If chess teams had locker rooms, they might look like this . . . six desks and thousands of reference books on the walls.
--Jay McInerney, "Bright Lights, Big City"
After 12-year-old Steve Newman saw an exhibition chess game at his Santa Ana elementary school last spring, he was so intrigued that he started taking private lessons. Since then, Steve's life has revolved around chess--weekly private lessons to hone his skills, hours of solitary practice, books on the game's fine points and weekend chess tournaments.
Today, one year and $1,500 in chess expenses later, Steve is a nationally rated chess player who won a respectable four out of eight games at the National Junior High School Chess Championships last month in Spokane, Wash.
Not since 1972, when Bobby Fischer became the first American to win the world championship, has chess been so popular among Orange County youth, said Dewain Barber, who is president and adult adviser of the Orange County Chess Assn. and who, with his wife, Susan, also a teacher, coaches the Buena Park Junior High School chess team.
The chess association, which is sponsored by the Orange County Department of Education, now has a record membership of 750 students in kindergarten through 12th grade at 35 county schools, added Barber, who teaches eighth-grade classes at Buena Park Junior High.
"Research has shown that the intellectual and thinking processes of youth are enhanced if they play chess," Barber said, explaining why the county education department supports chess competitions.
Chess for Juniors, a Garden Grove organization that provides private lessons and arranges tournament trips for youngsters ages 7 through 15, has seen its membership jump from 20 to 100 since it was launched three years ago, said Robert Snyder, the group's director.
Snyder, who is active in several chess organizations, estimates that 15,000 primary and secondary school students in the county play chess regularly. And a record 200 of them, he said, are nationally rated by the U.S. Chess Federation, the country's governing body for the game.
During the summer, many city recreation departments offer chess classes for beginners. Top-notch youth chess players can be found in such unlikely places as shopping malls, holding challenge matches with shoppers for practice, Snyder said.
Chess fever has infected teachers at schools throughout the nation, Barber said. More and more are becoming interested in learning how to set up chess clubs at their schools.
To explain the nuts and bolts of chess club organization, Barber wrote the "Guide to School Chess." It will be published this month by the U.S. Chess Federation, which plans to distribute free copies to 5,000 schools nationwide by fall.
Parents are so enthusiastic about their children playing chess that they are willing to pay local chess masters such as Snyder $28 a month for hourlong lessons once a week for their offspring.
Benefits of Playing
"Chess makes kids think things through on the chessboard, and it carries through to other things they do," said Steve's mother, Nancy Newman. She said that Steve has become more mature and that his intellectual ability has improved greatly since he took up the game a year ago.
As for who would be interested in taking up the game, "there's this mistaken impression that chess is a game for smart people," Barber said.
"If you're not smart, you're not supposed to be able to play," Barber said. "Actually, chess players are as normal--as average--as anybody else. The only thing that makes them unique is that they play chess.
"At my school I've taught chess to kids ranging from those who are intellectually gifted to those with learning difficulties and handicaps."
Snyder, echoing Barber's views, pointed out that "competitive chess players lead surprisingly normal, everyday lives. Just because a kid plays chess doesn't mean he doesn't play football or some other sport."
'Like a Drug' for Some
UC Irvine psychology professor and senior chess master William Batchelder, however, is not so sure that young chess players can be described as average youngsters who easily fit in with their classmates.
"I've never met a kid who radically accelerated up the chess ladder who wasn't bright," Batchelder said.
But having that ability is a mixed blessing, said Batchelder, who began playing chess at 12 and was Indiana state champion at 19. He now ranks among the top 1% of tournament players in the country.
"Some parents find that chess distracts their children from their schoolwork and preparing for careers," Batchelder said. "For some kids, chess is like a drug--they'll spend an unlimited amount of time on chess and their studies suffer.
"Chess players tend to be introverts and interested in things of the mind. You'll rarely find a kid who's a hotshot athlete and a hotshot chess player."