The year was 1984. I had won the Memphis City Jr. High Chess Championship, narrowly defeating my arch nemesis Gus Lipman. Gus was a “Mr. Boy” type of kid who wore tortoise shell glasses, a London Fog trench coat and carried a briefcase for some reason (We were ELEVEN. What was in that briefcase? Filed boogers?). His heart was made of spiders and he had acid where his blood should be. He was a chess bully. Doesn't sound too bad, does it? ALL-CAPS MEANS YOU ARE EXTRA-WRONG. When a jock comes at you, you know what's happening — some type of physical assault that heals up with medicine and time. A chess bully, however, tries to creep into your psyche like a cockroach in the walls.
Gus would sit down for a match and casually toss something off like, “You feel okay? You look a little pale.” This is a two-pronged attack. If you didn't know what he was up to, you suddenly became aware of your health and the chain of psychosomatic symptoms that followed. If you WERE onto his scheme, you became infuriated at the idea that he would think you were so stupid that a cheap tactic like that would work. Either way, it took your head out of the game and you usually lost. But not this day. Beating Gus Lipman was sweeter than Elven tit milk.
The awards ceremony was held on an overcast morning at a restaurant called the Mark Twain Cafeteria, a place so ratty and old that it may have actually been opened by Mark Twain (by the way, cafeterias are a Southern thing. I don't see many of them in L.A., apart from Souplantation, which always evokes images in my head of migrant workers picking soup). Surprisingly, there was no mention of this triumph the next day at school and no girls wanted to touch my shiny new trophy, which I of course had in my backpack. That's when the game began to lose some of its luster — The Chessmaster gets no ass, it turns out. By college I moved onto an equally effective girl-repellent: juggling. Look for that in a future humiliating article.
I don't play chess much anymore, mainly because I competed so hard as a kid that the thought of it now makes me tired. Still, there is a squishy place in my soul for the game and I was very happy to stumble across the Los Angeles Chess Club in West L.A. Actually located inside the Barrington Bridge Club, a door near the back of the room is like an armoire to Chess Narnia. Founded by really-nice-guy Mick Bighamian in 2003, the L.A. Chess Club is a delightful place to get your chess on. In addition to casual games, it hosts weekly tournaments and offers group and private lessons. Whether you're a beginner or simply an intermediate player who wants to brush up on your game so you can make jerks feel inferior at social gatherings, L.A. Chess Club's $10/month dues provide a good old-fashioned Meatspace social network.
When I arrived, Mick was coaching noob chesslings Kirstie Palmer and Elizabeth Tenorio. But it wasn't the sterile ambiance or shouting in Russian that you might expect at a chess lesson — all parties involved were laughing and having a blast. I cautiously challenged Mick to a five-minute speed game, even though I haven't sat across a board from another human in 12 years. After the five minutes, Mick graciously stopped the clock so we could explore the middlegame. Despite my earlier anxiety about being too competitive for my energy supply, it was actually FUN. I remembered why I started playing the game to begin with in the fifth grade: one board, 32 pieces, engaging strategy and endless possibilities. Of course Mick won, but I didn't feel thrashed. I chalked this up as an “I didn't embarrass myself so it's a victory” loss.
Chess is fascinating to me because it is enjoyed by every stratum of society: from military leaders to royalty, to homeless guys on the beach who pummel you and then jump up to yell at the sand. Instead of filling your brain with useless information like how many globs of ejaculate Perez Hilton drew on Britney's neck, gorge your brain on something constructively nerdy.
L.A. Chess Club, a.k.a, your new favorite hang, is located at 11514 Santa Monica Blvd., four blocks West of the 405.
P.S. — Suck it, Gus Lipman.