Making All the Right Moves
with the
Detroit City Chess Club

by
Nick Sousanis

 

"We don't quit on this team."

With those words, Kevin Fite, founder of the Detroit City Chess Club, set one of the newest members of the club straight. The two shared a friendly fist bump and the boy returned to the game in progress he'd just walked away from.

Persistence is just one of the many life lessons kids are picking up as they learn and compete at chess. I caught up with Fite at the Coleman A. Young Recreation Center where about 30 kids from 3rd to 8th grade meet every Friday afternoon to work on their chess game. Despite my best attempts to avoid such things, somehow a few of the young players corralled me into playing with them, while Fite was busy coaching individual students on one aspect of chess strategy. This is not the scene one might expect from a roomful of kids hanging out after school nor is it that of a typical chess club. It's lively but focused. The kids are having a great time playing together, and taking each game with great intensity.

The kids finally gave me a break from playing to talk with Fite about the club, its history, and his own involvement. Well, almost. Another boy named Kayeen introduced himself and asked me to play. Touched by his offer and the great respect he showed, but worn down from my previous opponents, I regretfully declined.

Fite shared a bit about this boy, and how in his view, learning and competing at chess helps the kids (as is quite evident with Kayeen) build confidence - something many of them didn't have before they came to chess. "Now," he says, "You gotta humble 'em." (And the brashness of many of my young challengers is illustration of that point!) Fite shared a story of one boy who was doing poorly in school and really could never speak up. Since taking up chess, "He's quite confident, his grades are up, he's outgoing - he's just different."

Just a look around this room of engaged and active youngsters, even without knowing their individual stories, is enough to know that the chess club and the game itself are creating a positive impact on their lives.

Originally from Detroit, Fite went to university in Louisiana, and eventually returned to the Detroit area to work as a computer programmer. After a time in that field, Fite found it did nothing for him and so went back to school to pursue teaching. Someone convinced him to try middle school and he ended up falling in love with it. Fite, who has spent the last four years teaching mathematics at Duffield Elementary, puts it this way, "If you get them early, you know they're going to make it." In addition to his popular mathematics program at the school, Fite also established Math Beyond the Realm - a website to facilitate further dialogue about mathematics for current and former students - all maintained by Fite and the kids themselves.

So then, why Chess? "When I first got to Duffield I had a set. One kid said he could play and then one or two would come and play, and then five or six started showing up to play." Eventually so many kids were into playing that Fite had to buy a whole lot more chess boards. Fite bumped into someone at a gas station of all places who for an incredibly cheap price sold him enough glass chess boards for every table in his classroom. By the second year of the then informal chess club, some of the kids began beating him regularly, and he knew it was time to find a way to strengthen the program.

Fite formed the DCCC and created a website to promote their activities. Like the Math website, students who show great dedication to the club are given a job title within the club, get business cards to help spread the word, and in the process the kids gain a sense of responsibility and ownership in the health of the organization. Fite found an expert chess instructor in Glenn Smith who came on board to serve as the Duffield coach. With his dedication added to the growing group, the team would go on to compete at the Supernationals III Chess Championship last spring in Nashville, Tennessee. Duffield's elementary squad finished first in the unrated division, and their middle school kids came in second. The club regularly travels to various statewide tournaments throughout the year.

While Fite doesn't consider himself a particularly good chess player, he says, "I give my time. If you give kids time, they're going to rise to the occasion. Everyone has talents. I consider myself a boring person. But just giving an hour or so a week, book club, sewing, anything, you would see a lot of changes in these kids."

Besides their competitive success, the group has grown so much, they're in the unfortunate situation of having to turn kids away. There is only so much Fite, Smith, and the other volunteers can take on. More help is needed. One thing the club can always use more of is books - an invaluable tool for the kids to grow their game. But perhaps as importantly - the kids need more players to practice against and learn from. While the club is primarily made up of kids, it is open to players of all ages and experience. For someone interested in the game at any level, giving of your time to play with these kids each week will go a long way - and it's a lot fun. As Fite puts it, "It works beautifully if everybody gives a little bit."

Fite shared some final thoughts on what this experience had meant for his students, "It calms them and helps them think. It's nice to walk into a room and it's quiet. You see them playing and talking about why they made a bad move and what they'll do next time." Along with castling, en passant, and other particulars of the game, these kids are picking up skills like patience, concentration, analysis of situations, decision making, and persistence which will take with them far beyond the grid of 64 black and white squares and help them make the right moves in their own lives.


Want to get involved? Check out their website here for more information and a lot of cool chess stuff, and for ways to contact Fite.


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