The Herman Steiner Chess Club: Beverly Blvd. Site

by NM Andy Sacks

The Herman Steiner Chess Club, originally located in Hollywood, California, has a long and venerable history: many players, many distinguished visitors, many notable tournaments-- and, perhaps surprisingly, many sites.

It was started by the man himself, IM Herman Steiner, a Hungarian national who, as a youth, took up residence along with his nuclear family in the United States, first in New York City, and then on his own settled in Hollywood, California, in 1932. He began the club in the 1940s in a clubhouse that adjoined his own residence in Hollywood on Formosa Ave., a hop, skip and jump from a number of motion picture studios, the perfect venue for an enterprise of such an outgoing, charming, and vibrant promoter of our game. Chess player, chess organizer, L.A. Times chess columnist, and general chess promoter, Steiner had an infectious and irresistible personality that complemented his good looks, and all this suited both his entrepreneurial chess ventures and the Hollywood scene. In its original location, visitors and members of the club included movie stars like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, and Jose Ferrer, to name just a few.

The world is waiting for an article--even a book? -- recounting activities and events at this original site (the club at that time first known as the "Hollywood Chess Group")-but for now, it will have to settle for a first-hand account of life at its third location, 8371 Beverly Blvd., in West Hollywood, where it resided from 1959 until 1964, in between incarnations on Wilshire Blvd,, near downtown L.A., and Cashio St., on what Angelinos call the Westside.

Upon Steiner's early and shocking death in late 1955, club management was assumed by a group headed by club member and Steiner personal chess student Jacqueline Piatigorsky. Mrs. Piatigorsky, a member of the French contingent of the legendary Rothschild family (the European banking and finance dynasty), and wife of world-renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, was in the process of becoming quite a respectable tournament chessplayer herself, and possessed the resources to continue Herman's efforts on behalf of The Royal Game. By the time of the club's appearance on Beverly Blvd., the grand lady was its driving force as well as a frequent visitor and sometime casual skittles player in the several relatively small playing rooms.

The club, by that time known as "The Herman Steiner Chess Club," in memoriam to the great man, was located in a converted upstairs three-bedroom apartment, or "duplex." The walls were lined with now near-priceless photographs of life and times at the original Formosa Ave. location, star-studded candid pictures some of which are on display to this day in the sculpting studio of Mrs. Piatigorsky's spacious home in West Los Angeles, on Bundy Drive. (Yes, the very same Bundy Drive made notorious by the O.J. Simpson trial, but a few miles to the south.)

Club meeting days and hours were remarkably liberal at the Beverly Blvd. site. In retrospect, it probably mirrored the original Formosa Ave. location in that respect, when members and visitors of the club were welcomed as virtual friends of the family by the gregarious Steiner. One did not have to wonder when the Steiner Club on Beverly was open; it was more of a challenge to guess when it would be closed. (Incidentally, another venerable California chess club has long had the same generous policy of accessibility, the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco.)

As in the Manhattan Chess Club, as in the Mechanics Institute, the ambiance of the Steiner Club on Beverly was Old World and almost aristocratic, an interesting reflection of the club's director. The pace was slow, the rooms quiet, and politeness and respect were everywhere evident. Even weekends at the club were of this order, since the relatively small playing area and unusual (for a chess club) physical layout made it impossible to hold large open tournaments there.

However, this prohibition served, perhaps ironically, to enhance the tournaments which were in fact held on the premises. The customary strength of the annual club championship, for example, was quite high. The weekly "Rapids" were similarly strong. And the teams fielded for the annual Los Angeles Team Matches were consistent first prize winners, particularly in the top division. Club regulars like Jack Moscowitz, Carl Pilnick, Irving Rivise (all three veterans of the New York City Metropolitan League Matches in their younger days), Morris Gordon, Jim Lazos, and others formed an unbeatable "Steiner Masters" entry in the premier echelon nearly every year. Even William G. Addison, resident for a short time in Southern California, led the Masters on Board One in 1964. (Their only serious competition in the top bracket was furnished annually by the Santa Monica Bay Chess Club, led by players like Tibor Weinberger, Norman Lessing, Ray Martin, and Arthur Spiller, but that strong team, impressive in its own right, was a perennial second place finisher.)

These were the days before "speed chess" and "blitz" became familiar terms. It was "Rapid Transit," and played not with clocks set to limits like 5 minutes, but with a bell that rang every ten seconds. In fact, that system of fast chess was decades old and still favored by many when 5-minute chess began making its ascendancy in the 1960s. A quick calculation will show that, for the average chess contest, the 10-second bell will make for a longer overall game. At 40 moves for each player, 13 1/3 minutes will have elapsed. However, there has been a trade-off, with respect to the 5-minute mode. The players have waited out the "slow" 10-second intervals in the usually standard opening, but have been forced to move at that same, seemingly quickening pace in an often complicated and difficult middlegame, with no license to budget their time. So, as they say, you choose your poison. Each speed chess method has its assets and liabilities.

The once-a-week Rapids at the club (customarily held on Tuesday nights) were quite strong and quite entertaining. They also provided the weaker club players as well as the "Steiner Juniors" (a fast-growing group of teenagers who annually formed their own team, usually competing fairly successfully in Division Two of the Team Matches) an opportunity to match wits with the Masters. Additionally, Masters and Experts who called other clubs home would frequently show up, since the Steiner Rapids were the only regular and ongoing speed tournaments within a wide area. (Any crosstables that could be unearthed from this final era of "Rapid Transit" chess would be treasures.)

I do not recall a single instance of a rules dispute or of a player being reprimanded for violating the bell-immediate move responsibility. Professional conduct held sway even in this rather casual tournament setting. And because of the characteristic high tone of the club through all its meetings and events, entertaining anecdotes based on unusual circumstances or behavior are very few. Still, there is one that must be set down and memorialized.

During the period from roughly late 1961 through late the next year, it was not very uncommon, usually on a Saturday afternoon during a Steiner Juniors meeting, or a couple of hours before the Rapids tourney started on a Tuesday night, to hear one of the youngsters excitedly announce to his fellows, "Weinberger is playing The Nazi!" Then there would be an immediate general rush to the farthest back playing room, a small converted bedroom with only about four chess playing tables, in order to watch the action.

Weinberger vs. The Nazi? It sounds like something out of a World War II spy thriller. Or a laughably bad 1950s science fiction movie. But no. It was real enough, though truth is, certainly, sometimes stranger than fiction.

Tibor Weinberger, of course, was at that time a Senior Master and strong speed player, who occasionally came to the club either to play in the Rapids-or to have a pre-arranged speed chess session for stakes with "The Nazi." This remarkably self-named young man of about 21 years of age was a sight to behold. Tall, thin, gangly, and awkward, he was the prototype of a nerd, before the word existed. He wore an eye patch, and came carrying his chess equipment in a beat-up bag. He spoke to no one except Weinberger. As for playing strength, he must have been around 1600-but was apparently confident that if the odds were right, he could hold his own against even a strong Master. And the odds he and Weinberger had some time, somewhere, and somehow settled on were unique.

Yes, there was a time differential for each game, most often 5-3 or 5-2, but the selection of Weinberger's allotment was dependent on another form of handicap always present, in one form or another. In the makeshift chess bag the young man carried were all the usual pieces-but also an extra rook obviously of another type of set design. There was no mistaking it for a regular Staunton rook. The singular odds (in addition to time) demanded by The Nazi were that he had either a "Ping," a "Pong," or, depending on the time allotment for Weinberger, both. A Ping was a queen's rook turned upside down, and had the powers of both a rook and a knight, depending on his preference in any given position. A Pong was usually slightly stronger, a queen's rook having the powers of both rook and bishop (and this was what that extra rook was for, if needed). And of course it was possible to play with both Ping and Pong odds if both players were comfortable with the attendant time handicap.

As is nearly always the case in such Master-weaker player match-ups, the odds did not actually serve to equalize the vast difference in playing strength and speed chess savvy: Weinberger won nearly all the games every session. And, every time they met for their bizarre skirmishes, the two provided a truly rare spectacle for all present.

In 1961, when the club still had for its primary location Beverly Blvd., the Piatigorskys purchased a property on Cashio St. on the Westside, near Beverly Hills. Frank Lloyd Wright Jr.(who had a few years earlier designed their home on Bundy Drive) was commissioned to design a chess venue that was modernistic in both style and function, and housed a single hall-type playing area large enough to accommodate tournaments of 150 players or more, large simultaneous exhibitions, and the like. In other words, it was intended either to serve as an adjunct to, and/or eventually supplant, the more limited Beverly Blvd. site.

The two locations co-existed for over two years, the Cashio St. building being used only occasionally, primarily for special events. The few Los Angeles games of the abortive 1961 Fischer-Reshevsky match, for example, were held there. The 1962 California Junior Championship was played there as well. Relatively large simuls by Samuel Reshevsky, Svetozar Gligorich, Larry Evans, and others took place on Cashio during this period. Also, the Steiner Juniors thereby got their own separate meeting locale, soon transformed into the broader "Student Chess Club of Los Angeles," and the site provided a suitable home for their first championship tournament.

Attendance at Beverly Blvd. declined during this period, and it became clearer and clearer that the new site could well serve as home for all activities of the club. By mid-1964 the move was complete: an era for the Herman Steiner Chess Club had ended, and a new one had begun.

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