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Mr. Times and His Knights of the Square Table

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Elvin Morales, Tom Mlodozeniec, Yiqing Li, Leonardo Peña.   

In other words, the Mott Hall chess team is a highly variegated collection of immigrants and strivers (very few of their parents speak English, even now) in the time-honored New York big-tent tradition. They are at Mott Hall because it is the best magnet/“gifted” program in what used to be called District 6. They all passed the school’s specialized test to gain admittance. This means they are “brains,” the skimmed cream of the rapidly shifting community’s crop, the sort of kids who used to come out of the old-time Jewish, Italian, and Irish neighborhoods, go to Stuyvesant or Bronx Science and then CCNY (the erstwhile “Harvard of the Streets”), and later take their places in the upper echelons of politics, business, and the arts with an often cocky assurance that they were just as good as their private-school, blue-blooded competition, and a whole lot savvier. What once was the norm during the twentieth-century rise of New York’s grand egalitarian social experiment—sidetracked for decades thanks to the difficulties of race, greed, and mind-numbing “No Child Left Behind” test prep—lives on at Mott Hall, where the emphasis, for once, is less on survival than on success.

Maybe, as Mr. Times said, the national championship was “a dream,” but it was a way better dream than any Hollywood-production-line Bad News Bears feel-good cynicism. Mott Hall was a solid New York club, a team to root for.

Some might call it something to be proud of, coming this far, Mr. Times says, standing beside a portrait of old country star Minnie Pearl, his bantam, cocoa-hued body dressed snow-white from the rakish Kangol hat on his shaven head down to his billowy linen shirt and pants and pristine sneakers. But coming close is nothing to celebrate. Consolation prizes offer no consolation. All around is the enemy, from close to home (Hunter is here as well as Columbia Grammar) and from many impossibly exotic locales not likely to appear on a geography pop quiz back on 131st Street: the Knight Stalkers of Clio, Michigan; the Rebellin’ Rooks of Grayslake, Illinois; the Kings on Fire from Edinburg, Texas (back of flame-embossed T-shirt: BE AFRAID, BE VERY AFRAID).

“Isn’t Edinburg in England?” asks Tom Mlodozeniec.

“I thought it was the capital of Pennsylvania,” returns Sammy Dominguez, the noted card among Mott Hall cards.

Before the tournament began, Mr. Times had taken the Mott Hall players to view the dozens of trophies, arrayed like a shiny New York skyline on a platform in the giant playing room. “These are our trophies, no one else’s . . . ours,” Mr. Times had said. With one last game to go, it is time to claim permanent ownership.

Mr. Times said there would come a moment of truth when dreams would live or die. That time had arrived.

With that, the Mott Hall team puts their hands together, as all teams do before big games. In previous rounds they’d broken with generic shouts like “Believe!” and “Focus!” But a climactic moment requires something new, deeper.

Albert Iglesias, from Inwood, whose mom works in a Strawberry clothing store in the Bronx and has six brothers all named Pablo, most of them living in the Dominican Republic with his father (he is called Albert because his mother’s friend’s baby died and he’s “carrying on for that child”), suggests that the team break on the word “Sugar!” This is on account of the candy-and-video-game ban Mr. Times had decreed for the duration of the tournament. The suggestion is typical of Albert, handsome and puckish, with a firm grasp of the sardonic.

Luis Pardo, son of a dental-claims processor from Barranquilla, Colombia, seconds the notion. “My teeth are not falling out fast enough,” he says, decked out in his Derek Jeter jersey. “Sugar!”

But Mott Hall isn’t going for the championship fueled by anything as flimsy as empty calories. What is called for is metaphor, what Mr. Times had always told them to envision: the truth lurking amid the facts, the soul beneath the surface. They want the visceral, a scrappy throwdown befitting their newly forged grasp on the current version of the American Dream. Warriors all, they’ve been spoiling for such a confrontation ever since they checked in to the Opryland and its swankily appointed hotel rooms, so much bigger and plusher than their own at home. The environment called out for one great blowout. And Mr. Times had granted the request—if they won.

Pillow fight!” the Mott Hall team shouted and ran down the hallway to take on the nation.

Mr. Times feared the first two rounds, to be played on Friday, the opening day of the tournament. “Down there, it’s all new, easy to get distracted,” he fretted. But Mott Hall was ready. Dionis attacked from the start, as is his style, assaulting the middle with his knights, winning in 25 moves. Diego and Elvis won. Diana sat down opposite a young man from Texas who took one look at her and exclaimed, “I’m playing her?” It took her fourteen moves to get the guy to quit. Luis caught Mr. Times’s eye prior to beginning play and slowly ran his finger across his windpipe. Then he forged ahead with his own idiosyncratic take on the Italian opening and beat a kid from Minnesota.

The second round was similarly successful. Displaying his highly diversified game, Tom Mlodozeniec mated a 12-year-old from Maine, not that it was so easy. “He was kind of strange,” Tom recalled. “He kept talking to himself. I couldn’t tell if he was crazy or just trying to throw me off.” Albert remembered what Mr. Times had said about “poison pawns,” how if you eat them at the wrong time they tend to give you serious indigestion. He laid off, instead pushing his queen down the middle, and won.


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