Chess grandmaster faces 50 Detroit-area students...and meets his match

For fans of chess in Detroit, a special event took place this past Friday. Chess Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, the strongest American chess player (currently fourth-ranked in the world), played a simultaneous exhibition (or, simul) against 50 metro Detroit-area students. The event took place in the Detroit Institute of Arts' Great Hall, which is lined with displays of metal armor, an appropriate symbol for a game based on warfare.
The simul was organized by the Detroit City Chess Club's director and coach, Kevin Fite. The club, composed of students mostly from Detroit, has met almost every Friday since 2003. Fite, a former teacher and dean of students at Washington Prep Academy in Detroit, is a chess evangelist and has dedicated himself to preaching the gospel of the game. "As an educational tool, chess is the best kept secret in the world," he says. "It teaches you how to think creatively, plan, and analyze your decision-making. After a game, the kids have to explain the logic of their moves to the club."
This event was notable for a number of reasons. A chess celebrity beloved by fans for his daring play, Nakamura participates in exhibitions like this only a couple times a year, and at high expense. But Fite has developed a relationship with Nakamura's father, a chess coach in New York City, helping him lure the grandmaster to Detroit at a low cost. Also, there aren't any grandmasters from the state of Michigan, meaning this might be the only chance these kids get to face one.
But most of all, a simul is a fascinating spectacle. Tables were arranged in a rectangular perimeter with Nakamura in the middle. He would make a single move on each board before moving on to the next one. The mental stamina required to perform this feat is astounding. Hundreds of spectators filtered through the hall, some following him as he played, many taking photographs.
While it's an entertaining event for chess fans, this was all about the kids. Fite selected a mix, aged 6 to 18, from 10 Detroit schools, some suburban schools, and even three from Canadian schools.
Catherine Martinez, a mother of two chess players and 12-year volunteer at the DCCC, says it's important for kids to face strong competition. "We don't just teach the game," she says. "Getting an opportunity to play an opponent like this builds the kids' courage."
Catherine's 12-year-old daughter, Lauren, participated in the simul. An experienced tournament player who beat a master (a title two steps down from grandmaster) at a simul when she was 10, Lauren acquitted herself well, but lost.
Fite, who has a lot of faith in his club, made a gentleman's bet with Nakamura that he couldn't beat his kids in under three hours. Not only did the match last over four hours, but the final score was a shocking 48 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss. The player who defeated Nakamura was Bryan Wilson, Jr., an 8th grader from University Prep Science & Math Middle School.
For the other kids, there is still much gained in defeat. "We're going debrief afterwards and talk about not just the moves, but their thinking," Fite says. "The psychology of the game is almost more important than the game itself. You have to be mentally strong to be a great chess player."
The Detroit City Chess Club meets every Friday at the DIA. For more information, go to
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.