SAN DIEGO – There may be stiff competition from video games, television and computers these days, but chess enthusiasts say the ancient game of kings is enjoying a revival among American children.
Players gathered in San Diego this week for the U.S. Chess Championship (search) say youth membership in the U.S. Chess Federation (search) has more than doubled since 2000 and sales of chess sets in the U.S. have increased steadily in the last five years.
"It's a fun game. It has a lot of strategy involved," said 9-year-old Caleb Guy, who will join 300 other young players on Saturday to face off against some of the world's best adult players at the championship.
The kids have a slight advantage: each adult competitor will simultaneously play 10 games or more against their younger opponents.
Not too long ago, there was a fear that chess was slipping in popularity. Interest in the game peaked in the U.S. after Bobby Fischer (search) beat Boris Spassky to win the World Chess Championship in 1972, but it has waned since then. The U.S. championship itself was even in danger of extinction, largely due to financial problems.
Unwilling to see the tournament die, Seattle venture capitalist Erik Anderson paired with U.S. chess master Yasser Seirwan in 2000 to buy the rights to the championship and orchestrate its revival. The new attention to the game has spilled over to casual players, particularly children.
Sales of chess sets are on the rise, the most popular featuring the faces of characters from "The Simpsons," "The Lord of the Rings," or "Shrek." This year, the "Star Wars" set is expected to be a top holiday seller.
"Chess sets are a consistent seller day in and day out," said Joan Cear of the G.S. Schwartz public relations firm, which represents toy industry clients.
Chess is also being used as an educational tool in public schools and private programs for children in cities like New York, Seattle and San Diego. The programs use chess to teach critical thinking and strategy, math, history, and even English skills by having students write out their moves.
"The goal is to be in every second- and third-grade class in America," Anderson said. "The future is incredibly bright."
Alan Kantor, who organizes youth events and membership for the U.S. Chess Federation, said the organization has seen its 14-and-under membership rise from about 15,000 in 2000 to more than 36,000 today. It's the largest segment in the federation's overall membership.
A national youth tournament in Florida next month is also expected to draw more than 1,500 players, he said.
Julie Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association in New York, said she will be one of the "chess moms" there, rooting for her 7-year-old son, who learned the game in his elementary school.
"I initially thought it was so boring, and I also thought it would be way over their heads," she said. "But kids actually latch onto it so quickly. It's amazing."
Caleb, who like many young players names Bobby Fisher as a hero, acknowledges that some of his friends don't understand his passion for chess.
"I have one friend who thinks it's boring, but I try to tell him it's fun," he said. "But I think I've beaten him too much."