When a group of Detroit girls earned first place in a national chess championship last year, the pride and confidence they felt was profound.
Getting retweeted by Snoop Dogg? That was just icing on the cake.
The all-girls team from University Prep Science & Math in Detroit took part in the tournament with the Detroit City Chess Club, one of the top-performing chess organizations in the country. The group continually makes headlines for winning titles in local, regional, state and national competitions.
“We won national titles over the year and, when the all-girls team won, it received more press than probably all of them put together,” says Kevin Fite, the founder and head coach of the Detroit City Chess Club. “We’ve got some great kids.”
It was one of many proud moments for his organization, which he started in 2003 and now serves more than 300 Detroit kids and adults.
“It started out as a club for kids, and we got so many adults coming in saying, ‘Hey, we want to play too.’ So, years ago, we opened it up to everybody,” he says. “We have kids as young as 4 years old to about 80 years old.”
Fite was teaching math at a public school in Detroit when he decided to ask the students in each of his classes if any of them were interested in playing chess after school. Despite having more than 200 students, only two showed up the first day.
“Everyone called them geeks. It was sad, but I just told them to ignore it and just keep moving,” he recalls. But it slowly caught on as more kids got involved, including athletes and “popular” kids. “Before you knew it, I had 52 kids in a room … it was just packed to the hilt.”
Finding a free, accessible place to play presented a challenge until a friend suggested the Detroit Institute of Arts, which agreed to host the organization. They still meet there on Fridays and Fite is grateful for the safe, inspiring environment.
“I’ve been all over the country playing chess. This is the best venue in the world,” Fite says of the DIA.
While studies have found chess has many benefits for kids, including improving critical thinking and analytical skills, Fite sees an even more important perk.
“It’s self-esteem,” he says. “You got a kid that can beat another kid or can beat an adult, which is mind over mind. I think it just does something to a kid’s psyche. I’ve seen kids that didn’t say a word that were introverts and they’re the most talkative kids now. They’re filled with confidence.”
And that confidence extends into other areas of their lives.
“The self-esteem piece helps with everything – it helps with grades, their attendance and how they feel about themselves,” Fite says.
Being part of the Detroit City Chess Club also gives some kids a reason to look forward to school. Even on snowy days when attendance is sparse, “the chess team would always show up,” Fite laughs. “It’s the truth. They just come to school because, ‘Hey, we’ve got practice.’”
Kids in the club also benefit from many travel opportunities as they attend competitions all over the country. This is possible thanks to support from partners like UAW-Ford, which is the organization’s largest sponsor.
“They’ve helped with travel over the years, they’ve helped with uniforms, equipment, people to help us out at tournaments. I can’t say enough about the UAW,” Fite says. “They’ve been supportive community partners. It’s just amazing.”
That consistent support has made many of the club’s achievements possible, he says.
“A lot of championships would not have been won if not for their donation. That’s very key, because there are times when we just didn’t have the money,” he says.
The youth involved are giving back to their community, too. Each year, members of the Detroit City Chess Club find a way to help out around the holidays.
“We’ve always done that. In years past we’ve volunteered for Boxes of Love, where the kids go and package boxes for people who are less fortunate,” Fite says. “It’s a mandatory thing because, like I’ve shared with the kids – and they get it – the community has helped us out over the years, as well. It’s important for us to give back to the community that’s been so kind to us over the years. They get it, and that’s why they all show up.”
To learn more about the Detroit City Chess Club, register a student or make a donation, visit detroitchess.com.