Against all odds, a team of 11 inner-city students from Indianapolis Public School (IPS) 27 defeated a team from Hunter College Elementary School, an elite prep school, to win the National Elementary School Chess Championship.  

School 27 Chess Team, 1983
School 27 Chess Team, 1983 Credit: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

When coach Robert Cotter arrived at IPS 27 as a fourth-grade teacher in September 1980, he and co-coach Len Wallace convinced a group of nine-year-old students, none of whom had played chess, to form a team. It took Cotter and Wallace almost 45 days to teach the students the names of the chess pieces, how to move them, and how to set up the chess board. Then they taught the students strategy and patience. In the beginning, the students could focus for no more than 10 minutes.   

The students and the coaches faced hurdles, with friends and families questioned why the students chose to play chess instead of an active sport. Cotter struggled to outfit the team with chess sets and timers and to pay for tournament fees on IPS 27’s meager school budget.  

The team earned the name “Masters of Disaster,” not due to their prowess but rather their poor performance in the first year and a half of tournament play against junior high school teams. But with each loss, the team became more determined to become formidable chess players.

Hungry to improve, the team welcomed a new practice schedule of 2.5 hours each day after school, supplemented with longer practices on Saturdays. By spring 1983, the name “Masters of Disaster” connoted impending doom for their opponents rather than themselves.  

Charity Dye Elementary School IPS #27 Chess Team, 1983
Charity Dye Elementary School IPS #27 Chess Team, 1983 Credit: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

Cotter registered the team, now 6th graders, in the Southern Elementary School Chess Tournament in Pulaski, Virginia, where all the best junior teams from the South converged on March 19, 1983. The inner-city team from IPS 27 looked out of place among teams coming from prep and suburban schools. Cotter’s goal for his team was to place in the top 10 to secure invitations to other competitions. The Masters of Disaster from IPS 27 won 22 games, lost 1 game, and drew 1 game. The team won the first-place trophy at the event.  

The team then won the Indiana State Chess Championships for elementary schools on April 9. With these two high profile wins, the team competed in the National Elementary School Chess Championship tournament in Memphis, Tennessee. The team’s three squads won first, second, and fourth place. Three of the eleven elementary school students on the team became top-50 ranked players in the under 13 age division in 1983. 

In 1985, Sonya Friedman and Pat Wetmore Kellar produced a short 32-minute documentary film titled The Masters of Disaster as part of the Indiana University Audio-Visual Center’s (AVC) film distribution service. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best short-documentary film in 1986. Friedman and Wetmore Kellar hoped the film would garner support from the Indianapolis Urban League to keep the youth of the team on track in the future. 

After the initial hype of their success as national chess champions, nothing more was done to support their continued achievement. Mayor William Hudnut III, Governor Robert Orr, and even President Ronald Reagan showed enthusiasm for what the inner-city youth accomplished. Many Indianapolis-based businesses financially supported a trip to Japan for the team to compete there—where they won. But when the team failed to repeat its success from 1983 to 1984, many people lost interest in the team.  

Mayor Hudnut plays chess with a student from the IPS #27 chess team "Masters of Disaster," 1983
Mayor Hudnut plays chess with a student from the IPS #27 chess team “Masters of Disaster,” 1983 Credit: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

Overconfidence and lack of discipline to practice dogged the team. Furthermore, IPS never used the success of the Masters of Disaster chess team to establish a broad-based chess program throughout the school system. When the young men finished junior high school, the team disbanded.

In April 2023, a new organization Indy Chess, which aims to introduce the game to girls and minority groups, began teaching the game at the Center of Inquiry School 27, where the Masters of Disaster played when it was IPS 27. 

Revised November 2023

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