By CATHERINE KEEFE, The Orange County Register
Chess in not boring.
It is simply a story
in need of good telling, says Eric Hicks, chess teacher and hero to
thousands of elementary school children, teachers and administrators.
Imagine a king and a queen so vain they never stand next to their knights
because knights are their horses. Horses stink and fling spit on their
As for pawns, they are wimps. Pawns can march only forward;
if allowed to go backward they would run home to their mommies.
The roomful of second-graders at Valencia Elementary School in Laguna
Hills giggles and claps at their chess lesson.
Hicks, 26, created Academic
Chess, a program that teaches chess in elementary schools. He figures
he has introduced chess to about 12,000 students in Orange County.
kids play all the time, at recess, lunchtime, before and after school,"
says Mickey Shannon, second-grade teacher at Valencia.
raised on Super Nintendo and computer games is finding a whole new thrill
in the face-to-face challenge of the staid old board game.
there's something fun to do at recess," says Jenny Lynn, 11.
play at home, but it's more fun to play here with my friends,"
says Daniel Espinoza, 11.
On Friday nights, Hicks sponsors tournaments
where hundreds of students show up to play chess and munch pizza for
"It's crazy, and without the pizza, the whole things
would probably fall apart," Hicks says. "But it's great to
have so many kids playing chess."
Hicks says it's his destiny to
teach kids to play chess, an unlikely life for a high school dropout.
Future in check
It is fall 1986.
Hicks is a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in
Granada Hills. He is a special-education student. Military brat. Failing
all his classes. Kennedy is the 15th school in his educational career.
"I had a 1.4 GPA. So I quit," Hicks remembers. "There
are always the losers in high school, and that was my crowd. I didn't
have anything going for me. But I always wanted to go to college and
be smart. I used to go crying into the counselor's office, trying to
get into college-bound classes."
He landed instead on his knees
at Taco Bell, scrubbing floors. On a really good day, he would get to
refry the beans.
His mother kicked him out of the house. Hicks moved
in with his father in Hawthorne. Bored, Hicks often rode his bike to
Santa Monica Beach. There, he discovered the chess players.
learned to play chess when he was 5, but it was a forgotten talent.
"All of a sudden I was hanging around guys that went to college
and I could keep up with them in chess. I was succeeding in an academic
environment and I started to acquire some self-esteem."
tournaments and won.
Academic Chess has
13 teachers and 10 tournament directors offering a series of three,
free, in-school classes to elementary schools. Weekly after-school
chess clubs can be formed after the introductory classes so that
children will continue to learn. Clubs are $6 per session. Check
the action at chess tournaments on Friday nights at Valencia Elementary
School in Laguna Hills and Palisades School in Capistrano Beach.
The three-hour tournaments feature instruction, pizza, soda and
trophies for $8. For more information about how to get chess started
at your school, call Eric Hicks at Academic Chess (949) 770-9720.
Learning to focus
Bolstered by winning "a smart person's game," he decided
to try school one more time. He signed up for a creative-writing class
at El Camino College in Torrance.
"I was good at it. I did really well. Something changed."
Hicks thinks he has undiagnosed attention deficit disorder.
"Chess taught me to focus my mental energies. Weekend tournaments
require six hours of concentration every day for four days. After sitting
through that, sitting through a class was easy."
He graduated from El Camino College with a two-year degree, finishing
high school requirements at the same time. He was accepted at the University
of California, Los Angeles, UC Berkeley, and UC Santa Barbara. He chose
Berkeley, enrolling in fall 1989.
He paid his way through college teaching for The Berkeley School of
Chess, an in-school program for elementary-age kids.
His favorite classes were in Oakland inner-city schools.
"They had this really cheesy program going there called Kids Are
Special, and it was supposed to give kids self-esteem. They played little
songs and drew pictures. I didn't see it as effective at all.
"I taught them how to play chess and they seemed to be interested.
When they figured out they were capable of playing something smart they
felt really good. I think rather than trying to convince someone they're
special, if you can give them an activity to prove it they're better
His students went on to win third place at a state championship.
An unorthodox man
Hicks graduated from Berkeley in 1992 with an English literature degree.
He won the Eisner Award for fiction, Berkeley's most prestigious writing
Hicks writes short stories, blackly humorous. He's working on a manual
for chess teachers using the stories he tells students about the chess
pieces and game strategy.
"He's one of the best writers I've ever met," says Alix Schwart,
who taught Hicks at Berkeley.
"He's also one on the most unorthodox people I've ever met. He
blew the Eisner award, about $700, on an all-you-can-drink sake party
with a live band for his friends. He's very absurd and extremely original."
Hicks had married his college sweetheart, Laura, and moved to San Clemente.
He worked as a medical clinic manager, a software-manual writer. He
was considering a job selling pesticides to large businesses when he
decided to try harder to earn a living teaching chess.
The call of the chess
Hicks began teaching chess as a volunteer at Las Palmas Elementary
School in San Clemente in 1993-94. Don Mahoney, assistant principal
at Wood Canyon Elementary School in Aliso Viejo, heard about the chess
teacher and invited him to the campus. "He became a legend in a
short period of time. Students fell in love with him," Mahoney
"He's turned kids around. There was one in particular I had difficulty
with. He was always in my office," Mahoney says. "Now all
he wants to do is play chess. He played and did well in a districtwide
tournament. He helps Eric with the after-school club. He's never any
Mahoney spread word of the chess man to other schools. Principals scrambled
to get Hicks into their classrooms. The program was not immediately
embraced by all teachers.
Karen Dahlquist, a sixth-grade teacher at Valencia Elementary in Laguna
Hills, remembers the day she was approached about giving up class time
so the kids could have chess lessons.
"At first I was like, 'Yeah, right, do we have to do it?'"
she says. "And now it's the biggest thing. The kids love chess
Chess day has turned into every day at Valencia and the other campuses
where Hicks has offered his free classes. Afterschool chess clubs are
full and recess chess encampments are as familiar as football games,
soccer matches and hopscotch.
Hicks hopes his chess teaching will grow to satisfy his wallet as it
is satisfying his soul. For now, the on-campus lessons are free, and
the after-school chess clubs represent only minor income.