November 24, 2000

Chess in schools proves to be a winning move
By KEITH SHARON, The Orange County Register

These kids today. You spend your hard-earned money on PlayStations, DVDs, portable CD players and myriad mind-numbing goodies, and all they want to do is play chess.
At least that's the way it is at Jane Medling's house in Laguna Hills. Jane is the mother of four chess-crazy sons. "The minute their father walks in it's 'Dad, can we play chess?'" Medling said. "The chess board is always out on the table. They'd rather play chess than video games."
The revolution is happening as quietly as a bishop sliding across a chessboard. Monday afternoon at California Elementary School in Costa Mesa, 50 kids - in kindergarten through sixth grade - were gathered in the multipurpose room pondering pawn placement on chessboards spread out on row after row of lunch tables.
This is Academic Chess, a program devised by Eric Hicks, 31, of Lake Forest, a former special-education student and high school dropout who credits chess with saving his life. Academic Chess, which includes classroom instructions, an after-school program and a weekly Friday night tournaments, is "war on a board," as Hicks calls it. He teaches children to envision a world where the queen swooshes on a snowboard, the knight is a horse with his mane on fire, and the pawns have the power of professional wrestlers.
Five years ago, he taught chess in one school in San Clemente. Today, the program is offered in 13 school districts in Orange County and 50 districts across California and Nevada. Within the next three years, Hicks plans to expand his idea nationwide.
Hicks estimates that Academic Chess has reached 40,000 students in after-school programs and 200,000 students in classroom instruction since he founded the program in 1995. He charges between $6 and $9 per week for the after-school program, and the classroom instruction is free.
"Hopefully chess will do the same for other kids that it did for me," said Hicks, who has plotted each business move as if his life were being played out on a chessboard. "I've changed the world around me in a better way."
The epicenter of Hick's chess movement is "The Chess House," a 3,000-square-foot home in Lake Forest, where he lives among chess paraphernalia. His living-room tile is a chessboard inhabited by giant kings, queens and pawns. His garage is full of trophies, posters and chess pieces that he gives to kids who participate in the program.
His dining room is filled with computers, where instructors can practice by playing against electronic opponents. His back yard is lined with sheds housing instructional material.
Hicks said he was a hyperactive kids who dumped school in favor of the beaches of Santa Monica, where he played chess for " a buck a game." He lived in his car for awhile, he said, and worked at a fast-food restaurant. Chess, he said, helped him focus, and winning boosted his self-esteem. He said he enrolled in El Camino Community College and rededicated himself to school work. Later he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where he played on the chess team. "Without chess, I'd probably still be working at Taco Bell," Hicks said.
In college, he did an internship teaching chess to students in Oakland. Then he got an idea.
He moved to Orange County - which he called, at the time, "a chess desert" - and started Academic Chess. He convinced Jim Fleming, the superintendent at Capistrano Unified School District, to let him teach chess for one hour a week at Las Palmas Elementary School.
"I remember when he came into my office," Fleming said. "I thought to myself, any guy who is this passionate about what he does deserves a break."
Five years later, Fleming is still a believer. He thinks chess helps students expand their minds.
"Chess is almost like mental gymnastics," Fleming said. "It's simple, direct, very clear parameters, yet it allows for creativity."
And the kids say it's fun.
"I like to win," said Nushin Tasbihchi, a second-grader at California Elementary. Craig McKenzie, the father of second-grader Adam McKenzie, said his son's grades have gone up since he started playing chess after school.
"It's building up his attention span," McKenzie said. "He pays attention a lot more. His teachers say he's doing better."
Hicks said the best thing about chess is that learning it makes kids feel good about themselves.
"It has a smart stigma," Hicks said. "When you beat somebody at chess, they think you're a genius."