Category: Blogs, Scholastic Chess, Susan Polgar
Chess club helps Detroit kids find their way forward, one move at a time
May 21, 2013 at 8:45 am
One of the little-known gems of the Detroit Institute of Arts is on display, but not on the walls.
Those who’ve seen this cultural phenomenon use words like “magical” and “inspiring” to describe this weekly happening, the Detroit City Chess Club.
On any Friday night, usually in the Kresge court, you’ll find dozens of Detroit children, their heads down, fingers poised over chess boards.
Over these chess boards, the children learn lessons that change their young lives and often propel them from the streets to college classrooms.
Others find their footing. They gain skills in problem-solving and strategy.
In a group honored Friday night, there was an older child who only recently learned to read; a girl who cooks dinner for her brother on school days, since her mother works nights; a boy whose social skills are blossoming along with his game.
Consider Michaela White, 13, the soft-spoken eighth-grader who was named to the all-city “dream team” at a special chess all-star award ceremony Friday. Only in her first year as a chess player, she credits the game and Coach Kevin Fite with “helping everything.”
“When you’re playing chess, you think ahead,” she says. “You have to plan your moves. This is the first year I’ve played and it’s the first year I’ve ever gotten a 4.0 average in school.”
For more than a decade, Fite, a former Detroit math teacher, has coached with passion, dedication and steadfastness.
Always, he has struggled to keep the program going; to find funding and support, even though parents and his student players speak of him using superlatives.
“He is like a saint,” says Jimmy Settles, a UAW vice president who was introduced to Fite by a friend. “I have seen firsthand the difference he makes in these kids’ lives. But he’s not Mr. Softie. Even when the parents aren’t really involved, he gets the kids to take responsibility for getting there.”
Settles’ JUST Foundation, the United Auto Workers and Ford have helped pay for the chess team’s trips to regional and national tournaments this year.
At the Nashville nationals last month, Detroit “dream team” member Lamar Brice — a 10-year-old fifth-grader who attends Chrysler Elementary — won a sixth-place trophy almost as big as he is. Chess has been an eye-opener for him. (“I never expected to go on so many trips!”)
“I’ve learned to be a gracious winner and not such a sore loser,” he says.
Lamar learned to play chess with his uncle, Detroit photographer Kwabena Shabu. But he didn’t get excited about the game until “coach Fite brought a team to my school this year.”
Jalen Woods, 13, an eighth-grader at University Prep Science and Math Middle School, loves chess. His mother, Jadie Woods, sees “more focus and discipline” in Jalen.
Eight children were chosen to be on the citywide “dream team” this year. At Friday’s ceremony, Wayne State University trustee Debbie Dingell brought a hush to those in attendance when she told them she’d bragged about these children and their coach to Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama.
“I tell everybody I can,” she says. “I stumbled on the chess club when I was in the DIA one day and just found it incredibly moving.”
These children aren’t athletes but they’re in training, learning skills that build habits of mind as well as body. They’re living up to their potential with every practice, every move on the board.