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Detroit: Chess City - part II

In a previous post, I noted the recent success of city chess teams. Here I look at some of the reasons behind this and speculate on how these successes might be developed even further.

The Detroit City Chess Club has grown …. and grown

Through some Googling and a phone chat with Kevin Fite (see previous blog), I learnt a lot about chess in the city.

Mr Fite had started the City Club in 2003 when teaching maths at the former Detroit Duffield Elementary School (where he also ran the chess club). One of the chess-playing pupils was heading to a High School without a club – so her teacher endeavored to do something for her and others like her.

Under Mr Fite’s ongoing efforts, the City Club now sees 200 players, aged between 8 and 18 and from across the metro area, attend the (free) Friday sessions at the DIA. Some of them win regional, state and national competitions and hold high national rankings.

The best school players all attend, but the Club itself also sends teams to compete in out-of-State tournaments several times a year. So kids could be competing nationally with their school teams and with the City Club.

Chess can be transformative for kids

Some 600 have gone through the Club’s ranks – for most of those involved in the serious (competitive) chess it has provided life skills, self-esteem, confidence and the chance to travel around the country. For some it has proven transformative both academically and socially.

Mr Fite and his charges stress that chess is no longer seen as nerdy in schools. The image must at least be OK – numbers attending the City Club sessions have doubled in the last two years.

It’s not all about competing

The kids I saw at the simultaneous match (see previous blog) were all African-American because the Club’s competitive players come from the city’s schools. However, the regular Friday evening club meets are a much more diverse affair in terms of age, race and where folks live. People just wandering through the museum can rock up and play and more casual players can also attend as and when they want. Advanced players will even give some instruction.

A few reflections

This all sparked a few thoughts.

What if there’s a future GrandMaster out there that hasn’t yet been introduced to the game? In my chat with Mr Fite he mentioned that some kids are more likely to attend the Club than others – those that attend schools near the DIA being the most likely of all. Those in far-flung parts of the city or with parents that can’t take them are more likely to miss out. Maybe volunteers could drive interested kids to and from sessions – or donors could sponsor their cab rides to attend?

In some cities chess is played in public parks and squares – New York and Chicago, for example. Maybe the Detroit City Chess Club kids could raise the game’s profile further by playing at Campus Martius or certain popular city parks in the Summer? These could be simultaneous matches with top players or matches against all-comers and local/visiting celebrities.

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Will Campus Martius and other Detroit locations follow New York’s Bryant Park and see inpromptu public chess games? (source: http://mentalmachinery.blogspot.com)

Chess is also a great game for public libraries too – especially in Winter. A little Googling tells me it is played at several branches of the City Libraries such as Hubbard and that there is even, apparently, instruction available for novices at certain times. The library pages on this could be a little more informative to be honest! Maybe the City Club’s older kids can help expand the chess offer in city libraries too?

The DIA has played a pretty impressive role in hosting the Club for ten years now and even gives the kids occasional tours of the art too – thereby furthering their broader education. Other arts institutions might offer some of their space for similar activities. The Mayor could give the DIA a shout-out too in future years.

Then there’s Mr. Fite himself. I am not sure why he did not make this list of 25 Black Men Making Detroit Stronger but I hope city leaders flag up his work with the President and others who recognize great public service. In the United Kingdom he would have been invited to see the Queen to receive an honor – I’ll let you work out the obvious award for someone who has done so much for chess!

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.