Detroit: Chess City - part I

The game of chess is maybe not the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the name Detroit but the city has produced some national champions and has an active City Chess Club.

The city is in a pretty good state when it comes to chess

Last month I was listening to Mayor Duggan’s 2015 State of the City speech and got a bit of a nudge to finally write a few words on something I had seen in Midtown back in September of last year.

In his address the Mayor had noted how he had played chess against one of the Detroit City Chess Club’s players whilst on a visit to UAW-Ford (I later learnt that the union, encouraged greatly by its Vice-President Jimmy Settles, sponsors the Club generously and lets the top players practice at its facility on Jefferson).

The Mayor confessed that he had been lucky to get a draw against 8 year-old Charisse Woods. In his defense he noted that she was part of a Chrysler Elementary School team that had become the K3 State champs and that won again at the nationals in Dallas (as did a K6 team from University Prep).


Charisse Woods (right) and other winning Detroit school chess players get a standing ovation at the Mayor’s State of the City address last month (source:

The DIA game(s)

It took me back to last September when I had been at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and stumbled on a game of ‘simultaneous chess’ – one player versus many. I know chess has appeared in quite a bit of artistic work but I wasn’t expecting to see it played in an art museum.

I asked a lady what was going on. She told me it was 50 kids from the City Club.

I loved what I was seeing – it seemed so at odds with some of the portrayals of the city and its youth. The lady I had asked told me it was all being organized by a man named Kevin Fite (the Mayor also name-checked Mr Fite). She pointed me in his direction but I left him alone as I could see he was speaking with a European couple. One of the couple was (very perceptively I thought!) saying “how at odds with the city’s media image it all was…”.

The spectacle was made even better by the fact that the kids’ opponent was none other than Justus William. Justus Who? I suspect few Americans (and even fewer Brits!) could name Justus – yet he’s the youngest African-American Master-Level Chess Player. The 16 year-old was in town from his home in New York’s Bronx.

And this was nothing new apparently – the Chess Club kids have played such ‘simul’ games with leading players on many other occasions. You can hear some of the kids that played Justus talking about their other games here and you can see some footage of the event with Justus here (spoiler: it’s footage of chess and not even with the moves highlighted!).

Detroit City Chess Club

50 Detroit kids play against the youngest African-American Chess Master (source: author)

In a second post I will look at the Club’s origins and growth – and reflect a little on how the city might further develop its chess scene.

Gareth is currently looking to establish an organization to exchange international best practice around ways to sustain community and civic assets such as parks, libraries and museums. Prior to arriving in Detroit he undertook a German Marshall Fund international Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship (in the Twin Cities, Detroit and Baltimore) looking at these same issues. Before coming to the US Gareth worked in central government as a policy advisor in the Cabinet Office (Office for Civil Society and Strategy Unit). He holds a Ph.D. in economic geography (the role of universities in regional economic development), as well as a first degree in social policy and administration and a Masters in civic design (urban planning). Follow him on Twitter @garethpotts1.