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
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
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."