Jim Lazos: An Appreciation

by NM Andy Sacks

When chessplayers speak of playing at odds or with handicaps, they are talking about material and/or time inequalities. However, one of the most talented players Southern California has ever produced competed his entire chess career under a burden of various handicaps that almost defy belief-and was still able to make a mark.

When Bobby Fischer won the U.S. Junior Championship at the age of 13 in 1956, attention immediately focused and remained on him and his meteoric rise. But during those same mid-50s years there were two teenage Southern California players who were also on the rise, Jim Lazos and Larry Remlinger.

The chess public is very familiar with Remlinger, who, despite a few periods of tournament inactivity over the decades, rose first to Senior Master, and later, in the 1990s, finally realized his considerable potential by becoming reputedly the oldest chessplayer to earn the title of International Master. A number of Grandmasters who were his occasional victims--Larry Christiansen, for example--can well attest to his playing strength. He has now been retired from chess for about ten years.

But the recently deceased James Lazos is quite another story. Few now know his name, and even during his sporadic playing career, he was almost always below the radar. There are many reasons for this, and their explanation leads us back to handicaps.

James (also known as Jim or Jimmy) Lazos was born into a family and community in which, basically, he never had a chance. "Minor mobsters" and "petty gangsters" are among the phrases some of us heard used to describe his family and early associates. Crime, drugs, and alcohol were the unholy trinity of his youth. By the time Jim made the exceedingly seedy Westlake Park (technically MacArthur Park, as in the Jimmy Webb song of the late '60s) his home in all too many senses, he could not truly be described with any words kinder and gentler than "derelict," "boozer," or "bum." Starting in about 1963, the chess tables in the park became his days, and usually the open air his nights. Frequently homeless, and nearly always drunk, Lazos lived a sickly and marginal existence from this period through his death in the late 1990s, rarely having the wherewithal to compete in rated tournaments.

Given these hard facts, an apparent anomaly presents itself when one peruses the historical list of winners of the American Open. Could the 1968 entry be a typographical error? It says that a James Lazos won clear first prize with the unusually high score of 7 ½ - ½.

No. It is no typo--but also not easy to explain. We would like to say that it was during some period of recovery, of "going straight," of "getting clean," and that at last he was capable of emerging from his haze and showing the chess world his true potential. But no, the ending was not out of Disney. He somehow was able to demonstrate his mighty chess skills in that strong national tournament, but while, according to witness Jeff Stone, a local Master and frequenter of Westlake Park in all its inglory, still drunk every round and in the saddest of physical conditions. Yet somehow, whether through supreme effort of will, of bruised and battered ego finally asserting itself in one grand heroic statement, or simply the recognition of dire financial need and opportunity-somehow it all came together and strong Master after strong Master was mowed down in the final rounds.

However, that tournament result was no great shock to either Jeff Stone or those of us who spent some time down at the park in the mid and late sixties. Lazos was there, always, but was also almost always a mere silent spectator at the many chess battles, most played for small stakes, conducted day in and day out. It was rare when he played, and then virtually only when challenged, and when money was involved. The regulars knew better than to take a shot at him. However, he was sheriff the occasional gunfighter in the black hat came into town looking for. But the tales are many how the sheriff kept order.

Just one, as a representative example. Ruben Rodriguez, young hotshot speed player from the land of talented and cagey stakes-playing speed players, the Philippines. Ruben Rodriguez, who visited Southern California in the late sixties and took his clock and went looking for chess victims. Ruben Rodriguez, who not much later became an IM, went down to the park armed with his skills and his youthful conceit, and issued a challenge.

Eight or ten games later, after having lost every one, Ruben walked away perhaps a slightly less cocky young man.

Jimmy's style was quiet, patient, and positional, but invariably with tactical alertness. Unassuming openings, a lot of knight maneuvering, and fairly often positional sacrifices of the exchange. He knew how to attack, but his approach was that of Steinitz, not Alekhine; Petrosian, not Tal. Playing the white pieces his signature first move was e3. It was entertaining to see the bemused facial expressions of most of his first-time opponents when he pushed the pawn one square only. They remained silent, but their sarcasm was nonetheless nearly audible. However, the sneers soon faded, and were replaced by advancing anxiety, as they found themselves being subtly outplayed in hypermodern English-Reti hybrid systems, with their often overextended centers crumbling.

The world of the arts and of intellectual endeavor is replete with instances of unfulfilled promise, of those who died before their time, self-destructed, or otherwise were made incapable of coming to fruition. James Lazos is a prime example in what Emanuel Lasker called in his Manual of Chess "our little game."

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