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Top-Ranked Black Middle School Chess Champions Raising Funds to Go to SuperNationals

CEO Mark Ornstein said the champion chess team’s work ethic sets them apart from others they’ll be up against in Nashville. (K. Shabu Detroit)

Black middle schoolers aren’t the first group typically thought of when it comes to chess, but University Prep Science and Math Middle School is changing that.

The Detroit, Mich., academy is sending up to 75 chess team members to the SuperNationals VI tournament after clinching the 2017 State Elementary Championship title. Currently ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in K-6, they’re hoping to raise $55,000 to make the trip.

“It really means a lot to me,” 6th-grader Charisse Woods said of making it to the Nashville tournament. “Especially because we have a huge team. To know that everyone can solve tactics at the same time and be able to support each other is really good for the whole team. I really like the way coach [Kevin] Fite runs practice. Everybody does everything at the same time so no one is left behind.”

Fite, who coaches voluntarily and puts in long hours, knew that after all but one of the all-girls championship team from last year graduated, it would be a “bit of a struggle” to get the remaining members to rise to the occasion.

“We have a much younger team this year, but they’ve already proved to have lots of heart, focus and determination, therefore catapulting us to victories in several tough tournaments this year,” he said. “Our former students often come back and help our current kids, which is another way of paying it forward.

“It’s a fantastic feeling to see our kids excited about their championship wins,” Fite said. “It shows them that hard work, focusing and dedication can garner success at the end of your journey.”

University Prep Schools CEO Mark Ornstein said the game, which the school treats like basketball or football “really is more than simply chess.”

“It prepares students in many ways for life,” he said. “When you think of chess, unfortunately, you think of the suburban school district. There aren’t many sorts of powerhouses of chess in urban communities. So, this in many ways has broken the mold of what we think about when we have chess.”

“I really like that I can know that my team has my back if I lose,” said UPSM chess player Charisse Woods (standing behind her teammates). (K. Shabu Detroit)

The school has hosted various fundraisers to cover the costs for hotels, buses and registration at the SuperNationals. They’ve raised $38,000 so far and the next major event is Detroit City Chess Club’s “Kings, Queens and Jeans” gala Friday, April 7.

Due to policy, the UPMS Middle is urging parents and the community to send checks on their school website rather than setting up a GoFundMe campaign. Ornstein said the popular fundraising site has an accountability issue where there is no tracking involved and is usually set up by someone not associated with the organization in need. By using the school website, UPMS Middle can ensure all the money raised can be easily tracked and funneled to a specially-created account.

Ornstein noted said the school will ensure the kids go to the competition no matter what and any funds raised beyond their target amount will go towards expanding the chess program to the University Prep Science and Math High School.

Eighth-grade player Kenneth Rogers isn’t worried about the team reaching its goal.
“It’s not really a big issue,” he said. “I know we’ll do it because we’ve done it every other year. Our main focus is being successful so we do win the tournament.”

Coach Kevin Fite said former students come back to UPMS Middle to help the team hone its skills. (K. Shabu Detroit)

To prepare for the event, the team kept up with practice at the Detroit Institute of Art across from campus on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Eighth-grader and captain Kameron Wilson said it was necessary to study and play often, specifically against difficult opponents “so you don’t get rusty or loose the skills that you once had.”

“Before tournaments, you have to eat healthy things and get a lot of rest,” he added.

The hard work and preparation paid off and the community has rallied behind the chess players.

“People are excited, they’re proud,” Ornstein said. “We’ve been getting checks for $1,000, $5, $100 and to me, a $5 check is as powerful as if you gave us $25,000. People are really proud of students representing the city. This is just another good example of good things happening. When you talk to people in the community, there’s a good deal of pride.”

That pride is shared with school principal Misha Bashir, who said the chess players are “all-around excellent students.”

“One of the things that’s important to recognize is that the students that participate on the chess team have as high as a 4.0 [grade point average] and some as average as a 2.7,” Bashir said. “All of the students, because they are critical and strategic thinkers, they carry themselves socially with that same skillset and they think about what they’re doing and their negotiate their moves and their interactions with their classmates.”

While Ornstein said that the focus isn’t on winning or losing, Fite said taking home the SuperNationals trophy “would be absolutely amazing.”

“If we win any section at the SuperNationals this year, it would be the ending to an already wonderful season,” he said. “It would definitely prove to my players that nothing beats hard work and total dedication.”

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