Award-winning sportswriter Michael Weinreb spent a school year tracking the chess team of New York’s Edward R. Murrow High, where the centuries-old board game is something of an obsession to the “geeks, oddballs and geniuses” who often skip class just to play it in the halls.
It’s something of an irony that these public school students are in danger of failing their grade, yet attain top rankings in what is considered the game of the intelligentsia. That’s just one of many contradictions Weinreb finds, however, and chief among them are the enormous egos of the team’s most socially inept members.
We meet kids who are awkward, under pressure, arrogant, needing escape and harboring online gambling addictions. And then there’s Eliot Weiss, their ever-patient leader who gives the misfits something to boost their nearly nonexistent self-esteem.
It all leads up to the national finals, where the showdown is tense as players alternately choke and triumph, but the entire book is captivating. Weinreb follows these boys — and very few girls — from classroom to home, allowing us to get a glimpse of their family life, so we can understand their struggle. With so many disadvantages against them, if they can’t win at life, chess gives them a chance to win at something.
“The Kings of New York” is not only among the very best accounts written about chess, but also the best nonfiction works 2007 has offered thus far. —Rod Lott