Isaac Barayev, the teenage grandson of émigrés from the former Soviet Union on both sides of his family, doesn’t remember exactly when his introduction to the game of pawns and rooks and kings began.
But he recalls how it happened.
He was about 4 years old. His grandfathers, who live a few blocks from each other and from him in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, taught him the basics of chess. “They put me on their knees and showed me how to set up the pieces.”
Within a few years, Isaac was beating his grandfathers.
Winning chess games against older opponents has become familiar territory for him. Now 13, an eighth grader at Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Isaac was part of the team that won the U.S. Chess Federation’s national high school championship earlier this month in Minneapolis. Over the weekend that coincided with the final days of Passover, he and the public school’s seven other top-ranked players triumphed over older, more-experienced high school competitors from around the country.
The victory, chess experts said, marked the first time that an intermediate school — I.S. 318 is composed of 1,600 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, most from the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhood — won the high school championship.
The victory was also a triumph of tenacity over wealth; more than 60 percent of the school’s students are from families with incomes below the federal poverty level.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” James Black, one of the team’s top competitors, tells The Jewish Week. The students often supplement their in-school training, after seven or eight hours in class, with after-school lessons.
The chess team’s victory, its most-noted so far — the high school trophy is kept in a place of honor, at the front of the school’s chess classroom — is proof “that anyone can excel if they work hard,” says John Galvin, an assistant principal and coordinator of the chess program.
At I.S. 318, rade and an elective the next two years, the chess champs are celebrities, the focus of a recent documentary, “Brooklyn Castle.”
“They’re not nerds,” Galvin says. “They’re the most popular kids in school. Isaac is very well known in the school. His success gives him instant credibility.”
When Isaac won a recent individual title, the school heard the news the next morning with Galvin’s announcement on the intercom that “The Russian Rocket prevailed.”
Galvin gave Isaac that nickname.
Galvin, who has guided I.S. 318’s chess expansion from some 10 players 12 years ago to a school-wide culture today, spent much of Tuesday this week prepping groups of students for the next day’s departure for San Diego, where they will participate in this weekend’s national junior high chess championship.
The team’s victory at the high school championship was not a surprise, Isaac said Saturday night. He talked to a reporter in the home of one of his grandfathers, Gregory Barayev, still dressed in his Shabbat suit, a colorful Bukharan kipa atop his head. The I.S. 318 team finished second in last year’s high school championship.
Isaac, reigning New York City junior high school chess champion, chose I.S. 318, which has excelled in chess since introducing it into its curriculum 12 years ago, because of its reputation. His father, Boris, a real estate agent, drives him to school every day.
I.S. 318 is a testimony to the city’s melting pot character. The school’s walls are lined with scores and scores of chess trophies, plaques and banners — “Chess is all over the school,” says Principal Leander Eric Windley. Also on the wall are honors certificates for the largely Hispanic and African-American student body, with a smattering of Asians, Poles and Indians.
“It’s a real reflection of New York,” Galvin says. Isaac is among a handful of Jews at the school, the only one on the chess team.
The third-floor chess classroom is a slice of heaven for the chess aficionado. Teacher and chess coach Elizabeth Spiegel has decorated the walls with pictures of history’s top chess players. Seventeen chessboards on desks fill the room.
Britain-born Spiegel, clicking computer projections on a white screen in the darkened room, runs a few female students through a review of what they may encounter during the upcoming junior high championship, while other students square off at individual boards, and Isaac and James Black share a computer in a corner.
The scene is reminiscent of a football coach preparing his team for an upcoming game: Spiegel offering proposed lines of attack, likely counter-moves by opponents and suggested measures for her players.
And as a nod to the female players, Spiegel reminds them to keep distractions — like late meals and “boys” — from diverting their attention this weekend. “Make sure you take two alarm clocks,” she says.
The chess team mirrors New York’s ethnic and religious composition. Isaac, with a chess ranking of 2,100 — 100 points short of the master’s level — is the third-ranked player on the school’s team. The two players ahead of him, Justus Williams, from the South Bronx, and James Black, from Bedford-Stuyvesant, are African-American.
Ethnic distinctions disappear at the chessboard, Galvin says. “When you sit down across from someone, everyone is equal.”
As a fledgling chess champion with roots in the former Soviet Union, Isaac is following in well-trod footsteps; players from the country have dominated chess for a century. At I.S. 318, he follows Anna Ginzburg, who shares his Russian family background. Ginzburg went from championship years at the school a decade ago to prestigious Stuyvesant High School, to Columbia University and a career in banking.
Isaac, an A student and sports fan, says his interest in chess was kindled because of its novelty — it was “something new.” He soon realized he had talent: private lessons, and victories in tournaments, both local and national, followed. “I like to attack” in games, he says, often favoring the King’s Indian Defense opening, a once-unorthodox strategy that sacrifices a traditional development of pieces in mid-board for strength on the periphery.
That technique has served him well.
“I never pushed him” to play. “He had an interest,” his father says. “It’s hard work, a big commitment.”
Galvin describes Isaac as “driven.
“He is determined to excel. He is not intimidated” by facing older or more experienced opponents, Galvin says. “Isaac is a great role model for the kids.”
Spiegel tells of one recent tournament in which Isaac was trailing; his opponent offered a draw, meaning that each player would receive a half-point. The team needed a win; Isaac refused to concede and accept a draw.
“He won,” says Spiegel, who is one of the top-20-ranked female players in the U.S.
Isaac’s training and tournament schedule is a financial commitment for the family; unlike many up-and-coming chess players, Isaac does not have a sponsor who underwrites his competition’s travel and other expenses.
He says he takes his tefillin and kosher food on the road; he stays in the hotels where the various tournaments are based, not requiring him to travel to games on Shabbat.
Isaac, who attended P.S. 196 in Forest Hills, is headed next year to NEST High School for the gifted in Manhattan, where he can continue his chess development; some colleges have already expressed interest in offering chess scholarships, Isaac’s father says.
This weekend, Isaac will join his schoolmates in San Diego for the junior high school championship, which I.S. 318 won last year.
Isaac isn’t worried. “We’re gonna win,” he predicted.
And you can be sure he’ll be on the attack.