Success through chess

Program helps students develop critical and creative thinking skills while having fun

Alan and Andrew Svehaug keep their chess instruction simple by breaking the game down piece by piece.

photo

A young student talks strategy with Andrew Svehaug, former state and national chess champion, and founder of the American Chess Institute.

photo

Some students catch on to chess quickly enough that they can play with their eyes closed, literally. "We teach them so it becomes automatic," said Alan Svehaug, chess instructor.

photo

Alan Svehaug gives pointers during a recent chess practice. Unlike other sports, coaches are not allowed to talk to players during actual games, which requires that the participants have a thorough understanding of the game and their strategy.

photo

Students in the Success through Chess program at Dorothy Fox Elementary ponder their next moves during a recent practice.

Chess. When most people hear that word, they think of a challenging game that requires patience, skill and intelligence to master.While these descriptions are accurate, even the youngest elementary school student can learn, according to Alan Svehaug, chess instructor.

“Virtually everyone can learn to play chess if we keep them intrigued and challenged,” he said. “And they’ll keep playing if we break it down into simple parts. We teach them that chess exercises your brain the way sports exercise your body.”

Alan, and his son, Andrew, 26, teach using the Success Through Chess methods, which include creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

After school classes are being offered through Camas Community Education at Dorothy Fox Elementary. Grass Valley Elementary will begin a class on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

“I believe that virtually everyone 5 years old and up can learn to play chess,” Andrew said. “It’s a very complicated game, yet if taught correctly, it becomes quite simple.”

Andrew developed the curriculum while attending Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles.

A former state and national champion, Andrew enjoyed teaching chess to younger students while he was in high school. After a semester at college, he missed it and wanted to teach again. However, since Andrew didn’t have a car, he needed a school within walking distance, and began a program at nearby Foothill Christian School in 2005. A year later, the team beat dozens of others to capture the Association of Christian Schools International Southern California State Championship.

“People were coming up to him, asking how the heck he did it,” Alan recalled.

Soon after, Andrew was asked to speak at the ACSI conference, and given a booth for his newly formed business, the American Chess Institute. Alan flew down from Vancouver to assist him.

He was asked to speak again at the conference the next year and began teaching at more schools in the area. However, with a double major in music and business, it was tough to keep up with the daily demands of running a growing business and his education. By his junior year, Andrew began hiring, training, and managing instructors who helped to bring his program to various communities in southern California. His brother, Brian, joined Andrew that fall. Alan came on as well, and is helping expand the program in the Northwest. Currently, the business has chess programs at 50 schools in California, five in Clark County and a satellite program in Brooklyn, New York.

By the age of 23, Andrew held an M.B.A., as well as degrees in business administration and applied music. He graduated with Magna Cum Laude honors, and was awarded “The Outstanding Senior in Business Administration” as an undergraduate, as well as “The Outstanding MBA Graduate” by the School of Business at Azusa.

Brian has served as captain of a U.S. Scholastic Championship Team, and coached state and national champions. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition, and was awarded “The Outstanding Senior in Music Theory and Composition” from Azusa.

Andrew believes that learning to play chess is a big part of why he and Brian are successful.

“I learned to play chess when I was 5,” he said. “I love the strategic thinking that chess involves. In high school, I ran track, played on the basketball team, and sang in the choir...yet I felt that chess was unique in how it taught me to focus.”

He said that when Brian was young, he had so much energy it was very challenging for him to sit still.

“His second-grade teacher suggested that my parents medicate him. Instead, they prescribed chess and today he’s a very successful young man,” Andrew said. “He’s running our largest branch, in Los Angeles, which partners with nearly 30 schools. He learned to keep that energy, but to channel it in the right way. So today he’s very successful in his job managing over 15 employees- which requires energy, quick decisions, and focus.”

Alan agrees.

“It’s about making a plan, setting a goal and figuring out how to get from here to there, adapting as needed and never giving up,” he said.

On a recent Monday afternoon at Dorothy Fox, several students were doing just that.

Fourth-grader Lauren Bell received a chess set two years ago as a Christmas present.

Her dad taught her the basics, and then signed her up for the Success Through Chess class.

“I’ve been taking it since last fall and I really like how there are all these moves you can do, and always a way to win the game,” she said.

Her efforts paid off in a recent gold-medal win at an Oregon chess tournament.

“I want to win at least one trophy and maybe make it to nationals,” she said. “This class is really good for beginners, and it’s how I started getting really good at chess.”

Her little sister, Nicole, a second-grader, also takes the class.

“I like it when you get to play the game and win,” she said.