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The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Genuises Who Make Up America's Top HighSchool Chess Team Hardcover – March 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Weinreb, whose work has appeared three times in The Best American Sports Writing, offers the story of a year spent with Brooklyn's Edward R. Murrow High School chess team as it strives for a national championship. Weinreb makes several choices that work well for a year-in-the-life account. For one, he eschews unnecessary speculation about the teen chess prodigies' psychology, a strategy that taken with his deft reporting of how they view themselves and one another renders them more accessible, more natural and consequently more interesting. Weinreb also expands his arena by investigating the cultural milieu of the modern chess world. He describes what it takes to be a successful high-level chess player, the difficulties women have in this world, the very nature of the game and the phenomenon of the chess prodigy, using the experience of Josh Waitzkin, who has now retired from competitive chess and was the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. All this is supported by well-chosen detail, intelligence and terrific writing. Weinreb clearly develops an affection for the eclectic members of the team, and because of the skill he brings to his project, so will his readers. B&w illus. (Mar. 1)
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The Kings of New York is about chess in the same way that Darcy Frey's The Last Shot was about basketball. Michael Weinreb's real subjects are the nature of talent, the onset of adolescence, and the kingdom of Brooklyn. This is a wonderful book. -- Mark Kriegel, author of Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich and Namath: A Biography
The Kings of New York isn't so much a book about high school chess as it is an unforgettable journey into the blessing and curse of adolescent genius. With a narrative rich in voice-a gathering of intoxicating characters-Michael Weinreb has delivered nothing short of a generational classic. This is a stunning book. You won't soon forget it. -- Adrian Wojnarowski, author of The Miracle of St. Anthony
Michael Weinreb has done a heroic job doing something once thought impossible-making an eminently readable topic out of chess. Part Word Freak, part Season on the Brink, The Kings of New York is a gripping inside look at an endearingly quirky subculture. -- L. Jon Wertheim, author of Transition Game and Venus Envy
Writing with the deft, propulsive style of a young Frank Deford, Michael Weinreb has captured both the intellectual insanity-and the curious normalcy-of what it's like to be a teenaged super-genius. The Kings of New York is the Friday Night Lights of high school chess. -- Chuck Klosterman, author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Chuck Klosterman IV
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Shawn is a 1900 rated player who sometimes needs a little kick in the pants to show up on time for tournaments. Actually, he needs some motivation to attend class.
It's fun watching the students grow up, dig deep down inside to win games or salvage draws, and learn how to get along better with each other. It was nice to see Sal start to care more about the other team members toward the end of the book, though you can feel the uneasy tension/rivalry between him and Lenderman.
Chess is the stage on which this story is told, but this really a coming of age tale, where a high school chess team learns about life and the world around them.
One disturbing thing about the chess world is the sexist attitude many of the players have. Not so much the Murrow players, but many others in the chess world. There is also an "I'm better than you are" smugness about some of the higher rated players that some may find annoying.
But this is truly an engaging, real life story about real life students from Brooklyn, New York. Thumbs up.
As the book's stars, the eight or ten members of the Edward R Murrow High School chess team - a national dynasty in high school chess - are followed in a year where they chase another city, state and national title trifecta. Weinreb does a really admirable job of developing and exploring these characters as subjects. His observations and experiences with the team inform the characterization but never infiltrate the text.
Weinreb's underdog angle is a little overplayed. He seems to insinuate that the kids at Brooklyn's Murrow High are underdogs because of - alternately - their socioeconomic status, their family situations, their living conditions, their schooling and even their race. He ignores the fact that he is recounting the story of a half dozen kids identified and essentially recruited to play for the school (by the club's coach and a school math teacher) because they have been identified in middle school and earlier as being in some cases prodigies in chess, but at least for being some of the best players in what is by far America's most chess-interested city.
Weinreb returns again and again to David and Goliath set-ups as Murrow players take on players from - for example - an exclusive and expensive Tucson private academy, or NYC's own finishing schools for the mega-rich - kids who are bound for the Ivies and who bed down in multi-million dollar Manhattan manses. But, Weinreb's own story reveals a very different reality - while Murrow's stars (two Soviet Bloc émigrés, two Puerto Ricans from Brookyln's projects, and a handful of other similar types) may live their home lives in very different surroundings, and have different hopes for their futures, they are steeped in chess training and practice thanks to NYC public programs that make city kids as familiar with the game and as likely to succeed as any kid from any desert-bound Arizona backwater.
Weinreb also spends too little time exploring the ethical considerations surrounding Mr. Weiss, the team's coach and a school math coach. Weiss, while responsible for many of the team's players getting into Murrow in the first place, appears to preside over a graduation rate that would make The University of Miami football team blush. Too many of his players are not attending class, not on track for graduation, and perhaps not getting what they really need to succeed in high school. But, I can't blame Weinreb for not wanting to take his eye off the ball, which is really the interesting story of these kids.
As you read "Kings of New York," you can't help but notice the proliferation of Slavic surnames attached to America, especially New York, and especially Brooklyn's best players. Part of that is attributable to the Little Odessa phenomenon in Brooklyn; and, Weinreb gives a little primer on why Eastern Europeans and Russians are so dominant in the game, but aside from his tendency to return to platitudes about the "game being more important" to Russians (and former Soviet bloc players) he never really explores or explains why? how? or, since when?
But, all of this is to make the book sound like its shortcomings ruined the enjoyment -- they did not. On the brighter side again, the book is very accessible to non-players. I don't know from a rook, but I was able to follow Weinreb as he recounts some of the more dramatic matches move-by-move. The book is well organized and the pacing is good, and coupled with a really enjoyable look at some of the teenagers at the book's center, it makes for fun reading.
I would recommend the book to readers who consider themselves to be more mainstream sports fans. There really is a focus on competition that will feel familiar here. As an ex-amateur boxer, looking back on my career what I relish most about the sport is the opportunities it gave me to go places and meet people I never would have otherwise. As a competitor, it was always exciting to go into a tournament and get to take on a tough as nails cowboy, then a kid from the worst part of the worst city, then some backwater bumpkin from somewhere so hot it made it seem sensible to wrastle alligators. In the same way, for Murrow's players, chess becomes their magic carpet, taking them on a ride that they will certainly never forget, and in many ways preparing them for a lot of life's challenges and opening their eyes to its rewards. In that way, I would compare the book very favorably to one of my all-time sports favorites, Mitch Albom's "Fab Five," and even to some of the other acclaimed sports titles (i.e., "Friday Night Lights).