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Younger Version of Chess : Children from 4 to 14 learn the ancient game of battle and brain power at the Gym for the Mind club in Woodland Hills.

September 03, 1993|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; John Morell is a regular contributor to Valley Life

Marge to Bart Simpson IV? Dino overtakes Fred Flintstone, checkmate? This is chess?

It is on a few tables at the Gym for the Mind chess club in Woodland Hills, where children from 4 to 14 learn this ancient game of battle and brain power.

"Sometimes kids aren't interested in the traditional chess pieces," said David Esser, co-founder of the club. "These sets with pieces that look like characters from 'The Simpsons' and 'The Flintstones' are fun. When you tell them 'Fred moves this way and Dino can move like that,' they can relate."

Esser, a self-proclaimed "Preacher for Chess," teaches 15 children per week and is determined to attract players of all ages, although he admits he has his work cut out. "Television and video games have overtaken our imaginations. It's not always easy for a child to sit down and learn chess; there are so many other distractions."

The club has received a few more calls since the release of "Searching for Bobby Fischer," a film about a young chess prodigy. "It was a wonderful movie, but chess is so underexposed, we need at least 50 movies like that to make an impact," Esser said.

Sitting in a corner adjacent to the chess boards is what Esser might describe as the enemy: an arcade video game complete with joystick. "It was my partner's idea to have one, and I was against it at first, but it's worked out well."

Unlike the games at local arcades, this one has tokens available for the taking. "When kids see that it's free, they often get excited and keep playing. But after about two weeks, they're tired of it, and they want a real game."

The origins of chess go back to ancient India and the Orient, from which it slowly spread westward across the Old World. It developed its intellectual reputation in part because chance isn't a part of the game; players win or lose based on their strategies to protect their king and take the king of their opponent.

"New players are often frustrated by the game because they lose so much," Esser said. "I tell the kids that they have to be ready to lose their first 100 games in a row before learning how to win. When they know it's OK to lose, that you learn when you lose, it doesn't upset them."

"Once kids get the hang of it, they love the game," said Gary Sauer of Castaic. He once presided over a chess club that has since folded. Today, he stays active in the game by teaching it at Castaic School. "When they have an open mind to chess, they see how exciting it can be."

The 100-member Gym for the Mind, located in a converted residence on Topanga Canyon Boulevard, began in 1986 when Esser and a friend, Pat Flynn, decided to open a place where people in the neighborhood could read, play chess and other games, or even work out.

"At one point, I became a very good chess player, but I reached a point where I couldn't go farther," Esser said. "I began to work out with weights and found it helped my game. I realized there's another world out there. We put a gym in so that people who come here to use the weights will look inside, see the books and chessboards, and be reminded that they need to exercise their minds. And those who play chess will be reminded that they need to exercise their bodies."

Dues for the club, which run $35 every three months or $3 per visit, are modest, as are group lessons, $5 each. "We do a little better than break even, but it takes a lot of work," Esser said. "We've had some help from high places."

Children's classes, held Sunday and Monday afternoons, consist of 45 minutes of instruction and 45 minutes of competition. "In my seven years of teaching, I've never taught the same lesson twice. I always find something new in the game to talk about," Esser said.

He also believes that the lessons outside the general strategies for winning are just as valuable. "We've got several good young players who love showing others how to play. They tutor other kids and adults as well."

Although he hasn't produced a prodigy to match Bobby Fischer, the last American to be world chess champion (from 1972-75), Esser has seen some young talent play on his tables. "We had a young man who came in and knew nothing about the game. After three lessons, he was playing very well and I got the word out that we had a 'boy wonder' in our club. Not long ago, he beat a 23-year-old chess master, and the boy is just 10. He hasn't even been playing a year."

While chess is generally considered a man's game, Esser finds that girls who play pick it up and enjoy it as much as boys.

"We recently had the U. S. kindergarten chess champion, a 5-year-old girl from Westwood, visit our club. As long as you're old enough to understand the rules, you can play."

Where and When What: Children's classes at Gym for the Mind, 4907 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Woodland Hills. Location: 1 to 2:30 p.m. Sundays and 4 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays. Price: $5 per session per child. Private instruction is $50 for three lessons. Call: (818) 704-5754.

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