Recollections of the Post-Fischer SF Bay Area Chess Scene

by NM Kerry Lawless



After my discharge from the Navy, I returned to California in December of 1972. Bobby Fischer had just won the World Chess Championship and the newspapers and magazines were full of it. The California chess playing community was heady with delight. In my absence, new chess clubs, tournament sites, and chess coffee houses had blossomed like mushrooms. Non-chessplayers were instantly attentive when they learned that you were a "chessplayer". While visiting my father in Hollywood, I went to a corner café and pulled out a chess set to go over some games. A pretty waitress sat down with me and wanted to know if my name was Bobby. When I admitted that I wasn't even a master, much less a grandmaster (she didn't know the difference), she didn't desert me but stayed to talk. I caught the bug and as an 'A' player decided to do whatever it took to become a professional chess master.Kerry Lawless in Hollywood

Back in the San Francisco Bay Area, desperate for a quick chess fix, I went to the Mechanics' Institute on Christmas Day. Fellow chess junkie Bob Hammie who had arrived long before me, was going over games, just waiting for a pigeon. The chess room was like a tomb. Every sound was magnified. We played for hours. I almost came out even.

A week or so later, I happened to wander in again and the place was alive with players and onlookers. Through a smoky haze, I saw older gentlemen in suits mingling with longhaired hippies. Serious chess-ladder games were being played right next to frenetic one-minute pieces-all-over-the-floor clock games. The MI Director (who knew me) pointed me to a locked side room. After admonishing me to be very quiet, he let me in to watch a match between senior chessmasters Jude Acers and George Kane. Later, in the main chess room I came upon senior chessmaster Larry Gilden holding court with an impromptu speech laced with chess theory and philosophy. He didn't have the charisma of a Jude Acers, but I found his ideas utterly fascinating. I stayed listening so long, that after the crowd had drifted away he gave me a chess lesson on the power of the fiachettoed Bishop on a long diagonal. He wouldn't accept money, but he did let me buy him dinner at the Chinese\American all-you-can-eat diner that was just around the corner.

The year was still new when I finally found a Friday night to visit the famous Berkeley Chess Club. The long room contained many dozens of tables and hundreds of people, most of them playing chess in comparative quiet. I'd never seen so many players and rated games in one place before. The low murmur of kibitzers was more noticeable in front of the pairings tables manned by Martin Morrison and his sidekick Elwin Meyers. They were exhorting the speed players to go over to a room on the other side of the Y.M.C.A. The place got a little noisier when two people had the idea of simultaneously setting out their used chess book collections for sale on opposite sides of the room. I do believe that the double noise threat allowed both parties to sell more books before Martin was able to get around to banishing them to the skittles room. I followed the books and ended up playing 5-minute chess for the next couple of hours. While I was playing, several people told me about a chess playing café that was just down Telegraph Avenue. I decided to leave the club early.

As I entered the dimly lit front portion of Hardcastles Café I was struck by two things; the strong sweet smell of marihuana and the beautiful blond hippy woman who just happened to be giving me the once over. I avoided locking eyes with her by going to the order window for a drink. Almost immediately, I felt her body rub against my back. When she very sweetly indicated that she was hungry and would love it if I bought her dinner... I couldn't get my wallet out fast enough. Later, I went back to see the chessplayers. Expert Murray Turnbull was in the corner taking on all comers in an ongoing speed game. Even though there were a lot of strong masters in the room that would have beat him in an all night session, their percentage of wins wouldn't have netted them enough money to warrant the effort. So, he was taking money from a succession of 'A' and 'B' players. Sadly, after watching for about a half hour, I concluded that I was no match for him. While waiting to play him, I began looking around and noticed that there seemed to be an awful lot of drug deals taking place, easily equal to the amount of chess games being played. Tim, a friend, offered to treat me to a dinner at Kip's if I gave him a lesson. As I was pretty broke, away we went.

Kip's menu was pretty basic, pizza, beer, and the best hamburgers in Berkeley. Because they stayed open till midnight, it had become the accepted after-the-Berkeley-Chess-Club meeting place. There were five or six games (with greasy chess sets) going on while we ate. Pawn to pepperoni six... check. Tim offered to give me a ride back to San Leandro, which I readily accepted. But first, we had to stop at an all night chess hangout that he knew about.

The International (Student) House or I-House had a large central meeting lounge where chess players could play all night. The front door was always locked. We had to wait by the front door for one of the dorm residents to come out. Only a two-minute wait and we were in. There were only about three games going on. Apparently Bob Hammie had just left, so I had no real competition. As we played, the chess gossip flew hot and heavy. Most of it was about chessmaster Roy Ervin. Seems he had been playing and winning a lot of late night speed-chess sessions on the U.C. campus with strong masters and senior masters. The general consensus was that he'd probably be the next titled U.S. player.

I got home about 4:00am, just in time for a couple hours of sleep before going to an early morning chess class by columnist Richard Shorman at Chabot College. That afternoon, I played skittles chess against all comers in the college lounge before going on to the Cherryland Café for dinner and a night of chess.

Yes, it was a heady time for chessplayers... and Fischer's rein had just begun!!!

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