Astonishing Story on Inner City Chess

By John Dorschner

The astonishing story of the Miami Jackson High chess team has become a movie, Critical Thinking, with John Leguizamo directing and starring as coach Mario Martinez, whose passion drove a bunch of lower-income Black and Hispanic kids to a national tournament.

It’s available on Fandango Now or Amazon Prime streaming for $6.99. The movie “has a sweetness that softens its flaws,” says the NY Times. Rotten Tomatoes reports 91 percent positive from critics.

I did a big take-out on this team for Tropic magazine of The Miami Herald in 1997 — a year before the setting of the movie. They were a bunch of earnest kids who probably would have been into video games and basketball if Martinez hadn’t inspired them.

What Martinez knew — and I learned — was that chess was a skill that didn’t depend on other factors. (Reading skills, for example, are often correlated with parents’ educational levels, encouraging reading at home, etc.). With chess, those kind of factors didn’t matter, and the Jackson kids regularly beat up the affluent South Dade kids in local tournaments — a boost of confidence that, studies showed, translated into improvements in the classroom.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I’m sure it will stretch the “true story” as movies often do. But in the 1998 national tournament (which I’m sure is the climax of the movie) there were two astonishing dramas in real life. I won’t share them here because they’d certainly be spoilers.

You can watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6QT76ISJVU

A Miami journalist for a half-century dedicated to peace, equality and environmental protection. Author of Verdict on Trial, available on Amazon.

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