By Scott Talley
It had the makings of a brief encounter, but when Tamyre Watkins and the chess coach Kevin Fite came together in the office of Sampson-Webber Middle School in Detroit, it began a special bond that has taken the 14-year-old Watkins to new places, in virtually every area of her life.
“If I didn’t meet Mr. Fite that day my grades could have dropped, or I could have even been kicked out of Webber,” said Watkins, who had been called to the office, along with two other girls, because of a dispute. “I could have become the worst student ever, but you can’t play chess and be bad, so I had to change.”
Always a serious student, who also started playing chess at four-years-old under the tutelage of her uncle Carl, Watkins has now embraced self-control with the help of Coach Fite. And by combining self-control with her competitive nature and strong work ethic she is now reaching new goals.
“I think being a part of her school’s chess team has made her more focused and goal-oriented,” said Fite, the founder of the Detroit City Chess Club. “You can just see Tamyre saying to herself: ‘I want to be the number-one player on the chess team. I want to get good grades. I don’t want any more referrals to the office.’ She’s just knocking each of those goals out and she’s smiling a lot more.”
An honor roll student, Watkins was all smiles when she led the Sampson-Webber chess team to a state title at Oakland University in March. The team placed first in the State Junior High Reserve Section and Watkins played first board.
“This is something that I’m definitely going to put on my resume,” said Watkins, whose team faced stiff competition throughout the tournament, including another Detroit team that had also been coached by Fite—University Preparatory Science & Math Middle School—in the championship round. Watkins added: “I don’t think many kids have the opportunity to experience something this great. I’m very competitive—I love winning and I just have to be the best.”
Watkins was able to prepare for the tournament and improve her rating throughout the year with help from ChessKid.com.
“I have set up accounts for all of my students in the club, but Tamyre has been on more than anyone,” said Fite, who surprised Watkins earlier this year with an autographed chess set from Mike Klein, aka “Fun Master Mike,” director of content for the popular site. “Tamyre didn’t think “Fun Master Mike” was a real person, but now she knows and I think that makes her want to study and learn all she can about chess even more.”
Watkins and her teammates received another reward for their hard work, when they were treated to a trip to Connecticut following the state tournament. The trip, made possible by UAW-Ford, was a first for Watkins in many ways, including her first time on an airplane.
“When they said plane, my heart just stopped, but it was a great experience for me,” said Watkins, whose travel itinerary included watching a debate between Howard University and Morehouse College and a walking tour of Yale University. The activities were made to order for a young lady who hopes to attend one of Detroit’s top academic high schools in the fall and talks about a future medical career.
Watkins’ special experiences also are victories for her mom, Erica King, who fondly recalls coming home from work and having to step over chessboards on the front porch of her great grandmother’s house when Tamyre was first learning the game from her uncles.
“I’m so proud and happy because I get to experience all of this with them,” said King, whose son, E.J. (Emarjae) Watkins also is a member of the Sampson-Webber chess team. “I’m proud of both my children and I’m just trying to instill in them what my great grandmother (Ophelia King) instilled in me.”
While enjoying the success achieved by her children, King still recalls the first phone call she received from Coach Fite about Tamyre, and how she feared the worst.
“I told Tamyre that I wasn’t going to tolerate any more calls from teachers, and then I got a call from Mr. Fite,” said King, who is now able to laugh about the experience.
“Mr. Fite said: ‘No, no, no, don’t worry; what Tamyre was called to the office about was a misunderstanding.’ ”
King added: “What got Mr. Fite’s attention about Tamyre was that she told him that she already knew how to play chess, and said it with an attitude. She had to back that up and now she’s going far.”
Aided by many dedicated volunteers, and community partners like UAW-Ford, Coach Fite has been a catalyst in transforming Detroit into a youth chess powerhouse. While taking great pride in the championships that have been won by Detroit City Chess Club members, including 23 state titles and nine national titles in different categories, Fite said the game benefits Tamyre and other youngsters beyond the moves made on the chessboard.
“It’s not necessarily the chess play, but the principles of chess, that is what I want all of our kids to learn,” said Fite, whose club touches roughly 500 boys and girls in metropolitan Detroit. “The hard work, embracing competition, preparing for a major tournament — all of those things will help our kids to be winners in life too.”
The Detroit City Chess Club is an affiliate of the United States Chess Federation and meets most Friday evenings at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue in Detroit’s cultural district. Meetings are open to all.