Detroit Renaissance H.S. chess team captures a top prize at national competition

Students stand on a stage and hold a trophy they just won at the national chess championships.
Students from Detroit Renaissance High School won the top prize in their category at the U.S. Chess Federation National High School Championship. (Courtesy Detroit Public Schools Community District)

The road to a national chess prize began in the fifth grade for Karrington Cobb, a senior at Detroit’s Renaissance High School whose team helped cement its legacy during a competition over the weekend.

She was an elementary student leaving school one day when she saw a signup table for a chess club. Enamored, Karrington begged her mother to let her join. It was then she met “Coach Robert,” who seven years later would lead Karrington and 12 other Renaissance students to the big prize.

“It’s great that I can go out like this with my team,” Karrington said Monday afternoon in an interview over Zoom, as her team stood around her in the background holding up their giant trophy. The students, still euphoric a day after the competition ended, spoke during a break in Ohio from their trip back to Detroit from Washington.

It was the first national win for the Renaissance team at the U.S. Chess Federation National High School Championship, where they finished above 67 other teams competing in the “under 800” category. That number is based on a team’s chess rating, with 100 being the beginning level and 3,000 being the top rating, said Daniel Lucas, spokesman for the chess federation.The overall national champion was from The Dalton School, a private school in New York.

Several other teams from the Detroit Public Schools Community District — Bates Academy, Cass Technical High School, and The School at Marygrove — also competed. 

It was 2014 when the last district team, Chrysler Elementary School, won its category at the competition. In recent years, though, the district has invested resources and money in chess. 

Renaissance coach Robert Taliaferro, who was inducted into the Detroit City Chess Club’s Harold Steen Hall of Fame in 2021, said he’s noticed an upswing in participation among Detroit students. It’s becoming more noticeable on the national stage.

“Usually it’s New York and California that have the big teams. Now, we’re bringing them,” Taliaferro said.

That’s partly due to the adults who give their time as adults and instructors. But it’s also due to the support from the district. 

The number of teams and clubs in the district has grown from fewer than 20 in 2018 to 38 today. And the district now pays for the top three district teams, determined through city contests, to go to the national championship. Previously, teams had to fund their own way to the competition.

“That’s the only way they got here,” said LaRhonda Warren-McCann, director of the Metro Detroit Scholastic Chess League and a district employee.

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti tweeted Monday: “What an accomplishment for the players, coaches, families, and school! We have been rebuilding K-8 chess programs throughout the District so this means so much!!!”

In 2019, he told Chalkbeat that chess is also providing a perfect outlet for the kind of skills some students already possess. 

“So many of our students are natural critical thinkers,” Vitti said then. “They are constantly having to strategically think through their daily lives to overcome challenges and barriers.”

Corey Boyce, a Renaissance sophomore on the team, began playing the game when he was in elementary school, because it was something his brother was interested in. But the game became more than just an opportunity to bond with his sibling. He said so much of what he learns in chess is about strategy.

“Chess is a great hobby to get into,” Corey said. “It’s not just a game. It teaches you life. When you look at things from a different angle … it just helps you navigate life.”

The students competed in seven rounds of competition over three days before they won in their division. It was grueling, tiring work, Corey said, but it was worth it.

“You got to keep going, and keep winning,” Corey said. “You have to have the right mindset to keep going and push forward to be the best chess players we can be.”

The Renaissance team includes 25 students, 13 of whom competed in Washington. Eight of them are seniors. 

To keep the momentum going, Taliaferro said, he’ll be getting the word out, recruiting students in the school lunchroom and elsewhere and “letting them know what we did.”

For seniors like Carrington, one of the best things about winning this year “is leaving them with this legacy.”

Lori Higgins is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at lhiggins@chalkbeat.org.

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