The chess master and teacher at Mott Hall School, Jerald Times, has a thousand-watt gaze and skin the color of bitter chocolate. He radiates energy as he patrols the classroom, urging fourth and fifth graders to fight through chess problems that he has given them. Mr. Times is looking for potential prodigies who could join the Mott Hall Dark Knights, a mainly black and Latino chess team from a poor community that has won six national championships over the last decade.
In addition to seeking out potential champions, Mr. Times wants to connect even average players to the history of the game and encourage them to view the world through its lens. As the children puzzle over their boards, he whispers, ''Ask yourself this: 'What would Capablanca do?' ''
The flamboyant Cuban chess master José Raúl Capablanca changed the way chess was played. A world chess champion through most of the 1920's, he envisioned how the game would end and improvised his way to that point. Capablanca's talents allowed him to travel the world and dominate chess, and his example is especially important for Mott Hall because he was Latino, as are most of the school's students.
The students who crowd into the school, a cramped former convent in Upper Manhattan, are following a similar route. Despite poor families and difficult lives, the Dark Knights have repeatedly won championships, beating out students from rich districts where children grow up with every advantage.
Chess programs are offered on a voluntary basis in many schools around the city. But a child who attends Mott Hall is required to take at least one semester of chess. A substantial number of those students stick with it, taking more and more advanced chess classes every year.
Chess and academic excellence seem to go hand in hand. About one-fifth of the students who leave this school go on to elite prep schools like Andover, Exeter and Choate. About 50 percent get into competitive public high schools like Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech and Bronx Science. These would be staggering numbers in any case, but they are especially impressive given that Mott Hall serves a poor, heavily Dominican district where that kind of academic excellence is rare.
Studies show that children who participate in chess programs typically experience at least modest gains in academic achievement. But the children who attend Mott Hall do not just play chess -- they live it, through a creative curriculum that includes tai chi and storytelling that interests children in the classics. The goal of the program is to tap the skills developed in chess to achieve the greater goal of academic excellence.
A nationally known research group called Public/Private Ventures gave Mott Hall's chess program an outstanding rating in 2001 and described it as an excellent candidate for replication. This recognition came as the foundation that had been underwriting Mott Hall's chess program changed its focus; it has set up a new group to raise money. Meanwhile, the school has cut back on its chess staff and reduced enrollment in the program. Members of the Dark Knights, one of the best teams in the city, are worried about where they will get the money to travel to the national tournament.
The chess classes are more crowded since the budget cuts, and students get less individual help. But the vitality of the fourth- and fifth-grade chess class I visited last week was something to see.
Mr. Times began the class by assigning groups of two or three students to complex chess problems in games that were nearly over, with one side seeming all but guaranteed to lose.
The problem assigned to T'Keynah Binyamin, a lanky fifth grader with waist-length dreadlocks, and her two fourth-grade teammates, Scarlett Jimenez and Marielle Montero, looked impossible to this non-chess-playing editorial writer. The board showed a rout in which the black side had whittled the white side down to two lonely pieces while losing not one piece of its own.
Young girls can often be intimidated when placed in competitive settings with louder, more raucous boys. And girls can sometimes have trouble ''catching up to their own brilliance,'' as Mr. Times puts it. But T'Keynah, Scarlett and Marielle went to work without the least bit of shyness or dismay. Within 10 minutes they had agreed on a single nifty strategy that allowed white to win the game, despite being down in pieces, 16 to 2.
The concluding portion of the exercise involved laying out the problem on an exhibition board at the front of the room and letting the rest of the class have a crack at solving it. Looking up at the two white pieces facing an army of blacks on the board, one boy cried out, ''Oh my God, this is impossible.'' The three girls waited modestly at the front of the room until all the guesses were in and their solution to the problem was at last revealed.
Though quieter than the boys, the girls did not lack confidence. When I asked if I was too old to learn, 9-year-old Scarlett said: ''No, you could learn at any age. We could even teach you.'' Yes, the girls could teach me -- but then they would beat me.
Mott Hall will almost certainly attract the private financing it needs to bring its chess curriculum back to full strength. What is disheartening is a public education financing mechanism that rewards mediocrity everywhere you look and then forces innovation and excellence to stand on the street, rattling the tin cup.