join the U.S. Chess Federation's All-American Team, but the pressure to live up to expectation nearly paralyzed him.

Rochelle Ballantyne, 13, and the highest-ranked player on the middle-school team, wanted to prove she could be the first African-American female master in the history of chess. But the demands of high school were derailing her dreams.

Pobo Efekoro, a physically towering 12-year-old whom the director calls "a charismatic force of nature," becomes a mentor to other team members. And, as a bonus theme, he runs for class president as "Pobama," on a campaign to restore funds for student programs.

Alexis Paredes, 12, is the second-best player. He wants to parlay his success and get into one of New York City's elite high schools so he can become a doctor or lawyer and support his immigrant parents. But the entrance test is daunting.

Patrick is not one of the chess superstars, but his determination to win, in spite of his ADD, impressed Dellamaggiore.

"It surprised me; he talked so candidly about it," she said. "I really like how Patrick was so self-aware of what his setbacks were and he spoke openly with his mom about it at the kitchen table.

"As filmmakers we realized that the conversation about ADD can get messy and judgmental," said Dellamaggiore. "We wanted to be really honest about one kid's experience and what we were observing. It's not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about."

Frustration at the Chess Junior High Nationals

At the Junior High Nationals in Minneapolis in April 2010, Patrick loses every round with a total score of zero and is angry and disheartened.

"Whenever people say there is a lesson in losing, personally, I think that's a lot of bulls---," Patrick says in the film. "You are trying as hard as you can.

But Pobo encourages him to do well to boost the ranking of the team. Patrick eventually wins a round and beams, "Wow, finally."

"We were right there with him to win a game or go home with all zeros," the director said.

The film also introduces the players' parents, who are an inspiration to those who think inner-city schools lack support and talent.

Some worked two or three jobs a day, but still attended night meetings called to solve the budget crisis.

But it is also the game of chess that fills the gaps in these students' lives and gives them tools that last a lifetime.

"Chess teaches good habits of mind," coach Spiegel told ABCNews.com. "One of the things kids are bad at is double-checking themselves. They are not used to being careful. Chess is unusual and coming back is very hard."

In a game of tennis, the player who misses the ball can catch up from behind, but in chess, "one careless move and you can lose everything," she said. "It really teaches concentration.

"Kids get bored so quickly or the mind hops around. But in chess, there is so much to think about and so many possible moves to consider."

Sometimes, an English paper can seem "very abstract," Spiegel said, but in chess, "if you sit there and think hard enough, you can win. You get the emotional pay back right away."

Today, some of the better players at I.S. 318 have graduated, but both Pobo and Alexis are paid to tutor the up-and-coming chess champs.

The budget has hit them hard, too. "The school used to have a lot more money to pay for trips," Spiegel said. "This year, because of the film, we raised what we needed. But it becomes a situation where each year we start from zero. I sense it's going to be increasingly hard."

I.S. 318 was also struck a tough blow when Principal Rubino died of a massive heart attack at age 57.

As the "heart and positive presence" of the school, he championed the power of after-school programs to transform student lives.

"The chess program may be the one reason a kid wants to go to school," Dellamaggiore said. "You can't take that away from education and then ask why public education is failing."

As for Patrick, now 14, he has blossomed in the three years since "Brooklyn Castle" was filmed. His former chess coach said he is "more confident, no longer the terrified little kid."

His family moved to Neptune, N.J., last year where he is involved in lacrosse, surfing and ROTC. Soon, he will join a new chess club.

"It really has helped me," he told ABCNews.com. "Whenever I play chess, I always have to concentrate, even if it's hard.

"It teaches you that whenever you have trouble with something, you have to calm down, take your time and slow down. Concentrate more deeply, then try again. I use it in school all the time."

As a direct result of the mentoring by Pobo, Patrick's ranking jumped nearly 800 points from dead last on the team to the middle.

"He was my big brother. He was there for me, not matter what," he said. "We became best friends."

Patrick remains ever grateful for the way chess and his supportive teammates at I.S. 318 turned his disability into a strength.

"I really miss them," he said wistfully. "It was a really special place and everyone who has gone there will agree with me. I am in touch with all of them."

"Brooklyn Castle," which was featured on the front page of The New York Times and "The Daily Show," has made rock stars of all five of the players.

"My opinion of the film changes all the time," said Patrick, who has been photographed with actor Jon Hamm. "And it's always good."