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Indianapolis's `Masters of Disaster'. Rise of an inner-city chess team is documented in new film

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THERE were a lot of coaches who came to me and said, `Are you crazy? You're trying to take these ghetto kids and put them in a chess tournament?' '' The speaker is Bob Cotter, an elementary schoolteacher in Indianapolis. ``That just enraged me,'' he continues. ``I was furious.''

Mr. Cotter, whose determination, it seems, could drive through concrete, went back to his ``ghetto kids'' at PS 27 and communicated his outrage. ``It fired them up,'' he says.

Starting a chess team in this setting was not easy going. The fourth-graders knew nothing about the game and had enough trouble sitting still during school, let alone for another two hours afterward. ``It was painstaking -- agonizing,'' Cotter says of the first weeks. To keep the wheels turning he bought ice cream and soda, opened the gym after chess practice -- even paid the team members for learning certain moves.

Three years later, in 1983, the team from PS 27 had beaten an elite private school in Manhattan for the elementary school chess championship of the United States. Now, the Audio-Visual Center at Indiana University has retold the story in a half-hour film called ``The Masters of Disaster,'' the name the team adopted as befitting its early performances.

The Masters are not sanitized sit-com characters but real adolescents who fidget and slouch and, on camera, don't know what to do with their hands. They range from Anthony Allen -- a pint-sized Eric Dickerson (the Los Angeles Rams' running back) with his glasses and shiny curls, who emerges as unofficial spokesman -- to Derrick (Rabbit) Thomas, who is the team's best player but also its toughest case. Rabbit, whose background could not be called ``advantaged,'' cradles his head in his arms during a Cotter pep talk, as though he could use a good night's sleep. But put him in front of a chess board and Rabbit is a study in concentration, moving imaginary chess pieces in the air as he works out his attack. Rabbit once beat a much more experienced opponent in a match that went until 3 a.m.

With their high-top sneakers and ghetto struts, the Masters brought an exuberance to the chess world that wasn't always appreciated. Len Wallace, the assistant coach, recalls that at their first major tournament, in southern Virginia, they scandalized the adults by pitching pennies with their opponents and playing basketball for quarters. They also ``stomped the field,'' which didn't endear them either.


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