I’m duking it out over a chessboard against Gregory Crumby, one of the three gentlemen who run the Venice Beach Knights chess club. A crowd of British, Latin American and Scandinavian tourists has gathered on the boardwalk to snap photos and watch our match.
Crumby chuckles and says, “They love to see this. A Billie Jean King–Bobby Riggs battle of the sexes.”
“Yeah, except Billie Jean keeps losing.”
Crumby and I are playing on a timer, which dictates that whoever is able to capture a king first wins. No need to dawdle about for a checkmate — if the opponent is too slow on the uptake, topple the king and end the game. That’s exactly what Crumby does, for the fifth time in a row.
The tourists disperse, taking with them pictures of an older black man and a younger Asian woman playing chess on the beach. For them, it’s novelty. For Crumby, Tim Caldwell and Gary Gallery, it’s their day-to-day routine.
Caldwell started a “chess club without walls” over two years ago, and since then, the trio has been running the club on Venice Beach Boardwalk every Friday through Monday.
The Knights' predecessor was a chess hustler named Frank, who charged $5 a game and would play five people at once. If you beat Frank, you earned $20; if it was a draw, you won $10. No one knows what happened to Frank. Rumors say he ended up dying in a Brazilian prison.
“I wasn’t interested in being a chess hustler,” Caldwell says. “I wanted to start a chess club to promote and teach chess. We wanted to build a chess community. It might be less money, but it’s more fulfillment.”
For just $5 a month, you can play unlimited matches against the trio or any other club members who happen to stop by. Members range from drifters on the boardwalk to kids and their parents. It’s a steal, considering that Los Angeles’ more official chess club sells annual membership packages that can cost hundreds of dollars.
“Some people think we’re trying to dupe them out of their money, but that’s not the case,” Crumby says. “This is a club. We got to wheel all the stuff out here at 7:30 in the morning to get our spot and then load it on the dolly at the end of the day and pay for storage. It’s not going to be free.”
The club has strict policies — no drinking, no smoking, no gambling. “If we didn’t have policies, it’d draw the wrong kind of people,” Caldwell says. “Too many negative scenarios.”
I see what he means. Right before I step up to play, a group of teenage boys gathers around the Knights' chess boards. A 16-year-old blond kid sits down only to throw insults at Crumby and sneer. Crumby promptly kicks him out.
Such is business on the Boardwalk. Many of the pedestrians who pause to gaze at the Knights' “Win a Creepy Doll” sign are characterized by curious trepidation. Most are too timid to play. Some are mildly offended that there’s a fee for playing, or blame their lack of cash for their nonparticipation.
The worst are the ones who try to goad their way into playing for money. “When people wanna gamble and I say no, they assume it’s because I’m afraid,” Caldwell says. “It’s not because I’m afraid. It’s because I don’t want a $300 ticket.”
According to Caldwell, the history of vending on Venice Beach Boardwalk is defined by a long-standing tension between the two sides of the walk. One side consists of the shops and restaurants that sell T-shirts, jewelry, food and bike rentals. The other side consists of the street vendors who sell art, play music or offer games of chess. The difference is that the former pay obscene amounts in rent, while the latter get to operate for free, as long as they can secure a spot in time.
Consequently, the street-vendor side is banned from selling anything “with utility,” and gambling is not allowed. Undercover cops roam the Boardwalk to ensure that vendors are adhering to the rules, and Caldwell is not interested in taking any risks.
Soon though, the club will begin operating blitz chess tournaments on the weekends. “We have all sorts of people stop by,” Caldwell says. Magnus Carlsen, the World Chess Champion, has paid them a visit, along with the Serbian champion, the Belgian champion and a 14-year-old Vancouver champion.
“We’re gung-ho about making this work,” Crumby says. “It’s not about money, it’s about teaching people chess. We love it, and we do it from the bottom of our hearts.”
You can find the Venice Beach Knights on the Boardwalk on a weekend afternoon, along the stretch between Wavecrest and Clubhouse avenues. If you don’t know the rules of chess, the gentlemen are more than happy to teach you the basics. They’re sandwiched between “Beth’s love catchers” and Caldwell’s Buddhist art stand. Across the street are Beach House Market and a set of apartments.
It’s only $5 to play for a whole month, but tip generously. They’re not hustling you. They’re doing it from the bottom of their hearts.