“Why We Play”… Documentary on Detroit Chess

National Master John Brooks
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Detroit is known as the “Motor City” because of its massive car industry, but it is a city also known for its musical pedigree, notably Motown Records. It is also known as a hard-scrabble city with enough pride to challenge other blue-collar Midwestern cities in neighboring states like Ohio, Indiana, Missouri and Illinois. Like most cities in major urban areas, there is a chess presence. Recently an interesting documentary produced by Pierre Ashby with Derek Wilder as the videographer. It chronicles a group of Detroit players describing how they found the game of chess and why they remain enamored by it.

On first glance, they would appear to be the same “street players” found in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Baltimore or Philadelphia. However, the quality of their conversation gives the impression of players who have done more than play blitz games for pocket change. National Master John Brooks is prominently featured in the film. A beloved figure in Detroit, he has developed into somewhat of a role model for players in the area and shares his story in the film.

“Every piece has a life of its own.”
~John Brooks on chess

The film has one regrettable omission in FM Jimmy Canty and his meteoric rise through Detroit’s scholastic ranks, but captures some very engaging personalities with the usual nicknames like “Beast of the East.” In the film there are lots of blitz games, trash-talking, laughing, but there are some pearls of wisdom being dropped as well.

Dominic Johnson boldly claimed, “I don’t lose,” but when you hear his rationale it’s quite profound. Negash Bezaleel migrated from Buffalo to Atlanta to Detroit in search of promise. He talks about the way another chess group in Buffalo gave him the motivation and confidence to ultimately earn the Master’s title (1997).

Negash DaQuan Bezaleel

The documentary is about a half-hour long, but well worth it. These are the endearing stories we don’t often hear when following the typical prodigies. It shows how chess can bring joy and builds camaraderie, provides a support system and teaches lessons of life. If anyone understands lessons of life, it would be a Detroiter. These are the reasons, “Why We Play” resonates so loudly with those belonging to such close-knit groups. Enjoy!

Video produced by Pierre Ashby


  1. John Brooks is my uncle and I have aways loved him and i have been very proud of him and his skill in playing chess.

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