The Mental Health Counsel at the Detroit VAMC introduced chess as a way to combat the stigma surrounding Veterans receiving mental health treatment.

“The idea was to increase integration into the community by making them feel like they are a part of something,” said Dr. Winnetha Ben-Burton. Burton is the recovery supervisory psychologist at the Detroit VAMC.

Veteran Darryl Cornwell focusing in as he plays against a middle school student at the U.S. Amateur Team North tournament in Chicago in February 2020.

“There are no formal clinical measures, but chess strategies help teach planning ahead.”

Detroit VA Chief of Staff Scott Gruber decided to start the Detroit Veterans Team and use his passion for chess to help Veterans, as well. He started practicing with the chess club on Mondays. Gruber then began an activity called Chess with the Chief of Staff. He held the event every Friday in the atrium of the medical center. (Photo above taken in January 2020.)

The location gave any patient or employee a chance to join in for a game. In February, the Detroit VA Team, calling themselves the Checkmates, entered the U.S. Amateur Team North tournament in Chicago. They made a name for themselves at the tournament. They also were featured in Chess Life Magazine, the most widely read chess magazine in the world.

Today, the Checkmates continue to practice online. Mark Cupchack is a Navy Veteran and second-year chairman of the Mental Health Advocacy Council. He is adamant about helping the team with the resources they need to continue practicing. They want to return to the US Amateur Team North Championship next year if there is a tournament.

Using chess to promote Veteran issues

Cupchack has used the Friday chess events to promote issues important to Veterans. Those issues include mental health, flu vaccines and women Veterans’ health care. While Cupchack doesn’t play, he likes to watch.

“The success of the Detroit VA Chess Club is based on volunteer help and it benefits more than Veterans.” Cupchack has arranged competitions for the Veterans against other Detroit-area chess enthusiasts. “We play middle school and high school teams, which gives the youth an opportunity to experience competitive sport using their brains.”

Checkmates team members Gary Impullitti, Darryl Cornwell, Chief of Staff, Scott Gruber, and Paul Stamps. (Photo taken in January 2020)

“Being a part of this team has helped me connect with my peers”, said Veteran Darryl Cornwell, who participated in the US Amateur tourney with Dr. Gruber and other Checkmates. “There are very few places where I can share my love of chess with others like me who served in the military. That happens at Detroit VA.”

Gruber is optimistic the chess initiative will turn into a permanent activity at Detroit VA, and he hopes to resume in-person gameplay as soon as it is safe to do so.

Since 1939, the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center has been improving the health of the men and women who have so proudly served our nation. In 1996, the medical center moved from Allen Park, Michigan to the current location in Detroit. Known as one of the newer VA facilities in the country, services are available to more than 330,000 Veterans living in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and St. Clair counties. This population represents approximately 44% of the Veteran population in the lower peninsula of Michigan. For more information, visit

Aisha Cleveland-Johnson is a public affairs specialist for the Detroit VA Healthcare System.

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Published on Sep. 16, 2020

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