Chess in the movies: "Critical Thinking" - a fine film by John Leguizamo

by ChessBase
9/26/2020 – "Critical Thinking", the directing debut of well-known and successful actor John Leguizamo, is a film about chess, passion, friendship and overcoming the odds. It is based on real events and tells the story of a group of teenagers from an underprivileged neighbourhood in Miami, Florida, who win the 1998 U.S. National Team Chess Championship. The well-made film with a fine cast of actors is a must for every chess player! | Photos and exclusive film clip from "Vertical Entertainment"

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A portrait of a passion for chess

By Arne Kähler and Johannes Fischer

Star of the film is Mario "T" Martinez (played by Leguizamo himself), teacher and chess teacher at the Miami Jackson Senior High School.

Martinez is a passionate chess player, and when he sees that some of his students are interested in the game he decides to offer after school chess classes.

His students turn out to be surprisingly good and Martinez' enthusiasm helps them to get even better, in fact, good enough to qualify for the U.S. National Team Championship. The film shows how the school has to fight with a permanent lack of ressources and money to support the team, and how the group of the five best players on the team has to cope with poverty, broken families, racism, acquaintances and friends who drift into crime and drug abuse, self-doubt and rivalries within the group to form a successful team and to learn valuable lessons for life through chess. As John Leguizamo put it:

Chess is a metaphor for life. It teaches these kids that if they dedicate themselves and work hard enough, that they can succeed at anything they set their minds to.

Mario "T" Martinez (John Leguizamo) knows how fascinating chess can be

Sounds like a fairy-tale too good to be true? Maybe. But the movie is based on a real story which touched Carla Berkowitz, the Executive Producer of Critical Thinking.

On Sunday, March 17, 1998, almost 22 years ago to the day, I woke up and saw an article in the Miami Herald's Tropic magazine about the Miami Jackson Senior High School chess team. This team, made up of Latinx young men & women of color from one of the poorest communities in Miami, had been shattering stereotypes of what kind of person excelled at chess, and they had just won the U.S. National Championships in Los Angeles. The image and story was haunting and I felt like I had a quantum shift in my perception of chess and who plays it. Immediately after reading the article, I got in touch with Coach Mario Martinez and began what would be a 20-year love letter to Miami Jackson Senior High School and Miami in the ‘90s.

After interviewing the players, I chose 5 to focus on. They each had a unique take on chess and their own philosophy. One plays blindfolded against 6 boards and wins every time. One plays with aggression. One plays with more finesse. One is organized and kept the team together... you get the idea. It was a movie even before it actually was.

I wanted to change the perception of who plays chess! I wondered, when these guys are winning these prestigious competitions, beating kids from the most elite schools in America, how many of these prep-school parents would cross the street if they saw one of these boys standing at the corner?

The world needed to see these kids lifting themselves out of the inner-city on the strength of their minds. They drew on their inner-city experiences and used their minds as weapons against the obstacles in their lives. A world that only ever wanted to pay attention when they caused problems had to acknowledge that they had the power to solve them too.

What was absolutely astounding was how deep in this game they were, seeing 10 moves into the future, even as they were trying to predict 10 life decisions ahead before they made them and seeing a way out of the inner- city using kings & queens & pawns & rooks...Securing the life rights and the funds was the easy part, the dance to “make” the movie was another story. As you would expect after 20 years, many people were in and out of this project. But it wasn't until John Leguizamo and fellow producers Scott Rosenfelt (“Home Alone”) and Jason Mandl got involved in 2016 that the film began to take shape. After John committed to star in and direct the movie, shooting began in November 2018 and wrapped in December.

This story has Miami blood, sweat, and tears, and I would never have filmed it anywhere else! 

The real Mario Martinez with actors from the film (from left to right: Corwin C. Tuggles, Angel Bismark Curiel, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Mario Martinez and Dre C)

Mario Martinez with his real students (film still from Critical Thinking)

Actor and director: John Leguizamo

The Colombian born Leguizamo is a successful actor who played played roles like Luigi in the Super Mario Bros. movie, Benny Blanco in Carlito's Way or Tybalt Capulet in Romeo and Juliet, and appeared in successful series such as Emergency Room or When they see us. However, he also has a lot of other talents: he wrote a memoir called Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My Life, released a comic book (Freak), produced several boadway and theatre shows (Ghetto Klown), played music (John Leguizamo LIVE), gave his voice to "Sid" from Ice Age, did stand-up comedy (Latin History for Morons on Netflix), and now tried his hand as a director.

John Leguizamo as Mario Martinez

In a personal statement Leguizamo revealed why it was important for him to make this movie with this topic:

When I was growing up, I didn’t see Latin people represented in pop culture. While watching movies or reading books, I felt like an outsider looking in on some alternate reality where people like me didn’t exist. And when Latin people were represented, it was in the worst way possible. In the 1990s, I read a horrible book called “The Bell Curve.” It used pseudo-science and false assumptions to try to prove that Latin and Black people were intellectually inferior due to their genetics.

The damage done by this book was profound to me and my community. We’ve been fighting uphill battles ever since.

When I received Critical Thinking, I immediately saw its potential. The story was such a powerful tool to undo the harm that’s been done to America’s Latin and Black populations, by systemic and institutional racism, by the stereotyping done in Hollywood films, and by fake scientists who spread misinformation. I wanted to do everything I could to reverse the programming that my friends and family had been force-fed our entire lives, and bringing this film to life was how I was going to do it.

We set out to create a film that fills people with hope in our dark times. We wanted to tell an inspiring true story that proves you can be born in the most under-privileged situation, but you can still be an intellectual hero.

An excellent cast

Critical Thinking also impresses with a fine cast. Apart from Leguizamo himself, the best-known is perhaps Michael Kenneth Williams, actor of the unforgettable Omar from The Wire.

Michael Kenneth Williams on the set of Critical Thinking

The other actors also play extremely well, and throughout the film you can perceive the emotions, thoughts and feelings of the characters they portray.

On the road to their first big tournament: (from left to right) Gil Luna (played by Will Hochman), Ito Paniagua (played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Rodelay Medina (played by Angel Bismark Curiel) and Sedrick Roundtree (played by Corwin C. Tuggles).

Fact and fiction: the actors meeting with the characters they portray.

An interview with Corwin C. Tuggles and Jeffry Batista

"The ones who had the least knowledge about chess, were Corwin and me"

Jeffry Batista

In the following interview two of the main actors talk about the making of Critical Thinking, reveal what they really know about chess and how it felt to meet the people they portrayed in the film.


Chess plays an important role in Critical Thinking: you see a lot of chess and you see the actors play the game.

Marcel Martinez, the best player on the team (played by Jeffry Batista) at a blindfold performance | Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The real Gil Luna (played by Will Hochman) is still faithful to chess and acted as an advisor to the film. He also runs a chess website, called

Gil Luna (right) at a simul

The games and positions in the film are mainly common opening traps and checkmates. Here's a collection.



Arne Kähler:

"I first was a bit scared that Critical Thinking might be a cheesy remake of Dangerous Minds, telling the old story of a cool teacher who helps troubled teens from a poor neighbourhood. But I am happy to say that this wasn't the case at all.

In fact, I genuinely enjoyed the film, and highly recommend it to every chess player. Not only because of its presentation of chess but also because Critical Thinking is a really appealing and thoughtful film.

Critical Thinking is a drama but it also has a lot of funny and entertaining moments. Moreover, the impressions of Miami and the night scenes are particularly well-made and, as mentioned above, the acting is superb.

All in all, a well-made film and a must-watch for anybody who likes chess."

Critical Thinking is available on all major streaming and video on demand platforms.


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